David Fisher: Hurdle in the race to conquer Hillary

Shaun Collins and Vicki Wooley are ultra-distance runners who regularly run the Hillary Trail through the Waitakeres.
 Photo / Natalie Slade
Shaun Collins and Vicki Wooley are ultra-distance runners who regularly run the Hillary Trail through the Waitakeres. Photo / Natalie Slade

Athletes want to stage a 75km endurance race through the rugged Waitakere Ranges - but disease-hit kauri trees could stand in their way. David Fisher reports

Shaun Collins had one final stretch to run. It had only taken 80 minutes to run that stretch the day before, but he hadn't slept since then.

In the past 26 hours there had only been the West Coast's Hillary Trail in front of him. Step by step, he ran the 75 kilometres of the Waitakere track then turned around to run back the other way.

In the end, it took three more hours before he was done. Rain had turned the trail to slush and mud sucked at every step. By the time he crested the ridge where his wife Madeleine waited by the car, the dark of a second night in the bush had closed in.

The end brought exhilaration. "But as soon as I stopped, my body just shut down. Madeleine had to half-carry me to the car," he recalls. He got home to nearby Laingholm, struggled to eat, then showered and collapsed into bed, body aching.

The night passed with fevers and chills, shaking and sweating. "It shows a lot of it is in the mind. The mind was telling the body the whole way to keep going."

When Collins wrote about the experience later, he invoked Sir Edmund Hillary's famous phrase. "I knocked the bugger off," he wrote of being the first trailrunner to complete the "Hillary Trail double" of 150km.

Now, he says, it is time for the 225km triple.

Collins' magnificent obsession will be indulged by a much wider community if he has his way. He is organising an event which would see up to 500 runners charging along the Hillary Trail.

The planned race needs Auckland Council approval. A hearing next month will hear concerns that it might spread kauri die-back further in the Waitakere Ranges.

The trail was 10 years in the making and reflected an attempt to wrest coherence from a tangle of 250 tracks across the Waitakere Ranges. Park ranger Stu Leighton, who was involved from the start, says: "We wanted to create something which people could do in all sorts of ways."

The trail took form with deliberate intent. Park staff wound it through the communities of Huia, Karekare, Piha and Bethells all the way to Muriwai. They wanted it to have the flavour of the beach communities and to be accessible by public transport.

Parks regional manager Mace Ward says the development of the continuous track was under way when Sir Ed died in 2008.

With people looking for ways to commemorate his life, the Hillary family connection with Anawhata made a merging of the trail a natural tribute. Two years after Sir Ed's death the trail opened.

It begins at the Arataki visitor centre, plunging down into wet rainforest and the leeching pull of the mud, where Collins was almost crushed on his double run. It emerges at Huia before climbing 400m-high Mt Donald McLean. Then it is down to Whatipu along a blade of a ridge above the Manukau Heads; the earthy mulch of wet bush gives way to coastal scrub and the crisp taste of salt in the air. There is an elemental rawness to the trail which relentlessly plunges into troughs and up peaks its entire length. It is an adventure rather than a walk.

Turning north, the trail parallels the black sand of the beaches as it marches along the contours of the hills. It weaves through the remnants of towering kauri groves logged 100 years before and cuts through solid swathes of flax on bluffs high above crashing waves. At its lowest, the trail drops to the beach villages where kids pace runners until they vanish back into the bush. On the Muriwai approach, screeching gannets herald the end of the trail.

Peter Hillary speaks of his father's particular connection to the coast between Karekare and Bethells Beach "because it was wild and rugged and picturesque".

The family connection comes through Peter and Sarah's maternal grandfather, Jim Rose. The Rose bach sits on the ridge to the north of Piha, with the surf beach below sheer cliffs covered in pohutukawa. The Hillary family added their own bach in the early 1970s. To the north, a narrow track runs down to isolated Whites Beach. This was Sir Ed's oasis, reached by Anawhata Rd. It was where he came to plan and ponder. He spent times there after the plane crash in Nepal that killed his first wife Louise and daughter Belinda.

"I do hope Shaun succeeds," says Sarah Hillary of the planned event. "He (Sir Ed) was always hoping people would get out and enjoy themselves. It expands your life." It is enjoyment, she recalled, that her father believed would be increased "if you push yourself".

Collins speaks of Sir Ed's love for the West Coast in his sales pitch for the race. "The trail is rugged and challenging," says his professional-looking presentation. It gives "a powerful wilderness experience to walkers or runners, just as Sir Edmund Hillary would have dreamed".

Sir Ed casts a long shadow along this coast. So does the kauri, which survived the logging that largely supplied the timber to build early Auckland more than a century ago.

Recently, a new presence has shouldered its way into the Waitakeres - a virulent disease that is literally starving the kauri to death. Kauri die-back disease is also called phytophthora taxon agathis; literally "destroyer of kauri trees".

The prospect of 500 runners loping along disease-ridden tracks is horrific for Jim Evans, president of the Waitakere Ranges Protection Society. "We're talking about trees that have existed for hundreds of years and they are dying," he says. "Our bottom line is that the event is not going ahead. We certainly are not going to condone in any way an international promoted event of 500 people running along trails with such great possibilities as to the spread of the disease."

The society wants the council to publicly notify the event to draw submissions. Its members are already frustrated that far larger sections of the ranges have not been closed. They are baffled that walking trails remain open when so many of them pass through diseased areas.

But for microbiologist Dr Nick Waipara, Auckland Council's expert on the soil-borne virus, the greatest certainty is that there is no definite answer in dealing with the disease.

First the council tried closing diseased areas. Then, as it spread, they switched to closing disease-free areas (the council added the Hunua Ranges to this list yesterday). And still, they don't have a remedy.

The disease rots the roots and kills the substance that covers the tree between the wood and the bark. Nutrients can't get into the tree. "The canopy of the tree is starved to death," Waipara says.

From the air, the spread of the disease interrupts the Waitakere's sea of green.

Currently, 27km of tracks are closed because they go through disease-free areas. They do not include tracks in any of the areas through which Collins' planned event will pass.

The most visible signs of a fight-back are the hard brushes and disinfectant at the beginning and end of every entry to trails in the ranges. Beyond that, scientists have begun injecting trees with a compound which might fend it off. They don't know. "If it doesn't work, we're back to the drawing board," says Waipara.

Collins plans to use a grand version of the foot-scrubbers to combat the disease problems. He intends to have sponge footbaths which every runner would pass through at regular intervals. It is one aspect of planning which has consumed his thoughts. And there are many; the logistics are staggering.

He has devised a race along the whole 75km Hillary Trail for 135 competitors from across the nation and around the world. The remaining 370 people would be divided between the 33km and 15km options.

Collins, now 38, came back from Britain in 2001 in the grip of adventure running - 24-hour bush-fests combining orienteering and running.

That morphed into distance running. An accountant by day and full-time runner, his compulsion has in recent years slowly surrendered to an increasing number of children.

But with the family home in Laingholm, the start of the Hillary Trail is just a quick drive away. Madeleine refers to it as his "mistress".

His first embrace came just before it opened. He wanted to be the first to run it.

"It was the longest run I'd ever done." Markers were missing and he lost the path in a few places. That first time took him 12 hours and 50 minutes.

Since then, the hours have been shaved away. His best time has recently been beaten, a fact which sees him lean forward and speak faster when he announces it.

His favourite section is the stretch down to Whatipu, dancing along the knife-edge ridge. "It's magic. Every day you get out there it's different."

Vicki Woolley doesn't just push herself through the bush. She propels herself through every encounter with the Hillary Trail. "You're not so much running as crawling, slipping, sliding," she says.

She runs every Saturday, all day. She runs at night during the week. The Hillary Trail beckons, a constant beacon. She kisses Sir Ed's image on the trail markers as she passes them. The runners think of him as they run, the conqueror of Everest clear in their mind. They speak of him when they stop - "whether he's beaten us".

"I've attempted the Hillary five times," she says.

"Three times I've finished it and two times it has finished me. When it was two-all, I was obsessed by it."

She wants Collins to succeed in having his event approved, while at the same time thrilling at being among the first to have discovered the track. She worries about it becoming as popular as the Milford Track - but is comforted knowing it never will. "It's bloody long, it's bloody brutal and, to date, so very few people have done it. When we started, it was an adventure. Now we have [best] times and an honour board."

The first time she finished the Hillary Trail, she was ecstatic.

"I wasn't prepared for everything hurting. I wasn't prepared for my fingers hurting. The next three days were hell on Earth." There were blisters, chafing. "I have three toenails left that I started the year with. You have to be a bit unbalanced to do our sport. Who would do this anyway? We're not great at listening to our bodies. If we were, we wouldn't do this much."

The analogies are there. In the same breath she talks of Everest and the stream of people who climb it every year. It seems fitting, somehow, that those who would adopt the Hillary Trail include a group of runners immersed in the solitude of their endeavour.

Collins would have it inspire many, by the name it carries and the adventure it commands. Inspiration to which poet and runner Alastair McDowell fell victim, writing:

Tired legs, twelve hours run

virtuous completion, journey done

free as lambs, slaves to none

Muriwai Beach, a setting sun.

- NZ Herald

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