Wild child - 12 year-old on ultra mission

TrailRunMag 26.02.2016

Would you allow your 12-year-old daughter have a go at running 75 of the hardest trail kilometres in New Zealand? That was the quandary for trail event organiser, photographer and Hillary Trail legend, Shaun Collins and his wife Madeleine, faced when their daughter Zara decided whatever Dad can do, she should be able to. Just before the 2016 Hillary event kicks off, Trail Run Mag caught up to get an insight from both Shaun and Zara.

[This article appears in the current Edition 19 of Trail Run Mag available for free download at www.trailrunmag.com/magazinesINTERVIEW: Chris Ord // Images: Shaun Collins / Cabbage Tree Photography

Shaun, what was your initial gut feeling when Zara proposed running the Hillary?

Initially I was very hesitant. In fact my first answer was NO! Both Zara and my wife Madeleine had to convince me. It’s a long and hard way for such a little bean with 99% of adults in the world not even capable! We as parents were worried about the impact on her body during and after and long term damage as well.Screenshot 2016-02-26 17.03.42

What worried you the most about her running it?

It was mainly worry around the impact on her body. Not wanting this mission to do any long-term damage to her.

What did you consider as your primary responsibilities as a parent in this situation?

I guess it was our responsibility to have an adult think about it rather than the passionate, kids ‘I can do anything’ think. A sensibility check as to whether this was doable. And in taking that further, explaining these points to Zara in a way that she would understand. This is gonna hurt and there is potential that you won’t make it, you might get injured, or you will be very sore for a week afterward. Then we set the ground rules – she would have to train on all parts of the course, she’d have to listen to what we say during the mission – she’d have to eat and drink when we said, stop to rest when we said and if we said no it’s all done, then she had to listen as we’d be in more of a position to say it than she would be thinking. AND this wasn’t the start of regular ultras from now on. This was a ‘oncer’ that she could have a crack at and then nothing this big for a couple of years so she recovered and didn’t keep going to become injured.

Then during the run it was our responsibility to control as many factors as we could to ensure she succeeded. This in the main was keeping her at the right pace and making sure she was fueled with food and water the whole way.Screenshot 2016-02-26 17.03.54

How did you come to judge her suitability – not just in terms of her running CV, but in general how you felt she would approach the challenge?

This was probably the easier part as we know her well! Nearly 13 years of knowledge on what a determined, gritty little human she is (this is a great attribute for some parts of life but hints at some hard work for us in the upcoming teenage years!). We knew that mentally she had it in her to push through the waves of hurt and bliss that you go through in an ultra run like this. Physically she has run for a number of years now – shorter stuff obviously but she has done the 16km event of The Hillary race we organise twice. We ran with her on different sections of the course to familiarize herself with the route and train up a little. During these runs we gave her tips on running on technical trail and helped her learn how to manage her body over hours of running.

Where is the parental line – what would you say no to?

That’s a hard question – we try not to say no with these sorts of challenges. And it was hard to say no when their parents do some pretty crazy shit too. They have grown up seeing us do things that other adults are amazed at so think it’s normal. Kids are usually limited by what us adults say yes or no to. From something like a massive 1000 piece puzzle at age four to a climbing wall in the backyard to running trail events – we have given all three of our kids a looser reign and they have soaked up the challenges and excelled at them from a young age. So I guess the limit is based more on physical safety and mental protection rather than what society or guidelines say. We would say no to something that places them in danger.

What was the reaction from others before she ran?

I’ll admit we were a bit apprehensive on what others would think so didn’t tell many people. Just close friends. This was in order to keep the pressure off Zara more than anything but I guess we also appreciated that some people would not approve. What others thought wasn’t going to stop us letting her but we’d rather not have to deal with their thoughts before we did it. We knew we hadn’t made the decision lightly. The people we told were really supportive and understood after we’d explained it all – and they would have said if they didn’t.Screenshot 2016-02-26 17.04.16

How did you feel while she was on trail – what journey did you as a parent go on during the run?

During the run was the same as when any of us do something like this – a rollercoaster. At the start, wondering if she would actually be able to do it, keeping a really close eye on her food and water intake and that she was pacing herself right. Then when she’d clocked past her longer distance run ever starting to celebrate how well she was going. Then questioning while she was crying and in a low patch if she should stop. Calculating/thinking if this was a normal low patch that ultra-runners have, which I have been in many times, or if this really was a signal to end it. Then celebrating again as she’d pulled herself mentally past the low patch and was on a high again, striding out for the next stop, because she was getting closer to achieving the end goal.

What were the factors in the decision for Zara to pull out at 61km?

The decision was based on sleep and how that would impact her as we ran the last section which is along the clifftops of the Te Henga trail. You need all your wits about you at the best of times and with it being 11pm and having 61km under the belt Zara was starting to feel sleepy tired as well as legs tired. She had just stormed up the mighty Kuataika Hills with a good strong pace so I think she was still going well but she’s probably only been up that late a couple of times in her life, so keeping on going and finishing at 2-3am, would be a bit risky. Also I’d been with her from the start so wouldn’t have been much better cause I haven’t been running much lately! Maybe if we had someone fresh join in then they could have helped get her through. But in the end when we explained our concerns Zara was totally in agreement. And she was just so tired that she didn’t think she could keep going for another 15km.Screenshot 2016-02-26 17.05.09

What do you as both a parent, and runner, take away from her attempt?

I think this emphasised to us how determined and gutsy Zara is. We are so proud that she set a goal and worked towards it and then had a bloody good crack at nailing it. This shows focus, determination and some maturity above her age.

As a runner it is completely inspiring. Watching any runner battle their way through an ultra is exciting and emotional, but watching a 12 year old do it is something else altogether. It really puts all our little grizzles and worries in perspective.

To you Zara, what made you want to take on the Hillary?

I watched Dad do it heaps of times which made me want to try it. I also thought it would be a great way to explore the Waitakere Ranges, which are right beside where we live.Screenshot 2016-02-26 17.04.27

Did you have a strategy to convince your parents if they said no?

Ask again. And again. And again. And again. I also wrote them a letter explaining all the reasons why I should be allowed to do it. And I wrote a plan for doing long runs in preparation to show them I knew it would be hard work getting ready for it.

Why do you think they said yes?

Because they believed I could do it and they wanted me to try. And maybe because they got annoyed with me asking.

What are your thoughts on ‘under agers’ taking on what some would say is an extreme challenge?

Lots of people think that because we are young, we can’t do things but actually we can. People should recognise that. I think race directors should let people under 16 enter big runs. As long as young people understand what is involved and can prepare well and be supported by adults they really can do big challenges.Screenshot 2016-02-26 17.05.18

Why running, why long distances and trail, and why the Hillary in particular?

Running because it is awesome. My body just loves running. Long distance because it is awesome and more fun. Trail because it is so interesting and challenging. And The Hillary because Dad and other people have always spoken about how amazing it is – it is kind of a big part of our family’s lives and I just wanted to go and see what it was like.

We’re old, our bodies hurt ridiculously so doing this stuff, and we can’t remember what it’s like to run like a kid…talk us through your journey? What was it like physically and mentally?

It didn’t really hurt physically but it was extremely tiring. I was sleepy-tired, very long day-tired and every muscle in my body exhausted-tired. My body didn’t get aches or pains or niggles, it just got tired. My tummy struggled from my bedtime onwards.

Mentally it was not so hard until it got dark and I should have been in bed. Then my head started spinning into “why am I doing this?”, “this is such a stupid idea”, “why did I think this would be a good thing to do?”, “I’m so tired” – round and around and around. I think I just needed to go to bed. I did stay up later doing the run than I have pretty much ever stayed up.

Do you still run without thinking, like we all do when we are young, or have you already starting to think about the things like technique?

I’ve kind of had to start thinking about technique because in my Rhythmic Gymnastics training my feet started to get turned out which gave me knee issues running. So I’ve started to think about how my feet land and stuff. Also my mum always goes on to me about using my core to run, especially on up or down hills and when I’m tired so I’m aware of that. Plus I needed to learn how to manage my food and water to get through.Screenshot 2016-02-26 17.04.51

What was the high point of the run?

Getting into Karekare to see Mum’s aid station. I had been struggling a little on the sand dunes and beach and seeing that gave me a massive boost and I couldn’t wait to get going again.

Aside from pulling, what was the lowest point?

Pulling wasn’t really a low point because it felt right. Kuataika track was the low point. I hate that track!

How did you feel as it approached the time to call it a day?

Extremely tired. I was quite upset not because I thought I might pull out but just because of how tired I was. It was a really dark night so I think everything felt like it took ages to get through.

At the same time I knew I had done as much as I could and that the distance I had come was a great achievement so I was already feeling really proud of myself. My feet were wet. That was annoying me, too.Screenshot 2016-02-26 17.05.02

In retrospect, what will you take away from your attempt?

My parents really believed in me to let me attempt this run and that has helped me believe in myself. I know now how determined I can be and that I have persistence. I have learnt that you need so much preparation for a challenge like this. But I know I can do it. I’ve already decided I will try again in a few years.


  1. Runner you take inspiration from and why?

SHAUN: Now…it’s Zara! No, really I don’t have a named runner I look at or think about as my inspiration. My inspiration is doing stuff to challenge myself and I get inspiration from watching others succeed at a challenge they have set. It’s partly why I organise events to see people you think wouldn’t be able to do a run, complete it and love it!
ZARA: Claire and Ashley Thomson because they did the full Hillary Trail when they were 13 and a half years old.

  1. Other than the Hillary, long distance trail you most want to run?

SHAUN: The Barkley Marathon
ZARA: The Last Desert Ultra Marathon

  1. What food do you crave on long runs?

SHAUN: fruit, a good burger
ZARA: baby food

  1. Best runner in your family?

SHAUN: Me of course!

  1. Song or artist you would listen to or sing along to in your head to get through the hard times?

SHAUN: I don’t use music in these longer runs. I really should try one day though!
ZARA: Really upbeat songs like Meghan Trainor, Little Mix, The Script, Katy Perry. Songs like that. And Eye Of The Tiger.

 The Hillary is an epic ultra trail run along the Hillary Track, put on by Shaun’s event company, Lactic Turkey Events under the umbrella of the Skyrunning AU/NZ Series. http://thehillary.co.nz/wordpress/ 

Trail Run Mag Edition 18


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