CORY HILL AND DANIELLE McKENZIE CONQUER ‘HELLS GATES 38’
Cory Hill has raced in the toughest surfski races that the world has to offer.
And he knows how to win them.
The Molokai Challenge, Tahiti’s Maraamu, The Doctor, the Hong Kong Dragon Run and the ICF World Championships – Hill has claimed them all.
So, when he says this about his latest victory, the inaugural Shaw and Partners Hells Gates 38, it carries some weight.
“Look, it lived up to its name of Hells Gates,” Hill laughs.
“38 kilometres is always tough, no matter if you’re just paddling or doing it as a race.
“The organisers did really well to get the distance in there, even in less than ideal conditions. But i’m really happy to have done it and won it.”
Hill was a class above on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast over the weekend – but that doesn’t mean he avoided the pain.
More than 100 paddlers entered the first-ever running of the Hells Gates 38, however with a headwind forecast in the week leading up to the event, only 88 were brave enough to show up for the start.
Thankfully for those who did, conditions were slightly better than anticipated. However, the crosswind provided no real assistance on the run from Mooloobaba to Noosa.
Despite the distance – and the nerves held by paddlers – the pace was on from the start.
France’s Valentin Henot, who now resides on the Gold Coast, drove the speed with splits of around 4:10 for his opening two kilometres.
That brought some frustration from some within the lead pack, but it was effective in whittling down the numbers at the front of the field.
By around 12 kilometres, there were only three at the front – Hill, Henot and Oscar Jones.
Jake Morris, Sam Djodan and Mackenzie Hynard were in their own water chasing behind.
At the 20 kilometre mark, Hill decided to kick clear – and he never looked back.
He crossed the line in a time of 2:56:01, incredibly, five minutes ahead of Henot (3:01:00) and Jones (3:03:41).
Hynard (3:05:34) prevailed in what he described as a “slow-motion 30 kilometre drag race” with Djodan (3:05:49) to round out the top five.
Danielle McKenzie was sensational in her maiden long-distance race, winning the women’s division in a time of 3:13:55 – which also saw her place 12th overall.
Ironwoman great Rebecca Creedy (3:27:43) was second despite paddling a surf lifesaving spec ski, while Phoebe Woodhouse (3:32:04) was third.
McKenzie, a former ICF World Champion herself, took a differing view of the conditions to most of the field.
“That westerly was actually pretty nice heading down the coast,” she said at the finish.
“I mean it’s not perfect, but it was better than a headwind.
“That might have turned everyone’s mindset… it definitely turned mine. I just went out there and had some fun.”
“I haven’t done a race that’s been three hours for some time, so I was quite happy with how composed I felt,” Hill told The Paddler.
“Going into something that’s three hours, you never know how the body is going to hold up… some days you just have a bad day.
“It was great to feel composed and get through an hour feeling strong, then an hour and a half, which is where I made my break.
“I was able to hold that pace and get into my rhythm and steady state – and that was the most motivating thing.”
“Comparing it to other races, it’s definitely up there with the toughest i’ve ever done.”
And added satisfaction, becoming the first person to ever conquer the challenge.
“I’ve been lucky to travel the world and put my name on a lot of trophies now, whether it’s as a winner or just being on the podium, and it’s something i’ve always strived for.
“It’s pretty cool to know that, hopefully in the future, my kids will go up and do the race and look back through the history books and see my name up there as well.”
Unlike most of the world’s leading paddlers, Hill will now take a short break off the water.
Juggling his own business with life as a husband and father of two, he’s decided against heading to the United States for The Gorge in July.
Instead, his focus lies at the end of the year.
First, with the ICF Ocean Racing World Championships in Portugal in July – where Hill could become the first athlete to win three surfski titles.
Then, when the world comes to Australia for The Doctor and 20 Beaches.
“It backs off a little bit in winter for me, which is fantastic because i’m happy to take a little step back as it gets a bit cooler.
“But at the same time, it’ll only be a couple of weeks where i’ll focus more on running.”
“Leading into Worlds, i’ll give myself a consistent 12 week block, and from there, it’s around eight weeks until the WA Race Week and 20 Beaches.
“There’s only two more blocks to get up for this year, and everything has gone to plan so far… so I’m really looking forward to it.”