Periodically I receive emails from running or coaching websites that refer to articles with titles like “The world’s 10 best cities for running” or “Your next running holiday”. Reading through articles like these brings up enticing images of running in great city parks such as New York’s Central Park, London’s Hyde Park, or Vancouver’s Stanley Park.
I’ve been lucky enough to run in some amazing places. Yosemite, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon National Parks. Around Sydney Harbour and along the Presidio in San Francisco. I can remember some amazing details of many of those runs. I remember how I felt, the sound of my breathing and footsteps, the feel of the breeze on my face, the smell of the pine trees, the sudden appearance of an unexpected panorama…
And I’ve lived in some great places for running. Sheffield had its woods and parks and gave me easy access to the Peak District.
But it’s Wellington that owns my running heart.
According to Strava, I’ve run the Oriental Bay segment 427 times. Since I’ve only been on Strava for about five years, I’ve run it plenty more times than that. I never take it for granted though. Our waterfront is a wonderful route for running. Every day it’s different. Always spectacular. Some days the wind whips up the sea so much that it sprays salt water over the sea wall and right across the road, drenching any hardy runners who dare to brave the conditions. Turn the corner at Point Jerningham and you can hardly keep your legs from tripping over themselves. I thought running close to 3 min/ks was a thing of the past! Other days it’s as still and perfect as a Cezanne painting.
The proximity to the ocean brings its special rewards. One Thursday lunchtime a few years ago Mandy Simpson, Nat Smith and I were stopped in our tracks by the sight of a pod of orca literally metres offshore at Oriental Bay. Just last year the start of a waterfront 5k was delayed by half the runners staring open-mouthed at hundreds of dolphins frolicking in the harbour just off Te Papa. For many of us, this running paradise is just a couple of minutes away from our workplaces.
Waterfront running with buddies…
And Wellington has so much more than its waterfront. The wind-blown splendour and constant ups-and-downs of the Skyline Trail. The steep trails up Te Ahumairangi Hill, with their ever-changing views down to the city below, the sea an almost impossibly deep blue colour, a perfect lunchtime alternative to the harbour. The streamside trails through Trellisick Park and Otari Wiltons Bush. The steady graded climbs around Polhill and up to the expansive vistas from the wind turbine and Hawkins Hill.
I can stroll literally 100 metres from my house and get onto that awesome network of trails or head off to the right for the tough slog around the Zealandia fence-line. And of course, we have New Zealand’s toughest cross-country race on the trails of Mount Victoria.
Are there are any places in Wellington where I don’t enjoy running? I’ve never been a great fan of the Hutt River trail – it seems to me that it should be better than it is. The parts near the Parkrun course are fine, but further upstream from Lower Hutt it just seems … dull. The stony surface of the path, the lack of actually being next to the river, the surprising lack of shade, to me it all adds up to rather unsatisfying experience. I’ve run on it a few times and it leaves no real memories, apart from one occasion where I nearly suffered from a “code brown”!
Running from Petone to Wellington is another relative disappointment. Stuck in no-man’s-land between the dual carriageway and the railway, the only stimulation is the prospect of spotting Paul Barwick driving a train. One Wellington anniversary afternoon a few years ago I was running along that route when Wellington experienced a sizeable 6.3 earthquake. My sensory perception had been so dulled by the mind-numbing boredom of the route that I didn’t even notice the shaking!
One other place that doesn’t really float my boat – and I know I’m courting some controversy here – is the Botanic Gardens. The routes there are too short and too “samey” to inspire much love. Sure, Anderson Park is great for running drills. And the path parallel to Glenmore Road is good for hill reps. But unless the weather is at its abysmal worst, I tend not to go there…
Then we come to two of Wellington’s iconic runs, which generate a complex mixture of emotions. The Tip Track hits you smack in the face right from the off, with an unrelenting steep slope and rough surface allied to the olfactory delights of the landfill below. There is a slight respite half way up before things head painfully skywards again, and by now you are exposed to Wellington’s winds whatever way they’re blowing. But it’s almost worth it for Hawkins Hill’s 360-degree views, some 450 vertical metres above where you started on Happy Valley Road.
The Tip Track is the location of Karl Woodhead’s annual pie and beer spectacular, the P-Team Mountain Champs; insanely awesome though that event is, it’s rare to see the victor return to defend their title. That says everything you need to know about the Tip Track!
And what about the 34 km Makara loop? A few years ago Grant McLean wrote this seminal piece about this bedrock of Wellington marathon training routes. Many of us have a love-hate relationship with this run. My Makara nadir occurred at the end of April 2018, when, insufficiently prepped for its duration and toughness, a combination of fatigue and cramp left me trudging slowly and painfully nearly the whole way up Makara Hill. I hobbled down the descent to the finish at Karori Park, and then spent the rest of the day as a useless immobile lump on the sofa!
Two weeks later I was back to slay my Makara demons, and this time I was ready, even though I’d raced the Vosseler the day before. I felt good throughout and cruised up Makara Hill before sprinting down to the K Park finish. On that day my Makara felt awesome: a highly satisfying and rewarding long run, putting money in the bank for later races. And three weeks after that, I ran probably my best ever half marathon…
Overall then, Wellington is a fantastic place to run. The US-based manufacturers of Life Fitness gym equipment recognised this a few years ago. If you use one of their treadmills, wherever you are in the world, if you look through the “courses” you can pick a particular route and pretend you’re running in Auckland and Wellington. It’s slightly surreal to be on holiday somewhere like Singapore or Florida, and to hop on a treadmill and be able to run past Te Papa, Lambton Quay and Frank Kitts Lagoon amongst hordes of Sevens partygoers! (Well, it was filmed a few years ago.)
You can run in Wellington even when you’re somewhere else!
I always enjoy running in different places in the world but there is something immensely comforting about coming back to the real Wellington, and heading out from home along Highbury Fling and Transient, and then that first run back along the waterfront. I feel blessed to live in this wonderful running city.
Yep, this is just up the trail from where I live…