Hops and Hills

Hops and Hills – Sat 2nd July 2016 – 36km / 1,380m / 3,500ml (ish)*

“There were some guys like you in here about half an hour ago, but they were drinking faster. Are you guys stopping your watches for the beers or something?”

My teammate Scott and I were hearing this a lot. It was the first thing we were told at each checkpoint, in this case one of seven pubs somewhere across Wellington. No jelly babies or Lucozade on offer here, just the distilled goodness of acres of barley. This was the inaugural Hops and Hills race around New Zealand’s capital. Set up by Carnethy exile Tom Middlemiss to recreate a race round Edinburgh, it involves a loop round seven summits around Wellington in teams of two. No course, just trails, seven summits and seven pints in seven different pubs. As the crow flies its about 18km, but as we all know, crows tend to go point to point and don’t lurch all over the sky trying to find a boozer between each cloud. We even got an orienteering style sheet to mark down all the checkpoints, beer choice and “transition” times.

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A small but committed group gathered on the windy summit of Mount Victoria just after opening time. Tom welcomed us all and explained the rules (“back here in a few hours, no double pubbing, see you later”) and set off with his appropriately named running partner, Chris Swallow. Wellington’s myriad tracks and trails made route selection critical, but most of the teams went to the same pubs. The bar staff soon cottoned on, and interpreted “What have you got that isn’t fizzy” as an invitation to serve up the gassiest brew they could find. The running was great but Wellington is a hilly city. Scott and I were pacing well in a solid second, but increasingly behind Livermiss and Swallow. The lack of pubs or access in some areas meant long detours. Wright Hill (peak 5) is only about a mile from the wind turbine (hill 4), but in between is Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, a sort of friendly Guantanamo for rare native birds. Its tall steel fences were designed to keep predators out, but they also work pretty well against woozy runners so we lost loads of height slogging round the long perimeter track.

“Pesky Innov-8s just don’t grip on formal garden terrain…”

Force another down and its just a hop and a step to the next hill – lurch across a busy main road and a short grimace to the top of Wellington Botanic Gardens. By this time I was really struggling and following in Scott’s wake as he powered on. Here I managed to have my only fall of the day, sliding over on a manicured grass bank specially landscaped to allow wheelchair access to anyone visiting the Rose Garden.

Pesky Innov-8s just don’t grip on formal garden terrain… I was still gurning as we reached the top, passing selfie-stick wielding tourists and pausing to take the last but one photo to prove we’d been there.

A quick run down into town and along the waterfront to the welcoming wings of the Dragon Welsh Bar, and the hospitable fug of open fire, ale and the warmth you can only get from a Welsh pub 12,000 miles from Cardiff in a building lovingly restored from a large public toilet. Tom and Chris were already there, finished and enjoying a pint they didn’t have to see off in less than three minutes. We knew that the longer we were there the worse the last climb would be, so we drank up and pushed on ahead of the competition we’d been tag teaming on trails and at bars most of the day. A route 1 ascent of Mount Vic was the only way to avoid slipping down the running / drinking order. By this time it was dark, and most of the 185m climb was a rooty scramble up a woody trail. We arrived at back at our windy starting point after 5hrs 22 mins. An out of focus photo and off back to the Welsh bar.

* When New Zealand gained independence they obviously weren’t allowed to keep proper pints, so its nearer 6 than 7, but they brew ‘em strong down here (check out Fuggle and Golding) so its probably about evens.

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Winners – Tom Middlemiss / Chris Swallow 4hr 20-odd (course record)
Second – Scott Wotring / Alex Jones 5hr 22

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