Lake Te Anau from the Luxmore Hut
Prior to registering for the Kepler Challenge, Kristin and I had been living in Sydney for about 9 months. During that time, running had largely been placed on the back burner while we adjusted to our new surroundings and I focused on my new job. Training for a race was the last thing on my mind during that adjustment period, but after 9 months I was ready to get back out and run again. Plus we really wanted an excuse to return to New Zealand.
I entered the Kepler Challenge back in June 2009 to inspire myself to get back outside and enjoy the pleasure of running again. I knew my situation in Sydney (where trails and mountains are hard to come by) wasn’t ideal for training for my first ultra distance mountain race, so instead of aiming for a specific result at the race, I made my goal simply to have fun, get fit, and above all, not get injured. (of course, if you know me, you know that those goals are nice before the race, but once i toe the starting line i’m out to compete and give it my all)
I’m happy to say I accomplished all these objectives. The Kepler Challenge inspired me to start run-commuting to/from work, as well as to get out of Sydney on the occasional weekend for some nice long runs. It was the most relaxed training approach I’ve taken in recent years. And while I may not have been as fit as I’ve been before, I had fun, kept my life in balance, and never got injured. Mission accomplished. (and i had a pretty good result at the finish, all things considered)
Read on for more…
I first came to the Kepler Track 5 years ago during my three month campervan / mountain running tour of New Zealand. I hiked the track in three days like pretty much everyone else, and I was completely smitten by its spectacular scenery and diverse landscapes. Half way through the track, I remember one of the hut wardens (keepers of the rustic mountain huts that trampers sleep in while on the track) remarking that the course record was a little over 4.5 hours set by a runner in The Kepler Challenge, an annual running race on the course. Course record? They have a race on this course??
From that day, I knew I would be back.
It turns out The Kepler Challenge is the recognized as the Jewel of the New Zealand mountain running scene. It has great organization, top competition, and without a doubt the most spectacular course in New Zealand, and among the best in the world. Despite its ultra distance of 60 km, it somehow manages to attract everyone from collegiate cross country aces to Olympic marathoners, in addition to the ultra running crowd that one would expect for this distance. But then again, that’s New Zealand for you. Unlike in the US where people tend to be good road runners, good mountain runners, or good ultra runners, but very rarely more than one of those, this distinction in New Zealand is much less prevalent. It’s all just running.
The Kepler Track has all the makings of an epic course; in fact it goes right up there on my list of the Top 10 best running trails of the world. Bold statement you say? Well let’s run through some criteria:
- Loop course. No out-and-back sections, no contrived add-ons… The Kepler Track is beautiful in its simplicity – a circular loop that starts and finishes just outside the small town of Te Anau and runs around the Jackson Peaks range.
- Views. Once you get above tree line, the course follows undulated mountain top ridges for about 15km with unbelievable views of the snow capped southern Alps of Fiordlands National Park (they make the Colorado Rockies looks like big rubble piles), stunning lakes (Lake Te Anau and Lake Manapouri), and lush glacially carved valleys.
- Diverse landscapes. Like many tracks in the South Island of New Zealand, the course starts in temperate rainforests (think lush fern understory and trees covered in green moss), through sub-alpine bush, and then barren alpine landscape (complete with the occasional snowfield).
- High quality track. The entire 60 km track is totally runnable, ranging from soft and spongy forest track to hard packed gravelly mountain track. Any boggy sections are boardwalked.
The race is flawlessly executed by a huge group of local volunteers, has great sponsorship that provides impressive prizes and support for elite runners, and still maintains its egalitarian vibe that makes it a fun event for all abilities. This is a world class event for a world class course, but has the atmosphere and friendliness of a community event. Perfect.
All these factors contribute to the Kepler Challenge being the most popular mountain race in the country (the field of 400 runners limited by the national park service is filled within a matter of minutes).
On Saturday December 5, I discovered first hand what all the excitement was about.
Race start and finish line
The gun went off at 6am below a nearly full moon that cast a glow on the formidable peaks ahead of us. The race started out fast and I found myself scrambling to get into good position before the track headed into the forest.
Kristin and I had run on this section of track the day before and it was gorgeous; the lapping shores of Lake Te Anau on the right and lush forest on the left. On race day, however, I was focused on counting the number of guys ahead of me so I could keep track of how many I would need to pass later on. It’s fun to pick off runners one by one throughout a race, each one a little victory in itself. Of course, this mentality can have the opposite effect if you’re the one getting passed, as I would experience later.
The climb up to Luxmore Hut ascends about 3000 feet over 8km. I was in 4th position at the start of the climb, and before too long caught up to Martin Lukes, the winner of the previous two years. We had a quick chat about the nice weather and after a few minutes I continued on my way. The two guys that remained in front were clearly after the King of the Mountain prize; an intermediate prize of $500 awarded to the first runner to Luxmore Hut. I had no intention of trying for it unless it came easily, as I would rather reach the finish line first, not the hut. Nevertheless, I caught the #2 runner John Winsbury (4th place in 2008) just before tree line and we ran together to Luxmore Hut (1 minute behind the leader) while enjoying the spectacular views that unfolded around us. At the hut we had our gear checked to ensure we were carrying all the compulsory gear (2 thermal tops, rain gear, hat, gloves, emergency blanket); if not, immediate disqualification.
Running on the tops...
After Luxmore Hut, the course continues to climb another 800 feet or so up to Luxmore saddle, the highest point on the course. I put some time on John here, and by the top of the climb I was comfortably in 2nd place and within sight of 1st place. This was the best part of the course… for the next 15km the track followed undulating ridges with 360 views of snow capped peaks and giant lakes. Bluebird skies all around. It’s this section that really positions the Kepler among the finest mountain races in the world. For a good 15km – or 1 hour – you are truly running along mountain tops… racing across the sky.
After a steep descent from “the tops” (as they call the alpine section) the race gently descends the Iris Burn valley for about 15km. I finally caught the leader, Norman Dunroy, at the beginning of this section, just after the Iris Burn aid station, and found myself in the lead with 28km to go. I was feeling quite confident at this point, and the race was unfolding pretty much like I had hoped it would. My pacing felt comfortable, my energy was good, all I had to do was not hit the wall.
And hit the wall I did.
After running in the lead for about 10km, I started to get waves of dizziness and feeling “out of it”. In other words, I was bonking. But I didn’t realize it at the time because I thought I had my fueling dialed and I had been taking it in as planned throughout the race. I kept running through it, not realizing that my run had slowed to a meager shuffle. Then all of a sudden Martin Lukes, winner of the previous two years who I had passed several hours ago on the climb, came charging past me like i was standing still. It was only then that i realized how much i had slowed down.
As he ran past, he actually slowed down, clearly worried about my condition, and gave me a few strong words of encouragement. With my senses somewhat impaired and his words forced between heavy breathing, I couldn’t make out half the things he said, but what I did get out of it was this: WHATEVER YOU DO DON’T HIT THE WALL. Sorry, too late for that one. DRINK AND EAT AS MUCH AS YOU POSSIBLE CAN. This one took a few minutes to sink in. But in the mean time, I thanked him for his encouragement (what a nice guy), and he stormed ahead on his way to a 3rd straight Kepler Challenge victory. He would put 20 minutes on me in the last 15km.
As I forced down a GU and a bunch of water, Norman Dunroy (the runner I had overtaken about 10km back ) passed me. By now I was I was feeling the reality that not only was the win slipping away, but the race as a whole was starting to completely unravel. But I slowly started to regain my composure with the additional fuel in my system. The incoherent waves of fatigue went away, and I could concentrate again on my form and the task at hand. But the damage was already done; my legs were pretty depleted and I had a feeling the two guys ahead of me weren’t coming back. Now I just needed to fight to not lose any more positions. Then John Winsbury passed me and I was in 4th with about 8km to go. But I didn’t let this get to me. I knew I was coming back to life and he looked like he was struggling. I stayed within sight of him, pounded another Gu, and about 10 minutes later I passed him back.
I finished in 3rd place in a time of 5:18, which was much slower than I had hoped for. But that’s how it goes when racing a course for the first time. You have to throw times out the window and just compete as best you can. I truly enjoyed being out on the course, experiencing the mountains, running hard, and competing again. I realize now how much I missed it.
I calibrated my fueling (rate of caloric intake) based on what worked in my training runs. While this was good enough for the first 3.5 to 4 hours of the race (the length of my longest runs), it was not enough for 5 hours of racing at that effort. I think i was slowly being depleted without knowing it, and completely ran out of gas after 40-42km.
My longest run was 4:20 and only did a few at 4:00. Most of them were around 3:00 due to the lack of good places to run in Sydney. I think I probably needed some longer runs in there, if for no other reason than to practice with the fueling.