An Australian Christmas

5 January 2010

New years day barbecue

Last year Kristin and I took advantage of the time off work around the holidays and high tailed it to New Zealand.  With my office closed for 2 weeks, it seemed like a natural time to escape the grind of the city and capitalize on our proximity to such an amazing place.  But this year we found ourselves in a different situation; having just been to New Zealand for vacation earlier in December and now living in a more relaxed, less urban beach suburb of Bronte (instead of inner city Potts Point), we thought we would stay closer to home and try something truly unique:  an Australian Christmas.

If you never set foot in a  mall in December, you would never know it was Christmas time in Sydney.  The usual clues of thanksgiving, snow and long chilly nights are noticeably absent, replaced by long sunny days, ocean breezes, and talk of surfing and boxing day cricket matches.

Without the usual clues to frame the season, the Christmas/New Year holiday takes on a completely different character in Australia.  Coinciding with school holidays (their summer break), the city virtually shuts down over the new year and it becomes much more quiet.  Many people take a whole month off to go overseas to travel, or in the case of many expats (like us), to visit family in snowier places.  But I would say the bulk of Australians stay closer to home.  They lather their kids up with sunblock, strap the surf boards to the car, and drive along the coast to a campsite or holiday house they’ve rented for a week or two.   The Christmas holiday here is about relaxing with friends and family, barbecuing, and playing in the water.

And that’s exactly what we did over our break.

Today marks the end of our two week holiday… our first (and last) Christmas in Australia.  It included a few days in a quiet beach house with friends Jen and Michael over christmas, a couple days in Hunter Valley wine country, and a week back in Bronte (our beach suburb in Sydney) with swimming, surfing and entertaining.

New years eve

It also included a memorable New Years Eve party at our friends Russell and Geoffrey’s apartment, with high rise views of the $6million fireworks display over the city and harbour.

While neither of us are ones to set new years resolutions, we did take advantage of the time off to establish new routines; most notably our morning swims in the Bronte rock pool… one we both intend to continue after work starts tomorrow.

Click here for the best of our holiday in photos.

Happy new year to you all.


Garden Quiz – Answers

3 January 2010

No watermelon, pineapple, mangoes or capsicum  in this garden…

Papaya, figs, and passion fruit are all from trees in our back yard, and the rest we planted in our raised bed.

Best guess would go to Buzz were it not for his suspicion of a trick question.

Thanks for playing…

Garden Quiz

1 January 2010

Pop quiz: Take a guess which fruits and vegetables are grown within our garden (and back yard) in Sydney.  Click the image to enlarge it… i’ve labeled each fruit/veggie for your guessing pleasure. Use the comments to leave your answer!

New Zealand – 2009

22 December 2009

Chard Farm Winery

Our second visit (together) to the south island of New Zealand was almost exactly one year to date from our first trip there. This time around, The Kepler Challenge, that Galen entered (ahem, took third place), initiated this year’s trip. But really, there was no need for twisting of arms around the decision to return. New Zealand is a favorite spot.

We arrived in Christchurch mid-day, nabbed the rental car and drove about 6 hours south. We stopped off for the night  and were off again the next morning to finish off the drive to Te Anau. This was the day before the race, so we were staying relatively low key as we settled into our hotel and cruised over to the start of the Kepler Track.  The well-kept track starts in a beautiful wooded spot filled with ferns and regular access points to Lake Te Anau. I went for a run while Galen checked out the trail’s finish.

Next day was race day. Galen has already covered the race in this post, so I won’t say much more here. This being my first encounter with an ultra distance trail race, I can say these races don’t attract people of all walks of life – more like lots of different people who are of a hearty stock, the type who don’t mind getting a little “roughed up” while on the race course. In case you didn’t read Galen’s post on this race, I’ll just say that this is not really your hometown 5k. I mean these people are required to wear a backpack with gear to ward off hypothermia in case they get stranded up there above tree line. Galen did great and to spectate was inspiring.

Riny Day Picnic

Next morning, post award ceremony, we hit the road to gorgeous Queenstown. Ah, Queenstown. Our three days there were spent running/hiking (Kristin), mountain biking and cold swims (Galen), eating at a local favorite where burgers are massive and taste-y, wine tasting in Central Otago, getting creative with the umbrella for a rainy picnic date, a soak in the mountain view hot pools, and lots of general r&r.  When it was time to leave we dragged our feet and made the multi-hour drive back to Christchurch. Dang that drive. Lesson learned this time around- fly into Queenstown.

We did make the most of a little extra time we had in Christchurch and caught a good flick at a local art house theater, toured some art gallery, and managed to score a table at a booked out, and very tasty, Burmese restaurant.

New Zealand can’t be on the list every year, but there is no doubt it will stay in the rotation.

More photos from the trip here.

The Kepler Challenge

11 December 2009

The premise

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.

Great field

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.

Great course

Course map

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.

Great organization

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.

My race

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.

The finish...

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.

Lessons learned:

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.

Sculptures by the Sea

10 November 2009

Great sculpture installation on the coastal walk by our house right now.  It attracts so many people from all over the city that we had to wait until a weekday evening before we dared to go down there.  Pretty cool stuff…




The Red Storm

24 September 2009

before and after shot from  More photos here.

Mars… apocalypse… Armageddon… those were just a few of the words people used to describe the scene experienced in Sydney on Wednesday.

I woke up at 6:00 AM, just after sunrise, and squinted through my sleepy eyes and saw nothing but orange.  Dark orange.  I’ve been lucky enough to witness a few spectacular sunrises since living in Sydney so i was ready to chalk this up as just an especially good one.  I rubbed my eyes.  No… this is really orange.  And i can’t even see across the street. Maybe the Santa Ana winds turned their sights Sydney?

Turns out a combination of strong nor’westerlies and dry riverbeds in the outback created a perfect storm of events that blew a maelstrom of red dust over the eastern seaboard, from Brisbane down to Sydney, and even as far as New Zealand.  Being the stubborn chap that i am, i ran to work anyway, sucking dust and fighting 80km wind gusts the whole way.  News reports said this was a once in a lifetime scenario, but everyone else seemed way more prepared than i – with most commuters wearing dust masks, scarves over their faces, and ski goggles.

Check out this YouTube video form Broken Hill, a small town in the outback which is apparently near the source of this storm (you can see why).

Despite being (or wanting to be) a modern and cosmopolitan city, it’s times like this that i’m reminded that Sydney is still an Australian city, and it only takes a strong wind to blow the Outback right back into town.