The Kepler – the gift that keeps on giving

The hardest thing about the Kepler is getting in.

Race entries open at 6.30am NZT on the first Saturday in July. The event takes place the first Saturday in December. You need to be an early riser, have access to a good browser and be in possession of superior typing skills. Even then, you stand a good chance of receiving a cheerful email from the Kepler Team informing you that you are on the waitlist. The event sells out in a few minutes.

I’ve attempted to enter four times and only once won the browser race. The other times, like David Attenborough, I’ve observed with detached curiosity as a kind of time-lapse Darwinism unfolds. Slowly at first, then with increased momentum my name will surge up the wait list as injuries and illness thin the ranks and deadlines for getting partial refunds loom. Entrants find other priorities or motivation is lost. Circumstances change. Each casualty brings me closer to race entry. I take no pleasure from the misfortune of fellow runners. Being consigned to the wait list has draw backs of its own. You are less inclined to train. You are less inclined to book expensive flights and sort out transport and accommodation. You have plenty of time to conjure up excuses and commit to other events. If/when you are given the opportunity to race many figure that DNE (did not enter) is preferable to risking a DNF (did not finish) and elect to try again another year. Kiwis are not used to queuing.

A few Welly Kepler Challenge and Grunt participants
A few Welly Kepler Challenge and Luxmore Grunt participants

We don’t know how lucky we are. The Kepler’s equivalent in a country where trail running is huge would be an event like the Ultra trail du Mont Blanc (UMB) http://www.ultratrailmb.com/en/. If you want to do the UMB you will need tremendous tenacity and luck. Eligibility is earned by accumulating points from running qualifying ultras, of which there are few in New Zealand, (most Kiwis have to do ultras in Australia and America), then you must enter the lottery with thousands of other runners in the hope your number comes up. If you lose the lottery you are back to running qualifying ultras as your accumulated points expire over time. It’s a vicious cycle, each year the UMB organisers make it harder to gain entry because each year over half the entrants DNF.

There is something about the Kepler

The Kepler is our classic trail run. It’s both highly runnable and highly scenic making it the perfect non-technical, off-road ultra-marathon route. The track is well maintained with graded switchbacks making for quick ascents and descents. While technically it’s a trail run the surface is of a higher standard than many rural New Zealand roads. The views are worth the effort. Along the top part of the course which runs for 18km between Luxmore and Iris Burn Huts runners enjoy an expansive tussock dominated landscape with vistas that include the southern arm of Lake Te Anau and the snow smeared Murchison Mountains. The flatter sections either side incorporate mature beech forest and wetlands with frequent glimpses of the shining waters of Lakes Te Anau, Manapouri and the fast flowing Waiau River.

The course
The course
The ups and downs
The ups and downs

The Kepler is known for its’ high rate of runner return and the eclectic mix of runner. Not many people are capable of having a one night stand with the Kepler, nor is it solely the preserve of the fully sponsored and fleet of foot. Martin Dent, an accomplished road marathon runner from Australia won the event this year to complete his hat trick. Ruby Muir, an inspirational home-grown trail running legend from Napier won the women’s race for the third time this year. She has competed in the race five times. Zelah Morrall, holder of the women’s fastest time has also been unable to resist the lure of a Kepler repeat, returning from England after being absent for several years to place second while predicting her record will be beaten in better conditions. Famous locals like Vajin Armstrong (he has won the event three times) and Grant Guise have returned multiple times. It is the event Mal Law chose to finish his epic 7 Great Walks in 7 Days. http://www.penguin.co.nz/products/9780143568674/one-step-beyond

Ruby heading for victory
Ruby surging across the tops to eventual victory, photo stolen from Kepler FB page.

Running small talk often revolves around asking race participants what time they are hoping to do, at the Kepler you’ll be asked this but only after you’ve been quizzed on how many times have you’ve run the race. This loyalty/obsession is recognised at the prize giving where medals awarded for longevity as well as for speed. My mate Paul has completed the Kepler 22 times and the Luxmore Grunt (the 27km sister race up to Luxmore Hut and back) once. Jean, who competes in ultras internationally regularly gets round the Kepler in an impressive 6.5 hours. The two questions are related of course. The age-old duel between hubris and nemesis powers return visits as does our capacity to forget pain. It is fairly standard for competitors to emphatically state on the finish line that they will never return only to have effected a change of heart by July the following year. The consistency and runnability of the course mean it is easy to reason that improvement is possible, but the history and community vibe of the event also lure people back.

Approaching Moturau Aid Station in 2012
Approaching Moturau Aid Station in 2012 (inaugural Kepler)

The Kepler is one of, if not the oldest trail running event in New Zealand. It represents the unofficial birth of trail running here. The first Kepler race was held in 1988 and attracted just 149 runners. Right from the start there was a good mix of elites and the less serious. Flicking through histories of the race those first times are impressive considering the track was nowhere near as polished as it is in 2015, we have far better gear now and arguably more time to spend training.

Originally the organisers wanted to run the Milford to celebrate the centenary of McKinnon discovering McKinnon Pass leading to the establishment of the Milford track but the logistics were just too daunting. Instead, at the Department of Conservation’s (DoC) suggestion the event organisers, some keen runners who taught at the local college, turned to the newly built Kepler Track. The race history is recorded in detail both on the official event website http://www.keplerchallenge.co.nz/ and in a book written to commemorate the 25th anniversary “Calling them Home” by Noel Walker, long time race commentator.

Kepler history book
Kepler history book

The Kepler event is firmly connected to the local community and enjoys a productive partnership with the custodians of the land it is run across, DoC. It’s a model that all the significant NZ trail running events have copied. It feels like everyone in Te Anau is involved. Just like Chamonix when the UMB and associated week-long trail running festival is on Te Anau is swamped with trail runners and their supporters. Unlike Chamonix which is a highly popular resort town packed with tourists all year round, Te Anau is usually fairly quiet so the Kepler is highly valued and eagerly anticipated. Supermarket and shop attendants alike seem to have run either the Challenge or the Grunt or know someone who has or they are, or have been, out on the course supporting the participants. Locals do their grocery shopping early in the day prior to the race before the town runs out of bananas and pasta. The race briefing and prize giving are held in the local gymnasium. There are special prizes for the quickest local runners. Local businesses sponsor the event. The local newspaper abandons any pretence of covering other news in the week leading up to the race. One of the local GPs is in charge of first aid, he also runs in the event so I’m not sure what happens if someone has a life threatening medical crisis while he is out on the course. I guess Te Anau has more than one doctor…

The event is not cheap to enter but I’m happy to pay because the money goes to the Birdsong Project, a partnership between the Kepler Trust and Doc that involves the setting of traps along the entire Kepler to eradicate stoats and rats, helping to keep the indigenous bird life from being eaten. The Trust also provides funding for community projects. Anyone can apply as long as they meet the criteria which relate to promoting tourism and regional development in Fiordland. Initiatives that foster employment opportunities for locals while protecting the environment seem positive. Every year the Trust sponsors one race volunteer to do the eight-day Outward Bound Leadership course. Having 450 Kepler entrants and their supporters along with the 200 Luxmore Grunt entrants in town for a weekend or longer is fantastic for the regional economy too.

From hubris to nemesis

I’m running the Kepler after a year off and off the back of a lot of long slow runs in the Wellington hills. This is not ideal training for a fast non-technical course. If I’m honest I’m feeling a little bit jaded but hoping the unique vibe of the race will lift me to achieve a personal best. I‘m about to reacquaint myself with the fact I’m no exception to the rule that running fast requires lots of practice running fast.

Unlike in previous years the immediate lead up to the race goes smoothly. There are no last-minute panics about whether I will be permitted to run, no worrying about where I’m going to sleep or what I’m going to eat. We arrive in plenty of time, register and relax. 4am on race day Julie, Tim, Grant and I are up and about preparing our breakfasts having all slept. A decent sleep before a race is unusual and we are all pleased, even more so when I check the weather forecast and learn that the wind forecast has dropped by 30 to 40 kmph. Even the weather Gods love the Kepler.

The toilet queue fails to thwart us. We join the throngs at the Outlet start line with just enough time to wish each other good luck and position ourselves according to our estimated finish time but not so much time that we are forced to stand around getting cold or nervous. Fortunately there is no time to indulge in selfies.

Social climbing

The first part of the course is 6km of fast, flat running. The primary purpose is to allow runners to warm up for the hill and to sort the speedy from the sedate. If you misjudge your speed you will either have a lot of overtaking to do or the experience of being passed often, not great for morale. The race organisers have little flags indicating 5, 6, 7, 8 hours to assist runners with their positioning. I cruise along overtaking people when I can and chatting with people I recognise. Lakeside the running conditions are perfect.
From Brod Bay the track climbs via neat switchbacks all the way to the bush line. This is one of my favourite sections. While the switchbacks are runnable many runners like me choose to power walk the steep bits and jog the flatter sections to conserve energy. The Limestone bluffs signal most of the sheltered climbing is done. As we scale ladders we savour expansive views down into the Te Anau Basin. As the vegetation thins I pause for the first time to pull on my flimsy rain jacket, woolly hat and polypropylene gloves. It’s always a delight to burst out of the trees onto the tussock tops, today that delight is tempered slightly by a particularly refreshing wind. Running is now a quest for speed for warmth.

Tearing across the tussock tops

Luxmore Hut is awash with furry animal suits. Each aid station has a theme and this one is a zoo. I wouldn’t mind a furry outfit myself right now as I stand in line waiting for my compulsory storm gear to be checked. The checking takes less than a minute due to the efficiency of the volunteers and the fact that I’m wearing almost all the gear.

Luxmore Aid Station
Luxmore Aid Station, photo stolen from Kepler FB page.

I down a gel and battle across the tops towards Forest Burn Shelter. The sky is grey swollen clouds billowing over the horizon and frothing and bouncing across the skyline at a rolling boil buffeted by the wind which is clearly stronger higher up. Occasional spots of rain blow across my chilled face but I’m spared the hail experienced by runners moving at 7 hour pace. The odd patch of snow is visible on exposed ridges but it is well off the track. It would take far worse conditions than these for me not to love every second of the roughly two hours I spend crossing the tops. The Kepler tussock tops are the race highlight and another reason people keep coming back. The snow coated Murchison mountains where Takahe were rediscovered in 1948 intrigue me. I want to climb Mt Irene. Special permission must be given by DoC as it is in a part of Fiordland National Park where access is limited to help protect these rare birds.

Behold a Takahe (not spotted during the race)
Behold a Takahe (not spotted during the race)

The field is spread out now. Runners have found their rhythm. There is little jostling for position. Many competitors use the opportunity to take photos. A helicopter flies overhead filming the event for a short clip on the evening news. The race photographer valiantly braves the elements to snap competitors as they pass. Mostly I tune out the distractions and focus on the views. I try to keep eating and drinking and keep half an eye on my bare legs which are getting redder by the minute. If they start to turn white or grey perhaps I will have to stop and put on my over- trousers.

Kepler Tops in 2013
Kepler Tops in 2013
Approaching Hanging Valley Shelter in 2013
Approaching Hanging Valley Shelter in 2013

I don’t stop at Forest Burn or Hanging Valley. My best chance of staying warm is to keep moving plus I’m enjoying quality time with the tussocks. The descent from Hanging Valley Shelter to Iris Burn is direct with over 160 stairs followed by tight switch backs. It would be easy to blow your quads by taking this too fast and while I manage to overtake a few people who are not used to steep descents I am taking it easy. The real race starts at Iris Burn.

 

 

 

Thirty kilometres of lake, river and beech

Below the bush line the temperature rises rapidly and I stop to shed my storm gear so I don’t over heat. Iris Burn Hut marks a rough half way point and the end of the dramatic scenery and the roller coaster ups and downs. Santa Claus welcomes us with sleigh bells, the aid station is rocking a Christmas theme. I’m running with Liz but I lose her as I take a toilet break and refill my water bottles. We’ve been on the go for just over 4 hours so we’re on track to run the race in close to 8 hours which is the time I’m hoping for. I’m feeling slightly anxious though as I know the next half will be tougher.

Iris Burn Aid Station
Iris Burn Aid Station, photo stolen from Kepler FB page.

The 9km between Iris Burn and Rocky Point is where the real runners pick up speed and settle into their race pace. The rest of us concentrate on keeping going. This is where you pay the price for running with minor injuries, poor hydration, nutrition, a lack of course appropriate training or all of the above. As I plod along I look for people in front of me to act as unofficial pacers but today nobody seems to be running a little bit faster than me. For about two minutes pink compression sox girl looks promising but she is too slow. I get overtaken by runners who vanish in the distance, too fast. I’m going to have to do this alone. I settle in and focus on the beech forest which is more scenic than I remember. I try not to think about the fact that I don’t have as many gels as I should have. A couple have either not been packed, are hiding or have fallen out of my pack. For the record they were hiding. I will locate them in about two hours when they are no longer of any use. For now though I’m going to have to ration what I seem to have left. I try eating an Ems Bar, something that has always gone down well in training. This is a race though and my stomach is not interested. The Ems Bar goes back in the pack. Fortunately my stomach gives oranges the nod, the aid stations have plenty of those.

Somewhere between Iris Burn and Rocky Point I catch up to Liz again. She has a sore foot but will keep going without pain killers, walking if she has too. Liz is strong and determined.  There is a track diversion just before Rocky Point to avoid a slip. I appreciate the slightly technical terrain though I know it is not helping my quest to go under 8 hours.

At the Rocky Point aid station I stock up on liquid and oranges for the next roughly 9km of flat track. Boosted by a caffeinated gel I pick up my speed a little. There are numerous trampers out on the track and they are hugely supportive. One tramper blows his whistle whenever he spots a runner. Initially I think he is signalling that the Moturau aid station is close so I’ m not as pleased to see him then I figure out it isn’t. Luckily I have my default smile in place.

Between Moturau Hut to Rainbow Reach my pace falls away as the last gel wears off but this is nothing compared to the pace that my fancy new gps watch is running out of juice! “The fenix is an albatross” I mutter to myself not for the first time. When I check the power point back at the bach later, I realise it isn’t working so the Fenix and I were kindred spirits both trying to run on empty. I admire Lake Manapouri. Because boats can access this section of the course there are supporters around to cheer people on and some competitors have even picked up pacers. I encounter a couple of guys running together. One is carrying a bunch of bananas. I chat with them and it turns out the guy with the bananas has caught a boat in to pace his buddy over the last section of the course. This is my cue to give the pair of them some stick. For a bit I have great fun running behind them urging Banana Man to lift the pace. We pass and re-pass each other until eventually, to my surprise I pull away from them.

Approching Motarua Aid Station 2013
Approching Motarua Aid Station 2013

My favourite aid station is Rainbow Reach, it always has a rainbow theme which means there is plenty of colour and there is always a good group of supporters on hand to clap and cheer. Mainly I like it because it means there is only 10km to go. Anyone can manage 10km right? Soon this flat beech forest trail will end! While I woolfing down orange segments a voice calls out my name and I turn around to spot my old work mate PC. I’m not really surprised to encounter the one local I know and it’s a welcome boost. The Fenix stays powered up for long enough to reveal what I have feared since Iris Burn, I’m well off track for completing the race in under 8 hours.

Somewhere between the 5.5km to go aid station and the 2.5km to go one the Fenix dies.  I have better staying power than a Fenix I think willing myself to run a little faster. We are following the Waiou River now and the course reveals a few late ups and downs for extra pain. In the past I’ve enjoyed the challenge but today, like most runners I’m finding it a grind.  It’s a case of reminding myself I’m great at keeping going as the sound of the race commentator drifts across the water and the day heats up.

2013 Finish
2013 finish

I cross the finish line roughly 27 minutes later than I had hoped. I’m slightly disappointed but this quickly gives way to gratitude. I made it! It has been a fantastic day out in the hills. Liz finishes soon afterwards. We are mid pack which means half the field is still in the beech forest. I find Grant, Tim and Julie who are stoked with their times and have me laughing continuously with their tales of the highs and lows of running further up the field. I’m reminded that it’s been a fun yet tough day for everyone. Talking to other competitors I learn the conditions have caused most returning runners to record slower times, even the elite runners. The Wellington contingent have done well. This year none of us had to be flown off the course. Several of us battle injury to finish. Viktor stars in the official Kepler video. Rhys wins the prize for most improved runner making up for his disaster laden previous effort. He fails to beat Mark though. You win some you lose some. The Kepler is the gift that keeps on giving.

Post race pizza
Post race pizza
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