Saturday, 6 December 2014

Kepler Challenge 2014

The Kepler Challenge is a spectacular trail running event in New Zealand's South Fiord, starting and finishing at the outlet of Lake Te Anau. The course follows the 60km long Kepler Track along the shoreline of Lake Te Anau before heading uphill into the mountains before dropping down to the Waiau River and back to the start. 
Kepler Challenge course map.
I have previously been lucky enough to get an entry into the notoriously difficult to enter Kepler Challenge back in 2011, but due to an injury and subsequent lack of training I swapped my entry for the Luxmore Grunt, 27km, the smaller version of the two races. The Luxmore Grunt follows the same route as Kepler Challenge, however returns on itself with the turnaround at Luxmore Hut. I remember clearly when I reached Luxmore Hut that all I really wanted to do was to keep continuing along the track. It was a disappointing feeling to turnaround, however it kept the passion alive to return and run the Kepler Challenge in its entirety. 

As my last race for 2014, I looked forward to heading back to Te Anau for the Kepler Challenge. Racing in New Zealand is like racing in any other Australian state or territory. This race is no exception. The trail running community in both countries are much the same. The sport of trail running attracts the same friendly and enthusiastic crowd. There are friends to meet up with, and friendships to be made. This is what I love about the sport.

I travelled over with Mum and Dad this time, Brian was left at home to continue building our new home (and yes, he is really doing the building). It was Mum and Dad's first time to New Zealand, and as I write this race report they are yet to complete their travels around the South Island.
Kepler Challenge course profile.
Having never run the full Kepler Trail I had no idea what I was in for. All up I'd only traversed 14kms of the Luxmore Grunt in 2011 and a few short sections near the end along the river as part of an easy walk. I'd looked at previous finishing times for runners I know and estimated a finish time for myself. It was Brian's suggestion that I should be targeting 6:10. Easy for him to say as he wasn't doing the running.

Come race morning I did my usual thing of staying in bed until the last moment. Then with a flurry of activity I was out the door and headed to the start line. Race starts never leave me with a comfortable feeling. There is always too much anxiety and nerves to deal with. At least when the gun goes off the feelings are instantly replaced with the focus of whats ahead, namely other runners heels, sticks or rocks.

Though the race starts on a wide trail it quickly narrows, so runners go from running 4 or 5 abreast to 2 abreast in the space of a hundred metres. Positioning yourself at the start is therefore important. I positioned myself at the back of the front group, so when we started running I wasn't impeded by too many runners around me. As the trail is not technical the race start is very fast. There is not much self preservation going on amongst the lead group for an ultra. The intensity of running was high from the beginning.
Enjoying a little bit of downhill after the climb up. Backcountry Runner NZ.
In the early stages of the race, along the shoreline of Lake Te Anau, I tried to keep a decent pace along this flat section. Just before the first check point fellow Aussie Sara-Jane caught up to me. At this stage I had no idea where I was amongst the other female runners. I hadn't run with Sara-Jane in a race before and didn't know what it meant when she edged past me. I upped my pace to stay with her and when we commenced the ascent I started to edge ahead. I could see Ruby Muir ahead and Jo Johansen, two girls that I wanted to remain close to if I wanted a good finish time. Even though Ruby was nursing an injury, she showed no sign of weakness as she glided along the well manicured trail. 

As we turned from the gently undulating trail to the ascent to Luxmore Hut the pace dropped slightly, but the intensity did not. Everyone's breathing got harder as we slowly climbed the mountain and the treeline thinned out to reveal panoramic views over the fiord-land wilderness. Ruby started to edge ahead as we climbed, but Jo and I stayed close together. I kept my motivation up by pretending that the low flying helicopters following the event would catch me if I slowed down.
Jo Johansen closing in on me.
At Luxmore Hut (14km) the volunteers were there to inspect our mandatory gear and replenish us runners. The cold wind was reasonably strong and I was already wearing some of my mandatory gear. Jo and I ran into the checkpoint close together. Jo was much more organised,  as she transitioned through the mandatory gear check much faster than I, that resulted in me watching her develop a good head start while repacking my bag. After that brief interlude at Luxmore Hut, I was this year able to continue on along the Kepler Track. It is always good to run a new trail, but to do it in a race leaves me with lots of uncertainty. I'm usually nervous about exhausting myself before the end, which is silly given the relatively short distance of this ultra, and it's mostly unchallenging terrain. This run however was different. I had Jo to motivate me, and Brian's motivational words of, "don't hold back". With a little less uncertainty and a little more determination, I pushed harder than what I normally would. 

The trail stayed up high for quite a long time, longer than I thought, and even though it was very beautiful I was looking forward to the descent so I could get out of the wild winds that were buffeting me around. I was still running close to Jo along this Apline section and at the Hanging Valley checkpoint (23km) we started the steep descent into the valley. Jo was being cautious and decided to hold back a bit on the down hills to avoid risking an injury, which was a smart move. I took this opportunity to go ahead and make a gap between us as I knew she would likely catch me again on the flatter sections of trail still ahead. On the descent I overtook quite I few runners, which was surprising, maybe I wasn't as bad as I thought running down hill or I was just having a good down hill day. It always feels as though I'm getting overtaken on the downhills.
Fighting the wind, not the hill. Backcountry Runner NZ.
At Iris Burn Hut checkpoint (28km), I grabbed a bite to eat and a sip of water. I found I didn't need to fill my soft flasks at all throughout the event as the check points were close enough together to survive without any drama, so I was in and out of the checkpoints pretty quick. The next section was still down hill until Rocky Point, though not nearly as steep as the section down to Iris Burn hut. Jo caught up to me at Rocky Point when I had a much needed loo stop. She was with a couple of guys all running together so I tried to run after them and it took what felt like forever to catch them all. I eventually caught up and overtook Jo and the other guys she was with on a small uphill section. I was trying to run fast to keep in front and secure second place but was unsure if I could keep this seemingly ridiculously fast pace (my description might be a little over exaggerated). It was at this time that I caught sight of fellow Aussie Mick Donges ahead. Mick slowed down so I could catch him and we ran together for a bit. He was concerned about his girl friend (Sara-Jane) as she has never run this kind of distance before and has a dodgy ankle. I reassured him and said she was running fine although that was only 5km into the race and a few hours ago. 

Mick and I ran into Moturau Hut checkpoint (45km) together and not far behind was Jo. Mick gave me the "you better get out of here" look so I quickly stuffed one more orange in my face before we both ran out of the checkpoint together. That was when Mick said we should up that ante and run hard until the finish. I was worried that he would stick with me and that I would ruined his run but he didn't seem to care much about his result, he just seem happy being out on the trails enjoying himself. Mick picked up the pace quite a bit and I tried desperately to stick with him. I'm not going to lie, it was hard work trying to keep up with him and at times he would slow down and let me catch up which was very kind of him and much appreciated. 
Warming up as the pace increased.

We briefly stopped at Rainbow Reach checkpoint (51km) where I ate and drank something. I can't quite remember what it was though, as I could feel the exhaustion setting in.  We didn't hang around for long before we took off again with 9km to go. I turned around every so often and could see no one in sight which was a comforting sign. I was doubting anyone could catch us anyway at our new speedy pace.

Catching Mick was fortuitous for me. Though I was feeling the exhaustion of the run, running with Mick was good distraction and helped lift me. Sitting in second place I wasn't going to slack off and surrender my position. So, together we motivated each other towards the finish. 
Mick and I crossing the finish line. Backcountry Runner NZ.

Ultimately we crossed the finish line together (it will make purchasing race photos cheaper). I don't know if Mick was happy with his finish time, but I was happy with my run of 6:07:53 and second placed female. I'm glad that I put my self doubts aside at Luxmore Hut to then run hard for the remainder of the race.

I'd like to thank Salomon Australia for their continued support. It has been a pleasure donning their gear. Running ultras can be very uncomfortable at times, but its always good to know that the gear is not contributing to the discomfort. I'm also yet to have any gear failures, which is surprising seeing how rough and how much I ask of my gear.


  1. Great report Beth, and excellent run. I thought it almost felt like two shorter runs, the first over the hill then the second being the tempo run to the finish. Julie

  2. Great work again mate.
    You keep getting better every run keep up the good work.