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My Kepler Challenge

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My Kepler Challenge

By Fleur Douglas on 5th December 2017 Race Reports

My Kepler Challenge

Another Kepler Challenge done & dusted. Pic by Photos4Sale

If you counted up all the Decembers I've had in my life, I've spent more than half of the first weekends in Te Anau for the Kepler Challenge. My dad has run in twenty-one of the thirty events, and so it always seemed like not only a staple of my childhood - but a very normal way to spend your time. It is, on balance, not a normal way to spend the first weekend of summer. It could in fact be considered borderline critical in our binge drinking nation to put aside that most sacred of public holidays - Crate Day - to run 60km just to end up where you started. But let's face it, Wild Things are hardly normal people, and looking around the start line at 6am, it was very obvious that for most of us there was no place we would rather be.

There's something special about a destination race, whether you're travelling across the world (as a good proportion of the competitors on the day were) or a couple of hours. I'm sure the locals in Te Anau lock their doors and bemoan the weekend all the runners come to town, but there's an incredible spirit as you see all your like-minded brethren roll on in. For a couple of days you could be forgiven for thinking that this is the way the world is.

Anybody at the start would agree that it's something quite incredible. The morning - already uncomfortably warm - dawned as we all stood around on the Control Gates at the start of the track, fuelling up from the Sandfly Cafe, trading last minute hugs and well-wishes. Noel Walker in his last event as commentator started his usual tradition of teasing his old friends and scaring the event virgins. (It's a well known story that one year Noel announced that headphones were banned on the event - and suddenly an influx of nervous runners made their way to duly hand theirs over to the organisers!) I had enough time to catch up with a couple of friends as we waited for the starting horn, all sharing that same look - that odd mix of excitement and knowledge that we were about to spend a significant amount of time in an equally significant amount of discomfort.

I love the Kepler Challenge like I love no other event; this year was my fourth time around the loop (with a cheeky Luxmore Grunt thrown in for good measure). But loving the Kepler and coming back for multiple times brings with it its own particular pleasure: knowing exactly what's coming to you. I've heard people with experience at 160km races describe the Kepler as the toughest race they've ever done, and in four times around I've certainly never got it right.

The first 5.5km is run through beautiful beech forest in early morning light. Pic by Photos4Sale

This year, I knew I was in for a tough one. I've been nursing an injury since blowing something major in my leg back in September, I can't run in anything above about 20 degrees, and I'd had a stressful few weeks: not exactly the formula for a winning race. I'd also talked myself into a very serious bet with one Mal Law about who was going to win after he passed me metres from the finish line last year, all while knowing I was far from ready to run a perfect race! And sure enough, my leg ached in my warmup and on the flat first five and a half kilometres out to Brod Bay, I mentally monitored my pain levels and deliberately held back, arriving a couple of minutes later than usual.

As you leave Brod Bay, the trail climbs surprisingly slowly up the hill, with a very well graded track that there's no need to walk for a long time. Unfortunately for most of us, as we got away from the lake the heat started to take its toll. In the last twenty-odd years of at least attending, if not running, the Kepler I could never remember a day quite this warm. In fact, I was nursing a theory that Te Anau didn't even have access to the sun. But as we climbed up to the Bluffs - a good marker that you're two-thirds the way up the climb to the first major milestone at Luxmore Hut - it was clear that the humidity was beginning to hurt everybody.

Out of the bush & heading for Luxmore Hut. Pic by Photos4Sale

Most Kepler veterans will tell you that when you leave the bush line and start the flat traverse to Luxmore Hut, it's worth the time to stop and put a layer on. The wind tends to whip across the ridge, but on this day in spite of the wind - which was still here - the ambient heat meant I stayed in my racing singlet right to the hut. It was here too that I was thankful to see the first of my friends in James Kuegler, not far from the bush line and ready to dispense pacing advice based on whether people come from the south (push harder on the climb) or north (slow down on the climb). It pulled me back into a positive place, and I continued happily through to the first major aid station.

If you ever want to see a well run aid station, you need to check out Luxmore Hut. They're always dressed up, they're always cheerful, and they're always incredibly efficient at checking the gear of four hundred and fifty runners in a hurry. Like all the volunteers on the race, they've got a long day and a mostly thankless task, and I'm always sure to stop and take the time to compliment their outfits.

Another classic first Kepler error is to think that your climbing is done at Luxmore Hut. In fact, there's another thousand vertical metres to go - which at time seems to defy the laws of physics. ("We passed the highest point three kilometres ago and we're still climbing," I complained, with full knowledge of the track profile, at one point.) Luckily, some more of my friends were halfway up the next climb, with cowbells, verbal abuse, loud music and tequila shots in hand. Again, I was very happy to see them as I was starting to slip into a typical dark ultramarathon place.

I firmly believe that in an ultra, you run the gamut of every possible human emotion and usually manage to find some new ones. (One particularly memorable emotion for me on the day was my immense frustration when I spent ten minutes trying to figure out what the name 'Gabbie' was short for after seeing my friend on the track, and then eventually settling on 'Gabriolet' as the correct answer. It wasn't.) Somewhere between Luxmore Hut and Hanging Valley Shelter - a beautiful, long run up and down an exposed ridgeline with plenty to look at and technical terrain to keep your eyes on - I always go from happy to sad, to lonely, to wondering if there are sports out there that don't involve pushing my body against gravity.

But happiness always sets in when you get to Hanging Valley, with the knowledge that a very fun downhill is about to come. This is the descent that the people who have run the Kepler before warn you about - many a quad has been cooked on the endless (eighty-seven or so) switchbacks. The part they don't warn you about - and the part I've managed to mess up three times before - is that whatever layers you put on over the tops need to come off before you start this descent, or you'll overcook yourself. So an apology is probably appropriate to the people running near me who I bullied into stripping off (including the woman who protested she was still cold) - but hopefully they were grateful by the time we reached Iris Burn.

It's well known that the Kepler really only starts at Iris Burn, and as I came in half an hour off my best time, I reminded myself of that. There's a small hill as soon as you leave the aid station and it's always a great test of how you've paced the downhill. If you've done it wrong, you can literally feel your legs say "oh - I don't think so!" as you try and trot out. Even if you've done it right, you're rewarded with what feels like a long, endless section out to Rocky Point. I was lucky enough to pick up a new friend as we got to the top of the hill - my running past him guilted him into running instead of walking, and we set a decent pace together that got us through.

I had my annual Kepler Fall as we got to the Big Slip, tripping over absolutely nothing and scraping up my elbow and leg. I take particular pride in my ability to fall during this race as the trail is for the most part non-technical, and yet I have fallen once every year. (I would find out later that all my friends took a tumble at some point, including one who wasn't even running, so my achievement seemed less special.) But the good thing about running with a new trail friend is that firstly, you have someone to help you up, and secondly, you have no choice but to suck it up and keep running. We stayed together right through to Moturau Hut, a beautiful lakeside aid station that never fails to remind me of a summer holiday park. It's around about here that I, along with most people each year, hit the darkest place - the remaining 15km seems cruelly far, the lake looked so cool, people were laying on the grass, and surely there are better ways to spend a Saturday than running for another couple of hours. But not this year - with a handful of potato chips and a third person we'd picked up, my new friend and I were off, with our sights firmly set on Rainbow Reach in six kilometres' time.

One of the best things about the Kepler is that the aid stations start to come thick and fast just when you need them most. There are four within the last fifteen kilometres, each closer than the last. I'd parted ways with my new friend as he'd managed to get a better second wind than I, and set about getting through the sudden loneliness while dealing with the fact the heat was starting to get to me. My body was slowly shutting down - while all my muscles seemed fine, everything else was, for want of a better word, just cooked. I was sugared up and struggling to eat, and could only focus on one thing: getting to the finish.

This run home is why people talk about the Kepler being hard. It's relatively easy to pace yourself over the hill; it's not easy to leave enough in the tank to run out of the valley from there. No matter what pace you run the race at, everybody comes up against the same difficulty. It isn't an easy race: it's why the word 'Challenge' is right there in the name. I made my way to Rainbow Reach, and once again proved the theory of going through every emotion when I got to the 5K aid station: a sign that said '55K + 5K = 6 PACK + CLOUD 9' made me laugh out loud and then abruptly burst into tears.

A friend as good as Sarah Douglas (no relation!) helps take some of the pain away. Pic by Photos4Sale

I was lucky enough to have a friend who had run the Grunt earlier in the day come out to meet me on the track, and I met her just after the second to last aid station: extremely welcome company and moral support, as I sailed past my previous worst Kepler time and adjusted my race goals yet again to try and come in under ten hours. The heat had sapped everything I had left in the tank, and talking was the only way to get me through.

About two kilometres from the finish line you start to hear Noel Walker's dulcet tones for the first time since you left at 6am - the finish seems tantalisingly close and you wonder why you can't just go straight across instead of following the track. Luckily the track does start to get less technical and has only a couple of undulations, and there's some easy running if you have anything left in your legs. My beloved pacer left me as we turned the corner to the control gates ("Come on, sprint finish!" she encouraged me. "Is this not a sprint?" was my hopeful reply.) Over the line, a beautiful hug from the irreplaceable Irene Barnes, and finally, rest.

Finish line hugs! Pic by Photos4Sale

And so my fourth Kepler Challenge ended: I was more bloodied and broken than I had been that morning, I'd soundly lost my bet (but took full credit in tricking Mal into thinking I was ahead of him and driving him to one of his best Kepler results in years), it was an hour off my personal best and I was slightly concerned that some of my internal organs had literally begun to cook in the heat like a dog left in a car... but there's also an absolute high in finishing the Kepler that nothing else in life can compare to. ("It's like meth," my Iris Burn to Moturau friend had correctly put it.)

The Kepler may not be the same in the future, as several of the long-serving and beloved volunteers leave it behind. But the track will still be there, the track will still be a challenge. The feeling of taking over the entire pub with runners and swapping war stories for the entirety of Saturday night (and if we're being honest, into Sunday morning) will still be there. It will still be a race like no other: it will still be, as they put it on their website, the jewel in the crown of the New Zealand mountain running calendar. And so if there are any Wild Things out there who haven't tried it yet, I say it's time to sharpen your keyboard skills: entry day will be here before you know it, and I'd love to see you there.

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