It was 3am; I’d been tossing and turning in bed for most of the night, legs twitching, back aching and head pounding. I’d been slipping in and out of sleep, dreaming of falling over the edge of a mountain and then waking up just before I hit the ground. Each time I rolled over, I’d wake up with a new pain searing through my legs. It was my body’s way of reminding me that I had just ran the Kepler Challenge; my second ultra and the most scenic race of my life.
Six Months Earlier
I singed up for the Kepler Challenge earlier this year, it was a race that I high up on my bucket list. Held in the small Apline village of Te Anau in New Zealand, the course takes runners along the 58km Kepler Track, one of New Zealand’s Great Walks. After spending most of this year targeting the marathon, I was really excited about getting my feet stuck into some trail running again. Unfortnatley, an on-going battle with plantar fasciitis became a lot worse after the Melbourne Marathon in October and my training for kepler hadn’t been as consistent as I’d have liked.
Flash forward a few months and I found myself on the start line, feeling slightly unprepared but really excited to be running with some of the great names in trail and ultra running, including male course record holder Martin Dent, David, Byrne, Ruby Muir and Beth Cardelli. The depth of field was strong and this year, female course record holder Zelah Morrall was also back to defend her title (5:23:34 which was set in 2003). The air was charged with anticipation and adrenaline.
Start – Brod Bay (5.6km)
The first 5.6km section of the race takes runners onto some singletrack, trough lush forest and under a canopy of dense trees. This is a fast, fairly flat section of trail, which meanders around the shores of Lake Te Anau. I was surprised how fast the pace was being set for the first 2km and saw Beth Cardelli, Zelah Morrall and Ruby Muir speed off at lightning pace. Unsurprisingly, this was the last time that I saw Ruby and Zelah but as most runner’s started to get into a good position on the trail, the pace settled down slightly and I caught up with Beth for a fairly comfortable run to the first checkpoint at Brod Bay.
Brod Bay – Luxmore Hut (8.2km)
Just after Brod Bay and for the next 8km, the track starts up a steep 800m climb towards Luxmore Hut. Earlier in the year, I had hiked this section with my parents so I knew that it was a pretty steep climb and although runnable, there was still a long way to go in this race, so I decided on a walk/run strategy and watched as Beth slithered off up the hill, making it look easy! I then started a battle with Jean Beaumont, who I recognised as one of the top ten finishers from Tarawera 100k back in February. Jean ran the whole way up the hill but I managed to catch her along certain sections and we enjoyed a game of cat and mouse for the next few kilometres.
The trail eventually becomes more rocky and exposed and finally, the climb brings you out into the open wilderness with spectacular views of Lake Te Anau and the surrounding mountains. I continued the game of chase with Jean for a while longer and we both reached Luxmore Hut together, coming in as 5th and 6th female. I usually like to hold back and pick up places towards the latter part of a race but I still felt really good and decided to try to stay on Jean for the next surge past Luxmore Hut; big mistake. My race plan was to stop at Luxmore to catch my breath, grab a gel and put on my wet weather gear, but the adrenaline got the better of me and I pushed forward, ignoring the signs that it was getting colder and the light drizzle was turning into heavy rain. Soon after Luxmore Hut, my training partner Danny ran past and checked if I was OK, warning me that I should put my rain jacket on, but determination and ignorance masked any kind of sensibility and I continued to climb; sans jacket.
Luxmore Hut – Hanging Valley Shelter (8.5km)
The more I climbed, the colder I became and battling against the icy rain, the legs were struggling to find their rhythm. I saw Jean disappear up the hill and I eventually stopped and made a few attempts to put on my jacket. It was tough to get going again but I decided to continue more conservatively along this next section as we still had about 400m of climbing to do against the bitter rain and a howling wind which was threatening to blow me off the side of the mountain. It was also along this section — towards Hanging Valley shelter — that the course takes you along the ridge line, with a sheer drop either side of the trail. The views from here are mind-blowing, with the mountains raising like giants from the blue lake, 1,400m below. The mist danced off rainbows which appeared over the mountain peaks; it was like something from a fairy tale. Appearing from the side of the mountain, a chopper flew within inches over our heads as we ran along the ridge and lifted the adrenaline up with it. It was incredible to experience the views and the wildness and to share this with other runners. Despite the cold and forgetting that I was in a race, I was enjoying myself and was in no hurry to get down from the ridge.
Hanging Valley Shelter – Iris Burn (6km)
Quite a few girls seemed passed me along this section and by now I wasn’t sure what my position was but thought I was well outside of the top ten. My plan had always been to play to my strengths, which was to run the downhill hard and the final half of the race at a reasonably fast pace. The descent from the mountain towards Iris Burn Hut is a series of lots of twists and turns down some extremely steep switchbacks. These were a lot of fun but it took me a while to find a decent pace; going down here too hard meant I would fall off the edge before I could make the turn. I managed to pass one girl on here and was surprised to learn that I was coming eighth by the time I got to Iris Burn Hut. But I knew I wasn’t really feeling it, the legs already felt dull and heavy, not what you need to run a fast, undulating 30km.
Iris Burn – Motorau Hut, Via Rocky Point (16.2km)
After taking some time at Iris Burn to take off the wet weather gear and for a much needed stop at the little girls room, I set off again towards Rocky Point aid station. Although this section looks to be all downhill on the course profile, there were quite a few short, pinchy hills which I struggled with but happy that I could go hard on the downhill sections. I felt good about my overall pace and even happier to pass another girl before Rocky Point and quite a few of the guys who had earlier flew past me up the mountain.
Wary of the girl who I had just past, I didn’t hang around for too long at the aid station. I can’t remember too much between Rocky Point and Motorau Hut but I didn’t feel great. I’d been sipping on Tailwind and eating gels and chews for my nutrition but couldn’t stand the sweetness anymore. It was the first time during the race that I felt like I wanted to stop and it was actually a relief when I got to a hill and allowed myself to walk. I didn’t expect this to happen so early on in the race.
Motorau Hut – Rainbow Reach (6km)
In seventh place but feeling a bit flat, I decided to take my time when I got to Motorau Hut and assess the situation. My foot felt good and my nutrition had been going to plan. I knew that the only thing preventing me from really being in this race was lack of preparation. There wasn’t much I could do about that now, so I decided to hold on to a top ten position if I could and failing that, I was just going to enjoy the experience. And what other race can you get a freshly baked scone — still warm from the oven — other than in the Kepler Challenge? The plainness of the scone and saltiness from the the butter was like eating a gourmet meal after five hours of gels and tailwind.
I felt a lot better after leaving Motorau and the next 5 km went pretty quick but each climb really hurt now and I knew I didn’t have too much left in me. It was shattering to then watch a girl fly past me just as we were coming into the last checkpoint at Rainbow Reach, 10km from the finish. Her pace was quick and light and she still looked fresh. She was like a prancing deer and I was like a tired old elephant. I knew I didn’t have enough in me to put any pressure on her and watched hopelessly as she put in the distance between us.
Final Stretch (10km)
After leaving rainbow Reach, the trail continues to hug a lake and you begin to finally feel like you’re on the home stretch. I dug in as deep as I could, thankful that my foot still felt good. Running along the soft valley floor was like running on a giant sponge cake, which helped my heavy elephant plod. Eventually, I reached the “2km to go” sign and could hear the crowd and the voice over the tannoy, welcoming in the finishers. With a renewed energy, I picked up the pace and even managed to pick off a couple more guys towards the final stretch. Coming out from the forest and seeing the finish was a welcomed sight I crossed the line in 6:53:57 and as the eighth female. However I knew that I wanted to come back and run this race again next year. Partly because I think I have a lot more to give on the course and partly because the experience is well worth a repeat.
My focus for this year was predominly on road racing and the marathon. My training had been geared towards flat, speedy sessions and my body had suffered from relentless pounding on the pavements. To finish the year doing something different was an amazing experience but one where I think I have more to give. Kepler woke up my trail legs and I look forward to seeing what 2016 will bring.