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Sunday, December 4, 2016

Kepler Challenge - race reflections

The Kepler is over for another year, this my second time running this superb race.

These are some thoughts on what to expect running the Kepler, for those that haven’t yet had the privilege.  And I do think it’s a privilege to traverse this track, one of New Zealand’s great walks.  It’s what brings me back to it, together with the amazing community spirit from the people of Te Anau that wraps around it.

I’ll mention the community spirit first.  There’s quite a different feel about a race that has the passionate support of the local community and, perhaps incidentally, that is not-for-profit.  Te Anau is a small town on the edge of a beautiful wilderness.  It is the jump off point for excursions into the Fiordland National Park, including the Kepler and Milford Tracks.  The Kepler Challenge appears to have a special place in the heart of the people of Te Anau.

As a runner, this community spirit displays itself in the aid stations, which for some of them have become performance art.  This year we had hippies, Where’s Wally, Santa and the Papal Curia.  We had a group of well-wishers that had camped out on the side of the lake to cheer us on has we turned up the hill towards Luxmore.  We had groups of locals that had gathered at the points in the track that can be accessed from the road or water.  All full of smiles and encouragement.  And it lifts you.  Excellent effort Te Anau.

I think of the race in five parts.  The first is the gentle trail around the lake, with the sun reflecting off the glistening water.  The second is the climb through the forest up to Luxmore Hut.  The third is the alpine section over the tops.  The fourth is the drop down into Iris Burn.  The fifth, the longest, is the second half of the race past Lake Manapouri and down the valley to the control gates at the finish.

The gentle trail around the lake is a warm up, with the chill air of the early morning and plenty of banter among the runners.  The second part up to Luxmore Hut is what I would regard as a steady climb, not technical and not particularly challenging.  Most people are walking, but it is definitely runnable.

My key tip at this stage is to change into warmer gear before you hit the alpine section above the tree line.  I put on a long-sleeved top, my parka, my hat and gloves.  Once over the tree line it can feel like you have stepped into a fridge.  This year the wind wasn’t too bad, but with wind chill it was approaching zero degrees.  The previous time I did the race, I got changed after I realised it was cold, and spent ages shivering and fiddling around trying to put on my gear.

The third part, across the tops, is honest mountain running.  You are almost certain to have your bag checked for the compulsory gear at Luxmore.  The trail becomes narrower and gnarlier, with snow and ice patches this year to contend with.  It didn’t feel all that treacherous this year, but if the wind gets up it feels quite different. 

It’s pretty clear when you are on the tops that you need decent trail shoes.  There were quite a lot of runners that were using normal road running shoes and the lack of grip would have been unnerving for them on this stage.  Plus, you are smacking into rocks from time to time and need toe protection. 

The race website says the vertical is about 1.3km, but my Suunto suggests it was closer to 2km.  It felt more like 2km to me.

The fourth part is the drop down off the alpine section into the tranquility of the valley below.  The trail is basically pretty smooth in this section, which allows you to open up a bit on the descent, flowing into the switch backs with a good racing line.

The one thing I would say about the aid stations is the food is basic.  You really just have oranges and bananas, which means you need to carry all the supplemental nutrition to get you through the race.  Oh yes, they also have jelly airplanes.  But there are lots of aid stations, around 10.  This means you are never much more than 60-90 minutes from an aid station.  This means you don’t have to completely fill up on water and so carry less weight.

The final, longest, part is the 30 odd kilometres down the valley to the finish.  This could best be described as meandering, rolling terrain.  The track is very good and you can get a rhythm going.  It is beautiful, alongside the river, but there is not much variation here.  Just drop into a meditative state and power through to the finish.

Just before turning into the finishing straight, a guy approached me with a film camera and asked what I thought of the race.  I said I really loved this race and appreciated the warm support on the trail.  

It’s such a special race in a special part of the world.  

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