This time last year, the idea of racing in New Zealand seemed extremely far-fetched to me. Anna and I were planning to get to Australia this year, but we hadn’t discussed a NZ trip. But while waiting at the hospital with my brother Roger as his thumb was being stitched when a rogue knife got the better of him, I was surfing my iPhone and became intrigued by a race near Te Anau called the Kepler Challenge.
The Kepler Challenge is a running race which covers the entire 60km Kepler Track in the fjordlands of NZ’s South Island. The ‘track’ (bush slang for trail) is surrounded by Lake Te Anau to the north, Lake Manapouri to the south, and the Waiau river connecting the two lakes. The race was started in 1988 by the community of Te Anau to commemorate the centenary of Quinten MacKinnon’s re-discovery of the Milford Track in 1888. A Milford race was considered a logistical nightmare, so the Kepler Race composing a big loop was chosen. In it’s 30 year history, the Kepler Challenge has become incredibly popular among runners in New Zealand and globally making it one of the most competitive and community-oriented ultras out there.
On a whim, I shared the race’s site link with Anna and received a two fold response:
- “That looks beautiful…really beautiful.”
- “Their registration and gear requirements are serious.”
Without previously discussing any plans to actually visit New Zealand, we agreed that if I could get into the race, we would include a NZ trek into our Australia itinerary. As Kepler is held at the beginning of December, this also meant that I would need to maximize my leave balance for the year.
But registering for Kepler was stressful! On June 30th 2017, I had to take a lunch break to come home and stand tight at the laptop at 12:00 PM anticipating registration to open. Without a lottery, this is a race that you need to register quick, as I later learned that it had sold out within 10 minutes. As soon as the link was available, I attempted entry. With the combination of a crowded website and a slow, glitchy laptop, I encountered some nail-biting delays. Anna and I were both nervous, but invariably it worked, and I was in!
Planning ahead, I accepted that jet lag would be a factor as it took us more than 30 hours to travel from our home at Holloman until we arrived at our cottage by Lake Manapouri in the evening two days before race day. When you travel for such a long time over such a long distance, the initial feelings of being in a far-off place are very surreal. Unfortunately sleeping is hard. As December is summer time in NZ, it doesn’t get dark until 10 PM. So we managed an ok night of sleep after we arrived, and I maybe only pulled 3 or 4 hours the night before the race. I was very excited the day prior to the race. Between packet pickup and the mandatory race meeting, I visited the Kepler trail head to scope how it looked and ran into a local bloke who explained to me how he only races Kepler. We had a good chat, especially reflecting on how rare it is to meet people named Dwight, because yes, I just met an actual Te Anau running local named Dwight.
On race morning, I arose at 4am and ate muesli and a banana and drank a cup of coffee. I took a quick shower and got my gear together. Anna had laid out her clothes and gear the night before as well and we had compromised on a 5am alarm for her. To stay relaxed, I watched a short Ginger Runner film on the GRVR Challenge while I was eating and listened to some music from my running playlist.
Anna woke up and was ready within 12 minutes. We know this because her alarm was set at 5:01, and we were a couple of minutes out of Manapouri traveling toward the start line when a second alarm went off at 5:15. We arrived to the golf course road at around 5:30, and the car parks were already full with other cars seeking out whatever parking they could on the side of the road, sometimes dangerously. We found an area well off the side of the road but near the main car park, then walked the 10 minutes to the starting area on the Te Anau side of the causeway gates. Shortly before the start the entire field walked across the causeway to the start line about 100 meters away.
Whenever I show to a trail race, my priorities are generally routine: check in, bathroom, warm up drills, gel, start line. Walking up, we noticed a bathroom line at least 100 feet long for probably the only two drop toilets at the trail head, and no porta-johns in site! Therefore I opted for a rare move and jetted for a hidden bush. After my warm up drills with Anna, comprising hip rotations, squats, leg swings, I think I felt loose and ready to go.
Hot, Hot, Hot
The pace of the front runners was super HOT! Normally trail races have some stretch of dirt road or tarmac before going into single track, so that runners can determine their pacing position and avoid getting crowded. The Kepler course doesn’t waste time and we started right into single track. And I knew this was going to be a competitive race, but I was not anticipating “Euro-style,” “race your face off at the start of an ultra” competitive. I was trying to find a good place on the trail as early as possible, so I started by running comfortable 7 minute miles, but I was still getting passed constantly. The first 5km to Brod Bay has no hills, the trail is winding with a nice cushiony surface in a beech forest, and it was fast.
After leaving Brod Bay way back of the front pack, I pushed my effort on the climb to Luxmore Hut. In my understanding of the course, the only sustained uphill in the whole race was this 4000 foot climb, so I opted to run while many others walked, and I passed about 20-30 runners in the process. I felt good. I was excited about getting above the treeline and getting to the alpine section where it was instantly colder and windier. Probably within 5 minutes I pulled out my red Salomon jacket over my racing vest.
High and Higher
Rolling into the Luxmore Hut aid station at the 13 km point, I confused the gear checkers with the jacket setup concealing my gear, but eventually got the thumbs up. As I am a foreigner, I faced some jargon confusion to dispose my “trash” – they of course use the word “rubbish,” and I didn’t eat anything at the aid station, but did grab a banana and a delectable power cookie. The race helicopter was soaring around this point and buzzing runners adding to the experience that this race was a true NZ adventure.
After setting off, I was possibly a bit surprised to encounter more steep climbing and this was a stark realization that I hadn’t accurately comprehended how higher we were heading. I think this is a common mistake at Kepler. I held on and pressed to Hanging Valley. Lesson learned about this race to better anticipate the course layout.
Nevertheless, the alpine section was definitely awesome! This section was beautiful. You could see the river, mountains and fiords, and it was a quintessential of a great walk. The terrain was very rocky in places, which I thrive on, and at one point I had a flock of Keas land right in front of us, the South Island’s beautiful and cheeky alpine parrots. I had to move fast to avoid stepping on one of these fearless creatures. I was tempted to stop and take photos of the spectacular lake vistas, but the climate of racing tempered that desire. It got colder, there was misty rain, and there was the occasional jet blast of wind that stopped us in our tracks.
Yet the field was strong, and I was surprised to see many other runners running hard on the uphills as I had started power hiking the technical stuff. Jet lag was rearing its head, and I started getting really tired. After the Forest Burn shelter I was passed by about half a dozen runners within a 3 mile stretch. Anna didn’t have an update from the Hanging Valley aid station because some cheeky Kea’s had tampered with the timing mat rendering it inoperable.
Down, Down, Down
The steps and the 87 switch backs began. I took them cautiously, not skipping more than two steps. I still continued to be passed by more runners, my knee started to flare up, and my competitiveness had dissipated. Deciding that I wanted to get to the bottom in one piece, I stopped at the tree line before leaving the alpine zone and finally took some photos which is not a decision I regret. It wasn’t optimum but it was my last chance. Then I secured my gear and headed downhill.
Going down, I was enveloped by a beautiful cloud forest. This reminded me of my backpack trip on Peru’s Inca Trail many years ago, where the rainforest borders alpine and exudes an usual and rare biosphere. Descending to Iris Burns Hut was incredibly steep, with 180 degree swithcbacks so steep and varied that it was impossible to build a rhythm. This section had some breathtaking segments, as there was a bridge that crossed a canyon, and you could see down both sides – there were waterfalls on both sides of the trail, and a lot of running water.
Heading into Iris Burns Hut at 30 km, I encountered a priest in full cassock. As he blessed me, he warned to “beware the grinch”, and as I rounded the corner the grinch was waiting! Kepler’s aid stations were variously themed but Iris Burn’s Christmas theme was my favorite. I loved the Christmas cake with white icing. Knowing what my wife’s boozy family Christmas cake tastes like, I knew this one would be really good and packed with needed energy. As I left Iris Burn, I saw a sign that said “30K to go” – I started to feel the consequences of my earlier hard efforts. The real ultra experience commenced.
All the Lows
Iris Burn to the Rocky Point aid station was the longest stretch and captured my lowest point of the race. After drinking all 35 oz of fluid, I started to deal with a very tough mental battle to find a rhythm. Unfortunately, my legs were in pain, my knee wasn’t allowing for a relaxed gait, and I was glad to find a bathroom along the trail. I took my shoes off to empty out the rocks which was worth it. But I started to walk, then hobble, then walk, and back. Lesson learned, during long races I really struggle to get back into a rhythm If I stop. I feel like it might have been better to mentally acknowledge the pain I was in and just continued to run. I was trying to hone the toughness I saw from Juan during the Leadville 100, but my legs were not having it. The ultra distance was defeating me.
Anna got an update and realized that the wheels had started to fall off. She had made the decision not to try to get to Rainbow Reach (the only aid station accessible to crew) because the traffic was crazy and she was worried about not being able to get back to the end in time.
Arriving at Rocky Point, I found an aid station rocking to New Zealand folk music, and I was asked if I knew the tunes. My accent was enough to tell them why they were not familiar. I was walking a little way past Rocky Point and another runner commented that “you can go back,” my determined reply was “I’m finishing.” I guess the walk-run/powerhike approach doesn’t seem to be part of the new Zealand ultra runner scene. To me, it seemed like every single runner passing was moving fluidly and moving really well. I felt horrible, but tried not to wallow in the self-pity of my sufferfest. Let’s face it, I am not competitive at ultras. It’s a work in progress.
From Rocky Point to Motorau Hut, mental haziness set in and I became transfixed by the pronunciation of “Motorau.” Mota-raw? Moto-row? Mata-ra? What is it? I was motivated by the coming marathon point. On reflection, running a brutally technical 27K at the Franklin Mountains in El Paso just three weeks earlier was too much. I felt really strong there, but the after effects had me sapped for Kepler.
The theme at Motorau was clowns – they were happy clowns for those wondering, and possibly playing with the mental demons in my head. I was asked by a volunteer where Holloman is, I lucidly answered New Mexico. I grabbed some more oranges, grabbed a wet towel which was refreshing, filled up my bottles and pressed onwards. There was a section after Motorau Hut to Rainbow Reach of about a mile that was out in the exposed sun, but I put my head down and told myself I do this all the time in the desert.
I don’t remember much between Motorau and Rainbow Reach. I crossed another small bridge. I saw Altra athlete Sam McCutcheon who I rightly assumed had won the race, and he looked incredibly fresh. He told me “You’re doing well mate! You have a little uphill and then about 300m to the aid station.” That was helpful.
I got into an aptly themed rainbow aid station, Rainbow Reach. Grabbed another wet towel, hammered some more orange pieces, and ate some salty potato chips. No cramping at this point, but my legs were burning though. I confirmed it was only 10K to go, “closer to 9K” one of the volunteers told me. I filled up my water bottles and headed down the boardwalk toward the finish. There were a lot of people along the trail cheering runners on, but I was ambivalent. I was hurting and I really wanted to finish it. But I was also relishing this incredible experience on probably the most beautiful race course I have ever done. We had traveled for almost two days to get here and this was my final race of the season. I was disappointed not to see Anna at Rainbow Reach, but I was looking forward to seeing her at the finish.
From rainbow reach to the end, there were two more small aid stations, one of which was a beach theme with life guards. After hitting more oranges, I pressed on at a very gingerly 12 minute/mile pace. I was being passed by more runners, invariably 50 runners have passed me since Iris Burn. I was on track for 6 hours until Iris Burn and it went downhill from there.
Anna was beginning to get worried – when I am more than an hour over my expected time this is fair. According to her, she waited patiently near the finish at one point walking half a mile up the track in some strange attempt to see if I was nearby.
For the last 2 kilometers, I could hear the announcer. I was following the river but couldn’t see the end until the last 200m. For a solid 20 minutes I was listening to his banter, and it was annoying not to be able to see the finish line. Eventually, I saw the river gates, then I saw Anna and then I saw the finish line. I thought “hi honey” but Anna says I didn’t say anything. We both agree I waved.
I pushed across the pavement just before the finish line. The announcer got very excited by my Goodr (not sponsored) sunglasses declaring them “the coolest sunnies I’ve ever seen” – that got me smiling. I crossed the line.
I WAS DONE!!
A race official hung a blue ribboned medal around my neck, a little kid jumped on my ankle to remove the transponder, I was handed an orange juice and chocolate milk, and then I started walking very slowly back across the control gates. Anna met me with a hug, and then we found a tree and some shade where I plomped out. I thought I was going to start cramping painfully while lying on the ground, but just kept it at bay.
During the hours following the race, Anna made me drink another 25 ounces of water to rehydrate (generally until I can pee again), the chocolate milk, and part of the orange juice (not in that order). I had planned on going for a swim in Lake Manapouri, but I really wanted a nap. We chose to grab lunch at the Fat Duck Café in Te Anau where I inhaled some beautiful fish and chips, then went back to Manapouri, and took a heavenly nap.
What went well…I didn’t cramp, no GI issues, no dehydration, no blisters, gear choices worked well. Everything up to Luxmore Hut went well, nutrition and hydration was dialed in.
What didn’t go well…I was very tired, my legs were burning, I lost any competitive drive at about 20km in, and Anna wasn’t able to see me during any checkpoints. Once again, I think I overdid it too much early on. Jetlag was a real factor for me, and I don’t think I was ever racing that fresh.
- Slow is fast in ultras despite how competitive and hot everyone else wants to run.
- In the latter part of a race it might be better to run through the pain than taking more walking breaks.
- Anna – I need to be super realistic with Dwight about what aid stations I am going to be able to get to so he isn’t disappointed.
- Peanut butter shots (200 cal) are the bomb! This is a great NZ product. Honestly, I think I enjoyed all the NZ goods on offer, especially that Christmas cake!
- There are two big things I am yet to master in an ultra marathon. The first is patience. It is too easy to expend the pent-up energy in the first half of the race leaving me short for the second half. The second is that I really need to treat ultra marathons as if I am not competitive, as if I am there to enjoy the day and enjoy the race and take my time in the first half in the hopes that I can run well in the second half of the race. Too often, I feel like being overly competitive in these races is like gambling and losing. I want to place high, but I also don’t want to gamble.
In reflecting about Kepler, it seems clear why this is a special race in the NZ trail running scene, and why many runners only do this race. It clearly had a significant draw for the Te Anau community and for a significant number of people who traveled.
Overall, I loved this race!
But I’m not happy about my finishing result, or being a part of the race carnage when my body fell apart. As a competitor, it’s a humbling experience to fall apart during a race, but no one enjoys its.
Thankfully, I have finally hit an off season and I have no current plans for training. If anything, taking a break is a planned phase to enable my training to succeed when I start back in 2018, and I’m at peace with that. Hopefully, when I start training again, I’ll be rested and stronger for future challenges.
Explore. Travel. Adventure. Hope. Dream. Capture. Imagine. Delight.
We are a recently married thirty-something couple who explore, adventure, and live Not a Pedestrian Life. We are Anna & Dwight Rabe. We are Team Rabe.