I was stoked to be toeing the line of the 2016 Kepler Challenge. It was my first ultra race and the beginning of my training was delayed due to me being a lazy punk during my trip back to the States in September. When October came around, I rededicated myself to my training and despite wanting another solid four weeks of training, I felt ready to race on December 3rd.
The alarm went off at 4:30 and we were in the car by 5. We arrived at the start line with just enough time to spare to check in but not really enough time to wait in line for the toilets. It’s always a pre-race ritual to use the toilets before the gun goes off but I was already pushing it and knew there’d be toilets on the course.
About a month before the race, I met a guy named Mark on the Hollyford Track who was also running the Kepler Challenge. We stayed in touch and did a few training runs before the race so I was happy to see his familiar face at the start line. We conservatively started towards the back of the pack which I would later come to regret.
In typical Kiwi fashion, the start was low-key and modest. I brushed shoulders with running legend Anna Frost and almost peed my pants out of excitement to which my support partner Geoff informed me was very uncool.
Mark and I started together on what felt like a sluggish pace which in hindsight is probably good for me but after being pumped with coffee and having the pre-race jitters, the pace felt like torture. The path is narrow to Broad Bay and without a staggered start, the trail is shoulder-to-shoulder crowded, making it impossible to pass. We reached the Broad Bay aid station and I made a snap decision to take advantage of an open toilet as Mark continued on.
The climbing begins a few kilometers after Broad Bay and as much as I hate climbing, I was pleased to have the crowd split up a bit. There’s nothing I hate more than running trails in a herd. The climb to Luxmore Hut is about 800meters over 8km. I walked most of this climb with some ambitious running on the small inclines and flat bits, knowing I wouldn’t even gain much time if I tried to run the climbs. After reaching the tree line, the gradient levels out a bit making running into Luxmore Hut one of the more picturesque parts of the race. The weather was overcast and a little drizzly but I was greeted with a stunning rainbow and a few rays of light poking through the clouds, shining down on the lake below.
Luxmore Hut hosts the compulsory gear check which you’re made to believe is very strict. When I got to the hut, the guy checking me couldn’t get me out of there fast enough. I was struggling to get my pants out of the bag to which he just shrugged and said I was good to go. I’m glad I had all the gear because better safe than sorry but they were very lenient on me at the checkpoint.
I was feeling energized after Luxmore Hut, knowing I only had a few major climbs to go before getting back to the bush. The footing became a little more sketchy on this part but wasn’t debilitating in any way. The wind picked up on the ridges and I threw on a few more layers. I was aiming to catch up with Mark but I wasn’t able to get around enough people before he dropped me and vanished out of sight. Because of the plentiful aid stations, I packed minimal water to save weight and opted to drink from every aid station.
I cruised through Forest Burn and Hanging Valley and started the descent into Iris Burn. I was happy to get out of the wind and my legs were flying down the mountain. I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily strong in either ascending or descending but I’m much better at descending at it showed during the long haul down to Iris Burn. I had a quick bathroom break at Iris Burn but was off in decent time. I put some music on for the first time and let my legs spin out on the flat, cushiony trail. Getting hyped on music was definitely a mistake seeing that I still had 30 km of running. For the next 10kms, I picked off people left and right. I could feel the disapproving head shakes from each runner as I passed them. They were silently scolding for going too fast too soon but I didn’t care. I caught up with Mark and continued one only to hit a monumental wall 3 km later. I had been religiously eating every hour on the hour but on my flat ground speed segment, I had foolishly forgotten about eating. It hit me hard and many of the people I had passed smugly caught up to me. Mark caught up to me again and I was feeling pretty defeated. I soldiered on, knowing that Geoff would be waiting for me at Moturau Hut to help pace me to the finish. Seeing him at the hut was a huge mental boost and after complaining how terrible I felt, we set off for the finish line 16km away.
My feet were throbbing and it was starting to get hotter but I pushed forward. I leapfrogged Mark one last time and set in for the home stretch. Geoff told me that I wasn’t behind too many women and that I was running fairly competitively. That was enough encouragement to make it a goal to catch and pass every woman I saw in front of me. This proved to be difficult after a while when I started losing my vision and could no longer tell the men from the women. I’ve had vision problems in the past with distance running where after a certain level of physical exertion, I start to slowly lose my vision. I was hoping I had been fueling enough to ward it off in this race but it crept up on me and made it impossible to see. I was certain the last 30km of the race was pancake flat and it probably was but even the slightest incline took the life out of me and produced in me a barbaric growl and complain about my shit feet. Finally, we were close enough to the finish to hear the loud speakers and I knew it was almost over. Geoff veered off just before the finishing chute at which point I almost ate shit on a crack in the pavement which I couldn’t see. I managed to stumble across the finish line somehow on both feet in 7 hours and 31 minutes, well below my arbitrary goal of 8 hours, placing 18th for women.
Geoff kindly drove my blind ass back to the hotel where we indulged in copious amounts of fried food and beers. After a few hours, my vision came right and I was feeling sore but overall good. The Kepler Challenge is really a spectacular event and a perfect race for my first ultra. The volunteers were encouraging and helpful and the crowd support, while understandably minimal in the middle of the race, was strong towards the end. A huge thank you to my running partner Geoff for putting up with my crabbiness on this run and all of our training runs and an even bigger thank you to the Kepler Challenge organizers and volunteers for making this event possible. I’ll definitely be back, hopefully with 20/20 vision!