The Kepler Challenge 2022 was what I needed to reignite my love of long events, and looking back now I feel so fortunate to have been able to do it. In light of most other key dates on the trail running calendar being cancelled in the face of Omicron. It had all elements of an adventure: flying into Queenstown, hiring a car, picking up a friend, driving over two hours across amazing country side to arrive at a spectacular lake-side town that simultaneously seemed exactly as it had 20 years ago (the last time I had been) and yet really different.
The weather had, like most of NZ, been delivering hot days and nights, though there was some saving grace that unlike Auckland, it tended to take its time warming up in the morning, with a good few hours of cooler temperatures before the sun really heated up the ground. That boded well for the race day itself. There was no race briefing, a video was put up for participants to watch, and when Saturday morning came (after a night of not that much sleep due to the heat of the evening and the general excitement of race day) we were excited to get to the start line. That was the first real taste of the event itself for me, with athletes milling around waiting to kick off, music playing from a loudspeaker, and coffee being sold out of a caravan for supporters and crew members. A strong coffee, protein bar and a couple of tablespoons of peanut butter was my pre-race nutrition choice (having had a lower fibre day and included more carbohydrates to top off my muscle glycogen stores the day before).
As the race begun, I slotted in behind some runners and made my way over the first 5km of flat trail terrain before taking a turn up and gradually climbing Mt Luxmore. It was surprisingly runnable over the first hill climb, only getting steeper as we came out above the bush line to see the most spectacular view. Loads of us got out our cameras/phones and took photos of it. The air was fresh, clear and you could see for miles. As we ran across the boardwalks towards Mt Luxmore the view of the runners in front, the mountains in front and the lake behind were just awesome.
The aid stations across the event (of which there were 10 of them) all had a theme – we had a gear check at Luxmore Hut which took no time at all before we continued to climb up Mt Luxmore. There was an event helicopter flying around us which was the only thing you could hear, other than our fellow runners. It was a challenge to keep one eye on the trail so as not to take a misstep, and another to take in the most spectacular view from the ridge of the mountain.
I was mildly concerned about the downhill section and the length of it, knowing that I’m not particularly good on the downhill from a speed or technique standpoint, however it wasn’t until the 24km mark (later than anticipated) that we descended down quite steeply to the Iris Burn hut. My main concern was getting there in one piece without tripping up, which was successful. Before the start I had viewed this as a race of two halves. Get to the Iris Burn hut and then unleash and do a fast 32km on the rest of the relatively flat course. Well, of course it never quite works out that way, and my ability to stride out at the bottom was limited by my hip flexor muscles getting progressively tighter as I went along. What I thought could have been a 3.5 hour section to the end took 4h 15 (which I realised quite quickly, so I was able to manage my expectations). I don’t know if it was lack of fitness (I don’t think so, as we had done some decent longer runs and consistently so over the last few months) or lack of conditioning for truly longer training, but at 40km I definitely noticed a change in my gait and my legs desire to turn over. It’s always a balance of training well and enough to get the physiological and conditioning of longer training, but also not doing so much that you end up injured for race day. I tend to err on the former, really, and the last 20km were much more challenging than any other section. But that is to be expected on these longer events – it had just been a long time since experiencing it. As a decent enough road marathon runner, I also had it in my head that I might be able to maintain my place once running the last section and not be overtaken. Well that was also not the case! Many strong, awesome competitors sailed past me and were running super well for that distance. It was probably at that time I lamented the lack of strength training in my lower body and wished I had tried harder to fit it in. The 32km stretch from Iris Burn through to the finish is undulating with a few hills and steeper downs (probably not that steep, they just felt it) and I was constantly reminded of how amazing our NZ outdoors is. The track was so runnable, we crossed bridges and streams, and were amongst beautiful bush and moss, it reminded me of Lord of the Rings.
When we reached Rainbows Reach it felt we were moments away from finishing, yet it was so far away. A helpful tramper told me not to worry because it was ‘only downhill from here’ and I thanked him, inwardly thinking ‘oh god I hope not’ – and at this point I was so looking forward to the finish line. At this point I had gotten through my gels (which sat super well in my stomach) and was down to having jet planes from the aid stations to get me through. We started to see more and more supporters over the last couple of km's which was great motivation to continue to put one foot after another (walking and jogging) to get to the finish line. Whilst the day was heating up, as we were largely under cover for the last half of the race, I didn’t feel like it was too hot for the majority of the event. As I came into the finishing shoot (for a time of 8h 13) I was so so pleased to cross it, having completed an event that I had tried so many times to get into before. It was so well organised, with the most awesome support at the aid stations, in a beautiful part of NZ. Experiences like these are why we get up at crazy-o’clock to put in the miles, spend whole days in the weekends training (or what feels like whole days). I felt so lucky to be able to be a part of it, to be fit enough to do it, and the experience made me excited for the next event.
Mikki ran the Kepler Challenge in the Torrent 2