Kepler Challenge 60k 2017
New Zealand has a special hold on my heart and soul. I spent 6 months there as a young student, worked on a dairy, and made lasting friendships that easily pick up where they left off. I’ve returned to race the Christchurch marathon in 2003, Tarawera 100k in 2014, and this year, I signed up for the Kepler Challenge 60k, wrapped inside a honeymoon with Mark. I was eager to introduce him to this unique, warm, relaxing, and beautiful country, and it did not disappoint.
My ultra-running community is global. I’ve made friends around the world, and on this trip, we were fortunate to give over my pre-race plans to Michael Pullar. We met Michael in 2014 when he came to California for Western States and we got to know him and train with him during the 3 weeks leading up to the race, so he was anxious to host us with his lovely partner Megan and their children Georgia (8) and Luke (11) for the days leading up to the race.
Kepler Track is located near a small tourist town, Te Anau, on a lake of the same name. The town was a bit abuzz the day before the race, but we settled into our lodging and avoided the hype. Michael and I went for a 20-minute run on the final portion of the course, and I was astounded by the beauty of the Beech forest and the well-engineered path. I felt good and was excited to see what my training would give me next day.
Saturday morning, I was up at 4:00 fixing coffee, rice and eggs. Georgia was the first one up to say good morning, and before long we were all bustling about, eating, packing and getting ready to go the start. Michael showed me how to pack my required gear (long johns, long sleeve thermal, rain jacket, rain pants, solar blanket, gloves, hat) so that I knew where each item was and could easily access it at the gear check aid station. It seemed like overkill at the time, but I learned later that it all made sense.
This year’s race was stacked on the women’s side for sure – Ruby Muir, a multi time champ here, and Cecilia Flori, a relative newbie to the sport, but very talented, Jean Beaumont – a Veteran (50+), and a fistful of other quick gals that I would be vying against. My plan was to focus on effort, keep myself contained for the first 5k, and then not to dig too deep on the ensuing 5-mile climb.
Michael and I lined up in the 6-hour finishing goal area. I thought it was a realistic goal based on my training. I saw both Ruby and Cecilia, and a number of women I didn’t know, but felt calm and relaxed before the gun went off.
As we jetted out, I was a little amused by the number of runners sprinting to get out. It seemed a waste of energy to me, as the track was wide enough to pass at any time early on. I kept a good effort, and enjoyed the beauty of the forest around me, being reminded of running on the McKenzie River Trail in Oregon. The trail itself was a classic example of great engineering – good drainage, few roots, no mud. I ran along, listening to my breathing, as well as those around me. Anyone breathing hard at this point was surely doomed to slow down. About 2 miles in I finally realized that the one person right on my heels was Michael. He was, by his own accord, under trained due to an earlier knee niggle, so he was running conservatively. His best time on this course is 5:50, and he said he was nowhere near that fitness. As we came into the first aid station, 5k, I looked at my watch and saw 25 minutes. Hmm and boo. A bit slower than needed for a sub-6 hour, my A time goal. But never mind, I could always make it up after the climb, right??
Next up, the long grind, five miles and 3500 feet worth of vertical gain. I baby stepped my way up and up, never having to break into a hike. Michael stayed on my heels, sometimes hiking, and I started second guessing myself – should I hike? I had plenty of hill climbing in training with very little hiking, so stuck to the running. There was considerable hopscotching with other runners. Eventually I caught one woman, but could see another behind me on one of the many switchbacks. I dismissed the worry, so early in the race, but she never caught me. At long last the trail emerged from the trees into the blustery, exposed, frigid, and slightly wet air. Not too far ahead I spotted another female runner. Two more gentle rises and falls, and the next aid station at the Kepler Hut came to view. A race helicopter flew low and landed by the Hut, kicking up the wind even more.
As I came up to the aid, I pulled off my pack and took it to a volunteer for a gear check. As she asked for each item I gave a slight point and tug to each one, without having to actually pull anything out. I quick grabbed a drink from the food table and a banana and trotted back to the track. Michael was right behind again, for the last bit of climbing. The woman I had seen was just in front was Jean Beaumont, and I gradually and barely overtook her.
The wind was fierce by my standards, but didn’t seem to be fazing anyone else – these Kiwis are hardy stock! At times, we ran along a knife ridge and I fought to stay upright. The track was quite rocky up here from the wind and rain exposure. I found myself breathing harder than I should be I so badly wanted to get back under tree cover. My hands were cold but all I could manage to grab was my warm hat from my vest pocket. I was too stubborn to stop and pull out my rain jacket or try to put gloves on, but now I understood why we had all the gear – if you got into trouble up here you would need to stay warm and dry and wait for a helicopter lift out. All I could see ahead of me were long rocky sections so I kept my head down and kept putting one foot in front of the other, until I caught a toe on one said rock and went down. Well, so much for a no-fall-December. I got up quickly, and saw that Jean was still right behind Michael.
A few short downhill switchbacks dropped us to the Forest Burn aid station. I stopped for a fill up and Jean darted ahead. Michael stayed behind me and we were soon back on Jean’s heels for the next few miles, climbing to the highest point in the race, The Hanging Valley shelter. This time I went right thru while Jean stopped to refill. Michael followed and we soon began to descend on a very technical section, complete with several sets of stairs. I wasn’t brave or steady enough in the wind to take them 2 at a time, but once we were through that section and finally back into the trees, I let myself unwind and start speeding down the many switchbacks. “I’m so glad to be out of the wind!” I said to Michael. He responded with “that’s pretty normal for here”. Yikes. I don’t think that is in the brochure, but I should have remembered from previous visits – New Zealand is a relatively small land mass in a huge ocean, and the winds can wear you down.
For a while as we zipped down the trail, it seemed we were alone, but soon the footsteps of Jean could be heard. She was cruising fast, and we let her by. Now that we didn’t have to battle the wind we started to chat a bit. Michael told me she had done Fat Dog 200 this year so I asked her about that. She asked where I was from, and then my name, and then she said “are you the famous Meghan?” I was feeling anything but, but I laughed and said yes. At the bottom of one section she offered to let me by again as she is slower on the climbs, but I said no, as I didn’t feel at all like pushing.
Just ahead of us we spotted 2 women which caught our attention. The three of us were soon on their heels. One of them sped ahead while we passed the other. Then – boom – Jean went down. I stopped and before I could say anything she said “Go! Just go! I’m fine!” as she grabbed her cramping calf. Michael and I went on, and the gal in front of us increased her lead.
I had checked my watch for time now and again, and wasn’t impressed. I felt okay but discouraged by how far off I was from my time goal. We came into Iris Burn aid station, at just under half way thru the race in 3:22. Could I run 18 miles in 2:38? Well maybe on fresh legs on a slightly downhill smooth surface. I didn’t know what was before me, and my plan had been to pick up the effort once we got to the second half of the race, where on paper, it does appear to be somewhat flat to down hill.
I surged out of the aid station, Michael still with me. Another woman was just in front, and we soon over took her. I had no idea of my placement, but I felt compelled to keep up this good effort each time I passed a runner.
The trail was not particularly flat and fast. It gently rolled and mildly wove through the dense, beautiful forest. Michael occasionally pointed out features or remarked about our current pace and sometimes he said things I couldn’t interpret due to his Kiwi accent, and the most I did in return was monosyllabic. I was working too hard for conversation, which in hindsight means I was working too hard too soon.
The miles ticked off very slowly and I begged my legs to work harder and harder. At some point I took another tumble, as did Michael. My ego was more bruised than my body. We came to the next aid station – Rocky Point at 36k – and found out that I was in 8th. We pushed on and finally Michael said “I hope you don’t mind that I’ve been tagging along all day!” I assured him it was fine – I felt like I had my own personal body guard and tour guide. I asked him if Rainbow Reach was our next aid station where Mark and Megan and the kids would be. Sadly, no, we had one more aid station before that. I had predicted I would be there at 5 hours, but that looked to be way out of reality. We caught another couple of male runners, and made it to the next aid station. A volunteer offered to clean up the blood on my knee, but I didn’t want to take the time. Michael took the lead as we left and in moments he was out of sight. I kept pushing and pushing but feeling like I was in molasses, thinking that at any moment Jean would catch back up to me, or any other women for that matter.
Rainbow Reach came at last. Georgia was the first to greet me with “did you fall down?” and later said she might have to change her nickname for me (“Smiley”) to something else, as I didn’t look so happy. Then I saw Mark’s cheerful face. He smiled and encouraged me on – “You’re in 8th place! Michael just left.” I gave him a quick salty kiss, and as I left he said “Pick up your toes!”
My watch said 5:40. Meh. Mentally I was in a bad place, and I didn’t like that. It bugged me that I had set a goal and wasn’t close to it, but more than that I was bothered by how bothered I was. What happened to Smiley? Where was the grace? I had gratitude for all the beauty, the opportunity, the volunteers, the hospitality, but I was being such a Debbie Downer to myself. I spent the next several minutes practicing grace – accepting what is for whatever reason because pouting is useless and who really cares anyway? This is what I do for love, for life, for adventure, and I don’t ever want to not love it. I may have been slow because it was a new course, or because (gasp!) I’m aging, or because that is just how fast I am. Bottom line is, it just doesn’t matter. I love to run, and I love to race, and when I finish this one I will finish with a smile on my face and more importantly in my heart.
Self-lecture over, I blew through the last mini aid station, having only 3 miles to go. A spectator told me there was a woman just one minute ahead of me, and I soon caught a glimpse of her. She either heard me or smelled the barn, because that was as close as I got. And SPLAT – I was on the ground again, on a typical-flat-nothing-to-trip-on-trail section. I jumped up in front of a male runner and made a comment about my fall, which he hadn’t even seen. “I’m just trying to keep moving forward!” he said. He pulled ahead as I started up again and then SPLAT. Really? Four falls in one race? That’s a new record.
Toes up, toes up, toes up. I could hear the finish line announcer with 2 miles to go, so I dug deep and told myself it’s just 8 laps around the track. At last, I popped out of the woods and saw Mark and Megan. Mark snapped a photo, and I raced across the finish line to the festive and warm welcome of the spectators and volunteers. The race announcer had a Tropical John Western States finish line announcing style, making funny comments about me being “Cool” rather than from Cool, and if I was on my honeymoon, where was Mark?
My finishing time was 6:41. So, 6 something at least. Ruby Muir had won again and pushed hard for a new course record, missing it only by a precious 2 minutes. Cecilia came in 2nd. Jean came in behind me by only a few minutes, having fallen again and battle cramping quads.
This is a 5-star race and I recommend everyone put it on their bucket list. It is gorgeous, superbly organized, filled with friendly volunteers and a great runner vibe. Many thanks to my sponsors Altra Running, Injinji, Squirrel’s Nut Butter, NowFoods, and Nathan for all the gear and supplies and travel assistance. These adventures are much more attainable with your help. Special thanks to Michael, Megan, Luke and Georgia for their generous and relaxed hospitality. And always thanks to Mr. Laws for his unrelenting support of my crazy running.
The remainder of the trip filled me with awe as Michael took Mark and me on further adventures over the Millford Sound, to Lake McKerrow, out to the ocean where we saw seals and penguins, a day in the bush marking traps for invasive mammals, a 12 mile hike on the Hollyford Track, and a multitude of sandflies (which filled me with itch rather than awe). Then a couple more days near Christchurch with Sally on her hobby farm, before our last two days in Sydney.