Wow, where do I start, this was a race of disappointment but also enjoyment. This event had been on my bucket list for a while, technically it kind of still is. The reason being, this year the race course was changed for the only the 3rd time in it's race history since it began in way back in 1988.
The Kepler Challenge is a challenge in itself just to get into this event as it often sells out within a few minutes of opening. I was lucky enough to win an entry into the event just a few weeks out through a raffle, I hadn't planned on actually entering the race this year as I had been training for the Queenstown Marathon which I ran just 3 weeks earlier. However, after winning the option to enter into this race I couldn't really turn down the opportunity, and the Marathon training I had been doing had kept me relatively prepared for the 60km's that would lay ahead.
I arrived in Te Anau on the Friday, the night before the race, the last week or so had terrible weather across the entire South Island, driving down from Christchurch on the Wednesday, I crossed the Rakaia bridge and the water at that stage was getting high, and there hadn't been any letting up in weather since then. After checking into my hotel and getting my gear checked I thought I would head out to the start line to make sure I knew where it was starting and to get an idea on where the course was likely to go.
On the way back to car, I looked up and saw a familiar face, a work colleague (Aston) from Auckland, was in Te Anau and was just heading out to hike the Kepler track over the next few days. I found it amusing as Aston
being based in Auckland is based in a totally different part of the country, and yet here we both were in a small town, both about to take on the Kepler track that weekend. We got a quick selfie with each other and sent it to our workmates who probably wouldn't believe us if we told them that we ran into each other.
It was then back off to the Event Check-in as a friend of mine had just arrived from Christchurch and were checking in. I caught up with Amy and Beth and had a look around to see if there were any goodies I would want to buy before we went to the race briefing. I was at this point that we had confirmation that the course was getting changed. Disappointment set in for a lot of people, including myself. Apparently there was a lot of flooding on the course and this would cause major issues after coming down from the big climb to Iris Burn Hut. So instead it was a 13.8km climb to the Luxmore Hut, then turn around back down to almost the start and then hang a right out to Moturau Hut and back, approximately 58km.
While not happy about the course change, it was what it was and we just had to accept that, after all, only very few people had got to run an alternate course in the history of the event.
As with most races, it was an early start to the day, I drove over to where Amy and Beth were staying and was able to sort out my breakfast there before we made our way to the start line. We thankfully had timed it rather well and didn't have to wait around long in the rain before the race started. We were warned that there was flooding within the first few kms and then there would be some more on the second half of the course. Before we even new it the race had started, I don't really even remember a countdown, I just saw everyone else running so figured it was time to go. It took a couple of km's before you could really get your spacing sorted, with so many people there and a thin track, there wasn't many spaces to pass at the start. We then hit the first bit of flooding, wow this is funny, water up to our shins, the pace of everyone had certainly slowed down while everyone tried to wade through the water. I managed to pass a few people here, but over 60km, a passing of a few people still meant plenty of time for them to pass me later.
We reached the first aid station about 5km in and as per my nutrition plan I skipped this as I had plenty of fuel in me already from breakfast to make it to the Luxmore Hut before I needed an aid station, keeping in mind I was also nibbling on Jellybeans and taking in my fluids during this time. The climb started and we headed up the hill, my friend Amy passed me probably within the first kilometer on the hill, while I tried to keep her in my sights, I knew I wouldn't be able to keep up with her. The track was actually well better maintained than what I thought, I pictured that it would be like a proper trail climb up a well marked out trail, but I didn't realise it would be well graded, firm and as well maintained as it was, this certainly made the climb a lot easier than I expected.
As I approached a small bridge kind of section, the lead runner came zooming past, a short while later as I approached some stairs, a few more runners were coming down. We all moved as far back on the stairs as we could to allow these speedy guys to come past before we carried on up. Before I knew it I had arrived at the tree line and was heading out into the rain and wind along to Luxmore Hut. It was getting a little cold up here so I put on my RunStrong Thir Band to keep me a bit warmer and also to help stop the cap from blowing off in the wind. About half a kilometer from the hut, Amy passed me on her way back to do the downward part of this leg. I carried on to the hut, before refueling, smashing down a banana and then heading back to do the fun section... DOWNHILL.
I do love a good downhill, I may not be good at the uphills, but give me a good downhill and I'll certainly give it a good go, however as this was still early on, I figured I must hold back the urge to take off full steam down the hill, I had to pace myself accordingly as there would still be a good 30+ kilometers to go after the downhill. I must have tried to block out how long the climb was, because as I ran down the hill, I seemed to be finding myself wondering when I would eventually get to the bottom, I used the downhill as a great opportunity to pass people. There was a guy in front of me for a heap of the down section and I figured I could catch them, but just like me, they must love a good downhill section as they didn't want to seem to slow down, in the
end I decided I would just hold back and conserve the energy.
Getting to the bottom of the hill it was time to head to the midway mark, I ran though the first aid station (which was now the third aid station), back along the track and arrived at the water section again, by this stage it seemed to be a little higher, but perhaps that was just my imagination.
Arriving at the midway point it was time to have my lunch which was all sorted in my nutrition plan, this consisted of some BCAA drink as well as some salted kumara, which had got a bit smushed in my vest with all the running, it was getting a bit warmer now as I was out of the wind and rain and the next section would be in the forest, so I decided to take my thermal top off while I was having my lunch, then I looked up and spotted them, the photographer from work. "Oh, Hi Robyn", "Hi Jono, I'll let you put your shirt on before taking a photo of you" she said, "Go on, you know you love it" I said jokingly. After a quick chat it was time to get going for the last half of the race.
It wasn't long before I reached the next flooded section, the water was definitely higher at this spot, there was also a lot further to go in the water than the first section that we went though at the start of the race. Once out of the water I was able to run again, but that was short lived as we reached more water, and even longer sections of it, each part getting higher and
higher with water getting up above the knees. Stepping in the wrong spot was also risky, as the water was all dirty from the everyone going through it you couldn't see if there were holes, one wrong step and you could be up to your waist. As there were a number of us going through this section together we helped each other out by highlighting the holes but mainly just trying to follow the person in front of you, because if they stayed upright, chances are it was safe to stand there.
I had covered my feet and legs with Papaw ointment to help keep the water off and avoid blisters, normally I would use Vaseline for this, but the township had sold out, I guess everyone else decided they needed Vaseline as well. Trudging through the water was quiet refreshing, once I was out of it I felt good, my legs didn't feel tired and I was able to run. By this stage the energy from lunch I think must have kicked in and I took off, running along the trail over muddy sections, tree roots, and onwards, I felt so in the zone at this point but knew that feeling would eventually dwindle.
I approached Rainbow Reach Aid station where there were a lot of spectators cheering everyone on, there was a small climb out of this aid station so I kind of had to just keep climbing as I didn't want to look weak in front of the spectators. As the day progressed on, the Sun started to come out, still being in the forest that didn't really become noticeable until I came out to parts of the trail where there was clear sky.
I was approaching the last turn around, probably about 1km away when Amy came pass, I asked if she wanted the car keys so she could keep warm afterwards, but she was like "Nope" and carried on straight pass, she was on a mission to get that run done, no time for chit chat. Eventually getting to the Moturau Hut aid station, I sat down and tried to empty my shoes of all the junk that had got in them, this turned out to not be such a good idea. Cramp started to kick in as I leaned over to get my shoes off and trying to get them back on was just as bad, I had already had a couple of small indications on the way out to the aid station that cramp was starting to kick in, but I had tried to knock that back by slowing down and taking some CrampFix, not tasty, but seemed to help keep it at bay a little.
Shoes back on and after a quick refill of fluids and food, I made my way back towards the finish line. about half a kilometer along I looked up after hearing "Jono!", it was Sinead, another runner from Christchurch that I know. "How far is it to the Aid Station" she said, "Literally just over that hill and around the corner, about 500 meters or so" I said, she looked in good spirits and said thanks before heading off.
I continued on my way, having run the course out, I knew just how far I had to go, and while it wasn't really much of a tough course to go, my legs were getting sore and I was getting a little tired. By this stage I began looking forward to the water section, I knew once I got there it should help cool my legs down and make them not feel so sore.
After getting though the aid stations and making my way to the water hazards, it was time to see if I was right about the water helping my legs, I stepped in and took a few steps, whoops, one step too far to the left and I was up to the top of my chest in water. After the initial shock of how cold it was, I quickly stood up and went straight to check my phone, thank goodness. On the initial way out to the turn around point I hadn't put my phone sealed in the ziplock bag as I was taking it out too often to take photos, thankfully I had on the way back and the phone was perfectly dry. As I moved through the water it had become clear to me that the water had got even higher than it was on the way out, it was now up to my hips. Eventually making it to the end of the water section, I felt good, my legs were cool and felt recovered and I was feeling a lot happier, that earlier sudden drop into the water had woken me up a bit. As I began running again, with just a couple of kilometers to go, I passed someone and said "Ohhh, that water was so good ahe, my legs are now feeling great". A not impressed voice replied "I'm happy for you". "Come on mate, we are almost there, just a couple of kilometers to go" I said. It was obvious they were just fine going at their own pace, so I left them.
By this stage I could hear the voices coming from the speakers at the finish line, it was travelling down the river and gave you the impression you were a lot closer to the finish than what you really were, but I knew it wasn't too far to go, I saw the 1km marker and knew I was almost there, as I emerged from the forest, I could see the finish line just a few hundred meters away, I heard the announcer on the microphone call out a familiar name that was just about to come in Malcom Law, founder of the Wild Things Club, also known for running 50 mountain marathons in 50 days, I was like, he's just ahead, I can catch him. This pushed me harder as I took off, passed Malcom and crossed that finish line.
While the weather certainly wasn't the best weather for a race, those water hazards sure made it fun and interesting, unfortunately not everyone enjoyed it as much as I did, but thats OK, we all have different experiences and no two races are ever the same.
I made my way over to Amy and Beth who had hung around for me to come in, they were heading off to the house to show and change before driving off to Queenstown. I decided that Queenstown sounded like a good idea, and while I had planned to go the next day, i decided not hang with them. I arranged to contact them later and went off to the tent to get a massage. By this stage Sinead had arrived across the line as well, she was looking a bit cold by this point and had a heap of friends helping her get into some warmer gear. I congratulated her for finishing before she headed off and I got to lay down and enjoy my massage.
Afterwards it was back to the hotel, where I took a nice warm shower, changed into some nice dry cloths and loaded up the car. I headed over the the checkout and said I wanted to checkout a little earlier than planned "How early would you like to checkout", "Now" I replied, I knew I would be getting charged for the overnight, but that didn't bother me. I had accomodation in Queenstown sorted at the family holiday home, and I had my friends joining me there, so I didn't mind.
Post Race Drama's
Well, after a race event that wasn't what we expected, we turned up having other dramas... Getting home. The non stop rain that had been coming in across the South Island all week had caused the Rakaia River to burst and was causing massive flooding which meant the bridge was closed. This meant we were all trapped in Queenstown.... Damm, such a shame. I wasn't really bothered, however my friends were a bit stuck, Amy didn't have a work laptop with her and Beth was suppose to be starting her new job the next day. As I had been down for work, I had a spare laptop so Amy was able to work off that, Beth had managed to call work and they understood the problem, so they were accepting of that. Another friend from Christchurch was also stranded and had come to Queenstown for the day, so I offered her to stay with us until we could head back.
Monday midday we were finally able to head back to Christchurch, but not before a quick climb of Queenstown Hill to checkout the view. There were moments where we thought the road was closed, but as we had plenty of friends driving back that day we were getting updates along the way to show the traffic was moving, thankfully due to leaving later, a large portion of the backlog of traffic had already dropped, but there was still a bit of a backlog by the time we got to the bridge.