Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Kepler Challenge 60K

I had a fantastic time running the Kepler Challenge 60K in New Zealand last weekend. The loop course starts alongside Lake Te Anau before climbing up to about 5,000 feet near the top of Mt. Luxmore. As we passed the treeline on the way up, we had views of mountains in all directions and back down to the huge sprawling lake below. Running along the ridge tops above tree line is my favorite type of running and I knew the day was going to be a complete success whatever happened next. I was sad to start dropping down towards the trees and lose the views even though I like downhill running. The downhill section had a fair bit of technical trail and a ton of stairs which I was too chicken to really run. The course also had so many twists and turns in this section that it significantly slowed you down. As you can see in the elevation profile below, once you finish the downhill the second half of the race is relatively flat. My strategy going into the race was to treat the 2nd half of the course as a fast finish long run, really trying to maintain a hard effort until the finish. This turned out to be one of the hardest mental challenges that I have ever had in a race. The 2nd half was very scenic following along two rivers and Lake Manapouri, but it just seemed to go on forever. Although the wheels didn't fall off, I was convinced at the time that the air was coming out of the tires since I felt that I was running slower and slower as I approached the finish line which you could tauntingly hear at least a mile before reaching it. However, in looking back at the data recorded by my watch, I maintained the same speed over the last few miles of the race. Overall, I think this was the hardest effort I achieved in a race of this length, finishing in 6:44 with an average heart rate of 155 good for 59th place out of 477.

Race route

Elevation profile
This was the 26th running of the Kepler Challenge and the race is super well organized. There were a few things at this race that I had never seen before. The first was a helicopter buzzing over the race keeping track of the action. I assume this was primarily for safety in case a runner needed to be evacuated, but wonder if they weren't also filming some of the action. There were lots of friendly volunteers at each of the 10 aid stations, 3 of which were on the exposed ridge top. I have no idea how the volunteers got to these stations since there was no road access. Due to highly variable and often extreme weather on the ridge top, the race has a compulsory gear list. Two long sleeve tops, waterproof jacket and pants, thermal pants, emergency blanket as well has hat and gloves were all required. We were fortunate to have nice weather with temperatures of about 50 degrees with good visibility on the ridgetop although there was some wind. Two days prior to the race it was over 90 degrees and the night before it rained hard. The compulsory gear seemed kind of overkill since I have never carried that much gear even in races that had terrible weather, but with the difficulty of getting runners off the ridgetop it is probably for the best. The gear was checked the day prior to the race as well as at the first aid station on top of the ridge. I managed to cram all of the gear into my ultimate direction AK vest along with one bottle in the front pocket, my camera in the other front pocket and 14 gels and 2 packs of chews which I think resulted in a much lighter load than most people carried. I think this was the largest trail race that I have ever participated in and given that it starts directly onto single track, they made good use of a system to spread the runners out by expected finish time. The approach was simply to have signs along the road where we lined up marking expected finishing times of 6 hours, 7 hours, etc. But by having a good distance between the signs and asking people to line up appropriately I think it did a much better job of spreading runners out than the typical mass start.

If you have any interest in running in New Zealand, I would highly recommend both the Kepler race as well as many other trails we explored on the south island. It seemed like there were trails everywhere which were very well maintained. Traveling to New Zealand was much easier than I expected, primarily due to the minimal 3 hour time change compared to the west coast of the US. You can learn more about the Kepler from Ian Sharman's description here or Jason Schlarb's race report here or you could sign up for a guided trail running vacation on the south island here. Jason Schlarb's blog also has descriptions of running many other routes in New Zealand.

Race start/finish
Sun rising over the lake before the 6am start

Approaching the tree line on the climb

Mt. Luxmore on the right

Looking back down on Lake Te Anau

Crossing the finish line

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