Kepler Challenge 60km 2020: Kepler # 8
Date:December 05, 2020
After missing out last year, I was keen to rekindle my relationship with the Kepler Challenge again. Having successfully entered in July, I made a date with the Kepler start line for the first Saturday of December and that time had finally arrived. This year had a slightly different feel from usual due to COVID-19. The road to Te Anau was a lot quieter without the usual flow of campervans. There also wasn’t the usual bustle of tourists in the town. However, by Friday evening, the town swelled up with runners who all crammed into the Te Anau Events Centre for the compulsory brief. This year I was accompanied by my wife Courtney and Dr Andrew Stanley (again). Despite the annual talk consisting of largely the same content each year (weather, track conditions, medical), the organisers have always managed to keep the brief interesting. The bad news was that for the second year in a row, we would be running the altered course due to a severe weather warning. The good news was that we wouldn’t be running in waist high water (like the year prior when adverse weather also caused havoc) and that we would start one hour later at 7am. The medical talk then warned about the risk of hyponatremia (related to overhydration) followed by the take home message of “bugs, drugs, slugs, and lugs” which was a bit perplexing. After just hearing the weather forecast for cold weather and rain, surely the only possible way any participant could get hyponatremia would be if they stood at the top of Mt Luxmore with their mouth open and tried to drink all the rain (and that’s if the hypothermia didn’t get to them first). Come race morning, the forecast rain hadn’t arrived yet so it was quite pleasant at the control gates with a calm Lake Te Anau in the background. The mood was relaxed and there was a gentle bustle of 450 runners moving between race registration, the toilets, and the start line. Having successfully made my date with the start line, it was now time to make a date with the finish line. Looking for a quicker start this year, Dr Stanley and I shuffle closer to the front amongst the mountain goats disguised as runners. A countdown is followed by a loud blast from an air horn. It was time to refresh our relationship with the Kepler Challenge again.
Like most relationships, my relationship with running has been an evolving work in progress. I’ve been running long distance consistently for the last 18 years now. And although I’ve changed during this period, running hasn’t and has remained one of the few constants in my life next to medicine. In sickness and in health. For better or for worse. Running has always been there for me. The Kepler Challenge starts beautifully along Lake Te Anau through lush, green beech forest. Dr Stanley and I decide to court speed by going a lot faster than usual in order to get ahead of any walkers prior to the Luxmore ascent. I’m feeling pretty fresh after my sleep in so my legs are light and we move swiftly towards Brod Bay. We establish a good rhythm and settle into a nice pace past the limestone bluffs. Running feels good and there is union of breath and movement. Once past the tree line, the rain and cold wind really starts to bite so I push a little harder towards the turnaround point at Luxmore Hut. By now, the lead pack are charging back down the mountain and the narrow foot bridges result in a fierce competition for space. Not too keen to get involved in the inevitable log jam, I push harder again. Descending the mountain, the rain is falling more persistently now and the track starts to cut up in places and muddy puddles form. I’m not quick enough to miss the Luxmore Grunt runners as they assault up the mountain so I happen to bump into my wife Courtney. She warns me that a large tree has just fallen on the track. She also seems surprised that I’m running by myself and not with my running buddy Dr Stanley. I seem to have left Dr Stanley behind during my quick descent but I’m not too worried. I know he’s a lot more measured than me going downhill but he’s very strong on the flat so there was a good chance he’d catch up to me. I head back towards the control gates and then turn into the second out and back part of the course towards Moturau Hut. Before long, the field really starts to open up and I’m accompanied by solitude. I enter no man’s land. A hostile section of any race that happens to be far enough from the start line but also far away to the finish. An area that’s neither here nor there. It’s usually during this part of the race that my relationship with running really gets tested.
Relationships are all about compromise and negotiation and so is running. And although I have a date with the finish line, that’s still another 30km away. My slightly quicker pace during the first half of the race is starting to take its toll. I want more speed but less pain. But running is a tough and demanding mistress who is only satisfied by effort. In running, if you want to go faster, then pain is non-negotiable. Nothing worth doing is easy. I yield and slow down to my all-day pace. The rest of the field, including a fresh appearing Dr Stanley, eventually catch up to me again. I tell Andrew to go ahead content with my all-day pace and wanting to limit my suffering before the Moturau Hut turn around point. It becomes a slow, sustained push forward in the wet and I start to feel heavy on my feet. If my relationship with running is built on love, then this is tough love and the course is showing no mercy. I eventually encounter the flow of runners on the return leg from Moturau Hut including Dr Stanley who is about 5-10 minutes ahead of me. He seems to be enjoying the course more than me as he has a huge smile on his face and what appears to be his yoga mat down his pants. I decide to push early to see if I can catch him. For the next hour or so, I manage to negotiate and sustain a good pace until eventually the tough love returns. Crossing the swing bridge at Rainbow Reach, I become light headed and breathless. I try to keep pace with the Waiau River beside me but after a few more ‘ant hills’, my legs are well and truly massaged and caressed by the course. I eventually succumb to the Kepler and let it have its way with me. The last 5km is tough and honest toil. It can get pretty lonely but throughout running is a constant companion. I compromise with running and agree to let go, slow down, and enjoy the moment. We reorientate to the common goal of finishing. Six and a half hours later, we cross the finish line together. We’ve come to terms with each other and are at peace again. For better or for worse. In good times and in bad. In sickness and in health. Running continues to be the best part of me. Make it a priority to nurture your own relationship with your health and fitness. Running is medicine. Join me at my next blog, the Aotearoa Ultra 50km in early January 2021.