Kepler Challenge 60km 2021/22:
Kepler # 9
Date:January 15, 2022
What a nice start to 2022! The Kepler Challenge (60km) has traditionally been held on the first Saturday of December but this year it was shifted to mid-January due to COVID. Whilst others pulled out due to the date change, I had no intention on missing out on one of NZ’s most iconic running events. I was accompanied by a large group of family and friends which made the experience all the more enjoyable. The ever accommodating Dr Andrew Stanley had booked an 8-seater van to take us all from Queenstown to Te Anau on the Friday. My wife Courtney was giving ‘the grunt’ (27km) another go and my cousins Casey and Paul were also running the grunt for the first time. We completed pre-race registration with our face masks and new vaccine passes and then walked to our local favourite restaurant, Ristorante Pizzeria Paradiso, for our pre-race dinner. Here we caught up with the rest of our crew, the newly engaged Dr Neena Kalsi and Dr Esther O’Sullivan. Neena seemed to have more of a spring in her step clearly intoxicated by love (possibly even lust after years of waiting) whereas Esther seemed more grounded after carrying a heavy pack along the Milford Track for four days as preparation for the Kepler. Esther and Neena were also doing the Kepler Challenge for the first time. Dr Stanley and I were doing our 9th Kepler Challenge so there was not much new for us having also tried every pasta/pizza on the menu over the years. As the owner took our order (whilst apologising for her “matriarch” approach during busy times) we could only reminisce in how she’s never changed and how we’ve managed to watch her young children grow over the years and continue the family business. As we ate, the atmosphere was livelier than usual being surrounded by so many first timers. Paul seemed to pick up on my relaxed demeanour and asked if I was excited. “I’m happy to be here but I don’t think I’m excited” I replied. I think with familiarity, excitement is replaced with focus and introspection. Almost a deep inner preparation. Certainly excitement will get you up Mt Luxmore and down to Iris Burn Hut (28km). But from then onwards, excitement fades and you need to muster all your physical and mental strength to get to the finish.” Sixty kilometres after all is no easy feat. Most people walk this track in 3-4 days. We’re trying to run it in one and get back in time for our next dinner!
As Dr Stanley, Esther, Neena, and I lined up at the Kepler start line just before the 6am start, I took a moment to appreciate another start line achieved. After years of chasing start lines, in my opinion, getting to the start line remains the hardest part of any race. Often people fall into the trap of waiting until conditions are perfect to begin. However, invariably life gets in the way. Bills don’t disappear, you have to keep working, and kids don’t get any easier. Times passes and before you know it, you’re in a new age group. Still waiting for perfect conditions. Oblivious to the notion that beginning can make your conditions perfect! The secret of any exercise is getting started. But starting exercise can be hard. When starting, be realistic and pick something achievable to begin with. Don’t be a fool and set your alarm for 5am in the middle of winter with the intention of doing prolonged or hard exercise to make up for your summer slumber. Waking up at 5am is unnatural. Doing something ridiculously hard is illogical. The natural order of the universe will prevail and you will remain firmly adhered to your bed. Sun Tzu (Chinese military strategist) says “Plan for what is difficult while it is easy”. Start in the spring or summer. Pick a time that is agreeable with your body and when conditions are favourable. Exercise at the best possible times and moments for you. Dealing with early mornings and adverse conditions will become easier as you become fitter. And once you’ve started, persist at all costs! Hang in there! It’s not the first day that’s the hardest but the second day. It’s not the first week but the second week. Not the first month but the second month. If you can get to three months, then chances are you would’ve befriended routine. What was once hard to begin with amazingly becomes easier. The best exercise prescription in the world accounts for nothing if you don’t do it. So what is the best exercise then? The best medical answer is 30-60 minutes/day of moderate intensity exercise, most days of the week, consisting of a combination of aerobic, resistance, flexibility, and neuromotor (balance, coordination, agility, proprioceptive) exercise. The best real-world answer? The best exercise is usually something you like AND will keep doing! The secret to getting ahead is getting started. Beginning makes conditions perfect. Make someday today. Get started.
In the adrenaline and rush of the start line, I quickly lose sight of my running friends. However, I’m not particularly worried. Being my first race of the year and in hotter conditions than normal, I chose to run at a comfortable pace. My plan this year was to get to Iris Burn Hut fresh and then pick up the pace towards Moturau Hut (45km) and hopefully accelerate past it to the finish. Starting at a slower pace up Mt Luxmore than usual, I experience the breadth of ultra running culture. Initially conversation of passing competitors is limited to ‘on your right’. Then I start to get a few greetings (g’days, good mornings) and the most common ultra runner’s weather report regardless of conditions – ‘beautiful day for it’. Finally, I encounter the ‘running has changed my life’ group with their associated life stories. These usually involve midlife career crises, troubled relationships, or battles with sex, drugs, and alcohol. It is usually at this point I quicken my pace (albeit compassionately) and try to catch up with Dr Stanley. After passing Luxmore Hut, I eventually reach the heights of the Kepler track. I’m grateful for the views and the opportunity to actually run past Luxmore Hut this year. Pictures and stories will never capture the true gravity of the beauty up top. These views are earned and best seen with a sweaty brow and slightly laboured breathing. I cruise along the tops and control my descent towards Iris Burn Hut. Back on well-formed track, I tap into my running legs and increase my pace along river flats and stream crossings towards Moturau Hut. By the time I reach Moturau Hut, the heat really starts to be a factor. I top up my drink bottles and push through as quick as possible before the temptation to stop kicks in. I attempt to accelerate with 15km to go but the legs want to remain at steady state so I just hold on. After a few Keplers, you just get use to hanging in there. It doesn’t get any easier, just less hard. Running along the Waiau River, I know I’m approaching the finish line. It’s hot and I begin to fantasise. One day I’ll float to the finish on a rubber ring whilst eating tropical fruit accompanied by gorgeous women. My shoe catches a small tree root and I snap back into reality. Looks like I have to run myself out of trouble again. Like every other year you idiot! Approaching the finish line I see Courtney, Casey, Paul, Andrew, AND Esther waiting for me. I’m stunned that Esther managed to finish in front of me. Didn’t she just do the Milford track? I cross the start/finish line just after 2pm with a finish time of 8hrs and 16 mins. We wait until Neena finishes just after 4.30pm. It’s still very hot. She looks pretty tired. It’s hard to differentiate whether this is because she has just run 60km for the first time or whether she actually slept at all last night. Her fiancé Nick however, is cheering ecstatically and appears to have grown a few inches overnight. They embrace passionately at the finish line. Still intoxicated with love. Goodness me. Sometimes running feels like one big continuous cycle. Like going full circle and round and round. Every start line leads to a finish line. Every finish leads to a fresh start line. Join me at my next blog, The “James” Stampede Ultra (50km) in mid-January (one week later). Chase your start lines. Running is medicine.
Plan for what is difficult while it is easy.
Sun Tzu, Chinese Military Strategist