The Kepler Track is one of the most spectacular of the Great Walks, with high alpine ridgeline travel, situated in the wild environment of Fiordland -it has forever been on my to do list. I’d walked/ran 6 of the other Great Walks over the years but not the Kepler – and never one to enjoy missing out on a mission, when I heard some of the MEC bros were putting their names in the hat it didn’t take much convincing.
Of the four of us planning to do it, only Evan initially made the cut for the ticket but Burton, Dave and myself eventually made tickets from the waitlist. I was pretty stoked on the line up we had, aside from running it with such a top bunch of lads it was cool to be lining up with some of the MECers who were of similar caliber.
There were loads of LOLS at the very understated southern race briefing the night before. “Should be a nice up there, wind is now only gale (dropped from severe gale)” etc etc. We were not optimistic about the weather after the forecast, with snow on the hills and chances of heavy falls in gale force winds.
So the plan was pretty simple. We would set out together at an easy pace, walk the hills, stay as a group over the tops (first 25-30km), enjoy this scenic section as a pack and then see how we go for the relatively flat last 30 km. I figured there was plenty of ground to cover and pick up the pace for the last 30 km if I found myself with some gas in the tank. With a total climb of over 2000 m we all agreed if we could get over the hills with something left in the legs then that would make or break the race. 8 hours race time seemed like a good number to aim for although wasn’t based on any particular plan. My usual nutrition plan was to eat gels every 45 mins to start then 30 mins at the latter stages and grab some grub enroute at the aid stations.
So we set off to race plan and after an easy warm up jog through the flat forest at about 5 km we launched into the steep climb up to the tops. Walking was the plan and that is exactly what we did. Just as we approached the edge of the bushline we felt the full brunt of the wind and we were hit by rain. We stopped and put on all our gear.
On the tops it was a true alpine environment, and the trail flattened and sky opened up in places. The views were breathtaking, I was in my happy place and I hardly noticed the climbing terrain or the occasional nasty squalls that came through. I was running with my mates through some of the best NZ has to offer and the kms fell easily. We had a brief stop for a gear check at Luxmore Hut and continued up. There was banter and good times, the wild weather only added to the intensity of the Fiordland experience – in the exposed places it was pretty cold in the wind. As we continued on the ridgeline the weather improved significantly and we were running razorback ridgelines with a backdrop of the Kepler and Murchinson mountains. Epic.
At about 25 km the trail dropped steeply off the tops out of the alpine section and back into the bush with the notorious quad busting switchbacks. The trail was busy at this point the Acky brothers took off like madmen down the hills flying past big packs of people. I couldn’t keep up with them and Burton was nursing the quads down the hill. The thought crossed my mind that I might not see the guys again so I left Burton to it and tried to catch up. As the trail flattened out a bit down the bottom I caught the Ackys and the three of us set off out from the Iris Burn Hut.
I was struggling with the pace keeping up with Evan who was running strongly. Also mentally, now I was out of the beauty of the tops and still with a solid 25 – 30 km or so to go I entered again that familiar dark place that seems to be a part of at least some of every ultra.
Eventually we spread out and we each ran at out own pace, I couldn’t keep up with Evan, and Dave dropped a bit behind me. Evan always waited at the aid stations for Dave and I, who weren’t too far behind. There were certainly times where I felt like I was battling for every km. At least the track was very well maintained and generally easy underfoot.
As we closed in for the last 20 or so km I was pretty sure that I would not see Evan again and stuck with trying to maintain my pace and battling to the end. I arrived at the aid station at Moturau, 16 km from the end I was surprised to see Evan who was looking pretty relaxed and I had a quick chat. Shortly after, Dave arrived, and while I was having my usual scoff much to my surprise Burton appeared from around the corner! I was totally stoked for him to see him running so well, and the four of us were briefly together. Evan was ready to go and not long later I set off by myself – Dave and Burton were wolfing down some supplies at the station. We all left that aid station separately but within a minute of one another according to the recorded times.
So I love running the hills with the bros and the epic camaraderie in a stunning environment – but a race is a race and for me anyway at this stage my competitive side started to rear its head. I had given up hope at this stage of running Evan down, he was ahead and throughout the race seemed so strong, but I felt like if I did not hold it together Burtons fine form would make the better of me as well so I determined I would maintain as brisk as pace as possible, and once we hit the last 10 km dig deep and finish with nothing in the tank.
So Burton chose to surprise me again a few minutes later and charged up from behind. He was absolutely stoked and to me he seemed fresh, jovial and elated. I felt spent. We ran together for a while, the pace was strong and we were overtaking people. It was such a lift to be running with my old pal in such an epic setting (and in such a world of pain!). A bit later in a bout of finishline fever me and Burton parted ways and I pushed ahead, determined to maintain the best pace I could.
At the 10 km mark we hit the Rainbow Reach aid station and I was stoked to see Burtons and Evans support crews and it was a real lift. They mentioned Evan had only just left the station and I decided I would not stick around and keep moving, I was feeling tired, but mentally strong. The trampers we overtook were standing aside and clapping as we ran through, all a great encouragement in the latter stages. I found myself breaking the kms to go down to bite size pieces – 3 km is only one lap at Cornwall Park etc. Not long afterwards I saw Evan up in front and I won’t lie, I was happy to see him within striking distance ahead. As I approached he told me had cramp, which was a real bummer as he had been running so strongly, I gave him a salt tab and pushed on, aware Burton was hot on my heels!
The last 5 km I felt the elation of the finish line approaching and with the mental lift got some faster kms under my belt, it felt awesome to be overtaking people, which only fed the enthusiasm. (28 places in last 10 km wohoo!). I was frothing to cross the line and truly felt like I was spent. (8:24:56).
It had been an epic day on the trails with some legend lads. I have to make a shout out to Evan and Burton who I thought totally smashed it particularly considering it was their first ultra. And also pretty cool all four of us finished within 14 mins of one another over a 60 km race, pretty awesome considering in the end we all ran our own race.