Taking on the Kepler Challenge- 60ks at 60 Years


January 2023, and I am having a look at my goals for the year. Looming over the year is the fact that I will turn 60 in December and I decide that I need to do something really memorable- for my 50th I hand selected a group of mates and we went to Fiji for the weekend in an effort to recreate the Hangover movie. Since then, a heart attack and a different approach to alcohol meant that this would be a different style of celebration.


I had one friend who was going to run around Lake Pupuke with a few of his mates until he had done 60 Kilometres. I thought that something like that would be how I would see in 60. I am a Chiropractor and spend my days encouraging people to get greater and what could be more inspirational than travelling down to the South Island and attempt to tackle a 60k race over one of New Zealand’s great walks. I had recently run the track in a day and was eager to see what it would be like racing the course rather than stopping for lunch and to take photos of the odd Weka.

I set up my calendar for events that I would enter that would get me set up and ready to race the Kepler Challenge. This would be the best way for me to chunk this big goal down so that instead of being daunted by a massive task I could just tick off race after race that would have me ready. Each race became a commitment, and I could just focus on the short step ahead rather than a 60k nightmare.  I also needed to learn how to transition myself from predominately a road runner to a trail guy. I stared watching You Tube videos of ultra-running and tried to get as many tips as I could.


The first step was to buy the gear. I needed to get some hard wearing, grippy, but comfortable trail shoes. If you dare ask in a trail runners chat group what shoes you should wear be prepared for lots of advice. The shoe that received the most recommendations was the HOKA speed goat, closely followed by a Solamon. I have always worn the ASICs brand and chose their trail shoe the Trabucco. The 3 key things that I needed was a firm, grippy sole, fast draining and a wide fit. The ASICs did the trick.


I needed a pair of shorts that had heaps of pockets to carry gels, drinking cup and toilet paper. Nike have a great trail short that suited me here. I also needed a vest to carry water bottles, or a bladder and the compulsory emergency gear. I had a Camel Bak with plenty of pockets that had a 2-litre bladder if I needed to go long in my training..


I started to build up my road miles and set up a consistent plan for my week. Tuesday was a steady one hour run bush or road,  Thursday was either hill repeats or 1k repeats, Saturday or Sunday was a long slow run, trail or road, and Monday was a 5k recovery jog. I varied the quantities with the Thursday and the weekend sessions depending on what I needed to be ready for or what I needed to recover from. I did this consistently for the 11 months leading up to the race.

The first race was the Coastal Challenge which is a race on Auckland’s North Shore beaches where you rock hop, swim, beach run and a little 1k road run to finish 33k of fun! My learnings from this race were 1) Start slow and finish slower, 2) Good trail shoes drain, 3) don’t wear cotton socks and have a nutrition plan. I really did enjoy this race but it was my first little introduction to a place called the pain-cave that ultra-runners learn to deal with. I got to a point where I had a real mental battle to just keep going and not walk. I perfected the slow shuffle and worked out ways to distract myself from thoughts of giving up.


If I thought that I had mastered dealing with the pain cave, then the next race on my list took it to a whole new level. I had been talked into entering a 21k race called the Wild Kiwi which is part of a multi-sport event held up near the Whangarei heads. My learnings here were that races can be lost on the downhill, read the elevation- those numbers predict pain and electrolytes are needed once you push past the 2 hour mark. This race involved 3 massive stair/hill climbs and sharp descents. I should have known something was up when the guy that I was running with at the start, who is an accomplished runner, said that he expected to be out for 3 hours! I thought that he must be wrong or that he was going to have a nap or something. At one stage I can remember getting quite delirious and getting a piece of tea-tree to use as a walking stick. I also took a wrong turn and realised this when confronted with a sheer cliff face, that I know, that the masochistic race organisers wouldn’t have wanted us hurtling to our deaths. I had just spent a gruelling climb trying to get well ahead of a guy that I wanted to beat. My slight detour ate into these gains as did my slow descent down the steps trying to preserve my thighs. I powered down some electrolyte drink at the last aid station which started a crampathon as my body cried out for more. Driving back to Auckland with cramps was not enjoyable. There was, however,  a weird sense of accomplishment and I was ready for the next events on my schedule.


My plan over the winter months was to enter the X-terra trail series and every 4 or 5 weeks, run their Super Long race. The hard part of this plan was getting my entries in on time because coming out of the restricted racing over the last 2 years the series kept selling out. I did manage some of their events and when I did miss an event I was sure to hit the local trails for 3-4 hour runs. I used this time to get my fuelling right and find out what my stomach would tolerate. I made a discovery here that I could not handle any electrolyte drinks that had sugar in them. I have the sugary drink and crave more of a sugar hit and get an inflamed knee and hip. This was a valuable lesson that I did take to race day. The You Tube videos had said that the lessons that you learn during training will really help and every run is a learning experience.

The next phase of the plan was to start going long, 4 hours plus on my weekend runs, with 2 big events before the main one. I prepped myself for the North Shore Marathon and set a goal of finishing in under 4 hours. The weekend before I ran half of the course in 1h 53 so I was pretty confident that I could get in under 4 hours. This was supposed to be relatively easy and I completed the first half as I had trained with plenty of time to spare. I did start to tie up a little as most of my running was now off road and the pavement was a bit tough on the legs. I would have nicely achieved the 4 hour goal if it hadn’t been for an unscheduled toilet stop (yes a shitcident). I didn’t stomach a gel too well and it created a chain reaction leading to my 4h 2 min finishing time. To top things off I dropped my car keys into the engine well and couldn’t retrieve them so had to run another 6 kilometres home. An accidental Ultra. It was a frustrating time running home with people that I knew tooting and waving as they drove past- they didn’t know that my pained looking wave was a cry for help! The positives were that I had learned to be careful with my fuel and that I could run close to 50k.


Okay so I had done all of my base work and it was time to test it out at the Taupo Ultra 50k. I got some advice from James Kuegler, running coach extraordinaire, to take it easy at the start and hold back at least until the 30k mark. I stood at the start line feeling frikken awesome. I had never trained so hard for an event and just wanted to unleash my hard work on the course. I was too excited and started with a fairly pacey group following them along the single track trails that mostly descended into Kinloch. I got to 22k and still felt pretty good but the pacey downhill had taken its toll and I couldn’t get my heartrate down. I got into Kinloch for the aid station at half way, gave Sarah a sweaty kiss, and set out on the climbing part of the course. It was hard to keep a rhythm going due to the cycle trail table top things and the going got a lot steeper. At 30k I became pretty dejected as I felt my 5 hour goal slipping away from my grasp. The big lesson here was that I shouldn’t have attached a time to feeling good because this really got to me mentally and I slowed to a walk when I still feel that there was something in the tank. I had also got the electrolyte side of things wrong and had just added some salts to my water. This didn’t work as I didn’t have enough and my body started to break down. At the 2nd to last aid station I tried eating chips peanut butter sandwiches and even drank some flat coke. My legs instantly cramped right up. The 35k mark past and the wheels really fell off. I was feeling really light headed and tried to figure out what they would do if I had a heart attack. I even had thoughts of throwing myself at a tree or off a cliff. A 10 year old boy who was running the 24k with his Dad (impressive)passed me about 5 times as I battled with cramp. I sat on the side of the trail in despair until a fellow runner came past and offered me some pickle juice. This turned out to be a panacea for the cramp and I could resume a rythym and put a stop to the stream of runners passing me. I flew past the 10 year old and finished in 6h 9 minutes. Only an hour 9 over my goal. I finished 5th in my age group and would have won the next age up if I was 8 weeks older. It was time to get in a couple more long runs and then take all these learnings to the start line of the Kepler Challenge.


The next 2 big training sessions were pretty epic efforts. My friend and fellow Kepler competitor and I decide to ferry over to Rangitoto Island and run around until the last ferry came 6 hours later. This proved a great way to test out my fuelling strategy of an electrolyte capsule and a gel every hour with 2 cliff bars for solid food. We had a beautiful day, perhaps a little sunny to circumnavigate Motutapu and Rangitoto Islands. The other test was to run keeping my heart rate nice and low. I found that I could keep going for hours if I stayed under 145 beats per minute. This meant walking up steep hills, which is very foreign to a road runner, but it really did the trick. I planned to do this in the first 20k of the Kepler so it was good to try it out. We ran for 4 hours 45 and finished with a swim back at the wharf much to the pleasure of a group of tourists who wondered who these 2 madmen were.


The next weekend I set out on a challenge that I had attempted to complete but never finished over the last 2 summers. I had the lofty goal of running 40 kilometres into the city and then ubering home. The last 2 times the heat had got me and I had only made it to halfway. This was a chance to again practice the fuelling strategy and also the pacing by heartrate. My previous base work proved to be adequate but I did have some knee issues at about 35k that I put down to not being used to concrete footpaths. I conquered the beast and ran straight to MacDonalds for a cheeseburger and a large Fanta. That was the nicest Fanta in my life! I was feeling chuffed with myself and rested well after that one. I went to a mate’s birthday party that evening but could only last until 8:30.


I had made the decision from 6 weeks out to not touch any alcohol, chocolate(that I eat too much) and coffee until after the big run. This gave me a bit more resolve, as every time I abstained it reminded me of the work and prep that I had done to get to this point. I was excited and started to get a bit carried away with myself. I remember that in the following weekend after my 40k city run that I intended to run through a few of the suburban trails on Auckland’s North Shore and complete a 5 hour effort. My body had other ideas. We live in a hilly coastal suburb and at the first hill I suddenly became lightheaded and nearly fainted. I either needed rest or needed to stop completely and abandon the goal. Given my past heart issues I thought that this was it and I had over done it and would need to retire. I throttled the training right back paying attention to the Heart Rate Variability stats on my Garmin. The numbers told the story and as soon as I got back into my normal range I was able to run with some effort again. I decided to do 2 more weekends with 2 hour runs, which at this stage was easy and then just do smaller runs to settle the nerves until the big day. This got me to the start line niggle free and fresh. I was set.

Race day came with a 6am start. To get a medal you must finish before the course sweeper in under 12 hours. I got up at 4:30 and had a relatively normal breakfast of cereal and a Frittata. I avoided Coffee as it usually created some bowel action for me that I didn’t want for the next 10 hours or so. Sarah and Katie drove us to the control gates at Te Anau for the nervous start. I had intended to have a poo at the last minute and then that should do me for the day. Much to my horror there weren’t a lot of porta loos and I had to nervously que thinking that I may have to start late. The guy in front of me was prepared and had extra paper which he shared with me, otherwise it would have been a horrific experience. I got to the line in time and seeded myself in the 8-hour group.


The start seeding was important because you were very quickly into single track which meant that you were either in the way or held up by other runners. I had my plan , my pace and my fuelling all dialled in. I didn’t make the Taupo error and head off too fast, pacing myself perfectly on the first flat 5k. The next 5k was straight up and with my pacing strategy based on heart rate I had to do a lot of fast walking. At the 11k point we came up out of the tree line and headed towards Luxmore Hut and the 2nd aid station. The views were out of this world so much so that there were many people stopping to take photos. I remember the comment of a guy who hadn’t been past the hut before that “oh well that’s all the climbing done”. He was so wrong.


The Luxmore aid station was where you had to do a compulsory safety gear check in before the alpine section. We had a beautiful day but it did turn nasty for some of the tailenders with some showers coming through and a couple of people suffering hypothermia. It was surreal running along a ridge above the clouds. The highlight of this aid station was the shots of Tequila that were being offered. I didn’t partake but a huge roar of ‘that’s the spirit’ was heard whenever anyone did.


From Luxmore Hut we ran up along a schist covered track to forest burn shelter at 18k and some more sustenance. I had decided to run with 1 litre of water in my camel pak and take a cup of water and perhaps a cliff bar at each aid station. I took an electrolyte capsule and a gel every hour. The volunteers at each of the aid stations were bloody phenomenal dressing up as nuns, nurses, road workers, cheer leaders and elves (from memory). After Forest Burn we were still mostly climbing until the 22k mark and Hanging Valley shelter. Then the steep descent began and my undoing.


At the 24k mark we headed down about 74 switchback corners. The going was Rooty or rocky and steep. My plan was to unleash the beast on this bit as normally I could downhill well. On about the 4th corner my toe hit a root and I went straight over face first into a sawn tree stump. It all happened in such slow motion and I could see that this wasn’t going to end well. I summoned my rugby skills and dropped my shoulder absorbing some of the impact and narrowly avoiding a small branch going into my face. It hit me just behind the ear. I lay there for a minute, thinking oh well at least I’ll get a chopper ride. I stood up and took stock and once I git over being winded I realised that I only had a bit of a bruised head and a bit of blood trickling down behind my rear. No chopper for me. My confidence down the remaining 4k of downhill was shot and I’m sure that at this stage most of the field would have run past me, checking that I was OK and telling me how awesome I looked(liars).

The best sound that I have ever heard was a big bell that one of the volunteers at Iris Burn was ringing letting you know that the hellish descent was over.


This was where the race now began. It was a bush covered track that led out of the valley to the Rocky Point shelter at about 37k. This is where I mentally lost it. Physically I was bruised in the head but otherwise OK. Mentally I was beat. I started to search for my why. Why am I doing this? Who cares how fast that I go? The sweeper is not going to catch me even if I walk. So, I walked even on some of the flats. I started to really chunk it down to corners and trees ahead. I rallied a little towards Iris Burn at 42k and had to dig deep.


I had arranged for one of my long-term patients, Lesley Turner Hall, who is a bit of an icon in the trail running circuit, to meet me at Rainbow Reach and pace/push/distract me for the last 10 kilometres. This is one reason why I had to keep going. I had her and Sarah waiting for me and I didn’t want to let them down. From the 45k mark I gave myself a bit of a slap and started to get the shuffle going.


I was pretty emotional reaching Rainbow Reach and gave Sarah a kiss and a hug and set off with Leslie for the last 10k. I managed to somewhat pull things together by about the 55k mark and got some faster shuffles together. I have a video of me rounding the last corner and I remember at the time thinking that I was steaming along. The video tells a different story. How could anyone move that slow and call it running? Leslie was a great pacer knowing just to keep me distracted from my pain cave and keeping me going. This was a great help.


The finish almost seemed an anticlimax. 9h16min and from that minute my brain switched to what is next and how I can go better. I was reminded by Sarah that not many 60-year-olds can run 6k let alone 60k and to have some gratitude and live in the moment. The after-race beer, dip in the Lake and the nice hot bath were epic. What an event!


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