The Kepler Mountain Challenge
Race morning began with my iPhone alarm buzzing at 4am. Splashing cold water on my face, waking up, and smiling….the day is finally here! I made some instant hotel coffee that is not half bad and eat my customary chocolate chip ClifBar and banana. I sat in bed, eating, drinking, quietly waking up to the day and feeling positive. I dress in shorts and my long sleeved “RUNATL” shirt. I put all my “required gear in my Salomon race pack; 1 long sleeved shirt, beanie, gloves, rain jacket, long wool pants, & rain jacket. These are all “compulsory gear” and we would have to undergo a gear check along the route to ensure compliance. The gear is required due to the nature of the changing conditions of the course, especially as we get to the top of the mountain. With the water in my pack, the clothing and all my GU Energy gels and Hammer Nutrition gels, my pack was beyond full.
I drove to the start of the race, about 3 miles from hotel. The streets were quiet and dark and the day was clear. No rain, but some last night and more expected later today.
Arriving at the start, I make one last bathroom stop and head to start line. As with other trail races, the number of runners are much less and the start line a lot more relaxed and low key. After a 10 second countdown, me and 449 others were off on our adventure of the Kepler Challenge; some with goals of winning, some with goals of beating a previous time, some running for their 10th time, some running the 1st time, some just wanting to finish.
That was me; I just want to finish. Have fun and finish. Enjoy the journey.
The first 3 miles are the soft trail, surrounded by green on both sides, more trees than I can even say. Off to my right past the trees, I could heart the edge of lake Te’Anu softly bumping up against the shore. Those first few miles were very crowded, but still able to have a nice easy stride. The soft steps of all us runners in close proximity to one another is such a nice sound.
We approached out first aide station and shortly after, the long, long ascent began. I think we climbed for about 10 miles and it was unbelievable. It was difficult and with an alarming amount of jaw dropping beauty all around. The first climbing miles were still in the thick green “forest”, switchbacks, stairs, bridges, etc…as we approached higher elevation, green gave way to open expanse. No one around me was running, everyone walking, climbing, etc. I would like to know if the front runners were running this part of the course….
Soon, we arrive at what I think may be the top of the climbing…the views are just ridiculously beautiful. I don’t have the words to describe it. Mountains, and mountain, and some lakes in between….all around. It was like out of a movie….
We arrive at checkpoint/aide station #2 and this is where we have a gear check. The volunteers make sure you have what’s required and we are off again. I grab 1/2 banana, refill my water and am off. I had met and chatted with a nice woman from Australia and we were changing places here and there. She was mostly ahead of me, but at times we were together and chatting. I noticed how fast she was climbing and was like, “how???”
We continue on….climbing…we turn a corner and I think, oh, there’s the top….um….no, wrong again. Keep climbing. At some point through all this, it is getting cold. We area up at 4500-5000 feet and it is also a bit windy. I put on my jacket, gloves and cap. I’m eating my gels, but i am not keeping track of how often and that was not a smart idea. I should have been keeping track. I knew I had a lot, but didn’t know exactly how many, so I didn’t know if I was eating too many of too few for the length of the race. Why didn’t I plan this better??
My mood is good, I am thoroughly enjoying the views and the experience and I am climbing more and more. Finally, we arrive at the top and their is a photographer there who takes our picture and says, “welcome to the top”. I smile, happy! I’m also thinking how did this guy get up here? He was literally stationed on a super small area, all bundled up, taking our photos. Maybe the helicopter dropped him off.
Reached the top, now for the descent….
Oh my….ouch, ouch on the quads….wow. A bit more technical at first, with lots of small rocks to navigate. My shoes were continuously filled with small pebbles, an annoyance, and had to stop a few times to empty them when a bigger rock got inside.
I had a few bathroom pee breaks on the trail. 1 at a checkpoint, and 2 in the woods. I didn’t want to stop but…
The descent was very long and more painful than the ascending. The ascending is just plain difficult; this amount of descending all in succession was difficult AND painful. The trails in Marin that I had been running on were good training ground, I just didn’t do them enough for longer periods of time per training session.
More descending and at a point where it was switchbacks on steroids. For those who might not know, switchbacks on trails are like a zig zag over and over again. And again. Some amazing trees along the way. I was literally in a forest. Took this photo which didn’t quite show it, but the trees were almost like a Spanish moss. Lots of ferns and beech trees and who knows what else! I was about 6 hours in and I was feeling it. I was tired. Hungry. I felt like I needed some salt. Whatever electrolyte levels were in my Energy gels wasn’t cutting it. I was finally on flat ground and running. Walking. Repeat. They had a few other things to eat at aide stations but I didn’t want to eat anything I had not been familiar with and potential suffer stomach issues. I continued on for more spectacular miles. Looking right, left, and above and just seeing beauty like never before. True paradise! Wow! I actually fell a couple of times; once while turning on a switchback. I just slipped and scrapped the left side of my lower leg. No problems, just scrapping and a little blood. It was actually kinda fun. Later, I slipped on a some wet rocks. Slid completely onto my backside and
Mmy right palm was all that got a small pang. I was lucky. There were many tricky and dangerous places on the track….slippery areas and lots of rocks and rooted areas where you could easily slip and fall. I had to constantly look down to avoid a fall. It was a long day of meditative running. I had my earbuds with me in case I wanted to listen to music, but I never did. I just wanted to be be out there and soak it all in. The last 5 miles before I got to the next checkpoint, Montara Hut, were painfully slow. Walking a lot and running, um…shuffling a little. Ugh. It sucked. But, I just was running out of strength and energy. After 7 hours, my Suunto Ambit2 watch had lost all of its battery life and from that point on, I didn’t know how far I was. I had my phone so I knew the time, but not mileage. I was thinking what should I do when I get to Montara Hut? Should I pull myself or keep going? Well, I didn’t take too long to decide. By the time I arrived at the station, I checked in and then said to the 2 ladies there, “I don’t think I can go on, I think this is it for me.” They looked at with such care and sweetly said, “well, that’s ok. You’ve come so far already. But, if you want, just sit, eat and think about what you want to do.”
I sat down, had some water and one of the ladies came over and brought me some food to choose from, saying, “can I get you anything else?” She was so nice!!
One of the women volunteers who was keeping track of the runners at this stage came over and asked if this was the end for me and I said yes. That was it. My Kepler Race was over. I went to the bathroom, put my long rain pants on and then sat and waited for the boat to take me and another fella across to the start line. I sat in the sun and felt ok with my decision. If I continued on, I would have had to walk the remaining 9 miles and there was ZERO desire in me to do that in the condition I was already in.
As I write this, I feel a bit teary, but I knew not finishing was a possibility due to my level if training and fitness and the proximity this race had been to my October marathon. I knew it was a push. I knew it was a gamble. So, I am without surprise, and yet still with disappointment of not crossing the finish line. I wanted that for me. No fanfare, no one here traveling with me, I don’t even think you get a medal….but I wanted to cross, just as I do every race. But, on this day, I didn’t want to walk those last 9 miles and finish that way. I did not strain over my decision as I feel I also made a smart decision for my body.
Today, of course, I am sore; legs, especially my quads, feet and back are all feeling it. I earned every bit of soreness and remain proud of my efforts. I looked at it as an adventure, and it was. With all it’s astounding, made for gasping beauty, it really was quite and adventure.
Total time: note sure as my watched had stopped, but approx 8 hours, so min
Distance: 27.6 miles
Ascent: 5,252 feet **most ever so far
Descent: 4,377 feet **most ever so far
This was the most challenging and difficult race I have attempted. It surpasses the 40 miler, the 50k trail run Tennessee and the 34.4 miles I ran as part of the JFK 50.
I want to give a MASSIVE shout out to all the Kepler volunteers. They were amazing and so giving!!
Thank you to my friends and loved ones who have cheered me on!! I felt you with me in spirit!!
If you are a runner, put this race on your bucket list. If you are alive and breathing, put this place on your list to walk, hike, etc…
More pics some from the top and then thru forest.
A footnote on that last pic of me at my finish: I was trying to give a sad face for not finishing and it doesn’t look like I just ran what I did, doesn’t look as though I ran 26 hard ass miles. I assure you I did!
I could also not be to bummed in the moment as the ladies who helped me were so amazing and sweet!