The Kepler Challenge – Quite A Journey

The Kepler Challenge – Quite A Journey, by Russell Hurring. The 25th Kepler Challenge, New Zealand’s all time mountain running race, is now less than 1 month away and Kepler legend, the former 4hr41min course record holder and 6x winner, Russell Hurring shares his experiences on the race he made his own during the 90′s. This is the 3rd in a series of Kepler related posts in the lead up to the 25th annual Kepler Challenge You can read Russell’s earlier post “Kepler Challenge – Some Training & Racing Strategies“ HERE and Andrew Town’s Luxmore Grunt record run post HERE

I heard of the Kepler Challenge in its first year (1988) when a training mate was organising a tramping trip to the Te Anau area. He learned of the race and gave it some serious thought until his tramping buddies won him over. But my interest in the race was awakened and I followed all of its news until 1990 when I felt ready to take the start line.

By that stage I had won a few of the local Otago off road and mountain races but had raced nothing over two hours long so I really didn’t know what I was getting into with the Kepler. Russell Prince and Thomas Whitehead had proven to be the men to beat and Steve Gurney was also starting soon after finishing the length of New Zealand Xerox Challenge. The pace was on right from the start and Russell Prince soon disappeared into the distance. I ran with Thomas for a while but eventually pulled ahead and was on my own. I kept looking ahead for Russell but there was no sign of him. At Rocky Point on the way down the Iris Burn (23km to go) I asked an official how far in front he was. “There is no one in front of you” he said. The pressure went on then.

I was running scared, sneaking peaks back where I could, but going as hard as tired legs and lungs allowed. Some time after Rainbow Reach (10km to go) dehydration was becoming a big concern. I had to stop for water. Taking the cup I was carrying from my pack I climbed down a steep bank to the Waiau River for a good drink. That done and feeling better I resumed running to find just 200m down the path there was a drink station!!! 5km to go.I managed to hang on for the win and become the first person to break five hours for the event. Russell Prince came in second after getting lost in the bush somewhere before Iris Burn Hutt. Steve was 3rd. I was hooked. The whole weekend in Te Anau with like minded souls sharing race stories and strategies was wonderful.

So in December 1991 I was back on the start line. Comalco Aluminium Smelter was now on board as the major sponsor. First place would win a trip to the 67km Swiss Alpine Marathon in Switzerland so the race field was stronger than ever. I was in good shape and had confidence that my race strategy of the year before was sound. I set my own speed, strong but controlled, planning to reach the Iris Burn Hut in good enough condition to run the last part faster. But at Iris Burn I was well off the pace.

As I wound up my speed those in front started coming back. Just before Moturau Hut (15km to go) I caught the leading runner, formidable marathon man Graeme Macky. He was suffering but he was still there to race and he tracked me almost to Rainbow Reach. But again I held on to win in a new record time and was thrilled to have the opportunity to race a similar event in Europe thanks to Comalco.

Russell Hurring winning the 1993 Kepler Challenge

The next two years 1992 & 1993 were my best years on the Kepler Challenge. I had learned heaps racing in Europe and was highly motivated. My training had been interrupted by injury but my form was excellent. However, it was the emergence of Keith Murray that pulled the best out of me and made those years so memorable.

In 1992 Keith went for it. He used his very good descending skills to build a big lead. I was sticking to the race strategy that had treated me so well in the past and again wound up the pace from Iris Burn. But Keith was up to the task and maintained his lead. I was getting regular reports of the time gap from spectators and it wasn’t till I got to Rainbow Reach that there was any glimmer of hope of catching him. I finally caught Keith about 5km from the end and won again in yet another record time.

In 1993 Keith was determined to beat me. He changed his tactics and would not pass me. Andrew Peskett was trying the Kepler that year too having regularly beaten me in off road races around Dunedin. Andrew was under strict instructions from his coach to follow me. So the three of us, and others from time to time, had a nice pack run around the Kepler Track. Again I wound up the pace after Iris Burn Hut and my companions were quite happy to do that too. We reached Rainbow Reach still all three together. I was starting to wonder if I had done enough sprint training, not usually a priority on a Kepler Challenge training programme.

Shortly after Rainbow Reach Andrew slowly faded. But Keith stayed strong till 3km from the end. I was very lucky to win that one and greatly appreciated the race day companionship that had propelled me to my best ever time 4:41:32, a record that stood for 12 years and is still the second fastest time run on the track.

Russell running his 10th Kepler Challenge in 2010

In 1994 and 1995 I was again able to win the Kepler Challenge, although in slower times. Conditions were slower in both those years but the wheels were also starting to fall off my fitness. I was 41 years old, not taking sensible breaks in mileage. Building up for the Swiss Alpine Marathon each year in the middle of winter was also hard on my system. My Achilles tendons were grumbling more than ever and I went for surgery late in 1995.

The surgery was very effective but recovery was slow and my ability to race at the top level was gone. But since then I have enjoyed a further four Kepler Challenges, ten in total and all done in less than 50 hours. I am very grateful that my ageing body has allowed me to keep completing the Kepler Challenge, and even more grateful for being able to keep mixing with the wonderful people who take on these crazy challenges. Inspiring.

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  1. Bloody good post mate. This year will be an EPIC!

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