Introduction to the Kepler Challenge

An introduction to New Zealand’s Kepler Challenge trail ultramarathon.

By on November 27, 2012 | 25 comments

ASICS Kepler ChallengeThe December world ultra I wanted to bring to iRunFar reader’s attention is the ASICS Kepler Challenge in New Zealand, especially since 2012 is the 25th year of the race. The land of the Lord of the Rings movies has incredible trails so this provides the perfect excuse to visit for any runner.

Race Summary

Kepler is on Saturday, December 1st this year and it attracts runners from all over the world. I’ll admit that ever since I started running, I’ve looked for an excuse to see New Zealand again after backpacking there years ago. So this event holds a huge appeal thanks to the beautiful area it’s run through. The vistas can best be seen in photos from the race website’s gallery.

The 60-km (38-mile) course showcases the Kepler Track, entirely within the Te Anau region of Fiordland National Park on the South Island. (New Zealand is split into the North and South Islands.) It involves 4,400 feet of ascent on well-maintained trails, all at low altitude.

Kepler Challenge elevation profile

The Kepler Challenge’s elevation profile.

Starting at the Control Gates of Lake Te Anau, the route follows an easy first 3.5 miles before it takes a steady climb to the Luxmore Hut. The next 7.5 miles offer wonderful views of the South Fiord along the undulating tops before a spectacular descent to the Iris Burn Hut. A gradual 10.5-mile journey down the Iris Burn brings competitors to the Moturau Hut on Lake Manapouri and from there a 4-mile run to the last checkpoint at Rainbow Reach. The home straight follows alongside the Waiau River and back to the Control Gates.

Due to environmental and safety considerations, the field is limited to 450 competitors. However, the extreme popularity of the event and the lack of a lottery means the event sells out and fills a waiting list almost immediately (It took 6m42s this year!) when entries open around July.

Kepler Challenge photo

Racers on the Kepler Challenge course. Photo: Liz Barker

According to Steve Norris, Chairman of the Kepler Challenge Organising Committee,

It fills quickly due to the great atmosphere the event has, regarded as NZ’s premier mountain run from the running fraternity. What makes the race special is that it’s organised and supported by a voluntary committee with the support of the Fiordland community.

In addition, a shorter version of the race is held concurrently, the Luxmore Grunt. This follows the same route as the Kepler Challenge as far as the Luxmore Hut, then returns via the same route back to the Control Gates. For its 150 entrants, this reduces the distance to 27 kilometers (almost 17 miles),  but includes most of the ascent of the full distance.

Kepler’s Location
The organizers provide a great description of the local area:

Te Anau is known as the gateway to Fiordland and visitors to the area never fail to be impressed by the majestic Fiordland mountains standing guard on the western shoreline of Lake Te Anau. It’s not difficult to see why Fiordland National Park has attained World Heritage status and has been voted as the top destination in the world in a recent survey. Most of you won’t be keen to do the Kepler Track too soon after the event(!) but there are lots of other options for walks in the area. The Circle Track is an attractive day walk from Manapouri’s Pearl Harbour and this track also accesses Mt Titiroa to the south of Te Anau and Manapouri. The Milford Track departure point is from Te Anau Downs, about 20 minutes from Te Anau on the Milford Road and the Routeburn Track is accessed from the Divide, just over an hour from Te Anau on the Milford Road. The Milford Road, described as a destination in itself, provides endless opportunities for short walks or longer ones such as the Gertrude Valley, near the Homer Tunnel. The towering walls of the Cleddau Valley and Milford Sound are a treat for the senses and a cruise around this magnificent fiord is never a disappointment no matter what the weather.

Kepler Challenge course map

The Kepler Challenge course.

The Sharp End of the Field
The Kepler Challenge doesn’t necessarily attract a deep field of the world’s very best mountain runners and is more of an event for the rest of the field. However, the course records have held for several years – Men’s record: Phil Costley, 4:37:41 (2005) and Women’s record: Zelah Morrall 5:23:34 (2003) – and the current boom in ultrarunning and the according increase in competitiveness is bound to put them at risk in the near future. This year’s field includes the US’s Jason Schlarb and the UK’s Martin Cox, who’ll be challenged (no pun intended) by Kiwi runners Vajin Armstrong and Martin Lukes.

Kepler Challenge scenery

One of the many beautiful views at the Kepler Challenge. Photo: Liz Barker

Call for Comments (from Bryon)

  • If you’ve ever run the Kepler Challenge let us know what the race is like. Likewise, if you ever visited the area.
  • Do you dream of running in New Zealand?
Ian Sharman
is the Director of the Altra US Skyrunner Series, a professional running coach, and a sponsored ultrarunner who has competed in top-level races all over the globe.