Introduction to the Kepler Challenge

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?

There are 25 comments

  1. Iain

    Spent two months in NZ exploring all three (!) islands in 2008. Can definitely say that the Keplar is an awesome route though only walked it during my visits. Can though recommend running in/around Tongariro (North Island), a trip up to Welcome Flat Hut (Westland/Tai Poutini, South Island), and all of Rakiura/Stewart Island (the Third Island). Lonely planet also do a Tramping (Walking) in NZ book that can be utilised for the purposes of running… Have fun and watch out for active volcanoes…

  2. Stewart

    I spent a month on the South Island 5 years ago and I've wanted to go back ever since. The scenery is breathtaking wherever you go. The actual parks are amazing, and the regular unprotected areas are just as spectacular as many parks in the USA. It's a long flight over there, but once you're there you'll never regret it. Transportation is easy and there's lots of super cheap but well kept hostels as well as some good deals on camper vans. I would recommend it to anyone, whether they're a runner or not. However, you probably want to stay for at least two weeks to make it worth the price and length of travel.

  3. Silke

    My husband and I ran the Kepler Track in NZ in Dec 2011 – it was absolutely amazing and one of the most scenic runs in NZ and possibly even the world. Here's my blog post and photos of the run: [broken link to Dirt Proof December 2011 article on Running the Kepler Track removed]

  4. Charlie

    I ran the Kepler Challenge last year and it is by far the best race I have ever done. Extremely well organized, the trial is incredibly well maintained – smooth and buttery the entire way and the scenery is brilliant. It is on at the best time of year in NZ when the weather is (usually) good, the days are long and there is plenty to do. Kepler is one of those event that requires you to carry a fair bit of gear and all competitors have to go through a check at the Luxmore Hut. Even so I can highly recommend it.

    A couple of Aussies who will be pushing the front runners will be Andrew Tuckey and Tony Fattorini. 2012 should be one of the better races up front for a few years.

  5. Jon Allen

    Like some of the other comment-ers, I tramped (hiked) the Kepler a few years ago. I hadn't ventured into ultras back then, or I definitely would have tried my hand at it. Beautiful area, one of the highlights of my life. If anyone is thinking about doing the race (or just travelling to NZ), do it.

  6. Sage Canaday

    Yes, it's a dream of mine to travel to New Zealand (to run of course)! What other big ultra/mountain races do they have there? (I'm totally clueless and out of the loop on these things). Kepler looks awesome although it will probably always be around the same time as TNF50. Thanks for all the info and sharing stories! Can't wait to go there one day.

  7. Larry Adams

    Definitely added to my "must run" venues.. this looks like an awesome course.. Since I have family in that area of the world I now have another excuse to head and visit New Zealand. It's been a dream for a while now..

  8. Buzz

    I did the Kepler Challenge about 15 years ago. The required gear was annoying, as it always is, and the course is good, but odd – a steep up, rollers across a plateau, a very steep down, then a very long and gradual run out.

    The Track itself is good, but all the Great Walks in NZ are good, so I wouldn't go back to the race, unless you want to pay money to be around a lot of people briefly.

    I rate the Tongariro Circuit (not the Crossing) at the top, with the Routeburn of course right up there and the Abel Tasman Track close. The Heaphy Track is really good but logistics are tricky (I hired a helicopter, while for the AT I just hired a powerboat). The Stewart is usually a mudfest. The Milford Track is the most famous, but is sort of like the Inca Trail: it would be lovely and easy to run IAD but is so tightly regulated you aren't allowed to. Taranaki is definitely worth it though not a Great Walk; it's a pure summit route, and friends showed me photo's they took on top proving the ocean really is right there (I could barely see my own nose).

    The hardest race to get into is probably the Cradle Mountain Run, on sort of nearby Tasmania. It's hard to get into mostly because no one has ever heard of it. Which, obviously, is why I like it. It's also hard just to get to the start – takes days and days. Then the entry field is limited to something like 60 people, all who seem to know each other. I took my shoes off at the end and this big leach fell out of my sock.

    A few days later Galen and I backpacked the South Coast Track, which is really wild, but unrunnable IAD because the only way in is to hire 6-seater airplane which only leaves at a certain time of day, not giving you nearly enough daylight to get out. Plus, you can't run in thigh-deep mud anyway:

  9. John Fegyveresi

    I've hiked the kepler track three different times after getting back from my Antarctic deployments in 08, 09, and 10. It is one of my favorite hikes in New Zealand. Some spectacular ridgeline hiking and there's even great cave network (Luxemore Caverns) up near the summit. Great stuff.

  10. Michel Rysenaer, Bel

    In 2004 II hiked the tongariro crossing, the Abel Tasman, the Routeburn and the Milford. I just have to say : never miss an opportunity to hike or run in NZ. OK, its far but also by the greatest country for going outdoor. And the "kiwi" spirit is unbeattable.

  11. Sondre Amdahl, Norwa

    I ran the Kepler Challenge in 2003, as my first ultra. Fantastic course, fantastic country! I would love to travel back to NZ next year and do it again – ten years later..

    Sondre from Norway

  12. Galen

    I did the Kepler challenge in 2009 as my first ultra while I was living in Sydney for 2 years. It's incredibly scenic, well organized, and a lot of fun. A real runners course – non technical with a lot of flat fast sections. Because it's so far south, it doesn't take much to get above tree line and feel like you're running in a real alpine environment. Spectacular. Too bad I had an epic bonk.
    My race report:

  13. jonk

    Sage, come on down! Tarawera is a dream 100km here in NZ, Anton Krupicka and Tim Olson are turning up among an increasingly deep field, good luck this weekend.

    1. Paul

      Hey Bryon and Jonk,

      Thanks for the recommendation. Last years' Tarawera Ultra. was the most competitive trail ultra. in New Zealand's history. Next year is already deeper.

      The men's field already includes: Anton Krupicka, Timothy Olson and Jason Schlarb (USA), Vajin Armstrong (NZL), Brendan Davies and David Eadie (AUS). There are a number of other elite NZ and overseas runners lining up – but those 6 have already declared their intentions.

      The more the merrier I say :-)

      Cheers, Paul

  14. Schlarb

    Great write up Ian! I am very excited for this race. Yeah, this year should be a little better for competition. They have $5,000 for a new course record… the course record is pretty stout as Phil was a fast guy on the road (2:14 I think) and great on the trails too.

    1. Matt

      No one will go close to the Mens (4:37) this year, but the Womens (5:23) might get a look. A look at the top Men and Women can be found here

      As for Sage asking about other races above.

      Tarawera, Kaweka, Bedrock, Shotover Moonlight, Molesworth, Naseby, St James, Tararua plus a bunch of shorter races, everything from dirt roads to courses where if you fall you die like Avalanche Peak.

      Heaphy is one of the better runs but is aweful for logisitcs. Milford is doable as a run, plenty have done it, although that's generally off peak. Northern Circuit of Tongariro is indeed high up there in cool places to go and Tongariro is currently very active. ie went Pop last week again.

      Taranaki – so many fond memories. Frosty, Grant (owner of the above website) and I had a play there earlier this year, one of the best runnign weekends I've had. [Broken link to Run Longer Geek blogpost removed.]

      So come, play, enjoy.

  15. Campbell

    Was privileged to be part of the 25th running of the Kepler Challenge & now that I have had sometime to erase the pain, loved the experience. The course taught me some valuable lessons, especially not to hammer the 83 or so switchbacks on the downhill with over half of the race to go & making sure you never underestimate the conditions. As I live in Brisbane & can't handle the cold, I came very prepared & had my merino thermals on all day. Great community event & hope I get to come back one year & put my course knowledge to some use.

  16. Paul Reader

    Great article Ian…

    I traveled to NZ from the UK to run this race and was not disappointed and I will be returning to run this race again very soon……

    Thanks to Ian (Centurion Couching) for the help in training for the event :-)

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