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Everybody needs a long-term plan. Five years ago I built-up to running my first ever marathon. A year later I ran my first ultra, two years after that I ran my first 100km. When I first started running I could never imagine what I have accomplished now. I haven’t set any records, and only rarely feature in the front-runners of a race, but I have gained immense personal satisfaction by setting an audacious goal, training my butt off, and successfully pushing my physical and mental boundaries.

My next goal is definitely the most ambitious yet. I want to qualify for, compete in, and finish…..Ultra Trail Mont Blanc!

This 166km race takes in three countries, nearly 10km of vertical ascent, stunning alpine scenery, and crazy-good support from the numerous villages that the trail weaves its way through. Every year 2,000 racers line-up for the ultimate trail running challenge. The race celebrated its tenth anniversary in 2012, and enjoys a reputation of being “the Olympics of trail running”.

Ultra Trail Mont Blanc -click to enlarge

I am not kidding myself in terms of what is required to qualify for and complete this race. I am allowing myself the best part of four years to achieve this goal. My rough plan for building-up to the event is as follows:

– Tarawera Ultra 2013 (100km)

– Tarawera Ultra 2014 (160km, if it goes ahead!)

– Northburn 100 2015 (160km, 8,500m vertical ascent)

– Ultra Trail Mont Blanc 2013

I intend to track my progress to qualification on this blog in the years ahead. Wish me luck, and I’ll see you on the trails!

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Okay, so I have been very slack with updating this blog over the past year and a half. My biggest omission over this time is not posting about the Tarawera Ultra race. This 100km event takes runners from Rotorua to Kawerau in the centre of New Zealand’s North Island. The course follows some of the country’s most beautiful single track, taking runners through Redwood forest, around (and sometimes through!) stunning lakes, and passing dramatic waterfalls and gorgeous rivers.

Satellite view and elevation profile

Satellite view and elevation profile

The race has an entry limit of 400 runners, which looks like being reached for the first time in 2013. This is great news as 100km races are few and far between in New Zealand, so it is wonderful to see Tarawera meeting such tremendous success. It is one of the few races in the country where mid and back-of-the-pack runners can rub shoulders with professional rock-star class runners in a truly international field.

Me with good friend Brendon Keenan at the start of Tarawera 2011

Me with good friend Brendon Keenan at the start of Tarawera 2011

There are plenty of race reports available for Tarawera – so I won’t provide a full race report here. Suffice to say that if you enjoy well organised, brilliantly supported races with bags of stunning scenery, then this is the race for you.

The Damage Done - the aftermath of Tarawera 2012

The Damage Done – the aftermath of Tarawera 2012

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Had a fantastic training run on Saturday. Armed with my new-found knowledge of the Kepler’s course, I sought-out a realistic venue for some serious training action. I made my way to Masterton, about an hour and a half from Wellington, and had a stab at the Mt. Holdsworth-Jumbo loop track.

The course itself was excellent – a bit more rugged than I expect the Kepler to be, especially nearer the top of Mt. Holdsworth. I struck snow at 900 metres (good practice as I expect snow on the Kepler as well). I carried on up Mt. Holdsworth as far as Powell Hut (1,200 metres) before deciding to turn back. The snow was deep on the ground which meant slow progress. Visibility was around 100 metres, and I was on a track which was new to me (I was running alone). The responsible/clever thing to do was to turn back, so I did a swift 180 and headed back down the mountain. Once at the bottom again I veered left and headed up the other side of the loop track, towards Jumbo hut. This helped me to build the distance of the run up to my desired 42km. By the time I had finished it was brilliant blue sunshine overhead. I had crossed multiple wire suspension bridges and seen some truly stunning native bush. A brilliant day.

All in all – this was a very successful training run. Total time for this rather demanding marathon was 4:56, which is about where I need to be if I am to achieve my target of a sub-eight hour Kepler Challenge. The terrain and climb was similar to what I am expecting on the Kepler, and I think that I am finding the right balance of running/walking the ascents. I am feeling good, and although I was fairly stuffed at the end of the run I am growing in confidence regarding my ability to actually complete the Kepler Challenge and live to tell the tale!

Here is an elevation vs. Distance from the training run (click to enlarge).

MtHoldsworthElevation-Distance

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A big part of training for any event is trying to replicate actual race conditions. In an ideal world this means training on the event course itself – but for the Kepler Challenge this is not really an option.

Fortunately for me, the internet is a many wonderous thing – I managed to find a GPS file from a runner that has done the Challenge in a previous year. I was able to download the file and load it into the brilliant SportsTracks application for analysis.

By examining the GPS data I was, for the first time, able to see just how hard the Kepler really is. The GPS data forms a complete record of the runner’s experience on the Kepler – how long it took them to complete the run, how much of the track was uphill, how steep it was, even the pace at which they were running various parts of the track. This is all very useful information, and has proved invaluable to me both in terms of planning my training runs and measuring my progress.

The runner took seven and a half hours to complete the course. This is faster than my target time (eight hours), but close enough for me to set some goals around where I want to be on the course after certain time periods. It also answered my main question regarding the race – “if I walk up Mt. Luxmore, will I be the last person to finish the event?”.

The GPS data told me that the runner walked almost all of the ascent up Mt. Luxmore. In fact, he/she walked at several points in the race. This was a revelation to me, as I was worried that I would need to run all of the course if I was to meet my eight-hour target. Using SportsTracks I was able to see all of the points on the course where the runner slowed down to walking pace – at times they were going as slowly as 19 minutes per km.

Here is a profile map of their run – elevation versus distance (click on the thumbnail for a bigger version). It’s just one of a host of graphs that you can use to help plan your assault on the Kepler using SportsTracks.

Kepler-Elevation-Distance

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I’m a firm believer that in order to run the race you need the right gear. Having the right equipment for a given event means:

  • Increased chance of finishing the event.
  • Increased comfort during the event.
  • Increased motivation during training.

The Kepler Challenge is a demanding event. As such it requires more specialised equipment than what I have used in the past. Here’s a list of the gear that I am using, both for training and for the race day itself.

Trail Shoes – North Face Rucky Chuckys

Rucky Chuckys

Rucky Chuckys

I wear my Rucky Chuckys on my long, hill-based trail runs. I also intend to wear them on race day. The Kepler is a trail-running ultramarathon. Whilst the Kepler track itself is very well maintained, the tracks on which I train are not. I need a shoe which gives me great grip on soft clay and mud, performs well on gravel farm tracks, and won’t hurt my feet on sealed-road sections. The Rucky Chuckys fit the bill perfectly, and as an added bonus they are specifically designed for ultramarathons. They have tremendous grip (considerably better than the Teva X1-Racer and IceBugs that I have used previously). I have heard that if the conditions are dry some Kepler competitors run in their normal road shoes. I’m going against this trend as I believe that the added grip of the Rucky Chuckys will allow me to run down Mt. Luxmore’s steep inclines with added confidence and control – thus reducing the drain on my quads.

I visited a podiatrist prior to beginning my Kepler training to get professional advice on shoe selection. I strongly recommend that anybody considering a serious training commitment do the same – his advice was very helpful.

Road Shoes – Brooks Adrenaline GTS

Adrenaline GTS

Adrenaline GTS

I have been running in Adrenaline GTS shoes for the past five years. I have been through five pairs of these shoes and I expect to go through several more in the years to come. They are very comfortable, offer a smooth ride, and give me all of the support that my feet need. Whenever I run on sealed roads (or on flat, dry tracks) I choose to wear my Adrenalines.

Watch – Garmin Forerunner 305

Forerunner 305

Forerunner 305

I have been using my Forerunner for the past two years and can honestly say that of all of the gear I use it has had the most dramatic effect on my running. To be able to accurately measure all aspects of a training run – how far, how fast, how hard I worked, how high I climbed – it has been a huge boost to my motivation and to my ability to stick to a training programme. It is also my dearest friend towards the end of any long or difficult runs. Being able to see exactly how far there is to go until the finish line is very important psychologically. By the same token, knowing that you only have another 50 metres of climb before you reach the top of that huge hill makes a world of difference when you feel tired. Finally, being able to track and measure my progress by viewing the GPS recorded history of my running is tremendously satisfying.

The Forerunner is also a heart-rate monitor. Running with a monitor allows me to stay within a given heart-rate zone. This in turn helps ensure that I avoid over-training. The use of the monitor is essential to being able to follow my training programme correctly.

Simple rule for me – if I am going for a run, regardless of length, I take my Forerunner with me.

Running Bag – Modified Kathmandu Nucleon 15L

Nucleon 15L

Nucleon 15L

Bags are often a last-minute consideration for runners, but this is a big mistake. Finding a bag that works for you, both in terms of comfort and convenience, is crucial to a successful run. I do all of my long training runs wearing the bag that I will use on the Kepler. This way I get used to wearing the bag in race conditions, and I notice all of the little annoying things that magnify on race day into virtual torture devices.

For example, my Nucleon is an excellent fit, and very comfortable to wear on short runs. But I noticed that when I wear it for more than a couple of hours, and when I am sweating a lot, it started to rub against my shoulders and the middle of my back. By the end of a three hour run I was rubbed raw, and I had a serious problem. By identifying this early on during my training, I was able to make some adjustments and improvements to the bag. I now have sections of polar fleece sewn onto areas of the bag so that the rubbing effect is mitigated. I know which areas of my shoulders and chest need to have lubricant applied to them to reduce chaffing.

Other small modifications that can improve comfort/preserve sanity include trimming the ends from your bag’s straps. I adjust the straps to get a good fit (with all of my gear inside the bag), trial the fit for a couple of long runs, then cut the excess strap material and melt the end with a match (to prevent fraying). This approach prevents the Chinese water torture effect of overlong bag straps whacking the side of the bag as you run.

It is not only comfort that can be improved by adjusting the bag during training. I have made several modifications which improve its usability, making it more convenient for me during long runs. The bag has several external pockets which are designed to take food/energy bars etc. But I found that they were too snug for my Leppin Squeezy bottles, requiring too much effort to remove the bottle when I get tired. So I added two neoprene pockets to the top of the shoulder straps. These are the perfect size for my Leppin, and double as a convenient place to keep my iPod during training runs. This also means that I can use the external pockets for other items which I previously needed to keep inside the bag.

I also found that my hydration bladder would sag when the liquid volume fell into the bottom third of its capacity. This would have the irritating effect of cutting-off the flow of the liquid, which resulted in me having to reach around to the back of the bag and press the bladder upright so that I could take a drink. We added a small hook at the top of the bag’s hydration pocket, and suspended the bladder from it. This keeps the bladder fully extended no matter how little liquid is in it – problem solved.

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Putting together a training programme for the Kepler Challenge was a bit of a journey into the unknown for me. Over the past six months I have trained successfully for two marathons. But these were quite straight-forward to plan for – I had a set distance (one which I had completed several times before) and were on normal terrain.

The Kepler is a different beast. The distance is 20km further than I have ever run before. The terrain includes running over a 1,500 metre mountain. Most worryingly, the average time for finishers in the 2008 event is just on eight hours…….that is more than double the maximum time that I expect to be on a marathon course.

I struggled for a long time with how to address these new challenges. I am used to long training runs in the hills, and I am lucky in that I have regional parks with excellent running trails within walking distance of my house. So adding in long hill runs was a no-brainer. I figured that the longer runs would just be an extension of the routes that I was already running. But how to deal with the possibility of being on the Kepler course for eight hours…..now that was a challenge! I decided to do a little bit of research. I found blogs from past competitors (here and here). I read through the (very useful) sample training guides on the Kepler Challenge website. Eventually, a training programme that looked as though it would work for began to emerge.

My programme is based on 16 weeks (including the event week). You can download my full training programme (in MS Word format) here.  It follows a weekly pattern of:

Monday – flat run at marathon pace (i.e. within my aerobic heart rate).
Tuesday – hill run at fast pace
Wednesday – flat run at marathon pace
Thursday – flat run at marathon pace
Friday – rest day
Saturday – long hill run at marathon pace (I allow myself to exceed my aerobic heart rate on hills)
Sunday – flat run at easy pace

As the programme advances, my distances increase. The Monday and Wednesday flat runs build-up to 20km distances, at which point the Tuesday hill run becomes a normal flat run. The main focus of each week is the Saturday long run, which eventually builds-up to a 50km run. The idea is to make each week’s distance increase small and gradual. This will (hopefully) allow my body to adjust to the increased strain without introducing the risk of over-training and injury.

To give you an idea of the climb involved in my hill runs, here are a couple of typical examples in elevation form:

Short Tuesday hill run –

Wind Turbine Run

Wind Turbine Run

Long Saturday hill run –

Belmont Long Run

Belmont Long Run

There is still a large question mark in my mind regarding time on the course. My long hill runs (30km) take me just on three hours to complete. I expect to be an average finisher in the Kepler i.e. to complete the distance in just under eight hours. I am not sure as to how I should be approaching my training runs from this perspective. Should I build some walking time into my long runs? This seems counter-productive. Should I be making a conscious effort to run slower? This also seems to go against everything that I have done previously in training. Should I simply increase the distance of my long runs, taking them over the marathon mark? I already have five very long runs in the programme, and I find the thought of adding more quite intimidating.

I guess that I will find out how things go over the next couple of months. I always have the option of altering my training programme as I go. I hate running just to fill time – I am the sort of runner that likes to go from point A to point B at a good, sustained pace. There must be a sensible compromise that I can adopt, but I have yet to see it.

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About three months ago I saw an ad for an upcoming trail running event called the Kepler Challenge. It is one of those races that I see advertised each year, and each time previously I would think to myself “Wow, that would be cool, but it is for elite athletes and endurance freaks”. The Kepler (as the advertising repeats ad nauseam) is regarded as the jewel in New Zealand’s mountain running crown. It is a 60km mountain run, one which sees competitors starting off by literally running over a 1,500 metre mountain, then when they arrive at the other side they get to run a full-length marathon over undulating trails. Make no mistake – this event was in the “dream about it, but never do it” category for me.

This year, however, something was different. For the first time in my life I actually entertained the idea of entering the event myself. I began to question my reasons for not having a go – what was I scared of? Why couldn’t I do it? Was it really so difficult that a “normal” person couldn’t finish it?

I have been running relatively seriously for the past three years. I should define what I mean by “relatively seriously”, as I know that one person’s training run is another person’s challenge-of-a-lifetime. I am a slow but determined runner. I have always enjoyed running, but I have never been competitive. For many years my running programme consisted of “get outside and run 2-3 times a week”. I ran my first marathon in 2005 in 4hrs 15m (which I was more than happy with). Since then I have run four more marathons, and I have reduced my best time over the distance to 3hr 25m. I typically run around the Lower Hutt/Wellington area, with a mix of flat running and hills during the week and a longer, hill-based run on the weekend. I enter running events because I enjoy the challenge that they offer, not because I expect to win them – as a general rule, if I finish in the top-half of any event I am pretty happy.

Over the past five years I’ve done several events that seemed intimidating when I first entered them. Crazyman, Porirua Grand Traverse , Motatapu Marathon, Tussock Traverse…..all of these events were daunting when I first attempted them, but I found them all to be quite achievable given grit, determination, the right gear, and (most importantly) the right training programme. Every year my events have become that little bit more ambitious. My ‘normal’ training runs have become more adventurous, and my confidence has grown accordingly.

So, I guess that on reflection my interest in entering the Kepler is the natural progression of the past few years. That doesn’t make the challenge any less daunting in my eyes – I have never run a distance greater than a marathon. The term ultramarathon has an intimidation factor that I cannot deny. And the Kepler is a mountain ultramarathon. The step-up from a standard marathon to an event like the Kepler Challenge seems like a big one – but then isn’t that why the event is called a Challenge? Not so long ago the thought of running a normal marathon seemed like an impossible dream to me…..now I consider it to be perfectly achievable. Given the success and personal satisfaction that I have experienced in marathon running, wouldn’t the Kepler Challenge present me with the biggest reward of my running life?

All of my self-doubts are now (to some extent) irrelevant. I have entered the Kepler Challenge, I am training for the Kepler Challenge, and in December of this year I will be running in the Kepler Challenge.

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