Going to New Zealand to come full circle
By Sean Run Bum Blanton
Just went down to New Zealand over Thanksgiving. I went down to go and conquer a race. This race is called the Kepler Challenge. It’s 64 ish kilometers and runs the ENTIRE Kepler Track on the South Island of New Zealand. Exactly 4 years ago I was on a trip to New Zealand. I had bought tickets right after the stock market crashed and the USD tripled to other world currencies over night. It was November and I had just run my first 10k EVER, the Peachtree Road Race, a couple months before. I had never run before the Peachtree. I had played soccer my whole life . I though running was stupid and for girly men. Well for whatever reason that thought changed. I saw running as a challenge. I wanted to break 40 minutes on a 10k. After trying for 3 months (granted I had NO idea what I was doing) I never accomplished this. 40:30s was my fastest.
I decided if I couldn’t go faster I would go further. I would endure, the way I always had. I used to pride myself on being able to run harder and faster than anyone at the end of a soccer match. Sometimes on Fridays I would go and play 4-5 hours of pick up soccer. I would play one game start to finish and then a new game would start and I would just keep playing. No food, no water, no Gatorade. Play until I couldn’t walk. I loved soccer. It was this mentality that helped me transition to running.
I don’t remember why, but I was looking at races down in New Zealand for my up coming trip and I found the Kepler Challenge. It was 64 km. “HOLY GOD!” I thought. This was too far and too much. I then saw that they had a 27km (17 miles name the Luxemore Grunt) version as well. It was an out n back. I signed up. GULP! What had I done? After further review of the course, map, site etc.. I found this was a HARD mountain race. I had never run on trial before and I have never run up a mountain.I only had a couple of weeks to get ready, which clearly isn’t enough. I didn’t know that. Ignorance is bliss right? I started ramping up my miles in an effort to get ready.
After 3 weeks of “specific” training and 18 hours of flight time to get to literally the other side of the world, there I stood. I stood at the the start of something that would change my life forever, though I didn’t know it at the time. With the announcer calling out 60 seconds until the start of the race I took a deep breath. I looked out into the sold out crowd of runners. All ages and sizes. I looked past them onto Lake Te Anu. I had almost forgot the main reason I signed up for this race, the beauty. A calm glacier carved lake mirrored its back drop of mountains and middle earth setting as long as one could see. Cool mountain air calmed my lungs as my heart beat out of my chest.
5, 4, 3… What was I doing? I was on the other side of the world thousands of miles from home…ALONE. 2, 1, GOOOOOOOOOO!!!!
The flood gates had opened and we rushed forward. 1/4 mile before we hit beautiful pacific northwest rainforest like trail. Giant trees swallowed the light and sound. Soft ground absorbed our steps. I tried to settle into a grove. Some 20 minutes later I did, but then we started to climb. Immediately EVERYONE started walking. I laughed ot myself. Why would you walk?!? I kept running. Little did I know it was a 3500 ft climb up and up. I battle this tooth and nail. Pushing past my breaking point the treeline broke and we were fully exposed. I was now running alone with a person here and there in front and behind me. I looked around. My jaw dropped. This was what this entire race and trip were about. Pushing my body to get me to this point. No car could drive up here. I was in the mountains and looking down on to the fjords. An epic view in itself. 10 minutes later I hit the turn around. I downed water and turned around back down the “hill”. My legs felt weird. I felt a twinge. Then I felt another, and another and another. Then a terrible pain as my calves seized up. I had never experienced this in my life. I wanted to move my legs but I couldn’t or they would seize and I would yelp.
I was top 10 at the turn around and had people pass me right and left. I was pissed but there was nothing I could do.
We finally got to the flat again. The cramping had slowed down but not stopped. I pushed through it limping and dragging my right leg.
I popped out of the trail to see the finish line. I ran through. The announcer proclaimed “This lad has come all the way from Atlanta, Georgia in the USA. Well way to go on your first Luxemore Grunt!” I began to cry, cry very hard. Tears of joy, relief and sadness. This was the hardest and most beautiful thing I had ever done in my life. I was here alone. I had no one to share this moment with. Just myself. No one would ever truly know what I experienced that day but me. The prodigal son had found his place back home.
When I got back to my hostel I signed up for 3 marathons and the rest is history. I have run over 80 ultras since then, I blow ALL of my money on running and traveling to run, and now I am trying to make a living from race directing and running. I just want others to experience what I experienced that day.
For the past 2 years I had been trying to get back down there to run the 64km Kepler Challenge race to come full circle. Well finally this year I found a good flight and a buddy to go with me. I have done way harder races than the Kepler but few have been more significant to me. I lined up next to one of my best friends Graham. The race was only the start of a great holiday of mountain running and EPIC adventures. This was to be the furthest he had ever run and for me I was out of distance shape but in decent 5k/mountain running shape. My goal was not to race this. My goal was to enjoy the beauty of it and push hard through the first 30k which is all mountain/ridge running and then go easy on the last flat 30k. We had 8 days to do as much as we could and I didn’t want running a race to blow me up for this.
The gun went off and we rushed forward. I got caught in the bulk of people. I bombed a slight downhill with Graham and passed about 50 people. I heard people commenting about how silly it was and that we had 64 km to speed up. This is true but there is a certain pace that is so slow it hurts because it is an unnatural stride for me. I didn’t listen to that and we kept moving up. I got to a pace were I felt good for a 64km run. We settled in and before we knew it we came ot the limb. The same climb that had kicked my butt 4 years before. The Luxmore climb. I felt great today. I knew I shouldn’t but I couldn’t help myself. I ran the whole dang thing with some short walking breaks in there. It was a miserable weather kind of day. Clouds, rain, wind and fog plagued us from the start. Even in the bad weather I couldn’t do much but smile. I wanted to be here rain or shine.
The climb wasn’t bad. We were to the tree line in no time. Then the wind came! 40 mph + head wind. MY GOD! I put all my mandatory gear on. My outter shell acted like a parachute and almost caused me to blow off the dang mountain. I had people running by me on this flatter section. I relaxed and didn’t fight the wind. I made it to the Luxemore Shelter/aid station. I grabbed some goddies and took off. It was more up another 1000 ft or so. We snaked around and I kept passing people on the climb. Finally we hit a down hill at the pinnacle of the wind too. I did what I love to do, bomb down hill. At this point it felt good to keep picking off people. Sometimes the competitive part of me gets the best of me. All in fun of course.
Then I came to people standing in front of a hut waiving their arms to make everyone stop. They then pointed up to the left off this razor thin ridge we were on. It was a helicopter and it was trying to land. I waited for 2 minutes as it landed. They staff helped a guy into the helicopter who was bleeding profusely from his head. I guess he had taken a nasty fall. It looked GNARLY.
I carried on on this epic ridge run. It was my favorite part of the whole race and it is why I run mountains, for those wide open ridge runs. Finally we dropped way down back into the woods. The mountain section was coming to an end. I was a sad panda. I bombed this down hill and came into the 30k to go point at about 3:20. I felt great.
I now SLAMMED on the brakes and mixed in a heavy amount of walking. I had gone 80% effort until this point so why slow down? Well mainly because I knew I wasnt in flat or rolling hill shape and I knew that I wanted to go run and hike tomorrow so I decided to take it easy. I just sat there for the next 3 n half hours while people passed me. I tried to chat up as many folks as I could. I saw so many miserable people. Rather people who were in misery*. I always think this is funny. 90% of races I slow down and take it easy so I don’t blow myself up or feel terrible. This is so I dont burn out on racing and blow my legs out. I mean after all the point of racing is to have fun right?
I enjoyed the change of scenery over the next 18 miles. This was SURELY middle earth. I kept waiting for a hobbit to pop out. The rain started and it was god send. It cooled me off and silenced everything but my breathing.
Before I knew it there was 5k to go. A smile on my face the tears began to come again. The same way they had come some 4 years before. I was about to come full circle in this running thing. I was still just taking it easy. About 1 km or so from the finish I began to hear the announcer over the pa system as he called the runners home. I looked down at my watch and it was about 6:55 ish minutes. A guy had just passed me (again I was running to finish here not racing). At this point I would be embarrassed if I didn’t go under 7 hours I thought. Push it a tad at least. So I went from easy shuffle to full stride 5k pace in two steps. It felt amazing.
A full stride this late in a race. I reeled the guy in. Then I saw another and another. I passed 2-3 people and then I popped out of the woods. I knew we were close. Then we hit pavement. There was another guy 3-4 seconds in front of me. He turned as saw me and took off. I went into a sprint. I chased him down as my goal had been to go 50% effort the last 3:30 hours. Nothing amazing there. But hey it always feels good to finish in a sprint at a race. I finished in 6:58:xx. The announcer read my quick story of why I had come(as he did everyone else who finished). I smiled a smile so big it hurt. I hugged the 3 guys who had just raced me the last 3 minutes. We we all smiles. WHAT AN AMAZING EXPERIENCE. I looked around me to see the runners, the families, the friends, the volunteers, the lake, the mountains, the woods, the sky, and the clouds. I tried to take it all in. I simply couldn’t describe or get enough of everything around me and what it was doing to my senses. I will be back again hopefully every year. Maybe next year I will race it all out.
The Kepler Challenge is one of those races to do before you die. New Zealand is a magical place and any run you do there will change your life.
The rest of my New Zealand and Cook Islands trip to come
UNTIL THE NEXT RUN!!! DO EPIC SH*T