History of the Kepler Challenge
The Kepler Challenge has been a fixture on the New Zealand racing calendar for over 20 years. The inaugural race (planned to be a one-off) was organized to honour a Fiordland outdoor legend.
Of tough men, long skirts and bronze shoes
In 1988, the Te Anau community was looking for a way to commemorate the centenary of the re-discovery of Milford Track by Quinton MacKinnon (re-discovery as it is thought that a similar route had previously been used by Maori). At a public meeting it was decided that funds be raised and a statue be erected to honour Quintin MacKinnon.
MacKinnon's discovery made it possible for people to walk relatively easily and safely through the lofty Fiordland mountains to Milford Sound via the famous Milford Track, later proclaimed to be the 'finest walk in the world'. Only a few years after his discovery MacKinnon started guiding people on the Milford Track. A surprising number of men and women completed this trip in those pre-Goretex times of ties, hats and long skirts. Access to Milford by road only became possible in 1953 when the Homer Tunnel was completed.
MacKinnon's venture was the beginning of the tourism activity in this area, today worth millions of dollars, and as somebody's put it; 'until the rediscovery of MacKinnon Pass, Te Anau slumbered on the edge of the unknown'. MacKinnon himself unfortunately went missing, presumably drowned, on Lake Te Anau in 1892.
Amongst many other fundraising events the (then) Fiordland Athletic Club decided to organize a race on the Milford Track, which proved too much of a logistic nightmare. Instead they turned their attention to the Kepler Track, which was being built to relieve the pressure on the two Great Walks in the area; the Milford and the Routeburn Track. The Kepler Challenge name was chosen to express the fact that this was to be a race/challenge for all, not just the professionals and semi-professionals.
The race was run on 17 December 1988 with 149 runners competing. By then the Kepler Track was completed apart from 3km above the Luxmore Hut, which meant part of the course was run through virgin tussock. It was meant to be a one-off fundraiser but the response to it was such that the committee decided to continue to hold it and it has been run every year since then - it is now firmly established as the arguably premier mountain running event in New Zealand. A shorter, gut-busting 'sister' race was established later; the Luxmore Grunt, a 27km run up to Luxmore Hut and down again.
The first male and female runner to reach the Luxmore hut and subsequently complete the race earn a special prize, the title of 'King' or 'Queen of the Mountain'. Veteran runners say that in the men's field the King of the Mountain never goes on to win the Kepler Challenge.
The race trophy, a bronze running shoe (an Adidas Marathoner) is a cast of the type of shoe used by Russell Prince, winner of the first race.
Over the last few years the field, 450 in the Kepler Challenge, 150 in the Luxmore Grunt, has filled within an hour of the entries opening in mid-winter. In 2006 the registrations went online for the first time and the field filled in just over 30 minutes, demonstrating the popularity of the Kepler Challenge as the premier mountain run in New Zealand. The first race was also a successful fundraiser and today a statue of Quintin MacKinnon gazing up Lake Te Anau greets the visitors on the lakefront.