At one point or another, we all have a race or a run when things are just not clicking, when we just feel a bit “off.” I had one such run recently, at the 30thanniversary Kepler Challenge. By all accounts, I was geared up to have a great race. I was going into it trained, tapered, and with a happy sense of excitement. I hadn’t put a lot of pressure on myself, and I was looking forward to the challenge and taking in the beauty of the area with a throng of rad people. I was also incredibly grateful to be there at all, because I’d won a free entry to the sold-out event from Further Faster, an independently owned outdoor gear shop in Christchurch that is one of the Kepler Challenge sponsors.
In my thirst for adventure, the mountains and time shared with friends, I’d ignored an underlying deep fatigue I was dealing with. It took a friend’s observation to help me put it together afterwards. “You looked really tired,” he said. This was two days before the race. He was right. After pushing through a particularly intense period of work and growing my business, I was mentally and physically exhausted. The training had been going well and I relished both the sense of progress and the time in nature that it gave me, but I was still running on fumes.
Ignoring this was a mistake that had potentially dangerous consequences, because when I’m overtired, I fall a lot. I fail to pick up my feet properly and trip and stumble while trail running. Usually I catch myself and laugh it off. But this time I wasn’t so lucky.
The first half of the Kepler Track is spectacular. After climbing out of the forest, runners are rewarded with 360 degree views of Fiordland. Words cannot do justice to the craggy exposed peaks and rugged untamed beauty of this part of New Zealand. I wished that the entire course were up here, that the Kepler Challenge traversed the full length of these majestical ridges twice.
At Luxmore Hut, I got a big boost from the excitement of all the volunteers dressed in superhero costumes. It felt like a portal into the best part of the course, and I was buzzing with anticipation. I chatted to my Further Faster team mate Ode, who was there supporting, grabbed a few jet planes for the road, and pulled on a Montane thermal layer.
Dramatic rain and wind swept across the tops. This only added to my sense of excitement and I was grateful that it made my senses more alert. I knew I was feeling more physically fatigued than usual, but I assumed that it would pass once got I started on the part of the course that would be more my forte.
Having started conservatively on the climb, I was looking forward to stretching out my legs on the ridges and descent. A downhiller at heart, I love the sense of freedom and thrill of speed during a good hard descent. This downhill didn’t disappoint and I secretly wished it was longer, because I was having fun and working my way forward in the field.
Once I’d gotten safely down onto the flat groomed forest trail, I relaxed a bit and started to get my head around 30 kilometres of flats. Just as I was settling into a comfortable rhythm, BOOM! I caught a toe and did a superman dive/face plant. I hit hard enough to rip the race bib from my shorts. My knees, elbows and hands were bleeding. I heard a couple runners behind me gasp and call out to check on me. I was a bit stunned and didn’t realize at the time that I’d also knocked my head, right on the temple. I did what we always do as runners. I got up, shook it off, and kept running. I tried to focus on the birdsong in the forest and light filtering through trees to bring me back to reality.
It wasn’t until my condition started to deteriorate that I knew I must have done something. My usually positive and friendly state of mind was gone. Instead I felt dizzy and confused. My vision was rippling and blurred, as if I was looking at the trail underwater. I was nauseous and disoriented. Having stayed on top of nutrition and hydration, I knew I wasn’t that severely dehydrated or bonking. This felt different from a bonk.
It wasn’t until I took off my hat, saw it covered in dirt and felt dirt crusted onto my right temple that I realized I was probably having concussion symptoms. “Oohhh,” I said aloud. “I need to get my ass to the medical tent.” By that point I was only about 15 kilometres from the finish. I probably should have dropped there, but the lack of direct road access meant I’d probably be getting myself out of there on foot anyway. In my delirious state, I’d forgotten I could have caught a ride out of the forest in a helicopter that was there to help injured runners get medical attention.
I kept repeating to myself, “one foot in front of the other,” and focused all my attention on staying upright despite the vertigo. I was on self-preservation autopilot. When volunteers and supporters at Rainbow Reach asked with concern if I was alright, all I could communicate was “I fell,” and continue shuffling forward. The thought of dropping just 9 kilometres from the finish somehow hurt more than my battered body, and I have to admit I was too proud to admit how much I was struggling. I was also a bit embarrassed that I’d concussed myself on a flat gravel footpath.
At one point, I had a chuckle to myself remembering a conversation I’d had with my mom a few years prior. I’d taken a header trail running and given myself a black eye. When my mom saw me, she gasped and told me earnestly that I needed to wear a helmet when mountain running. The laugh I had imagining myself showing up to Kepler next year in full hear gear was enough to lift my spirits.
The finish line was blur, and I shuffled my way over it straight toward the ambulances, wishing I could be a part of the finish line festivities but grateful that I’d gotten myself safely back. The staff in the medical tent were lovely and took great care of me. They did a thorough examination and thankfully deemed my concussion minor but exacerbated by fatigue and exertion. They gave me instructions for recovery and said to go straight to the ED if my symptoms worsened later.
After some rest and recovery time I’m feeling more like myself again. But this experience was certainly an eye opener – not to underestimate the need for rest and recovery, more than we might think necessary. As endurance runners or outdoor athletes, we’re well accustomed to dealing with fatigue and continually override it in order to carry on, but that can come back to bite us from time to time. Our spirits might be unbreakable and brave, but our bodies are still vulnerable, flesh and bone.
Despite sustaining a head injury and zombie shuffling for 30 kilometres (or perhaps because of this), Kepler has gotten under my skin. I didn’t have the day I’d hope for, but I experienced enough of the magic of the area and the legacy of the event to know that I’ll be back next year and many more to come. See you in 2018! I won’t forget my helmet next time.