More Australians accepting Challenge

NATHAN BURDON
Last updated 05:00 09/12/2013

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No-one ever doubted the grandeur or the grit of the Kepler Challenge, but it also now appears to be developing into a serious international mountain race.

At Saturday's 26th edition, three Australians finished in the top five of the men's race, with Canberra runner Martin Dent breaking the course record set by Phil Costley in 2005, by more than four minutes.

The Kepler Challenge has had some great champions - Russell Hurring, Keith Murray, Martin Lukes, Vajin Armstrong and Costley, who before Saturday held the record in both the 60km race and the 27km Luxmore Grunt - to name a few.

The depth at the top of the field, however, has not always been great.

That could be about to change, with Australian runners coming across the Ditch to mount a challenge against specialist mountain runner Armstrong.

Far from looking disappointed at having his three-year domination of the event ended, the Christchurch runner already looked excited about the potential challenge ahead.

"I was super-happy with my run, I couldn't have done any better on the day. I know I can come back and run faster on another day, but you have to take your hat off to Martin. He's just an incredible athlete," Armstrong said.

"I always thought if you could get a marathon runner at the top of their form to come here and have a really good crack at it, they could do something really special. It's nice because it lifts the bar. If I want to win this race again I need to really step up and I've got something to aim for." Dent is a world class marathon runner - 28th at last year's Olympics and 23rd at this year's world championships - but before Saturday his only experience of ultra-distance events was a "DNF" in a flat 100km race.

Coming off a solid overseas campaign, three-time winner Armstrong started the race as the favourite.

By the time Dent sped away to a five-minute lead at the Luxmore Hut, it was a matter of whether the Australian would be able to maintain his freakishly strong pace, or whether he would fall back into Armstrong's arms.

"I was going pretty hard. I was getting lactic, but I was able to recover," Dent said.

"I haven't won any races overseas, so this is nice. It's probably the biggest mountain race in New Zealand, so it's good to be a part of it."

Dent collected $7500 in prizemoney on Saturday, courtesy of the $2000 win, a $5000 bonus for breaking the record and another $500 for being the King of the Mountain, or first to the Luxmore Hut.

It made for a big cheque, but it was one that Kepler Challenge organising committee chairman Steve Norris was happy to write out.

"The old knees got a bit saggy there," he joked.

"It's nice to see the record broken. Fortunately, we don't have to pay out the bonus every year, but every 10 years is fine."

Napier athlete Ruby Muir defended her title in the women's race, winning by more than 18 minutes.

After claiming her first win in 2012 soon after knee surgery, Muir's 2013 winter programme has been blighted by a stress fracture in her tibia, which meant most of her training was done on a bike.

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She led from start to finish on Saturday.

"I knew it was going to be hard. Biking doesn't really get you through 60km [of running], so the last 10km were all in my head, I was done," she said.

"I often run by myself and I got some pretty good motivation because 3km from the finish I saw my partner just behind me and that gave me a kick up the pants much more than a lady would have."

- The Southland Times

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