Jones wins sixth in row; Morgan defends title

Daniel Jones celebrates Kepler Challenge success on Saturday. PHOTOS: NATHAN BURDON
Daniel Jones celebrates Kepler Challenge success on Saturday. PHOTOS: NATHAN BURDON
It was six of the best for Daniel Jones as he and Katie Morgan successfully defended their Kepler Challenge mountain running titles in Te Anau on Saturday.

Jones’ sixth straight victory meant he equalled the record for most Kepler titles alongside Russell Hurring, who won six in a row from 1990 to 1995, and Ruby Muir, who won six times from 2012 to 2019.

The Wellingtonian was pushed throughout the 60km lap of the Kepler Track by Daniel Balchin and David Haunschmidt — Balchin, in particular, laying down a challenge early before Jones was able to outlast him, finishing in 4hr 41min.

“This year was really tight. It was really competitive and I guess that’s what you want — a bit of action," Jones said.

“You couldn’t back off because you never really know how far you are ahead or behind. You just have to keep working all the way to the finish.

"Dan Balchin pulled away on the way to Luxmore Hut and I just didn’t have the legs to go with him. I had to play it a bit tactically to save the legs, and I pushed it a bit more on the ridgeline."

Jones, who finished fifth in his Western States debut in California and 12th at Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc earlier this year, loves returning to Te Anau to race the Kepler.

“The volunteers and the Te Anau community just come together so well for this event. I just love coming back here. I’d highly recommend anyone comes down here if they want a quality community event."

Katie Morgan celebrates Kepler Challenge success on Saturday
Katie Morgan celebrates Kepler Challenge success on Saturday
Morgan also had an early battle on her hands with Nancy Jiang cresting into Luxmore Hut with a narrow lead.

She was able to overtake Jiang on the jagged and demanding single track before making it home more than 20 minutes faster than her 2022 winning time.

“I honestly wasn’t expecting to get the win again, so I’m super happy," Morgan said.

“I had a secret goal of 5hr 45min and I beat that. Everything really went to plan.

"I knew I wasn’t going to be the first to Luxmore Hut — Nancy is just a demon on the uphill — so I tried to keep her in sight and then I was just running scared the rest of the way, basically."

This was Morgan’s third Kepler Challenge.

She finished third in her ultra running debut behind Ruth Croft and Jiang in the rescheduled event in January 2022, before returning to win last December.

Te Anau’s Dwight Grieve, a New Zealand mountain running representative, was the first local home, shaving 10min off his personal best to finish in fifth place overall.

Dunedin runner Stephanie Wilson, competing in Te Anau for the first time, won the 27km Luxmore Grunt women’s title.

“I wasn’t too sure what to expect,’’ Wilson said.

"I started out a bit faster than I would normally start a race and I managed to maintain it. It was fun."

Jonathan Jackson started the day eyeing up Balchin’s Luxmore Grunt record, which was set in January 2022.

“I went pretty hard on the climb and I was only about a minute off where I was with Dan Balchin a couple of years ago, but I knew it would be hard because Balchin is an amazing downhiller,’’ Jackson said.

"I kept going hard so the other guys wouldn’t get a sniff of me and then it’s always hard from Brod Bay back because your legs are just jelly."

— Staff reporter