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Halberg Awards nomination for world-beating trail runner Ruth Croft
Halberg Awards nominee Ruth Croft has proved a world-beating trail runner over the past 12 months or so. Steve Landells chats to the West Coaster to find out more about her exciting talent and love of the mountains.
The fact athletics boasts five of the 21 nominations for the Sportswoman of the Year Award at the forthcoming 2018 Halberg Awards speaks volumes for the rich quality and quantity of athletes embedded within the sport in New Zealand.
Among those to have deservedly made the list include the Commonwealth Games medal-winning quartet; Eliza McCartney, Julia Ratcliffe, Dame Valerie Adams and race walker Alana Barber.
However, one slightly leftfield selection many will perhaps not be so familiar is Ruth Croft, who can lay serious claim to being the world’s number one marathon-distance trail runner after landing the inaugural Golden Trail Series during a stellar 2018.
As for the Halberg nomination – this came as a totally unexpected “additional bonus” for the Wanaka-based runner, who celebrated her 30th birthday only two days ago (Jan 15).
“The nomination came totally out of the blue,” admits modest Ruth.
“I’m just pleased that Athletics New Zealand had taken my accomplishments into consideration because ultra-running has been under the radar. The nomination is good for the sport and hopefully it can help grow the profile of trail running too.”
West Coast girl
Born in the small town of Stillwater near Greymouth on New Zealand’s rugged West Coast, Ruth has long had a connection with the outdoors since going on family hiking trips as a youngster.
Her running career was formalised under the coaching of Mike Riley as a boarder at Rangi Ruru Girls’ School and she quickly proved a natural representing her country in the 3000m steeplechase at the 2006 World U20 Championships in Beijing and two years later in the U20 race at the World Cross Country Championships in Edinburgh.
Showing great versatility – and the first signs of her ability on the trails – she also earned top six finishes in the U20 race at both the 2005 and 2007 World Mountain Running Championships.
She later went on to live, train and study for four years at the University of Portland in the USA but the experience proved underwhelming for the young talented athlete.
“I never really enjoyed or had the passion for track and field,” she explains. “Track was never going to be my path. I always enjoyed the terrain of mountain running much more.”
After first becoming “intrigued” by the Asian culture following her appearance at the 2006 World U20 Championships in Beijing, she re-located to Taiwan in 2011, where she initially worked as an English teacher.
Keen to re-engage with running she opted to enter the 15km race as part of the North Face 100km Challenge in Taiwan. However, after discovering entries had reached capacity, she instead signed up for the 50km race and to her great surprise triumphed.
“I fell out of love with running during my time in the US but fell back in love with it again thanks to trail running,” she says. “I enjoyed being part of a smaller community again, a little like in New Zealand, and on top of this I was competing in some pretty remarkable places.”
Her trail running success quickly caught the eye of Garmin, who took her on as part of a new team in South-East Asia. Combining part-time work for them around her training demands proved successful as Ruth build up a formidable reputation for trail running excellence.
Dividing her competitive year between Asia and Europe, Ruth secured victory in the 2014 60km Tenzing Hillary Everest Marathon – described as the world’s highest marathon – and later went on to triumph in the prestigious Courmayeur-Campex-Chamonix 100km event in France.
Home sweet home
However, after six memorable years based in Taiwan the lure of home proved too much and in late-2017 she took the decision to return to her New Zealand, settling in the stunning resort town of Wanaka.
With easy access to numerous stunning trails such as the 1400m climb of Roy’s Peak – Ruth describes Wanaka as a trail runner’s “paradise” – the benefits of the switch have been born out in the results.
“I think 2018 has been one of my most consistent seasons and much of that is having enjoyed that pre-season in Wanaka, where I can train in the right environment,” she says.
“My training in Taiwan – where for 95 per cent of time I was running on concrete river trails – was just not working out. I needed to be based somewhere more conducive to training.”
Jono’s magic dust
Training anywhere from 100km-150km a week is demanding, although she has another ace card to play in that she is coached by six-time former World Mountain Running champion and Kiwi Olympian Jonathan Wyatt.
First acquainted with Jono – who today lives in Italy and serves as the World Mountain Running Association president – since she competed as a junior at the World Mountain Running Championships, three years ago she asked him if he knew of anyone who could coach her.
To Ruth’s surprise he agreed to take on the responsibility and after a successful initial two-month trial period, the coach-athlete relationship has gone on to flourish under Jono’s vast experience.
“He’s done everything on the road, mountain running and trail and he’s very level-headed and offers a great perspective,” Ruth explains of her Kiwi coach. “He’s raced in Europe, so he knows so much about the scene there.”
Global trail running queen
Leading into 2018 and delighted at the setting up of the six-event Golden Trail Series, which would offer a clear narrative to the otherwise fragmented global trail running scene, she went into the series with few expectations.
Requiring to complete at least three of the five races in the series to earn a spot in the top ten and a place in the final – the Otter African Trail Run – she enjoyed great success.
Opening her campaign with a third place finish in the 42km (2736m elevation) Zegama Mountain Marathon in Spain she then went on to claim victory in the 42km (2750m elevation) Mount Blanc Marathon in France.
Her high level of consistency continued as she placed fourth in the 31km (2200m elevation) Sierre Zinal in Switzerland and after earning qualification into the season-ending Otter African Trail Run on South Africa’s iconic Garden Route, she finished second to ensure overall victory in the series.
It was a sweet moment for the West Coaster, who also enjoyed domestic success in 2018 by setting the women’s course record in the 51km Motatapu race and the triumphing in the 27km race at the Kepler Challenge.
New goals ahead
After a highly successful 2018 campaign the breadth of her ambition has expanded for the 2019 season – where she has set some fresh targets.
The Trail World Championships in Portugal in June are a major target as is the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in Argentina in November. The defense of her Golden Trail Series will also be high priority, while Ruth also plans a crack at the Seoul Marathon in the South Korean capital in March.
“Jono is always keen for me to run new races and try something different,” she explains. “Off just a seven-week training block I ran a 2:40 marathon in Tokyo in 2016 and I would like to think I could run a little faster. It will be nice to have a mental break from the trails.”
Insisting the stiff marathon standards set at 2:29 to qualify for a Olympic Games or World Championships is probably beyond her, Ruth believes her future lies predominantly on the trails.
“The 42km to 50-mile distance (on the trails) is a good range for me. I’m probably better suited to the less technical races and I prefer the more runnable races, although having said that they are far from flat with many having more than 2000m of elevation per race!”
Sharing her time for six months a year in New Zealand and six months in Freiburg, Switzerland provides the perfect balance to deliver on the global trail running stage and it is not something she is willing to give up any time soon.
“I love the lifestyle of being a trail runner and what it has enabled me to do,” adds Ruth whose Swiss boyfriend, Martin Gaffuri, is also an international trail runner. “I’m very fortunate that running has allowed be to travel to so many places, meet so many people and experience so many different cultures.”