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1 December 2021 • General

Ruth the endurance queen toasts stunning year

Ruth Croft (Photo: Sarah Cotton)

From New Zealand to Australia onto the USA and later into Europe few Kiwi athletes have achieved more internationally in 2021 than trail running extraordinaire Ruth Croft.

Opening her year with a record-breaking win in the Tarawera Ultramarathon before going on to earn a brilliant second place finish on her 100-mile debut at the Western States Endurance race and climaxing her season with victory in the Festival des Templiers in France, the woman raised in the small West Coast town of Stillwater near Greymouth can look back with pride on her last 12 months.

There is little question that the 2019 World Trail Running Championship silver medallist is among the finest athletes at her craft.

Yet in 2021 she has taken the next step in her career development which bodes very well for the future.

“I had a lot of uncertainty (this year) setting up and preparing for 100 miles for the first time,” she explains. “It is hard to nail that distance on your first go but everything went right on the day. I’m very pleased with how the year panned out.”

“Grateful” to be in New Zealand at the beginning of the year the Wanaka-based athlete prepared well for the 102km Tarawera Ultramarathon. The second race on the prestigious Ultra Trail World Tour circuit and one of New Zealand’s premier trail races, Ruth could not have dreamed of a better performance.

Taking the lead around halfway she stopped the clock in a women’s course record of 9:21:03 and claimed the outright title.

“After the 2020 season in Europe it was awesome to come back to New Zealand and to be able to have a normal race experience at Tarawera, it’s just a great event that gets so many people out on the trails, which is always good to see,” she explains.

However, Ruth was a little critical of some of the media coverage which focused principally on the fact she defeated the entire men’s field.

“Sometimes the point was missed,” she says. “Some of the articles were click bait; ‘a woman beats the men’ but in hindsight it should be about women racing the women and men racing the men. The women’s events should stand out without having to compare them to the men.”

Ruth then switched emphasis to focus on having a crack at the Tokyo Olympic marathon entry standard of 2:29:30. Boasting a PB of 2:34:18 set at the 2019 Seoul Marathon it was an ambitious goal but one she felt was within reach.

In April she ran a swift 32:44 for a 10km in Christchurch – albeit on a course that was subsequently found to be around short – and won the 14km City2Surf also in the Garden City.

Opting to compete in a marathon at Penrith Lakes in Sydney, the day, however, did not go to plan and she quit at 31km.

“I knew from fairly early on I was not on pace, it was just one of those days,” insists Ruth. “But I wouldn’t say it was a big disappointment. I enjoyed the whole process of training. I knew it would complement the Western States which is a very runnable course, so my marathon training would roll over and help me for the trail season.”

Moving on to the US to prepare for the world’s oldest and most prestigious 100-mile event – it was not only the distance she would have to contend with. Extreme heat represented another challenge and besides stepping up her training runs to sometimes up to six hours a day – trying to beat the temperatures represented another important element.

Combining altitude training at Lake Tahoe in the Sierra Nevada Mountains with twice weekly trips to Auburn in California for heat training in temperatures of more than 30C went well. Meanwhile, Ruth also worked on a thorough nutritional plan with the help of Ien Hellemens

No stone was left unturned in pursuit of how to cope with the extremes of the most iconic 100-mile race in the world.

“It is a very special event with a great history,” she explains. “It was originally a horse race, but in 1973 Gordy Ainsleigh’s horse pulled with lameness at mile 29. The following year Gordy returned and decided to attempt it on foot, from then the Western States Endurance Run was born. The whole of the tight knit US trail community really gets behind the event. There is a lot of hype around the Western States, but it lives up to the hype.” 

Focusing largely for the first five hours of the race on her nutritional and hydrating plan and how best to keep cool running in the high country she opted to run with the 2020 runner-up Brittany Peterson. Eating “real food” such as oat bars and rice balls for the first 50km it was only thereafter did Ruth switch up her nutritional programme to liquid calories and gels. Making sure she took on board 60g of carbs, 800g of sodium and a litre of fluid per hour was essential in temperatures which soared to a scalding 40C+.

“The race has 20 aid stations where at each station they had accounted for 5kg of ice per runner,” she explains. “It was all about trying to lower my core temperature as best as possible. This was done with the use of an ice bandana, putting ice down my sports bra, arm sleeves, everywhere.”

From the 100km point onwards runners are allowed pacers and Croft was joined by pacers Alex Varner and her French boyfriend Martin Gaffuri, which helped raise spirits at different points of the race.

“Alex had great chat and listening to his dating life was pretty interesting and made the time go faster,” Ruth adds with a smile.

At times it was a grind but as a testament to both her fitness and meticulous preparation, it was only when she hit the final 15 miles or so did Ruth real start to wilt.

“I was massively struggling,” she explains. “At one point (in the final 10 miles) because of the massive blisters on the balls of my feet I was moving slower downhill than I was going uphill. Martin was giving me some tough love at that point, thankfully I did not have long to go – and I had also moved up to second place.”

Crossing the line in 17:33:48, Ruth hung on to second spot – 23 minutes behind the race winner Beth Pascall of Great Britain to finish ninth overall. It was a hugely impressive 100-mile debut – although initially – despite the elation of finishing second – she vowed never to compete over the distance again.

“My feet were badly damaged after the race and I suffered bad fatigue,” she says. “For a couple of days post-race I couldn’t function as a normal human being.”

However, over time “runner amnesia” has kicked in and in 2022 she plans to return to Western States for a second crack at the iconic race.

“Looking back it was a fun day out with my crew,” she says. “I had a blast, which I was not sure I would ever say about 100miles, I was just stoked it had gone all to plan.”

Ruth hopes that her body will be better conditioned next year for the extreme challenge of running 100 miles and she took away some key learnings.

“I think I mentally dropped the ball a bit in the last 15miles,” she adds. “At 15miles to go I was in the pain cave and mentally slightly resistant to being there, where instead I just needed to accept it and keep pushing than pulling back. I think next time I’ll be more mentally prepared for this.”

She moved on to Europe but the recovery process post-Western States took time. A stomach bug ruled her out of the prestigious CCC race in Mont Blanc but she ended her European campaign with an outstanding win in the 79km Festival des Templiers in France.

Now back in New Zealand she is building up for yet another campaign where she plans to take on the trail running elite but perhaps more pertinently taking on some of the world’s most beautiful and attractive trails.

So, after enjoying an unforgettable 2022 what has the proud South Islander learned about herself?

“That 100 miles is a damn long way and the physical and mental toll it takes on the body has taught me that there is only a finite amount of times I can go to the well like that,” she says. “If anything, I learned that I have to respect the distance, which may mean saying no to some races especially when I am not fully physically or mentally recovered. I guess it is all about bringing it back and remembering my “why” for being in this crazy sport and reminding myself I still want to be able to do this in the years to come, so let’s not put too many nails in the coffin now. “