In the space of a year, Kiwi runner Ruth Croft has twice been the first human home in an ultramarathon. She tells Suzanne McFadden how she did it, and why beating the boys shouldn’t matter.
As Ruth Croft made the final dash of her remarkable victory in the Tarawera Ultra 102km last Saturday, she gave a little nod of her head to the Sudima Hotel.
She spared a glance over to the carpark of that MIQ hotel in Rotorua where she’d begun her build-up to the race. A race in which she would break the women’s record, and be the first runner – man or woman – to cross the finish line.
It was a quick recognition of thanks. “That’s where it all started,” she says.
Every morning for 14 days – including Christmas Day – Croft and her French partner, Martin Gaffuri, would start running at 4.30am when no one else was around, repeating a 250m loop of the carpark until they’d knocked out 20km.
Then they would spend the day in their small room, sometimes running on a borrowed treadmill.
(Well, truth be told, it broke after just three days, and so the day before the race, Croft had to collect it from the hotel, jam it into a tiny rental car and get rid of it at the scrap metal yard).
Croft never complained about her time in quarantine – simply grateful to be back home from Covid-ravaged Europe, with the promise of being able to run “a normal race” again.
Perhaps it was that freedom driving 32-year-old Croft as she ran an outstanding race under the scorching sun on the forestry roads and bush trails between Rotorua and Kawerau.
Her aim was to break the women’s record held by American Courtney Dauwalter, one of the world’s great ultramarathoners. And she did so by exactly seven minutes.
Finishing ahead of everyone else – the first time a woman had done so at Tarawera – was just a bonus.
“I had a plan going into it, and it’s always good when you stick to your plan and execute it. I was really happy with how it all worked out,” she says.
Yet there was one part that didn’t sit so well with Croft.
“Comparison is the death of joy,” she wrote on Instagram the day after her victory.
After being flooded by feelings of excitement and gratitude, came a little confusion. While she was overwhelmed by the noise her win had generated, she wondered if her race record would have attracted the same attention if any man had run faster than her on the day?
“Sadly, probably not,” she wrote, hoping to see a day when women’s accomplishments could be recognised without comparing them with those of men.
“Until then, gentlemen, you’re going to have to get used to being chicked!” (Chicked = getting beaten by a woman).
This wasn’t the first time Croft had taken out the overall title at an ultramarathon.
She made headlines this time last year, winning outright the Old Ghost Road 85km race on her home ground, the South Island’s West Coast. She set a new women’s course record there, and was 16 minutes faster than anyone else in the field.
But what we don’t hear so much of is Croft’s achievements at the front of female fields in the most renowned trail races around the world.
The full-time athlete won the last two 56km OCC races at the prestigious UTMB week in Chamonix, France, and the last two Mont Blanc Marathons. She was also second at the last world trail champs in 2019 and won the 2018 Golden Trail Series run across the globe.
A few days after Tarawera, back home in Greymouth, Croft talks about the attention her most recent win has garnered. “First of all, it’s been really positive. Trail running doesn’t get much light,” she says.
“But it’s crazy how much interest it’s got from the angle of ‘woman beats men’. It doesn’t give any context to it, or talk about the race itself, or that I got the women’s record. It’s just more focused on just beating the men.
“I’m positive if I’d just won the women’s race and got the record, it would have got no media attention whatsoever.”
But ultrarunning is one of the few sports where female athletes can beat their male counterparts.
Dauwalter is often the first runner home; last year she captured the crown at the Big’s Backyard Ultra – the last runner standing event in Tennessee, running virtually non-stop for 68 hours and 283 miles (455km).
Two years ago, British runner Jasmin Paris was the first woman to win the gruelling 268 mile (431km) Montane Spine Race along England’s Pennine Way. She shattered the course record by 12 hours – while expressing breast milk for her baby at aid stations throughout the race.
Another Kiwi, Caitlin Fielder, was second runner overall in the Tarawera 50km this year.
“I’ve always said I think females race smarter,” Croft says. “We don’t race out [at the start], we don’t get so involved. We’re a lot more patient over the longer distance and better at pacing, is how I see it.”
Her latest victory, the always humble Croft insists, needs to be put into some context.
“Yes, I beat all the men – and I don’t want to downplay that or downplay Kiwi guys either – but there wasn’t an international field. If you compared my time to last year’s race, I would have been seventh overall,” she says.
Regardless of who was at the startline, Croft revelled in the race – and the company.
“I really enjoyed the first 30 or so kilometres when I was running with a group of guys. They were totally supportive,” she says.
“The beginning of the Tarawera is so flat and not super interesting, so it’s a good time to catch up with people, and meet new people, and see what they’re doing for the season.
“I really enjoy the social aspect of it. At the end of the day, it’s just running. Coming from Europe, I’m just super grateful to have a normal race experience.”
As a professional runner, Croft has honed her skills to a fine edge. Her ability to shrink down time spent at aid stations along the course route no doubt played a part in her record time of 9h 21m 3s.
“Over 100km, there are about nine aid stations. If you waste three minutes at each station, that’s 27 minutes you could have finished faster,” she says. “It’s just through practice; it’s in and out – they’re not really rest stations at all. I go into them knowing exactly what I need and want.
“Martin has crewed for me in a lot of my races, so we have a system – there’s no messing around.”
Croft’s parents, Frank and Clare, were her crew in her first 100km race, at Tarawera in 2015.
“They were so stressed about it. Mum made strict rules they weren’t allowed to talk to me – Dad just handed me my bottles. Then they crashed the car as well,” Croft recalls.
“They came to Tarawera this time to help Martin – my dad was getting really involved with the sponges, and Mum was yelling “get out of the way, Frank!” It was so funny.”
Completing the 102km last weekend was something of a watershed moment for Croft. It was her return to longer distance ultras, which she had veered away from in the last three years.
“I was too green when I first started,” she admits. As her back story, Croft fell out of love with running after a four-year track and field scholarship at the University of Portland, and moved to Taiwan to teach English. But running’s pull was too great, and after a couple months she started up again.
“I started getting into trail running in Taiwan, and there’s a lot of hype around 100 milers – Western States and UTMB – and I got caught up in wanting to do those. I think my intentions were in the wrong place; I was getting into these races and not enjoying it,” she says.
“So I decided to step back to the 50km and marathon distances. But last year I noticed I was doing the same races – and I don’t get motivated by doing the same events over and over.”
Now Croft knows she’s ready to finally tackle 100 miles (that’s 161km).
“I’m really motivated by the change. I’m excited but also scared at the same time,” she laughs.
She’s won an entry into this year’s Western States – the world’s oldest 100-mile race in Olympic Valley, California. That’s at the end of June, but Croft is very aware it may not happen with the continuing ripples from Covid-19.
“California have been a lot stricter, postponing races,” she says.
“I’m pretty scared about it to be honest. Especially after finishing the Tarawera 100km on Saturday, and then the thought of running another 60km seemed a terrible idea. But I obviously won’t be running as fast, and I’m ready for something different, a new challenge.”
Next week, Croft and Gaffuri will set up base in Wanaka, running in the mountains to prepare for her next challenge – the Christchurch Marathon in April.
Croft has shown her incredible versatility finishing eighth in the 2019 Seoul Marathon, and winning a spot at the marathon world champs – the first Kiwi woman to do so in six years. But she chose not to go, focusing instead on trail races, which are her bread and butter.
In the back of her mind has been the possibility of running an Olympic marathon.
“I’d need to knock four and a half minutes off my PB – which is quite a lot. I don’t think it’s impossible, but it’s the reason I want to do Christchurch, to see if I can get closer to the 2.29 mark,” she says. The women’s qualifying time for Tokyo 2021 is 2h 29m 30s.
“It’s tricky when most of my sponsorship is around trail running, so a lot of my salary is tied in with bonuses. I would need more than a year of just road training to focus on an Olympic marathon. At this point it’s a bit hard to justify switching over to give the road a crack.”
But with an athlete as talented as Croft, nothing seems unattainable.