Phenomenal Kiwi trail runner Ruth Croft reveals the tricks to surviving her first 100-mile race in scorching conditions, and be the second woman home.
As Ruth Croft ran through the searing heat deep in the canyons of Californian gold country, she jingled like a reindeer.
The lauded Kiwi ultra-runner knew she’d encounter strange new experiences in her first-ever 100-mile race – the historic Western States Endurance Run. But no-one had warned her about this one.
At each of the 20 aid stations along the 161km route, every runner could take 5lbs (2.2kg) of ice.
So Croft, who’d thoroughly researched how to combat the heat – which she reckons hit 41 degrees Celsius – put the ice cubes everywhere she could.
“I had a pack for the first 100km and at every aid station I was getting ice chucked in the back of my pack, ice down my sports bra, ice in arm sleeves and ice bandanas… tied around my neck,” she told the Dirt Church Radio podcast.
“Then you’re like Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer, running along with these bells ringing as you run.”
The athlete who hails from the West Coast town of Stillwater, also took onboard advice to jump into the rivers at the bottom of the canyons and “have a swim to try to get your core temperature down before you climb out of the canyon.
“You jump in the river and you don’t want to get out. In two of the canyons, you would pass people who hadn’t taken the time to cool down.”
Croft kept her cool for 17-and-a-half hours, climbing through the field to be the second woman home – astounding in her first attempt at running the formidable distance. She was also the ninth runner overall in the race, run a fortnight ago.
Croft, 32, is used to finishing ahead of men in races around shorter distance ultras. She won the 102km Tarawera Ultra overall – top man or woman – in Rotorua in February, and did the same in the Old Ghost Ultra on the West Coast a year before.
But she felt part of something special in a new wave of women running pace for pace with some of the world’s top male competitors over 160km.
Three women came in the top 10 of the 208 runners who finished Western States this year. And 15 females in the top 30.
The woman who finished ahead of Croft, British runner Beth Pascall, ran the second fastest time by a woman (17h 10m 42s) in the history of the world’s oldest 100-mile race. Croft’s time of 17h 33m 48s was the fifth fastest ever.
“It was awesome. The level for females is really on the rise,” Croft says, on vacation in Costa Rica.
“It’s so cool to see so many strong women and to see everyone working together as well. Yeah, we’re all there to compete against each other, but it was really awesome to be a part of that.”
For much of the distance, Croft ran alongside experienced American runner Brittany Peterson, who was the second woman home in the 2019 version of the race.
“I just thought, ‘She knows how to run this race, I’m going to stick with her’,” Croft says.
A group of female runners took off ahead of Croft from the start-line in Olympic Valley just on sunrise, but the Kiwi stuck to her race plan of being “super patient” at the start and sit back.
“You know if you go too fast at the beginning, you’re going to be really paying for it later on. So Brittany kept me in check in that sense,” she says.
“So much of Western States isn’t just about your running ability. It’s your nutrition over the distance; the heat is massive. It’s a downhill course with 7000m downhill and 5000m uphill, so you’ve got to make sure you don’t blow out your quads early.”
It was when Croft got to the 90km mark at Michigan Bluff, she made her move to reel others in.
“I noticed some of the girls who had gone out hot were falling back. I picked up a pacer at 100km and started to pick females off,” she says.
For years, Croft had avoided the longer distance trail races.
But two years ago, while she was back at home on the West Coast doing a training run at Lake Daniell, she decided she finally wanted to tackle Western States.
“At the end of last year, I felt really stale and not super-motivated. I’ve been doing the same races – like Golden Trail for the past three years. And I’m racing a lot of the same women. I was just ready for something different,” she says.
“I hadn’t had that feeling of being on the line, just super-excited but daunted about what’s ahead. That’s what I thought Western States, or 100 miles, could bring.”
And it did. Although going into the race, Croft worried that it would be “a massive suffer-fest”, she says she had a fun day.
“When I got into it, I felt good. I was expecting to have really dark downs during the run, but I didn’t,” she says. “I was just really enjoying the atmosphere.”
Her three-man crew, including her partner Swiss runner Martin Gaffuri, ran the last mile with her.
“It was a really fun day. I kept reminding myself ‘This is all self-inflicted’ and we’re pretty privileged to do this, to have this experience,” she says.
“Martin has played such a massive part in this. I’ve been building up since January… he researched cooling techniques; he’s been so involved. Getting second meant a lot to both of us.”
Now Croft is in Costa Rica for three weeks, spending time at a meditation retreat, going sailing and diving. But definitely not running, she laughs.
She will see how long her recovery takes before embarking on another race plan.
She’s signed up for the CCC, a renowned 100km race near Mont Blanc in France at the end of August, and Transvulcania in the Canary Islands. The world trail running championships in Thailand in November could also be in the mix (Croft finished second woman in the 2019 world champs).
But she won’t be lining up for too many more 100-milers, she says. “I would like to do another Western States. Knowing what it’s going to be like would make it a lot easier.”
* Dirt Church Radio is a Kiwi trail running podcast hosted by Eugene Bingham and Matt Rayment. Learn more at dirtchurchradio.com