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Ruth Croft’s Long Way Into Trail Running

Discover what took Ruth Croft to become a pro trail runner. Starting from New Zealand, through Asia, and then to her win at Western States.

ruth croft runnign mountains
Image: Roy Schott

The journey from Wellington in New Zealand to Chamonix in France takes about 31 hours. You go through layovers, likely one in Asia and one in the Middle East, before landing at the Geneva airport and hopping on a one-hour bus or car ride to Chamonix. You do your best to mitigate the jetlag and then you hit the trails competing with the best athletes. This is what means living on the other side of the world and competing on trail running's world stage. 

11 athletes from New Zealand, 8 men, and 3 women, were among this year’s UTMB finishers, 3% of the total. Two men made the top 20, Daniel Jones and Scott Hawker, while among women Ruth Croft was one of the big names for the final victory but couldn’t line up at the start line due to a virus she caught in the last days before the race.

Then the question: how do you break into a sport centered around Europe and North America if you come from the other side of the world? We had the opportunity to sit down and discuss this topic with Ruth right before the last race of her season at UTCT in Cape Town. Throughout her career, she established herself as one of the most successful trail runners by winning on the trails around Mont Blanc - OCC and CCC - Western States in 2022, and many other races across any distance between 20k and 100 miles in Asia, Europe, and North America. As we jump on a Zoom call she is already in Cape Town getting ready for the race before heading back home to New Zealand for her second summer of the year.

 Let's start with your latest adventure: Japan. How was it?  

It was really good. I went to Greenland last year with my friend Andy Cochrane, a journalist and photographer from the US, who organized that trip. Then this year he organized another one to Japan.

We ran the Nakasendo trail which is an old postal route. We did about 180K, but the total is 560K long. A lot of it is a highway now. There was probably a bit more concrete than we anticipated. I went with Tim Tollefson, Magda Boulet and Desiree Linden. We were just a group of good friends. We ran, ate good food and that was pretty much it for a week. 

Was it your first time in Japan?

I went to Japan a few times and raced there quite a bit. I did the Mount Fuji Ascent, and I also ran the Tokyo Marathon. 

ruth croft running mountain
Image: Dom Channon

Your career started when you were based in Taiwan and picked up trail running. How was the process of becoming a professional athlete and making it financially feasible?

I was lucky that I moved to Taiwan, where I ended up working for Garmin. They supported me and I was able to go to Europe for about six weeks at a time. I was still working remotely part-time for them. And then they would also help me financially afford to do that. But then I just paid my way at the beginning.

Then I realized that I couldn’t excel in trail running if I trained on concrete in Taipei. I moved back to New Zealand, where I picked up jobs during the summer to afford to travel to Europe during winter. In the end, you find ways.  

Was there an epiphany that made you realize you had to move to Europe for most of the year to perform at your best?

I had that realization when I had a streak of bad races. At the time in 2017, I was living in Taiwan and my performances were fine, 7th place at Zagama and 2nd at Lavaredo, but I felt they weren’t good races. I was frustrated because 95 percent of my training was on a concrete river path that was dead flat. I felt like I was limited in how much I was going to progress by living there. You had to train at five in the morning because it was too hot by 7 a.m. It wasn't easy, so I tried to change the situation by leaving.

If things kept going well, I would have stayed in Taiwan because the formula was working. But it wasn’t for me. I couldn’t stay in Taipei if I wanted to make it work. I thought “If it is meant to be, it will work out. If it doesn’t, I can always get another job.”

How is traveling back and forth between the two continents from a mental point of view?

I like it. I love summer. I hate the cold. In this way, I can have summer for the whole year. Now, my partner and I have a base in Europe that helps. While before I was moving a lot around during the season.

On the other hand, I can't wait to go back home to New Zealand. When we're in Europe, it feels like we're in a running bubble. When we go back to New Zealand, we have friends and family who don’t run and it feels like a step away from it.

ruth croft
Image: Roy Schott

You are one of the few runners coming from Oceania who succeeded in the sport recently. In your opinion, what is missing to see more athletes from New Zealand or Australia making it into the sport?

I think there are a few points. First. If you're a trail runner from New Zealand, it's a lot harder to get sponsorship. New Zealand is such a small market, so it is understandable that brands invest less there. If you're based in Europe or based in the US you serve those big markets, while New Zealand is a small fish. Second. If you want to compete on the world stage, the major races are so far to travel that you must stay in Europe for big parts of the year.

You can't just keep flying back and forth. In the end, it is tricky from a financial point of view. In my case, when I leave New Zealand, I spend six months in Europe and if you can’t financially afford it, then it is difficult to become a pro athlete.

Third. Trail running is not that big in New Zealand. If we want to go to World Champs, we don't get any support from our federation. It's all self-funded. Our federation is not like the Spanish one for example that provides a lot of support to athletes. If you want to go to world champs, it's a big financial commitment again.

In New Zealand, it can be difficult to get any support beyond product. In order to get any financial support you really have to commit to racing in Europe or the US, since that is where the main races are. 

You are a versatile athlete both in terms of distances and surfaces. Looking at your race history you competed in every distance, from 20k to 100 miles. You also have a very good marathon PB and tried to qualify for the Olympics a few years ago. Do you need this diversity to stay engaged with the sport?

I'm not like most European athletes who switch to skis during winter. I follow summers because I normally go back to New Zealand at the end of the year. There I focus on getting some speed back and that's when I would normally do road. I think doing the road really helped me when I was doing sub-50k distances and when I did Western States. 

But now that I'm focusing on UTMB I think I need to focus more on becoming a good hiker than running fast. I need to work on my weaknesses more. 

I still love the road and it not only helps on the trail but it is good mentally just to switch up the structure of training. It is measurable and you can see your progress.

Is qualifying for the Olympics still in your mind? 

It's definitely out of the conversation because the standards changed a lot as well.

I attempted to qualify during COVID-19 in a set-up race in Australia. I got sick the week before the race and I didn’t hit the time. It just didn’t all line up on the day. After that, I focused back on trail running and Western States. 

You already mentioned that UTMB is your focus now. This year you were among the favorites, but you weren’t able to run because of illness. After almost three months, how do you feel about it? 

It's been a pretty challenging 18 months, after Western States last year, health-wise. It's been nothing major, but I kept getting run down. So during the New Zealand summer, I had to pull back all my mileage. I didn't do a lot of other races that I probably would have liked to have done. It was frustrating because I put everything into UTMB and then I got sick the week before. But this is just how sport is in the end. You must roll with it and it's always a test to see how you react and, and how you move through it. 

UTMB is on the cards for next year, but, more importantly, I want to get to the start line of UTCT and then to the finish line feeling good. So, I can get some confidence back there and then next year I'll switch to UTMB again.

ruth croft mountain running
Image: Roy Schott

When it comes to your approach to running, you said that at some point in your career, you made the switch from considering running everything in your life to being just one part of it. How is life beyond running nowadays for you?

When I'm not running, I'm studying naturopathy, which is natural medicine, herbal medicine, nutrition, and holistic health. I'm passionate about this field. I could see myself working in this space when I running. 

Another aspect of your approach to running that caught my interest is that you look for the fun element. Where is your fun element now?

I think I missed that a bit this year. I was too focused on UTMB. And, as I said, it had been a bit of a struggle this year. I found the fun by going to Japan. Even though it wasn’t the ideal physical preparation for UTCT, mentally it was great.

It is quite a tough sport. You do a lot of the training by yourself, so finding the fun element where you can is important. When I am in New Zealand I do a lot of backcountry tramping and camping. I am still following my training plan but there is more flexibility during that time of the year to do more adventures.

You truly lived around the world, from New Zealand to the US, then Taiwan and, now, Europe. Running has been the constant variable between all these moves. Which is the running community you feel more attached to? Did you notice any differences among them? 

I suppose they've all been important to me in different parts of my life. The US and New Zealand are probably more similar. The events are mostly grassroots and don’t have the scale of European ones. My favorite community is New Zealand because it is intimate and it is home. Taiwan will always have a special place in my heart too. I had a great running community there and was made to feel so welcome. Just the scale of races in Taiwan and even Asia is something else. 

Are there any communities in Asia and Oceania that should be more talked about in the media in Europe and America? 

There is a great race on the West Coast of the South Island called Old Ghost Ultra - it should be on everyone's bucket list. 

UTCT might be one of the few destination races in the southern hemisphere. You already raced in South Africa previously, but why did you choose UTCT this time? 

I put a lot of training into UTMB and I wasn’t able to race so I didn't want to finish the season on that note. Here at UTCT, there are a lot of my teammates from the adidas Terrex team. It also gave me enough time to get some training after being sick for almost a month over UTMB.

Going back to your relationship with running but focusing on what’s next. You affirmed that you look for challenges, and new unknowns, something that gets me scared, excited and out of my comfort zone. Where are you researching this unknown?

UTMB. Being at the start line and then reaching the finish line of UTMB would be an achievement next year.

I mean, you're a fast marathoner, so it is part of your way of running.  

It is a mental shift that I am accepting. Hiking up a mountain and going slower. But I think there's still work to be done there before I am used to it. Because when you come from a purer running background, there can be some resistance towards this sort of training. 

Is there anything on your mind after UTMB?

Next year, I would like to do some shorter races. I don't want to be in the same position where I put everything towards UTMB because if something happens and you don't race UTMB the year feels empty. Then, I have no interest in going longer than 100 miles. I don’t see myself running a 24-hour track race. But, never say never [laugh].


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