© David Gonthier

Kiwi trail runner Ruth Croft has won some of the most prestigious and well-known races on the trail running circuit, from the 55km OCC by UTMB, which she’s won for the last two years, to the 42km Mont Blanc Marathon (ditto consecutive years). But she’s also got road speed too, as she proved last year when she swapped her SCOTT trail shoes for road runners and completed a brilliant 2:34:16 time at the Seoul Marathon, earning herself a Marathon World Championships qualification.

If that wasn’t impressive enough, she quickly switched back to the trail in time to take silver at the 2019 Trail World Championship just three months later. Phew! Luckily for me, I caught Ruth ahead of the race season so she had a bit of time to squeeze in answering my questions about her racing, training volume and plans for 2020.

© Phillipp Reiter

You had a super year in 2019, racing iconic events such as the OCC, which you won for the second time. Were you happy with last year’s race results?
I was really pleased with how last season went. It felt like a lot of races but there was a good variety – for example, the Dolomyth Skyrace to a road marathon. So I was more pleased about my versatility over different courses.

Speaking of versatility, you had a great result at the Seoul marathon last year. Did preparing for it require a big change in your training?
Yes, it did. The hardest thing was transitioning to the road. Jono (Wyatt, Ruth’s coach) and I had to slowly phase in running on the road to make sure I didn’t get injured. There was a lot more emphasis on flat running and a lot of my sessions were focused around getting used to running at marathon pace. For example, one key session was 1 hour steady, followed by 20 minutes at marathon pace, 20 minutes at half-marathon pace, 20 minutes at 5km pace, and a 20-minute cool-down.

I had three months to build to the marathon, but it wasn’t until two weeks before Seoul that I started feeling like my body had transitioned. Overall, though, I really enjoyed the build-up. It was great to have a change of training structure, and also there’s something about chasing a time.

Mentally, does marathon running require a different approach or is all racing the same?
For me, personally, I find with road marathon racing you can’t afford to go to sleep (lose focus). You really have to be focused and present from start to finish, as opposed to a trail marathon which is longer in duration and I notice my mental approach is a lot more relaxed. For example, in Seoul, I repeated the words, “Relax, control, focus” [during the race]. Whenever I noticed my mind wandering or negative talk creeping in, I would repeat those words to bring my focus back.

© Scott NZ/ Lloyd Belcher PS

As a pro runner with decades of running behind you, are you raring to go when it comes to training or do you have off days when running really feels like a job?
To be honest, I love training and the process of it. It’s my passion, so to get to do that on a daily basis, I am pretty grateful for that. The day I stop enjoying training and racing is the day I will be out. Although, I would say that the end of a season is when I find the motivation sometimes starts to lag the most. But I feel that it’s more all the travel and moving about that catches up on me.

How often do you train and do you have a coach?
I’m coached by Jono Wyatt and follow a structured training program. I train every day and will take a day off every now and then when rest is needed.

Talk us through the type of running you typically do in training?
It depends on what phase of the season I’m in. If it’s base training, my mileage can be anywhere between 100-150km with 3,000m+ of vert (vertical elevation). Plus 4-6 hours on my road or mountain bike as cross-training, and two gym sessions per week. If it’s during the racing season, this drops a lot as I’m normally tapering or recovering.

As for sessions, I will do Jono’s magic mix of hills, tempos, fartlek, long runs, and then the closer to the race I get, the more specific my training becomes to what I will expect to have on race day.

Can you share more about your cross-training and strength work?
I do most of my cross-training on the road or mountain bike. For six months of the year, I’m based back in Wanaka, New Zealand and I’m really fortunate to have an amazing strength and conditioning coach – Val Burke. I’ve worked with her for the past three years and she does periodised programs during base phase. It will normally start with a lot of range work, then as time progresses will work into more weighted sessions – Romanian deadlifts, barbell squats, calf raises etc. It’s made a big difference. It helps prevent injury and prep my body to withstand the long racing season.

© Scott NZ/ Lloyd Belcher PS

Do you do any mental preparation for your races?
If it’s a race I’m really motivated by, I will find myself visualising how I want to run it during training.

Do you have any pre-race rituals or techniques to ensure you stay calm on the start line?
The only race ritual I can think of is a good early race morning bowel movement – easily set up with a bag of prunes. Who would want to carry extra weight over 42km? On a more serious note, if I’m satisfied with my training leading up to the race, I mentally draw on that. It gives me confidence, and in turn, I don’t find myself getting nervous.  All I can do is make sure I’m on the start line prepared the best that I can be – the rest will take care of itself.

With your busy race and travel schedule, how do you prevent burnout?
There are a few ways I prevent mental and physical burnout. The first one is not racing too much. Jono also makes sure that I pick races that I’m stoked about doing and this helps me to have the motivation to train.

For six months of the year, I’m travelling and racing so for the remaining six months, I’ve found it really important to be back in New Zealand and based in one place with no travel. This always makes me feel more grounded. I find when I’m racing in Europe, I’m in a running bubble, so it’s always good to be back in NZ surrounded by friends and family/community that are not necessarily runners.

For the past two years, at the end of the season, I have travelled to Sri Lanka and done Vipassana Meditation. This is a 10-day silent retreat with no reading, writing, speaking, exercise, hand gestures or eye contact, and you meditate seated for 14 hours per day, spread out from 4:30am-9pm. You have no distractions to take you away from the task at hand which is your mind.

© Albert Jorquera

In our day-to-day lives, we have so much ‘noise’ and distractions that don’t allow us to go inwards. When you remove all that, you have nowhere to hide and you have to face yourself. I started to understand the narrative that I constantly have in my own head. Often it can be toxic to myself and by stepping into Vipassana it allows me to have a better understanding of how my mind works. It allows me to break away from everyone and everything and get a mental reset.

Don’t get me wrong, it is no picnic and is by far the hardest but the best thing I have ever done. A lot harder than any race, but I always come out of the meditation and it’s like life has a brighter-coloured filter. It makes me slow down and appreciate how fortunate we are to be here. It also gives me the tools to more objectively observe my thoughts and be aware of the unconscious habits I have gotten into, and try to break those.

You’ve run all over the world. Which are your favourite trails?
I will be a bit biased here; the Old Ghost Trail which is 85km of single track on the West Coast of NZ where I grew up.

What’s your racing calendar looking like this year?
Good question. I still don’t know the answer to that… All I have pencilled in so far is Transvulcania.

What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
SCOTT SupertracRC trail running shoes, and for longer, solo missions the Garmin InReach Mini. This is not just a sponsor plug; a lot of my runs in NZ are on my own and in remote areas with no reception. The InReach acts as a Personal Locator Beacon with the ability to text. It is added safety and peace of mind.

© Scott NZ/Lloyd Belcher PS

Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
SCOTT RUNNING and Garmin, and I’m actually looking for a nutrition sponsor – anyone interested?

You can follow Ruth’s racing and training via her social channels: www.instagram.com/ruthcrofty and www.facebook.com/ruth.croft.7. You can visit Ruth’s website at www.ruthcroft.com.