Ruth Croft: An Evolving Relationship with Running

Ruth Croft takes a dive into her early years as a runner, and how her relationship with the sport has evolved.

By and on April 18, 2024 | Comments

Initially, one might be surprised that a runner of Ruth Croft’s caliber doesn’t have a Wikipedia page detailing her accomplishments. After all, the New Zealander has career highlights including wins at the Western States 100Tarawera 100kLes TempliersCCC, OCCMarathon du Mont-Blanc, and countless others.

But Croft is a Kiwi who grew up in a tiny town on the West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand, and her understated nature is quintessential of the culture of the rugged and isolated area. She’s taken the self-reliance, focus, and dedication to hard work that she learned from her family and running mentors during her early years and crafted it into a running career and life that, after a few early setbacks, has seen her at the top of her game for many years.

Croft’s journey to success in the ultrarunning world hasn’t been typical. When you dive into Croft’s childhood growing up in Stillwater, New Zealand, where she ran cross country, her experiences with collegiate running in the United States, and her move to Taiwan afterward, you begin to understand how her multitude of experiences and the various relationships she’s had with running have shaped her into the athlete she is today.

Now, splitting her time between the race circuit in Europe and an off-season in New Zealand, she seems to have found the right balance between running and the rest of her life. And it’s that balance that she hopes will keep her at the top of her game for a long time yet.

Ruth Croft Running in Chamonix

Ruth Croft is returning to Chamonix, France, this summer to run UTMB. Photo: Ian Corless

West Coast Origins

The West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand is a rugged place. Situated directly in the line of the Roaring Forties winds, the coast receives the brunt of much of the weather that moves across the southern Pacific Ocean. Rain is common, and often incessant. It’s the largest region by landmass in the country, but the least populated. It’s also quite isolated from the country’s more populated regions, with mining and blue-collar industries dominating the economy in the past — and tourism growing in the last few decades. It’s also incredibly beautiful. All these variables contribute to a population of people who are self-sufficient, hard-working, and able to deal with adversity.

Croft grew up in the small community of Stillwater, just east of Greymouth on the banks of the Grey River. Like many kids growing up in small towns, she couldn’t wait to get out. “I just wanted to leave. I didn’t realize how good I had it there,” Croft explains.

“I was like most Kiwi kids. I did every sport under the sun.” Spare time and weekends were spent with her family, often doing chores like chopping and stacking firewood. They also went on family tramping — the Kiwi term for hiking or backpacking, except harder — trips on the occasional weekend. Croft’s dad runs a trucking business and instilled a strong work ethic in Croft from a young age. He had the kids working around the business at an early age, cleaning and helping out.

After playing basketball, netball, and tennis, it was running that caught Croft’s attention, and she learned the sport on the wet, muddy, and rooty trails of the West Coast. “I always found our cross-country races on the coast were actual cross-country races through farms and very rough,” Croft says and notes that when going to high school in Christchurch, on the much drier east side of the island, she found the racing to be much more manicured. She remembers thinking, “This isn’t a cross-country race!”

Ruth Croft on Browning Pass New Zealand

Tramping, the New Zealand version of backpacking, has always been part of Croft’s life in New Zealand. All photos courtesy of Ruth Croft unless noted.

Growing up running on the West Coast also offered Croft the opportunity to run with and learn from Eddie Gray, who placed third at the 1971 International Cross Country Championships. Dave McKenzie, the 1967 Boston Marathon winner, also lived in the area.

Croft fondly recounts her friendship with Gray, “I remember the first run I did with him up around one of the old mines. I felt pretty confident a run with a guy in his early sixties would be all right. Well, I nearly thew up by the time we got to the top of the first hill! And when I got home, I didn’t move off the couch for the rest of the day.”

According to Croft, Gray was much more than a training partner, he was a mentor who demonstrated a way to run from a place of joy and simplicity. “He was already a role model at the time in how to live a simple yet happy life — he owned neither a cell phone nor a car. To this day, I still get extremely inspired when I am around him and reminded that the act of running is an achievement. Not posting it online, or getting a KOM. None of that is required to maintain one’s love for running.”

Croft found early success as soon as she started to focus on running. She spent her later teen years at a boarding school in Christchurch. “I met a girl who had a coach and was quite serious, and her dad found me a coach. I joined a club and had a training group.”

Croft participated in many different types of running. “How the year was structured is that we would do track, and then we’d do cross country, a bit of road running, and then mountain running as well.” She represented New Zealand as a junior in the 2006 World Track and Field Championships and the 2005 and 2007 World Mountain Running Championships.

While initially returning home to the West Coast after graduating high school, her parents promptly sent her back into the world. Croft recounts them telling her, “You’ve got to go and study or get a job and get some life experience, and then after that, you can come back.”

Not overly motivated by academics, Croft knew she had to do something after graduating high school. “I went to Lincoln University [in New Zealand] and enrolled in sport management, went to lectures for a day, and then decided that wasn’t for me,” she recounts.

Running provided the stability she needed to navigate the life transition. “I was still training. It was quite a challenging time for me when I left high school, and I think running really got me through that. It was just that familiarity that I had during a time that I felt pretty lost.”

Collegiate Running in the United States

After working for nearly two years, Croft began thinking heavily about going to the United States. With an offer for a full-ride scholarship to run for the University of Portland in Portland, Oregon, Croft couldn’t pass up the opportunity to travel to the U.S. to see a new part of the world and experience a new culture. While she had offers from several schools, the trail access made her choose Portland. “I had always preferred mountain running and cross country. I didn’t enjoy the track, and Portland had Forest Park, [a large urban park,] a big draw card. And also, the university said they were more focused on cross country than track.”

Unfortunately, collegiate running didn’t go as expected. Croft says about her four years at Portland, “I was injured for the majority of them.”

Collegiate running is often a high-stress and high-pressure environment, and not everyone thrives in the system. Croft spent years dealing with stress fractures that she knows were exacerbated by an eating disorder that had started in high school and wouldn’t be under control until just before she came out of college.

She finished her collegiate running career having made very few, if any, gains in her running, and was forced to reassess her next steps. “I was just really unhappy, I think really depressed. I had stress fractures for the past four years, and so it just made me really assess my relationship with running. I was bulimic, and obviously, a lot of that stemmed from my need of wanting to control everything in my life, and running certainly perpetuates that.”

“I just didn’t have any knowledge or the tools around how to fuel myself properly and look after myself. I was so stuck in that narrative that if I weighed less, I’d be faster. If I knew what I know now and could have applied it back then, I could have saved myself a lot of self-destruction.”

It would take hitting what Croft calls rock bottom for her to realize that she needed to make a change. She made a New Year’s resolution to address her eating disorder, and she was able to stick to it, along with some help along the way. But she was far from the runner she had expected to be after college.

Rediscovering a Love for Running in Taiwan

Frustrated by her collegiate running experience and burnt out on the sport, Croft decided to move to Taiwan to teach English, figuring, “If it didn’t work out I could always go back home to New Zealand.”

She would end up spending the next five and a half years there, rediscovering her love for running in the process.

Now, in a big city, instead of the wilderness of New Zealand or Forest Park of Portland, Croft picked up activities other than running. “When I first got to Taiwan, I think for the first six months, I just did a lot of partying and put on a lot of weight.” But that phase didn’t last long, and she was soon back to running as a way to get fit again. She started joining local Hash House Harriers runs, and these social runs helped Croft build community in a much different place than anywhere else she’d lived before.

Ruth Croft and team in Taiwan

Croft credits her running community in Taiwan for helping her return to running.

The Hash community is where she first met Rocket Man — his Hash name. She credits him for her extended stay in Taiwan. “He kind of took me under his wing,” she says, explaining that she was an assistant coach at his Get Healthy program, which was funded by the city government. “He’d always told me you’ll leave Taiwan for two reasons. One is you’ll get married. And then the other is because you won’t find a meaningful job. And he said, I can’t control the first one, but I can help you with the second one.” Using connections he’d made through his running groups, Rocket Man introduced Croft to Garmin, and she was soon after working for them as a running coach and in marketing for Asia Pacific.

This was the first time Croft didn’t have a coach or anyone telling her how to structure her running. “It was just me driving it for the first time. I think when you find a good running community, it just makes it so much more fun. We would go and train on a track on a Wednesday, and I think back on that track and it just had hundreds of people running around it.”

This was also one of the first times that running wasn’t the main focus of Croft’s life, and the running she did was far from traditional. “There was a run called the soy milk and dumpling run, and you would take your empty containers and you’d run a half marathon, then you could fill your containers up with soy milk and get dumplings. There were also random race experiences and also cultural experiences happening all the time.”

Ruth Croft and teammates in Taiwan

Croft and her teammates at a race in Taiwan.

As for racing, it was all very free-form and a good excuse to travel around Asia. “I’d just picked random races that sounded cool.” And the new approach to running and racing seemed to be working. She won the Mt. Kinabalu International Climbathon 50k in Malaysia in 2013 and 2014 and placed second at the 2014 Translantau 50k in Hong Kong.

Success in Europe and Beyond

Then, in 2015, inspired by the trail running videos from Salomon about their athletes and races around the world, Croft returned to New Zealand to race the Tarawera 100k. After she placed second there, the seed of racing and running again began to grow.

Croft was realistic about what she needed to do with her running. “I started getting a bit more serious and then trying to understand how the whole scene works. I knew I needed to get to Europe.” With support from Garmin, she was able to travel to some of the biggest European races in the summer of 2015, and it paid off with a win at CCC, followed by a fourth place at The North Face 50 Mile Championships in California.

Croft is quick to credit being in Taiwan with her ability to make it to the start lines of big races around the world. “Back then and even still now, I think it is very hard for Kiwi athletes to get sponsorship if based in New Zealand because we’re such a small market. I started in Taiwan [with Garmin], which enabled me to get to Europe to compete and race. Without them, financially it would’ve been really challenging.”

Ruth Croft climbing Snow Mountain Taiwan

Running in Taiwan, including outings up Snow Mountain, helped Croft refine her love for the sport.

But as Croft progressed in the sport, she found that she had difficulty training for European-style racing while living in Taiwan. “It was just getting really hard, especially summers in Taiwan are extremely hot and humid. You’d have to get up at five in the morning to train. Additionally, 90% of my weekly training was on a flat concrete river path.”

So, in 2017, she left Taiwan to pursue running, and as we all know, she has experienced profound success at races around the globe in the years that followed.

A Fresh Perspective on Life and Running

Croft now splits her time between Europe and New Zealand and is back in school for naturopathy. An ever-evolving perspective on life and running has her looking forward to the summer as she prepares for UTMB.

Ever a Kiwi, and now as an adult, she appreciates her summers in the Southern Hemisphere with the perspective of someone who has spent much time abroad. “I came back to New Zealand and when you can freely communicate and your sarcasm is understood, I was like, oh wow. I’d missed that part. That remains my favorite part of the year.”

When we’re over in Europe, the racing season is on, and along comes a tunnel vision on running. Meanwhile, running takes a backseat in New Zealand, even though training is still present. I have my community of friends who aren’t runners as well. It’s just different.”

Ruth Croft on French Ridge, Mt Aspiring National Park

Summers spent in New Zealand involve so much more than just running.

She continues, “I think [running] has been the vehicle for much personal growth and development. It’s made me really have to face myself and work through the stuff that’s come up. Initially, my relationship with myself was really unhealthy, and therefore, so was my relationship with many other things, including running.”

“Today, the sole reason why I run is because I love it,” Croft summarizes, “but I don’t take it for granted as it has been an extremely bumpy road to get to this healthy point.”

With the 2024 UTMB on the horizon, Croft hopes to continue to bring her unique perspective on life and running and translate it into success.

Call for Comments

  • Calling all Ruth Croft stories! You know what to do in the comments section.
  • Have you followed the trajectory of Croft’s running career, including seeing the balance she’s found between racing hard and the rest of her life?
  • Have you experienced a similar path with running, where it has enabled you to develop a healthier path in life?
Ruth Croft heading up Cascade Saddle New Zealand

After many different relationships with running and herself, Croft has found a happy balance.

Eszter Horanyi

Eszter Horanyi identifies as a Runner Under Duress, in that she’ll run if it gets her deep into the mountains or canyons faster than walking would, but she’ll most likely complain about it. A retired long-distance bike racer, she gave ultra foot racing a go and finished the Ouray 100 in 2017, but ultimately decided that she prefers a slower pace of life of taking photos during long days in the mountains and smelling the flowers while being outside for as many hours of the day as possible. Eszter will take any opportunity to go adventuring in the mountains or desert by foot, bike, or boat, and has lived the digital nomad lifestyle throughout the west for the past seven years.

Eszter Horanyi

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.