Ruth Croft Opens Up on Her Build Towards UTMB

A Q&A with the ultra running star on her preparation for UTMB, the changes she’s made in training, and the best piece of fitness advice she’s ever gotten

Photo: Andy Cochrane

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The first thing you need to know about Ruth Croft is that, after wins at OCC, Speedgoat, Mont Blanc Marathon, Tarawera, and Western States, she’s a bonafide ultra running superstar. The second thing is that she absolutely hates talking about running.

Growing up on the rural west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, Croft comes from a blue-collar family who never talked about themselves. From a young age, she learned to do the same.

“I like to remind myself that it’s just running,” Croft says. “It’s not like I’m curing cancer.”

Understanding this perspective is a big part of understanding Ruth Croft. Last summer, she spent a week in Greenland after winning Western States to, in her words, detox. Croft carefully balances work as a professional runner with other passions like travel, home life, and naturopathy, which she is currently studying in school. This makes her different from many of her peers, almost an enigma at times. When she does talk about running, it’s always worth a listen. (The interview below has been edited lightly for clarity.)

What are the biggest things you’ve changed in your training this year?

Ruth Croft: My favorite time of year is summer in New Zealand. It’s typically when I put in big mileage and build my base. This year, I switched coaches and started working with Scott Johnson. We decided to pull back a bit while getting into a new routine and letting my body adapt. I’m now up to normal volume, but the biggest change was a lot less volume early on, at home in New Zealand.

What was it like changing running coaches this year?

RC: Like with any new coach, it took some time to adjust to his new structure and approach, but I’ve enjoyed that process. We’re focusing a lot more on heart rate and threshold work, but the biggest change is just slowing down. I used to do more by touch and feel, but now I’m more structured with less intensity and more muscular endurance work.

What races have you done, and how have you felt racing this year?

RC: I started the season with the 3 Peaks Mountain Race, a local classic near home. I did it as a training run, to get back into the flow of racing. Then the Maxi Race late May in France, which is a marathon distance with a lot of vert, helping me work into longer efforts. I ran just under five hours and felt pretty good. A few weeks later I ran Zugspitz, the largest trail race in Germany, which I did to practice running through the night. It definitely showed me just how hard UTMB is going to be.

How are you feeling leading up to UTMB?

RC: I’m going into the unknown, which reminds me a lot of my first year at Western States in 2021. At this point in my career, it’s really important to have new challenges, new unknowns, something that gets me scared, excited, and out of my comfort zone. It’s double the vert of States, and I don’t come from a mountain background. I come from a pure running background, so it’s a new challenge. I’ve raced both Lavaredo and CCC, but not since 2017. So I’m relearning a lot of skills.

What are the big things you’re focusing on this year?

RC: Running through the night is probably the biggest focus, but there are plenty of others, too. I’m working on nutrition for a longer race, maybe six or seven more hours of racing. Dealing with various weather conditions, colder temps, and practicing with specific gear that I’ll need in the race, too.

Tell us a bit more about the gear and the nutrition.

RC: The most important ones are running with a headlamp and practicing with poles, but the race requires you to carry a lot, so it’s important to be comfortable with all of it. On all my big days I carry a Garmin InReach, waterproof jacket and pants, a filter for water, and try to get 80 grams of carbs per hour. Upping my carb intake has been a big focus, because lots of drops at UTMB are stomach issues.

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How often do you talk with teammates or peers about training?

RC: Honestly, almost never. I just do my own thing. I try not to get caught up in what others are doing, because all that leads to is comparison and spiraling. I’m super particular about how I plan for races, but it’s just running at the end of the day. I had to learn this the hard way. Years ago, running was everything to me and it didn’t end well. When I returned, I had a new perspective, seeing life beyond running. That helps me not get super stressed or anxious.

What are you most particular about leading up to a race?

RC: To be honest, pretty much everything. You have to be detail-oriented and dialed on everything to be at the top of the sport. Ultrarunning is a lot more than your physical ability. It’s how all the other components like nutrition and recovery come together. Luckily, I have a lot of people around to help me.

Tell me more about the people you work with.

RC: I have a really great strength and conditioning coach, which has made a big difference for me. She created a strength program specific to not just ultrarunning, but to my exact background. I have a naturopath that does blood analysis and gives me advice on my diet and supplementation. I take a few adaptogens like ginseng, ashwagandha, and rhodiola, but they may not be for everyone. I also have a good massage therapist and Scott, my running coach, of course.

What does your mental preparation look like for UTMB?

RC: I worked with an energy healer before States to get my head ready for racing, and I am doing the same for UTMB. It’s a lot of breathwork, a daily meditation practice, and reframing negative thoughts. This isn’t just for UTMB; it’s for just everyday life. And a lot of visualization, too. There’s been a big shift in the last few months from UTMB being a thing I’m intimidated by to something I’m really looking forward to.

What’s it like to train your gut for an effort this big?

RC: I mostly use Spring Energy and train like I will race, but on some long runs I’ll eat whatever we have around the house to see how my stomach handles it. Things get weird on race day, and your perfect plan isn’t always perfect, so I’ve learned to have fallbacks. The key with 100-mile nutrition is to stick to the basics and build up slowly, month after month.

Do you eat anything special in your pre-race breakfast?

RC: I try to keep it simple, usually just oatmeal, a banana, and coffee. I rarely drink coffee during normal life because it interferes with iron, but I always have coffee before a race, to make sure I can poop. If that doesn’t happen, it’s never a good race.

How do you balance running with the rest of life?

RC: It’s all about being organized and planning ahead. I block out my day to make sure I get workouts in. Running is my priority, so it rarely is the area that suffers. I have a set morning routine, then I’ll run. Sometimes a second workout in the early evening. The most important thing is sticking to the morning routine—tea, stretching, meditation, getting some daylight, then the rest of my day starts.

Any other secret sauce you’ve mixed into this build?

RC: I had a very slow recovery after States last year and spent months feeling sick and run down. After learning this was an iron issue, I’ve been using a hyperbaric chamber for full oxygen and a much better recovery. I use it when my immune system isn’t bouncing back like it should, because it improves white blood cell count. I’ve noticed massive differences.

What do most people not know about big ultras?

RC: Paul Lind [an endurance coach] said this to me after the first time I ran States: “There is only a finite amount of times you can go to the well like this,” and that has stuck with me. It’s a reminder that ultras are hard on the body. Western took a lot out of me both times, so I choose 100 milers sparingly, no more than one a year.

What’s the best fitness advice you’ve ever gotten?

RC: Lift heavy shit. I have a history of stress fractures, and, since I started working with a strength and conditioning coach, I’ve managed to stay relatively injury-free (knock on wood). She calls this my insurance policy, looking out for my bone density for the years to come.

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