‘Stoked’ to take on Kepler

Defending champion Daniel Jones and New Zealand trail running star Ruth Croft had outstanding finishing times to win the major titles at a delayed Kepler Challenge in Te Anau on Saturday.

Traditionally held on the first weekend of December, the event was moved to mid-January because of Covid-19 uncertainty, and the conditions played their part with a stunning summer day in Fiordland.

It was Jones’ fourth successive win, but his second on the full 60km Kepler Track loop after weather-enforced alternative routes were used in 2020 and 2019.

‘‘I’m unbelievably stoked,’’ he said.

Ruth Croft is presented with the Kepler Challenge trophy by race director Steve Norris.  PHOTO:...
Ruth Croft is presented with the Kepler Challenge trophy by race director Steve Norris. PHOTO: NATHAN BURDON

‘‘It’s felt like a long time coming with all the postponements of races.’’

Jones, of Wellington, finished 19min ahead of runner-up David Haunschmidt. Andy Good was third.

‘‘It’s great to be able to come to Te Anau and just race hard. I love running in the heat and the last couple of years it’s been the B course and fairly wet and cold so to have a bluebird day was pretty primo,’’ Jones said.

He had studied the split times for Martin Dent’s race record of 4hr 33min 37sec set in 2018, but found himself behind at the major markers.

‘‘It was in the back of my mind, but five minutes is a lot of time to make up over 10-15km. I was gunning it, but in the end I was just making sure no-one was breathing down my neck.’’

Daniel Jones
Daniel Jones

As a four-time winner, Jones is now in the conversation as one of the best runners to race the Kepler.

‘‘I’m not usually one to look at past results, but to get four in a row, I’m stoked, because it’s just good to be racing again.’’

Ultra running star Croft, who won the Luxmore Grunt in 2018, has won big races all over the world and would normally be returning from Europe for the Kepler’s December date.

She was also challenging the record of 5hr 23min 34sec set by Zelah Morrell in 2003, but the West Coast native eventually came home in 5hr 26min 30sec, 27min ahead of defending champion Nancy Jiang, while Katie Morgan was third.

‘‘It was pretty tough,’’ Croft said.

‘‘I really struggled the last 15km, but we are so lucky today with the beautiful weather. This is normally my base season, so I’ve just come off a break and I’m slowly building up so I think the fitness was there but I didn’t feel that great.

‘‘I had Ruby [Muir’s] splits from when she got close to the record written on my hand and I just realised once it got to the last 30km I was off by a couple of minutes at each checkpoint.’’

Croft will now prepare for the Tarawera ultramarathon’s 50km event, before returning to the United States and the Western States event where she finished runner-up last year.

Jones is hoping to recover in time to line up for next weekend’s Auckland marathon.

David Balchin made the most of the early morning conditions to break Andy Good’s Luxmore Grunt men’s record by more than 2min.

Balchin was pushed all the way in the Kepler’s 27km sister event by 2020 winner Jonathan Jackson, who also went under the previous mark of 1hr 50min 54sec set in 2018. Richard Ford was third.

Professional trail runner Caitlin Fielder comfortably won the women’s section, just over 3min outside Shireen Crumpton’s record, which has stood since 1998. Sarah Douglas was runner-up and Fiona Love was third.

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