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New Zealand trail running star Ruth Croft will line up for her first Kepler Challenge mountain race in Te Anau this weekend.
The 32-year-old ultra-marathoner has won a host of high-profile events both at home and abroad and was one of the beneficiaries of the 60km mountain run’s Covid-enforced postponement last month.
She contacted organising committee chairman Steve Norris from Switzerland soon after the announcement to ask if she would be able to find a place among the limited numbers allowed on the start line.
"Ruth was here in 2018 and was going to do the Kepler, but ended up switching events and winning the Luxmore Grunt," Norris said.
"Normally our December date wouldn’t fit with her overseas racing calendar, so this is a great opportunity to see her in action.
"Having Ruth, defending champion Nancy Jiang and six-time winner Ruby Muir all on the starting line is fantastic and with the track in great condition, the women’s race record of 5hr 23min could be under threat."
Defending men’s champion Daniel Jones will also return to Fiordland chasing a fourth consecutive Kepler Challenge title.
He could be pushed by rival and former Grunt winner Andy Good and Kristian Day, who was fifth in 2020, with Queenstown marathon winner David Haunschmidt also predicting a sub-5hr finish, although this will be his first time racing over this distance.
The 27km Luxmore Grunt, a support race from the Te Anau control gates to the Luxmore Hut and back, features 2020 men’s winner Jonathan Jackson and evergreen locals Dwight Grieve and Richard Ford, both world mountain running representatives.
The women’s field includes 2019 Grunt winner Sarah Douglas, Wanaka’s Fiona Love, who placed third in the 2019 Kepler, and Caitlin Fielder, who finished 11th overall in the Golden Trail World Series last year.
While the postponement had meant several participants were unable to take part in a January race and it had been harder to find volunteers at this time of year, the event would still include full quotas for both races, Norris said.
A clear forecast for the weekend is a relief for Norris, after bad weather forced the past two editions of the Kepler Challenge to be run on an alternative route.
"I really feel for the ones who have been in the event for the past two years. At the end of the day, this race is about the beautiful alpine scenery, not horizontal rain and walking in water up to your crutch.
"It will be nice just to have a regular course and people coming home with big smiles on their faces."
The race weekend will also provide a much-needed boost for Fiordland tourism and hospitality businesses hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.
"It is always a big thing for the town," Norris said.
"Past surveys have shown every runner brings 1.8 supporters with them, and many of them stay for multiple nights. They all have to sleep somewhere and they have to eat and buy a coffee. It ripples right through town."
The 60km Kepler Challenge mountain race gets under way from 6am at the Te Anau control gates on Saturday. The 27km Luxmore Grunt starts an hour later.