Three in a row for Armstrong
Christchurch's Vajin Armstrong has won his third straight Kepler Challenge.
The New Zealand mountain running representative headed home Australian Tony Fattorini and fellow Cantabrian Martin Lukes in a shade under five hours.
''My legs were feeling strong and it was nice having some company on the climb up to the Luxmore Hut.''
Armstrong pulled ahead of Martin Cox, who was King of the Mountain, after the Luxmore Hut and ran the remainder of the 60km race by himself.
Napier's Ruby Muir was the first female home in the Kepler Challenge, clocking the second fastest time by a woman at this event.
The 21-year-old ran just 14 minutes outside the time of 5.23 set by Zelah Morrall in 2003 and was pretty remarkable given she had only been training for four months after undergoing knee surgery.
Sarah Biss was the first woman to the Luxmore, with Ruby Muir second and former winner Shireen Crumpton narrowly ahead of Vanessa Haverd in third place.
Earlier this week Armstrong, the defending champion, was picked bringing good form to New Zealand's most prestigious mountain race, including a second placing in the North Face 100km event in Australia in May and a breakthrough win in an 80km race in San Francisco.
He is yet to crack the elusive 5-hour barrier - a benchmark for the very best challenge runners. After running 5hr 3min in 2010, he went close last year with 5:01.
"I've had a really good training block and I'm in the best shape I've been in coming into a Kepler Challenge," he said yesterday.
"There's a really strong international field this year, a guy from the States, some Australians and the Englishman Martin Cox, so, hopefully, that will spur me on to a good time."
Armstrong said it was unlikely that he would be challenging the race record of 4:37.41 set by Phil Costley in 2005.
"It would be a lot to take 23, 24 minutes off my time in one year, but maybe sometime in the future," he said.
United States runner Jason Schlarb is being eyed as something of a dark horse.
He's an experienced trail runner, and the US is becoming something of a hub for mountain runners.
While Canterbury's Grant Guise, who was fourth in 2010 and fifth last year, was still deciding whether to run yesterday after suffering from a stomach bug this week, his training partner and English professional Martin Cox was excited about returning to the challenge.
Cox finished second to Costley the year that he set the race record, blowing up in the final 10km in what was his first long-distance event.
Now Cox races over mountains most weekends around Europe for a living.
The well-maintained Kepler track surface meant it compared favourably with alpine races in Europe.
Cox said the $5000 prize bonus for breaking Costley's record could mean a fast race this year as the top runners set a strong pace through the first half of the 60km circuit.
"I know we aren't supposed to think about the money, because it's supposed to be about running, but I will be," he joked.
Competitors in the challenge's companion event, the 27km Luxmore Grunt, get under way from 8am yesterday.
The Southland Times