King of the Kepler keeps his crown
A three-time champion and a runner with only four years' experience were crowned the King and Queen of the Kepler Challenge in Te Anau on Saturday.
Vajin Armstrong finally broke through the five-hour benchmark at his third attempt for his third straight title in the 60km mountain race and Ruby Muir turned despair into diamonds as the first woman home in the second fastest time for a woman in the history of the race.
It's not obvious just what it will take to break the hold that Armstrong has over this event.
Someone very quick, but then there were some fleet-footed competitors eager to knock the Cantabrian off his perch on Saturday.
Someone capable of not just enduring the pain, but revelling in it, as Armstrong seems to do.
That unusual name, Vajin, which means, among other things, swift, hints at the alternative aspects that Armstrong brings to his running.
He uses meditation to block out the exhaustion and there's little doubt that it works because as he crossed the finish line at the Lake Te Anau control gates on Saturday he looked like someone who'd arrived back from the dairy with a loaf of bread and the paper.
"My race today went perfectly," Armstrong said at the finish.
"I was hitting the splits I wanted to all day, I was feeling strong and it was nice having some company on the climb to the Luxmore Hut - me and Martin Cox were running together."
There was some excitement among those huddled against the rain at the control gates finish line as the final 10km promised a duel between Armstrong and Australian Tony Fattorini, but it wasn't to be.
"You are out there by yourself, running through some beautiful forest and it's nice because I like to stay relaxed.
"For me, running fast is all about staying relaxed - if I'm thinking about other people or I'm stressed out, you get that tension and it slows you down.
"After the Luxmore Hut, I broke away and just ran by myself for the rest of the day," Armstrong said.
"It's just really satisfying to run from the front and really execute my plan. I prepared as well as I could and I was hoping to run sub-five [hours], so 4:55 is awesome."
With three wins to his credit, and leaping the five-hour barrier that separates the best from the very good in the Kepler, Armstrong's next target must surely be the race record of 4:37 set by Phil Costley in 2005.
Armstrong admits it may take him a few more attempts to be able to chip away at that mark, but for now he's happy with taking another crucial step.
"It's something you really appreciate if you have to work for it. I've been here two times before and been just over five hours so I know it's not easy to do. I put my heart and soul into it and really prepared."
Fattorini was also able to crack the five-hour mark and secure his best placing after finishing in the top four four times and he was pleased he gave himself at least a chance of breaking Armstrong's grip on the race.
"I knew he wasn't too far ahead and you never know what can happen in the last 5km or 10km, people fall apart so you can never give up because that opportunity can present itself."
Former winner Martin Lukes finished third overall, with Englishman Martin Cox, who was the first runner to the Luxmore Hut, fading to finish down the field after struggling with a stomach complaint.
Meanwhile, Muir's achievement was possibly even more noteworthy than that of Armstrong. The diminutive runner, who was knocked around on the wind-blown upper reaches above the Luxmore Hut and finished with two bloody knees, started running four years ago at the age of 17 to cope with the death of her father.
She said she became obsessed with running and suffered a knee injury which forced her to undergo surgery.
A residential support person who works with non-verbal and autistic children, Muir had only been training for four months and was a virtual unknown.
Not any more. Muir's time was only 14 minutes outside the race record set in 2003 by Zelah Morrall despite the windy conditions.
After reaching the Luxmore Hut second behind Sarah Biss, Muir took the lead and "ran scared" all the way to the finish.
"I'm pretty surprised," she said.
"Before I got injured I was trying to enter because I wanted to have a go at the record. I've only had four months' training so maybe I can come back next year and see what I can do. It's a strong record but that's what makes it exciting to try."
Defending champion Victoria Beck ran home in second, with Shireen Crumpton third.
RESULTS Men Vajin Armstrong (Christchurch) 4:55:24 Tony Fattorini (New South Wales) 4:59:29 Martin Lukes (Christchurch) 5:02:26 Women Ruby Muir (Napier) 5:37:55 Victoria Beck (Dunedin) 6:02:31 Shireen Crumpton (Dunedin) 6:07:41
The Southland Times