Drymax catches up with legendary runner Ellie Greenwood
As we optimistically begin 2021, we wanted to catch up with one of the greatest humans to wear Drymax socks, Ellie Greenwood. We look back at the difficult year, and further back to her career, before asking her what she sees in the future for herself and the sport of ultra running.
As an athlete, Ellie Greenwood has traveled the world winning the biggest races in ultra running along the way while setting course records that have stood the test of time. As a coach she has guided runners of all ages and abilities to accomplish their running goals and be better humans. As a person she is driven by a love of outdoors and the endurance community.
Ellie's success as an ultrarunner was grounded in hard work, patience, and adaptability. All traits that have helped her and others get through this year.
We want to know what to expect from the ever-evolving sport of ultrarunning, how can we have a better 2021, and what does the future have in store for Ellie?
Drymax - 2020 was undoubtedly not how you planned it. How did you adapt and what were your high points for the year?
Ellie Greenwood – Adapting was definitely key to this year! Setting short-term goals, staying focused on the process and trying not to get too attached to things in the future that were outside of my control. The longer the pandemic rolled on it became obvious that planning set time frames for certain running goals wasn’t always the smartest thing to do as there was always the risk of disappointment. If I did set longer term goals that were outside of my control then I tried to have a more controllable back up plan e.g. I can’t control which races take place or not but I could plan back up adventure runs in my backyard that would be fun and equally rewarding alternatives.
I had two high points of the year – completing the double ‘Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee’ (1270 miles of running and walking in the span of four months) and peak bagging with friends here in North Vancouver.
GVRAT was a big stretch in terms of daily distance for me (10 miles average/ day was needed every day for 4 months) and it made me walk a lot more than I would normally. It was a really great goal to have during the pandemic as it encouraged getting outside every day but was not at all complicated – just get in the miles. It was a LOT more miles than I have run/ walk per day in recent years so it was super cool to challenge myself and complete it, I felt a huge sense of accomplishment for having completed it and as approx. 18,000 runners/walkers took part it was fun to be part of a super supportive online community.
The peak bagging allowed me to get to some stunning mountain summits and have a weekly Sunday adventure with friends – it’s all too easy to get stuck in running/hiking routines and always go to favourite spots but peak bagging got me to new locations and challenged me in terms of technicality of terrain as much of it was off-trail bushwhacking. It was also a time of year when we were allowed to mix with a small group of friends outside so it was just great to see some of my favourite people most weeks.
What did you miss? What are you looking forward to as we return to something a little more normal?
EG – I missed volunteering at races and thus not being able to see friends in our wider run community. During the summer months we were allowed to run and hike outside with friends but I kept my group pretty small, so I missed seeing acquaintances who I might normally see a handful of times per year at races. When we get back to things being a little more normal I’m looking forward to being able to attend local races (either running or as a volunteer) and also going for post run coffee catch ups with my running club mates. I also miss my family in the UK as due to various restrictions a trip there has just not been possible – as soon as it is possible and safe to do so, I’m looking forward to going to see my family.
How has Covid 19 affected your athletes? What advice have you given your athletes to get through this difficult time?
EG – Oof, it’s been a challenging year as a coach – but I’m grateful for what I have learned in the process. It’s actually been a really busy year as a coach – I was worried at the start of the pandemic that I might lose a lot of athletes as races were getting cancelled left, right and centre but I actually found that I have had more demand than ever, and it’s been fun to anecdotally see more newer and returning runners hire me as a coach – likely because running was one of the few things that most folks could still do.
My advice has generally been to focus on the process of training and focus on consistent and fun running. I would suggest that my athletes try to think up what running achievements they might be proud of at the end of the year that were independent of formal race settings. This might be a run streak (running minimum 1 mile every single day), or a vert challenge, or exploring some long distance trails locally that they had not done before. Some of my athletes chased FKTs and others chased personal bests. But overall, we would brain storm what they appreciated about running (that was not racing) and then create a plan that encompassed that. Of course I do understand that formal races are more important to some individuals than others but ultimately trying to remember that some things are outside of our control and races will come back – and if we train smartly in the interim then there will be some super results when races start back up.
How have you grown as a coach this year?
EG - I’ve certainly learned to adapt and be more creative. I’ve also had to really focus on athletes not just as runners but as people – some folks have had really tough years and taking that into account and being compassionate has been key. There is no point in just talking running if someone is struggling with other areas of their life. I’ve also learned how some folks have had a super races off seemingly less than perfect build ups – of course some races have taken place but maybe weren’t announced to closer to the time, but I’ve truly learned that if an athlete has a good base fitness (not super specific and not super high volume) then they can pivot to be ready for a particular race with a few tweaks and refinements in a relatively short time. I’ve also really learned a lot about how to keep athletes motivated when their A goals are taken off the table.
Switching gears, looking back on your legacy, what accomplishments do you cherish the most?
EG - Comrades 2014 win – that was so hard and to me it’s the biggest ultra stage in the world. Had a not won that one I would have always felt it was the big one that got away.
WSER course record (2012) – it will get broken but ultimately on that day I ran a smooth and perfect race, one that I didn’t know I was capable of. I ran strong all day long and can never look back and think I should have done things differently. I had a super crew of wonderful friends and got to enjoy a beautiful day with them on some stunning trails. It was just magic.
World 100k wins in 2010 and 2014 – to wear the GB singlet is not something I would have even contemplated growing up. To earn that team uniform, to represent my country and to be crowned world champion is something that no other race can quite replicate.
What are your favorite races that you’ve participated in? Where have you had the most fun?
EG - Comrades – the atmosphere is like nothing else. A race that is over 90yrs old, a race with approx. 18,000 participants, crowds cheering from the sidelines, the beautiful route through farmland in Africa. Although I love many trail races for their low-key vibe, there is something special about a massive street party that happens to require you to run 55 miles.
Templiers 75k in South West France – I loved that course – it’s a big race in France but less well known overseas. It’s not mountainous but it is very hilly and a mix of some super fast terrain with some really quite technical terrain. It runs through gorges and medieval villages – the stuff those of us who live in North America think of as so quaint that it should be on a chocolate box. I had great fun as there was an international competition the year I ran it so I got to see lots of my American, European and South African running friends all in one place.
Besides racing specifically, do you have any fun stories from your adventures traveling and training?
EG - I ran CCC 100k (the mini UTMB) in 2012. I was chatting on and off with a fellow racer for about 3 hours – my French is not great but it was good enough. After 3 hours I realized that he was Irish so we then spoke a lot more and in English. I don’t know how neither of us had picked up our really bad French accents.
Racing at North Face 50 in Chile in 2010 was fun. As soon as I got to the finish line I asked someone if many women ran in Chile, and it was confirmed that no – they didn’t. Everyone was super welcoming but I felt I got some surprised looks to be racing 50 miles and place 3rd overall. I welcome showing folks what women are capable of – if one woman saw me that day and it inspired her to run then my race was worth it.
What advice do you have for ultrarunners just getting into the sport?
EG – Don’t over race and build your way up the distances – until you are competent at 50k it’s not the smartest idea to run 50 miles, until you can make cut offs reasonably confidently at a 50 miler then don’t sign up for a 100 miler. If you love to race a lot that’s great – but you can’t race as many ultras in a year as you can ½ marathons – so if you love racing a lot then throw in some shorter races to scratch the racing itch rather than burning out with too many ultras in any one year.
Yes, you do need to run reasonable volume to prep for an ultra – but it might not be as much as you think – and whilst long runs are important they are not the be all and end all – overall weekly mileage is just as relevant. Keep up with some speed work/ faster running and learn what your stomach can tolerate when racing – you can fake race fuel in the marathon (though not ideal), but you can’t do that in a 50 miler.
There are a number of trends that seem to be shaping ultrarunning right now. How do you think these trends will evolve and where will the sport go? –
Trail running seems to be growing in every way. There are more runners, more races, and more attention. Sponsorship money is increasing both for athletes and events. How do you see this shaping the sport, both good and bad?
EG – In many ways this is great – the more money there is for the top end runners, the more professional our sport will become and boundaries will be pushed with course records, types of races etc. If trail runners can train full time (or at least reduce their work hours) it will allow them to train truly to their physical potential, rather than doing their best when juggling training and racing with a full time job. As trail runners become more professional they should get more exposure which should only encourage more kids and adults to get into the sport recreationally – and the more people enjoying the physical and mental benefits of trail running can only be a good thing.
Having more races is good so long as it does not exceed demand. Right now I see some formerly high profile races fall into the background as they get overtaken by newer races – and whilst you could say competition is good (as it demands each race to put on an excellent event) I think we have to be careful to not forget our history. Also, if there are too many race series or individual races vying for the elite runners then the risk is the quality of fields become diluted which is actually bad for competition – people want to see and be a part of competition.
I also think that our sport can sometimes be harmed because of the lack of one true governing body that sets the morals and tone for our sport. Right now it’s shoe companies and individual race directors who can pretty much do what they want, and that is not always good as they might not always have the best interests of our sport right at the top of their agenda. We need to be careful that as more money comes into the sport that the sport is not unduly influenced by those with the most money. We need to respect the ethos of trail racing – being in nature, respecting our environment, the spirit of adventure and good ethics/ sportsmanship – and if a governing body did oversee many races then that could help.
There has always been a link between ultra/trail running and track/road athletes, but it seems like more elite athletes that have seen high level success at shorter distances are moving to ultra/trail, they’re making the move sooner, and they are coming with faster times at shorter distances. Do you think this will continue and how will it shape the sport?
EG – I see no reason why it won’t continue and that’s exciting – our sport should be open to everyone including those coming from road and track backgrounds. There would seem to be two main reasons for this to happen – trail running is becoming a bit higher profile and thus more respected by the road community, and also the more money that comes into the sport it makes sense that if someone can be a pro trail runner but is maybe not quite fast enough to make it on the road scene at top top level that that would appeal. I also see no reason why reasonably high level runners can’t cross over between the two fields – top Canadian marathoner Krista Duchene just ran a trail ultra this year and someone like Grayson Murphy is a great example of someone who’s run top level at mountain races but also is pushing herself to PRs at high level on the roads. It’s nice to see not only a crossing over but also a crossing back and forth as ultimately it creates more respect and community between the two disciplines.
On the other end of the spectrum, ultrarunners are pushing the boundaries in the mountains. They’re blending mountaineering with running and going fast and light. How can the sport support this while staying safe?
EG – Ultimately it is all down to building experience and training. The more technical the run routes are (possibly even requiring ropes or at minimum scrambling skills) one can’t jump into that right away. As runners we have a sport that generally requires more fitness than skill, but the more mountain style running demands that the athlete earn experience through graduated practice in order to have the skills to tackle technical terrain. I feel that athletes such as Kilian Jornet do a great job in show-casing the insane and beautiful mountain terrain they tackle but also making their fans aware that this is not something that can be done without experience, thought and skill. ‘Safe’ doesn’t just mean how technical or not a run route is – it means what skill level each individual has. Many routes that are very safe to Kilian would be highly dangerous to someone such as myself, as I lack experience, mentoring and training on that type of terrain.
With so many races canceled, many ultrarunners got creative and tackled FKTs? Do you think we will continue to see more FKTs at the same rate we’ve seen this year and how will FKTs fit into the rest of the sport?
EG – I think naturally FKTs will slow down as more and more competitive races start to return. It’s not to say that FKTs will fade way entirely (after all, they were here before the pandemic) but I can see that top level runners ultimately enjoy the head to head in person competition with multiple athletes that FKTs simply don’t afford. FKTs are hugely satisfying but they lack the pre and post race fun that mass participation races afford – and many runners enjoy. But I can see that now many of the better known FKTs in the USA have been improved upon this year that some folks will want to revisit those – in a weird logic the tougher an FKT bar has been set the more appealing it will be to top level runners to try beat it. It should also be taken into account that sponsors are probably more likely to offer podium incentives for races rather than FKTs, and of course some races also have prize money – and whilst most ultrarunners don’t run simply for money it’s understandable that some are trying to make a living and so that guides their goals each year. Finally, I feel that FKTs are largely a North American concept (with a few exceptions like the Bob Graham Round in the UK) and ultrarunning has become quite international over the past ten years or so, so it’s hard for a FKT to compete with the idea of going to race UTMB or Trans Gran Canaria and racing the best in the world, not just the best in the USA.
What other forces do you see shaping ultra/trail running and how will the sport change?
EG – Environmental issues. and our need to look after our planet to protect the areas we run – this is of course a worldwide issue but we can’t ignore global warming and the increasing severity of forest fires in some parts of the world.
Doping. Right now, as far as I am aware, there is very little regulation at the majority of trail and ultra races. Going back to the lack of an over arching governing body and the fact that our sport is still relatively amateur, there is simply not the infrastructure and money to support out of competition and in competition testing. The more professional our sport becomes and the more money comes into the sport, this issue will have to be addressed for the sake of fair and safe completion.
Diversity. I would also love our sport to become more diverse. This is something that as a community I think we need to work on. Ultra/trail running right now is a reasonably white sport – seeing more ethnic minorities who represent our populations at large can only be a good thing. The same for the LGBTQ community- who have too little exposure in our sport. There are certainly already some great role models including Coree Waltering, Addie Bracy and others, but I’d love to be at the start of a trail race and the diversity look the same as if I walk down a main shopping street in Vancouver. We all now how trail and ultrarunning can benefit us all physically and mentally, and that should not be reserved for certain sectors of the population.
Last question, how can we all have a better 2021?
EG – Start each day feeling grateful for what we have and be kind to those around us – we don’t know what each other are going through. Smile at folks you see in the street, do more trail running, wear your Drymax socks every day :)
Photos: Bob MacGillivray