© Scott Robarts
I’m very excited to have British ultrarunner and coach, Ellie Greenwood, as today’s interviewee! Ellie holds course records on some of the world’s toughest ultra-distance races, including the Western States 100 miler, which she’s won twice. The British athlete, who now lives in Vancouver, Canada has also won the Comrades ultramarathon (89km), the CCC by UTMB (101km, 6100m+), and is a two-time 100K world champion.
Whether she’s racing competitively or escaping to the trails in training, forty-year-old Ellie runs for the love of the sport above everything else. Here, she shares with me (amongst other things) an insight to what got her started in running, what’s helped her stay sane throughout injury, and how she digs deep during racing and training.
You didn’t grow up running competitively. When did you suspect you could be a pretty good marathoner and ultrarunner?
I ran my first marathon when I was 23 and ran 3:25 – a solid time but certainly not exceptional. For the first six or so years of my running it was all very much for fun, enjoyment and the social aspect of it – sure, I wanted to do well but I didn’t follow a training plan or know much about competitive running, I ran what races appealed with very little structure. But in those years I did get into running my first trail ultras and placed better at those than road ultras (likely because they were less competitive!) and that of course was a mental boost.
In 2008, I really focused on trying to improve my marathon time and joined a running club with a coach. In the space of five months I went from 3:17 to 2:55 in the marathon and also started doing well at slightly more competitive ultras. As the same time I got my first sponsor to whom I felt accountable and like I should prove myself, so I guess it was all around that time that I realised that I had some talent if I trained more and with more focus.
You’ve said that joining a running club with a coach made a huge difference to your running – was this down to the advice, the camaraderie, structured training or something else?
It was down to the club atmosphere, the knowledge of our coach and following a proper marathon training plan. I was suddenly surrounded by really good runners with whom I was doing tougher workouts with than I ever had done in the past, so that physically got me improving but also was very motivating to be surrounded by a really talented group. I still train with the Vancouver Falcons once or twice a week to this day – they’re the best.
You’re now a coach yourself. Do you work to a particular training ethos with your clients?
My main focus is creating a training plan and atmosphere that works for the individual. Knowing the people I coach as individuals – what makes them tick, what their work and family life is like, and how we can get their running to complement that. A textbook training plan is no use if it doesn’t work out around someone’s work and family commitments and if they don’t enjoy it.
I am a huge proponent of perceived effort – sure, heart rate and data can be enormously useful but it can’t replace a runner knowing how they feel and how to shift gears both in training and racing. Running has some fundamentals – run consistently (week to week, month to month, year to year), sometimes run hard, other times run easy. But simple concepts like that are not always easy to nail and that is where I feel as a coach that I can provide value to runners of all abilities.
You’ve experienced a fair amount of injuries at the peak of your running career. What’s helped you stay sane during set-backs?
Most runners do experience injuries at some point in their career – of course we should do everything to try avoid it, but also just accepting that it’s part of the game is key. Very few running injuries are terminal so it’s about practicing patience and staying the course. Ultimately, I have and always will run for the simple love of it – sure, being competitive is nice but when injured just knowing you truly love the sport will keep you dedicated to rehab, rest and cross training. I also love to stay involved in the sport through my coaching and volunteering at events – being a runner is not just about running yourself, it’s about the community involvement and any injured runner can still be very involved and feel valued.
You’ve set course records on some of the most revered races in ultrarunning. Does any one race experience stick out as the toughest?
Dropping out at the 100k World Championship in 2011. I had won the year prior so came in probably with more expectations on my back. I started vomiting about 45km in and from that point on I could never get my stomach under control – I stumbled my way through until 90k and then just couldn’t contemplate running another 10k (or, more like, walking in paved roads in the Netherlands) so I dropped. It was tough and still is, as I should have just regrouped and jogged in the final 10k even if my time would have been slow. I regret DNF-ing whilst wearing a GB vest. It was tough because I just had never gone into the race envisioning that it could go quite so badly wrong and I was having to try wrestle with that whilst jogging around the course under-fuelled for quite a few hours!
When you won Comrades in 2014 you’d almost given up on the idea of winning during a low point in the race. Mentally, how did you get back on track?
I simply resolved to run my best on that one day, even if it was going to be slower and a worse position than I had gone into the race hoping for. I just decided that I needed to go home knowing that I had tried, as no one can criticise you for trying. I also decided that the faster I tried run the faster the awful-feeling race would be done! I then wound up in the lead, in shock and just gunned it as hard as I could – which I do appreciate is not actually that fast in an 89k race!
In general do you use any mental strategies in your racing?
My one mantra is ‘tough as titanium’ – I value racers who are tough – that doesn’t necessarily mean fast, but just runners who have grit and aren’t flaky. Or I often just think ‘relentless’ – keep pushing, keep digging, keep working harder, just don’t quit finding that extra bit of effort till you are over the finish line.
Did you get nervous or feel under pressure lining up for Western States/Comrades etc?
My first Western States 100 I do think I was nervous because some people had performance expectations on me, but it was my first 100 [miles] and I didn’t even know if I could run the distance! At Comrades in 2014 I had a bit of self-imposed pressure as I love that race like nothing else. I had come 2nd two years’ prior and missed the previous year with injury – I so wanted to have my best race possible to give myself a shot of winning.
Do you have any pre-race rituals to help with nerves?
I’m not big on pre-race rituals – I like to just keep things simple. I try to just focus on ‘it’s just a run and I know how to run’ as ultimately even the biggest of races are just that – running. If you’ve put the time into training, you know how to run! I like to be surrounded by friends who are competitors in the early miles and in the days before a race I just make sure I hang out with the right people – those who are positive but don’t put pressure on me. When out on the race course most nerves melt away as soon as the gun goes off, and then I just focus on methodically working my way through sections of the course.
You’ve run everything from speedy track events to long, mountainous ultra trail races. How do you cater for the variety in your training – does it get specific in the lead-up to a race?
Yes, I might throw in a variety of races but there will always be a few key races in the year that the bulk of my training is geared towards. For example, in the lead up to Comrades 2014 I ran one 50k ultra on modest trails and focused on half-marathon PR and a solid marathon – these races might look like variety but ultimately they all helped me prepare for the combination of leg speed and endurance that is needed for the hilly 89kms on road that is Comrades.
After Comrades I wanted to avoid mental burnout so I did two tough mountain 50ks (Speedgoat and The Rut) which was great as the training was so different that I didn’t get bored or physically burned out from the same type of training all year long. So by the end of the year I’d done a wide variety of races but they all meshed together in some way with focus on only some of the key events, others being more for fun and/or training.
As a coach and athlete, are you a fan of incorporating speed work into ultra training?
Of course! Practically every runner should be doing speed work, just not brand new runners or those who are returning after a break and are building their base. I feel it’s a big mistake that some ultrarunners make – they think they just need to run lots of steady miles, but even in ultras if you can make your slowest pace a bit faster through speed work you will get much better results and your race will feel easier and more fun.
You live in Vancouver with its fantastic trails. How much of your running is on trail versus the road and track? And do you ever hike?
In a typical week I will run trail, road and track. I only run track 1 x per week and would probably drop that for a bit in the immediate lead-up to an ultra, but for now as I get older (I’m 40) I really want to work on maintaining my speed. Weekday runs are most likely roads and non-technical trails, including a trail interval session with my club, and then on weekends I am more likely to choose trails that might be moderately technical for my long run – but again, it depends on what race I’m targeting. I do hike when I have time, the most regular hike I do is up Grouse Mountain – it’s about 750m gain over 3kms and a great low impact workout as I ride a tram back down.
Is your training pretty structured or do you go with the flow?
I go with the flow given I’m not training for any big races right now. Thursday trail intervals and Saturday track with my club are key staples each week, but other than that I run what appeals and what suits to get me ready for some smaller local races that are on my radar.
What’s on the horizon for you for this autumn and winter – will you be racing?
I’ll likely do some local short (half marathon or shorter) races for fun this fall and winter, but no big plans. I may get back to longer distances in the future – we’ll see.
What are your favourite items of kit for racing and training?
HOKA Evo Mafates for trail and HOKA Cliftons for road, I love them both. Other than that, I like to keep gear simple – in my opinion running should not be about gear and commercialism, it should be about a pair of shoes, a comfy pair of shorts and t-shirt, and doing it for the love of the sport 🙂
Are you sponsored by anyone right now?
HOKA, CLIF, Flora Health, Sundog Eyewear, Drymax socks.
You can follow Ellie’s training and racing via her social media: www.facebook.com/ultra.ellie and www.instagram.com/elliejgreenwood and www.twitter.com/eLLiejG. To find out more about Ellie’s coaching you can visit www.sharmanultra.com.