Ultrarunner, Elaine Acosta, ran her first ultra in 2010 and to date has completed 16 100-mile events. A UTMB finisher, Elaine has run everything from Comrades (56 miles) to Western States (100 miles). A big part of the running community, she frequently crews and paces for other ultrarunners (including former blog guest, Pam Reed) during 24-hour and 48+-hour events, such as Big’s Backyard Ultra and Cocodona 250.
In 2019, Elaine’s husband, Tom, who shared her passion for running, was diagnosed with an aggressive cancer. He passed away in 2020. In this Q&A, Elaine chats about the love of running she shared with Tom, how running has been a constant throughout the grief, and how she enjoys giving back to the running community by crewing events.
When did your running journey begin and how soon after did you step up to ultra distances?
I was a sprinter at Randolph High School. The 400m was my event. I tried cross country but quit. Three miles was way too long! It’s funny to look back because now three miles is too short! I didn’t run in college. I picked it up again in my 30s and became obsessed with 5ks. I raced two or three times a week. In 2007, I gave the endurance thing a try – I ran my first marathon, Athens Marathon, in Greece. I was hooked, ran a few more and wanted to go further.
In 2010 I ran my first ultra. The goal was Comrades Marathon (56 miles) in South Africa, but I ended up racing two 50ks, Caumsette and Sybil Ludington, as training. In 2011, I completed my first 100 miler, Javalina Jundred in Arizona. 2017, I ran my longest distance to date at Fat Dog 120 in the Canadian Rockies.
You’ve run many 100-mile events. How do you approach them – what are your strategies?
I’ve completed 16 (100-mile events) in 12 states and two countries. Strategies? I go into them with a no-quit attitude. Mental toughness, staying positive, muscle memory and confidence. It’s definitely hard at times, but whatever your mind says, your legs will follow. I just keep moving forward, no matter how slow. I try to stay in the moment and not look at the whole distance. Aid station to aid station breaks it up.
I’m always super nervous before a race, but once I am in it, I remind myself, ‘Hey! I’ve done tougher than this!’ and that gives me a boost to get through.
More recently, running for Tom and realizing it’s a gift to be able to run gets me to the finish line.
When you’re preparing for an ultra what does your training look like?
I was more prepared for ultras in the past. I did high mileage, 70-100 mile weeks with back-to-back long runs. I spent hours at the gym taking classes, using the machines and climbing the Stairmaster. I did speed work. I jump roped.
In February 2019, my husband, Tom, was diagnosed with glioblastoma, a very aggressive brain cancer. Priorities quickly changed. I barely ran. I didn’t run for weeks, sometimes months, but when there was an opportunity, I would dive into a race without training. Luckily, my body still knew what to do… Or maybe it was more mental. Whatever distance I had to cover wasn’t nearly as challenging as what Tom was battling.
He passed away in June 2020. Since then I’ve been slowly getting back on track and trying to return to a more regular training schedule.
Has running been an important part of your life in the months since Tom’s death?
Running has definitely been therapy while trying to cope with Tom’s death. Grief is difficult. Life is difficult. Running is what I know how to do best and it’s been a great outlet. Not only physically, but the whole environment of it… volunteering at races, crewing, pacing… just being surrounded by this community that always loved and supported Tom and I.
Memorializing him also helps. He’s always with me and I have plans to put him everywhere. I have scattered his ashes at finish lines, mountain tops and places he would have loved to run. He’s in Laz’s (Barkley Marathon’s race director Lazarus Lake’s) backyard, the Smoky Mountains and Zion National Park, just to name a few. I have collected donations to put up memorial bricks, benches, plaques and trees at all the parks and trails we frequently ran. If anyone still wants to contribute, the fundraising platform I was using closed their website. Please use Venmo @cheekyninjarunner. Thank you!
You met Tom through running and shared a deep love of it, is that right?
Running was such a big part of our lives. Tom was president of our running club, Raritian Valley Road Runners and an RD for some local races. We ran all over the world together – sometimes to race, sometimes to explore. We were also official pace leaders for half and full marathons. We co-paced a lot and made a good team.
For 100-milers, Tom was always my number one support crew. He would drive around to aid stations all day attending to my needs and then jump in the last 20-30 miles to pace me through my physical exhaustion and mental fatigue. He always updated the world via social media for those tracking along at home. He loved everything about it and it was always a shared success. In 2018, we spent our 1-year wedding anniversary at Cruel Jewel 100 in Georgia. I ran, he crewed/paced. Shuffling along in the woods under the stars and almost getting eaten by a bear… romantic! We couldn’t have thought of a better way to celebrate!
Tom didn’t run 100s. After crewing me for several of them he knew first-hand all the pain involved and was wise enough just to stick to 50ks and 50 milers. Our most epic run together was the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim. Just the two of us. 47 miles for his 47th birthday. It was his all-time favourite. During his last weeks of life, he would watch countless vlogs on YouTube of others doing the double crossing.
It seems like you have a supportive community of runners around you who are always up for a run or hike…
I am beyond grateful for the running world. 11 months have passed. 11 months of ups, downs and so many tears, but I know I’ve made it this far because of this amazing community. Whenever I want to run or hike or get away, there is always someone I can reach out to. The day Tom died, everyone dropped their plans and met me on the D&R Towpath for a run. It was beautiful and I’ll never forget it.
“We always talk about the running community being a gang. We have this thing we all do and we’re all nuts and all insane. We all support each other when injuries happen, but this is a lot more than an injury and it’s just very heartwarming to know that you are cared for like that.” – Tom O’Reilly
You’ve run iconic events all over the world, from Comrades in South Africa to UTMB in Europe. Which event has been the most memorable?
My favourite event to date is Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. UTMB is a single-stage 106-mile ultramarathon that takes place on the Alps, across France, Italy and Switzerland. It was the toughest, yet the most gratifying experience. This race is magical. Participants from all around the world, aid stations that are parties, incredible scenery and the most ridiculous climbs to the clouds!
If there wasn’t a video of me crossing the finish line I wouldn’t believe I did it. I had such a strong final 5k, sprinting through Chamonix with Tom by my side after he had crewed for 40+ hours. I have such great memories of this race – the highs, the lows and the moments of deliriousness. Like, at mile 87 at the Trient Aid Station with the famous “Let’s stop staring at food and let’s get walking…” video clip Tom had taken. In my head, I was moving so fast. The video says otherwise, haha. Good times.
You also do a great deal for the running community, crewing and pacing other ultrarunners, including Pam Reed. What does this typically involve, and when you pace Pam, how long do you run with her for?
It’s great to give back to a community that’s given you so much. As mentioned before, pre-pandemic, I was a pace leader for marathons. Almost every weekend in the spring and fall, I was pacing. Ironically, I had only crewed/paced at an ultra five times – three of them being Badwater. That was Tom’s gig. I always wanted to be the runner.
Since road marathons weren’t happening because of covid, I took on Tom’s role and started crewing/pacing friends. I’ve been doing it a lot these past few months and it’s been really fun to be on the other side… especially with Pam. I helped her at IMTUF 100, Grandmasters 100 and Cocodona 250. Her energy is incredible. She’s easy to crew. She’s positive and appreciative of life and what she is capable of doing. I jump in for about a 50k. At Cocodona I joined her for 45-ish miles. Unfortunately, I had to catch my flight home before she finished the race. I felt so bad leaving her the later miles.
Do you have any running plans for the next six months?
Right now I don’t have any races on the schedule, but I’m sure I’ll sign up for something! I’ve been logging onto ultrasignup in the middle of the night and sporadically registering for races, haha. I do plan on running a 100 miler before the year ends; just have to figure out which one.
In August, I look forward to returning to Kodiak 100 in Big Bear, CA. My friend, Susie, is the Race Director and I head out west every year to help out.
September, I am crewing Otto Lam at Spartathlon in Greece. It’ll be my first time at this event and I can’t wait!
November, the Tom O’Reilly Turkey Trot 5k.
As things return to normal, I will start pacing again in the fall. For now, I have Wineglass Marathon, NJ Marathon, Philadelphia Half Marathon and Philadelphia Marathon.
What are your favourite items of kit and are you sponsored by anyone right now?
I am not sponsored. I was an ambassador for a few products, but since cancer and covid, I haven’t resumed. I am a big RunningSkirts fan and ambassador – 90% of the time you can find me in their gear! I love their patterns, material and big pockets on the skirts. I use Nathan hydration packs, Hoka sneakers, Black Diamond headlamp and poles. I track my miles with my old-school vintage Garmin Forerunner 310XT.
You can follow Elaine via her social media: www.instagram.com/cheeky.ninja.runner.