Queen G: An Interview With Ellie Greenwood
Ellie Greenwood, as most know, is one hell of a runner. A two-time Western States 100 champion and course-record holder, a two-time IAU 100k World Championships winner, and in 2014 she added the prestigious Comrades Marathon crown to her myriad magical moments. She started 2015 with a high-profile move to the Salomon International Team and the opportunities that such a switch brings. All in all, not bad for a Brit who landed in Canada as a 22 year old having run just one half marathon. I caught up with Ellie to dig a little deeper.
iRunFar: New year, new sponsorship, new races. It’s shaping up to be an exciting year for you, isn’t it?
Ellie Greenwood: I’m super excited. In some ways, it’s all just come together. It wasn’t something I was looking for. The Montrail/Mountain Hardwear thing was dying a death and then Salomon popped up and I was like, Oh, this is nice! It’s all really exciting. Last year, I worked for a travel company and then I got let go, and so I started coaching. If you’d have said to me this time last year that this is what I would be doing, I would have been like, Okay, really!? It’s worked out. I think with the Salomon sponsorship, you need a bit more time for it and the coaching gives me way more flexibility than I had before. It just feels like everything has come together—it’s great.
iRunFar: Do you like having something like coaching going on, too? I guess you could be a full-time athlete if you wanted, so do you feel it’s nice to have something away from competing to concentrate on?
Greenwood: Yeah, I like having something else. I think if you just run, there is a lot of pressure, a bit like you have to do well because you need the prize money or you have to have some profile. Then if you get injured or have bad results, there’s another runner around the corner that people will go, “Look at them!” For me, something like the coaching works because it’s related but, at the same time, entirely separate. When you’re a full-time athlete, you can train all day so you feel like you should. I was working regular office hours and getting the results. I admit that it was running and work, running and work—that was it! Back then I thought that if I didn’t work I could have more time for just ‘general’ life, time to do more fun stuff! But for me, no, I’m happy to have something else. This sounds terrible, too, but I’m 35 too, not 25. If I was 25 I’d probably have a different perspective. Someone like Dakota [Jones], I would be like, “Dakota, go for it! Go to Europe and live there for a while, do all that stuff.” I worked for a tour company when I was in my early twenties and it was great. It was fun moving around and going from place to place… it was no problem if you didn’t make much money! But now I like having something else. When I was injured in 2013 and couldn’t race much, what do you then, if that’s your job? At least I could still do my work, which was sitting at a desk for 40 hours a week. Now, if that happened, I could still carry on with coaching. It’s a nice balance. I think, mentally, it’s good if running isn’t your ‘job.’
iRunFar: The psychological aspect to it is interesting. With your coaching, do you go into that side of things, too, or is it purely physiological?
Greenwood: Totally. Coaching clients, once they start, think that, Great, someone is going to give me a coaching plan. Of course they do get that and that’s the core to being a coach but there’s myriad other things. Especially for people who’ve already got reasonable results, it’s the other things that you need to look at because they’ve probably done the running side of things already. They’re not 100% there but they’re a good bit there. It’s the other things, like they’re rocking up at races super nervous or not organised about what to bring or they’re camping because they love camping. Okay, but do you really want to do that the night before running 100 miles? It’s the little things. I really like that side of things as well as the actual training side. It’s so individual and that’s the cool thing, the people aspect. I do the coaching at Sharman Ultra, and what Ian [Sharman] explained right from the start was that they have a set structure. Some of it is by email but we speak to clients at least once a month. You need to know the person you’re coaching and you only get that through speaking with them, email just isn’t the same. That, for me, is the fun part of the coaching, the people side of things.
iRunFar: Does that people-person trait come from your days as a travel rep, Ellie? That’s what took you to Canada in the first place.
Greenwood: Yeah, totally. I worked as a holiday rep, out in the ski resorts. I worked for a British tour operator. A chunk of that is dealing with people and I like that. It wasn’t always great when you’re a holiday rep and the customers are not happy or not having a good time after spending thousands of pounds on their holidays! Luckily you don’t get that in coaching—they’re not shouting at you! It’s nice to just learn from other people, too, like from Ian coaching me or the coach of my local road running club, taking what I think is good that they do and using it as part of my coaching—not just coaches but people like my physio and massage therapist. What are they doing that I think is really good? I just try and give people a little bit more when I’m coaching them.
iRunFar: Cool, so let’s go back to your upbringing. Born in Scotland and brought up in England, what’s the story there?
Greenwood: I was born in Dundee and lived in Fife, kind of near St. Andrews (the famous golf course)—that’s where most people have heard of. I lived there till I was eight and then moved to Hertfordshire for a couple of years.
iRunFar: Your parents are Scottish?
Greenwood: My mum is Scottish. They moved back Fife as soon as they retired. That is very much home. Even though I was very small when I lived there, I’ve always been brought up as ‘proud to be Scottish!’ I’m also totally like, “I’m British.” It’s only when people ask where in England I’m from that I get annoyed! After Hertfordshire, from about 11 until I was 15, I lived in Norfolk—which is pancake flat, farming country.
iRunFar: Do you actually remember moving away from Scotland? Was it a big upheaval for you at the time?
Greenwood: I think like any kid at eight years old, you don’t want to move because you have all your little friends. I was really quite shy and quiet as a child—I still am in a lot of ways—so I wasn’t really enthusiastic about moving but in a few months you’ve got a whole new set of friends and you’ve settled in and you’re doing your activities. You’re fine.
iRunFar: You got into running quite late but, back then, were you a sporty kid?
Greenwood: Yeah, my Dad’s an ornithologist—he does research into birds—so we’re quite an outdoorsy family. As a family, it was more like you would go for a walk on the weekend as opposed to going to the shopping mall. So I was very much brought up with going outside, hill walking or going to Europe camping for two or three weeks every summer. So that was the kind of childhood I had—outdoors and going and seeing stuff and that kind of thing. Then at school, I played netball and hockey and used to do athletics. Although the athletics at our school was not high-profile at all. So I was on the cross-country team but it wasn’t a very good team. It was bit like if you said you wanted to be on the team, the you were on the team—you didn’t have to be selected or anything! So I liked cross country but we never did tons of it. I played a bit of basketball and a bit of volleyball as well—I wasn’t particularly good at any of them but if they needed someone for a team, then I was on the team because they knew I was up for it. It was kind of like that. Then I went to university in York and I was doing a bit of running then. I was 18 to 19 and it was just keeping fit. Then when I was 21, for some reason, I decided to sign up for a half marathon, which was The Great North Run in Newcastle with 50,000 people. I didn’t go to a running club or anything and I didn’t have a running watch or anything. I guess that was kind of me, I just wanted a goal or something to aim for. I don’t think I ever had any concept of how far I was running in training or how far I should run as training for a half marathon. I did that and really loved it and I ran in 1:59:57.
iRunFar: Ooh, under two hours Ellie!
Greenwood: [laughs] Yeah, under two hours!
iRunFar: Do you remember thinking then that running could be something that you could be really good at?
Greenwood: No. That was still miles away. I had a great time and I was definitely thinking I would do that again and that it was fun. I guess some people come away from their first race like that thinking it was terrible but I thought it was fun, I enjoyed it. When I moved to Canada about a year later, to an office in Vancouver to work for the travel company, my manager said he was doing a half marathon in 10 days time and asked if I wanted to do it. I was like, “Yeah, all right!” I think he was pretty surprised.
iRunFar: Had you continued running after that first half marathon, though?
Greenwood: Bits and pieces. I’d done a little bit and the winter before I’d been working in Jasper in the Rockies for a ski season. So I’d been active. I did that half marathon in Vancouver and my manager and his group of friends decided that they were then going to do a marathon and would train with a running store. They asked if I’d like to do it as well and I was like, “Yeah, why not?” I think that was 2002 when I did my first road marathon. I ran 3:25, which was pretty decent, but still for another three years or so running was just me going out running, I didn’t really ‘train.’ It was very social. I remember that I wanted to get better but I didn’t see ‘better’ as me going out and winning races. In a way I think people get into running too quick and think, I want to do this and this. I got into it more slowly and had a few years of just really enjoying running. I think that’s the best thing ever—there was no pressure, it was fun and it was no problem if I didn’t go for a run. I’d do a race because friends were doing it. We were like, “Let’s go do the Boston Marathon because it’s fun and a nice four-day weekend!” That kind of thing.
iRunFar: Going from that into being serious in ultras and running on trails, when did that happen? Were there some key moments where you realised that you could be really good?
Greenwood: It was about 2005 or 2006 when I did my first ultra and around the same time when I started to get into trail running but there were never any light-bulb moments or I never thought I’d get to the stage where I am at now. 2008 was when I got on board with Montrail and Mountain Hardwear, so I must have done alright before then in some local races. The sponsorship was very low key to start with, it was just a friend who was on the team asked if I wanted to be on the team as well. But that definitely gave me the motivation to do better—however low key it was, you want to do well for the company that’s sponsoring you. So that made me a bit more focused. Then in 2008, I did my first 50 miler [Stormy Trail 50] and the next year I did the same race again and ran it an hour faster. I had won the race both years, so by that time I was winning some local ultras and was more performance focused. When I won the 50 miler the second time, the race director, Wendy Montgomery, who had been on the Canadian 100k team, said that with the time I was running I could come top 10 at the world 100k. I thought that was ridiculous and that she was joking! I’m sure I’ve said it to Wendy afterwards but she probably doesn’t realise that to her she was just saying something encouraging but to me it was great getting that confirmation from someone like her. That second time I won the Stormy Trail 50 I also got the course record, so by then I was thinking I was getting better at running. So I decided to try and qualify for the British 100k team and started to train more seriously. I started to train for specific things and really focus, rather than just going out running and having some races coming up.
iRunFar: Great. Did your mindset around running alter much with the change to a more serious training regime and focus, Ellie? You still had fun running?
Greenwood: Yeah, it all coincided with me moving to Banff for a few years around the same time. I’d lived there before but I moved back for about a three-year spell. That took me away from my running friends back in Vancouver and I ended up doing a lot of running on my own. That has different challenges. In a way it allowed me to become a better runner because now I did what I wanted to do as opposed to just maybe running with friends and running a bit slower or not going as far or whatever. I love running, right, but, yeah, it became a little more serious and I spent more time doing it. So you start to introduce the view of, I’m going out for a run because I should have a run, instead of, I don’t feel like a run so I won’t go! I wouldn’t say it took away the enjoyment but it added different elements and a little more pressure.
iRunFar: I guess that’s what allowed you to step it up, though, and take your running to the next level?
Greenwood: Exactly. It seemed crazy to try and qualify for the 100k team but then I did qualify. I was like, “Wow I’m going to the world championships!” Then I ended up winning the world championships! Definitely, then I had real goals and they were goals that I didn’t know if I’d achieve or not but I was going to put in the hard work.
iRunFar: You make it sound like it was plain sailing all the way from when you started running to perhaps 2013 when you were out for a while with an injury. Was it like that or did you have setbacks along the way?
Greenwood: No, there weren’t major setbacks. Like any runner, there were little things along the way. Other than those, it was pretty steady. In Canada there isn’t too many super-competitive ultras, I started going down to the States a bit and doing some races there. That was another step up. It may have just been a 50k race but it was a 50k with much more competition. I was doing well in those, too. Then I stepped up the distance, in 2011 I did my first 100 miler. 2012 was just a crazy year of doing just really well—in terms of the number of races I was doing and the results I was getting. So up until then, things went really well. It was only 2013 that I got enough of an injury that it kept me out for a while. I’d had little tweaks before but nothing that had kept me out for any length of time.
iRunFar: Okay, great. So you mentioned 100 miles there. You have, of course, run two 100 milers, both times at Western States, both time winning and you have the course record. You tweeted only a couple weeks ago about running Leadville this year, something along the lines of “Oh. My. Time to face the 100-mile fear again!” Do you still fear the distance after your success in the only times you’ve run that distance?
Greenwood: Yes, of course! Partly because I’ve only run two 100 milers and it just happens to be Western States and I’ve won them both. I hope that isn’t just beginner’s luck! I guess in some ways I’m quite a cautious person—I did a bunch of 50ks before I did a 50 miler, then I did a couple of 50 milers, then I did a 100k, then I did 120k, and finally a 100 miler. I’m not someone that goes leaping into things, so the 100-mile distance is not something that I feel overly confident at. I don’t know whether anybody should feel confident at it! If you’re an experienced ultrarunner at the start line of a 50k, particularly at the speed I’m running at, I go, “If I have a terrible day, I’ll still get to the finish line.” Whereas, 100 miles there is a lot of time for things to go wrong. You stand at the start line and think, I hope I get to the finish line. Even if your A-goal is that you want to win! It’s a long way and it does require a different level of commitment and training. Also, Leadville is at altitude so that’s a totally different ball game as well.
iRunFar: It’s classed as a ‘runnable’ 100 miler, though. That’s good, right?
Greenwood: Yeah. I don’t know whether that’s good or bad! I’m definitely a runner, I’m prepared to admit that.The more hills and mountains, I love that stuff, but it’s not my strongest type of running. My best type of running is to go run—every step. That’s why it’s so daunting, everyone is like, you’ll do well at Leadville! But, yeah, it is a course that suits my style of running.
iRunFar: You do pretty well at mountain-y races too, though, Telluride [Mountain Run] for example.
Greenwood: Oh yeah, I love that! I just did the Telluride hill climb because I was coming back from injury and it was Dakota’s race and there was photo shoot going on, so I just thought I’d do the race, too. I did the two Skyrunning races last year, too—Speedgoat and The Rut. I’ll totally put my hands up and say that isn’t what I’m best at—and I’m not just saying that because I didn’t win it! But I really like it and it’s fun and it’s a challenge. Yes, I like to win races and some races that’s my main goal, but if you stop doing races because you don’t think you’ll win or their not your best thing, I don’t think that’s right. You have to do things that challenge you, so you can really try and train your best and see if you can be good at it. Or just to experience a whole different type of racing, too, I love that kind of terrain, it’s just I’m not so good at it! You shouldn’t pigeon hole yourself and think, I’m good at doing flat 50 milers so that’s what I’m going to do. That’s boring—I like to mix it up and keep it interesting.
iRunFar: That’s perfect, Ellie. So what races have you planned this year; Comrades and Leadville are your focus races?
Greenwood: Yes, so far. I’ll do lots more races, too. I’m kind of in the lucky situation of not needing to commit to too much too soon and just seeing how the season goes a little bit. I don’t want to race too much before Comrades for sure, then in the summer I will do other races that fill in the gaps and are ones that I’ve not specifically trained for. More like preparation races. Don’t get me wrong, whatever race I stand on the start line of, I’ll go out and race it as hard as I can on the day. I’m probably going to do the Mont Blanc Marathon but I know you can’t specifically train for everything, you can’t train for the course or the duration or the terrain. You can’t peak for everything either, so I’ll peak for certain races and the other races I’ll be prepared for as best I can. With ultras it takes a bit of time to recover, too.
iRunFar: You’ve been in Canada a good while now. Was it always your intention to stay there when you moved from the U.K.?
Greenwood: No, I came on a one-year visa after university and worked for the travel company that I worked for for nearly 13 years. It was a little on and off, I did winters in Canada and then summers in either Switzerland or Norway. That was from about 2003 t0 2008. I worked in Interlaken in Switzerland for a couple of summers. I did actually do the Jungfrau Marathon. I did more hiking, though. So, no, I just ended up staying! First I got a job as a ski rep here for the winter and then they asked if I wanted to work in the office in Vancouver in the summer, next winter back to the resort. It just became home. I left the U.K. right after university so I never had a job or a circle of friends to go back to. I ended up staying here a lot longer than I expected and then it ends up that this where my friends are and this is where my lifestyle is, so why would I move back? I got my Canadian citizenship last summer, too.
iRunFar: Cool. Does that make you feel legit?
Greenwood: It makes me feel like a fraud, [laughs] like, Why did they give me one of these!? [laughs] No, I love Canada. I just think the lifestyle here, the whole outdoors is great. In the U.K., it’s more about your job when you’re in your twenties, it’s not as much about your lifestyle. Over here, and this is a generalisation, but it seems more like your job is a means to make money so you can go and do what you want to do with your life. Especially here in Vancouver, with outdoor activities, there’s just so much. The priority with my friends is like, What are we doing on the weekend; will we go snowshoeing, trail running… whatever. Without ever meaning to, I just ended up staying here. It just became home!