Twenty-six-year-old Adidas road and track star Emily Harrison exploded, supernova-style, into the ultrarunning scene last weekend when she finished second woman at the 2012 JFK 50 Mile in 6:17:16. Not only did she blow almost all of her competition away, but she also annihilated the old women’s course record of 6:29:21. There was just one hitch to her day: Ellie Greenwood bested her by a bit over five minutes and won the women’s race. In the following interview, see how pleased Emily is about her break-out ultramarathon and learn about the running background she brings to the trail and ultra world.
iRunFar: How’s your recovery going?
Emily Harrison: I feel like I’ve come off of it pretty well today. Yesterday, I was pretty sore… and after the race. I’m starting to come around today. My quads are a little sore, and my calves, but it’s all pretty much just normal muscle soreness — nothing that’s glaring. So overall I think I came off of it pretty well.
iRF: Your name is well known when it comes to the road and track circuit, but your name came onto the ultra and trail radar pretty quickly last weekend. Congratulations! You had a heck of a run and second-place finish at the JFK 50. You ran a 6:17 which is more than 12 minutes under the course record. You shared how your body is feeling. How is your mind feeling two days out from racing 50 miles for the first time?
Harrison: To be honest, I think it’s all still sort of sinking in that I actually did it. I completed it and went 50 miles. I think that it was fairly successful, I’d say. I’m trying to really grasp what I did. I’m pretty excited. I’m excited that I have range. I think that is really good to keep. It opens some doors. It’s kind of piqued my interest lately — the ultra side of things — but I’m also still wanting to focus on the marathon. I think being able to mix it up and do some ultra events and, then, also stepping back down to the marathon would really complement each other. I consider myself to be a strength runner. I think it’s really neat, and I think it opens a lot of opportunities that I’m looking forward to exploring.
iRF: For us ultra and trail runners who don’t know much about you, you have a 2:32 marathon PR from the Twin Cities Marathon last year. I understand you followed the standard running route for young people in the US. You were a high school cross country and track runner who racked up a couple state championships, a Division I All-American in college, and then you proceeded onto the pro track and road running circuit. Can you fill in a few details about the background you brought to this weekend’s race?
Harrison: Sure. I started high-school running because my friends were going to do it. I wasn’t really interested in other sports. I figured I’d try it out. I had success early on. I kept increasing my goals for myself as I went. I’d have another breakthrough and, “Oh, okay, here’s my next goal.” By the end of high school, I’d won some state championships.
Then my goal was to get recruited by a Division I school and get a scholarship, which happened. I got into the collegiate system, and I didn’t really know where my potential was. I kind of had another huge breakthrough my freshman year at college. Then my coach at the time started talking to me about keeping an open mind and running after college. I still had four years of school left, and he’s already kind of prepping me for thinking that way. He would train me for going in that direction. He didn’t want to burn me out early on. That happens sometimes; you get wrapped up in that.
So I continued to improve each year especially in cross country. I was a stronger cross-country runner than I was a track runner. So then my senior year, I was sixth at the NCAA Cross Country Championship which really capped off a great year for me. I got recruited to run with Greg McMillan and McMillan Elite out there in Arizona. I deferred at first, “Well, I’m going to hold off and stay out here on the East Coast and train with my college coach.” My college coach, that summer, ended up taking a job at Stanford. So I called Greg McMillan back, and I’ve been back there for the past three and a half years. I did just move back to Virginia three and a half months ago.
iRF: You moved back to Virginia permanently?
Harrison: Yes, for right now, I’m in Virginia.
iRF: Are you still training with McMillan?
Harrison: Actually, I’m not. I was out there for three and a half years and was having to work through a lot of injury issues. I’m pretty certain it was a gluten intolerance that I was fighting with that decided to pop up. I’ve finally figured it out. So it took me a long time to get back on my feet out there; it was really hard because I’ve never really had a lot of injury problems before. Having that pop up was really hard for me to deal with. I finally got through that, and that’s where last year at Twin Cities I finally started to be able to train again, and I was getting my feet back under me. Then I was able to run a good marathon. So then I just left McMillan this summer; I decided to come back east. I started working with Ian Torrence for this race. So that’s kind of how it progressed.
iRF: Working independently with Ian Torrence, who you must have gotten to know at McMillan Elite as he a coach there?
Harrison: Yes. I ran with him a lot out in Flagstaff when I was on the team. So I got to know him pretty well. When I trained for Twin Cities, a lot of the team was on different schedules. I was doing a lot of big trail runs with Ian. “Oh sure, I’ll go out and join you on this run.” We’d go out and do some big trail run out in Flagstaff at altitude. I think that strength really helped my marathon to be honest. I enjoyed it. I enjoyed being out on the trails. It started to pique my interest.
Obviously, Ian is a very successful ultrarunner. I trust his coaching. I could see what he was doing with his clients and seeing success his clients were having. Just talking with Ian one-on-one about training philosophies — he seems to have a good idea on how to prepare somebody.
iRF: So you were rocking the fuchsia and orange Adidas kit last weekend. Who currently are you sponsored by?
Harrison: I’m still with Adidas.
iRF: Anybody else?
Harrison: Just Adidas.
iRF: I think there might be a couple companies who will listen to this with interest, then.
I interviewed you once before for a magazine article on trail running in Arizona. I remember researching you at that time. You have a blog that has a pretty heavy trail influence. You wrote about some of these runs you were doing out there with Ian and company around Flagstaff at altitude. There were these entries about these long trail runs you were doing mixed in with reports from an indoor track race or a five-mile race. It was clear in reading your blog and interviewing with you before that you have a passion for trails. What draws you to spending time on them?
Harrison: It’s funny because I used to not really enjoy trails when I first started running. They kind of intimidated me, and I just wasn’t into them. Once I got comfortable on the trails, it’s nice because you can kind of lose yourself on the trails. I enjoy the fact that you’re just not on a road clicking off miles. It’s a little bit more… I don’t want to say mindless, because you have to pay attention to what you’re doing. There’s a lot going on. I think the trails in Flagstaff helped me to learn to love the trails.
It also just suits me as a runner. I feel like I’m a strength runner. I get really strong off of doing a lot of hill climbing and a lot of hard trail runs. It just makes me stronger. That transfers for me to speed. I get my speed on that side of things as opposed to doing repeat 200’s on the track. That definitely helps, but for me it comes more from the strength and endurance side. I saw the benefit.
Like I said, I enjoy being out there. It’s challenging. It’s hard. You have to have the right mindset. You’re always having to think on your feet. You have to pay attention. It’s just a different challenge, and I appreciate that. I have a dog, a young border collie, and I can take her out on the trail with me. I can take her off leash and we can go run and be lost in the woods for a couple of hours and not be worried about anything. If I take her on the roads, it’s kind of stressful.
iRF: There are multiple appeals for you, it sounds like.
Harrison: Yes, yes. Exactly.
iRF: So, onto JFK. Racing 50 miles is pretty stout. Many people enter ultramarathon running via a 50k. You stepped up to a pretty stout distance. How did you choose it? Was it based on some of your long trail runs? Was it that your coach has run JFK a million times? What went into you making this decision?
Harrison: Well, there are a few different reasons why. I caught that ultra bug; I wanted to try one. In talking with Ian when I was still on the team, he was like, “Well…” And Greg, we were focusing on different things like the Olympic Marathon Trials, which will still be a focus of mine in the future, but at the time, it didn’t really fit into the schedule to do it. So when I left this summer, I was thinking, “Well, I’m on the East Coast again. I’m close to JFK.” We were kind of bouncing it around. I kept asking Ian about it a little bit, and finally we were like, “Okay, let’s do it.”
For me the draw to JFK was a few things. My mom has run JFK and completed it twice. So when I was younger, I was up in the area and I had seen her doing it. Of course, I didn’t really have a concept of what it was, but I knew it was really long. I also helped crew Ian at JFK last year, so I kind of got to see it again first-hand. When Ian and I were talking about it, and I was asking him about, “Hey, what do you think about me doing JFK?” We were thinking it was suited for me because there is such a long towpath section on the canal and that my speed would translate pretty well. I just needed to stay upright on the trail and then come down onto the road. That’s kind of what we were thinking, that it would be a good transition race for my first time since it might be more suited to someone with my background with the marathon.
iRF: Race day, did you go into it with a particular strategy or to just survive? We watched you race behind eventual winner Ellie Greenwood on the Appalachian Trail. Hopefully you did stay upright. Then we watched you surge once you got on the towpath and lead for quite a distance.
Harrison: Since I was in Virginia, I was able to go do some training up along the canal for my long runs. We trained a lot around the goal of seven-minute pace on the canal. I figured, for me, it would be a patience issue. I still didn’t know what to expect. I trained for it, but how do you really know what you’re going to experience out there until you do it? I figured, for, me it was going to be something where I couldn’t get too carried away once I did hit the flats.
So the plan was to really be patient all through the Appalachian Trail section — just to stick behind Ellie and stay relaxed, don’t push, and stay on my feet. If I fell on the trail, it just kind of ruins everything. Sometimes it’s hard to come back from that mentally, and sometimes, depending on how you fall, physically. Everyone says about that race that the race is on the canal, so don’t do anything silly on the trail section. I tried to be really patient through there. I was actually really happy with how I made time on the Appalachian Trail though.
Then I hit the canal and it was “just try to run 7:00 minute/mile pace.” I did get a little carried away there as soon as I hit the canal, I started to hit some faster times. I felt fine, but I was like, “Ooooh, I don’t know.” They can come back. That was the plan. I’d say it went pretty well according to plan. I did hit a wall there in the middle, and I was pleased that I was able to come back from that. That was a nutrition thing on my end. I just know I have to work on getting more calories in. I knew that was going to be an issue for me. All along, Ian kept telling me, “Your problem is going to be not taking in enough nutrition.” He knows how I operate.
iRF: What was your nutrition plan? What panned out?
Harrison: I was steadily taking in calories, and I did better than I expected myself to. It wasn’t quite enough. I was using a carb and electrolyte mix. It was straight maltodextrin and some EFS electrolyte drink. I was taking in good nutrition. I think it would have been fine. It was sitting really well. I didn’t have any real stomach issues. I just didn’t take enough of it in.
So then it was a little bit after the marathon that I just hit the wall. I just grabbed some gel and I took in some gels; then I started taking Coke after that. After that I was able to rebound and drop my pace back down. By then, Ellie passed me in that gap where I started to struggle a little bit and slow down. She made that gap right then. I was able to bring my pace back down, but by then the gap was too big.
iRF: You certainly touched the void by racing the 50-mile distance as your first ultra. What was mile 40, mile 45 like for you? Was it trippy? Frightening? Does it make you want to try it again? What was it like to be hyper-extended, racing-wise?
Harrison: I think, overall, it went really well. It was a good experience. I would have rather not had that rough patch. It set me back. But I think when I hit mile 40, I think mile 43 I started feeling better again. I got out on the road section and I passed an aid station and was able to click back down closer to 7-minute miles. “Oh, okay, this isn’t so bad.” I ended on a positive note. I was excited about that. I knew once I started slowing down, that this could be a really, really, really hard last 20 miles. That’s a long ways out. I’m really excited to get more experience. I think I can take some more time off on a course like JFK.
iRF: You raced pretty close to head-to-head with [arguably] the best female in ultrarunning right now, Ellie Greenwood. What was that like for you?
Harrison: It was a really neat experience. I knew that I was a newcomer coming in. I knew she was really experienced and has had amazing success. So I knew when I went by her, she was going to be racing, as well. I definitely had a potential battle on my hands if I wanted to go after something big. I kept reminding myself on the Appalachian Trail, sometimes I would be running within sight of her — “Wow, I’m running behind one of the best trail runners right now!” It was cool. It was a positive experience for me, and it was neat to be around someone like that and see firsthand how they race and what they do. It was one of those things where it could be very daunting to go in being the first time out there and, “Oh my gosh, there’s this living legend right in front of you.” But I couldn’t let that intimidate me. I just needed to do what I needed to do and pursue my race plan.
iRF: I’m pretty sure Ellie went into the race with the same mentality of, “Oh my goodness, there’s a really fast marathoner turning up. I just have to run my race, too.”
iRF: The future, will you run another ultra? What’s on the race calendar?
Harrison: I’m waiting to speak with Ian. We need to sit down and chat about options. I would like to continue to mix up my training with some ultras. I’m not going to fully convert. I’d really like to focus on the marathon and getting my time down in the marathon. I just moved up to the marathon last year. I feel like I have a lot of room to improve there. This race also did open up some cool opportunities in the ultra world that I need to consider taking advantage of. I’ll have to figure that out. The only thing I’m committed to right now is a marathon in April.
iRF: Which marathon is that?
Harrison: It’s the Brighton Marathon in the UK.
iRF: You and I have one thing in common. We both have border collies as pets. Mine is sitting next to me as we’re chatting right now. I learned that yours is called ‘Super Bee.’ She accompanies you on a lot of runs?
Harrison: Yeah, as many as I can fit in. When I’m on the road, I don’t really take her as much because she has to stay on leash and it’s a little harder. But when I was training on the canal for JFK, she did a 24-mile training run with me on the canal one day, and she held up great. She’s out there on the trails with me whenever I’m out there. As much as she can get out, she’s with me.
iRF: She doesn’t mind living on the East Coast and moving away from the more mountainous West?
Harrison: No, she’s been pretty good. She likes it out there. She is actually from Virginia. I flew her back as a little puppy to Arizona with me. She’s doing well.
iRF: So she was just returning home.
iRF: One last fun question, did you indulge in some way with food after the race? How did you feed yourself after you ran 50 miles for the first time?
Harrison: Let’s see… I had some wine, but I guess that’s not… I did get a pizza yesterday. I’ll count that as my reward.
iRF: A little indulgence.
Harrison: I figure Thanksgiving will be my indulgence. I can actually enjoy a full Thanksgiving meal and not have a race coming up.
iRF: Thank you for taking the time to chat. You’re probably trying to relax and kick your feet up a bit. We’re grateful.
Harrison: I appreciate it. Thank you.