Cecilia Flori, who is from Italy but who lives in New Zealand, had a big-time breakout in taking third at the 2017 Tarawera Ultramarathon. In the following interview, Cecilia talks about her short history in trail ultrarunning, her career in theoretical physics, how she tried lots of things during Tarawera that she’s never tried before, and about how she’d like to race in the United States in the future.
Be sure to check out our results article to see how the rest of the race played out.
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Cecilia Flori Post-2017 Tarawera Ultramarathon Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here in Rotorua, New Zealand. It’s the day after the 2017 Tarawera Ultramarathon. I’m with women’s third-place finisher, Cecilia Flori.
Cecilia Flori: Hi.
iRunFar: Hi. I’m just meeting you for the first time now. Congratulations on your third place yesterday.
Flori: Thank you.
iRunFar: To be entirely honest, I’m surprised by your third place. Are you surprised by it?
Flori: I’m very surprised. I didn’t expect it at all considering the field and the female top athletes. I would have thought maybe top 10 but definitely not third place and not that close to them actually. Yeah, I definitely surprised myself.
iRunFar: This is my first experience meeting you, and this is also iRunFar’s first interview with you. So I want to know, who are you? What’s your background in running and sports?
Flori: My running career is not very long. I started just over two-and-a-half years ago, and I did a half marathon as an introduction to running. After training for just two weeks, I did the half marathon and it went pretty well. I decided I really like running. I was a climber before, so I stopped climbing and just ran. Then I did a 50 mile [trail race] the same year or the year after, and that went really well. I got third place, and I realized I really liked running trails and long distance. Then I did my first ultra in October 2016, Taupo 100k, and I won that one. This is my second 100k.
iRunFar: To be fair, before doing trail races, you did a half marathon and any other road races before that?
Flori: I did a 10k. Those were my only two road races.
iRunFar: Where did you get your athletic ability from? Did you do things as a kid?
Flori: When I was a kid, I did play basketball and did synchronized swimming, but I stopped everything around the age of 13 and didn’t do sports at all until I started climbing in 2011. I did quite a lot of climbing for three years. That’s about it.
iRunFar: I guess what’s going through my head in listening to you is that you probably have an incredible amount of unrealized potential in sports if…
Flori: I hope so.
iRunFar: You are Italian by birth, but you’ve lived around the world as an adult. What is your life like outside of running? What do you do and where have you lived?
Flori: I’ve first lived in the United Kingdom for a total of six years, I think, because I did undergrad and master’s there. Then I lived in Germany for three-and-a-half years in Berlin, which is a very nice city, by the way. If you get a chance, it’s very nice. Then I lived in Canada—that’s actually where I started realizing I really liked the outdoors, in Canada.
iRunFar: Where in Canada?
Flori: Near Toronto, Ontario.
iRunFar: That’s where you ran your first trail race, The North Face 50 Mile Ontario?
iRunFar: Did you say you came in third place?
Flori: Third woman, yes.
iRunFar: Just amble in onto the podium.
Flori: I didn’t know when I arrived. They told me, and I said, “It’s not possible.”
iRunFar: I think you’re pretty smart. You’re a theoretical physicist, and you work on quantum gravity, so this is the kind of stuff most normal people learn about in some movies and stuff. Can you talk about what you do for work in a way that normal people like me will understand?
Flori: In a summary, quantum gravity is a theory that tries to combine two different theories, one that deals with very big objects (general relativity), and one that deals with very small objects (quantum theory). They try to combine them. Black holes, for example, you need both theories. They seem incompatible, so that’s the problem we’re trying to solve—how to make a bigger theory which makes sense in the big world and the small world. That’s quantum gravity.
iRunFar: This has brought you now to New Zealand. You said before we started the interview that you’ve lived here for about a year. Where do you work, and what are you working on?
Flori: Right now, I’m a lecturer at the University of Waikato, and I’m in the math department. I kind of shifted slightly.
iRunFar: You’re going to work on equations for awhile?
Flori: What I’m trying to do at the moment is to try to express quantum theory with a different type of math which is quite different from what they use nowadays to express the theory, and it seems you can solve some of the problems with the theory using the different type of math. I’m getting some results which is good. I’m quite happy with it.
iRunFar: Is this a project you plan to be working on for some amount of time?
Flori: Oh, yes.
iRunFar: Like a lifetime?
Flori: Yeah, I think so. It’s an entire different route of research. Not many people work there which is good.
iRunFar: Are you working on it with a few other people at the university?
Flori: The university, no, but I collaborate internationally.
iRunFar: Got it. Does what that mean for trail running is you’re going to be integrated into the New Zealand trail running community now?
Flori: I hope so.
iRunFar: Last year you ran the Taupo 100k which is just a little bit south of here, and you won it in a time that Grant Guise, who is a friend of iRunFar, described to us as a time that he would have been happy running.
Flori: I was seven minutes behind him. He actually got scared because at one point he turned around and saw me, so he took off and picked up his pace.
iRunFar: It’s so funny how women’s running times are so influential in what men ultimately end up doing in races. Now you’re sponsored by Altra Running. Are you going to commit yourself to the experience of training and racing, or is it going to be sort of a side project to life?
Flori: I’d like to commit as much as I can because I think I’m quite good at it.
iRunFar: I think you’re quite good at it, too.
Flori: I’d like to see how far I can go because admittedly it’s not even three years. I did do training, but I noticed at the end of my second 100k, I’ve improved, so I think I can improve more. I would like to race more of these kind of races, fast 100ks, and see how far I can go, really.
iRunFar: I want to talk a little bit about yesterday’s race. We watched you at several different points along the course, the iRunFar team did. All day long you were just kind of right there in it—third, fourth position early and then third position later on. You said as we were getting ready to do this interview that you felt great right from the start.
Flori: Yeah, I really like running, so as soon as I start running, I’m in a happy place with a grin on my face. I just like it. Yeah, I felt quite strong. I started off faster than I thought I would. I wasn’t looking at my watch; I was just going by feeling. I felt good. Then I realized, Oh, I’m doing sub-5:00 kilometers. Hmmm, that’s a little fast, but, hey, I keep like that. The good thing of this race, because of the competition, I thought, Okay, I’m just going to give as much as I can because there are other people running fast, and it’s motivating. If I burn out, then I know my limits. I didn’t, so it was good.
iRunFar: It has to be somewhat unusual for you in this situation to not have a ton of experience in these long distances to say, Well, I’m going to run fast, and I’m going to try it, and we’ll see what happens.
Flori: Yeah, it was a bit funny because I decided at the last moment to change my nutrition because normally I have energy bars, but I was going faster than I thought, so I couldn’t and just had gels. It worked. So I learned that as well—gels seem to work.
iRunFar: Try it and it works—keep doing it. Did you ever turn on a competitive side to you and say, I want to fight for the highest position I can?
Flori: I can’t remember at what point someone told me I was fourth—Whoa, that’s good—and they told me the third woman wasn’t far ahead. So I upped the pace and saw a woman and realized it was her, so I overtook and just went for it for quite a bit to make a gap and then relaxed a little bit.
iRunFar: Where was that at?
Flori: I think they told me at Okataina.
iRunFar: Perfect, so 40k in.
Flori: At that point, I said, Okay, I’ll try for third. Then they told me, because I decreased the gap to second place. For a second I thought maybe I could take second place. There was a point where Magda [Boulet] did stop, and then I overtook her, but then she ran behind me for quite a bit, and then she just took off. I tried. At the end, if it wasn’t for Magda, I wouldn’t have been doing sub-5:00 kilometers. I was trying to just keep with her. That was good.
iRunFar: Where exactly was that point where you came across Magda, passed her, and then she passed you back?
Flori: Just about the Loop of Despair.
iRunFar: This is about 80k.
Flori: Yes, I was still feeling good. I almost did the Loop of Despair twice by accident with how good I was feeling.
iRunFar: Really? You came out of it and…?
Flori: Yes, and I started going that way… no.
iRunFar: Did you know at any time who Magda is and how talented she is?
Flori: Yes, that’s why I as a little… I just couldn’t believe I was even keeping up with her.
iRunFar: Did you ever think to yourself, I’m with an Olympic marathoner. I’m going to blow my top entirely?
iRunFar: But you just said to yourself, I don’t have anything to lose. Why not?
Flori: Yes, I’ll just see how far I can go. There were moments where I thought I felt a little bit slow, but I thought if I don’t finish, then I will do another. They were moments—because you have ups and downs and you get a little bit freaked out.
iRunFar: The Loop of Despair which takes place between about 80 to 85k…
Flori: It’s a very appropriately named.
iRunFar: It’s a tough loop at a tough point in a 102k race. Did you have any moments of true despair?
Flori: I had moments where I just slowed down and walked some uphill and thought, Oh, I can’t do this. Then I said, Come on. Snap out of it! One foot in front of the other! Then it goes away. Keep going. It doesn’t matter if you walk. Keep going.
iRunFar: You were actually hammering when you came across the line. You were giving it down the final straightaway. Is that your style? You just go for it?
Flori: Yeah, I normally finish in a sprint, which I’m not sure if I could have gone a little faster or I just do it. I get excited. I get very excited when I see the finish line, so yeah, even at Taupo I sprinted, yeah.
iRunFar: You now face the wide world of trail running. It’s kind of an interesting position for you to be in. Do you have any plans for the rest of the year? Have you been thinking in the last 24 hours, Maybe I should…?
Flori: Only the 24 hours—before it was just Tarawera. The last 24 hours, yes, I’m asking around what trails are similar in the speed to this one—the fast 100k. I think there are quite a few in the U.S.
iRunFar: So, what you’re saying is we might see you in iRunFar’s home country?
iRunFar: Okay! Anything in particular, or are you still thinking?
Flori: They suggested Lake Sonoma.
iRunFar: Yes, Lake Sonoma in April.
Flori: It might be a little bit too soon, but maybe. Then The North Face Endurance Challenge [50 Mile Championships] in California.
iRunFar: The 50 miler in December.
Flori: Yes, and the one Magdalena won. I don’t remember the name.
iRunFar: The Western States 100?
Flori: No, I don’t remember the name.
iRunFar: What else has she won? The Canyons 100k? It’s okay. Well, congratulations to you. It was a pleasure watching you race yesterday. It would be great to see you race on iRunFar’s home terrain or out there in the wide competitive world of trail running.
Flori: Thank you. Yeah, thank you. I think I’d like to because you really get pushed to places you couldn’t reach. I like that.
iRunFar: I think you might like that as an overall life process—like studying something that has no answers yet?
Flori: Yeah, it’s very similar the trail running with research because you’re faced with a 100k or a big problem, and you have to plan it, and you have to take steps at a time, and there are low points in both. You have to throw away a lot of research, or you have a low point in the race. You have to keep going.
iRunFar: So today finishing your experience at Tarawera, you’re heading into the Loop of Despair of studying?
Flori: I’m just going to have to keep going.
iRunFar: Congrats again. Thanks for the interview.