Creating a Habit, Igniting a Passion

Chick's CornerAs I slipped and slided my way down the muddy, grassy trail into La Fouly aid station in the drizzling rain and foggy grey clouds at CCC in the Alps this past summer many things could have been on my mind; what to eat at the aid station, how far ahead the next woman was, what the profile of the next portion of the course was like. Instead, I was thinking, wow – this is awesome! This is just like school cross country! So yes, almost 20 years and many miles, later I was thinking back to running around flat farmers’ fields in Norfolk, England where I grew up. Mr. Wildmun would be up at the front and Mrs. Cayley at the back ensuring that no stragglers were left behind, as we only had about 50 minutes in our PE class to get the two or so mile cross-country route completed.

Every six weeks in winter we would run the cross-country course in PE class. For most, I think, it was at best tolerated and for others it was dreaded, for some smart ones the sick note was created as to why little Johnny really could not run around for two miles and needed to stay inside. I, however, loved it. Even so, it was always a slight puzzle to me as to why cross country was a winter sport, just when it started to get cold and rainy and the days got shorter to the point that on some days it never seemed to get totally light at all, we were sent off to run around muddy, sloppy fields. But then maybe that’s the point; running in the mud and rain is far more fun than running in the dry.

And what else would you wear for cross country other than your field-hockey kit? At the start of every school term we had kit inspection in PE class to ensure we had the obligatory white cotton polo shirt, navy blue gym knickers and pleated skirt, white knee length socks (and no, they had zero compression) and hockey boots. In this get up, whatever the weather, off we would trudge around the edge of farmers’ fields for our two or so miles. It could be freezing cold or hailing, but that was what you wore; it wasn’t fancy and it wasn’t flash and no brand logos were allowed (Heaven forbid a Nike swoosh!), but it was what we all wore and it wasn’t expensive. The only personal adaptation was the length of the skirt; of course the shorter the better, and the knee length socks were so bulky they probably weighed about twice as much as our skirts, especially when drenched in mud.

I say two or so miles as I’m not quite sure how far the route was, but take me back to Diss in Norfolk tomorrow and I’ll run that route blindfolded. I know I never got under 20 minutes, I think I was usually 21-something, but the exact time has faded from my memory although the images of chasing the other boys and girls to try beat them to the finish line at the gate that went onto the school playing field has not. I wasn’t fast, but I wanted to run as fast as I could and even once made it to the regional cross-country race. I think I came about fiftieth. Out of 56. There was a big hill on that course, and, well, in Diss you can see it for about 20 miles in any direction. A speed bump is classed is a hill.

Then summer would roll around so cross-country season would end and next up on the PE agenda was athletics. Again, my skill might have been moderate, but my enthusiasm was 110%. Most lunch times I would head over to the track, no fancy rubberized track, just a spray-painted track on the grass where the hockey fields had been in the winter. One of the PE teachers would have always opened up the shed in the middle of the track and with no supervision we were free to take what we needed – a stopwatch for the track or a rake for the long jump pit – and off we would go. I’d run an 800-meter and that’d be me. No coaching, no drills, no schedule, just basic facilities and teachers willing to do the little things to help, be it ensuring the facilities could be accessed or driving us to after school races with other local schools. I have no idea what I wore on my feet, but it certainly wasn’t racing spikes.

Ellie Greenwood - childhood running

Ellie (left) racing athletics at age 10.

But most importantly of all, it gave us an opportunity to learn that physical activity was fun and it gave us a basic experience to build on. When I wanted to train for a race, well, I knew my two-mile cross-country route and so off I could go and run that on my own of an evening, and I guess I had the confidence to know that I could run two miles. I had the experiences of fun, after-school minivan rides with a teacher and a bunch of classmates to neighboring schools, which were a positive experience. Of course we were encouraged to do well, but that wasn’t a priority, the priority was taking part and doing as well as we could. I have hazy recollections of what my 800-meter time was, but I have no idea how old I was when I was running that time or whether I improved much, there just wasn’t that sort of focus or that sort of pressure.

So where has this led me to today? Well, I know in many ways it laid the foundation for being the ultrarunner that I am now. I learned that running is fun, that it requires dedication and that it is about pushing yourself as much as it is about competing against others. Although I’m not totally against competition within school sports, I do feel that making physical activity fun for kids should be the priority, for without that how can we ever expect young adults to want to continue once they have left the structures of school? When I was at school, PE was only compulsory to age 16, but I never gave it up as I’d developed a habit, I’d learned skills and, well, I think I was already well on my way to a rather healthy addiction. In many ways I cringe when I hear about more structured high school track teams with coaches and matching kit and training schedules; although that can be great for many and, of course, is probably more likely to breed future Olympians, I’m all for the more basic, grass-roots approach that hopefully results in more kids leaving school feeling that running is fun and something that they will continue as a lifelong habit.

Oh, and one final note; thank you to all the PE teachers at Diss High School from 1991 to 1996, I still remember every one of you by name and you did an awesome job – I’m still running today.

There are 26 comments

  1. Justin

    Ellie, as an eighth-year PE teacher, I thoroughly enjoyed your article. My high school students cringe at the fact of running our "1-Mile Fun Run" fitness test. I get the "sick notes" from mom's (possibly forged???) but eventually they all end up running it. It's interesting though, as I drive through the town I teach in, I see those same kids that were trying so hard to get out of running, running the streets post-graduation. Thanks again for your article Ellie.

  2. daniel

    Ellie, I agree 100% wish they would teach having fun over being fast.
    I still only run because its fun. not everyone can be fast but everyone can have fun running. of cource I think that's only possible if running up or down a mountain on trails

  3. Evan JW

    Ellie, Good form, Spot on!

    Love the theme of 'always giving 110%' and just as important the power that retrospect can have on why we do what we do. I am convinced that every athlete has formative years, and learns different things from those years. Looks like you got a great perspective from those days – sure it helps you today.

    Well written, great message.

  4. Don C

    As a HS XC coach in Vancouver, I see in my young athletes the passion and dedication you refer to – and the dread when we have a particularly tough workout. :) Loved your story!

  5. Sarah Lavender Smith

    Thanks so much for this essay. I wish I had your experience growing up. I HATED running, which I think was due to a combination of growing up with parents who smoked heavily (and breathing in all their second-hand smoke … until I started smoking myself at 16) and who never encouraged me to do sports, and also having to run the track in PE, which always felt like a painful punishment. I discovered running in my mid-20s during graduate school, when I took my first real run off a track. The longest I had ever run on the track was 6 laps (1.5 miles), but once I started going down the sidewalk and on a trail, I made it 3 miles. Now, I'm an assistant coach for my sixth-grade son's middle school XC team. I'm experiencing all that joy and energy later in life, and I love seeing kids get better and happier by running out in the open.

  6. Georgie Islip

    Ellie, Your essay brought back so many memories of that school PE kit! I remember playing field hockey in the snow with just the thin polo shirt, skirt and thick heavy socks! We never did cross country but I always did a two miler to keep me fit for hockey and netball, I never stopped because I loved it. I now run ultras to keep me fit!

  7. Amber Jackson

    Wonderful story! I always ran as a kid, loved track and field and was even pretty fast, but just assumed when you grew up, you didn't run anymore. Last year at 55 years old I got into a running group and now am addicted to trails, hills, and mud! I will NEVER stop again:)

  8. Simon

    Hey Ellie

    You grew up so near to me – lovely hilly part of the world isn't it?!?! I'm in Wisbech, and yet i'm now a trail ultrarunner, but sadly that's nothing to do with school, as I had to do rugby, hockey and cricket!

    Thanks for another great article

  9. Guy C.

    Great point: running needs to be fun. People will come to the "competition" and "managing the pain" aspect in their own good time. I ran cross-country in the 8th grade, hated it (always felt like I had to keep up with someone else's pace), and retreated to tennis never to run again until my late thirties. Thanks for the article.

  10. Dan M.

    Thanks, Ellie,

    I think you hit the nail on the head. Americans especially need to care a little less about winning and a little more about the wind in their hair. Thanks.

  11. Tarzan

    Man, I remember my Phys Ed teacher in grade school…she had a huge impact on me…she always ran, rain or shine, summer, winter and everything in between and always looked like she was having a blast. She was a dead ringer for Mary Decker. I remember for some unkown reason (at that time), I wanted to marry her….Years later as I dedicated myself to running, I always kept the 'having fun' approach in mind, even in the heat of a good hard, gut busting, pants crapping race, it's still a blast! I still remember her to this day…wherever you are, thank you Mrs. G!

  12. Sage Canaday

    Great story Ellie! Totally relate to going out at lunch time during school and sneaking in a mile or two around the track. Always fun to hear how people started in the sport – keep up the great work!

  13. Lisa

    I was the Mrs. Cayley at the back making sure the stragglers got in at our little local school's first year of track club. I had a wonderful time and hope to have ignited some passion in a present and future runner!

  14. Andy Wildmun


    Can you believe I am still teaching PE at Diss, sadly not leading the races anymore! This article was forwarded from Germany. Really interested to read about you and to think that our little 2 mile run lead to this. We are about to start our cross country season and now have a system where the top 5 back get a credit point, anyone who sets a PB gets one and after our 4 weeks anyone who has done all the runs also gets a point. This hopefully motivates even the slowest runners as they can achieve something.

    This isnt the place to catch up but if you get in touch (school website might be best) I can let you know what else has happened since you left.

    1. Ellie

      Wow, so great to hear from you and that the x-c tradition is still going strong with incentives to keep everyone participating! Will definitely send you a message via the school website. Ellie

  15. Morgan

    Hi Ellie,

    I'm not sure which of your posts it came from, but I seem to recall you mentioning "windmilling" in relation to running downhill. I had a hard impact while moving quickly down a paved trail. I'd like to learn the technique if there is one. It might help me keep what cartilage I have left …



      1. Morgan

        Thanks Bryon. You were right about "pinwheeling". I'll try to find some video of Ellie. Maybe I'll see her using the technique.

  16. Anna

    I really enjoyed reading this article because I could relate to it so well. I started running in middle school because my older brothers both ran cross country. I really liked it and was actually sort of good at it… in my little universe back then devoid of facebook to ponder all my shortcomings (I was the female winner of the 0.5-mi turkey trot both years, and won frozen turkeys for thanksgiving). However, when I hit high school, none of my good friends were runners along with the pressure to pay more attention to time, running gave me anxiety and it wasn't fun anymore. I quit cross country and joined the badminton team with my friends. I just started running again 1.5 years ago and I really enjoy it. I'm a middle of the pack runner so time doesn't really matter to me. I'm grateful to get out to the trails and share it with a bunch of other happy runners.

    I really enjoy your blogposts… please keep it up!

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