As she set off on the Green Lakes Endurance 50k on a bright summer's day in August 2019, Ellie Pell had no idea she was about to make history. Completing the 4-loop race in a PB of 3:58:37, she became the first woman to take the overall winner trophy in the event's history. The stunned race organisers quickly realised they had no trophy for the first place man, having assumed that the overall winner would be male. We spoke to Ellie to hear first hand about the remarkable event and how it shaped her journey as an elite ultra runner.
Having spent the summer of 2019 training to qualify for the US Olympic trials, Ellie describes feeling a sudden itch to tackle an ultra. Spotting the Green Lakes Endurance 50k just over an hour away from her home in New York, entering was almost a no brainer. ‘I’d attempted the race a couple of years earlier and ended up with a DNF after pulling something in my back - my dad ended up having to carry me off the course!’ Ellie explains: ‘In 2019 I was very fit thanks to the training I was doing that summer, so I wanted to give it another go.’
Covering 4 loops of a 12.5km circuit, the course followed shaded shorelines, steep ascents and descents through forests and panoramic views across the lakes in Fayetteville, New York. Going into the race with a relaxed mindset and focus on having fun, Ellie was determined not to put any pressure on herself. ‘I knew I was fit enough to do this race, so I really tried just to have fun with it.’
After pacing herself for the first two loops, Ellie was running in a very respectable 4th place. On her third loop, after a passing comment from the race director, she realised she was only 5 minutes behind the leader. ‘After 20 miles or so, a 5 minute gap felt like a long time!’ she says, ‘I wasn’t planning on trying to speed up at that point!’ However, at the end of her third loop, she ended up passing the runner in second place and was starting to close in on the leader.
As she approached the halfway mark on the final loop, Ellie spotted the leader stopping at an aid station for a drink. ‘Any plans I had to stop went completely out of the window,’ she laughs: ‘I just switched into a completely different gear and blew past him, running for what felt like was my life!’ Over the last 4 miles of the race, she held a sub 7 mile pace - her fastest splits of the whole event. She ended up finishing in a PB time of 3:58:37, almost 8 minutes ahead of the second place finisher.
As a woman had never won the race before, her finish was both unexpected and triumphant. ‘They only had trophies for first place overall and first place female, as they’d expected the first place overall finisher to be a man,’ she said: ‘I ended up taking both of the trophies and they ordered a trophy for the first place male - although I did suggest he could have my first place female trophy and just cross out the ‘fe’ in ‘female’!’
Having run her fastest splits of the race in the last 4 miles, she admits those last few miles were the most challenging part of the whole race. ‘At the end, it’s usually nice to have someone ahead of you to focus on as it helps you forget about your own discomfort. You can focus on ‘hunting down’ that person in front. It was quite a different feeling once I was the one out in front and suddenly I was the one being hunted down!’
‘I think winning these sorts of races isn’t always about being the strongest, it’s about being the smartest and making the most of the opportunities in front of you at the time. At the end of the day, I saw an opportunity and went for it.’
As part of our month long celebration of female runners to mark International Women’s Day this month, Ellie reflects on the challenges and support she has faced in her time as a runner. ‘When I first started running, I saw other women as my competitors but I think the biggest growth for me personally has been the way I see other female runners,’ she says: ‘I train with other women and it’s very much that we’re all in this together and pushing each other forward, and that’s really important to me - they’re very inspiring to me.’
Recognising the strides forward women in sport have made, she highlights that there’s still a long way to go. ‘I find that female runners are still characterised by the traditional roles in a way men aren’t to the same extent. Like when you finish a race and one of the questions you’re asked is ‘where are your children right now?’ is just something that never happens with men. I think it’s important to open up the conversation about how we can make things more accessible for female runners - so more women can reap the benefits and feel supported in doing so.’
‘Running means community for me. It reminds me every day that I’m strong, confident and I can do whatever I want. Having that knowledge is very powerful - it makes other tasks a lot easier. Ultimately, I like to be humbled and challenged every day - and that’s what running does for me.’