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Ellie Pell’s journey of trails and trials

Ellie Pell found running about six years ago soon after moving to Ithaca, N.Y. She was in her early 20s, had little savings and did not know anyone in her new community.

“I started because it was free fitness. I ended up winning a local half marathon,” she says, admitting. “I don’t even know how I trained for that because I really knew nothing at the time.”

While she was victorious in the race, the local running community won her over.

“This community is really cool; I really liked it,” says Peel, who focused on basketball and volleyball in high school while doing track just for the social aspect. “I was kind of alone. Running and podcasting gave me a sense of community, a sense of having someone with me.”

Ian Golden of the Finger Lakes Running Store quickly became a friend and mentor. “He’s been so encouraging. He always knows the right thing to say at the right time that helps me on my trajectory. Having that support here in Ithaca has really helped me. It’s been awesome “

Pell has knocked off some impressive performances early in her running journey: winning a couple of ultras outright, taking third place at JFK and most recently performing well at the Olympic Trials.

“It was just really fun,” she says of winning Golden’s race, the Watergap 50K. “I learned a lot and had a great experience.”

For the love of the trail

And, for awhile, she was hooked on trails.

“I really liked the trail aspect of that race,” she says. “Nobody really cared about splits. The technical parts of running have goals and at the time that wasn’t jiving with me. So that’s what I think attracted me to trails and ultras.”

Pell focused on trails for a couple of years then went back to roads in late 2018 and 2019 to set out on her Olympic Trials quest. “The buildup to that race was incredible. My trajectory was interesting.”

It sure is.

As she was training for ultras, she met some women from Ithaca who had qualified for the trials. They convinced that with six months of time to qualify Peel could easily lower her marathon PR of 2:47, which she set while winning the Buffalo Marathon, to the qualifying standard of 2:45.

In October 2019, she rocked a 2:41 at the Hartford Marathon, putting her on a path to the trials in Atlanta. “In the buildup to the (Hartford) race, it was the most fun time.”

A ‘slog’ to third place at JFK

Soon after Hartford, she toed the line at the JFK 50-miler. “It was extremely painful,” she recalls. “At about mile 26, I realized that I hadn’t run 50 miles in over a year. I knew it was going to be a slog. And it was.”

Pell finished third female and improved her time by more than 75 minutes from when she did JFK two years earlier. “Finishing third was not how it felt at all. It was very hard for me. It was very humbling.”

Her 2017 JFK race was marred by a lower leg injury suffered in training. “I was just going to gut through it. It was a miserable day — freezing rain. There were a lot of variables that made it a not-so-great experience.”

In 2019, she came in with more experience, a more upbeat mindset and free of injuries. “My training, age and experience were different so it was a better day. Even though the last 25 miles were a grind, for some reason at the end of races, I knew the pain wasn’t going to get worse. It was just going to be there. So I just kept going. I don’t know how I access that but I would like to learn.”

After JFK, it was time for a break and then training for the trials. “It had its ups and downs like training during the winter usually is,” she says.

The trials was an “amazing experience,” she says, where she ran a 2:44 to once again hit the qualifying mark.

Pell has found joy with both the road and trail running communities, and has successful races on both types of terrain. So the obvious question is which does she prefer — roads or trails?

“I have always said that whatever I am enjoying at that time is what I will do. The winter is always a hard season for me. It’s just gross and disgusting. So I favor roads then. I did get burned out from ultras and so I went back to the roads. Now I am conscious of doing trails and roads so that it stokes the fire in both and so that I don’t get burned out in one.”

Of course, right now amid the coronavirus pandemic, many runners are favoring the serenity of the trails. “It’s really nice to get outside on the trails now, and of course it is recommended by the CDC,” Pell says. “So I can’t say no to that.”

Her inspirations

“Running is hard but it is also wonderful. At the end of the day anyone who is doing something is inspiring to me. And right now, there is a lot of darkness going around. I have to look for things to be inspired by. I call it a low threshold for gratitude.”

Her inspiration comes from seeing others push themselves, whether that is another runner on the trails, a Strava update or a post on social media.

“I like watching people work hard because I know that afterwards they are going to feel so good.”

Pell is also inspired by runners who are coming together to support their local businesses. “That’s great for my mental health,” It’s been great to see all these people come together. It’s not about shoes or splits. It’s about coming together as a running community, virtually.”

It’s personal for her since she has been laid off from her job at a bakery due to the COVID-19 outbreak. But she isn’t sitting back and taking a woe-is-me approach. She is working to support small local businesses in the Ithaca area.

The Quarantine Backyard Ultra

And that is what spawned the idea for the Quarantine Backyard Ultra. It starts at 9 a.m. Eastern on April 4. Every hour on the hour, participants do 4.16 miles on the treadmill or a loop you create yourself. Even though they are both currently unemployed, Pell and her friend Amelia Kaufman are raising money for Ithaca businesses including the Finger Lakes Running Store, Finger Lakes Fitness Center and College Town Bagels.

“They are the lifeblood of this community and have been affected by this virus,” Pell explained. “It’s going to be a celebration of these businesses and hopefully we can make some money for them.”

Pell and Kaufman are asking for people to pledge $4.16 per loop that they both run — on separate treadmills at a safe distance at a gym that is otherwise closed.

Community is key

It’s easy to see that Pell has embraced the running community, whether it’s on roads, trails —or even treadmills. So how does she recommend reaching the younger generation of female runners?

“Having role models is important,” she says. “With social media channels like Instagram, we’re going to see people like me and famous runners out there doing what they are doing, then young girls are going to see it and be more interested in trail running.”

More community outreach is the key. “It’s on me. It’s on running store owners. It’s on all the athletes in the community. We’ve got to get the word out.”

One way she can get her word out to the next generation of women runners is through a podcast, Hamstrings and Heartstrings, she does with Chris O’Brien. “It’s really fun. We catch up on different things. It’s the equivalent of junk food — it gets you in a good mood.”

Speaking of podcasts, learn more about her journey on this episode of Ultra Runner podcast.

For all runners, the remainder of this year is in flux due to the coronavirus. Pell is not signed up for any races. And she is OK with that. It’s about the journey.

“I started running because it was free therapy and free fitness,” she says. “I was young and poor and had just moved here. It evolved to where I love running. The love has never really left. I don’t need to run now because it’s free. I’ve gotten more financially stable and my why has changed. I do enjoy doing workouts and chasing running goals.”

So Pell is among the athletes pursuing and attaining different goals.

Just last week she surpassed 100 miles for the first time. “It was cool. I didn’t know that I had that goal or had that in me. Right now there aren’t any real races to chase so we can chase process goals. And right now running is free therapy for me again because I am dealing with this pandemic just like everyone else. Running has been my coping strategy. It’s also been the way my sister and I can connect with each other.”

Speed drill

Name: Ellie Pell

Hometown: Ithaca, N.Y.

Number of years running: 7

How many miles a week do you typically run: 60 to 80

Point of pride: Qualifying for the Olympic Marathon Trials

Favorite race distance: 50k

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Chocolate Beet Picky Oats and peanut butter

Favorite piece of gear: Saucony Bullet Shorts

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Going the Distance by Cake

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: Chop wood, carry water

Where can other runners connect or follow you:

  • Blog:

  • Instagram and Twitter: @gazzellie

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