AS soon as Ellie Greenwood crossed the finish line at this year's Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, her growing suspicion about her performance was confirmed: she had run the course faster than she had last year.
Not only had Greenwood won the female division of the 100mile trail race, she had broken the course record. Finishing with a time of 16: 47: 42, Greenwood shaved an impressive 50 minutes off the previous course record, which had stood for 18 years.
"That was amazing," she says of how she felt at the finish, adding, "I knew about the three-quarter way through that I was running a good bit faster than last year," but she didn't know just how fast until she saw the numbers at the finish line.
This was the 39th year of the Western States 100, which boasts a course that winds along the scenic Western States Trail from Squaw Valley to Auburn in California.
During the race, her focus was on position and how far ahead of the other runners she was. Checking her time was not her priority. Her goal was to win.
"It wasn't a surprise that I won. I definitely went in hoping to win, but you can have all sorts of things go wrong. I would say there's a lot of time for things to go right or to go wrong."
Stomach issues and blisters are just a couple of the many nuisances that can quickly become race-ending problems for runners in an event that can last more than a full day. The cut-off for the Western States race is 30 hours.
Unlike a shorter 10-kilometre race, in a 100-mile race, "You can never just assume on your fitness that you'll win or get certain positions," explains Greenwood.
She notes, however, she didn't experience any low points in this year's race: "I felt pretty good all the time."
It helps that at the 60-mile mark, runners can bring in a pacer because as Greenwood explains, "you're starting to get a little bit tired," at that point and having a friend run alongside you helps. Two running buddies from Vancouver split the final 40 miles, each running 20 miles with her to the end.
"If you have a friend that can chat with you and keep you positive, that definitely helps," she says. "It helps you to stay a little positive and they can remind you to carry on eating and drinking and that kind of stuff."
Throughout the race, Greenwood says she often concentrated on her footing because the trail run involves terrain that requires some technical know-how to navigate. Strategy is important during the race, knowing how to pace yourself is key, and at times during the 17-hour competition, she did have friendly conversations with other runners, but except for filling water bottles and grabbing a banana here and there, "the idea is you don't really want to stop for too long."
Although, she adds, it is a 17-hour race, so "you're going to have to stop a little bit, even if it's just for a minute."
Greenwood is an ultra-marathon specialist. Although this is only her second "100-miler," her list of top-three finishes in races longer than the standard 42.4-kilometre marathon is long and impressive.
In April she finished second in the mass start of the Virgin London Marathon. That same month, she was first in the 50-mile American River race. In early June, she finished second in the Comrades Marathon, an 89-kilometre international road race in South Africa, and just before that in May, Greenwood finished first at the BMO Vancouver Marathon. The list goes on.
Originally from Scotland, Greenwood grew up in England, and moved to Canada in 2001. Her work as an operations manager for a British ski tour operator has kept her moving around, and after living in Vancouver for about five years, she relocated to Banff in 2008 for a few years.
She moved back to the Lower Mainland in April - this time settling in North Vancouver to be closer to the trails - about a week before the Vancouver marathon.
"I didn't expect to win the Vancouver marathon," she says. "It was a personal best for me."
She notes that she thought running the marathon would be a great way to get back into living in the city and see lots of friends. It was only at the 30kilometre mark that she started thinking she might win because she was in second place at the time.
"Running the marathon is kind of fast for me. I'm actually used to the longer distances," she explains. Unlike runners who are training for their first marathon, though, the distance is not a challenge for her since she regularly runs longer.
"It's a good way because the courses can be quite comparable to see your fitness in terms of comparing times between one marathon and another," she says of running standard marathon distances.
Greenwood competed in her first half-marathon when she was 21 after joining a friend at a training clinic in Vancouver. It wasn't long before she completed her first marathon and in 2005 completed her first ultra-marathon, which she describes as a "very low-key 50kilometre in Vancouver."
She says she wanted to challenge herself to see if she could do it.
"And like anything, once you do one you meet people and they are then training or doing other races," she says.
If you've never run before, in some ways a marathon is inconceivable, she notes, adding once you do a five-km race, then a 10-km race, a marathon may seem less daunting, and for her, once she completed a marathon, an ultra-marathon seemed possible.
"It's just that sort of gradual progression, your mindset changes that suddenly running a hundred miles isn't so crazy because, 'Hey, I've run a hundred K.' So it's a build up."
She attributes success in the longer distances to mental focus as much as physical preparation, and "getting your head around (that fact that) you're going to be out all day."
In the last three years Greenwood has gotten more serious and competitive about ultra-marathons, and has been training harder and therefore has done better in races, she notes, adding, "Part of it is experience. The more of these longer distance races you do you learn to deal with the points in the race where you're not feeling great and that all just helps."
When asked how she trains for an ultra-marathon, she answers with a laugh, "A lot of running."
It's a simple answer, but then it's a deceptively simple strategy that seems to be working for her.
"You just have to go out and practise," she says.
Greenwood typically runs six days a week, for up to two hours a day, and up to six-hour training runs on weekends. She competes in both trail runs and road races, and says the mix helps keep things interesting.
Greenwood says she plans to stay on the North Shore for a while, and is happy to be so close to the North Shore trails.
In early August, she is headed to Squamish to compete in another 50-miler, and says once she reached a certain training and fitness level, she required less time to recover between races, so is always ready to run. And she will likely continue breaking records.
"You put a lot of effort into it, the training as well. You enjoy it but it is a commitment and it's a certain amount of hard work so it's kind of nice when all of that pays off and you get a really good time."