Ellie Pashley is already thinking about 2024
Ellie Pashley isn’t running this afternoon. Since realising she had some potential after her marathon debut in 2016, the rigours of the most demanding distance event on the Olympic Athletics program, would suggest that usually around the time we speak, the Aireys Inlet local would be preparing for her second run of the day. But as we chat at lunchtime on a Saturday afternoon at the end of Winter, Ellie isn’t thinking about her next run. Three weeks to the day she was on the start line of the Olympic marathon in Sapporo; without question the biggest race of her life. It is only her second day back running after two weeks in a sealed hotel room in Brisbane and unsurprisingly, she is happy to be home: prone to bursts of laughter and deep insights on an 18 month period that would have seen a less patient athlete question all the time away. While we’re both still under lockdown restrictions, the sun is out and spring is in the air. I can hear birds sporadically interrupting her as she speaks. The entire hour we chat is underscored by an overflow of love for the sport which Ellie does not do a good job of containing.
Finishing 23rd in a deep field in tough conditions on the world’s biggest stage justifies Ellie’s first Olympic appearance as a breakout performance. Though she’s covered the distance quicker before, she ran a smart, measured race, crossing half way in 54th position and coming home strong, picking up 20 spots in the final 10kms to complete a negative split. To run your second 21kms faster than your first in a race is an achievement for any marathoner, let alone in a mini-heatwave in front of a worldwide viewing audience in the millions.
‘I’ve felt relief a couple of times,’ Ellie says. ‘Definitely an element of relief straight after the race. When they selected the team I felt relief, because there was such a long, long build up to that, and then I just wanted to get to the point where I was there, on the start line, racing and that I had finally achieved the goal of being at the Olympics.’
For those who followed Ellie on the ‘Road To Nowhere’ podcast, listeners and Ellie alike experienced a nervous wait as the final three Australian representatives for the marathon were announced less than 6 weeks before the race, at the end of June. Having posted a qualifying time at Nagoya Women’s Marathon in March 2019, finishing in a PB of 2:26.21, the two years between qualifying for the Olympics and competing were full of patience testing moments.
‘It’s funny,’ she laughs, ‘because I’m an extremely impatient person. It’s more when I look back on it now that I realise how stressful it was; all of that anticipation and waiting and uncertainty. While I was in it and training hard, I just had to tell myself that the Olympics were happening no matter what. I probably spent twelve months tricking myself into that mindset,’ she confesses. ‘I really enjoy the process of training hard and doing all the right things, so I’m reluctant to think of it as a sacrifice, though I probably didn’t realise the underlying stress at the time.’
Having taken time away from full time work as a physio and coach to prepare for major championships in the past, the build-up for Tokyo was another level in terms of time away from home and dedicated hours to training and recovery. ‘I’ve done small stints before but never for an extended period,’ she says.
Amidst the uncertainty of state borders shutting down and a need to acclimatise to the expected heat and humidity of Sapporo, Ellie and her coach Julian Spence headed to the Sunshine Coast for three months to focus on marathon-specific training. ‘This lead in was the longest period I’ve ever had living that professional athlete life. I was doing higher mileage than I’d ever done before and all this extra heat acclimatisation, which was extra stress on the body. It was amazing how much more I could tolerate just without everything else going on around me. I think I learned going in to my next marathon that there’s a new ceiling as to what I can handle.’
It was after a 20km tempo run on the day of the cancelled Gold Coast half marathon when Ellie and Julian realised that their hard work was paying off. ‘I ended up running 20kms at 3.23/km which was the fastest long tempo I’d ever done. Compared to the 14-16km long tempos I’d done in the past, I ran at a faster pace which felt comfortable even in the heat. Sometimes you hit sessions that are hard, but if it doesn’t feel good you don’t get quite the same boost. When you have one of those days where it feels comfortable too, that’s a big confidence boost.’
'I think I learned going in to my next marathon that there’s a new ceiling as to what I can handle.'
Ours is a cruel sport, especially in the era of time trials and super shoes: as much as we compete for medals and places, the objective measure of the clock will always cloud a distance runner’s judgement of their own performance. Knowing that she was in career best shape going in to the Olympics, I wanted to know how she went about setting expectations for Tokyo, considering the race might be a war of attrition in the heat and also a slow, tactical race in the first half.
‘We felt like my training was a little more advanced than it had been in my 2019 marathons, so it was just about waiting and seeing what the weather would do.’
On a cool day in Sapporo, she felt her PB wasn’t out of the question, yet, it wasn’t until she completed her final session in the true Sapporo heat on the Wednesday before the race that she was ready to set herself a goal pace. ‘I think at that point I had succumbed to the fact that I wasn’t going to run a PB, so then I switched focus in order to try and run the smartest race and finish in the highest position possible.’
While she reached this goal, the sense that she has a fast time just over the horizon still nags at her. ‘After the race I had the feeling of ‘I want to run another marathon straight away, because I didn’t get to show my fitness,’ which I can see now is stupid, but I actually pulled up really well because my fuelling and hydration was good and we did go out at that slightly slower pace.’
These ‘irrational thoughts,’ as Ellie calls them, had plenty of airtime while she was quarantining in Brisbane, especially in contrast to her two weeks alone after returning from a forgettable, rainy race at London Marathon in 2020. ‘This time I was feeling a lot better than I normally do after a marathon and I kept thinking, ‘Do I try and go overseas and get into another marathon straight away and try to use this fitness?’ The need to get qualifying times for the World Championships or the Commonwealth Games (both scheduled in the first half of 2022) was driving these thoughts, but my rational brain kicked back in and I realised two weeks in hotel quarantine wasn’t going to be good preparation and I’m not one of those people who can pull off back to back marathons, so I’ve relaxed a bit on that idea now.’
With the marathon major calendar in tatters after a disrupted 18 months, there is additional pressure to race when the opportunities present themselves, not just to make qualifiers, but to get paid. ‘As a marathoner, that’s where you can make a couple of lump sums per year that really help keep you going.’ She credits New Balance for signing her well beyond the Olympic cycle, saying, ‘My contract was up half way through 2020, and while a lot of brands were cutting athletes, they were really generous and signed me again.’
New Balance might have had the foresight to think about Ellie’s running beyond the Olympics, but Ellie admits that her own thoughts hadn’t strayed beyond reaching the finish line in Tokyo. ‘There were a few moments throughout where I tried to remind myself just to take it in, because you can run a marathon without seeing anything, because you’re so focused, but as the race went on I was coping alright with the temperature and once I went through half way I thought, ‘I’m going to be able to finish this thing and pick it up in the second half’ and that’s when I started to allow myself to take it in and enjoy it.’
The finishing straight in Sapporo is covered in shadow from the tall buildings overhead, offering some respite from the heat. Despite the start time of the race being pushed an hour forward, reports from the course suggested that by the time the winners were crossing the line, the temperature in Sapporo was nudging 30 degrees. As Ellie rounds the final bend to reach the straight she runs close to the left hand side of the road and comes toward the finishing arch just behind a pack of four athletes.
‘Some people after marathons can do these really fantastic race recaps where they talk through every kilometre of the race, but I very rarely finish a race being able to remember one or two things,’ she laughs.
In the footage, as Ellie crosses the line she looks up, maybe at the screen which is showing the results, or maybe she’s overwhelmed and just trying to take it all in. What were you thinking about as you crossed the line? I ask. ‘Paris,’ she says, without hesitation.
‘My thoughts went, ‘I’ve got to do this again.’ My first Olympics was so much about getting there healthy, being fit, executing a smart race so that I finished and was happy with it, and then I feel like I’d love to go to Paris and have a real crack, take more risks in training and in the race because I feel like now I’ve got the experience under my belt I can be a bit more confident.’
It’s an understatement to say that Ellie has come a long way in the last Olympic cycle. ‘I actually came across a photo on my Instagram from 2016,’ she says, ‘and I had my bed set up in the loungeroom to watch Rio. I certainly remember watching the men’s and women’s marathons, but at that point there was no thought that it might be me. I’d just started my first marathon block. I mean I was an ok runner, but I certainly wasn’t a good runner. I never even considered that I’d be trying for one of those spots a few years later.’
Despite everything that’s changed between Rio and Tokyo, in essence it’s simple why she keeps going. ‘Running makes me feel better than anything else, particularly the process of doing a marathon block and then a marathon. It’s a sense of achievement and fulfilment that I’d never experienced until I did my first marathon. Seeing the way it has inspired so many people who’ve followed along, it’s changed from something that was very, very personal and selfish, into something which hopefully I can use to promote people improving their physical and mental health.’
Maybe I’m used to talking to people who are exhausted from living through the pandemic, or maybe it’s just because I don’t speak to Olympic athletes every day, but the way Ellie is so excited by the prospect of training harder and going faster is infectious. As we get to the end of our chat I start tapping my feet, thinking about where I might run this afternoon, before I remember to ask the one question I’d been meaning to ask all along: what’s next?
‘I’m not really too sure at the moment, I’ve only just started back, so the plan will be to get fit again and run some 5 and 10k races if there are any - the Bernie 10 if I can make it into Tasmania - and then look towards Zatopek in December. While the urge to quarantine again isn’t that appealing right now, I’d love to do a Japanese marathon early in the year [Osaka in January, Nagoya in March], I guess by April we’re looking at London, Boston, Rotterdam, some of the faster flat ones, which will be good for chasing fast times and qualifiers. And maybe by then we’ll be able to do the quarantine at home? It all depends.’
But if you had to say? I prompt her, ‘If I had to say something it would be Zatopek or the Melbourne Half Marathon earlier in December, but I still have this burning desire inside of me to do a marathon again at some point soon, so if that pops up, training for that will take precedence over anything else. Absolutely,’ she says, eagerly.
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