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When Morgan Elliott learned that he would be racing breakout trail-running star Jim Walmsley at the 2016 Franklin Mountains Trail Run 50K in El Paso, Texas, his response was, “I’m gonna beat him.”
Elliott, then a promising but little-known 24-year-old, went out strong and hung on for the first 10 or so miles. But he faded a bit on the course’s major climb, up North Franklin Peak, then Walsmley pulled definitively ahead on the long descent. Still, Elliott ended up second, in 4 hours 54 minutes—three minutes faster than the previous year’s winner.
“He was the only one in that race that wanted to try and give me a run for anything,” Walmsley says. “He wasn’t afraid to go full speed and test his mettle against other runners.”
A month after Franklin, Elliott took first at the Flagstaff 55K, becoming the overall winner of the US Skyrunner Series in the ultra category.
Elliott doesn’t have the name recognition, high-profile sponsors or top ultramarathon wins of someone like Walmsley. (Not yet, anyway.) What he does have is raw speed from his collegiate running days, prowess on hills and technical terrain and a quietly burning ambition to make an even greater mark in 2017.
From Slippery Rock to Black Mountain
Elliott grew up in hilly western Pennsylvania, where he evinced an early love of the outdoors, going “rock hopping” with his brother in nearby state parks. His competitive running career began in middle school, and continued through high school and college, at his hometown Slippery Rock University.
He was “always down for adventure, try[ing] new things,” says his college friend Matt Lipsey. Recalling one run to a lake, he says, “We were like, ‘OK, so we’ll jump off the dock, and then we’ll swim over here and get out at this other dock, and then keep running. We would always look for the gnarliest stuff, the muddiest, dirtiest, hilliest stuff, and we would go out and hammer.”
But Elliott’s easy-going nature and his relish for unstructured adventure didn’t keep him from being a driven competitor.
“The cool thing about Morgan was that he could be one of the top guys on the team, while still having fun in training,” says Jaron Martin, another college friend, who also ran for Slippery Rock. “Every run he did, he wanted to enjoy himself, but that didn’t hold back his performance.” In his senior year, Elliott set a school record for the 1500 meters—3:50.18—that still stands three years later.
After graduating, Elliott spent the summer of 2014 in northern California, where, he ran (and won) his first trail race, the Moonshine Trail Races 15-miler. The following March, he moved to the Asheville, North Carolina, area, where the rest of his family had settled.
A mountainous region in the western part of the state, it happened to be the perfect setting for an adventure-seeking trail runner. Elliott was thrilled by the long climbs, sweeping vistas and epic descents filled with rocks, roots and mud, and soon signed up for his first ultra—the nearby Quest for the Crest 50K, with more than 11,000 feet of elevation gain, that May.
The idea was to find the toughest, hilliest race around—and crush it. “That is the style of running I enjoy training on,” he says. “I love the challenge and proving to myself that I can do things that most people can’t do.”
The Quest for the Crest course played to his strengths. He won—and collected a $500 bonus for breaking the six-hour barrier.
Ups and Downs
Elliott tends to race aggressively, but not stupidly. “He definitely goes out [fast] and tries to hang on as long as he can,” Aaron Saft, a friend and former employer from Asheville, says. But “he knows where he’s at and how he’s doing. He has a good feeling for his body and what he can do.”
Elliot’s approach to goal setting reflects this attitude as well: Make bold but achievable calls. In February 2016, he told the site Blue Ridge Outdoors, “I hope to complete four ultra sky running races in 2016 and win the US [Skyrunner] Series” in the ultra category—a set of five steep, alpine races around the 50K distance.
Quest for the Crest, which was part of the Skyrunner series the year he won it, had encouraged him. Plus, announcing his intention served a psychological purpose. “I think once I make it known, I have to do something about it,” he says.
“There’s not a cocky bone in his body,” Saft says. “He’s just stating what he believes he can do: ‘This is what my plan is, and the plan is to win it.’”
It got off to a rocky start. Elliott went into the Broken Arrow Skyrace, in California in June, undertrained. He struggled with the altitude, bonked hard and got lost, finally finishing 42nd overall.
“I didn’t even want to go to the next Skyrace,” he says. “But my mom told me just to take the trip and do it for the experience.”
He rededicated himself to his training—he follows a 10-day cycle that includes a long run, a “tough hill day” and three additional days of track workouts or steady-state trail runs—and rethought race-day tactics like nutrition.
In August, he got in his car and drove to Colorado early to acclimatize before the next race, the Audi Power of 4 50K in Aspen, “dreading it the whole way.”
Come race day, Elliott hung back a bit at first, but reeled in the leaders around the halfway point and won by 13 minutes. Five weeks later he placed second at Franklin Mountains.
The Road to Flagstaff
Elliott had been living out of his Subaru since March. It was a way to save money for summer travel—Saft, Elliott’s manager at the running store, allowed him generous vacations for Broken Arrow and Power of 4—but also an adventure, an excuse to experience all the Asheville mountains had to offer. “I would sleep at the trailhead and just wake up in the morning and go run,” he says, “and then shower at the Y[MCA] or jump in the creek.” He typically logged two hours in the morning, then another hour after work.
At the end of summer, as Franklin Mountains approached, Elliott quit his job and packed up the car. After the September race, he kept driving west. He explored New Mexico, hung out at the Grand Canyon with Jim Walmsley (who was there setting a massive new fastest known time) and arrived in Flagstaff, Arizona, about two weeks before the final race in the series, the Flagstaff Sky Race 55K.
During those two weeks, Elliott scouted most of the course, covering all but seven miles. On race day, it paid off. Aside from a slight mid-race bonk—his drop bag with nutrition products hadn’t made it to the aid station—everything went smoothly. He crossed the finish line beaming, his long hair flowing behind him.
“It was overwhelming, being able to reach the goal that I worked so hard for,” he says.
Last year’s impressive showing is likely just the beginning for Elliott.
“If he has a goal, he makes a plan,” says Lipsey, Elliott’s college friend. “It’s a project, and he works at it, and usually succeeds. And then he’s like, ‘OK, that was great. I’d like to start on a new project.’”
This winter, Elliott has been living in Aspen, where he is learning to ski. Looking ahead, he says he wants to try some new races and different distances. With some constants: “I want them to be hard,” he says. “My goal is to work up to a 100, but I’m not gonna be doing anything flat or easy.”
As for 2017 race goals? “I want to win the Rut,” he says without hesitation.
“But if I’m gonna do the Rut”—a Montana 50K, part of the Skyrunner series—“and I’m living in Aspen, I want to do the Audi [Power of 4] again.” Then he adds, with his characteristic mix of competitiveness and nonchalance, “I might as well just go to Flagstaff. So I guess I want to win the Sky series again.”
Paul Cuno-Booth (@paulcunobooth) writes from Glenwood Springs, Colorado.