How Ellen Kenney Became an Ultrarunner From Scratch
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In the second half of 2014, a then-33-year-old attorney from Los Angeles named Ellen Kenney started doing her first runs over five miles. She had run a bit in law school, but in the way that a lot of people start—haltingly and begrudgingly. At that pupae stage of her running development, it was a chore, another box to check before doing the laundry or studying criminal law (runners have criminal amounts of laundry, so this is all foreshadowing).
In 2014, a switch flipped. The trails were calling her, a siren song as if she was Odysseus. But how would she avoid the fate of the sailors that listened to the sirens? In Greek mythology, getting seduced by the siren song would end with a boat dashed on the rocks, the busy trail runner’s equivalent of getting burnt out. In the epic poem, Odysseus strapped himself to the mast and filled his ears with beeswax. Ellen took a slightly different tactic—she decided to methodically make herself into a top ultra runner in three years, filling her ears with beeswax when people told her to do more.
While she was thinking long-term, there were lots of short-term stumbles along the way. Being a lawyer is hard. Being a running lawyer is double hard. Being an ultrarunning lawyer must have felt downright impossible at times. She progressed rapidly, showing off her talent and work ethic with 6th place finishes at the Leona Divide 50k in 2015 and Mt. Hood 50 Miler in 2017. In between, she overcame injuries, stress and all the little life things that can get in the way. Through it all, she kept plugging away.
As she says, “Running is my stress relief. But it sometimes is hard to get enough rest and recovery to adapt to training.”
Her long-term focus and grit all came together on April 14, 2018, about 3.5 years after she started running more purposefully. She won the Leona Divide 50 Miler, conquering 8000 feet of elevation gain in 8 hours, 33 minutes. How did she go from a running pupae learning to run in law school to a caterpillar learning to train as an attorney to a butterfly winning big races? There are three tips from her development that can apply to almost any busy runner.
You can’t skip steps in your running development
When Ellen started out, she usually did between 100-150 miles per month for the first year, averaging 25-35 miles per week. While that is a lot, there was a temptation to do more. It’s easy to look at professional trail runners on Strava and assume their training is a good template. But a universal truth of running training is that you don’t live the life of other runners, so don’t try to mimic what works for them.
In her second year, she progressed up to around 200 miles per month. You can probably guess what happened next. She had a stress fracture, this one in her foot. While that was not a fun experience, injuries are a necessary part of running development. Her body was adapting to the stress, and the stress fracture was an unfortunate byproduct of that growth. As the wonderful Twitter account Thoughts of Dog said about a doggo that had a torn CCL: “it is better to zoom. and tear something. than to never zoom at all.”
Ellen built back gradually, getting back up to 200 miles per month the following year, interspersed with minor injury setbacks as her body adapted. By 2018, she was consistently around 250 miles per month in the build up to Leona Divide. Even then, a couple weeks before the race, she thought to herself: “Am I running enough miles to get faster?” The answer, clearly, was yes.
In your own training, zoom out and develop a 3-to-5 year plan. Emphasize gradual adaptation to biomechanical and aerobic stress, rather than trying to do it all at once. You are training to train more and faster later, not training for peak performance right off the bat. And most importantly, make the plan in Etch-A-Sketch, with the knowledge that it will all get shaken up by injuries and life hurdles. That’s okay. In fact, it’s a necessary part of growth.
Focus on quality in workouts
Ellen had limited time and a stress reservoir that was sometimes dangerously close to overflowing. Plus, she had never developed her running economy like a college track runner might. So she focused on learning to run fast, rather than practicing running hard.
Almost all year round, she’d just do one focused workout a week, emphasizing a lower volume of intensity. That controlled stress would let her learn to run fast with less effort, prioritizing neuromuscular and biomechanical adaptations over aerobic ones. If fast is hard, it’s not sustainable. The key is making fast feel smoother.
What does that look like in practice? Take a sample workout, 10 x 1 minute fast, which she completed a couple dozen times in different variations over the years. She could do 8 x 3 minutes fast or 4 x 15 minutes fast, so why choose the easier option? The answer is that shorter intervals let her develop the speed skill over time. Then, when she did the longer intervals and trail tempos, they were way faster.
On October 23, 2015, she did 10 x 1 minute fast/90 seconds easy, targeting 5k effort or a bit faster. The ones that were slightly downhill, she averaged around 6 minutes per mile. On slight ups, 6:45.
On January 10, 2018, she did the same workout with less recovery, 10 x 1/1. The ones that were slightly downhill were around 5:40 pace, even hitting 5:15 once. The ones that were slightly uphill were below 6:30, even breaking 6 once.
While those workouts aren’t specific to ultras, they support skill development that will make every effort level faster. It all gets back to running economy. The fast intervals target approximately the velocity she runs at VO2 max effort. As upper end running economy improves, it will make her velocity at lactate threshold faster (something sustainable for around one hour). Work both of those along with easy running, and her velocity at aerobic threshold is faster, which distributes to extra-long distances. Add trail specific work, and voila! A beast is born. Fail to develop speed, and you might be selling yourself short at all distances without realizing it.
Develop a routine that you can repeat without burnout
Ellen knew a couple facts about herself when she started out: she loves adventure and exploring, she loves purpose and improving. The hard part was figuring out how to balance those goals in the context of her busy life.
She was never going to have more time on weekdays. People usually don’t become lawyers because of the 6-hour workdays and ping pong in the conference room. Plus, those weekdays usually came with a healthy helping of non-running stress (the good kind mostly, but the body doesn’t always care too much where the stress comes from). So she limited mid-week stress, focusing on flatter runs and speed.
Weekends, though, were like recess. The bell rang, and she could put down her briefcase, put on her hydration pack, and go to the mountains. On weekends, she could live more like a professional athlete.
Over time, she developed a training routine that she knew she could do week-in and week-out with minimal modification. She settled on this:
Tuesday: easy run and strides (usually 6 to 10 miles)
Wednesday: workout (usually just 10-20 minutes of focused intervals in an 8 to 10 mile run)
Thursday: easy run (usually 6 to 10 miles)
Friday: rest (or easy, short shuffle when work stress is low)
Saturday: mountain adventure with some focused efforts, almost always with friends (14-16 miles most of the year, longer when races on schedule)
Sunday: laid back trail day and strides (10 to 12 miles most of the year, longer during race prep)
That routine wasn’t perfect. She’d have to change it up, she got injured, she had bad days—like all of us. But as her body adapted to the stress, she found that minor tweaks (like a slightly harder workout, or longer long run, or more strides) led to major fitness improvements. Plus, the support of the amazing trail community in Los Angeles proved indispensable during both good times and bad.
In your training, remember the old rule: consistency over epicness, because epic is rarely consistent. Ellen was consistent, and in a few years, she transformed herself into superwoman on the trails.
—David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play