What We Talk About When We Talk About Running With Ellie Putali

What We Talk About When We Talk About Running With Ellie Putali

“I think we engage with the outdoors in layers or dimensions where there's different ways that you can interact; being active definitely wasn't one of them for me.”

Ellie Putali and I are talking about not running. We have been talking about not running for a while, Ellie sharing that, as a ‘very short, skinny girl’ who was ‘extremely academic but always the worst (no hyperbole) at PE’, running had never really been something that she had thought was on the cards for her. The comment about how we relate to Nature is one that characterises Ellie’s conversational style: an apparently throwaway line about being stubbornly inactive segueing seamlessly into philosophical reflection.

I am not, in fact, surprised to hear that someone who was, by their own admission, a ‘late bloomer’ now runs ultramarathons because you only have to spend five minutes talking to Ellie to sense the deep engagement, thought and determination that undercuts everything she turns her mind to – even Zumba.

Having grown up in Cornwall as a very creative child, Ellie began a PhD in 2017, a process that she found incredibly isolating after the years of fieldwork.

“It’s all I was doing. I was sitting in my house all day writing. I lived in a physically very isolated place. My new year’s resolution was that I needed to get in shape a little bit; I was much too sedentary, and I was sort of physically weak. So, I started going to Zumba classes in the local village hall with all the retirees in the village where I lived, and I loved it. I mean, everyone should do Zumba; it's so fun, right?”

She remembers the exact day that this enthusiasm for early morning dance tracks led to something that looked a little more like running.

“I showed up to the Zumba class, and the door of the church was locked; the class had been cancelled for whatever reason. So, I was like, “Oh, I've got my PE kit on anyway so maybe I'll run to the end of the road and back”. It was probably only about a quarter of a mile and could I do it? No, I couldn't. But that was the first day I ever went for a run. It was February 2017, and eight months later, I ran an ultramarathon in the Himalayas in Nepal.”

In the space of a sentence Ellie has summarised the trajectory of couch, to disco, to mountain ultra. Although sounding casual, however, and, much like the best writing where apparent effortlessness masks years of hard graft crafting a style, Ellie’s growing confidence with running was one that took-effort. Using the time that she had around the daily grind of her thesis to run for as long as she could, she would lace up her trainers once, sometimes even twice a day.

Admittedly, it probably isn’t the training plan that Runner’s World would recommend for someone with zero running experience but, at the time, it was what her body and mind needed. Like many creative people who run, the regular movement practice started to enhance her productivity and motivation as she continued to chip away at the word count.

The ‘stickability’, as Ellie puts it, and clarity that running gave her is something that she is quick to identify as not being exclusive to running. After she caught Covid early in 2023 and was left physically very depleted, she found that small amounts of walking, when she was able to, had a similar effect.

“I'm sure there's probably some kind of neurological, chemical, scientific reason that being outdoors does improve your cognitive capacity. It's ridiculous looking back now because I lived really close to the beach and I wasn't into any of the stuff that I am now; I didn’t do cold water swimming, I didn't do kayaking, I didn't do paddle boarding ... you could have told me to walk down to the beach every day but it just felt a bit aimless. So, I think it’s definitely being outside with purpose that’s made a big difference.”

Living in Cornwall certainly lends itself to the kind of active lifestyle that Ellie now leads, as well as opening the door to a whole community that values time spent in Nature. The connections she has made in local trail running circles have certainly dispelled youthful assumptions of what a runner should be like.

“I have friends who know the history of Cornwall, like people who know about Bronze Age settlements; others who know about geology, photography and ecology; people who know about sea stacks and sea arches and coastal erosion, and you run with these people and they are bringing in all this amazing knowledge that builds this incredible, colourful, three dimensional world for you.”

Being a storyteller at heart, it is words that Ellie brings to this multi-sensory experience: from the Cornwall of the novels of Patrick Gale and Tim Hannigan to old Gothic sailor stories, there are always a myriad of literary references that add another layer of resonance to moving across the cliffs and moorland. This salty, wind-swept county is not the only one that inhabits Ellie’s internal landscape. In her twenties, her fieldwork took her to Nepal, where, embedding herself within a culture radically different from the one she was brought up in, embedded a sense of loyalty and responsibility that would change not just her writing and running, but her entire values system.

Most profound in the relationships that she built in her time there was the one with her Nepalese mother, who she lived with on the edge of the jungle. One day, back in the UK, Ellie would receive news that this woman had been involved in a horrific encounter with a crocodile that left much of one of her arms and a chunk of her hip in ribbons. Ellie was quick to jump on a plane to be with her in the hospital, a decision that also set her on a course to advocate for better medical provision and financial aid for the Forest Community. This also being after her research project had reached its conclusion, left Ellie unencumbered by academic responsibility and able to spend time with her Nepalese friends, travelling out to the mountains, exploring and running together. Though Ellie is quick to assert that what they were experiencing was not for ‘people like (her) to learn from’, it inevitably had a profound impact.

“We were young and fit and felt that we could do anything. One day, we were going to see what had happened to one of my friends, who lived in a very high up place called Gorka that was days away onfoot. We hadn’t heard from him in a while and there were lots of landslides in the region, so we went to make sure he was ok. When we arrived, we found that his family home had been pretty much decimated; just one of the 80 to 90% of the buildings that collapsed before yet another earthquake 10 days later, that took out a lot of the rest of the houses. His reaction was akin to how someone from the West would react to their favourite mug being smashed: it’s just a house, no one in the family is hurt, and we'll just have to rebuild it.”

Only one of Ellie’s books is explicitly about Nepal, and she is conscious of not being the ‘white person writing about a culture that is not their own’, but the lack of consumerist principles that Ellie witnessed there is one that has informed her motivations and perspective on what is actually needed to sustain a life. Although she admits to not being immune to the mental trappings of living in a capitalist society, she is certainly more aware of the balance between needs and wants than she might have been otherwise.

“When I say I'm not money driven though, there's a very clear floor to that. I'm so fortunate that my partner and I both have secure full-time jobs in public education, but, if you look at the state of our country and the number of people where the absolute basics are not guaranteed, it’s really scary. I work with young people regularly, who come from families where the basics are the biggest worry in their life right now; the impact of that is insurmountable.”

Acknowledgement and gratitude for opportunities and freedoms is evident in Ellie’s relationship with running too. She looks back at the time spent racing ‘too much’ in 2019, when she did seven ultras in seven months, with mixed emotions. It was something she would never repeat but recognises as a unique pocket of time in which to train, recover and travel in a manner that full-time work and commitments will never allow for again. She is now more focused with her training, incorporating speed and hill sessions where she used to just ‘go out and smash the miles’. Averaging about three ultras a year, competition also lends structure and focus to her training so that, when she does race, she can get to the finish line and enjoy the bittersweet pain and joy that only makes sense when you run alongside others over significant distances. One such experience was the Mozart in Austria.

“I just physically collapsed onto the floor at mile forty with like fifty other people lying there as well! There were several big mountains left after that checkpoint, and I thought my race was done. I was really upset because I’d trained so hard for it and just sat on the floor doing shots of Red Bull and eating very salty, Austrian pretzels.” The plot twist to this otherwise sorry tale came in the form of ‘a random kid from Taiwan’, who decided to make Ellie’s ability to finish the race his mission. Having ascertained that her poles were made of carbon, not aluminum – “Good because there’s a thunderstorm coming, and we don’t want to get struck by lightning!”– he refused to accept her resignation from the race and cajoled her out into the dusky light. Like a ‘Tamagotchi’, Ellie gradually came back to life and they finished together.

Travelling to races and experiencing the specific majesty of new locations is certainly one of the biggest lures of these sorts of events, but it is the unpopulated wildness of the Cornish landscape that Ellie finds herself craving after time away. “It's like coming back to ancient friends that you never want to leave,” she laughs. 20,000 words into her next novel – “Not the first 20,000 though because I am apparently incapable of writing anything in order!” – Ellie is, at the time of speaking, training for a 24-hour relay race.“My friend and I are going as a girls’ relay team and then two of our male friends are coming as a boys’ relay team. In my head, it's going to be so fun: we're going to have adjacent camps with little tents next to each other; we're going to be cooking up noodles; we’re going to be having a big laugh ... in reality, it’s probably going to utterly miserable and muddy with time spent in stone silence in our sleeping bags just waiting for our time to run again. How I’m imagining it though is like a boy scout camp!”

Ellie’s approach to both the race and the writing, which can feel like “pushing a steam locomotive uphill” at times, is remarkably similar: break it down, take each bit as it comes, figure out what is achievable rather than focus on what isn’t. It’s a strategy that she encourages her students to use if they feel overwhelmed by the undertaking of a dissertation: “What's the next step? What's the smallest thing right now that you could do? It's the same in running; you just have to run the mile you’re in. If you can't run the mile you're in, you run to the next rock. Then you run to where you can next get a bowl of noodles. As long as you can keep doing that, you have to get there eventually and, to be honest, you don't really have a choice; you’ve got to get back in the car at the end of the day!”

We’ve come full circle – running as something of a metaphor and means for life – but with one important distinction. Running, for Ellie, is not only the missing piece of the puzzle but the thing that keeps the whole puzzle together.

“If you're sluggish and irritable and sleeping badly, and your writing is a bit crap, and you are indoors for too long then you’re really missing something. Running, for me, is the final thing that makes it all work, so you have to squeeze it in. Even if it means the 5am alarm where you drive across town to do a miserable, rainy run in the dark before you go and sit inside the building at work ... if that’s what it is, it’s still going to make the rest of your day work.”

Ellie is keen that her story is one that others can take some inspiration from, describing herself as ‘the canary down the coalmine’ for what people can achieve if they just take a shot at it: “If I can do all these things, as someone who is physically weak with tendons made out of cobwebs and magic, I really do think that anyone can. Unless there’s a medical problem that is getting in the way, you’ll be amazed at what you can turn around. It doesn’t have to be an ultra, it can be the local 10km or anything that you can go and do with friends. Do the training that you feel motivated to do and then pick a race that accentuates what you already love.”

Ellie might dismiss the cobwebs and magic, but here we are talking about crocodiles and canaries whilst also talking about running and that, I think, is a pretty extraordinary thing.