In the summer of 2008, Ellie Greenwood, a Brit living and working in Vancouver, Canada, made one of her first appearances in the tightly-knit ultra-distance running community in British Columbia.
"It was 7 a.m. on a Sunday morning, and people were gathering for the weekend training run for the Knee Knackering Trail Run," recalls longtime ultra racer Mike Palichuk. The Knee Knackering 30-miler is held every July on the Baden-Powell Centennial Trail, on the North Shore of Greater Vancouver. Although relatively short for an ultra (many races measure closer to 100 miles), the Knee Knackering demands respect thanks to 8,000 feet of climbing and 8,300 feet of cartilage-shearing descent.
What caught Palichuk's eye about the newcomer was the tremendous contrast she offered in the group of solemn, introverted ultra-runners.
"She was gregarious," says Palichuk. "There it was, 7 a.m on a Sunday morning, and she's bouncing around like it's Friday night. Ellie was talking to everyone. Everyone at once. That's how outgoing she is."
Greenwood's spirit made her a standout and earned her the nickname "Little Miss Sunshine," but the ultra-running community soon took note of another rare trait: As race distances got longer, she got stronger.
"You might not notice her in our running club's interval sessions on the track," Pelichuk says. "She's in the middle of the group. But anything longer than 50 miles, she has something that others don't have. She has the ability to push harder and harder."
Indeed, Palichuk and other Vancouver ultra-runners watched Greenwood swiftly begin winning events on the local scene -- with times that suggested world class potential.
Greenwood, an operations manager for a travel company, recalls her breakthrough moment.
"In 2008, Montrail offered me a sponsorship," she says. "I thought, 'Oh, I might be OK at this! Now I have someone to report to.'"
The potential was confirmed when Greenwood made the United Kingdom's 100-kilometer team. "It was so awesome to get to represent my country!" she says brightly. Not only did she represent, Greenwood surprised herself as well as others by bringing home the gold.
Yet few could have predicted that Greenwood was destined to break a record planted firmly in ultra-running mythology, which she did in June 2012 at the Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run.
Western States annually draws the best in the world to Northern California for the Squaw Valley-to-Auburn trek, and the women's course record was set by the great Ann Trason. One of the feature personalities described in the bestseller "Born to Run," Trason was a 14-time winner of the event who in 1994 set a course record of 17 hours, 37 minutes, 51 seconds.
Although on race day en route to a solid win, her pacers, including Palichuk, had a feeling that Greenwood was having a special day despite the cool and rainy weather, it wasn't until late in the race that Greenwood acknowledged she had a shot at the record.
"I looked at my watch at mile 99 and that was when I knew I was in range," she recalls.
Despite the fatigue, Greenwood was able to produce form befitting an 800-meter runner as she charged toward the finish, chopping 50 minutes off Trason's record in a time of 16:47:19.
Greenwood is preparing for her 2013 season, during which she'll try to repeat at Western as well as defend her title at the Comrades Marathon in South Africa, another major race on the international slate. It seems clear that Little Miss Sunshine will continue to shine on.