Ellen Lavoie OKTs the JWT


Ellen Lavoie has always been a “body in motion.” Growing up in rural New England she loved to play in the woods. She has also always been a free spirit who found it hard to stick with things. As a kid she tried team sports, but they never felt right. She ran track for a year, but quit because her coach wanted her to run the mile and she wanted to run the 200. She thought of herself as a sprinter. Later in life, in a quest to “become a real runner,” she tried longer distances and serendipitously found what had been missing. Rather than being a sprinter she discovered she is a bonafide ultra runner! As someone who found it hard to complete things, she accomplished a major project last September by becoming the first person to run/walk the length of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail from the Idaho border to North Bend.

The John Wayne Pioneer Trail

The John Wayne Pioneer Trail (JWT) is a rails-to-trails route from North Bend to the Idaho border along the former Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul, and Pacific Railroads. It’s also known as the “Milwaukee Road.” In its heyday, the Milwaukee Road corridor was considered the best-engineered rail line to the Pacific Northwest.

As a result of insurmountable business challenges, the railroad went bankrupt in 1977. Washington state bought the corridor in 1980 and there was immediate controversy about how to use the land, particularly east of the Columbia River. The initial vision for a cross-state multi-use trail was led by horseman and outdoor enthusiast Chic Hollenbeck who named the Trail after famous macho cowboy actor John Wayne.

The 110-mile western Washington section is owned and operated by Washington State Parks as Iron Horse State Park. The eastern Washington section of the Trail, from the Columbia River to the Idaho border, remains mostly undeveloped.

No surprise, controversy has persisted. As recently as 2015 legislators from the area added a last-minute provision to the state’s Capital Budget intended to give away 130 miles of trail right-of-way to adjacent landowners. Fortunately, there was a typo in the provision which effectively nullified the land give-away, and alerted Trail supporters to remain actively engaged in its development. Given the undeveloped nature of the eastern section the total length of the trail is uncertain: Ellen’s gps recorded 306 miles, but totals from other sources range from 250 to 300+ miles.

At this point the primary pro-Trail activists are Tekoa (“In Tekoa you are always welcome!”) town councilman and Tekoa Trestle and Trail Association president Ted Blaszak, and the Friends of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail Organization. Blaszak in particular sees the Trail as an economic opportunity for the small towns east of the Columbia that are experiencing decline: “…the state should enhance regional tourism and boost local economies by making it (the Trail) more user friendly…”

A lot of work remains in order to manifest Hollenbeck’s and Blaszak’s visions. It’s impossible to travel the entirety of the Trail between the Columbia and the Idaho border due to sections of contested land ownership, gates, rockslides, swamps, and trestles and bridges that require maintenance. There are detours, but some of these are on roads with automobile traffic, which is a big reason users are attracted to the Trail in the first place.

Despite these difficulties, during the past few years, especially with the increase in popularity of gravel and adventure cycling, cyclists have been making inspiring forays on the Trail between Seattle and Idaho:

Friends of the John Wayne Pioneer Trail Organization reports
WA Bikes reports
26 Inch Slicks Blog 2012 east to west adventure

Although JWT transits via bicycle are well-documented, no one had attempted the entire length on foot until 2016 when Ellen Lavoie gave it a go. While her 2016 west-to-east attempt was unsuccessful, Ellen scored an east-to-west Only Know Time (OKT) last September with the support of her running buddies, and dedicated (non-running) life partner William Paige. The difficulties on the east side were slightly more complicated by the fact that William is black. As I chatted with him he showed me a picture of a lynching pole, complete with noose, that he encountered along the Trail.

(Ultra activities have their own peculiar vocabulary: check out our Lexicon to read more about OKTs and other discipline-specific terms.)

My interest in Ellen and her adventure grew after I’d had a chance to chat with her in person and I asked about how she got into ultra running. I don’t remember her exact words, but with a feisty New England accent and attitude the message she conveyed was “I was a naughty girl in high school…but eventually I got my act together and among other things I discovered ultra distance running.”

Ellen, now 50, was a single mom to two boys from the time they were 3 and 5. Reflecting on it now, she says she “grew up with them.” In her early 30s she quit a business job she had held for eleven years to pursue a degree in Biology at the University of New Hampshire. That was immediately followed by a Masters in Plant Biology. She is currently a Research Scientist in electron microscopy at the University of Washington’s Molecular Sciences and Engineering Institute.

Ellen Lavoie OKTs the JWT

Our interview focused on her progression in running and the JWT OKT project.

What role did running and other fitness activities have for you when you were younger?

I grew up in a tiny town near the New Hampshire-Massachusetts border, and lived near the woods throughout my childhood. I spent massive numbers of hours exploring the trails and later looking for fox and bear traps while trying to not get caught in one (I never did get trapped). My mother always said I was born 100 years later than I should have been because I was infatuated with doing things the “old fashioned way” and longed to live off the land when I was a kid. I was never into team sports despite one season on a soccer team in 5th grade. I preferred doing athletic activities by myself. I even tried track in 6th grade but was irritated when I had to do the mile race when all I wanted to race was the 200 meter. I was fast (or so I thought) and disliked running long distances. So, when I couldn’t do just the sprints, I quit. My family did a moderate amount of hiking in the White Mountains of NH and our family “vacations” were spent “up north” as well. My love for the mountains has been in my blood as long as I can remember. Unfortunately, by the time I was in high school I had no interest in sports, although I still loved to roam the woods. Let’s just say I was a not a model well-behaved person from about age 12-16. By the last two years of HS the naughtiness was sorted out and I started a family pretty early. Having “grown up” with my two sons (I was 18 then 20 when I had them), together we learned how to backpack, ski downhill and XC, and I later started running with my oldest son Christopher.

Ellen leaving the town of Malden early in the morning of day 2.

How did you rediscover running?

I’ve always admired runners. I thought it looked like an ideal way to see a whole lot of terrain a lot faster than walking or hiking. I was never into motorsports, so the fastest option was for me was running. I did some cycling in my early 20’s for fitness, but wasn’t really into it. By the time I was 24 I was backpacking almost every other weekend, mostly alone, but sometimes I’d drag my kids out. I was really good at running down mountains with a full pack. Uphill was a different story. Eventually I started running with my oldest son when he was in high school and training for football. I didn’t mind it once I found a good bra (ladies…you get this!). But even then I didn’t feel like I was “good at it” so didn’t keep it up. In the next 8 or so years I tried to “be a runner” off and on, but never stayed with it. Backpacking alone or with others was my thing. I did quite a few long distance hikes but still longed to be “a runner.” Things changed when I moved to Australia in early 2010 to work at the Centre for Electron Microscopy. I went alone and knowing there was no one to spend time with I had heaps of free time, so I was determined to “become a runner.” And I did. I started off easy. And it all made a difference when my housemate at the time (who is also a running coach) said “um, you don’t need to run all at once. Do a run, walk, run, walk.” And I thought “hmmmm, I never thought of it that way.” Within several months I was running without walking. I slowly fell in love with long-distance running. I realized it makes me happy, clears my head, and gives me a sense of accomplishment for which I am fully responsible My legs move me, my mind moves my legs, and so forth.

How did your progression as a runner lead to the concept of doing an end-to-end of the JWT?

The first race I ever did was a 1/2 marathon–one of the biggest in Australia–The Gold Coast 1/2 Marathon. I was supposed to be doing the 10 km because (after only 4 months of running) I had been struggling with shin splints, but as I was walking up to the bib pickup booth I moved to the 1/2 marathon line and transferred my entry. I loved it! I cried when I crossed the finish line and a friend congratulated me. I cried because, up until then, I had been really good at NOT finishing things. I wanted to quit so many times during the race, but didn’t because I was determined to get it done. After that, I did my first trail run and I started running almost exclusively on trails. I realized trail running was exactly what I was looking for. I could enjoy trails faster when I run. I did a lot of walking at first, but after time could do a race without walking (unless, of course, there are crazy hills!). By the time I had a done a few ultramarathons (distances longer than a marathon), I broke my ankle–I actually chipped a piece of my ankle bone. That led to surgical removal of the chip and many many months of recovery. It took over 1 1/2 years before I could do another long distance race of 50 kms. Although it felt good emotionally it didn’t feel good physically, I’ll tell you. Since then I have slowly increased distances both in races and multi-day runs.

Ellen had the refresh rate set to 10 minutes to save battery, so the GPS track isn’t absolutely accurate. The actual mileage is closer to 306.

How did the idea for the JWT project come about?

I had run on quite a bit of the western section between North Bend and Kittitas and suddenly realized during a road trip that the trail also crossed the eastern part of the state. Upon investigating I discovered it went all the way to Idaho I and was intrigued. As I delved into preliminary plans I realized about 100 miles of the eastern portion was threatened by some politicians who wanted to give it to a small group of adjacent land owners. I then became determined to not only to try to save the trail but run it before it’s gone! Once I realized no one had ever “thru-run” the trail I decided I wanted to be the first. I attempted it in September 2016, but only completed 200 miles after skipping some sections for various reasons. Once I realized I wasn’t going to officially complete it in 2016, I was already planning 2017.

Dee Gardner and Gretchen Walla with Ellen on the morning of day 3 in Teske, WA. Dee and Gretchen spent some time running with Ellen.

What was your plan for the JWT project? What kinds of support did you have?

During the September 2016 attempt I was met by one obstacle after another. Incompletion was due to parts of the trail being closed for construction, safety issues, and time constraints. I used it as a recon for this year. The logistics of this run are the most difficult part. Much of the trail goes through remote areas and there are many sections that are re-routed or non-existent and alternate routes must be taken. My main support crew was (both years) my life partner William Paige who was responsible for, well, pretty much everything other than my body moving. He’d feed me, make sure I had what I needed before I got on and off the trail, drove to an endless number of meeting points, line up where we’d stay each night, coordinate with pacers, and so forth. Our stops were planned according to a few factors: one is we already knew a lot of the terrain and possible exit points; second, we also knew about how far my body could go every day; third, the trail is supposedly closed after sunset and unless I had a pacer after dark I wasn’t always totally comfortable out there in the more remote areas. Throughout each day we’d plan meet-up points anywhere from a few miles to 22 miles apart. Five miles was ideal, although in some areas there were no exit points for up to 22 miles. From day two until day nine one or two of 10 friends joined to pace me. My pacers came out to entertain and assist both William and me. Without all the help I received in both logistical and emotional support, I possibly would not have finished.

Ellen refuels during a quick “aid station” stop on day 4.

What role does the team experience play for you as a runner?

As a Seattle Running Club (SRC) member, I’ve had ample opportunities to meet like-minded runners and train with people as there are now runs every single day of the week. I’ll admit that my schedule is a bit nuts so my training is often solo. I started Thursday night SRC club runs in the Seattle/Shoreline area a couple of years ago, and will be starting them back up by the time this goes to press! I’m also motivated to inspire others who otherwise don’t think they can do long or even short distances in running. I love the idea of being part of a club that helps “dreams come true” for so many people, whether that dream is simply going for a run, racing in a local trail run, or just saying “I’m a runner because I run.” Being on the SRC Brooks Competitive Team, (now entering my 3rd year on the team) has not only given me drive as well as the camaraderie between the team members and the club members in general giving silent motivation. I also have a great time volunteering for both SRC sponsored races and Northwest Trail Run races when I’m not actively racing (and sometimes on the same day). As an older runner, I can offer a lot of support and hope I can prove to be a good example for those struggling to start out or aspiring to get into trail running. I gear the Thursday night runs towards just those people…people who are just getting into trails or feel like they’re not fast enough to run with others.

Like a lot of people I am by nature a competitive person; a lot of us just won’t admit it. Being on a competitive team doesn’t mean I’m a pro runner or a superstar runner, but it means (and without pressure from others) I need to try hard, I need to drive myself further. I like that. I enjoy goals and I love to try to be better than I was before.

Ellen at the western trailhead in North Bend after completing the 306-mile adventure.

What is next on your to-do list?

Well, as a matter of fact, I’m planning out another Fastest Known TIme (FKT) attempt in May on the 130-mile long Columbia Plateau Trail in, you guessed it, eastern WA. It’s another rail trail, but parts are pretty undeveloped and it’s little used in probably about 75 of the 130 miles. I’ll be doing as a straight through-run; no stopping overnight, just short naps if needed. I’ll have a crew (any volunteers???) who will drive and meet me at specific checkpoints and have pacers with me at least after dark. The trail spans from Pasco in the tricities area and goes north then slightly west all the way to Spokane. I’ve never been to Spokane so I figure this is a great way to get there. Throughout 2018 I’ll be doing some organized races around the country between 50km, 50 miles, 100 km (about 63 mi), and timed races where you just simply run as much as you can in the designated time period. In addition, I’ll be using shorter races between 5 mi and 1/2 marathon as “speed training.”

Ellen racing at a NW Trail Runs Winter Series event at St Edwards park. Photo: Taryn Graham

Any advice for folks getting into or rediscovering running?

I think a lot of people can relate to one of the things I like most about running: It’s a great way to just get inside your own head for hours, or just space out and think about nothing at all as the scenery passes by. I like to take lots of pics while running; don’t be ashamed to enjoy yourself!

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