Record-breaking runner Morgan Elliott heads to Europe
Most of Morgan Elliott’s runs are in places with scenery that most people see only on social media like Instagram. Elliott, a Black Mountain resident, has looked out over the mountains of Aspen, Colorado; Big Sky, Montana; and Lake Tahoe, California.
That's what happens when you’re the back-to-back Altra U.S. Skyrunner Series champion. Elliott has broken trail race records across the country.
The next chapter of his professional running career unfolds high above Europe, where he will compete in the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series starting Saturday, May 12 in La Palma, Spain.
Elliott, 26, burst onto the trail running scene in 2014, when he won the 15-mile Moonshine Trail Race in Whiskeytown, California. It was his first trail race; he finished more than 24 minutes ahead of the next runner.
Winning that race wasn’t Elliott's first accomplishment as a runner. He was a member of the track and field and cross country teams at his alma mater, Slippery Rock University in his native Pennsylvania. While running for "The Rock," an NCAA D-II program, he broke three school records and was twice named All-East Region.
“I started running on trails with my brother Alden during my junior year in college,” Elliott said in a telephone interview last week, a day before heading to Spain for the Transvulcania Ultramarathon, the first race in the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series. “I remember running on the trail and how quickly my brother was moving his feet between the rocks and how you could really zone in and just focus on one thing. I got hooked on trail running.”
His success in California prompted him to start racing more. He ran the inaugural Yeti or Not 25K in the DuPont State Forest in 2015 and won with a time of 1:39.03.
Aaron Saft is the owner of Foot Rx Running in Asheville and director of the Yeti or Not 25K. He was immediately impressed with Elliott, who now works in Saft’s store when he’s not chasing races.
“My initial impression was that he was obviously a youthful talent,” Saft said. “It’s hard to get a read on how good a runner is at DuPont because how fast that course can be run. I knew he was fast, but I didn’t know what his technical skills were like.”
As the two got to know one another, Saft quickly found out what Elliott was capable of.
“He can dance down the hills and take it to an old man like me,” said Saft, who has been running trails for nearly two decades. “He has the physique of a great mountain runner.”
After winning the Yeti or Not 25K, Elliott set out “to do something big,” he said.
He discovered the Quest for the Crest 50K, which boasts 11,300 feet of climbing and 11,700 feet of loss over a distance 31 miles. The Burnsville race began in 2014 as a 10K and organizers added a 50K the following year. Having just moved to Black Mountain, Elliott noticed that Mount Mitchell, the apex of the Quest for the Crest, was nearby.
Elliott began developing a running plan and researching the trails.
“The race director, Sean Blanton, was claiming that it was the hardest race in the country, and definitely on the East Coast,” Elliott said. “I remember he put a post on Facebook that said the race was so technical and challenging that he’d give a bonus $500 for any runner who could break six hours.”
Elliott, who by that time had become a familiar face on the trails above Montreat, which he calls “the perfect playground,” finished his first ultramarathon in 5:59.10, which remains the record for the race.
“I was super stoked,” he said. “That race really lit the flame.”
Elliott lived in a campground near Black Mountain in 2015 as he spent the year running races. His familiarity with the trails helped him become the record holder for both the Black Mountain Marathon and the Mount Mitchell Challenge. He set the mark in the Challenge, 4:20.48, last February.
“I worked at (2018 Iditarod Trail Invitational winner) Peter Ripmaster’s store, which is now Vertical Runner, and I would run before work and go in and work a shift,” he said. “Then when my shift was over I’d go out and run after work before going back to camp. Then I’d wake up and do it all over again. It was a really simplistic time and a time of freedom.”
A summer of constant running helped Elliott set his sights on winning the Altra U.S. Skyrunner Series in 2016. He began the series with the Broken Arrow Skyrace in Lake Tahoe to open the season, but finished 42nd.
Elliott bounced back in Aspen less than two months later when he won the Power of Four 50K.
A second-place finish at the Franklin Mountain Trail Run 50K in El Paso, Texas followed. Elliott closed out 2016 with a win in the Flagstaff Sky Race 55K, clinching his first Altra U.S. Skyrunner Series championship.
In 2017 he won the Power of Four 50K again, improved to 12th in the Broken Arrow Skyrace and traveled to Montana for the Run the Rut 50K, finishing in second place. Once again, he was the Altra U.S. Skyrunner Series winner.
Being a relative newcomer to the sport, Elliott didn’t attract the kind of financial support as the big names ultramarathon running. Now sponsored by shoe manufacturer inov-8 and sports nutrition company Honey Stinger, he has opened some eyes overseas.
“I received an email invitation for the Transvulcania Ultramarathon," he said. “A couple of weeks later I got another email, and it was from the Migu Run Skyrunner World Series telling me they would automatically enter me in any of the races in the series and provide housing on race day.”
Transvulcania is a 75-kilometer (46.6 miles) race with a vertical climb of 4,350 meters (14,271 feet) on the Canary Islands.
Elliott and his girlfriend Kimberly McDonald, who is going to Europe with him, will need to find transportation and lodging between races.
"That's part of it all; it's a 'run-cation,'" he said. "I plan on really diving in and getting to know the different cultures. (During the first race) we found a family that's going to take Kimberly and I in, and we're going to work odd jobs for them throughout the day."
As the couple crossed into Tennessee on their drive to the airport, McDonald on the phone said she was "definitely looking for adventure" on the trip with Elliott.
"I'm really excited to see these crazy trails that Morgan's going to be on, and I'll be hiking them," she said. "We want to experience Europe in our own way."
The couple started a GoFundMe page in an effort to raise money to help with the trip. Elliott hopes to compete in four of the eight races in the series. He hopes that a strong performance in the series will help propel him to the international stage.
"My goal is to do well overall in the series," he said. "Financially it would make me a bit more comfortable when I come back home. But ultimately, no matter what happens, I'm still going to be able to see things and be able to run and have this experience."
Saft, who has followed his friend's career closely, said he wouldn't be surprised to see Elliott become more of a household name in the sport.
"I don't think Morgan's even scratched the surface of what he can do," Saft said. "At this time we've only really seen what he can do at the 50K distance. I'm excited to see what he does in Europe closer to the 100K distance."
Elliott's love for the sport and modest approach to running help him on the trails, where much of the effort is mental, Saft believes.
"He envisions running and racing and his results are a lot different than most," Saft said. "He sees the beauty of running and the beauty of where it takes him, and he has a deep appreciation for that. So from a mental standpoint he's not looking at the competition aspect of the race. He sees it as an opportunity to see everything around him and take that mental snapshot."