Photos by Johnny Zhang
“I never really thought of myself as a runner,” Elinor Purrier-St. Pierre admitted, “at least not until I got to college.” Elle, (pronounced Ellie) as she is known to all, was speaking by phone from Hawaii, just after winning the Kalakau Merrie Mile in Hawaii in 2019.
On the phone, Elle was guarded and hesitant, as if she still could not believe what a track star she had become. “I mean I always ran, but I was a basketball player and I didn’t even really like running. It was just something I did,” she said. After school, she would sometimes run a mile and a half to the Canadian border, tag the foreign soil, and run back.
[For Elle Purrier-St. Pierre’s pre-Olympic training program seeHow Elle Purrier-St. Pierre Picked Up Her Pace ]
Growing up, Elle’s days started before dawn. She would help her parents Charlie and Annie, sisters and brother with the chores around the Purrier dairy farm, set on a long dirt road in Montgomery. She knew each of the 30 to 40 cows on the farm. She also had two pet pigs and raised and sold the piglets.
“Just throwing 100-lb. hay bales was hard work,” she said, bales that weighed nearly as much as the 5’3”, 120-lb runner did. The farm had been in the family since her great-grandfather bought it in 1904. There was nothing special about this lifestyle to Elle: it was what kids in the dairy farms of Franklin County did. She entered her cows (including her prize-winning Wilma) in 4H contests and frequently won. As a pre-teen, she also took the blue ribbon at the Lamoille County Fair skillet toss.
Her high-school sweetheart, Jamie St. Pierre, worked his parent’s dairy farm, Pleasant Valley, just up the road in Berkshire. The pair rode a tractor to the prom together. When it came time to propose, Jamie showed up with a ring and an engagement present: a Swiss Brown calf.
Her freshman year, Elle was training when Richard Flint, an assistant with the Richford High outdoor track team saw her run. He suggested she start running with the track team. She remained on the basketball team, serving as team captain for three years, but began to compete in track and cross-country as well, running about 30 miles a week. As a high school freshman, in one of her first races on record, Elle ran 1,500 meters – the distance she would compete at in the Olympics – in a time of 5:08.7.
She won local races, at first. Then placed at states, then New Englands, then regionals. In high school, Elle was named Gatorade Athlete of the Year three times. At the same time, she was maintaining a 3.93 GPA, volunteering by delivering care baskets to the elderly in her area, and working on the Purrier farm. “I was just used to working hard,” Elle said with a shrug. “You have to on a farm.”
“Elle is able to push herself unlike any student-athlete I’ve ever met,” Richford High head coach Andrew Hathaway told ESPN, when Elle was named the Girls XC Runner of the Year in 2012. “The push comes from within, whether or not there’s a watch on her.”
When it came time to choose a college, Purrier had a number of college track coaches eyeing her. Mark Coogan, at the time the coach at Dartmouth, was one of them. His buddy, University of New Hampshire coach Robert Hoppler was another.
“Hopp, came to visit me at home,” Elle remembers. “He came from a blue-collar background as well and really just seemed to get me. It was close to home and I really liked the school. It wasn’t until I got to UNH and was part of the team there that I really thought of myself as a ‘runner,’” she said.
As Coogan later told Runner’s World in 2019, ““[Her coaches], they let her grow, patiently. They could have over-raced her, and they didn’t. They let her develop the right way. She’s a once-in-a-lifetime athlete. A different college, they would just pound the crap out of somebody. UNH didn’t do that.”
At UNH, Purrier became an 11-time All American and the most decorated athlete in the school’s history, in both running and steeplechase. Her senior year, she ran an indoor mile 4:26:55, the second fastest time of any collegiate runner in history, after Jenny Simpson.
After graduating in 2018, Purrier had offers to go pro that would have taken her to race for a sportswear giant in the Pacific Northwest or to New Balance, where Coogan, a former Olympic marathoner (and the former Dartmouth coach), was now coaching a group of women in Boston. That team included Coogan’s own daughter, Katrina, and an up-and-coming University of Massachusetts runner named Heather MacLean from Peabody, Ma. With coaching, MacLean had managed to drop her time in the 1,500 from 4:17 to 4:05 in one year.
Elle chose New Balance. “I wanted to stay close to home,” Elle said. “Mark was friends with Hopp so he knew me, too.” She moved into a house in Boston with several of the girls on the team and became fast friends – in all senses—with MacLean.
Working with this pro team and under Coogan’s coaching Elle’s times steadily dropped like stones in her first year as a pro. At the 2019 Toyota USATF Outdoor Championships Elle ran the 5,000 meters in 15:17:46 earning her the bronze and a spot at the World Championships in Doha, Qatar in Octoer.
When asked about her best moments from that year, Elle didn’t hesitate. “Just knowing I was qualifying for the World Championships and knowing I was part of the U.S. Team was pretty exciting,” she said. “And then just going to the Worlds and learning so much from these other racers I’ve looked up to,” she added.
With the Worlds two weeks away, Elle decided to enter the Fifth Avenue Mile, on Sept. 7, in New York City along with her New Balance teammate Jenny Simpson, the World Champion in the 1500 meters and a 2016 Olympic bronze medalist. Simpson was by far the favorite, having won that mile road race seven times. The cameras and commentators were focused on her from the start.
Soon, Simpson broke from the pack. But Elle was right with her. They ran neck and neck across the finish line, a photo finish at 4:17 – course records and personal bests for both. Simpson had a slight edge and took the race. Two weeks later, in early October, Simpson and Elle would room together in Doha for the Worlds.
That 4:17 was just a taste of what Elle could do. At New York’s Millrose Games in February 2020, she ran the indoor mile in a time of 4:16:85, breaking Mary Decker Slaney’s U.S. record which had stood for 37 years. It was also the second fastest women’s indoor mile in history. A year later, on Feb. 13, 2021, she would break Jenny Simpson’s indoor two-mile record, posting a time of 9:10:28, the third fastest recorded time ever for that distance.
In the year in between setting the mile and the two-mile record, Covid-19 put her Olympic dreams on hold, broke up the tight-knit group of training partners and sent Elle back to Franklin County.
But that was not all bad. In September 2020, in a small ceremony on her parent’s farm, Elle married Jamie St. Pierre with teammate Heather MacLean serving as one of her bridesmaids.
During the following winter months, she did what she had always done: bundled up and ran the dirt roads that crisscross the hills and pasturelands of Franklin County and Montgomery’s seven covered bridges. When the snow melted, she often ran on the Missisquoi Valley Rail trail, her German Shepherd Maya keeping pace on the shorter runs. For hill training, she’d run up the access road at Jay Peak, where she and Jamie skied in the winter. For her longer runs of 20 miles or more, she’d do a one-way and have her husband Jamie or dad Charlie pick her up by car.
In May 2020, she also volunteered in the Vermont Dairy Cares initiative, handing out free milk at her in-laws’’ farm to families in need.
In December 2020, Elle posted a video on her Instagram: a truck carrying the Purrier’s herd of cows down their long dirt road, along with a heart-wrenching post. “A week ago today was the day that all dairy farmers have nightmares about. It was the day that my family and I sold our cows. Dairy farming has been our passion and what my family has done together. We have followed in our ancestors’ footsteps for five generations. I’ll miss a lot of things about having cows in the barn, like drinking coffee with my dad after milking and watching the cows walk out to pasture ever day.”
Though she will eventually join St. Pierre in working his family farm, for once, the farmwork for Elle was done. For the next six months Elle had just one focus: train for the Olympics (to see how she trained, see “Picking Up the Pace”).
On June 21, that training paid off as she recovered after being pushed off the track at the finals of the Olympic Trials. Elle not only put a wide gap betwee her and the field, she set a Trials record of 3:58 in the 1,500 meter. New Balance teammates Cory McGee and Heather MacLean finished second and third. Then it was on to Tokyo. “I’m so [expletive] excited,” Elle told the NBC cameras after the race.
The rest is now history. But history that is still in the making. Elle Purrier-St. Pierre is just getting going.