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January 15, 2019

The Arrival of David Elliott

David Elliott can’t afford to play the new Red Dead Redemption – a stirring an all-too-familiar feeling for many in their 20s.

“I have watched some friends play, and it looks really good,” he explains. “I want to buy it, but $60 or $70 dollars could buy me a used pair of Lunar Glide 6’s on eBay.”

This time he cuts straight to the heart of running bum culture and you can almost feel the knot in your wallet: A game and a couple hundred miles aren’t enough to keep a running everyman from some half-price trainers.

The thing is, Elliott isn’t exactly a running everyman, and he has the credentials to prove it.  

While at Boise State he racked up three All-American honors. In 2017, he ran an unattached 13:36 to win the Stanford Invitational 5,000 meters.  Last month, he placed sixth at USATF Club Cross Country Nationals. Most recently, he placed sixth at Great Stirling Run in Scotland and represented the United States for the first time in his career. Yet, without a team, a sponsor, and self-coached, Elliott isn’t exactly a pro either.

There is a bizarro world in which Elliott doesn’t become the runner that he is today. A 4’11″ freshman at Squalicum High School in Bellingham, Washington, he couldn’t tell the difference between a run and a workout.

“I think I ran 21:57 for 5k that first year and I grew seven inches,” he says.

With growth came knee pain and Elliott didn’t run his sophomore year.  The next year, Elliott stayed off the school team again because he did not want to be the new guy. Finally, after a two-year hiatus, he made what he now calls “a life-altering decision” and rejoined the team.  

“I just had a feeling that I should go back to running,” he says.

Elliott isn’t sure where he would have gone without running. (Perhaps he would be on a couch somewhere playing the new Red Dead Redemption.) He seems content not knowing.

In his single year of serious high school running, Elliott was timid.  Bellingham is a little-known hotbed for running and he was just getting his bearings. The town has produced droves of Division I athletes. It once served as the short-term training location of Olympian Donn Cabral. It is currently the home of pro trail runners David Laney, Maria Dalzott, and Jeremy Wolf.  For Elliott, the setting was intimidating.  In his first 5,000-meter race in two years, Elliott was the five-man on his own team and ran in the mid 18:00s. He remembers thinking that he could have gone faster if he felt comfortable beating his teammates – he didn’t want to stand out, something he’s still gaining comfort with.

“I didn’t really learn to race in high school,” Elliott says. “I just ran.”

There was no Footlocker for Elliott. No NXN. No recruitment process. No triumphant state championship. Nor disappointing runner-up finish. There was just a year spent remembering how much he enjoys running – a muted love story.

With PR’s of 9:25 (3200) and 4:25 (1600) in tow, Elliott walked-on at Boise State and never left.  

“I don’t really go home for holidays, which can be a little lonely, but it’s good for training,” Elliott says.

To hear him explain it: the Pacific Northwest is getting too busy and a return trip would mean obligations that would be non-conducive to good running. He tells me that the last time that he was home, the shoulder of the freeway was opened as a lane for traffic and he thought, “That’s insane! There is no way that can be safe, right?”

Elliott is easily read as a shut-in. He is willing to bypass his home to stay in routine, and overflow traffic constitutes insanity for him.  That’s fine, and frankly, it’s fair, but it misses the point.

For Elliott the question “Is this good for my running?” informs a way of life. It is a prism that filters every decision.  Stripped bare, un-sexy but effective, that is how he slowly started to find his way into serious running.

“My parents used to get mad, but they get it now. They know it’s about training.”  

Over the course of his time at Boise State, his approach started to bear fruit. A mid-major talent at best, he steadily progressed to personal bests of of 3:57, 7:53, and 13:42 in college. That all led to the aforementioned 13:36 in his first post-collegiate 5,000 meter race.

Despite undeniable track chops, Elliott considers his performance at the USATF Club Cross Country Championships his best yet.  “I guess they only take four, but Sam Parsons is German or something and Garrett Heath had an at-large bid so he gave up his spot,” says Elliott, ruminating on the opportunity to represent the United States in Scotland.  “Apparently Garrett is really nice, but I haven’t met him, I had to drive back to Boise really quick after the race.”

After the race of his life, David Elliott busted back to Boise in the middle of the night to accommodate a roommate’s finals’ schedule.

“The I-84 is crazy in the early morning because there aren’t lights, so an Elk could jump out and you won’t see it.”

For someone who spends the majority of his time honing movements, Elliott shows an intriguing apprehension toward travel. Reservations aside, it would be reasonable for him to want a different travel situation, right?

“In a perfect world I would be in a group where the team really cares about each other,” Elliot says when I ask what he wants in running.

That’s all there is. No, “I’d love to make a livable wage,” or “I want a custom shoe,” or even “I don’t want to drive to and from meets in the middle of the night anymore.”  He is likely the best runner in America without support of any kind and all he wants is a caring environment and some teammates. For at least a few days this month, Elliott won’t have to worry about having a team to run with.

“I have the U.S. jersey sitting on my bed right now,” Elliott told me last week, his words evaporating into excitement about the opportunity.

His optimism was palpable as he talked about the chance to measure himself against world-class runners. If ever you could hear the twinkle in an eye, this was it. The aura faded when I asked him if he considers himself world class.

“No,” he replied.

He clarified that to see himself in that way he needs to show himself that he can compete with the best runners in the world. Once too timid to beat his high school teammates, Elliott has officially grown into a competitive mindset and is audibly chomping at the bit to bump heads with the world’s best.

A week ago, David Elliott had no idea what to expect out of his experience in Scotland.  He was hopeful but admittedly naive. After a solid showing and a gentle first step into international competition, you can’t help but wonder if he is starting to consider himself world class or even if he is starting to get comfortable being the new guy.

On a long, elk-free return flight to the United States, it’s not hard to picture Elliott scouring eBay to find his next pair of trainers, assuming he is willing to pay for the in-flight WiFi.  When he gets back to Bois,  Elliott has a much needed down-week planned.

How will he fill his time?

“Well, I have been watching a lot of Bob Ross videos lately. I just like how easy he makes it look.”  

In the next breath, he mentions that every episode is free on Youtube and that Ross’ voice is good background noise for falling asleep.

“I know that sounds weird, but it helps!”

If you take a proper step back, and know what you’re listening for, it doesn’t exactly sound weird. None of it does.  

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