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MONTGOMERY, Vt. — After Elinor Purrier won the mile in the 2018 NCAA Division 1 Indoor Track and Field Championships, the University of New Hampshire senior celebrated with chocolate milk instead of champagne.
“I drink it after every workout and every race,” she said. “It’s the perfect ratio of carbs and protein. It’s perfect for recovery. Plus it tastes good.”
If this sounds like an unpaid “Got Milk” endorsement, in some ways it is. Dairy is in the 23-year-old nutrition major’s blood. In 1904, her great-grandfather bought a dairy farm 10 miles south of the Canadian border and her family has been operating it ever since.
Purrier grew up milking 30 dairy cows each morning at 5:30, before showering and heading to school. Her other farm chores included tossing 40-pound bales of hay and raising two pigs.
She started running in eighth grade. After school, Purrier would run the mile and a half from tiny Richford High School, touch the bottom of Canada, and then run back. She’d run through picturesque Montgomery, the covered-bridge capital of Vermont, and sometimes attack the steep 6-mile mountain road up to Jay Peak.
Through hard work, talent, and toughness, she became a 10-time All-American at UNH, competing in the mile, 3,000-meter steeplechase (outdoors), and cross-country.
“I think I’m different in the running community,’’ she said. “I’m just myself and feel like I have strong roots here and I’ve always felt like an outsider.”
In high school, the boys teased her about running, until she kicked their butts in the local 10K Milk Run.
The graduating class was only 40 kids, and she never rubbed their faces in it.
“No, ’cause I’m pretty humble,” she said with a smile.
At away races, Purrier’s father, Charlie, noted that “nobody knew us and nobody knew her and she’d be way out in front and [other parents] would say she can’t keep that up, her form is all wrong, and we’re saying nothing. If she’d run by we’d cheer and then it would get real quiet.”
Elinor says farming has taught her to be resilient. “It’s taught me life isn’t a piece of cake, it’s going to throw a thousand challenges at you at once.’’
These are tough times for the dairy industry. Dairy prices have dipped to the levels of 35 years ago. One dairy co-op recently mailed out a forecast of declining 2018 milk prices accompanied by a list of suicide prevention hotlines.
“The fate of dairy farming is uncertain,” says Charlie Purrier.
His daughter will forever be a dairy advocate. Don’t tell her almond milk is better.
“I can get pretty heated about this,” she said. “The nutrients in milk are easier for the human to digest because it’s not a plant.’’
Don’t think of her as a country bumpkin, either. She was named the overall female Scholar Athlete for the America East Conference for the 2016-17 school year. Still, coming from a farm can be “a touchy subject. There’s a lot of people that don’t get it, they think, ‘Oh, you’re a hillbilly.’ ’’
Purrier has embraced her community, her family, and her school, according to UNH women’s track coach Robert Hoppler.
“One of the things I’m most proud of is watching her develop as an athlete and an individual,” he said.
She’s also tough. Don’t try to box out the 5-foot-3-inch dynamo on the track.
“If there was women’s professional football, she wouldn’t be running at all, she’d be playing in the NFL for women,” said Hoppler. “She’s a physical kid, very, very, strong. She’d be able to run down the field all day long.”
But winning a national championship had eluded her.
She finished 15th and third, respectively, her first two seasons in the indoor mile, and last year, she was leading down the stretch but got outkicked at the line. The stinging loss only motivated her more.
In February, she recorded the second-fastest time for a women’s indoor mile in NCAA history (4 minutes 26.55 seconds) at the Boston University David Hemery Valentine Invitational.
At the national championships last month in College Station, Texas, she made sure she looked like a champion. Purrier wore her favorite pearl earrings and put on makeup before the race.
“Look good, feel good, run good,” was a mantra taught to her by Anne Twombly, a former UNH runner.
Purrier came out strong and at one point glanced at the videoboard and saw she had established a sizable lead. But with 40 meters left, Dani Jones of the University of Colorado, known for her strong kick, quickly closed the distance and even took a one-step lead.
“I didn’t know she was coming,” Purrier said. “Literally, this is the same exact thing that happened last year.”
But Purrier and Hoppler had practiced for this very scenario. She thought of accelerating to the finish, and relaxing to keep the muscles from cramping.
In the last 10 seconds, Jones and Purrier dashed to the wire.
“You just literally give every ounce that you have,” she said. “You just have to find a way to make your legs move a little bit faster. I thought, I really, really want it this time.”
At the finish, Purrier leaned forward and finished in 4:31.76, just 0.06 ahead of Jones. It was the closest race in the women’s mile since 1991.
“That was just instinct, “ said Purrier of the lean-in. “I was almost jumping.”
She raised her arms but didn’t immediately celebrate. “I didn’t want to take the risk of celebrating early, so I waited a couple of seconds and then Dani came and patted my back. Then I saw the scoreboard,” she said.
Recently Purrier returned home for spring break and spent time with the family, the cows, and Nelson, her St. Bernard.
“It still hasn’t sunk in,” she said.
The future is bright. Purrier dreams of turning pro or possibly competing in the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. In Montgomery, she is a local celebrity.
When she stopped in to the Montgomery Town School district annual meeting to see her father, who was chairing the meeting, someone yelled out, “Elle is here.” Everyone started clapping and cheering.
Here on the top of Vermont, she is on top of the world.
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at email@example.com.