Elinor Purrier, UNH’s most decorated athlete, begins her professional running career

  • Purrier smiles with her NCAA championship trophy after winning in the mile in March. University of New Hampshire / Courtesy

  • Elinor Purrier (right) races Colorado’s Dani Jones to the finish during the mile run at the NCAA Indoor Championships in College Station, Texas in March. Purrier beat Jones by six-one hundredths of a second, the closest finish in the women’s mile since 1991. Brendan Maloney / Courtesy

  • Elinor Purrier, the most decorated athlete ever at UNH, runs to the stage to meet outgoing university president Mark Huddleston at UNH’s commencement in May. University of New Hampshire / Courtesy

Monitor staff
Published: 7/3/2018 9:58:20 PM

After graduating in May as the most decorated athlete in University of New Hampshire history, Elinor Purrier turned pro by signing with New Balance. That’s why the 11-time All-American was decked out in New Balance gear when she competed in her first pro race in June, the USA Track & Field Championships Outdoor Championships in Des Moines, Iowa.

But if you took a close look at Purrier’s hands during that race, you noticed three rings – two on her right hand and one on her left. She earned the jewelry by winning three America East championships with the University of New Hampshire women’s cross country team, and she wears the rings to honor the people who have supported her along the way.

“The support from family and my teammates and my coaches, I wouldn’t have been able to do anything without their help,” she said.

Title chasing

Purrier, a native of Montgomery, Vt., became an NCAA champion in the mile in March, a feat that eluded her the previous three times she qualified for the Division I indoor championships. Purrier placed 15th as a freshman (she was one of two freshman who qualified), improved to third as a sophomore and finished second as a junior.

This year, Purrier was poised to make one last run at the title. She shattered the UNH record in the mile with a time of 4:26.55 at Boston University in February, beating the previous record (which she set) by almost three seconds. It remains the second-fastest mile time in NCAA history.

At the NCAA championships in March, Purrier captured the elusive crown in 4:31.76, just six one-hundredths of a second ahead of Colorado’s Dani Jones. It was so close – the closest finish in the women’s mile since 1991 – that Purrier waited to celebrate until she saw the results on the videoboard.

“I wasn’t really sure when I crossed the line if I had done it, so to see my name pop up first was so exciting,” Purrier said. “I still smile thinking about it. It was a relief, I’m not gonna lie, that I finally did it. I felt like I needed to do that to prove it to myself.”

Purrier’s championship was the first ever for UNH track and field, and the university’s first since the women’s lacrosse team won an NCAA title in 1985. (The women’s hockey team won a national championship in 1998 as part of the American Women’s College Hockey Alliance. The NCAA established a women’s ice hockey championship a year later.)

From her first time qualifying for nationals as a freshman, Purrier never missed a chance to compete for the top prize – she qualified for the NCAA championships in all eight of her UNH indoor and outdoor seasons.

“Eight straight opportunities and she never missed it,” New Hampshire coach Robert Hoppler said. “That’s unheard of. It’s just off the charts.”

Starting line

Purrier started running in middle school and established herself as one of the top high school track athletes in New England while she was a student at Richford High School. She was a three-time Gatorade Vermont Runner of the Year, two-time New England Cross Country Champion and two-time Northeast Regional Champion.

Despite the accolades she gathered in high school, Purrier didn’t know what to expect at the college level.

“I was pretty naive about what I could do and how good I actually was,” she said. “I knew I was pretty good, but I never thought I would win a national championship. I didn’t really understand what that would take.”

Hoppler knew he was recruiting a talented athlete in Purrier, and the first indication she was special came in the fall of her freshman year when she recorded a 4:36.14 mile at Boston University.

She redshirted the outdoor season that spring and competed at the Junior National Championships, where she won the 3,000-meter steeplechase. Purrier followed that up with a ninth-place finish in the finals at the IIAF World Junior Championships.

“This kid is running against the Kenyans and Ethiopians and everyone in the world and she makes the finals,” Hoppler said. “If you’re making the finals in that race and that meet, it certainly says something about your ability and your potential. Most young kids don’t have a big training edge. It’s a level playing field. She was one of the best in the world on talent, so let’s see where she can go.”

Such talent coupled with the discipline for hard work – something Purrier says she developed on her family’s dairy farm in Montgomery – led to career of unprecedented accomplishments.

“In a weird way they correlate well together,” Purrier said of farming and running. “No matter how challenging farming can be, my parents are still doing it and they’re still getting up for chores every day. It doesn’t matter if it’s Christmas or if it’s your birthday, you still have to go to work. I think the work ethic I learned from being relied upon as a kid to help my parents on the farm, that definitely has been a huge contributor to my success as a runner.”

Working world

At graduation in May, Purrier didn’t walk to the stage to meet outgoing UNH president Mark Huddleston. She ran, of course.

“The Class of 2018, like Elinor, has had a truly wonderful run at UNH. You will go far,” Huddleston told the crowd at Wildcat Stadium.

Purrier closed out her UNH career collecting her 11th All-American award at her fourth straight appearance in the NCAA Outdoor Championships on June 9. She held the lead in the 1,500 meter run up until the last lap when Jessica Hull of Oregon made a strong push to win the race.

Athletes cannot sign a professional deal until after they complete their college eligibility, which for Purrier ended with the outdoor championships. With her college career behind her and a degree in nutrition in her hands, Purrier weighed her options and decided to join coach Mark Coogan and his team of runners with New Balance Boston.

“It was pretty stressful to figure out which company to go with,” said Purrier, who is 23. “There were a lot of good options out there, but I’m really happy with my decision so far and I think I picked the best place where I will be happy.”

Similar to Purrier’s college choice, staying in New England was an important piece of her professional choice. She had other opportunities to begin her pro career on the west coast in Seattle and Oregon.

“It definitely was a big part of my decision. I wanted to stay in New England and on the East Coast especially,” she said. “Boston is pretty close to UNH, so I’m familiar with the area.”

Staying near her home roots allows Purrier to keep her focus on her new job.

“Now it’s a different atmosphere because it’s my job,” she said. “I think that a lot of things are going to change as a professional runner and … if you change too many things all at once I think you’re setting yourself up for failure. If I don’t really change where I’m living, that’s one less thing that I have to adapt to.”

Purrier seems to be adapting well. In that first pro race back in June, she took sixth in the 1,500 with a time of 4:09.30 at the USATF championships, which aired on NBC.

Purrier worked her way to third place during the race before slipping back into the pack. But she hustled out of it and fought for sixth, those UNH championship rings leading the way as she pumped her arms with each professional stride.

(Nick Stoico can be reached at nstoico@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @NickStoico.)

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