By Sherry Bunting
LANCASTER, Pa. — Being a dairy farmer with a nutrition degree from the University of New Hampshire — and a Team USA mid-distance Olympic runner — Elle Purrier St. Pierre sees the similarities in the two passions of her young life.
“In both, you’re so involved in it. It’s a lifestyle. It’s what you do — you’re completely obsessed with it — it’s who you are,” she said. “It’s crazy to win a race one day and be home working with cattle in my barn boots the next. The two are completely different but those values carry over to both. It’s the passion you have.l for it. I’m just lucky to have the opportunity to do both.”
Elle kicked off the 2022 Pennsylvania Dairy Summit on Feb. 2 at the Marriott Convention Center in downtown Lancaster. The theme of the two-day event was “Going for the Gold.” The leadoff with Elle — joining the over 300 attendees virtually from her home in Vermont, where she and her husband Jamie are part of his family’s 2000-cow dairy farm – was energizing, uplifting and so practical.
Elle shared with Summit attendees how growing up on a small dairy farm near Montgomery Center, Vermont, gave her the physical and mental training for her calling today as an Olympic athlete.
“Those hay bales helped get me here,” she said. “And there’s something to be said for genetics, for heritage, your background and how you train. I come from a long line of dairy farmers who worked hard all of their lives.”
Describing her grandfather hoisting milk pails in the days before pipeline, she said she figures the strength is in her DNA, and what the farm life has encouraged her to do with it.
Running 80 miles a week and training off site at different times of the year, Elle’s schedule can be crazy, but she’s been home enough before the season begins again to get on the farm payroll with regular jobs at the dairy. One day she can be found sorting dry cows, another helping preg-check heifers, moving heifers, helping with herd checks – filling in wherever she is needed.
On the larger dairy with her husband’s family, just like the small farm she grew up on, Elle finds structure in her day. She says structure, routine, strength, passion — these are all farming traits that have served her well as an athlete.
The routine of chores, growing up, is something that fostered her dedication, but she says her parents also made sure she had balance in her life, not to feel pressured, that there is more to life, to explore it.
Today, on the larger farm, Elle said “there is so much opportunity for me to be involved.”
While they milk mainly Holsteins and some Jerseys, it’s her Brown Swiss, Rita, due very soon with her first calf, that’s pretty special.
“Jamie proposed (marriage) with a ring and that Brown Swiss calf,” she said as the audience laughed knowingly.
Competing for Team USA at the Tokyo Olympics last summer was also pretty special.
“It’s something I have dreamed about for so long, to represent my country is one of the highest honors of my life,” Elle said. Her journey to that point really began when a high school coach ‘discovered’ her, and she went on to compete in college.
On Feb. 8, 2020, she set the American record for the indoor mile, with a time of 4:16.85 at the Millrose Games. A year later on Feb. 13, 2021, she ran a time of 9:10.28 to break the American indoor 2-mile record, a time that was also lower than the outdoor 2-mile record.
She said the mid-distance races are her niche, where she feels most comfortable and does her best.
Many attendees had questions for her about what she encounters among trainers, peers and fans in terms of milk and dairy products. What does she hear? What pressure does she get?
It’s all good. Elle said her team and coaches, trainers, even fans, for the most part, understand why milk and dairy are so important.
“Our coach understands the body and the science, the importance of animal protein,” she said, noting that she did get an offer to try a plant-based product, but turned it down — of course. “I told them I’m an animal protein girl. It’s more bioavailable nutrition from the animal source. You can’t really argue with my results, right?”
All of her teammates also drink milk.
“At this level, people realize the importance. In the running world, you’re bringing that nutrition with you for right after your work out. Milk, chocolate milk, it’s got that nutrition, everything you need. It’s hydration. It’s electrolytes. It’s the perfect carb to protein ratio,” Elle explained, although she admitted that sometimes she’ll opt to put extra milk protein in the milk. “We call that the more-milky-milk.”
She also likes to try different brands of milk when she’s traveling. Training in Arizona recently, she discovered Shamrock, and is obsessed with their strawberry milk.
Bottom line, she said, when you run 80 miles a week, it’s essential to always be refueling.
“Dairy is that resource we look to, naturally,” said Elle. “As I get older, I realize even more what a great resource dairy really is.”
On social media, her main platform is Instagram @Elleruns_4_her_life. She gets a few critics on the anti-animal side, but never in person.
“I try to pick my battles,” she said. “I only see the extremists on the internet, but I feel they don’t have a sense of reality, so it’s easy to ignore the crazy comments. I look more for the opportunities in the middle, to talk about farming, to have a productive conversation.”
With ‘Going for the Gold’ being the theme of the Summit, Elle touched on what it takes to turn passion and values into goals through competition. How do you make it happen?
Whether preparing for a race or looking at something on the farm — like milk quality or SCC levels, Elle has found what works is to set weekly goals to get to the bigger goals.
“That translates to the farm also, to take it day-by-day, step-by-step. What do I need to do this week to get to where I want to be next month,” she said.
Elle loves being part of the team, training with other athletes who are her competitors, but also her friends.
“It’s about respect,” she said. “We work toward our own goals, but at the same time each of us brings something to the table that makes us better together.”
“In the same way, Jamie and I talk about it all the time, how there are fewer and fewer farms, so we need to work together,” Elle related. “I have gained so much respect for our neighbors, for other farms, just like my teammates. We need to compete to do better, but we also need to unite on some things and share that passion, together.”