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Now a Top Ultrarunner, This Physicist Discovered Running in Her 30s

Cecilia Flori often smiles through the pain cave, but now she’s hoping an injury doesn’t keep her from competing at the 2019 Western States 100-mile race.

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The gap between elites and amateurs can feel wide indeed, but one area of common ground is an injury that threatens the start line of an important race. That’s the relatable place elite ultrarunner Cecilia Flori finds herself as she struggles with a foot injury a few weeks out from the Western States Endurance Run, the 100-mile race on June 29, from Squaw Valley to Auburn, California.

Expected to be a favorite in this year’s event, Flori arrived in California more than a month before the race, hoping to train on the course. The 38-year-old Italian physicist, who currently calls New Zealand home, earned bib F5 and says she was feeling as fit as ever when her foot began to hurt.

“I’ve been working on my speed by running marathons this year,” she said. “I think the Western course suits my strengths and I was more than ready for it.”

Relatively new to the ultra scene—and running in general—Flori made a big entrance to the sport, nabbing a podium spot at the North Face Endurance 50-miler in Canada in 2015.

“I’ve always loved the outdoors and was a climber before a triathlete friend convinced me to run a half marathon with him,” she said. “I really enjoyed it and I was hooked.”

Flori says the flow of running is what drew her in. “The repetitive motion makes me feel alive,” she said. “It’s a primal feeling—I’m at one with nature when I’m on trails.”

Relocating for her research to scenic New Zealand in 2016, Flori migrated entirely from climbing to running, joining a running club for training. She took on some shorter distance trail races and then won the Taupo 100K. “I started thinking that maybe I was good at endurance,” she says. “In 2017, I entered the Tarawera 100 and took third behind [2008 U.S. Olympic marathoner] Magda Boulet and [2017 Comrades champion] Camille Herron. I was shocked but I realized I could compete on an international level.”

Herron has since become Flori’s coach, and it was that Tarawera race that made Herron take note.

“I watched her run neck-and-neck with Magda Boulet,” Herron said. “What I remember most as I looped around and saw her was the big smile on her face.”

Since then there have been few hiccups in Flori’s ascent to the upper echelons of ultras. She pulled off fifth at last year’s Western States in 19:44 and followed it up with a 10th place finish at the 101K CCC in the French Alps last September, which she admits, tested her. “It was a learning experience,” she said. “I was sick and had to stop at aid stations quite a bit. But I still managed 10th and I’m proud of myself.”

Herron says Flori has a bright future ahead of her. “I saw that same smile on Cecilia’s face at 62 miles into Western last year. For someone to look that good in fifth place tells me she has lots more to give.”

Sticking to the plan

Flori’s 2019 plans include not only Western States, but the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, which is 170K. Successfully pulling off both races in one season has proven difficult for many athletes, but Flori remains unintimidated. “They are two very different races and I’m not prioritizing one over the other,” she said. “I’m just going for it.”

She considers Western to be the faster of the two courses, with UTMB the more technically challenging.

Herron began guiding Flori this past fall, a relationship Flori has enjoyed. “I’ve always admired Camille, so having her as a coach has been special,” Flori says. “She gives me a weekly schedule and we discuss my training every day via WhatsApp.”

The women devised a Western plan that focused more on mileage than logging vertical feet of climbing—and includes running twice many days. Then there are the “training” marathons and half marathons, of which Flori has run several this year. At her most recent, the May 18 Hawkes Bay Marathon (NZ), she took the win in 2:51. “The focus on speed has been quite helpful,” she said.

At the moment, Flori is without a sponsor.

“Realistically to sustain this career, a sponsor is helpful,” she said. “But at the same time, it’s a bit freeing to be without one. Sometimes [with a sponsor] you forget about why you started in the sport. Competition and winning can cloud your vision.”

In spite of her injury, Flori has full intention of lining up at Western and giving it her best effort. With nine days to go, she hasn’t run much in a couple of weeks.

“Right now I’m keeping fitness up with the stationary bike, riding 300K in a week,” she said. “But I plan to be on the start line ready to race.”

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