By Kim Fuller Published in Mountain Town Magazine
Ellen Miller, one of the Vail Valley’s most accomplished mountaineers, keeps inspiring those around her to continue the climb as she heals from injuries sustained during her lifetime of adventure and athleticism. We covered Ellen in our Winter/Spring 2018 magazine in a profile discussing older athletes who are still getting out and kicking ass.
As Ellen Miller knows so well, climbing a mountain isn’t just about standing on the peak, but all the ascending and descending steps it takes to fulfill the journey.
As an incredibly accomplished mountaineer and coach, Miller says 2018 will be a year of intentional exploration of her physical, emotional and mental well-being. Last spring, Miller had a hip reconstruction on one of her two artificial hips. The metal in one hip was not interacting favorably with her bones. Along with a new artificial hip, her surgeon put in a metal plate and three screws, and Miller is the first to admit the recovery has been an uphill challenge.
“I’m a mountain climber, so I’ve been very fortunate that a lot of my rehab is to climb mountains,” Miller shared in early January 2018. “So I went up on Quandary last week, and I went up there again today. I’m just coming to terms, emotionally and mentally, with what it’s like to be in this body — it’s been through a lot in the last year; that I’m not the same anymore, and what will it take to get back to a place that I’m happy with?”
While Miller is incredibly humble about her achievements, she has accomplished so much in her 59 years of life. Miller is the only American woman to climb Mount Everest from both sides (one of five women in the world), among countless other mountaineering feats all over the world. In 2002, she was voted Colorado Sportswoman of the Year for longevity and achievement in athletics. She is currently a certified endurance and athletic coach and works as an outdoor fitness coach in the Vail Valley. She is also coach and manager for the U.S. Women’s Mountain Running Team.
“Looking back on this last year and just the whole process of my hip, now I’m starting to think that mountaineering trained me for all of these hip surgeries and the recoveries,” she said. “I’ve learned tenacity; I’ve learned about attitude; I’ve learned about patience. I’m so glad that I was an athlete in my younger years because so much of those natural lessons that we learn are really applicable when you’re trying to get through these things — whether it’s a surgery or an illness or general aging.”
Miller’s focus hasn’t shifted away from climbing mountains and setting life goals, but she has certainly become more in tune with honoring the aging process, and also encouraging younger athletes to start caring for their bodies early.
“I think in the old days, we thought more was better and higher mileage was better, and just more more more,” she shared, “and now we have a lot more science available; a lot more scientific evidence about training, and different modalities to recovery.”
Miller encourages athletes of all ages to create balance in their training, which includes high-intensity work, as well as ample recovery.
“Whether someone is in their thirties or forties, we can be smarter about the way we age,” Miller explained. “To understand the importance of high-quality rest, and the importance of high-quality nutrition, because I do believe all that stuff adds up, and it tends to really show itself as you’re aging.”
Connie Leaf met Miller after living in Vail for five years. Leaf said that although she was having fun, she wasn’t pushing herself out of her comfort zones. It was Miller, shared Leaf, who pushed her toward a path of purpose and self-discovery.
“Ellen, always with the utmost respect and support, taught me how to live intentionally and with clear goals,” said Leaf. “She showed me how to build up my self-esteem, selfcare and self-love. She taught me how to tune in to my needs, my surroundings and my greatest aspirations by taking conscious steps to living each day with strength, courage and gratitude.”
Among the myriad of lessons Miller shares with her “tribe” on a daily basis, Leaf said perhaps the most paramount to her journey is the commitment to shaping one’s thought patterns, an exercise in neuroplasticity that happens in the prefrontal cortex of the human brain.
“Ultimately, success is achieved through mental toughness, a thing Ellen describes as grit,” shares Leaf. “And I take this lesson with me always.”
Grit and Grace
Getting older can be a hard reality for anyone to face, Miller said, but she is more and more adamant about respecting the process while also playing an active role in it.
“I’m never going to be as fast as I was in my 30s, that’s fine; I’m never going to be as strong as I was in my 40s, that’s fine; but you know it’s just coming to terms with it all,” she said. “But how can I nurture my body going forward and respect it? I also have enough science knowledge to know that people can gain a lot of strength back in their sixties, even in their seventies. You know, we don’t have to pack it all up and go home.”
Miller also teaches restorative yoga and recommends the practice for athletes of all ages.
“Whether it’s strength training, or yoga, or meditation — there are so many great things that we can all tap into so that we can age a little more gracefully,” she says.
Every year, Miller said, a couple of her friends drop out of sports or activities they once loved because of pains or injuries.
“And that’s very sad to me,” she shared. “They have aches and pains so they shy away from doing these activities that they once loved, and sometimes they are even simple activities like hiking. So my paramount message to young athletes is to take care of your body, so that when you’re my age, you can do whatever you want to do.”