On Being Productive

I am what some might call a “professional runner.” Never mind that I am also in what the government might call “poverty” – I nevertheless make a living as a runner. I run. A lot. I run up mountains. I run down mountains. I run around mountains and sometimes I even run through mountains. The point is: I run a lot, and sometimes with other people. Sometimes I run with other people in a competitive capacity and manage to finish close to or – on a few rare occasions – in first place, and because of that the other runners have a tendency to lavish me with praise. “You’re really fast Dakota” is one example. “That’s incredible” is another. “You totally don’t have skinny legs” happened once. And then my head swells up like a pumpkin and I crave that acceptance even more. Then I race again and hopefully receive it and it’s a cycle, don’t you see? I’m trapped in a circle of train-race-praise-repeat.

Stay with me while I switch stories briefly. On October 7th I was hiking up a mountain in Japan when I made the decision to be done for the year. I was in the middle of the Hasetsune Cup (race report), Japan’s largest trail race, and though I went on to finish quite well, I knew that I needed to take a break. Including Hasetsune, I had run four races in five weeks, two of which were ultras and one of which was a marathon with 10,500 feet of climbing. I was tired. Immediately after that I took two weeks completely off of running and then felt fat and started again, but the decision remained firm: I’m done racing for the year. And now it’s the middle of November and I’m wondering, what do other people do with their time?

Reflecting on this, I find that I have broken my cycle. By choosing to race, I choose a goal, and by training I take the necessary steps to achieve that goal. With a clearly defined goal I can consider each day as a required step in achieving that goal, and therefore feel that I am doing something useful. So you can imagine the confusion I faced when suddenly I had no goal to structure my life. What do other people do with their time? In lieu of outside help, I had to create new structures for myself, and the fruits of those plans will be detailed in full on this website as they take place over the coming months. But by stripping myself of the normal structure, I caught a glimpse of the principle behind what I do, and how it is exactly the same as everyone else. I may live unconventionally at times, but I’m no different from anyone else. I crave structure.

Ultrarunners (and climbers and skiers and… everyone else in the outdoor world) love to wax poetic about the benefits of being “unproductive.” Indeed, my favorite climbing memoir is titled “Conquistadors of the Useless” (by Lionel Terray, read it). We’re all proud of removing ourselves from society and spending large amounts of time and energy doing something society may deem worthless, because we find an inherent value in the acts themselves. We all love the irony in the idea that doing something society tells us is useless, in fact, makes us much more capable to accomplish the tasks society tells us are useful. But perhaps that can be taken too far. Maybe running in the mountains really is pointless, and we could all be spending our time doing far more useful things like… what? Keep in mind, running is essentially my job, even if I don’t like to call it that. I’m not like most ultrarunners, balancing a full-time job, a spouse and kids in addition to running ultras. This is my thing, my forte, and if it’s not good enough, then what am I even doing here?

I will always be a runner. The only problem is that while running is super cool and highly rewarding, it’s just running. Nothing more. I hold the most respect for people who do other things in addition to running, the people with full-time jobs that still find the time to make running happen. Those people are multidimensional, capable of much more than the fleeting praise of races. They get to experience all the excitement of running and still maintain a distanced perspective on the sport. Nobody should get so wrapped up in one thing they lose sight of everything else. We only do this because we love it. I may be a “professional runner,” but I’m really just a guy running in the mountains. A guy who, perhaps, needs a real job.

There are 8 comments

  1. Spope

    People with the full-time job and the ability to run this demanding sport gather all aspects of respect from me. I feel it is necessary too live simple, free… and run as much as you please, But the hard working American that comes out at 5:00 clock on a "off day" saturday to run a distance to some is "too far to drive" is the true spirit of ultra running. This sport was not meant to be professional, yet a constant challenge to everyone's mind, body and soul inorder to better themselves. The man who stayed up all night as a "on call" Ambulance driver, then finished his first 50 mile the next day is as much as a hero and inspiration than the man who came in first and won 1000 bucks.

  2. Morgan Williams


    Good to know that you love Conquistadors. It's my favourite mountain book too, not least because I know and love many of the Alpine mountains that Terray climbed and worked in and on.

    For many years, the perceived wisdom was that Terray didn't write the book but that it was ghosted. Many believed that Lionel was too simple a man to have delivered such a classic work.

    That myth was exploded by David Roberts when researching his own book about the 1950 Annapurna expedition. Granted access to the old Terray home by his widow, he discovered the original manuscript of Conquistadors and the handwriting was indubitably that of Terray.

    I've said it before, but I'll say it again; keep on writing. It is great stuff.

  3. Bryon Powell

    While certainly no time in ones life "lasts" forever, there's no need for one ever to have a "real job," family, mortgage, etc. nor to be tied to anything they don't consciously wish to be tied to.

    I am personally driven to work by my passion, so I tend not to be a carefree spirit (nor as carefree as I might like), but I could be anywhere, move anywhere, pursue anything I wish to tomorrow. I said good riddance to my "real job" and my mortgage. I say no thank you to kids. I embrace an unconventional life full of work and freedom. Both make me happy. The path I've chosen is not better than the standard path, but it's no worse. It's also open to nearly everyone (reading this) who wants to take it. :-)

    Dakota, that's a long way of saying, there are many roads out there you can take. Choose the one that feels right at the time.

  4. Alexp.

    Running uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill and then uphill and downhill again.

    Running long, short, intervall in the stadium, escaping for the same reason on the mountain.

    Running in the snow, in mud, in rain and then in mud again.

    Coming back at home and feeling wonderful (is this fullfilled?) as I meet my family (my wife and my 2 kids). Well, running is true, although not 100% honest( it takes weeks-months to improve your fitness and a few days without training to start feelling rosted) and when combined/balanced with family and job creates a great condition for enjoying the 24hours I spend living a day. Do not let family, job and running fight each other, find your own balance.

    Bravo Dakota!

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