Improvement

Last May I boarded a plane in Denver and flew all the way to Spain. I didn’t have to pay for this trip. Rather, someone else picked up the tab because I’m “fast” and they wanted me to run a race on the Canary Islands with lots of other fast runners. When, several months before, I had read the email inviting me on the trip, I had sat dumbfounded. The invite was so unexpected that my emotions were delayed. A free trip to Spain! This was the real deal.

It turned out to be far more than just a free trip to Spain. It was a trip to the Canary Islands, where we were housed in a luxury resort and served gourmet food for a week, followed by a trip to the northern part of mainland Spain, where we received the same treatment. The whole time we were catered to, waited on, accommodated for and given everything we asked for. In many ways the trip felt like a grown-up version of high school cross-country – everything was taken care of for us and we just went along, raced and had a good time. That last part is what I’m really trying to get at. We had a really good time.

In order to provide credibility to my story, let me remind everyone that I was hanging out with people like Mike Wolfe, Geoff Roes and Kilian Jornet. I was given a lesson in wine-tasting by Sebastien Chaigneau and played guitar with Anna Frost. I jumped off a cliff into the ocean with Rickey Gates and practiced my Spanish with Iker Karrera. For people who are into the sport of ultrarunning, this is a big deal. I found that not only are these people really talented runners, they are also a lot of fun to hang out with. I like to think that mountain runners are cool people first and athletes second, and many of the people on this trip bore that theory out. Mike Wolfe used to work with troubled teens in Jackson Hole before becoming a lawyer and now a pro runner. Geoff Roes seems to have travelled around the country for many years before settling in Alaska and turning into the Geoff Roes who wins 100-mile races. Ian Sharman does something – I’m not sure what – but from what I can tell he has been all over the world and has a job and can run 100 miles in 12:44. Those are just three examples. I got to know so many people in Spain that to list them all would take far too long. The point is that I saw truly that the sport is comprised of people, not just runners.

But we weren’t just there for fun and games. We were there to race. The first race (and, frankly, the only one where you should pay attention to the results) was the Transvulcania 84km. For my less discerning readers the name comes from the fact that we were traversing (“trans”) a volcano (Spanish (maybe): “Vulcania”). The race was awesome. We started at sea level, the ocean spray nearly splashing over the start line, and proceeded to run up forever. The trail for the first several miles was loose black volcanic sand, and we charged uphill elbows swinging until the field settled into a manageable pack. As the sun rose I found myself running through a desiccated landscape of black rock and pine trees. The ocean haze blended the horizon with the sea on three sides, and way in front pointed up.

I had a good day, and found for the first time that I was able to run as hard as I can with the fastest people in the world and finish well. So well, in fact, that I won the race and set a course record. With only three miles to go I was running neck and neck with a guy who had, only ten minutes, before blazed past me like I was standing still. I was at my utmost limit, my energy so focused that anything beyond the immediate motions to continue moving forward were nonexistent. I didn’t look at the crowds; I didn’t look at the hill looming ahead; I didn’t high-five spectators; I simply ran as hard as I could and let my mind pull my legs forward. While climbing the final hill I dimly realized that I was pulling into the front, and as I came over a rise someone yelled, “un kilometre!” Then a police car fired up and escorted me down the long main street, packed full of hysterical fans, all the way to the finish. I won the race.

Winning felt good. For the obvious reasons, of course, but for others as well. My performance at UTMB the previous summer had been embarrassing; I was glad to prove that I can be worth something. I respected, and still respect, every person I competed against, to a degree that they inspire me to be better with every training run; I was proud to measure myself against them. And, as silly as this may sound, I understood how much work and money had gone into my being at the race at all; I was happy to have made the trip worth their while. That was the biggest win of my career thus far and I will always remember the trip that made it all happen.

That said, I won’t be returning to Transvulcania this year, for the simple reason that I could not do any better. Even if I were to win the race again and set a faster course record, that would only be an improvement by degrees. I am no better than many of the people I ran against last year, and would have no guarantee of winning again, but I ran Transvulcania as well as I will ever run it and that’s a good enough reason to move on to the next goal. I’m taking the same approach to the Lake Sonoma 50 mile – it’s a wonderful race and I had an amazing experience, but I have done all I can there, and I’m ready for the next step. This doesn’t go for every race, I suppose. The Hardrock 100, for example, has a special place in my heart and I look forward to returning to it someday. Then again, I haven’t run as well there as I know I’m capable of, so the desire to try again is strong. The bottom line for me is that once I have accomplished a goal I like to move on. Dominance does not interest me; progression does.

My progression is not for everyone. I have goals designed by dreams dictated by values. My values manifest as priorities, and my priorities alienate some and inspire others. By saying I’m somehow “finished” with Transvulcania will seem to some people arrogant, as if by having won the race I am somehow better than it. That is not the case, in my view. Rather, I believe that I have done all that I can at that race, learned a lot, and should now move forward onto something new. Fixating on success is so easy, and trying new things is so hard. Thus, in either an attempt to be better or an attempt to continually suffer failure (however you look at it), I am trying new things. And these new things aren’t really high-profile, because they mostly involve moderately difficult technical climbing, the kind of climbing that anyone can do. My theory is that if I get good enough I can go big and fast and expand my range as an athlete. But that remains to be seen. For now I’m just trying to improve.

Perhaps the point I’m trying to make is that in order to be really fulfilled I need to always be trying to improve. Being “improved” would be stagnant and boring. But trying to improve is difficult, demoralizing, painful, discouraging and… worth it. Piecing together success from the countless fragments of failure is what makes a person better, and even though I am so often not as good as that sentence, even though I’m so often lazy or unmotivated or boring, I still believe that recognizing my shortcomings as stepping stones in light of a continual effort to be better is the way to improve as a person. I want to strike a balance between meekness (“I suck”) and arrogance (“I’m awesome”). That’s why I’m going from the best year of racing of my life to whatever the hell is going on this year, which I’m still totally unsure of. Perhaps this will all turn out to be a bust and a failure, but I don’t think it will ever be a waste of time. That’s because the goal is worth trying for.

That’s really all I have to say. Find the goals that are worth trying for. Believe that you can accomplish them, and don’t get discouraged when you fail a thousand times. With enough passion and persistence, you will become better and achieve those goals. Beyond all else, don’t let anyone else dictate the way you view the world. If you believe in your goal, you should also believe in its superiority to other pursuits that want to use your time and energy. Make choices and stick to them. Believe in yourself. You can do anything you set your mind to.

There are 31 comments

  1. olga

    Dakota, that second-from-last paragraph really was good. I know you love to joke and stuff, but that was real and so good. Thanks. Striving somewhere is living. Standing, even in greatness, is death.

  2. Charlie M.

    "…don’t let anyone else dictate the way you view the world. If you believe in your goal, you should also believe in its superiority to other pursuits that want to use your time and energy. Make choices and stick to them."

    What if there were an appearance fee (say, more than $25K) to return to Transvulcania? Like, for example, the major marathons dole out to international runners to appear at Boston or New York or Chicago (100K?)

    Would your ideals still hold true? Not saying they wouldn't, but sometimes life can take us in directions we might not have foreseen when the doh-re-me increases exponentially…

    1. Speedgoatkarl

      Charlie, I may or may not have said this to Dakota when I first met him. "work to live, don't live to work" :-) either way, the key point here is that Dakota could care less how much money he can make, he pursues his personal passion. Everyone should do that. It's great to make money and to make an appearance fee, but it's more important to live first, the way you want. Cuz' when your dead….your dead. Remember that Sienfeld episode.

      1. Evan

        Well said Dakota and Karl! I feel like life is a constant struggle to balance the "needs" with the "wants." Regardless, I've found that I NEED to be true to myself, because if I don't truly want or need something, I'll never devote the energy necessary to fully achieve it.

        When something feels hard to do, like starting a long run in a 20 degree winter snowstorm, I like to picture myself at the end of the day, reflecting back on what I did that morning- would I ever regret going on that long run-become-adventure? Probably not. Well, I could imagine a few scenarios, but all of them pretty unlikely.

        1. Speedgoatkarl

          I'll go for 100k. I need some retirement money! But I won't win it, nor have a chance.

          Money would more than likely win if it were big enough, especially an appearance fee with no strings attached.

  3. Jeff Faulkner

    Deep, and truly what I've been trying to do for the past 2 years. Just with an epic proportion that trivializes my efforts and goals. But it's good to set goals that stretch us to near breaking points. That's how you get to the "next level". Thanks.

  4. Shelby

    Prez, I hope you enjoy whatever it is you're pursuing this year, if not improving your previous race results. No need to justify or explain it – you obviously have other interests tugging at you (climbing, TMR). We'll miss seeing you at the start lines of some of the exciting races coming up, but I for one am looking forward to seeing your Alaska trip report next month. Have fun up there!

  5. FastED

    Dakota – I love your writing – so carefree and effortless. But what I love even more is that you have the ability to put into words what we all think about but can't articulate. Thank you.

  6. Phil Jeremy

    Anyone as self deprecating as Dakota is a star to me. I do hope he has a go at some other popular races cos his race reports are always entertaining … and Bryon's interview with Dakota and Joe last year at HR is an all time classic.

  7. Ben Clark

    Thanks for dropping some wisdom here Dakota, the 2 quotes below are such great advice for anyone wanting to be better and knowing that extreme sports are about negotiating variables:

    "Dominance does not interest me; progression does."

    "Piecing together success from the countless fragments of failure is what makes a person better."

    I hope AK, goes well for you. Those alpine routes will be a lot of fun!

  8. Jason

    Great advice for life as well as running. Thanks for putting out this wisdom! Running is not all about racing.

    IRF readers might enjoy a book that came out last year or so called "Room For Improvement" by John Casey. There's a chaper about him running JFK in the 70s, but otherwise it's not about ultra running…just perpetual improvement within the interplay of life and sport.

  9. Dave F

    Really great article Dakota and the exact kind of message in the closing paragraph I needed today. Thanks so much – excellent read.

  10. Ben

    "I was glad to prove that I can be worth something." I hope you don't define your worth by your race results. As an individual, you are worth so much more than the time it takes you to run a course. You are also worth more than the marketing dollars spent to have you represent a company while running. Having met you and your parents, I know this for a fact.

  11. thomas

    Dakota,

    thanks for your thoughts. There are top runner in the world, and on the other hand there are top runner which are at same time philosopher like you or Joe Grant, this is rare talent and unique.

    I have ssen you in the summits of my life dvd with kilian, and I am sure you are a guy who really says what he thinks,

    I really appreciate

    thomas from germany

  12. Michael Gildea

    Dakota,

    I forwarded your article to my son 19 year old son who is struggling with what to do with his life. Karl your comment about "work to live" is exactly what I told him. Thank you both for helping to inspire me and hopefully inspire my son to pursue what makes him happy.

  13. M Kealy

    Fabulous post, Dakota. Thought-provoking. Too many come to these conclusions too late in life. And many avoid the "struggles' that can make life truly meaningful.

  14. David

    I wish I could have gotten that Karl advice when I was 19. I finally got there but had to go through a decade of beating my head against the proverbial wall. Mad respect for Dakota pursuing his true interest, and I get that "dominance" is not his thing…but can't help think about Scott Jurek. He's not the fastest (certainly by today's standards) or the most talented, but he won WS100 7 years in a row. To me that's one of the most impressive achievements of all time in this sport. To just finish that race 7 years in a row is impressive, but to come back and win year after year (even against so so competition) through all the highs and lows is pretty damn amazing. Well that's just my take anyway.

  15. James

    Brilliant, inspiring, fun to read and human, as always. Keep up the good work and best of luck in all your endeavors.

  16. marco

    "That’s really all I have to say. Find the goals that are worth trying for. Believe that you can accomplish them, and don’t get discouraged when you fail a thousand times. With enough passion and persistence, you will become better and achieve those goals. Beyond all else, don’t let anyone else dictate the way you view the world. If you believe in your goal, you should also believe in its superiority to other pursuits that want to use your time and energy. Make choices and stick to them. Believe in yourself. You can do anything you set your mind to.

    Amen!

  17. Matt Widzer

    Might be shocking to some, but this seems to be the racing paradigm for most age group/amateur competitors. Welcome to the club Dakota!

  18. James Brennan

    "But trying to improve is difficult." Great way to put it. Very astute observations on what makes you and many other great ultrarunners tick. The reason you guys submit yourself to very challenging races and courses is to find out what your strengths are and more importantly find out the weaknesses that may be latent in our ever so seemingly soft society.

  19. d'Jo D'lig

    Well expressed and very understandable point of view but reading between the lines sounds like some kind of fear of not improving all the time, never being happy with what you got. That's OK but dangerous I believe… When you get older, you may run out of goals or bring them to a limit where you put your life at risk. In nearly all sports athletes repeat competitions and they do not always win after a victory. Must be good to learn how to loose too ! (Why is Federer still playing tennis, don't think he needs the money…) There may be fans that would have liked to see you again in La Palma confirming who and what you are… But RESPECT !

Post Your Thoughts