A Thank You Letter

In order to graduate from Durango High School in Durango, Colorado, every student must complete a Senior Portfolio (SP). The SP is a project to showcase each student’s work in high school and talk about their goals for the world ahead. Since each student can produce quite a bit of work in four years of high school, and also since life’s prospects at graduation are so vast, the SP ultimately becomes a rather large file, comprised of multiple pieces. When finished, it’s actually a pretty honest summary of one’s life up to the age of 18. And to my shame, that’s especially true of mine.

My entire goal when creating my own Senior Portfolio way back in ’09 was to be as flippant as possible while still getting a passing grade. To that end I wrote about how to get drunk at high-school parties and included some of my most embarrassing assignments from classes (like the speech I gave about how to teach someone to teach someone else to ballroom dance.) For a piece about looking ahead I wrote that I’d like to be either a sailor, an intentionally vague “professional,” or a peregrine falcon. One of the required pieces was a thank-you letter to someone who had affected my life positively. I thought long about to whom I should write this letter. My parents, of course, had been hugely influential, as had a whole host of teachers and coaches who had supported me growing up. In the end, I wrote the letter to the band Panic! At The Disco. They had just released their second album and it was so drastically different from their first that it constituted a complete shift of genre. This was not appreciated by the public and the album received poor reviews and saw a fraction of the sales of their debut, but I applauded their courage in following their artistic vision, whether or not it aligned with industry expectations.

Now that I have embarked on my own “career” and, to my great dismay, unintentionally lived up to one of my Senior Project’s projections (if you can call living in my car/friend’s houses/parent’s house and making somewhat less than a living wage a “professional”) I keep Panic!’s inspiring move in the back of my mind. Each year I have to decide which races I want to do and how I want to prepare for them. Because I’m also interested in climbing and big mountains, I also make a point to include one or two non-racing adventures each year as well. Though my races are in the mountains, the training doesn’t necessarily lend itself to both racing and adventuring, as I guess I’ll call it, at the same time. The balance between the two has proven difficult to master, and for me at least the scale has often tipped in favor of racing. That’s probably because racing offers a much clearer structure than just going out in the mountains, with much more obvious and relatable results, and despite my cultivated image of carefree youthful opportunism (?) I’m actually a pretty structured person. So I’m a “runner,” not a “climber,” and each year my skill set becomes a little more specific.

This worries me, so, like Panic! At The Disco, I have done my best to take not just the prescribed runner’s path (race race race) but to also follow my artistic bent (climb camp adventure.) And, also like Panic! At The Disco, this has resulted in several years of sub-par results. I’m proud of the things I’ve done over the past few years, but it’s as hard to put that stuff on paper as it is to clarify the similar qualities between two very different types of music. Yet structured I am, and I crave clear results of my efforts.

I’m lucky to travel a lot. Last year I spent nearly six months out of the country on various projects both racing and adventuring. But when I’m home, that home is still Durango, where I went to high school and learned to run in the mountains. These days, however, much of my training consists not of long-distance mountain runs but of back-and-forth interval workouts on dirt roads. Because of the structure of these workouts, I need long stretches of consistent uphill gradients, which are not as common as you might think. I have found two good dirt roads for this in Durango, and one in particular stands out. Over the course of multiple training cycles I keep returning several times per week to the same place to do the same workouts, which creates a consistency that can be maddening at times. But they’re effective.

My coach Jason Koop finds two or three workouts that drill a particular energy system (such as lactate threshold) and makes me pound the shit of those workouts in order to increase my physical capacity. Thus, in just a short time I come to recognize certain landmarks on the road that indicate time intervals for each workout. If I’m running 12-minute intervals, I know that this rock or that tree means I have about a minute left. For 15-minute intervals I know where my 12-minute intervals ended, meaning I have about three minutes left when I reach that spot. My points of reference extend for miles up these roads, far away from the city and well into the backcountry where the trees sway in the chill wind and crows crawk at me from high above. The colors mix and blend with each pounding step uphill, but the strain of each interval increases the clarity of the world between them. For five to seven minutes between each burst of energy I jog downhill at a relaxed pace, and that’s when I’m most observant. I can see the striking contours of the distant foothills leading up to the high peaks, with their swatches of pines and aspens absorbing and reflecting the light; the uniform singularity of each indistinct tree around me; the branching complexity of the aspens, with their scarred trunks and quivering leaves. Game trails enter the road and leave it. Clouds whisper through the sky in so many formations that I can’t believe people have come up with names for them all. Even the ruts in the road stand out, each rock and patch of mud or gravel define my invisible path up the mountain. Countless workouts blend together into a blurred tableau of intense effort and cool air and rich color. Thus, the details that remain are timeless.

In two years I have watched the same individual aspens change from bare to bright green to quaking summer green to bright yellow and orange and then back to bare. I can recognize the markings on their trunks. I know where bird’s nests are and I’ve seen them inhabited and abandoned. I’ve seen actual game on actual game trails. I know where I have taken bathroom stops. I can tell you at exactly which landmarks the road switchbacks up the mountainside, or dips into a creek. People driving up the road slow or stop in predictable places. I don’t need sunglasses until the third interval usually, but that’s only if I don’t get out before 8:00 a.m. And I can recognize the place where I once sat down in defeat and gave up on a workout after it had only just begun.

This intimate knowledge of what really amounts to only about 10 miles of road is satisfying on a deep level. But the lack of variety is also frustrating in its inherent uniformity. My feelings toward this road mirror my internal battle between race and adventure, structure and unpredictability. I love that I know this road and its every twist and turn. I love knowing that I can get exactly the workout I need here and never have to stress about training. But I chafe at exactly that same knowledge. I crave the unknown; I long for something new around the next corner. This wanderlust has taken me in just the last two years to exotic places the world over. But I have little to show for that besides a bunch of journal entries and some memories. The part of me that craves structure feels disappointed in the lack of quantifiable results, but I know truthfully that these memories and the lessons learned from them are the only currency that carries weight indefinitely. Even if this value only exists in my own head, it’s still real enough to make it worthwhile.

I can’t speak for Panic! At The Disco, but I certainly hope they don’t regret their second album. It’s really good, even if it didn’t sell all that well. Lately they’ve returned to something more resembling their original sound and have seen more success. I guess I’m kind of doing the same thing. By focusing on running up that same road for months I hope to prepare myself properly for my racing schedule–possibly the first time I have really done so in the last three years. In theory, such discipline will provide me the strength and focus to really do well. And if I can do that, maybe I’ll reward myself by embarking soon after the race on an unscripted, un-trained-for adventure into some distant wildland.

And now that that’s wrapped up all nice and tidy, I should do what I was supposed to do six years ago and mention that the biggest thing to be thankful for is the luxury to consider such options at all. I have an absurd amount of freedom to choose what I wish to do and how to do it. The support I receive from my family, friends, and sponsors is how I’m able to enjoy such extravagance. So if at all possible I should say a late but nevertheless heartfelt thank you to all the people who have taken care of me and given me these opportunities over the years. I’m only able to do whatever it is I do because of help from others. To all my friends, family, and benefactors out there–and I mean this as broadly as possible–thanks for everything. I wouldn’t be here without you.

Perhaps the best way to show my gratitude is to make the most of the opportunities I am given. So if you need me, I’ll be out training.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • How does the adult version of you compare to who you thought you would become when you were younger?
  • Who and what have helped shape the person you have become?
  • How often do you find yourself torn between doing what you want versus doing what you “should” be doing?

There are 20 comments

  1. davidsu72

    Running to prepare for a running race? That's crazy talk!

    See you at T-Rad this August. I hope your aid station bartenders have been training as hard as you!

  2. Shelby

    Well Prez, your season has started with a win (right?), so you seem to be on the right track if racing is the focus. You'll get back to those adventures soon enough, I'm sure. Good luck this season. Hope to see ya in Silverton this summer.

  3. vancleave75

    If there were to be a mountain running version of John L. Parker Jr's "Once a Runner," it should be written by you, Dakota. You do such a great job capturing the phenomenology of a runner. And given the great authors I've heard you mention before (DFW, DJD), I think you could give "Once a Runner" a run for its money.

  4. ripvanracer

    I also have a love/hate relationship with "the road" but it goes back 35 years. "The road" is the country road by our high school that we ran out and back on about 75% of our road runs. Of course the local road race (4 or 6 miles) was an out and back on "the road". I still live in town and often run "the road" but usually run a loop instead of an out and back. Even now the local road race (a 5k of course) still runs out and back on "the road". I keep hoping one year someone will get the idea to design a new course but until that happens, I use my knowledge to pass a few people in the last mile who don't know "the road" as well as I do.

  5. astroyam

    Great post as usual.
    I've sometimes wondered at the need for that perfect grade in all intervals sessions. Would it not make sense to do some intervals on a steeper grade? This would inject some variety into the training because you can do it on fun mountain trails, as long as they're not too technical. You can still dial in the LT effort precisely, and many of the races do involve steeper grades (UTMB??), so you get some specific adaptation.
    I know you need to train the pace/cadence a lot, but it seems like some steeper intervals makes sense. Maybe some coaches or other runners out there can comment?

    1. @SageCanaday

      Depends on the race you are training for of course. With a very specific grade like Mt. Washington for example you dial into the 12% exactly and it seems to really help, although reps at 15% and 10% grade also seemed to be of huge benefit (esp. on a treadmill as that is a runnable surface/road race). The heart and lungs don't know the difference of running 6min mile pace on a flat track or 15min mile pace up a mountain at altitude (for both efforts you could be at 95% max HR)….but the legs/tendons and muscles sure know the difference! The changes in stride length, stride cadence and how you utilize muscular force is a very specific demand/training adaptation and so changing any of there variables very slightly can induce a different stimulus in building Running Economy. In my opinion I'd say the range would be 6% to 18% grade (still runnable but still very uphill)…but then it depends on the dynamics of the workout (i.e. interval/reps or Tempo run duration, relative velocity), and strengths/weaknesses of the athlete as well as their experience. Just my thoughts.

      1. astroyam

        Thanks Sage. That range 6-18% range is wide enough to cover most races. Suppose you are training for a race with a long steeper grade, say HR or UTMB (not my case, but maybe some shorter ones) would it make sense to do some tempo/ints at a race specific angle, say 25%? Specificity has to be a key factor, IMO.

        1. @SageCanaday

          I've only been on small parts of the UTMB and HR courses..I think (and granted I haven't done 100 miles yet!) that "speed intervals" would be much less of a focus when gearing up for an extreme race like HR as there is a lot of power-hiking that one would be reduced to there!

          For UTMB (and someone can correct me if I'm wrong) I actually don't think there are too many sections of sustained 25% or more grade…it is a more "runnable" race when compared to HR.

          Of course for a longer ultra (say 100km or more) with grades hitting 25% a runner is likely going to have to pace themselves quite a bit during the race. This means they are almost certainly powerhiking at this steep grade (I know I would be for a longer race).

          So if one was doing intervals at over 25% grade they would likely be practicing powerhiking (and a hard powerhike can get the heart rate up..esp at altitude!). The neuromuscular stimulus is the important part there as proper mechanics. Terrain is another key factor…is this in snow?, on rocks?…are there steps or is it a smooth road/treadmill/dirt path?

          But in general, the intervals/speed work/tempo runs on more runnable grades (6-18%) can probably induce a more steady heart rate/breathing rate (as well as lactate concentrations which is important if targeting the the lactate threshold ) while working on actual running mechanics faster than ultra race pace velocity. The muscle tension and heart/lung power required to run fairly hard/fast uphill is going to translate to better running economy around that grade and (most likely) at ultra-race pace.

          Plugging in tons of vert. and practicing powerhiking up grades over 25% grade to prepare for mountain races can be done on "easier" mileage days!

    2. @RunnerMarcRuns

      At least in my experience (as a runner in a flat area of the midwest), the biggest problem not finding hills of the right grade, but the right length. From what I read, it seems Dakota may be having a similar problem, or, even if a dearth of suitable routes isn't the problem, it may be that these are just more conducive to training, or even more accessible on a regular basis.

      1. astroyam

        Yeah I imagine it's pretty hard in the Midwest… In mountain towns like Durango (and here in Boulder where I live), it can also be tricky to find long low (6-12%) angles, but the steeper ones are abundant. I don't know about the immediate Durango area, but within about an hour there are plenty. You can find 2k-4k vert steep trails in abundance in the San Juans. Admittedly the angle isn't 100% constant, but there are certainly some decent consistent grades.

  6. senelly

    Thank you D. I feel great know in you are suffering on that hill right now. It makes my paltry training seem nice n' easy. Here are two things you probably know very well: 1) intervals are the rests between running repeats… and working on reducing interval times to allow your hear rate to return to normal is called "interval training". 2) while doing uphill repeats is good, so is doing them downhill, which causes eccentric contractions… you know, the ones that can kill quads.

  7. JuliaMillon

    I also graduated HS in 08 and I bought that album when it came out. Still plays in my car on the way to the mountains sometimes.
    It's a freakin work of art.

  8. hopi808

    Dakota ! great post man , relate well to your love it hate it relationship with the same terrain . You deserve a grammy for this piece alohas from OZ

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