This past Tuesday night on his way home from work, Arizona ultrarunning legend Dennis Poolheco was involved in an automobile accident. He passed away as a result of the injuries sustained in it. He was 53 years old.
I first met Dennis in 1996 when I was taking up trail running. I had recently moved to Phoenix, Arizona and had spent much of that long, hot summer exploring the extraordinary trails surrounding the city in such places as South Mountain Park, Squaw Peak, McDowell Mountain Park, and Shaw Butte. That fall, while running the Christensen Trail I crossed paths with Dennis and we ran together for a bit.
Almost immediately, in addition to being struck by his efficient stride, effortless style, and chiseled legs, I became aware of his deep sense of calm. With the lilt in his voice characteristic of long-time residents of the American Southwest, Dennis shared with me during that first run little nuggets of wisdom about the local trails and some of the races that were part of the close-knit, active, trail running community in the Valley of the Sun. When we got back to our cars at Dreamy Draw Park, we made plans to run again the following weekend.
And so began a new running friendship forged completely on the trails. Over the next few years, Dennis and I would train together dozens of times, often choosing new and interesting routes and always delving into thoughtful and sometimes deep conversations. Dennis was a proud Hopi. And, while he had left the reservation years before to live in Phoenix, his heart remained in his homeland and he returned there often to visit family and run. In fact, as his ultrarunning career evolved, he did several self-supported, long-distance runs across the reservation to raise awareness for the plight of his homeland and to inspire others to maintain the running legacy of the Hopi.
Beginning in 1998, Dennis started to compete in ultras, running the now-defunct Crown King 50 Mile in 1998 and 1999 before jumping into the Leadville Trail 100 Mile later that year as his first 100 miler in which he finished fifth. A mainstay on the Arizona ultraunning circuit and an early member of the Montrail Patagonia Ultrarunning Team, Dennis had great successes at the Zane Grey 50 Mile, Phoenix National Trail 50 Mile, and Old Pueblo 50 Mile, as well as additional 100-mile finishes at Leadville, Javelina, and Hardrock. Yet, through all of this, Dennis found his true calling at a little quirky race staged in the high desert outside Prescott, Arizona, the Man Against Horse 50 Mile. Running it five times, Dennis won it four of those times and finished second only once in his last race there in 2005 to long-time friend and Arizona stalwart Paul Bonnett. Something about competing with the horses in the rugged mountains and arroyos of the high desert spoke to Dennis. Perhaps it was that primal connection to nature that ran so deep in him that inspired him to run with the horses so hard and fast? Or, perhaps he simply loved a transcendent challenge?
For me, what I will remember most about Dennis, or Danny as his family calls him, is his tremendous inner strength. While there was never any doubt as to his physical strength, which was made clear to me every time he powered ahead of me on a hot, desert mountain, it was his spiritual strength–his inner centeredness–that made a lasting impression on me and which I will never forget.
AJW’s Beer of the Week
Out of respect for Dennis, his family, and his culture, there will be no beer of the week this week.
Call for Comments (from Meghan)
Would anyone like to share thoughts, stories, or memories about Dennis? It would be great to create a small collection of memories in the comments section of this article.