Dakota Jones talks about the virtues of intervals and hard work for ultrarunners.

By on October 30, 2013 | Comments

Is money ruining ultrarunning? Probably. I’ll leave that up to the old guard to discuss. What I’m talking about is one effect of the growth of our sport–the raised level of competition. What once was a sport with just a few top runners now hosts dozens of fast men and women at major races all over the globe. The influx of competition has paralleled the rise in popularity of the sport. The bottom line: ultrarunning is no longer just a bunch of hairy dudes running in the mountains. It’s a legitimate sport that supports some of the world’s best athletes.

As someone trying to compete in this cutthroat world of long-distance stardom, I find myself always seeking out new avenues to improve as an athlete. And after trying every shortcut that Men’s Health magazine could throw at me, I decided to start actually training. And it worked, unfortunately, which meant I would have to continue working hard if I wanted to do well. So for the past two years, I have trained like a real athlete and have seen a steady improvement in my abilities since then. The takeaway? Hard work helps you get faster. Damn.

Anyway, after five years of serious ultrarunning, if you’ll allow me to indulge myself a bit, I’m pretty solid on the running-a-long-way part. I can generally go 50 or 60 miles in a push if I want to. I seldom do, since I save those efforts for the races. But in general terms, I have the strength and endurance on most days to run for many hours. That doesn’t mean that training isn’t important, but it does shape the way my training is structured. Generally I will do longer training runs early in the season, then shorten and sharpen them up as the season progresses. This is part of something I do called a ‘training plan’, which uses ‘science’ to make me ‘better’. And you know where it all came from? A coach.

Before I had a coach, I had the general idea that training involved long runs, speedwork, hill work, cross training, stretching… other stuff. It was all so vague. I ran a lot and sometimes fast and competed enough that I improved quickly. But by the end of 2011, I realized that to continue to improve, I would need help. I couldn’t just ‘wing it’ anymore.

Fortunately, at that point, Jason Koop reached out to me. Jason works at Carmichael Training Systems in Colorado Springs and is actually a much more accomplished ultrarunner than myself. Just last year he ran Hardrock, Leadville, and Wasatch, placing well in all three. The upside to this is that he knows what he is talking about. He understands the sport of ultrarunning, which is absolutely essential in a coach. Couple that understanding with a massive knowledge of the science of training as well as more than 10 years of experience with some pretty impressive athletes (like Dean Karnazes), and he is clearly the best coach EVER. I’ll fight you if you disagree.

Working with Jason gave me the structure and logic to my training that I had lacked in the past. He coached me to a level of ability that allowed me to win the Lake Sonoma 50 and Transvulcania last year, then run an hour and a half faster at Hardrock than I had the previous year. He knew how to train me, our personalities matched, and things lined up.

But you know what he makes me do? Intervals. Lots and lots of intervals. We started out last year with 5 x 4-minute intervals, and depending on the race for which I am training, those have fluctuated up to 4 x 12 minutes, 4 x 20 minutes, and even a few 2 x 30-minute intervals. Each type of interval works different aerobic systems for different purposes, but they all share one thing in common: they rock my world. No longer is ‘training’ just a bunch of long running in the mountains. Nowadays, more often than not, I find myself sprinting at absolute aerobic capacity up dirt or paved roads, pacing myself by time and effort. Sometimes I’m inspired, sometimes I’m destroyed, but at the end of every set, I am always proud of myself. The structure of training allows me to work really hard at the times that matter and relax the rest of the time, knowing that I really am doing all that I need to be a better athlete.

(Just kidding. I can’t ever relax. I’m always on edge, freaking out, panicking that I could/should be doing something MORE to be fasterfasterfaster!)

Several years ago, another competitive ultrarunner told me he isn’t interested in doing intervals or cross training. “That’s not why I run, man,” he said. “I don’t enjoy that.” I didn’t have much of a response because his attitude makes sense. If you don’t enjoy something, don’t do it. And if you are a mountain runner only because you love to run in the mountains, why pollute that experience with road intervals?

Yet I continue to run intervals, and I won’t stop anytime soon. Although, sure, I would prefer to run in the mountains, I know that doing intervals will make me faster. My goal is to be the strongest, fastest, best mountain runner in the sport. Sure, I’m still a long way off, but that’s the goal, and I know that doing intervals will give me the aerobic ability to compete on the high level at which ultramarathons are regularly run these days. Interspersing my long mountain runs with focused intervals three times a week undoubtedly makes me faster, and that’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for the overall goal.

And you know what? I like the intervals, too. I don’t just suffer through them in order to be faster on race day; in a certain way, they are some of the most rewarding runs I do. Few other workouts provide the empirical structure that allows me to gauge my ability like intervals do, and rarely elsewhere do I get the amazing sense of accomplishment that intervals provide. By doing intervals, I know that I am making myself better within the confines of the sport which I have chosen. Everything else in my life seems so ambiguous; intervals are objective.

What’s it like? Nose running, spit flying, my vision almost eclipsing, I can feel my heartbeat in my throat. I pump my legs as hard as possible. They feel heavy, thick, swollen. Only the balls of my feet touch the road and as the incline steepens my steps seem to make no progress at all. I can feel the parts of my body that aren’t getting enough blood, like my hands growing colder, and I can feel the invigoration of oxygen in each breath. Everything in my body depending upon everything else, and I’m dying, man. This is it, I cannot keep this up but I have two more minutes and how can I go on?

I don’t know. Just don’t stop. I usually imagine Rob Krar catching up behind me and that makes me push a little bit harder. When the interval finally ends, I maintain a jogging pace that is little more than moving up and down on my toes. Eventually I recover enough to jog slowly downhill. And after just a few minutes, I turn around and do it all again. And it hurts just as bad.

But I’m young and strong and getting better with each step. The competition drives me to be the best that I can be. Hopefully that inspiration will carry me through my training and well into the next race. I like seeing our sport advance; the growth allows everyone to progress as individual runners. And even if I have to forsake the sanctity of the mountains for the crush of the road, I’ll do it to improve, to grow, to be better.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you do intervals?
  • Do you loathe them as much as you love them?
  • Can you tell if they make you a faster, stronger runner?
Dakota Jones
Dakota Jones explores the wild places of the world on foot and tells us about it every few weeks. He runs for Salomon and Clif Bar.