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.