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.

There are 32 comments

  1. Shelby

    “You totally don’t have skinny legs” – My sentiment exactly after seeing that snap of you going up the flatirons…Geez! Even if your running is "useless" your writing certainly isn't.

    Looking forward to hearing what you have in the hopper in the coming months, Prez.

  2. Pez

    thanks for sharing Dakota.

    I live in UK, I have family, full time job & i manage to run ultras from time to time. i love running & i hate my job. every day i look forward to running in mud, in dark, in rain, does not matter, run.

    you are lucky Dakota it is not "just running"


  3. Spope

    People with the full-time job and the ability to run this demanding sport gather all aspects of respect from me. I feel it is necessary too live simple, free… and run as much as you please, But the hard working American that comes out at 5:00 clock on a "off day" saturday to run a distance to some is "too far to drive" is the true spirit of ultra running. This sport was not meant to be professional, yet a constant challenge to everyone's mind, body and soul inorder to better themselves. The man who stayed up all night as a "on call" Ambulance driver, then finished his first 50 mile the next day is as much as a hero and inspiration than the man who came in first and won 1000 bucks.

  4. Jason C

    The age old existential quest for the meaning of life. Who am I? What am I? Why am I? The answer is simple; you just are. Makes me want to go for a run in the woods except this damn day job thing keeps getting in the way… Nice post

  5. Russell

    Well put. I believe one Mr. Gordy Ansleigh feels exactly the same way.

    Although with you guys, inspiring others to run (and thus growing the whole fitness/outdoor industry) is a pretty productive full-time job.

  6. Ed Poppiti

    If you haven't done so already, you should read "Kiss Or Kill: Confessions of a Serial Climber" by Mark Twight. Go train with him for a week or so, "it doesn't have to be fun, to be fun".

  7. Tony

    While I may not always "get" you your writing talent is immense. I wish I could write half as well as you. Even those posts that have left me scratching my head were entertaining and enjoyable to read. There has to be some extra cash flow there….

  8. Jason

    Nice post Dakota! Hey, the feeling of success at running is addicting and kinda fleeting. I was just as psyched with my first marathon (3:35) as I was when I broke '3'. I was more excited when I ran my first Ultra (50k with 8000+') than when I ran an easy training 50k this year and came away with second. Third place at Cascade Crest 100 felt great this year, but it wasn't the position or the time that excited me as much as the fact that I ran a good race and stayed strong mentally all the way through.

    I feel like if I didn't have a job and three kids etc, I could spend more time training on the terrain that I need to in order to compete at the front with the best. But I doubt I would feel any more fulfilled, most likely less. I'd love to get paid to run, the opportunity to spend all my time on one mountain adventure or another is amazing, but perhaps not the panacea of happiness that many of us imagine (again, thinking balance). The grass is always greener right? The fact that many of us are stuck behind a desk at work, and come home to the pandamonium of a fleet of kids (awesome also btw!) makes the long training run or a successful race that much sweeter! What an opportunity though.. perfect way to spend you're 20's ;)

    1. Shelby

      Well put, Jason. As a desk jockey and mom of two little ones, there is special joy in having a great race and also in finding fulfillment in more than just mountain running. The balance is tough though, isn't it?!

  9. Myles

    Just last night I was explaining to my girlfriend, that I have not ran the trails outside my house in over one month and that I feel like the "world is going to end". I have raced 126 miles in two states during that time over three races, yet it still feels like I have not been running, because I simply do not go outside my door. Instead after work I have been digging a trench and building a necessary shed for my home at mile 56 of the WS trail. Life is rough (not really), balance is harder. Congratulations Dakota on reaching your full poverty potential…..much deserved praise to you!

  10. Morgan Williams


    Good to know that you love Conquistadors. It's my favourite mountain book too, not least because I know and love many of the Alpine mountains that Terray climbed and worked in and on.

    For many years, the perceived wisdom was that Terray didn't write the book but that it was ghosted. Many believed that Lionel was too simple a man to have delivered such a classic work.

    That myth was exploded by David Roberts when researching his own book about the 1950 Annapurna expedition. Granted access to the old Terray home by his widow, he discovered the original manuscript of Conquistadors and the handwriting was indubitably that of Terray.

    I've said it before, but I'll say it again; keep on writing. It is great stuff.

  11. Jill Homer (@AlaskaJ

    I've been quoting this book far too much recently, but I think it addresses a lot of the cultural and individual dissonance often felt by those who might consider themselves "Conquistadors of the Useless." If you haven't yet read "Flow" by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, I recommend it. Because when you look at life from a purely objective standpoint, only a tiny fraction of what we do has any bearing on the future, if that. Therefore, everything we do is only as meaningful as it is to the individual doing so.

    “It is when we act freely, for the sake of the action itself rather than for ulterior motives, that we learn to become more than what we were. When we choose a goal and invest ourselves in it to the limits of concentration, whatever we do will be enjoyable. And once we have tasted this joy, we will redouble our efforts to taste it again. This is the way the self grows.” — Csikszentmihalyi

  12. Jimmy Mac

    It's funny, I have a wonderful life: the love of a great woman and her annoying cat, the love and respect of (most of) my family, a job I love (teaching pre-school, which is as frustrating as it is rewarding), many great friends (that don't run and think what I do is extraordinary, if only they really knew); but for some dumb reason I would trade it all in to be an elite runner- it's probably my deep-seated insecurities of never being a great (or even good) athlete that want me to be photographed doing epic shit on muddy trails in front of the pack that would make me think this way.

    Then I remember I'm pretty good at "life" and being a solid mid-to-back-of-the-pack runner might be all I'm capable of in this sport and to focus on my relationships and the things right in front of me instead of being awesome at ultras. Average (to slightly below average) is "good enough" for me.

  13. MikeC AK

    I have a "real job", mortgage, dog, bills, girlfriend…and just turned 30. My thoughts.

    -I wish I'd spent more time in my 20s doing useless things.

    -Coworkers do not understand backcountry running/skiing/climbing… and anoint you 'crazy'

    -Corporate America materialism rubs off on you, no matter how much you resist

    -Health insurance is pretty awesome.

  14. Omer

    I spent 8yrs at a professional cyclist and now work as a Sports Director for a team in the US. Pro Cyclists and Pro Runners are a similar breed, endurance sport/not paid well/travel travel travel/down time in the winter….

    Here are my thoughts on feeling better about what you do and how to spend your off time being mentally productive. I struggled with similar feelings in the last few years of my racing career, it ended when I broke my hip in a crash. Talk about having some time to sit and think.

    First, VOLUNTEER!! Do something with kids involving running or reading. Show them running is fun and you can get paid to do it. To a kid, anyone with a weird job especially one where they get to run around outside is super cool. Second, get a part time job, even unpaid job. Do something everyday that reminds you that the real world sucks. This will help you never take for granted what you are doing with your life. Third, this is easy in your case, write down your feelings and experiences. Nothing is better than reading about the athletic suffering of others and once you decide to hang up the shoes professionally, you might have a best seller on your hands.

    Hope that helps a bit from someone that has been there. Enjoy the time you have to do this "job". It wont last forever.

    1. Tom

      Love this: "Do something everyday that reminds you that the real world sucks". Do what you love, you've got the rest of your life to spend all your daylight hours at a desk.

  15. Andrea

    I have a ft job, kids, LOTS of responsibilities and obligations outside of running…I suppose it gives me "perspective" but being able to keep your life uncomplicated is priceless and all the tasks/activities outside of running that produce this "perspective" can be quite overwhelming. Enjoy this unique season of your life!

  16. David

    The grass is always greener Dakota. If you had a big job, family, obligations, etc. you would long for the days when you were free and could just run. As others have said, enjoy this time – it won't last. And keep polishing your writing skills, that is where your real vocation may likely be found.

  17. Bryon Powell

    While certainly no time in ones life "lasts" forever, there's no need for one ever to have a "real job," family, mortgage, etc. nor to be tied to anything they don't consciously wish to be tied to.

    I am personally driven to work by my passion, so I tend not to be a carefree spirit (nor as carefree as I might like), but I could be anywhere, move anywhere, pursue anything I wish to tomorrow. I said good riddance to my "real job" and my mortgage. I say no thank you to kids. I embrace an unconventional life full of work and freedom. Both make me happy. The path I've chosen is not better than the standard path, but it's no worse. It's also open to nearly everyone (reading this) who wants to take it. :-)

    Dakota, that's a long way of saying, there are many roads out there you can take. Choose the one that feels right at the time.

  18. Alexp.

    Running uphill, downhill, uphill, downhill and then uphill and downhill again.

    Running long, short, intervall in the stadium, escaping for the same reason on the mountain.

    Running in the snow, in mud, in rain and then in mud again.

    Coming back at home and feeling wonderful (is this fullfilled?) as I meet my family (my wife and my 2 kids). Well, running is true, although not 100% honest( it takes weeks-months to improve your fitness and a few days without training to start feelling rosted) and when combined/balanced with family and job creates a great condition for enjoying the 24hours I spend living a day. Do not let family, job and running fight each other, find your own balance.

    Bravo Dakota!

  19. CJ

    Young grasshopper, eventually you'll find that running in and of itself is pointless when looking at the big picture, death and eternity. Fun and exhilarating, yes. But there has to be something greater that we give our lives to.

  20. Marc

    Perfectly said Bryon!

    I believe that having the ability to pause from one's "cycle" to ask the questions Dakota is raising to himself is a skill in itself that many of us do not afford the time to do often enough. However, it can also be a crippling exercise if too much time goes by where action is not taken.

    Where Dakota looks to be more than "just a runner", which I wish he knew he was, I find myself wondering how to de-clutter my life to become more of "just a runner" as a young professional on the opposite end of the spectrum. There is no doubt that most will say it is healthier to live in a balanced manner, but who is to say that what is healthy and what is not healthy.

    Just as Bryon said, choose the path the feels right at the time. That will lead you to your next fork in the road where another decision is needed. Eventually you will find yourself exactly where you are supposed to be, even if there are several wrong turns along the way. And, there will be wrong turns, but those wrong turns help us build character and shape us into the people we are.

    Great post Dakota, "Just a Runner" who has inspired thousands and thousands of people through your running and writing.

  21. CarlosNL

    Hi Dakota and everyone else.
    I'm from Spain. I must say that it's one of my favorites articles. These words will do that many people understood how a runner like you feels himself when dedicate much time to his passion. It become a obsession and you need break with your cycle in order to restart one of the main things in life: to spend time in the montains. You must remember the freedom that you are be able to feel running by the wild. Running is the great way to view all this beauty. It's fine to know you're human being. We will be waiting you the next year here in Spain and also all my colleages.

  22. Robin

    For the reasons you state, I have such difficulty hanging out before and after ultras with other runners. I run and man oh man do I LOVE to run, but I don't have to spend hours talking about it with others. I have a family, job, and quite a few other interests too. I think often the perspective is lost by participants who can't understand why this 50 mile race is the ONLY race I have chosen to do this month. In any activity people do, those who are caught up in it can become obsessed and frankly come across as elitists.

    Dakota, the point you make resonates with many as it brings the question of why the hell do we do this into the forefront of people's minds.

Post Your Thoughts