Out of the Ordinary: An Interview with Dave James

An in-depth interview with American ultrarunner Dave James.

By on June 24, 2013 | Comments

Run TrampIt’s hard not to be impressed with Dave James. The guy is two-time reigning US 100-mile champion, two-time reigning Coastal Challenge Costa Rica champion, and a winner of numerous ultras over multiple distances. All that’s pretty good but, for me at least, it’s nothing compared to Dave’s greatest gift: his indomitable spirit in the face of adversity and, simply, the fun that he exudes whilst being him. He’s currently midway through a Euro-feast-of-races, absorbing the skyrunning ethics and causing quite a stir with his bare-chested, minimalist antics. I got the chance for a long chat with a tapering Dave on the eve of the inaugural skyrunning 100-miler, Ronda del Cims. What transpired was an interview that was heartbreaking, funny, and inspiring, all at the same time.

Dave James - with Uncle Larry

Dave with Uncle Larry.

iRunFar: So, Dave, you grew up on the East Coast of the States right? How was that?

Dave James: Yeah, I grew up just north of NYC. My parents moved up there when I was two or three because they had a really good school system. It was horse-farm country, David Letterman, Paul Newman, Mariah Carey, everyone had their horse farms up there. We lived on the other side of the tracks, though! We got to go to the same school but we lived in a tiny little house.

iRunFar: What’s the name of the of the place?

James: It’s called North Salem. It was really cool. When I was a kid, I did the normal US-kid stuff. I played soccer, baseball, basketball, rode my bike a lot, and played outside.

iRunFar: Cool, it sounds like you were pretty into sports, even back then?

James: Yeah, but I wasn’t any good! I was decent enough growing up but I was usually one of the last guys picked when they picked sides at school for gym class. [laughs]

Dave James - with sisters and nanny

Dave with his sisters and nanny.

iRunFar: Awww, I know the feeling.

James: Yeah, but then I started to focus more on my studies. I wanted to be a doctor back then so I was studying really hard and doing all of my advanced-placement classes and then I went to college right out of high school. Straight to university.

iRunFar: Okay, so you didn’t take a break after high school?

James: No, I went straight into three years in Maryland. In the US, it’s general university studies, so it’s all pre-medical. I moved around a little. I did some psychology, some criminal justice, and a little work for the police department on the side.

iRunFar: So how did you get into that kind of work, Dave, the police-department job. And you also worked as security, right?

James: Yeah, that’s how I started. When I was 17, my uncle got me a summer job at one of the fancy beach clubs in New York and I was at the little gate house during the day and I’d walk around at night as a security guard. The next year they hired me directly – I was in college so it was a summer job. Then I would go back each summer and they would give me a promotion and finally, when I was about 20 or 21, they hired me full time. My grandma was getting kinda’ sick so I decided I would take a break from university. I didn’t do that well on the admission test for medical school. You know, I was almost ready to graduate but I hadn’t been accepted to medical school and there was a lot of, ‘What’ll I do with my life?’ stuff, so I just followed the offer for a well-paying job.

iRunFar: You weren’t really running at this point. Would I be right in saying that you had a more good-time university lifestyle?

James: I didn’t party a ton, but I was working a lot and studying a lot. The food choices at major American universities back then, they’ve gotten a bit better now, but back then it was fried food and McDonalds. I wasn’t working out as much as I was in high school, either. I wasn’t active. I mean, I would try and go to the gym and lift some weights but it would be, like, a couple of days a week. So I had taken a lot of the muscle mass that I had in high school and turned it into fat. I hated running. They made us do it, the President’s physical fitness mile challenge. You had to run a mile and your gym teacher would time you. I hated it! [laughs]

iRunFar: Haha, so, Dave, do you remember what your time was?

James: No, all I remember is that there were a couple of girls in the class who would beat me, some of the soccer players. [laughs] I don’t know, it was probably around eight or nine minutes. It was pretty slow. [laughs]

iRunFar: Cool. Okay, you decided to take a break from your studies and work full time in the club. When was this; what year?

James: It was ’99 or 2000. It was a beach club, we were busier in the summertime, but they had a restaurant and we did a lot of parties like weddings and stuff. I started working with the food-and-beverage department and started to help cater some things. I worked first as a waiter and then worked my way up and they gave me a manager position. It was a lot of hours but the people were great. It was a real family affair. The chef was amazing, too. I put on a little weight. [laughs] He was trained in classical French cooking.

iRunFar: I guess it’s easier to get into some bad habits when you’re working weird hours and being in that environment. You think that’s what happened?

James: Yeah, a normal day was starting at 8 and then, if it’s a busy night, you’d be there till 2 or 3 in the morning. There is not a lot of time for sleep and no time for exercise. You actually don’t feel like exercising when you’re in that industry.

iRunFar: Even though that may be the case, it was there that your big catalyst for change occurred, right? It was there that you started your journey into running. That’s where you met Jen?

James: Yeah, she was the financial controller at the country club where I worked and she thought I was a little punk because I was younger. You know, I would come in in the summer and I would have a quarter-of-a-million-dollar budget to spend, whereas she was trying to keep the club financially afloat. She thought a lot of the stuff that we did was unnecessary. We didn’t get along. We had a professional relationship that was full of strife. But we started hanging out, I guess it was after our staff party one summer night, and we hit it off and took it from there. We had to keep it really quiet, professionally, at work, because we were both management staff. So we kind of hid things the first half year or so.

iRunFar: Haha. When you first got it together it was like, ‘Yeah we’ve been fighting but I’ve always secretly fancied you’ kind of situation?

James: [laughs] Yeah, it was fun and tongue-in-cheek at the start but then we just started to enjoy each others company outside of work. My dad was really sick at the time and she asked me to take a look at myself in, you know, 20 years, and see how I wanted to live, if I wanted to be like my father, in and out of hospitals, heart attacks. So I started to take that seriously and decided I was going to lose some weight and get healthy.

iRunFar: And was she a runner?

James: No, she was just in phenomenal shape. She would go to the gym and work out and she would walk but she never ran. We used to travel a lot when we started living together and she would walk the half marathons in Disney and Miami, you know, ’cause she liked the warm weather, and I would run the marathon. We would finish about the same time, about three-and-a-half hours.

iRunFar: Cool, so talking about running now. You started to get into better shape?

James: Yeah, I was looking at it as a way to shed some weight and a good way to burn some calories. My sister was pretty athletic and she was in high school, softball and volleyball. So I was running with her at the start and could barely make it a mile! My sister would wait for me and encourage me. I kept it up and then, I think it was on New Year’s Eve, we entered this race in Central Park in Manhattan. It was a four-mile race at midnight. We went down, my sister and I, to do that. That was my first official race. It was cold but it was fun and I finished. It was such a really cool feeling that I kinda’ got hooked and signed up for some 5k races that spring. The progression went along, 5k, 10k, 15k…

iRunFar: And I guess you were seeing the results, too, not just your times but in your health and fitness?

James: Yeah, it was a natural progression. I’d lost probably about 70 pounds, but I was still a big guy, like 200 pounds, but I was winning the ‘clydesdale’ awards. They have these awards for the big runners, which I thought was really fun to win. Then I would start, because I was in my mid-20s and there was not a lot of runners in that age group in these small races, so I would start placing in my age group and get all these awards and medals and trophies. That was pretty fun. It was a good incentive to keep going, you know, once I had shed the weight, to keep doing for it for the awards.

iRunFar: Great. Do you remember when running started to become enjoyable rather than something to do just to get in shape? Did you get that feeling pretty early?

James: I guess it was fun when I was losing the weight, but I remember my first marathon was horrible. I remember my sister joined me for the last 5k and I told her, ‘Never let me do this again; it’s horrible!’ Three weeks later I ran the New York Marathon. I think it was around then, probably on my second marathon, after about nine months of running, that it became enjoyable. When I figured it out that my body was adapting and I got through the shin splints and all those beginner injuries that people get. But it continues to evolve and I continue to be amazed with the places I go, especially now, getting into trail running.

iRunFar: Back then it was pretty much all road running?

James: Yeah, I would do a little bit of trail running, like paved bike paths and some of the trails my parents took us to to hike. I would go there and run those but those are really mellow, easy trails.

iRunFar: This was when, Dave, 2000, 2001? You and Jen were pretty serious at that stage?

James: Yeah, we started dating in 2000/2001 and after a couple of years we moved in together. I had been living in my apartment and she had her house. She was going through a divorce and it became official and we thought that, for financial reasons, and we were getting on great, that it made sense to just pay one rent and mortgage. So I moved in with her. A couple of months later, we had this great news that she was pregnant. I totally wasn’t prepared for that and it was a life-changing moment to know that I was going to be a father.

So we came up with names and we were going to name the little guy Gary, after my uncle. It was pretty exciting times. And then one day we found out that Jen had had a miscarriage. It was pretty depressing and it was really hard for her. She was kind of really wanting that in her life because she never had kids in her first marriage. We went through that and we were getting back to life as just the two of us and then a couple of months later, it was my sister’s birthday in 2003, late August. We went to a concert and she got elbowed in the chest and she thought it was just a bruise, you know it just swelled up. But we went to some doctors and they finally came up with the diagnosis of breast cancer.

iRunFar: Wow. Obviously there was the treatment and care. It must have been an incredibly tough time?

James: Yeah. It all went really quick. It was August when she was diagnosed, so September the treatment started, chemotherapy, radiation treatment. The doctors were very helpful down in Yale, New Haven, great system. By Christmas time she had the surgeries, the mastectomies. I remember we were home from the surgery; it was Thanksgiving morning and her parents came. She recovered from the surgery really well and we had Christmas and she was feeling better. She would go for her follow-up chemotherapy that she had to do and her doctor was like, ‘Yeah, you guys can even go on vacation for a month.’ So we did that in January and just sat on the beach. She had no hair so she wore a little hat. There were some great memories.

iRunFar: Going through those things together, Dave, the miscarriage and the diagnosis and the treatment, that must have created an amazing bond between you two?

James: Oh yeah, I don’t think I have ever been closer with anyone in my life than those couple of months with her. I was still going to work on the weekends, to the restaurant. But then after we came back from Florida and found out that the cancer had spread to her brain and spinal cord, I put in my leave of absence from work and decided to become a full-time caregiver for her. I would still try and run each day if I could but that was just so I could provide support for her for the other 23 hours of the day, you know? We would just talk about everything, her fears, her hopes, her wishes. It becomes all-consuming, but in a good way.

iRunFar: It’s just incredible. I cannot begin to fathom how it must have been.

James: Yeah. Jen passed away on June 15, 2004. So it was the anniversary last week. It went really quick from the diagnosis that it had spread to when she took her last breath. It was maybe two months or less than two months. It was a very rapid onset of deterioration. I think there were only a couple of days where she could do the basic human functions when we had the visiting nurse in the house. She went to live with her mom at that point. It was a tough, tough time on everyone but, you know, it was June 15 and the next weekend school was out in New York and the kids were coming to the club and we did the whole ceremonies and buried her and I just dove into work and let myself get consumed with work. I was running everyday. I was running more and more because it was my only time to get release… [long pause] Sorry, I’m getting choked up, you caught me early in the morning here, Robbie.

iRunFar: Take as long as you need, for sure. Running must have helped you a lot during those times?

James: Yeah, especially after she passed away, because of the nature of my job, I had to put a smile on everyday and deal with members. It was vacation and they had come to the club to relax so I didn’t have any chance, other than when I’d go out for my run, to let the tears loose and go through the grieving that I needed to go through. Running became my chance to go out on the beach or wherever I was able to run then, let some tears loose, and then go back to work and, you know, do the right thing.

iRunFar: Wow. It was through grieving that you started running more, and also longer distances?

James: Without a doubt. It came to the point where, I remember even for my next vacation in 2005, the first one without her, ’cause we close the restaurant in January and February and I would have a couple of months off, I remember I didn’t want to go to the fancy places that we would go to. I wanted to go somewhere where I wouldn’t have any memories of her. So that’s how I stumbled into ultramarathons and trail running in Costa Rica ’cause I wanted to go off the the beaten path a little. So I could be out in nature and start fresh.

iRunFar: I want to ask, Dave, do you think when you started to run ultras and started to run more and more that friends and family worried about you? Worried about your well being?

James: I think some friends were wondering like, ‘Why the change?’ But people who knew me, they knew I had to go through a grieving process. I was going to all the typical support groups, seeing a psychologist, doing all that stuff also in addition to the running. And the mental-health professionals that I was seeing encouraged me to run. They were saying that it’s the best biochemically, to release the endorphins. You know, ‘Do it, do it, do it.’ I never really got that at the start, but people thought it was amazing that the human body could go out for four hours with nothing but a golden retriever by your side and run. But I always came back in a better mood than when I left, so…

iRunFar: Who was your running partner, the dog?

James: Oh, my sister had a golden retriever that she used at her work; she worked at a Jewish home for elderly. They were service dogs and one of them, Buddy, she got her just as Jen got sick and passed away, so I would run and spend time with him, a big golden retriever who just loved being on the trails.

iRunFar: Sweet. You were starting to run some trails then, too?

James: Yeah, I kinda’ got away from the road marathons at that point. Although I did finally qualify for Boston which was my goal from the third marathon I ever ran. I missed it by a minute in that one; I ran a 3:11. Early 2006 or something like that I finally ran a 3:09 and made into Boston and finally got that goal accomplished. I was starting to look at trail ultras and trail races and I was starting to, on my days off, finding a hiking guide to an area and just run the trails that people hiked.

iRunFar: This was still on the East Coast?

James: That was still on the East Coast. That was when I started to branch out. I would do the Coastal Challenge race in Costa Rica, a stage race. On my days off I would try and catch a flight out to the red rocks outside Las Vegas, just different areas, you know? The first time I went to Colorado was 2006 or 2007 and I showed up from New York to the Barr Trail and just started running up Pikes Peak till I couldn’t breathe anymore. [laughs]

iRunFar: Did you have a moment, with your running, when you thought, ‘Heck, I’m pretty good at this’?

James: I guess it would have been maybe Costa Rica in 2008. I think it was late 2007, early 2008. It was about four years after Jen had passed away and I was almost through with the grief part and started talking to other women again. I was dating this really cool girl from Connecticut. She was very athletic and into yoga and running and a lot of our time together was spent athletically and I remember in Costa Rica there was a 50-mile stage in one of the races. I had been midpack a couple of times at that race but I won the 50-mile stage. It was my first-ever win and I was like, ‘Wow, that’s a pretty cool feeling.’ It’s not just winning the ‘fat-guy’ award. I won the overall race and I kinda’ liked that feeling. It was that feeling of being the first one to the finish that made me feel really good. So I think it was probably then and then and I just went from there.

Dave James - Coastal Challenge

Dave during the Coastal Challenge, Costa Rica.

iRunFar: And you also ran your first 100-miler in 2008, right?

James: Yeah the first one was, I think, late 2008 when I was down in Florida. It was hard and horrible! It took me like 20 or 21 hours to finish and it’s an easy course. I went back 12 months later and ran, like, 15 or 16 hours on it. [laughs] The first one I ran about 80 miles then had to pick up a stick in the woods and limp to the finish!

iRunFar: But you still won that first one!

James: Yeah, it was a small race, there was probably only about a 100 people in it. I met some really cool people. I never thought I would do it again, but then Scott Jurek came down to Costa Rica in 2009, a couple of months after that experience, and told me I should try it again. He gave me some tips and it kind of worked out after that. I had a good 2009. I won Umstead [100-mile race, 15:05:10], Javelina [100-mile race, 14:20:54].

iRunFar: And you’ve haven’t been doing too bad since then, more or less?

James: Yeah, well, I’ve been injured since 2009. I went to medical school in 2010 so I didn’t race for, like, nine months. I tried to get married again in 2011 and took some time off just to try and do the whole husband thing and work as an EMT [Emergency Medical Technician], so I didn’t race for some time there. But when got serious about it and trained, I’ve had very successful results even the last couple of years. You know I’m getting a little older now, I’m 35, so I don’t know how long I’m going to be able to keep doing this for. Guys like Karl [Meltzer] and Dave Mackey, they inspire me to keep going.

iRunFar: Yeah, those guys are a total inspiration.

James: It’s amazing what they can do with the body over 40 years old.

iRunFar: So 2013 has been a pretty good year for you so far. You’ve been on fire!

James: It’s been a good year. I started off with some local Arizona races. Then I went down and won the Coastal Challenge again, down in Costa Rica. Then Nick Clark beat me in Nicaragua in this 100k [Fuego y Agua 100k in February], but I still went under the old course record there so I was happy. And then I had a bad race in Mexico [Ultramarathon Caballo Blanco]. I got to go down to the Copper Canyons where they wrote that book, Born To Run. Then I bounced back the next week and won a local 50k and then I got really sick in April. We went out to Lake Sonoma and I probably should not have even made that trip but I was trying to support John [Medinger] and his race out there. I ended up really sick. Then just the transition to coming over here to Europe. It’s been quite humbling, the level of competition here in Europe is way more than in the States for the most part.

Dave James - Copper Canyon

Dave flying in the Copper Canyons during this year’s Caballo Blanco Ultramarathon. ©Katrin Wengel

iRunFar: So was this year’s European adventure the result of an invite from Lauri and Marino in the International Skyrunning Federation to come and race a few skyrunning events?

James: Well, I guess who I have to thank the most is probably Joe [Grant] and Tony [Krupicka] because they passed on it. There’s this crazy 100-mile race that I’m doing on Friday called Ronda Del Cims in Andorra. It’s supposed to be like Hardrock as far as the profile of the course, and it’s a skyrunning race this year, the first time skyrunning is going into the 100-mile distance. So they wanted to make it a big-profile thing. Kilian [Jornet] had originally said he’d run it; Tony was going to do it but then he decided on UTMB; and Joe Grant got into Hardrock so he pulled out. They wanted an American and my name came up as the US 100-mile champion, so they contacted me and I thought they were crazy because I run my 100-milers in 13, 14, 15 hours and I looked at the course and the course record is like 30 or 31 hours! [laughs] It seems like it’s worked, though. We have a really good field assembled for Friday and it’s going to be exciting as the first time skyrunning hits the 100-mile distance.

[Editor’s Note: Dave DNFed Ronda del Cims.]

iRunFar: So when Ronda del Cims came about, was it a case of you saying, ‘Oh, I may as well do Transvulcania and Zegama, too’?

James: Yeah, I wanted to see what skyrunning was all about and they were able to help me and put me in contact with the people who would enable me to get to those races. So I just wanted to go to Transvulcania; I was injured but I finished the race, just to experience the whole culture and meet some of my competition and people. To just kinda’ throw myself into European running, too, it’s been exciting and different because I know everybody in the US when I show up to a race and everybody knows me. Over here, it’s neat to fly under the radar.

iRunFar: What’s surprised you most about the Euro scene compared to the States?

James: Just the amount of gear that they run with, you know? I kinda’ show up at a race and take my shirt off and lace up my sneakers and maybe grab one of my water bottles and go for a run. Out here they’re decked out with backpacks, trekking poles, and there is just so much gear. It makes me chuckle. [laughs]

iRunFar: Have you been inspired? Have you bought yourself some poles?

James: [laughs] No, I haven’t gone that far. I get the funny looks. At Zegama, the mandatory gear was a windbreaker jacket, so I tucked it in my running shorts, took off my shirt, and ran the race. The guys were yelling at me, ‘Wheres’s your jacket?’ and I was like, ‘I have it! You didn’t say I have to wear a shirt!’ [laughs] I’m not going to use any of the fancy stuff for Friday; I’m just going to go out and run. We are going to run all night so I’m going to put on jacket if it gets cold and use a headlight.

iRunFar: Haha, cool. You’re a doctor now, too, right? So you know how to treat yourself?

James: I’m not a doctor yet, I’m on a leave of absence with these opportunities this summer. I finished my first year down in St. Kitts in 2010 and then my loans fell through. I decided I was going to go back to school last fall. But it wasn’t the right time personally in my life because Rachel and I, we got married in 2011 and we had this plan for our life and it didn’t really work out. So that’s part of the reason I’m in Europe, going through a divorce right now. But I am going to go back, just talking to my dean.

These opportunities I have to run for Team USA and skyrunning aren’t going to come around later in my life. There is always time for me to finish my studies and become a doctor and help people. So he thinks it’s important that I do this, not just to inspire people to get off the couch, but also personally, for me and my career. The fact that if I want to work in sports medicine or I want to work with athletes, who are they going to go to? Someone who has been on Team USA and has been an elite runner. I do joke around and drink beer and run and stuff, but I do take my training seriously and a lot of that is just for show to make people laugh! [laughs]

Dave James - 2011 IAU Trail Running World Championships

Dave proud to be wearing the USA singlet during the IAU world championships in Ireland in 2011.

iRunFar: How has the soul-searching been, Dave?

James: It’s been really great. The chance to follow your passions and do what you love, people should do that no matter what it is. Not to try and conform with what society or family or friends want you to do. That’s what I’m learning the most over here. You can still do everything you want and wish in life, but sometimes you just have to take a different route to get there.

The fact that I went off the deep end here and decided just to book a one-way ticket to Europe has worked out. The most important, fulfilling thing in my life athletically is to be able to run for Team USA and I’m going to have the chance this summer to run two races for them, in Wales in a couple of weeks, and I was just selected yesterday for Poland in August. I think that goes to show that because I took the chance and came over here and rolled the dice and followed my passions.

Robbie Lawless
Robbie Lawless is a runner, graphic designer and the editor of RunTramp.com. His fascination with the simple act of moving fast and light on ones own two feet – and with the characters that are attracted to it – keeps him both in work and in wonder. He hails from Ireland but now calls Sweden home.