DAVID CLIFFORD/Special to the Herald
Maybe it’s the sprawling skree fields that rest below imposing granite, snow-spotted peaks that make an ultrarunner humble.
Maybe it’s the quiet places in the saddles and valleys where breath echoes beneath the behemoths that makes them feel small.
Perhaps the 100 miles of climbing up and running down, the 30 hours on the trail or 33,000 feet of elevation gain that allows them to grapple with the grandeur of the stoic natural world and the limits of the meek and fleshy human body.
Or maybe, that’s just Dakota Jones.
“I really like being efficient, and this seems like a really efficient way to see these beautiful mountains,” Jones said about his ultrarunning that began here, in his hometown. “I see (in one day) what most people see over seven days. You can understand the size of them better; I know exactly what it feels like to run over 33,000 feet of the San Juan Mountains in 27 hours because I’ve done it. You have a greater understanding of the natural world.”
Jones learned exactly what that’s like last year, in fact, when he endured the 100-mile Hardrock 100 endurance race, which annually takes runners through the San Juan trail system from Silverton to Lake City to Ouray to Telluride and back to Silverton. And he didn’t just endure: He took second.
“It’s a really hard race,” Jones said. “I basically got to Ouray, 56 miles, I was just kind of done, physically and mentally. I thought I was going to drop. It was a massive struggle, just moving forward. There was no race involved. I don’t know how I got second last year. I wasn’t racing anybody; I was just trying to get to the end.”
With a description like that, it’s a wonder that anyone would put themselves through it again. But that’s exactly what Jones plans on doing the second week of July.
It won’t be the first time he’s set out to endure the trail since last year’s Hardrock 100, and it won’t be the last. In fact, enduring has become something of a career, and it all started with the Hardrock.
Now 21, Jones volunteered to help with the 2008 race as part of a Durango High School project. Although he ran track and cross country in high school, he’d never before been exposed to ultrarunning.
Aside from running, he had also been into rock climbing for years, with hopes of diving into the big-mountain climbing scene. But with the high cost of gear and the skill threshold, that wasn’t an easy goal.
“I’ve been climbing and hiking my whole life,” Jones said. “But then at Hardrock, it was kind of a way to do that to an extent far beyond what I’d done previously without so much gear. I could go out and run with a T-shirt, shorts and water bottle.”
He was hooked.
At the end of 2008, then 17, Jones competed in a 50-kilometer race and was “kind of successful,” he said
“Ultrarunning is just not nearly as competitive as college running or elite marathoning. It’s much easier to stand out as a young guy in a sport usually dedicated to older guys. That really encouraged me to keep going.”
Instead of the pavement-pounding, joint-jarring endeavors that snake through the streets of cities like Boston, Jones’ ultrarunning takes him on the less-traveled dirt paths that wind through the world’s wild places: over peaks, deserts, forests and more.
“I really enjoy it. I really enjoy the adventure of it,” Jones said. “It’s not like running on roads. Lots of cool terrain.”
“The whole point of this is just because I like to run in the mountains and see these places. I’m not about to sign up for the Denver Marathon, you know. It’s not a challenge I’m looking for.”
The road, he said, eliminates all variables; the road is just about being the best athlete. But in the mountains, it’s about being prepared, trail-blazing where the trail runs out and scrambling over rocky outcroppings.
“There’s so many more variables, and that keeps it exciting,” Jones said.
It’s not a walk through the wildflowers, either.
Jason Koop, Jones’ coach, said ultrarunning is all about grit and love, and Jones has plenty of both.
“The first thing is, he’s really passionate about the sport,” Koop said. “He enjoys running, he enjoys challenging himself. He feels really connected to what he’s doing.”
“He’s also really tough. He’s one of those people who can just put his head down and keep plugging away.”
And that ability to just keep going, keeps taking him places beyond the San Juans and beyond the second-place podium.
In early May, Jones competed in the Transvulcania 50-mile trail race on La Palma Island in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa.
The Skyrunner World Series trail wrapped around the island’s hulking volcano and dipped into Spanish villages where Jones said thousands of people packed in to cheer, even at 6:30 a.m.
“There was a lot of energy there,” Jones said. “It was fun to be a part of.”
The finish was fun, too.
In 6 hours, 59 minutes, 7 seconds, Jones grabbed the top spot in the elite international field – one minute ahead of the next runner, 10 minutes ahead of three-time Skyrunner World Series Champion Killian Jornet Burgada and about a half hour faster than the old course record.
“Definitely the biggest win I’ve ever had,” Jones said. “To be able to come out on top of that field is a huge honor.”
The success, though, hasn’t gone to his head.
Koop said that if Jones is anything, “he’s really humble.” But he doesn’t have to say it, it’s written all over Jones’ voice when he talks about the trails, the mountains and the success.
Maybe that’s because when faced with miles upon miles of dirt, rocks and looming peaks, an ego doesn’t help – only efficiency does.
Or maybe that’s just Jones.
And with the Hardrock 100 less than a month away, he isn’t thinking about his big victory, upcoming races across Europe or his still-held dream of becoming a big-mountain alpinist; Jones’ sights are back on the San Juans.
With Silverton as a base camp, Jones is continuing to work on his efficiency, his ability to maintain a pace for 27 hours and 100 miles, in the San Juans, training for as many as 12 hours at a time on back-to-back days.
“The key thing is to be really consistent.” Jones said.
That’s what last year’s Hardrock winner, Frenchman Julien Chorier, did, Jones said, and that’s what Jones will have to do to win in Silverton.
But – and it should come as no surprise – winning or even placing in the Hardrock isn’t the goal.
“It was a very humbling experience last year,” Jones said. “There’s no way I could go into it expecting to win. I just want to run a better race.”