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Young Money: Dakota Jones Is The New Face Of Ultrarunning

The free-spirited 22-year-old is focused on making an impact in his sport.

The free-spirited 22-year-old is focused on making an impact in his sport. 

Fresh off a night camping on a high mountain pass, Dakota Jones is rumpled, relaxed and witty as he sips tea and talks about international travel, the challenges of winter camping and responsibilities of being an upstart race director. The only thing that seems out of place is his hat, which is hipsteresquely askew. When you realize the lanky, easy-going, ultrarunner is only 22, his hat actually makes the most sense.

For a sport in which success typically comes more to grizzled, experienced runners in their 30s and early 40s rather than youthful chargers in their 20s, Jones has shown the ability to push harder, go faster and suffer more than most of his peers out on the trail.

In the process, he’s racked up an impressive list of results and made a name for himself on the international race scene. But for this relative kid, who had his first legal beer a little more than a year ago, it’s just the beginning. He also writes thoughtful, humorous and often introspective blog entries about his mountain experiences. And this month, he’s launching his own race in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains and returning to race in the 103-mile Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) around the Alps, arguably the world’s toughest footrace.

Jones has done it all with a healthy mix of youthful exuberance, tenaciousness grit, a wise-beyond-his-years demeanor and a cool, charismatic vibe that have made him the trail running poster child of the I-can-do-it-myself Millennial Generation.

It’s why he’s called “Young Money.”

“Dakota has a rare combination of two very opposing attributes — being an absolute free spirit who lives for today, and a focused discipline with his approach to fitness, training and his goals,” says Topher Gaylor, president of Mountain Hardwear, one of Jones’ primary sponsors. “His positive attitude and voracious appetite to learn and grow, both as an athlete and as a student of life, make him one sophisticated endurance dude.”

“The only pressure I have is the pressure I put on myself.”

Jones has perhaps the best gig any twenty-something (or maybe any runner) could ask for — the opportunity to train endless hours in the mountains, travel the world to race, offer input to gear and apparel designers at Montrail and Mountain Hardwear and, generally, live the life.

It hasn’t exactly been a linear path. But for a kid who went from not really enjoying high school cross country and track when he ran for the Durango Demons, to dropping out of Colorado State after two semesters because “college wasn’t working,” to racking up numerous top finishes in both domestic and international ultra-distance races, to stints of living out of the back of his truck, Jones, who now calls Boulder, Colo., home, has found his place and is relishing the ride. Ever humble and appreciative of the opportunities, Jones has learned it’s important to choose opportunities wisely and be careful not to overdo things out of pure zeal.

When asked about the significance of his running career, Jones downplays his accomplishments and refers to his favorite book, “Conquistadors of the Useless,” by Lionel Terray, a French alpinist who was motivated by his love of sport, adventure and the mountains, not by money or glory.

“I’m just another guy,” Jones says. “What I do is cool, but it’s not brain surgery and not something others can’t do. With training, a lot of people could do what I do.”

Yet few have been able to keep up with Jones the last two years. With a win and new course-record at the San Juan Solstice 50-mile race in Lake City, Colo., in late June and a second-place finish at Moab’s Red Hot 55K in Utah in February, Jones has built on a stellar 2012, which included a record-setting win at the Lake Sonoma 50-miler in California and his win at the inaugural Transvulcania Ultramarathon, a 52-mile race in the Canary Islands.

“I run because I want to run, and I compete because it pushes me to be a better runner. Plus, I like to win,” says Jones with a sly smile.

Sometimes, however, the hype and overzealousness catch up with him, like at the San Juan Solstice where there was controversy about Jones’ checking in, or lack thereof, at aid stations. The race implemented a new bar code scanning system that forced runners to stop temporarily for tracking purposes. Although many runners would be thrilled for a mandated reason to stop during a technical, high-elevation, 50-mile run with almost 13,000 feet of climbing and descending, Jones didn’t stop. Instead, he charged through aid stations with the speed and focus of a mountain lion in chase, or someone zeroed-in on a course-record victory. The bravado could have resulted in a DQ, but race director Jerry Gray let it go.

“I’ll always be a part of Hardrock.”

Jones grew up in Durango, Colo., with the San Juan Mountains as his playground, and long family hikes the norm. When he was in high school, one of his teachers, Dale Garland, who also happened to be the race director for the famously grueling Hardrock Hundred Mile Endurance Run, convinced him to volunteer at an aid station. Seeing such suffering and exhaustion through the day and night would have been enough to send most running in the other direction. But it inspired Jones to give ultrarunning a try.

Although most teens give up running after high school — even those who run cross country and track — Jones found his calling in long miles on mountain trails. For him, the secret sauce included a mixture of long hikes, well-honed mountain lungs and boundless enthusiasm, a combination that led to almost immediate success at races from 50K (or 31 miles) to 50 miles.

In 2011, at the ripe old age of 20, he returned to his roots and answered Hardrock’s siren call, placing second in a field that included several of the world’s top ultrarunners, many of whom were almost twice his age. Favored to win in 2012, Jones finished third, but came across the line almost an hour and a half faster than the previous year, a solid display of his growth and potential as a runner.

“I don’t want to be the youngest to do something,” Jones says. “I want to be the best, and, when it comes to running, the fastest.”

“The only way I’ll be successful is by being different.”

Exhaustion caught up with Jones during his first attempt at the UTMB race around the French Alps in 2011, resulting in a DNF. He retreated to the mountains to recharge, and after a few weeks spent ice climbing in the San Juans, rock climbing in Moab and running only when he felt like it, Jones emerged from his training hiatus with fresh perspective and an epiphany of sorts.

“Even though I’d had successes, I knew I wasn’t reaching my full potential,” says Jones, who made the decision to drop out of college and hire a coach.

He connected with Jason Koop, a fellow ultrarunner and coach with Carmichael Training Systems, who put him through a battery of physiological tests, one of which indicated Jones had a fairly high VO2 max in the mid-70s.

“For sure Dakota has some very good physical tools,” Koop says. But what really sets Jones apart, he says, is his inherent tenacity — a combination of enthusiasm, talent and relentless energy that allow him to go into the pain cave and suffer through the grueling miles without breaking.

“Dakota pushed himself harder than most athletes we test, and seeing that right off the bat showed a sheer determination to succeed — you can’t teach an athlete that. As far as his future goes, I think he can accomplish whatever he sets his mind to.”

Later that fall, Jones set a new record for the rim-to-rim-to-rim run across the Grand Canyon and back, covering 42.5 miles in 6 hours and 54 minutes. (The record was shattered earlier this year by Rob Krar, who ran the same route in 6:21.)

Switching gears in the mountains has become a theme for Jones, who ended last summer with a running and climbing reboot in Europe (with some time spent casing out the course at the UTMB, which he plans to race again on Aug. 30), and kicked off this year with a snowy mountaineering trip in Alaska.

Jones acknowledged that winter camping, trekking and ice climbing in Alaska were definitely a step toward another extreme on the endurance-sports scale. But in Jones’ master plan, it was another opportunity to establish skills as the disciplines of trail running and mountaineering continue to merge in the quest to reach high peaks faster and faster with less gear.

“There are alpine runners and mountain climbers, and what I aspire to do on some level, is have those two sports merge in a middle ground of technical, light, fast and challenging,” says Jones, who credits Spaniard Kilian Jornet as one of his influences and inspirations. “I don’t want to die doing this, and to be good at climbing mountains fast, you need to be able to climb them well.”

“It’s difficult being a race director.”

At an age when many of his peers are still focused on the ultimate spring break, Jones is trying to forge a sustainable career out of his passion for the mountains.

Motivated, and in some ways overwhelmed, by the cult-like popularity of trail and mountain running in Europe — think thousands of cheering fans, autograph seekers, big prize purses and quaint villages dwarfed by Jumbotron screens — Jones has created a race in Colorado that merges the European appreciation of the sport with the pure grit and soul of a race like Hardrock 100.

The result, which came together with the help of Denver-based runner Reese Ruland and Telluride ultrarunner Ricky Denesik, is the Aug. 10 Telluride Mountain Run, a 38-mile race that crosses 10 mountain passes above 12,000 feet.

It’s just the next step in the evolution of “Young Money.”

“Dakota’s thought process is at least a decade ahead of others with his talent,” says trail runner Matt Hart, Jones’ friend, former roommate and the one who gave him the nickname. “He’s smart and mature beyond his years, but also has an intoxicating enthusiasm for the sport.”

This piece first appeared in the August 2013 issue of Competitor magazine.