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The Injuries You Can’t See: How Dakota Jones Found a Broader Identity

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Selfish.

This is the word that Dakota Jones keeps returning to when he talks about being a runner. He uses it mostly to describe his relationship with running. After hearing the word so many times, it’s clear that Jones really hates being selfish.

“I want to be able to run in a way that makes it worthwhile for more than just Dakota,” says Jones, referring to himself in the third person. “How can I run in a way that’s not entirely selfish?”

When listening to Jones, I get the sense that he is easily lost in his thoughts, contemplating this question in a way that escapes other elite runners of his ability. He’s so self-aware that when he mentions he’s 30, I let out a small gasp of surprise. It isn’t until later, when he starts talking about his insecurities and doubts and getting consumed by running, that any sign of youth comes through. Even then, it’s minimal.

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Empty Success

Jones, by all accounts, is a very successful runner. In 2008, at just 17, he finished third overall at his first ultra, the UltimateXc Moab Edition 50k, earning him fast attention as The Next Big Thing. Jones responded to this early success by revolving his life around trail running. By 2013, Jones finished 23 ultras, earning top three finishes in 17 of those races. Yet, despite achieving far more than what most people are capable of, Jones often felt like he was failing at being a good human.

In 2014, around mile 70 of the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in Chamonix France, Jones felt terrible. He knew he could finish the race, but that wasn’t the problem: he didn’t want to finish the race. It was completely hollow of any of his personal values or goals. He was only there because his failure to finish Hard Rock earlier that year had guilted him into salvaging his summer by racing at UTMB. Near mile 75, Jones dropped out of the race, listening to his truest truth telling him that devoting his life to running was too overwhelming.

“It’s not black and white. I love running. I love being in the mountains. I don’t want to stop racing,” says Jones. “But living a life entirely focused on competing and training is not enough for me.”

Man sitting in black and white photo.
Photo: Jared Paisley

An Injury Brings on an Identity Crisis

And yet, Jones couldn’t quite figure out how to balance his love for running with his desire to “be less selfish,” which is why a broken foot in 2015 wasn’t enough reason for Jones to take a break. Instead, his identity as a runner only magnified, and he tightened his grip on being characterized as a good runner.

“The simple fact is that a lot of my self-worth is tied up with my ability to run,” says Jones. “Being a runner is a big part of who I am. When it’s taken away, it’s a bit of a crisis.”

Immediately after finding out his diagnosis, Jones bought the stiffest pair of hiking boots, added a carbon insert, and taped up his foot to immobilize it. For six weeks, he put this boot on at 6:00 a.m. and only took it off when he was cycling, which he was doing often. Not long after he found out he’d broken his foot, he posted to Instagram: “I rode my bike 550 miles last week. If that’s not an addiction to exercise, I don’t know what is.”

Jones’ need to exercise was interfering with his bone’s ability to heal. Biology aside — bones need periods of rest to heal — Jones’ healing was likely also slowed because of his increased anxiety and depression. He was often questioning his decisions, and he justified his exercise regimen by the fact that his doctor had said exercise was okay so long as his foot didn’t hurt. Underneath all of this was the fear that he would never be able to run again, that his decline to irrelevancy had begun.

“When athletes have an experience of what their life might be like without their sport, they often throw themselves into rehab to avoid that discomfort,” says Seth Swary, who has a PhD in Sport, Exercise and Performance Psychology and an MA in Community Mental Health Counseling. “When being an athlete is the biggest or only part of yourself that you recognize, it’s really easy to get lost in that identity, and we often see rates of depression go up.”

Becoming More Than a Runner

Before Jones got injured, he was “the cool guy who wins races,” and he’d be lying if he didn’t admit that he liked this attention. He hated that he liked it, but he liked it nonetheless. He liked being good at something. He liked being fit. Heck, Jones liked winning races. When he got injured, and all of that was taken from him in a heartbeat, he realized that maybe he isn’t so cool, but he could do cool things. Just like that, he had his answer: he needed to expand the amount of cool things he did.

“If winning races is the only source of happiness that I have, then it’s really unsustainable; it’s really fragile,” Jones says. “I want to find a sense of self-worth and validation without having to win races all of the time.”

With this newfound clarity, Jones was finally able to recognize that his relentless focus, drive, and determination could be useful in another area of his life: reducing his impact on the environment and protecting the outdoor places he loves so much.

In 2017, Jones joined the nonprofit Protect Our Winters, an organization devoted to protecting the outdoors from climate change. Shortly after joining, he sent a message by riding his bike 250 miles to the start of the Pikes Peak marathon, won it, and then rode his bike home, raising $11,000 along the way for the organization.

Not long after, Jones enrolled in a mechanical engineering program at Montana State University because “engineers create solutions,” and Jones wants to create solutions.

Jones is also organizing a trail running camp. He’s connecting scientists, outdoor industry experts, and runners to create a trail running camp that is entirely environmentally focused. To apply to the camp, runners present a project they want to do for their community, and by the end of the week, they return home with a plan in place to bring it to action. And yes, they run and hike three to five hours a day in the mountains.

“Everyone has their lever, the things they know they are good at,” Jones says. “For me, I get to run races and tell stories. For others, it could be entirely different. We invite people to apply by presenting a project that will utilize their own lever in their own community,” Jones shared with an excitement that wasn’t present when he talked about winning races.

It’s obvious that Jones is figuring out how to exist in this world in a way that feels right, but he’s quick to admit that it’s an ongoing, possibly never-ending process. He has, however, decided that it’s okay to be a little selfish.

“I don’t want to stop running. I still want to compete. There’s a selfish component to that, and that’s okay. We should all be able to practice a certain level of selfishness,” Jones said. “I just want to do a good thing for the world and have a good time.”

If that’s what it takes to keep Jones on the trails, I think we’re all better for it.

And that doesn’t seem so selfish after all.

Man posing with bike with Golden Gate Bridge behind him.
Photo: courtesy of Dakota Jones

Sport Psychologist Seth Swary’s Tips for Striking a Balance With Your Running.

  1. Prioritize your mental wellness just as much as your physical health. “When we’re struggling with one, it bleeds over into the other; they are not as separate as we like to think they are. There is a trend now that says, ‘mental health is health.’”
  2. Recognize and feed your other identities. “It’s important we recognize our other identities because we do have them. It can be as simple as being a partner, a sibling, a friend. Then look at, ‘what else makes me who I am?’ Running is something that we do, it’s not who we are.”
  3. Look at what running gives you. “There is something that’s very special about running, but we can find those things in other areas of our lives, too. Maybe it’s pushing yourself, setting goals, or connection to community. Ask yourself, what do you get out of running and where can you find that in other areas of your life?”
  4. Change your relationship with running. “Your runner identity doesn’t go away because you’ve stopped running due to injury or any other reason, but your relationship with running changes. Look at how you can stay involved in other ways, such as becoming a coach or volunteering at races.”
  5. Don’t get lost in outcomes. “A lot of people start running because we enjoy it, and that’s when we make the most progress. If we get lost in outcomes, the pressure can become too much and start breaking us down. Try not to let your passion become your punishment.”

This story is the second segment of a 4-part series with elite athletes discussing how injury has helped them deal with larger issues in their running lives.