Four hours 56 minutes 36 seconds: That’s how long it took Dakota Jones to win the Broken Arrow Skyrace 54K in Lake Tahoe, California, on June 19.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, since Jones has been one of the top runners in the trail and ultra game in recent years, with podium finishes at Hardrock (twice), The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler (twice), San Juan Solstice 50-miler (twice) and the Lake Sonoma 50-miler. But for Jones, who has been struggling with stress-related injuries for the past year, this was more than just another bullet point on the resume.
The nagging soreness in his left foot started in May 2015, at Spain’s Transvulcania 77K. “The soreness was so minimal. I thought maybe my shoe was just tied too tight. It shouldn’t have even been that big of a deal,” says Jones. “But I made it worse by trying to continue running through the summer, before going to a doctor in August.”
The MRI revealed two stress reactions, the precursors to a stress fracture: one on the top of Jones’s left foot, and one on the fourth metatarsal. After six weeks of rest, he came back to running with gusto—too much gusto. Within two weeks, the injury had returned, worse than ever.
“At that point, I decided that I can’t make the same mistake twice,” Jones says. He hunkered down for a winter of … well … not doing a whole lot. After several false starts, he finally began running pain-free again in May.
Jones is 25 and lives in Durango. We caught up with him to talk about the psychological side effects of his prolonged injury, what he did to stay busy and how his routine may change to keep him healthy in the future.
What was the hardest part about being injured?
This was the first major injury I’ve had to deal with in my professional running career. I’ve had a few bouts of plantar fasciitis, but nothing that knocked me out for this long.
The psychological element was way more difficult than the physical healing process, and I don’t feel like I’ve dealt with it very well! When April came around, and I still couldn’t run without pain, I was starting to despair.
What have you learned from the process of being injured?
I’ve learned not to overdo it, and that if I want to keep running for the rest of my life, I have to run a little bit less in the short term. This doesn’t mean that I am going to drastically cut down on my training volume, but maybe that I will cut down on the number of races I do.
In general, ultrarunners race too much. Among professional athletes, it is pretty common to do five to six races in a year. No matter what level you are racing at, that takes a big toll on your body.
People can get away with it— I’ve gotten away with it for years. But it caught up with me.
After a race like [Broken Arrow], it is easy to ride the adrenaline wave and start thinking, That felt great. Let’s do it again. What’s the next race? But I am making a conscious effort to rein myself in. I don’t want to risk it anymore.
What was the most valuable piece of advice you were given during your battle with this injury?
A lot of people told me I needed to stay busy. I’m lucky: I don’t have a day job, and make a living through running. The downside is that it is easy to stay home, especially during winter when you are hurt. You have to pick up a few hobbies, to keep yourself active and engaged.
I helped coach the Durango Junior Nordic Team. I had never Nordic skied before, but they taught me how to wax, so I came to all their races and helped out. I didn’t ski myself, since I was trying hard to let my foot heal in time for the summer racing season, but it’s a great way to stay in shape during the off-season and one that I’d definitely like to try next season.
I was able to ride a stationary bike at the local rec center. I also learned how to play the Maple Leaf Rag on the piano. It took me a month and a half, and I was pretty proud of myself.
What was the best part about working out in a community rec center all winter?
The stationary bikes are on the second level of the gym, and they look down onto a basketball court. I was riding the stationary bike one day, feeling sorry for myself, and then I see this dude come out in a wheelchair and start playing basketball. He played for several hours. I realized that I couldn’t complain.
Did you take any trips?
In March, I met Ricky Gates and Scott Jurek in Ireland. The idea was to spend a few weeks running the fells.
Leading up to that trip, I had been ramping my mileage back up with shorter runs on dirt roads. Then all of a sudden I was going out for much longer runs on marshy, uneven terrain, which puts more impact on your body.
I was still hyper-aware of any pain in my left foot, so as soon as it started getting sore, which it did pretty quickly, I stopped running and cut the trip short.
How did you work back up to your pre-injury training volume, after taking that time off in March?
I started running again in May. I went for an hour-and-a-half run—well, I was running for one minute and walking for one minute, a modified version of the progression a doctor had given me back in January.
When I got back home, I realized my foot didn’t hurt. So I tried it again the next day, and the next. On the fourth day I rested. Then I ran the next two days. I repeated that for several weeks, gradually increasing the ratio of running to walking. Most of my initial runs were on dirt roads, but as the weeks went by I started to venture back onto the trails.
After three and a half weeks, I was getting pretty confident in my foot, so I threw in a couple of small, three-minute interval workouts. The main goal was to get my legs moving fast again, and to introduce a little bit more pounding on my foot, to see how it would handle a real race pace.
So far, everything has held up really well. I am using a custom carbon insert in my shoe, which is supposed to help divert pressure away from the injured areas.
I am also taking more days off than I normally would, not for fitness reasons but to make sure my foot is able to rest and heal. Ironically, I think those forced rest days were a big factor in my performance at the Broken Arrow Skyrace, and something I am going to continue implementing in the future.
What advice do you have for other runners who are battling injuries?
Don’t try to come back too soon. If you heal 90 percent and then try to run again, your injury will come back right away.
If you have a stress fracture, or you’ve blown out your ACL, just conceptualize how long the road to recovery could be. You might not be running again for eight months. Recognize that fact up front, put the date on the calendar, visualize the next six months or year and come to terms with your new reality.
I am a very impatient person with a shortsighted view of the world. I had a hard time just sitting around, waiting for my foot to heal. I felt lazy, and as the months went on I started to doubt if my foot would ever heal. So, of course, as soon as I thought things were on the up-and-up, I would get over-eager, go for a big run or a big trip and then quickly pay the price.
Trust me, it is worth it to wait.