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Dakota Jones and his lifelong commitment to running and the environment

Dakota Jones had a successful summer at Western States and UTMB.

By Henry Howard

Teenagers often find a direction in life when they are influenced, good or bad, by who they hang out with. For Dakota Jones, the catalyst was his high school cross-country team and fellow volunteers at the Hardrock 100.

Living in Moab, Utah, Jones started running at 14. In addition to the cross-country team, he ran half marathons as a teen and then discovered ultras at 17 when he volunteered at Hardrock in 2008.

“I was hooked,” he recalls. “Ultra marathons in the mountains — that's exactly what I wanted to do. So I dove into it, and I've been doing it ever since.”

Through his upbringing and ultra running, Jones has tried different things to address climate change and environmental issues. In the past few years he has created Footprints, a nonprofit that helps runners develop personal climate action projects for their community.

“The winning recipe is I don't have to be an expert in any of it,” he says. “I don't have to be perfect. Nobody is perfect. What we do is we create a hub for people to come together and share the skills they have. So it's all about collaboration.”

In a recent interview, Jones talks about his conservation efforts, his summer racing including Western States and UTMB, and more. This question and answer has been edited for clarity and brevity.

Question: What was your first draw to running?

Dakota Jones is passionate about the environment.

Answer: I did all the sports as a kid. I was a typical boy, year-round doing some sport. I was also really into biking, like BMX biking. When I was in eighth grade, I was playing football and I was tiny. And you know, when you're 13, some kids are huge and some kids are tiny, and I was just getting smoked every day. One day we did get in trouble and we had to run to the top of this hill and back and it was like four or five miles and it was really easy and fun. I felt great. After that I thought maybe this is more my sport than football. So the next year instead of football I ran cross country.

Question: How and when did you get interested in advocating for the environment, rallying against climate change, etc.?

Answer: Ever since I was a kid, I was really motivated by environmental issues. For my dad, it was really important. He was really into backpacking, hunting and being outdoors. I learned a lot of environmental values as a kid and definitely just confirmed them as I grew up and learned more about environmental issues and the ways that we address them or fail to. Especially living this life for the last 10, 15 years of being able to travel around the country and the world to run and climb and try and just explore these incredible places, it connects you to the places where you go and where I derive so much of my self-identity. Connecting my general environmental values with my experiences in the outdoors has been really transformative and made me understand how important it is to try to use whatever power I have to make a difference. I think I have some influence, and I'd like to use whatever platform I have as an athlete and maybe as a role model, to promote a better system, a better world, a better future.

Question: Tell me about Footprints Running.

Answer: The idea behind Footprints is that a lot of us, myself included, often feel completely overwhelmed by things like climate change. It feels too big and distant for us to make any real difference at all. So rather than all of us trying to fix the whole world right away, we just try to make a difference for the places and the people that we know best. So that's why we focus on the community level.

Our main action is we put on these running camps. We spend a week in these beautiful places, we run on trails every day, we come together as runners because that is a shared interest that gives us some context to why we come together. But then each day we're working on these projects. Every camper has a personal climate action project for their community that they proposed to us in their application. We chose the ones that had the best opportunity for impact, and have then reached out to experts from a variety of backgrounds to help bring these projects to life. So each day we're working on activities to help develop these projects and after the camp, the campers then go home and implement them right away. We support them for a year after the camp with mentorship and resources. We have a whole program designed to get these projects off the ground.

Dakota Jones is the executive director and founder of Footprints.

Question: I'm sure there are many that have meaning for you. Is there one or two that you want to single out that may be really innovative or have really had an impact since launch?

Answer: There's been several. One example that I really like is from our first camp in 2021. She’s an engineer and had studied this water quality issue in a lake where she's from in upstate New York, Canandaigua Lake. It's experiencing these heart harmful algae blooms as a result of fertilizer use and nearby farms and warming temperatures at lakeshore development. She knew from her studies what exactly was happening. Why this was occurring and how exactly it was occurring, but, like many environmental issues, knowing what the problem is and how to fix it does not translate into actually fixing the problem.

She worked with another freshwater ecologist we connected her with and her partner, AJ, and they developed a race in town, the Canandaigua Mile. It runs through Main Street, Canandaigua, and the idea is they're going to raise money for an organization addressing this problem, which is always a great move. You don't have to start your own thing, just support the people who are already doing the good work. They raised money for this organization, and they also educated everybody who was there on what the issue was and why it matters and, most importantly, they got all the businesses in town to be a part of this race so that every business is benefiting financially from them coming to town.

So they put on this race, they have this big festival, they do a beach cleanup. Then they can tell the local city council that this race is successful because of the health of the water and health of the air, the health of our environment here. We bring this many tourism dollars to the town. If we don't protect the places where we play then we're not going to be able to continue to hold this event or others that are like it. So we turn this environmental problem into an economic problem, and that tends to have a whole lot more impact. And it's really exciting. She brought this to life on Aug. 20. It was the first time and it went really well.

Question: Recently I’ve seen some advocates talk about how little efforts just don’t mean a lot. Recycling a paper container, or another small act. What’s your take on the small things that could add up?

Answer: That's a difficult one. I think that people who are climate activists who say things like that are taking a bigger picture approach to that. The fact is that if you throw trash in the river, it probably won't make that much of a difference, but obviously that's the wrong thing to do. So my approach is to do the right thing no matter what. Not because you're going to save the planet by recycling something, but because it's the right thing to do. What's our role as a community member? It's to do everything we can, big and little, to protect the communities where we live and the people who live nearby there with us. Obviously you're not about to throw your trash in the river, but when you think about your individual actions, the truth is that they are small, and comparing your individual actions to the actions of whole countries or corporations, big multinational corporations like Exxon or Amazon or Coca-Cola, these giant corporations and whole governments, the impacts of those institutions are so much bigger than any individual that what we do pales in comparison. It's genuinely negligible by comparison.

That's why at Footprints, we really focus on helping people with community action, because community action is a way for people to expand their impacts from individual action, which is not enough, but still keeping it within a scope that is realistic and which can demonstrate a real impact. We're not all senators. We're not all the CEOs of big corporations. We can't have that kind of impact, but we can have more impact than just being individuals. Your individual actions at home, like recycling, or composting, or changing light bulbs, buying electric vehicles, all these things, they do matter, but they matter mostly because they reconnect you to the cause. They are like a daily commitment to the cause and to the values that you really care for. But if you want to have a bigger impact, you want to have a real impact that will make a difference, then you have to find ways to make these individual impacts, these individual actions, collective. And that's my rally and cry. It's all about collective action.

Dakota Jones rode a bike from Salt Lake City to Western States, about 680 miles.

Question: Tell me about your summer of running and travel.

Answer: I rode my bike from Salt Lake City to Western States. I think in the end it was 680 miles, more or less, from my house to the start line of Western States in California. Rode across Nevada, took about a week and it was super cool. Bike touring is the best way to travel. This isn't like some big moral high ground. I flew to Europe twice this year. I have a car that uses gasoline. I'm not better than anybody else and I'm not trying to imply that everybody has to bike everywhere in order to make a difference because genuinely that's not a realistic answer. We live in a society where we're required to use fossil fuels, we're required to travel long distances.

The message that I'm trying to send is not that biking is the only way to do it, because truly that's a privileged thing to say. I was able to ride my bike to Western States because I have privilege, money and time. People who don't have their needs taken care of the way I do are not able to do that kind of thing. However, within the context of the trail running world and my role in it, I think trail runners are often well-educated, we have disposable income, we are able and willing to work on these issues that are larger than ourselves.

So when I'm in my role as the executive director of Footprints, I am constantly trying to find ways to just set an example. When I rode my bike out to Western States, it was a way for me to try to demonstrate that for me, it's more important to protect the places that I play than to actually play in them.

If I have to choose between protecting the places that I want to run and actually running in them, then I will choose to protect them. However, I really think that you can have both, and my Western States trip was an example of that.

I kind of blew up in the race and didn't compete as well as I wanted to, but I still ran 100 miles in the mountains after riding my bike out to Western States. I'd like to think that people watching could see that this was a commitment that I'm making to try to be a leader and a role model in this outdoor space.

Dakota Jones found ultras at age 17.

Question: If you are going to race Western States again would you do that again, or would you look at another way to leverage being in the race to promote climate change?

Answer: I want to use my platform as a runner to promote climate action as much as possible. Every time I do an event I'm thinking of that. Sometimes I do it more than others. Western States was a particularly big example of riding my bike out there. But yes, I did actually just choose to run Western States again next year. What's very convenient for me is that there's actually an Amtrak train that goes directly from Salt Lake City to Truckee, Calif. So the train is actually how I got home this year from Western States. It was awesome. I'll probably just do that next year in both directions since riding your bike 650 miles before a 100-mile race may not be the best training plan.

Question: For UTMB, you didn't ride your bike or take a train there. How do you approach that, when running or other life choices force that issue where you need to fly. Are you one who uses carbon offset credits, or how do you balance that travel with your commitment to be a good steward of the environment?

Answer: First of all, I feel hypocritical all of the time, and I am very imperfect. What I say is not always what I do, despite my best efforts. However, we truly live in a world where you have no choice except to use fossil fuels. So of course me flying to Europe and back to run this race in the mountains is a luxury thing that is unnecessary in terms of my survival.

Every single person has to use fossil fuels. We don't have better choices. If we want to have better choices, then we have to collaborate and work collectively to demand that the people in charge of giving us those choices are going to listen to us. And those people are our governments, and the leaders of corporations. But the best way, especially in the U.S., to address these large issues is by getting your representatives to truly represent your goals, because the representatives can make laws that require businesses to give us better options. So when I fly to Europe and back for a race, I emit a few thousand pounds of carbon. That's not great. I'm not proud of it. I do offset it. I don't think that's enough.

But, if we persuade the United States government to, for example, protect the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, we will be preventing billions of tons of carbon from being emitted into the atmosphere. That's a saving on a scale that no individual could ever compare to. So when I fly to and from Europe, not only am I living a life that empowers me and makes me feel like a good person, and I say that because you don't have to be elite to travel to these places. You should be able to live a good life. But when I personally travel there, I can also build this platform, get attention, and talk about these issues, and hopefully inspire more people to get involved with these issues, and to compel the representatives to take the actions that we all need, and those actions are very clearly laid out by Protect Our Winters, hopefully by Footprints, as well.

Dakota Jones finishes third at the 2023 CCC.

Question: You finished third at CCC, part of the UTMB series. Tell me what it was like to return to UTMB and have by all accounts a very successful race.

Answer: Thanks, CCC was fun. It's also incredibly hard. I trained really hard for it and that was satisfying. I was in Europe for almost two months and I spent a lot of time trying to just get really, really strong. I was picturing it like a super mountain race, so I did almost all of my training, like super vertical, less running, more hiking, so I was really strong. But I think what I underestimated was how runnable CCC is, and I think that's kind of what makes the UTMB events really hard. The competition is higher than anywhere else in the sport, but at the same time, there are real mountains on the course, but there are also huge sections that are super runnable.

You have to be able to do both things, hike and climb big mountains repeatedly, but also run for a long time. I think I underestimated in my training how much running there was. After the second pass, three or four hours into the race, we got to a point where it was like a 12-mile gentle downhill, and then a short, kind of steep, but mostly runnable, climb up to Champex-Lac. That's only halfway. And then five more miles of running before some real mountains on the back end. That really kind of cooked me. So I felt great in the first part, got pretty wrecked running for two and a half hours in the middle of the race, and then I felt like I was just hanging on for the final third. But I was able to hang on, and I got third. I feel like it wasn't my best performance but I'm very proud of it and it was incredibly rewarding. I just felt so grateful to be able to run like that and keep moving and to finish right down Chamonix. It's an incredible experience.

Question: What’s next for Dakota as a runner?

Answer: Well, I got to run Western States next year. I didn't really intend to do that, but then I got a Golden Ticket at CCC, and the last time I turned down a Golden Ticket it took me five more years to get one. So I can't screw that up again. I've got a few ideas for something else. I'd like to do something else by the end of this year. I feel like I'm still motivated to race, but I'm not entirely sure what that'll be yet.

Question: You’ve said you “eat normal.” Tell me what that means, is it an environmentally friendly, plant-based diet or something similar?

Answer: I try to eat as environmentally healthy as I possibly can. I'm not vegetarian or vegan, and I say that because I do eat meat sometimes, but I never buy meat. I buy very few dairy products. I do eat eggs, but I just try to eat as much plants, grains and beans as I can. A typical meal for me is some kind of rice and beans or quinoa, some kind of grain like that, with a big salad. Maybe tofu or some boiled eggs. I make a lot of curries. I say I'm not vegetarian, I do eat meat. But if I go to somebody's house and they cook dinner for me and there's meat in there, I think it's much more impactful for me to say thank you and enjoy the meal and really connect with them, then to refuse this meal that somebody's made for me. I prioritize human connection over some hardline rule about what exactly I eat. Maybe not everybody would agree with that with me, and that's OK. I really think that environmentalism has to include people who eat all diets. I really prioritize human connection.

Near Michigan Bluff, Dakota Jones and Tom Evans battle for position.

Question: What would success look like to you as a runner?

Answer: As a runner, success is easy to define, right? I'd like to win more races. I would like to set more records. I've had two pretty good years recently after a few years of not racing so much.

It's been pretty exciting. I'd like to keep that up for as long as I can. I'm in my 30s now so who knows how long it'll last, but I'm feeling good so far. I think, though, for me, success goes beyond races and records. I really want to try to be an effective role model and leader for environmental action and social action, as well. Social and environmental justice are the same issue, really. I want to use the platform that I have as an athlete to try to promote a better world. I do that with Protect Our Winters, with Footprints, with my own advocacy. I think success would really look like kind of making myself obsolete, in a way, by giving the opportunities that I have to people of color, people who don't have these opportunities, trying to make Footprints a lot more interesting than me as a runner. Then people want to interview the campers that I work with rather than the runner who started it.

Question: What would success look like to you as an activist?

Answer: I think that success as an activist looks like Footprints being a successful organization and not needing me. That doesn't mean that I want to go away from Footprints, but I think a successful organization is one that doesn't rely on its founder for success. I want Footprints to be able to run successfully with or without me. We're definitely building the foundation for that to be possible right now. Footprints is the biggest thing that I've ever started, the most important project I've ever been a part of, and so for the next five to 10 years that is my best action as an activist. Success for Footprints is success for me as an activist, and success for Footprints looks like being financially stable, having a lot of interest, being able to expand and grow and provide these opportunities for people around the world.

Speed drill

Name: Dakota Jones

Hometown: Salt Lake City, Utah (from Durango, Colo.)

Number of years running: 17 or 18

How many miles a week do you typically run: “Huge range - 100+ when training, sometimes none at all in the offseason.”

Point of pride: “I have a good sense of direction.”

Favorite race distance: “I like variety. I do best around 50 miles, but I've succeeded at anything from sub-marathon to 100 miles.”

Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: “Nothing special, no traditions or anything. I just eat normal.”

Favorite piece of gear: “I don't know, there's not a ton of gear for running. I like that running is so simple. I'm not much of a gear person.”

Who inspires you: Kendrick Lamar.

Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “I don't usually listen to music while running. Maybe something fast and poppy when I need it, like pop punk. Fall Out Boy.”

Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “Do the best you can in every moment, whatever that looks like."

Where can other runners connect or follow you: Instagram, @thatdakotajones


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