Twelve years ago, Dave James didn’t pay much attention to what he ate or drank, and he weighed in at 270 pounds. Today, he is one of America’s top long-distance trail runners: two-time USA Track and Field 100-mile National Champion, course record-holder on numerous American trail ultramarathon courses, and a member of the USATF National Team.
James, now 34, credits his transformation to the girl he started dating when he was 22. She urged him to get healthy, and he listened. He started running, and they began entering races together – 5ks then 10ks then, eventually, marathons. However, three years into their relationship, his girlfriend was diagnosed with cancer.
“At that point, running changed for me,” he says. Trying to support his girlfriend emotionally as her health declined, spending most of his days and nights in the hospital, James used running to cope. “I would just go outside to run and cry and clear my head.”
After his girlfriend died, in 2004, James kept running – farther and faster – to deal with his depression and his pain. “It started more as therapy than out of competitiveness,” he explains. But city marathons and nice hotels reminded him too much of his loss. He sought out runs that were rugged and rural and off the beaten path. That’s when he really discovered trail-running. He ran a 50-miler in Texas in 2005. Then he signed up for Costa Rica’s Coastal Challenge, a six-day staged ultramarathon, in 2006.
James returned to the Coastal Challenge over the following years – each time tauter, trimmer and faster – and in 2009 shocked himself by placing ahead of American ultramarathon legend Scott Jurek, to take second place overall.
A few months later, he won the Umstead Endurance Run, in North Carolina – not only breaking the course record, but running the third-fastest time 100-mile time ever recorded by an American on a certified road course. That fall, back on the trails, he ran the fastest 100-mile time of the year to set a new course record on the Javelina Jundred 100-miler in Arizona.
By the end of 2009, James had run three of the four fastest 100-mile times in the USA for the year. He suddenly understood that he had a talent for this. His life was turning around – and it was running that was carrying him along.
James, who now runs on the USA National Team, boasts a running CV that is littered with ultramarathon wins and course records – nearly all of that on trails. In addition to winning the USATF 100 Mile Championship both this year and last, he has earned silver medals at the 2011 and 2012 50 Mile Trail Championship, and at the 2011 100k Trail Championship.
James does well at all ultramarathon distances, but the 100-miler is his strongest event. He credits his success to what he calls his “Clydesdale” body size. “My body is larger than a lot of runners. In the 100-mile distance, you burn more fat as fuel.” Skinny runners don’t have as much fat to burn. James notes that many of the competitors he beats in the 100-mile events can run a marathon 10 or even 15 minutes faster than he can.
According to James, training for a 50-miler is not much different than training for a marathon. “Whereas for a 100-miler, I will run for three or four hours, for three or four consecutive days. The aim is wearing your body down, taking it to the breaking point.” He doesn’t do track workouts, and he never runs with a watch.
“My fastest times have come from sheer volume of miles, time on my feet.” But his aim is to always keep it fun. “If I’m out with my buddies and we reach a mountain pass, we’ll stop, take pictures, and make it a social thing. You’ve got to enjoy your training, too.”
James recognizes what running has given to him – and he is prepared to give back. He comes from a military family, and he is proud to now be running for his country. Even more, he likes to give back to other runners. Coming up in November he will put in a stint as mentor at a running camp for Team Red, White and Blue, a veteran support organization that assists combat veterans in reintegrating with society through physical fitness.
Although he has been asked to work as a running coach several times, he prefers to give advice for free. And his first piece of advice is to remember the part about having fun. “Focus on enjoyment, and on being outdoors: what it does for soul and body, more than times and ranking. You’ll enjoy it for a longer time of your life, if you keep focused on bigger picture.”
Although, at the level James is running at now, running fast is his “bigger picture”, he knows that it will not be that way forever. He got married last year – to a competitive runner and former university Division One athlete he met at a race. “It’s cool to be in a relationship with someone who understands the sacrifices you make to be super-competitive.” He and his wife, along with their dog, now make their home in Scottsdale, AZ.
And it is that relationship that now inspires him. “I’m a newlywed. I look up to athletes that have families. There should be a point where sport is the number one thing in your life. But then there is a point where you transition from being an athlete to being a family man – and that’s something I think a lot about right now.”
For now, though, most days you will still find Dave James on the trails. He placed 5th at the inaugural Montrail Run Rabbit 100-miler last weekend in Steamboat Springs, CO, and this weekend will be racing the Ultra Race of Champions 100k in Charlottesville, VA.