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Playing Piano With Dakota Jones - V.1

Welcome to the first installment of  The Story Goes, a monthly column with stories told by Eric Senseman about someone, somewhere in the sport of running.

I was in Silverton, Colorado in August, 2016 when I first met Dakota Jones. There’s a race there called the Kendall Mountain Run that we were both racing that weekend. It’s a really cool race with a lot of history and the course takes you from downtown Silverton to the top of Kendall Mountain and back, climbing, then descending about four-thousand feet each way with a roundtrip distance of less than thirteen miles. Dakota won the race that year and completely destroyed everyone including me and I’m still trying to forget about the experience to this day. 

My friends Anna and Braz were in Silverton that weekend and they told me about their top-secret car camping spot near town and those are all the details I’m at liberty to disclose about the spot because like I said, it’s top secret. When I arrived there, there was more than one vehicle and the one that wasn’t Anna and Braz’s car was Dakota’s truck and I didn’t know Dakota would be camping there with us but I knew it was Dakota’s truck because it’s older and red and the bed is covered so that he can basically live out of it (the truck) and I think I had seen Dakota driving it in some Salomon video or something. (Oh yeah, Dakota is sponsored by Salomon because despite what he might tell you he’s a very, very good runner.) I parked next to his truck and the four of us drank and ate (but mostly just drank) and I’d say we (me and Dakota) genuinely enjoyed each other’s company. It was a very nice time. (I should also note that I’ve always found it odd that Dakota drives a truck, since he’s also an avid environmental activist and you would think that a person like that (one who cares about the environment a lot and vocalizes those cares) wouldn’t even own his own vehicle much less a truck. But then he also traveled to Europe one summer by boat to reduce his environmental impact and two summers ago he rode his bicycle all the way from Durango, Colorado to Colorado Springs to run the Pikes Peak Marathon (Oh yeah, he won that race, too.) and then biked all the way back home to Durango after the race. So I’m not sure if those good environmental deeds offset the fact that he drives a truck or if the moral calculus doesn’t work like that and he’s not off the hook for his oil-guzzling habits. Moral judgments can get really messy and it feels like I’ve gone too far off track already. But in my estimation, Dakota is a good guy.)

Like I said, that’s the first time I met Dakota. It was about half a year later the next time I saw him and we were in Salida, Colorado then. It was March of 2017 and we were both there to run a race called the Run Through Time Marathon. It’s a mountainous trail marathon and the area is very beautiful and I had the sneaking suspicion that Dakota was about to kick my ass again. If you know Dakota, you know that he likes to beat people in races but he also understands that races don’t really matter and that other things like interesting conversation and good coffee and relationships are way more important. Dakota also likes to have a good time. I’ll tell you two quick stories to get the point (that Dakota likes to have fun with friends) across.

The Hardrock 100 is a one-hundred mile endurance race that starts and finishes in Silverton, Colorado. I was at the race in 2018 and so was Dakota. I don’t think either of us had any particular reason to be there except that it’s (the race is) a wonderful excuse to spend a long weekend in the San Juan Range in July. As I recall it was a Saturday afternoon and we decided we’d get a late lunch at a mexican restaurant and the next thing I knew there were tequila shots and gin and tonics and it was a lot of drinking for any time but it was especially a lot for the middle of the day. We ended up at a bar later that night and listened to live music and danced and drank more. (Silverton is quite an interesting town and it’s hard to classify some of the businesses as any one single thing. The place with the band and the bar is also a restaurant serving lunch and dinner. I suppose the money making season, which is largely the summer, is short enough that places have to maximize their profits as much as possible and one way to do that is to be open for business nearly any time day or night. Hence the multi-purpose businesses.) We ended up staggering to our truck beds very late in the night but before we went to bed we (Dakota and me and my girlfriend) found two foam noodles (the ones that are hollow in the middle and are used to keep you afloat in a pool or a body of water and you can also fill them up with water and blow into the interior of the tube to watch the water erupt out the other end) and proceeded to beat the crap out of each other while laughing hysterically. 

Another instance that illustrates what I’m talking about is less of one particular instance and more of an epidemic amongst Dakota and his group of friends in Durango. (Dakota now lives in Bozeman, Montana to study engineering in the hopes of some day solving some of the world’s problems.) I really can’t tell this story to its fullest extent because I saw very little of what I’m about to describe but basically for an entire summer Dakota and his buddies tried to ice each other at every possible opportunity and each individual icing scenario seemed equally hilarious when told to me. If you don’t know what it means to get iced, it means that through trickery and furtive planning someone will hide a Smirnoff Ice in an unseen location with the intention of some other person unintentionally finding it, at which time the surprised recipient is obligated to get on a knee and chug it. (As an aside, I’ve been the unfortunate recipient of a self-icing wherein I placed a Smirnoff Ice somewhere, forgot about it, and then discovered it myself at a later time. I was alone but I respect the rules so I then chugged it.) So this group of guys goes through an entire summer of this and everyone gets iced who knows how many times and it escalates so far that one day Dakota discovered that his water flasks he uses while running had been partially filled with tequila and now he was sipping a watered down tequila cocktail in the middle of a long run. 

But to get back to the main story, we’re in Salida in March of 2017 and the Run Through Time Marathon kicks off. There goes Dakota to the front of the race and I’m getting dropped with no plans to see Dakota until the finish line. The course does a funny thing about eight or ten miles into the race where there’s flagging straight ahead but you can also see flagging on a trail to the right and you’re meant to go straight to do a big loop where you go north then turn west then south and then east where you pass through this main junction again and follow the same flagging that you see off to your right at mile eight or ten when you’re supposed to go straight. Apparently Dakota didn’t pay enough attention or he didn’t look at a course map ahead of time or someone sent him in the wrong direction or whatever and so he takes off to the right and after I don’t know how long he realizes he cut off some of the course. Having the integrity to recognize and accept his misdeed, he then doubled back to get on course again, ran the big loop I described above and continued with the race. But after all that he had added several miles to his day and was way off the lead and he really wasn’t racing anymore. 

I didn’t know any of this and assumed Dakota was well on his way to victory, if not already finished, when I heard him shouting as he approached me from behind around mile eighteen. We’d cover the last eight or so miles together and we talked about a bunch of philosophical topics that I know a little bit about and he knew nothing about but he was very curious and asked a lot of questions. I don’t know what our finishing places were in the end and despite the fact that we finished together I believe the official results had me milliseconds ahead of him. (This wouldn’t be the first time I beat Dakota in a race. I ran his wheels off at the Black Canyon 100k last year where I finished third and he was seventh.) Once we finished the race something rather peculiar happened and at the time it felt like a dream and while I’ve thought about it a number of times since then, I haven’t really told anyone about it (the peculiar thing I’m about to tell you about).

After the race ended I was probably only half present because during the race I had a sharp pain develop in my foot and I ran with the pain for the better part of the race and now I could hardly walk and besides I hadn’t fueled well during the race so I was sort of bonking which put me in that weird post-race state where you probably shouldn’t operate heavy machinery and your brain’s computing power is likely no more than half there. (I found out later that I had a stress fracture in my foot.) I’m sort of hobbling along following Dakota who’s slapping hands and talking with a bunch of people he apparently knew or maybe didn’t know but they knew him and the next thing I know we’re inside a building. It was the same building where we had picked up our bib numbers that morning. It felt abandoned now. The folding tables had been removed and the people had vacated and it sort of felt like we were trespassing. But Dakota walked right in and he went up some stairs and through a closed door that I would have guessed was locked and he was moving so confidently that you would have thought he had walked these rooms dozens of times. We entered this adjacent room and as I remember it, there was nothing there except for a piano smack dab in the middle. Dakota didn’t say anything but simply walked over to the piano, pulled out the bench from under it, sat down, exposed the piano keys by lifting the wooden canopy, and began tapping the keys. He muttered something about the piano being slightly out of tune and then he started playing a song. He would later tell me, “I can always sniff out a piano.” I never did find out if he had knowledge of this piano’s whereabouts beforehand.

You have to remember that I was in that other-wordly, undernourished, dehydrated post-race state and just like a quesadilla made at the race finish line would have tasted like a Michelin three-star meal, it’s entirely possible that any classical music would have, in that moment, sounded like Beethoven himself was playing it. Because when he started playing it did sound like Beethoven was playing and it was as though all of my senses suddenly returned to me at once and in an instant I was hyper aware, serenely aware of my surroundings. I’m looking at Dakota and his legs are covered in dirt and his untied shoes are filthy (I don’t know when he made the time to untie them) and I was far enough away that I couldn’t smell him but I had been close enough earlier to know that he definitely carried a less than agreeable stench, yet his fingers were flowing and his concentration was stern but his posture was relaxed and the room was being filled with this beautiful music. None of it seemed real but it also felt more real than anything. The juxtaposition was profound. (I feel compelled to let you know, reader, that Dakota himself has admitted to me that he is no Beethoven but he’d like you to think he is and he’s gone very far to convince people that he is a world-class pianist. Before he moved to Bozeman, he was renting a trailer on a family’s property outside Durango. He had a keyboard with pre-recorded songs and more than once when he saw the family outside he would crack a window and play one of the pre-recorded songs (Beethoven) and when he would next see the family face-to-face they would laud his pianist skills and compliment him to a significant end. That poor family probably still thinks he’s some piano genius because he never corrected them. This actually happened as far as I know because when he recounted the above to me I asked him several times if he was kidding and he reassured me that this indeed happened.)

The thing that strikes me about that day at the Run Through Time Marathon in Salida has to do with what I learned about Dakota. I learned a lot about his attitude toward life, his worldview and how he handles himself. You might recall, as I mentioned in passing at the start of this story, that Dakota is a winner of both the Kendall Mountain Run and the Pikes Peak Marathon. He’s also won races like the Imogene Pass Run and the heavily contested Transvulcania Ultramarathon and he’s finished second (twice) at what has historically been the U.S.’s most competitive 50-mile race, The North Face 50 Mile Championships. The point is that Dakota Jones is a very good runner and he literally made a career of it for many years (and perhaps will for many years still), including during this time in Salida when he went off course and finished way, way off the lead. Yet despite the unfortunate outcome, which he probably never thought much about ever again, he talked cordially with people at the finish line, he went out and enjoyed time with people he cares about that night, and he played piano. He didn’t mope or get angry or storm off or make a big deal about it. He didn’t get on social media and concoct some larger-than-life story about how things were stacked against him or how he was running so hard that he was blacking out and didn’t see the course flagging. He didn’t make excuses or tell tall tales. He didn’t do well at something he’s meant to do well at and in response he made music. 

There’s an important lesson here about life and intention and perception and reaction and I think we should all play more piano. 



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