Interview: Jamie Dial on Ultrarunning

This interview is the first in a series of exchanges with local elite runners. These are the guys and women who train hard, take their running seriously, and work to compete--and win--on a local and national level. For all of these folks, running is a hobby. None of them make a living doing it. They continue to represent the best of amateurism, the idea that excellence in athletic endeavor is valuable for many reasons beyond financial compensation.

Most of these folks are friends that I have met during my time as a runner. They have offered me untold amounts of training advice, motivated me to get out the door, whipped my butt in races, and shared many a post-run beverage. Though this sort of runner is not famous at a national level, they are often locally known and help establish and maintain local standards of racing and training.

I met Jamie Dial about two miles into my first attempt at a trail 50k, the 2003 Stumpjump 50k in Chattanooga, TN. I knew nothing about racing and running ultras; my longest race prior to that one was a 10k. Of course being young, dumb, and competitive, I went out with the leaders Jamie and Dewayne Satterfield. I found the pace excruciatingly slow. I had recently run under 16 minutes on the road in the 5k, and I was used to hammering in training at 6:30 pace. Here we were, in a race, running 8:30 miles and WALKING! the hills. After about two hours of this, I decided this was silly and made my break: hammering up a hill and away. Dewayne would catch me about two miles later. Jamie came rolling by about three miles later, maybe 20 miles into the race. I ended up wrecked, literally lying on the trail with cramping quads and hamstrings, by mile 25. Jamie--a guy I could beat by two minutes in the 5k--would end up beating me in this race by about an hour.

Since then Jamie has helped me train for a few 50ks. My best trail race ever, I shadowed him and just imitated his intelligence on the course. Jamie is not the fastest pure runner, but he is tough as nails. I hope you enjoy what he has to say about running and racing long distances.

Jamie Dial at the Black Warrior 50k, 2009
LLD: Tell me about some of your best performances and give me a quick running resume.
JD: Some of my best performances have actually come in the form of solo training runs in the backcountry. When you think about it, running by yourself almost always guarantees a win!! That being said, I do believe they are harder than races and to some extent more valuable to me. Once you strip away the aid stations, crowd support, race markers and others to pace with, it becomes more of an adventure. Some of my most memorable would be the Four Passes Loop (28m) that circumnavigates the Maroon Bells near Aspen, Co, the Tetons Loop (~37m) in Wyoming and the Appalachian Trail through Smoky Mtn. National Park (72m). In 2009 I had one of my best days ever in the form of a 50m run in East Tennessee’s Cohutta Wilderness. It had just what I wanted- runable terrain with tons of elevation gain. With the help of a few strategically placed water jugs I managed to run it in 7 hours and 45 min. Alone, the run stood out as a great sign of my fitness that year. What made it better was that it came on the heels of what was 3 weekends in a row of 30+ mile training runs, one being a 32 miler at the Ocoee in 4:32.

Best Races-
San Juan Solstice 50m (Colorado) 1st overall
Mt. Cheaha 50k (Alabama) 1st overall
Black Warrior 50k (Alabama) 1st overall
LBL 60k (Kentucky) 1st overall
Oak Mtn 50k (Alabama) 1st overall twice
StumpJump 50k (Tennessee) 2nd overall
Mountain Mist 50k (Alabama) 2nd overall
Tsali 50k (North Carolina) 3rd overall
Tahoe Rim Trail 100m (Nevada) 4th overall
Berryman 50m (Missouri) 5th overall
Mt. Mitchell Challenge (North Carolina) 5th overall

LLD: How long have you been racing trail ultras?
JD: My first race was the Mountain Mist in 1997. It was a month after my first marathon and I had no clue what I was doing. All day I played leap frog with Janice Anderson (USA 100k Team member). While she ran a smooth and controlled race, I let emotions, the terrain and my inexperience get the best of me. I would crush the down hills and then limp up the climbs. In the end, she got me. It was a great lesson in pacing.

LLD: What changes have you seen in that time?
JD: First of all and probably most noticeable would simply be the amount of races available now and how many people run them. When I started there really weren’t too many events to choose from, especially here in the Southeast. In addition, they would rarely exceed 100 runners. Now there are too many races to count and participation has increased to the point that race directors are now capping events. Long distance trail races used to be a freaky, word of mouth thing that hearty, (and maybe a little crazy) folks would do. The runners also seemed to be older (30s to 50s) with very few young people. Now it’s common to see collegiate runners drop their respective sport to indulge in the longer events. This has had a huge impact on competition, faster times and better diversity at the races.

Mt. Cheah 50k, 2008
LLD: When you race on the trails, you often beat runners who have much faster road PRs. Why do you think this is the case?
JD: Ha. Yeah, that is weird. I think it’s because I like Jazz, Funk and Bluegrass. Long distance trail runs and marathons are similar but distinctly different. Road racing seems more like constant tempo or really consistent pacing while the terrain of many long course trail runs often resemble a freaky jazz jam or bluegrass breakdown. What I mean is this- a standard marathon course might find an athlete staying within 10-30 seconds of their overall pace for the entire run. To me this seems boring and monotonous. On the other hand, the elevation gain, altitude and footing found in trail races often require the runner to adjust constantly to the demands of the terrain. I’ve been in races where my fastest mile is around 6 min pace and the slowest was around 10 min pace with an overall pace of 8ish.. Many top road runners can’t seem to make (or want to make) the adjustments necessary to cope with the inevitable pace changes. They often try to stick with a pre determined minute per mile pace versus running based on HR or perceived effort. In addition, if you combine serious hills with technical footing, it will often wreak havoc on the roadies. I really, really like running on the trails and try to include this in my training. Becoming efficient fast and efficient on technical terrain is something I strive to do. Keeping a cool head has also made a difference. I’ve noticed some of the faster guys get really frustrated trying to dodge mud, jump puddles and avoid hazards. The amount of mental and physical effort it takes to avoid these things really adds up and would be better spent on staying positive and focused on what you can control, like your nutrition and pacing.

A few years ago I realized that I naturally run the downhills faster than most, so I decided to make this work for me. I could use it to bridge gaps, escape or tweak the pace to test the waters. The way I see it is, if nature is going to give you a hand, take it. Unfortunately this has worked against me too. In my first 100m attempt at the Angeles Crest 100 in California I spent the first 50 miles chilling on the ups and crushing the downs. By the time I hit 75 miles, my quads were toast and my hamstrings were tighter than a good drum kit. It was a good DNF as I learned a lot about the distance and it would be the only time I ever passed Scott Jurek in a race. The Western States 100 champ was having a hard day and it helped put things in perspective for me in terms of living to race another day.

LLD: You've had success both at altitude out West and back home on the southeastern trail running scene. Compare the two different types of trail running. How did you prepare for races at altitude living in Nashville, Tennessee?
JD: Many of the races out west favor the roadies. Races in California are often characterized by dirt roads, jeep trails and smooth singletrack with big climbs. If you have the engine for the long up hills and your quads can handle the pounding back down, you will do well. In the Rockies I find that you have huge climbs, and technical terrain. Rocks, creek crossings, snow, and off cambered trails hamper progress and make running hard. You’d better practice walking for these races! Back home here in the southeast we have a good mix of events that runners of all types can enjoy and it’s not uncommon to experience a variety of terrain in the same race. The biggest difference I have found between the west coast and here is finding rhythm. Out west you might find yourself going uphill or downhill for miles and can settle in to a practical pace. Here it is really challenging to do so as the ups and downs are constantly changing. Flat and fast one minute and scrambling up waterfalls the next.

Mountain Mist 50k, 2009
How to train for altitude in Nashville is a question I get a lot. For starters, it’s not easy. Fortunately (or unfortunately) we have brutally hot summers. Research has shown that training in extreme heat is second best to training at elevation. It taxes your body and requires more effort just like running at altitude. It is also something that your body can get used to, making racing in extreme conditions easier. That being said, If I have a mtn race coming up, I try to run at lunch when it’s really hot out. My biggest philosophy in regards to racing is “race specific training” or trying to match the race course to the best of your ability in your training. This is no different than a MMA fighter bringing in a training partner that resembles his next fight opponent. I’ve had lots of nights with little sleep so I could drive to east TN to find suitable terrain. I can be in the Smokies in 4 hours and run trails that gain 4,000 ft in 10k. That’s just like anything out west and at 6,000 ft in elevation, it feels as if you are running in Denver. While it’s not the big boy mountains, it does prepare you much better than Percy Warner Park would. Places Like the Cohutta Wilderness/Tanasi Sytem near the Ocoee River have also been great to get in big climbs and diversity in footing.

LLD: Are you a high mileage guy? What's your basic approach to training for an ultra? Do you train differently for a 100 miler than for a 50k?
JD: I used to be a low mileage guy, only averaging 25-35 miles per week and tried to capitalize on key workouts to get by. That worked out ok, but mostly because I was getting another 6-12 hours a week in mtn biking, paddling, rock climbing and other workouts. In recent years I’ve had great success with higher mileage weeks. In 2009 most of my weeks were in the 70-80 mile range with several 100-140 mile weeks during big training pushes. I really try to not get too caught up in hitting mileage goals, rather focusing on solid training cycles that incorporate quality recovery. For example, I might consistently train for 2-3 weeks with solid miles and effort that are followed by an easy 30-40 mile recovery week.

My basic approach is to find my key race and start working backwards from race day. For 50ks in the southeast, I’ve found that the gold standard is 2x the Red, White and Blue trails at the Warner Parks. I’ve done this workout more times than I can remember and it seems to prepare me well for the terrain here in the south. Sometimes it might be a slow, steady effort and other times it might be a barn burner with some buddies.

For 50k’s I think a basic marathon schedule would be practical with a few modifications. The most obvious, is to spend more time on the trails. If you are racing on the trails, then you need to be training on the trails. Secondly, I focus more on stamina runs. Without trying to over simplify things, I think there are 3 elements you need to train on in addition to nutrition, pacing, gear, etc. These things are speed (The ability to run fast), endurance (the ability to run far) and stamina (the ability to run far, fast). Maybe I’m the only one that wasn’t getting it, but it seemed like I either had the ability to run far or run fast, but couldn’t run both at the same time. I started mixing in some Lactate Threshold runs and some slightly slower long runs. One of my favorites was to hit the Bowie Nature Park Trails. I would warm up with a 5m easy run around the perimeter trail. Then I would run 5-7 laps of the 1.1 mile Loblolly loop at Tempo pace, then head back out and do another 5m cool down.

100 mile training is different. Some folks like to race their way to the 100. For example, one year I decided that I would race every month for my long run. until my 100 in July. There were of course other long runs during this period, but these stood out. It went like this-

Jan- 50k race
Feb- 40m race
Mar- 50k race
April- 72m training run
May- 50m race
June- 3day Stage Race plus 50k
July- 100 mile race

In 2009 I did it slightly different. Starting in January I raced every 3-4 weeks doing 4 ultras in 10 weeks. During this time I was only averaging 60-70m weeks and was hanging on by a thread. Starting in late March I backed off the racing and focused on quality long runs. I did this for months and was in the best shape of my life. Key workouts included 40m runs in the smokies, 3 weekends in a row up at the Ocoee trails and a solid week in California. That week was fantastic and one day stuck out in my mind. That morning I did a 31 mile run in the High Sierra that included 4400 feet of climbing. After some lunch and a creek soak I headed back out for a 14 mile road/trail run at 7 min pace. 2 days later I would suffer through a 26 mile trail slog with a fever and chills. Weeks like this make you mentally and physically stronger (once you recover…)

Cranking it, 25 miles into a 100 miler.
LLD: How did you get into racing ultras? What keeps you motivated?
JD: It was part of a goal I set for myself in 1996. That spring I wrote down a bunch of things that I wanted to accomplish. After living in Yosemite and other climbing areas for most of the year, I came back to TN and started running. A few months later I was running my first 50k. In the beginning it was just something I wanted to finish. I loved trail running but had never done a race on them. After that I was hooked. The motivation early on was just to see how far I could take it. I did a few 50ks, then tried a 40 miler, then a 50m…. and the story goes on. Somewhere along the line I began to enjoy it more and more and my competitive juices kicked in. It became an outlet for everyday stress and allowed me to compete in something I loved doing.

Jamie at the top of the final climb of Stumpjump, having broken your humble blogger.
That John Deere hat still haunts me.


  1. That was interesting.

    I've only run shorter trail races (10k-HM). Yet, this point really hit close to home: "In addition, if you combine serious hills with technical footing, it will often wreak havoc on the roadies."

    Perhaps a little Bluegrass is what I need.

  2. This is a great idea and an informative interview. Thanks.

  3. Great interview. Answered many of the questions of this ultra noobie.

  4. Thanks for the feedback! And thanks to Jamie for such thoughtful responses...

  5. Really enjoyed this. Great Blog Jeff.
    Is Jamie planning a comeback soon?


  6. Very nice. Next time I'll have to skip the 11.2 and run some PWP trails.

    You need to bring Jamie up for HUFF next Dec. and run in the snow.

  7. thanks for doing this, jeff - for constructing a situation where you could introduce an interesting guy. and, jamie, thanks for taking the time to provide quality responses. this interview is a peek into a twilight zone or parallel univers - in some ways it's very much like the running i know, and in some ways it's not at all.

  8. What a great interview. As a female "roadie" in California, I find this an interesting peek into the mind of an ultrarunner. Inspiring! Maybe I'll try my hand at some trail running in 2011. Thanks!

  9. Very nice Jeff. I find I can appreciate the perspective of a top amateur more than a pro sometimes. Good read.

  10. Nice interview...very good info. Thanks

  11. Thanks everyone for the supportive comments. I am in the process of interviewing three or more folks and hope to get them up intermittently this spring. Cheers!

  12. Fantastic. I started out running in the mountains of Utah and the slow rolling hills of Crimea (Ukraine). I never kept time and I usually ran on trails, and after a year of that, I was hooked. What Jamie has described here (Jazz, Funk and Bluegrass) is exactly what attracted me to running in the first place. I also find it interesting hat he found the long quality runs put him in the best shape of his life, as opposed to races and race training.

    Jeff, thanks for doing this interview!

  13. Enjoyed this, Jeff.


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