Three years ago, Dakota Jones volunteered to help with the Hardrock 100 endurance race as part of a Durango High School project.
This year, the 20-year-old Durango runner is one of the favorites in the annual 100-mile trail run through the San Juan Mountains.
Jones will be at the starting line at 6 a.m. today in downtown Silverton for the 18th running of the Hardrock 100.
In 2008 when I volunteered at the Hardrock, it was my first exposure to ultrarunning, Jones said. That was when it really clicked in for me. This was something I really wanted to do.
Jones, who ran track and cross country in high school, immediately was drawn to mountain trail running.
That was it for me, said the DHS graduate. I started entering races, and Ive done well.
His early results and his commitment to the Hardrock 100 attracted the attention of Utahs Karl Meltzer, the king of the Hardrock with an unprecedented five Hardrock titles.
As he has done for years, Meltzer offered his assessment of the Hardrock field on his website (www.karlmeltzer.com) right before the race.
Meltzer insists the young Jones is a viable candidate to win, particularly with his recent training in the Silverton area.
Ive been up in Silverton about five weeks now, working at the coffee shop and training, Jones said in a telephone interview from San Juan County.
Ive been on a lot of the course, and Ive paced different sections of the course, he said.
Jones said familiarity with the course will help during the race.
Theres less of a chance of getting lost, he said, referencing the dark evening hours of the 100-mile race.
The first finishers are expected back in Silverton early Saturday morning after completing the counterclockwise 100-mile route to Lake City, Ouray, Telluride and back to Silverton.
Meltzer won the last counterclockwise race in 2009 in 24 hours, 38 minutes, 2 seconds.
Last year, running clockwise, Jared Campbell of Salt Lake City won the mens race.
Diana Finkel of South Fork won her third consecutive womens title last year and nearly beat the entire field before giving way to Campbell in the final miles of the race.
Their heroics inspired the impressionable Jones.
Its always been my goal to get to the Hardrock, said Jones, who added he hasnt run the complete 100-mile Hardrock course. He did, however, complete a 100-miler last year to qualify for the 2011 Hardrock field.
I really dont care how I do, Jones said. I just want to finish.
Another Durango runner will be looking for his sixth finish in the fabled Hardrock 100 this year.
Brett Gosney, who finished 13th overall last year at age 51, is back this year for another try.
This will be my seventh Hardrock and hopefully my sixth finish, said Gosney, who was forced to stop short of 100 miles in the 2005 race.
But, he said, his training this year has gone very well.
Ive had a busy race season ... I feel good. My recovery has gone really well, he said.
The veteran trail runner said he has been sleeping at high elevation (12,000 feet) and training a lower elevations to get ready for the Hardrock.
That worked well for me last year, said Gosney, who finished in 32 hours and 17 minutes one year ago.
This is a very deep field this year, said race director Dale Garland, who has championed the Hardrock 100 since its inception 20 years ago.
Dakota Jones is probably one of the favorites, said Garland, agreeing with Meltzer.
He (Jones) volunteered at an aid station, and he didnt know anything about distance running, Garland said. But he got hooked, and hes really taken off.
Garland said Campbell will be back to defend his title, and he said other top runners include Joe Grant of Lafayette, who won the San Juan Solstice 50-Miler, and Duncan Callahan of Gunnison, a two-time winner of the Leadville 100.
Nick Clark of Fort Collins, winner of the 2010 Wasatch Front 100, is a top contender along with Julien Chovier of France.
Chovier is really experienced, Garland said of the Frenchman, who recently finished third in the Mount Blanc ultra trail run.
The womens field, he said, also should be loaded with talent.
With Finkel seeking her fourth consecutive Hardrock title, Boulders Darcy Africa will be seeking her first.
Africa finished second to Finkel in 2010.
Both are expected to be challenged by Nerea Martinez Urruza of Spain, one of the most successful European ultra runners.
This will be her first Hardrock, said Garland, raising the experience question.
I think this is a course where experience pays huge dividends, said Garland, pointing to the history of the Hardrock.
This is our 20th year ... and this will be the 18th running of the Hardrock, he said. The race was scrapped once by weather and once, in 2002, by extreme fire danger in the region.
To me, its all about the history and the tradition of the Hardrock, Garland said.
Its wonderful to be a part of something that has become so special for so many people.