Dan Curts Brings A Hefty Dose of Track Speed to Mountain Running

Guest interview by U.S. Junior Mountain Running Team leader Paul Kirsch. Paul is also founder of the Loon Mountain Race and lives in Madison, New Hampshire. Photo above by Michael Scott.

Dan Curts grew up in Ellsworth, Maine near Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor. In high school he competed in track and cross country with many impressive results. Curts was an 11-time state champion and was named the Maine Gatorade Boys’ Cross-Country Runner of the Year for the 2012 season and the Track and Field Athlete of the Year for the 2013-14 winter and spring seasons. Among those results he also had a top 20 finish at Foot Locker Nationals. Interestingly in the Foot Locker race he finished 4 seconds behind Levi Thomet from Kodiak Alaska. Thomet went on to win a Silver Medal at the 2015 World Mountain Running Championships in the U20 race. A sign of things to come? Perhaps, but Dan’s ventures into mountain races would come much later.

Dan’s collegiate career took place at Iowa State where he was a three-time All-Big 12 runner in cross-country (2014, 2017, 2018) as well an indoor All-American and the Big 12’s 5,000-meter outdoor champion in 2019.

Fast forward to 2022, and Dan now lives in Norwich, VT. On July 10th, he turned a lot of heads with his second place finish at the USATF Vertical Mountain Running Championships at the Loon Mountain Race.

Dan Curts. Photo: Michael Scott.

I chatted with Dan last week to learn more about his Loon Mountain Race experience, his training and his journey to the trail and mountain world.

[Paul Kirsch] Dan, you are coming off of a second place finish at the Loon Mountain Race, which served as the USATF Vertical Mountain Running Championships this year. You finished just over a minute behind World Mountain Running Champion Joe Gray and bested the rest of one of the deepest fields the race has ever seen. What was going through your head when you knew you had second place secured?

[Dan Curts] I wanted to judge the gap to (Andy) Wacker heading into Upper Walking Boss (UWB) so I hit split on my watch to time the gap and check in on where I was at. Seeing the gap I knew I had second as long as I didn’t blow up so I just made sure I didn’t redline too hard. I think going through the race I was just focused on being engaged in the race. Realizing I had made the team to Italy was a bit delayed because I still wasn’t totally sure if the top-2 were going. Really it was validating to have this race go well after just transitioning to the mountains.

[Paul] Did you have a specific race strategy going into the event? And were you able to execute on that strategy?

[Dan] For sure, I went in with a super simple strategy. I decided all I would do was run with whoever was leading. I felt the best way for me to succeed was to be simply racing.

[Paul] Loon has the legendary ending on Upper Walking Boss (the 40% average grade black diamond ski trail) – and that’s after you bomb down a 500 foot descent for half a mile. Tell me what that last mile was like for you.

[Dan] The last mile was honestly all fairly good. The descent had reasonably predictable footing and it was on grass…I mean even if you fall you’re probably fine. Going into UWB I knew I just had to get up, I wanted to make sure I was fine to react to any moves so I didn’t redline too hard. I felt pretty strongly that I would make the team but I didn’t let my head go to that, I just stayed focused on getting it done.

Dan Curts. Photo: Richard Bolt.

[Paul] Did you have a chance to preview the course before the race?

[Dan] No, I should have gone up because I only live an hour away. I spent some time training at ski slopes on Stowe and Killington, though.

[Paul] Because of your results at Loon, you get to go to the Challenge Stellina race in Susa, Italy at the end of August and represent your country. How’s that feel?

[Dan] Super exciting. I’ve never been able to travel so I’m really excited to be able to go somewhere as cool as the Alps. I mean, how sick?

[Paul] Loon was not your first Mountain Race. You also won the Sleepy Hollow Race in Vermont back in April and competed the week before Loon at the USATF Mountain Running Championships at the Whiteface Mountain Race the week before. Tell us about how the three races compared and did you feel like some of them fit your strengths more than others?

[Dan] Sleepy Hollow was basically a really tough cross country course, nothing crazy. I felt (and still do) that my strengths were best suited to Whiteface…but I didn’t prepare to hike like I needed to. Descending, I felt, was a major strength of mine so that race was a major disappointment (hopped in the Gondola after the quads imploded). Loon Mountain was good for me because I just felt comfortable being able to run 95% of the course.

[Paul] You are not (not yet!) a household name in the world of trail and mountain running. From my understanding, it’s a pretty recent transition for you to do a lot of trail and mountain running races. What got you interested in competing on the trails, when did you make the switch and what races got you started?

[Dan] I’ve always been interested in trail running, I just never called it anything but running. Growing up you don’t make those distinctions. I just thought it was more fun to run around in the woods, most of the time there wouldn’t be any trail at all. I made the switch this Spring when I actually put a trail race on the calendar. My first race was Sleepy Hollow then it was right to Whiteface and Loon, still SUPER new to this.

Dan Curts

Dan Curts. Photo: Joe Viger Photography.

[Paul] Your credentials coming into the trail world are phenomenal (13:43 5000 meters, sub-4 minute mile, Collegiate All-American, just to name a few). But not all road and track runners do well on that transition though. Some have crashed and burned at Loon and other trail races in past years. What do you think has helped you make that transition and have success?

[Dan] Recently I’ve just been doing all of my track/road training on hilly dirt roads, just building ‘vert’. But really, I’ve always loved when the running was more diverse, I get bored otherwise. Growing up I always was running around in the woods or on the rocks/cliffs above the ocean in Maine, I feel like running around on varied terrain is all I’ve ever wanted to do. I think a big piece that helps is your background. I know plenty of athletes who can run a great 5k/10k but if you put them on a trail with some dicey footing they’d have to start walking. That being said, I’m definitely still in the midst of transitioning to the trails myself, what do I know?

[Paul] Do you have a favorite trail race of the ones you’ve done so far?

[Dan] Favorite trail race? It’s GOTTA be the Vermont Overland TRAIL. It was local and a good friend put it on this year, just a great environment. The race was a gnarly mix of dirt roads and trails.

[Paul] Who do you typically train with and where are you based out of? Is there a good trail scene there?

[Dan] I’m training with Ben True over in the Hanover, NH /Dartmouth area. We’re working on building up a pro group – Northwoods Athletics. Local trails stud Eric LiPuma is a training partner, occasionally, as well. The trail/active community is super cool here. The Appalachian Trail runs right through town and it seems like everywhere you look there is another cool trail to explore.

[Paul] How much of your typical mileage is on roads vs trails?

[Dan] I’d say that most of the time it’s tough to really know. I end up doing a mix, I workout on roads, on the mountains, on the track, all of it. It probably ends up being close to 50/50 roads/trails.

Dan Curts

Dan Curts. Photo: Joe Viger Photography.

[Paul] Can you share a typical training week for you?

[Dan] We don’t train on a 7-day schedule, but a typical week would look something like this:

  • Monday – Easy day ~50-60mins on roads
  • Tuesday – 80-90mins trail run (varied elevation and footing depending on how the body is)
  • Wednesday – Easy run (35mins) with strides and 200s
  • Thursday – Workout… Maybe a short tempo, some hills, short tempo
  • Friday – Easy run ~50-60mins
  • Saturday – 80-90mins on trails
  • Sunday – Easy community run

[Paul] Any suggestions for people looking to make the transition from roads and track to trails? Especially for post-collegiate runners?

[Dan] I would say just work on being a varied athlete. Athleticism just helps all around, it is easy to get stuck running flat on tar every day and things get stale. I think just making yourself into a well rounded athlete is (almost) always the best way forward.

[Paul] What’s next for you on your racing schedule?

[Dan] The next big race for me is going to be the Challenge Stellina, in Susa, Italy. Piecing together my schedule around that one. I would love to go race some of the big sub-ultra races in Europe but that will be next year!

Loon Mountain Race men’s podium. Photo: Joe Viger Photography.

Overall Loon Mountain Race results are available on millenniumrunning.com

USATF men’s team results

USATF women’s team results

Photos by official race photographer Joe Viger are available here: https://www.jvsportsphoto.com/f330233464

Race image from Upper Walking Boss by Richard Bolt are on Google Photos.

Photos by Michael Scott

Photo: Ansel Dickey.

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