Dan Curts on his path to mountain running and why he loves New England as a training ground.
Editor’s note: Since this piece was written, Curts took second at the Xterra Trail World Championships in the Half Marathon distance on October 1, 2023 at Sugarloaf Mountain, Maine.
Dan Curts, a New England-based mountain runner, has had an impressive showing in the last year. In July 2022 he placed second at the USATF Vertical Mountain Running Championships held at Loon Mountain in New Hampshire. He went on to represent the United States at the 14.3km Challenge Stellina race in Susa, Italy in August 2022 (where he placed 16th) and followed this with a 6th place finish in Italy’s Trofeo Nasego 21.5km mountain race the following weekend.
Curts has carried his momentum from last season’s successes into this season. At the beginning of this year, he signed on as a Brooks athlete. He started his racing season off with a bang, finishing 1st at the 2023 USATF Mountain Running Championships held in New Hampshire at the end of April. With this race, Dan earned himself a spot on the national mountain running team and represented the U.S. at the 2023 World Mountain and Trail Running Championships held in Austria in June.
Aside from racing, Curts is working with his coach, professional runner Ben True, and training partner, ultra-marathoner and Adidas TERREX athlete, Eric Lipuma, to build out a professional running team – Northwoods Athletics – for runners in New England. “We really think that New England is a special area,” explains Dan. “You have really good mountain access and all the dirt roads here are incredible. There’s also really good access to ski hills, which, in my opinion, are really good spots for summer training. It’s a really unique place that I don’t think is fully taken advantage of and we want to build up the pro side of it.”
Contrary to what his accolades may suggest, Curts is actually relatively new to the mountain running scene. Originally from Ellsworth, ME, the 27 year old runner began his career on the track. Curts competed in cross country and track in high school with impressive results: he was an 11-time state champion and was named the Maine Gatorade Boys’ Cross-Country Runner of the Year in 2012 and Track and Field Athlete of the Year for the 2013-14 season. In college, Curts competed for Iowa State where he was an indoor All-American and the Big 12’s 5,000-meter outdoor champion in 2019.
It wasn’t until spring 2022 that Curts really began to focus on mountain running “Things weren’t clicking for me on the track,” Dan explains. “In high school I didn’t know mountain running was a career option, but then through college I was seeing that [mountain running] was more of an option. I was struggling to really feel motivated and interested by the track. I just wasn’t that into [racing]. Mountain stuff had been at the back of my mind throughout college, so I thought I’d try it out.”
Success came relatively quickly in the mountain running space for Curts, who has a knack for the technicality required of mountain runners. “I think I’m pretty good at descending on somewhat sketchy stuff,” he says. “I really enjoy that and think that mentally it’s super fun.” After an impressive showing at the Loon Mountain Championships in 2022, Dan’s career began to take off.
The biggest adjustment Curts has made to his training as he switches from focusing on track events to mountain running has been to significantly increase his training volume. “This past winter I started to do a lot more really slow volume and didn’t care as much about the modality. Biking, skiing, really whatever to get the heart rate up,” says Curts.
While a lot of his day is consumed running up and down local peaks or getting more volume through other activities like skiing or mountain biking, Curts makes a point of taking the time to explore and adventure in other ways, too. “I love finding super cool swimming holes and hanging out there,” he says. “I always have a mask and flippers in my car all summer because there are so many lakes and rivers [in New England] to explore.”
Curts does most of his training in the Upper Valley, a region in New England which straddles the Vermont-New Hampshire border, where he mostly lives out of his van which enables him to sleep at trailheads and be light on his feet with training. He credits some of his quick success in mountain running to his East Coast roots and his continued training in this region.
“I think it’s definitely true that growing up in New England makes you tougher,” Curts says. “Trails out here are rough, they’re not perfect, and I think that lends an advantage. I think the fact that you’re not at altitude is another odd little piece. Our trails don’t switch back, they just go straight up to the summit… you can get so much muscular output [on these steeps] that I think can be a huge benefit. And I think the variability of cool training in New England does really make for an advantage. Last year, I went to a ski hill down the road one night when it was raining and just practiced running down a 40% grade when it was wet.”
Curts admits to still getting his feet under him as he continues to transition to the mountain running space. “It’s tough with some of the mountain training stuff – the races vary so much and you can’t be very fit for all the courses so you have to be very fit generally and prepared for a lot of different scenarios. “If you’re a pro-runner you’re also just not making that much money and it’s hard to piece together how to make things work financially.”
While Curts is excited to continue to pursue success in the national and international mountain running scene, he’s also excited to explore some Fastest Known Time efforts locally and to continue to advocate for New England as a great training ground for professional trail runners. “I have a bit of an East Coast bias and want some of [those projects and places] to get some love,” he says. “I think it would be super cool to do a project on ascent and round trip records on the big peaks in New England.”
All photos by Ansel Dickey