Dani Moreno has been running for as long as she can remember.
"Starting in eighth grade, we did a half mile each week in PE at school. At first, I wanted to beat all the girls in my grade. Then, when I could beat all the girls, I wanted to beat all the boys in my grade. Then, I just wanted to beat everyone in the school."
Moreno's talent was soon visible to anyone who watched her run. During her freshman and sophomore years in high school, she was already being recruited by some of the top running schools in the country.
Then, Moreno went through a growth spurt and the letters stopped coming. Because she gained some weight, she was even bullied by other coaches.
"Other coaches said that I was all washed up and that I was never going to be fast again," remembers Moreno. "But my high school coach and my parents never lost faith. They told me that I was just getting stronger and my body would adapt. I just kept focusing on hard work until I was able to excel again."
Moreno is now passionate about promoting healthy weight and body image among female athletes. In her senior year of high school, she found the cadence between speed and health and the letters from college coaches came flooding back in. She finally accepted a letter from the University of California, Santa Barbara and ran for the infamous Pete Dolan, who is now in his 30th year coaching for the Gauchos.
"The culture of the UCSB team and Coach Dolan was perfect for me. I wanted to be by the beach and run on the dirt, so Santa Barbara was a natural fit."
In college, Moreno continued her winning ways, running 16:33 and 34:17 for the 5K and 10K, respectively.
After college, however, running became more difficult.
"I had always run for family and friends," said Moreno. "In college, I did the 10K, which no one wants to do. I started this thing in my sophomore year, where I would write people's names on my hand. Like, this lap is for my mom. This lap is for my friend, Amanda. Even in bad races, I thought about those people who helped me, no matter what."
Running for other people motivated Moreno, but after college, she suffered from a period of burnout. (After all, the 10K is 25 laps around the track.) To recoup, Moreno tried rock climbing, backpacking, and was a kayak guide.
Immersing herself in nature, Moreno found herself inadvertently on trails - on which she decided to run.
"About five months after college, I was running again, and I realized that I didn't just run for other people," said Moreno. "I also run for me. Running on the trails was a whole new world of dirt. I started wondering if there were races like this. Intuitively, I went right back to that raw feeling that first overtook me as a middle schooler. Trail running is just a revised version of that."
Inspired by a whole new world of dirt, Moreno applied for a spot on the USA Long Distance Mountain Running Team. To her surprise, she discovered she made the team while she was on crutches, recovering from a rock climbing accident.
"My coach and I only had six weeks to get ready for the race," said Moreno. "At the start of my training, I was like - what do I do? My coach and I decided to make endurance more important than speed and we went for it."
What Moreno remembers most is standing on the starting line, wearing a USA jersey.
"That's one of those moments," remembers Moreno. "When you realize your team is also your country."
In the end, Moreno placed 21st at the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championship despite a tiny training window. This made her realize that not only does she have endurance, but she also has speed.
"This is a different dirt than I was running on in college," said Moreno.
Because of her natural speed, she is being pushed back towards the roads, but Moreno is holding strong to the trails.
"People try to push me to the roads, but at this point in my life, I'm not going to do something unless it truly excites me," said Moreno.
Winning XTERRA Trail Run Worlds was one of those moments.
"I would love to do XTERRA again next year," said Moreno, who is sponsored by rabbit running apparel and Hoka One One. "I feel like I've learned a lot this year and next year, I want to take it up to another competitive level."
Luckily for Dani Moreno, the dirt loves her back.