It’s hard to imagine a more adventurous athlete than Dani Moreno. She’s an avid spear fisher, lobster diver, motorcyclist, ocean kayaker, snowboarder, and skydiver. She also works over 50 hours a week as a program manager at a construction software company.
Oh, and did we mention she is one of the fastest female trail runners in the world?
“It’s lobster season right now so that’s very much at the forefront,” said the 2017 XTERRA Trail Run World Champ. “Many days I wonder if I should go diving first or run first. A lot of people will choose running, but I’ll choose diving. I just say, ‘Well, I have some breathing exercises before my long run today.’ It’s all good.”
Moreno’s easy-going personality and huge smile might disguise the fact that she is a huge threat out on the dirt. But the same passion that guides her under the ocean and into the sky also propels her to cover ground at a blistering pace that most can’t keep up with.
Despite winning most of the trail runs she entered last year, she decided to venture off the comfortable path and try Skyrunning this year. Primarily a European sport, Skyrunning typically happens at over 2000 feet in elevation over extremely technical terrain at a steep vertical grade.
In her first year as a Skyrunner, Moreno won the Winter Ezakimak in Mammoth in April, the Broken Arrow Skyrace 26K in Squaw Valley in June, and the Audi Power of Four 25K in July. At the Broken Arrow Skyrace, she also set a new course record.
In a few weeks, Moreno is going to put her mountain training to the test when she sets out to defend her title at the 2018 XTERRA Trail Run World Championship on December 2nd at Kualoa Ranch. Last year, two-time XTERRA Trail Run World Champ Polina Carlson dropped out in the first couple of miles because of an injury but will return this year to challenge Moreno.
Moreno welcomes the competition and doesn’t succumb to pressure. Last year, she was disappointed that Carlson couldn’t race, and she always welcomes the opportunity to challenge herself. Like many college athletes, Moreno suffered burnout after college and took time off. Now, she is back with a totally new perspective.
“The reason I started running again was because I love it and it is so much fun and so freeing,” said Moreno. “Whenever I find myself overthinking, I remind myself that no one is making me do this. I am choosing to run because it makes me so happy. I think my balance comes from knowing at the end of the day, running doesn’t make me who I am. It just adds to me. It’s not like I’m a runner but my name is Dani. I’m Dani and I happen to run.”
Another of Moreno’s strengths is that she completely slays the downhills. On terrain that might slow another runner down, she is fearless. Yet, she blends that fearlessness with a focus that results in her feet landing in precisely the right place.
“I honestly think downhill running is just a matter of letting go,” she explained. “For me, it’s always about trusting your instincts and not thinking too much. If you start questioning, ‘If I put my foot here, what can happen?’ then you will start thinking of all the ways you can fall. No matter what, you’re going to fall at some point. But 19 times out of 20, when you are about to fall, your body is going to catch itself whether you run it out or put your foot someplace else. Just know that your body is a lot smarter than you give it credit for. It doesn’t want to fall.”
2018 was a huge year of growth for Moreno as Skyrunning forced her to work on her uphill running as well as to continue to hone her downhill skills. While she’s always been successful on the trails, she didn’t have the confidence when she climbed that she did on the downhills.
“Previously, I ran too fast uphill initially, so this year, I did a lot of work to learn what gears I had going up a hill,” said Moreno. “On the flats you can gauge an 80 percent effort, a sustainable pace, and an all-out pace. I wanted that on the uphills too.”
Rather than just train on mountains, Moreno and her coach came up with a plan that included two weeks training on flat terrain followed by a hard week on the trails and hills.
“During the flat weeks, we worked on speed and threshold with track and tempo workouts,” explained Moreno. “During the trail weeks, we ran on trails of varying levels of steepness. The cadence I got from speed workouts during my flat weeks carried over into the trail weeks and I learned to develop that same cadence on the uphills.”
Moreno is a true workhorse, putting in 70-80 miles a week while maintaining both a career and her relationships with family and friends.
“My coach calls our running group the Blue-Collar Runners because we all have full-time jobs,” says Moreno, who is also sponsored by rabbit and Hoka One One.
And yet, she has another side that is completely wild and free-spirited and keeps her jumping out of planes and flying down mountains, either on her own two feet or a snowboard. Perhaps that is why she is so at home on the trails. XTERRA races require both an extreme level of fitness as well as the ability to roll with whatever Mother Nature throws at you.
What’s clear is that the blend of discipline and bohemian spirit has resulted in a runner who is extremely comfortable in her own skin. At the end of the day, Moreno’s life is so full that she doesn’t need another title to make her life better.
“It’s better to just be happy with who you are,” she said. “You can win and still not love yourself because nothing you do will ever be good enough. Yet, you see girls finishing in the middle of the pack and they are so ecstatic and happy that they are the ones who are actually winning that day. So whether you are in the front or the back of that pack, that’s the mentality you need to have.”
Running is sometimes considered a simple sport. The old joke that you start out strong, pick it up and then sprint to the finish, sometimes is how the race is won. However, Moreno has a keen understanding of the subtle biomechanics and mental fortitude required for trail running. She can back up her go-for-broke attitude with solid training and an extremely intelligent approach to gravity, physics, and biology. She also understands that strength and fitness aren’t enough. To truly succeed in this sport, you must also accept the adversity that shows up during the long, lonely miles, whether it’s a cramp or a competitor.
“Every little movement of your body causes some shift,” she explains. "Downhill running and spearfishing both require precise measurements. But they also require the ability to let go. When you’re on the trail and in the ocean there’s nothing stopping anything else from being there. It’s not your environment. It’s just the place you are present in.”
The only question is whether her approach will be enough to beat the other women out there who are equally hungry for that crown of ti leaves at the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship on December 2nd.
Learn more about the XTERRA Trail Run World Championship.