Written by: Anja Hayes
Brad Dains willingly lets running shape his past, present, and future. Aside from competing in many different ultras and marathons, he plays a role in directing the races he loves dearly. However, he was not always the model he is now for runners. One of the key elements of ultramarathons is building personal strength through enduring difficulties in life as they try to tear us apart. Through his own path, Brad has grown to embody this main aspect and continues teaching other runners how to find hope and hold on to it.
Brad’s journey with running began in a different body and mindset. He describes himself as being “the chubby kid” during high school. While being eager to participate in basketball and football, he could never make the teams. Throughout young adulthood, he continued gaining weight, consistently feasting on fat-filled sugary foods and foregoing balanced meals. His eating habits met the criteria for a severe binge eating disorder. Six years after graduating high school, he managed to put on over 130 pounds.
For the past 20 years, binge eating disorders have rarely been discussed in America. “In the culture we live in,” Brad recalls, “being big like I was, people saw that as okay… guys don’t talk about it as much, but eating disorders and that sort of thing is something that is so prevalent.” Over time, he began understanding how his eating habits were not regular and that he fit the description of a binger. “It was nonstop,” he remembers, adding that at his heaviest, he “would drink 120 oz of Mountain Dew a day.” He tells people frequently that “overeating is one thing, but to the extent that I was doing, it was insane.”
Brad’s decision to adopt a healthy lifestyle came after a day trip to the Iowa State Fair in 2004. Delicious and heavily caloric snacks loomed throughout the festival. Brad jokes that, “For someone who likes food, it’s the best place to go.” Throughout the day, he ate a slew of turkey legs, all while guzzling down beers and finishing off with sugar-filled desserts. At this point, Brad comfortably fit into 44” pants and XXL tops, not anticipating any signs of slowing down. By the next day, all of the food he enjoyed then was now the root of disgust. “I woke up and was tired of being fat,” he recounts while reflecting on the dreadful morning after. The shift in his stomach also shifted his personal image; he was no longer comfortable with succumbing to binging. The same morning after the fair, he agreed to accompany his wife on her jog— breaking a multiple year trend of declining her invitations and saying he “can’t.”
Across from his housing complex, a park’s ½ mile track awaited the first steps of Brad’s personal progress. While his wife circled it several times, he tapped out a quarter of the way through, throwing up at the entrance of a playground. “I had to do the walk of shame back to our apartment,” he retells with a hint of embarrassment. Though grotesque, expelling his appetite holds symbolism in the fact that he was releasing the toxicity he once willingly allowed. Despite the rough start, he did not lose sight of the loop, attempting it a few days later. He aced his second try, completing the first run towards becoming a better version of himself.
Shortly after completing the loop, Brad received life changing advice from his practitioner that forced him to work harder, or else. “The doctor said that I was eating myself to death,” he reveals. Being a husband to his wife and a father to his children meant that he would have to make a drastic change in his consumption and exercise habits. Thus, his first ½ mile was only the first of many accomplishments leading up to ultrarunning. He continued his pace, upping his goals from ½ mile, to 5ks, 10ks, and not long later, full marathons. Brad also picked up healthier cooking habits and replaced his eating addiction with an obsession of personal betterment. By embracing such a severe shift, Brad took back his life expectancy and lost over 100 pounds.
As his physical health became a priority, so did his mentality. His passion for running transformed from a fight to a filled void. Aside from running his first ultramarathon in 2010, he also joined a local running club around the same time, later being appointed to its board of directors. During trying situations in life, Brad has been able to turn to his race community for affirmation. An instance he cites was when he needed a part-time job to provide for his growing family. Once his wife decided to stay at home after the birth of their third kid, he connected with the owner of a local running store, also a member of his club. His side gig at the store allows him to revisit his past through others’ present situations. “A lot of people come in wanting to start running and that’s my point– we are all in,” he shares. “I get antsy, in their face, and tell them ‘yes, let’s do it.’”
Outside of work and the running club, Brad makes a mark on ultrarunning by directing races he once never believed he was capable of. After learning a former director of the Booneville Backroads was stepping down, he volunteered. His natural love of “putting on events for others that lets them hit goals,” as well as his past participation made him a perfect candidate for the position. He now plays a role in coordinating the Backroads races for two years and counting. Eight months prior to the marathon, Brad makes preparations for everything down to timing, insurance, marketing, and custom swag for finishers. One highlight of this process comes from the challenge of differentiating strategies from other years. “It’s a lot of thinking outside of what we have done in the past to attract people,” he says.
By far, the most rewarding part of his work is seeing the impact that competing in Booneville Backroads has on its participants. Each year, Brad has the pleasure to see the racers’ joy in crossing the finishing lines. When he meets them, he often gets the opportunity to hear their “why’s” for deciding to run. Brad recalls a specific racer in 2021, who was celebrating the one-year anniversary of their last round of chemotherapy. “You hear these stories of people overcoming these huge adversities in their lives,” he explains. “I’ve met people who have overcome drug addictions, severe depression, and anxiety.” Fifteen years since the beginning of his own journey, Brad is able to witness hard work pay off as he advocates for others to achieve their own goals. Brad acknowledges that by “getting to hear these stories” he is driven to come back and help annually. “I want to be a part of their success story,” he says.
The incredible milestones Brad has reached does not necessarily mean his life is without hardships. Like many others, he still endures days that seek to diminish his progress. Brad knows this well, which is why he lives by the mantra that “can’t is the worst four letter word.” To Brad, his motto reminds him that, “We can do some pretty amazing things if we stop listening to the voices in our heads telling us that we can’t.” Personal trials are difficult to navigate, yet they also serve a greater purpose. Instead of being dragged down, he chooses to take these difficulties day-by-by, rolling with the punches and continually learning how to push his own limits and along the way, teach others how to conquer their own.