Dan Probst thinks he is an adventurer who runs, not a runner who happens to find adventure.
While many of Probst's friends in the Whatcom County running community were enjoying the sunshine and flat course in the recent Fairhaven Runners Waterfront 15K, he was on his way to more than four days of taking on the ups and downs of a demanding course in the Italian Alps.
To show just how challenging the 330K course is, 629 runners started the third annual Tor des Geants (Tour of the Giants) but only 392 finished by the time the race was cut off on Sept. 16, a week after the event started, according to the event's website.
"Put it this way," said Probst. "The total elevation of 80,000 feet through 25 mountain passes above Italy's Aosta Valley is like running up and down (the distance from sea level to the top of) Mount Baker eight times in six days. It's the most difficult mountain race in the world right now."
Probst said he's "all about the experience, not about the finish," but he's competitive enough to dream of a top 10 finish in the Tor des Geants.
"I feel I'm capable of the top 10. I'm coming back if I can afford it. I got 124th this year and improved my time several hours over 2010," said Probst, who finished 49th in the first event, when far fewer runners entered. In both races, he was the first American to finish.
"As far as I know, only three Americans finished this year, and two of us are from Bellingham," he said.
Probst, 33, is proud that his Bellingham buddy, Morris Arthur, also finished, several hours behind him.
"It's come full circle," said Probst, a 1997 Ferndale High graduate. "Morris inspired me to start trail running long distances, and now he says I inspired him to run in the Tor des Geants. We train together, and Morris and his family have helped support my running."
While at Ferndale High, Probst tried cross country one season but didn't like the pace of 5K courses, which were far too short to suit him. So, at age 16, he became a competitive mountain biker.
At age 18, he challenged himself to bike across the United States - from Bellingham to Virginia Beach, Va. - and even shook off being hit but not seriously injured by a car. He did it in 44 days.
"My real goal is to break the supported running record on the Pacific Crest Trail (from the Canadian border in Whatcom County to the Mexican border). "I would have to run 2,700 miles in less than 65 days."
By "supported," he means receiving logistical help - important for someone running the course for the first time.
"I'll run anywhere in the world. As long as there's an adventure, I'll be there," said Probst, who this year received sponsorship from Tecnica Shoes.
Probst said he couldn't afford to keep mountain biking, but he didn't want to get out of shape, so he joined the Fairhaven Runners in 2004.
"I was hooked on trail running the first time I ran Galbraith Mountain," said Probst, who has run the Chuckanut 50K three times and now serves as a volunteer at an aid station.
"We're proud that it's the second-largest 50K in the nation," he said.
Probst said his best finish in any race was second place in the 2007 Rock and Ice Ultra at Yellowknife in Canada's Northwest Territories.
Races like that honed his mental and physical endurance for the challenge of the Tor des Geants, which Probst said "makes the Hard Rock 100K in Colorado look like a speed bump."
The winner, Spain's Oscar Perez, ran the mountainous 330K course in a race-record 75 hours, 56 minutes, 31 seconds, and the French won the team trophy. The first woman, Italy's Francesca Canepa, finished a remarkable seventh overall in 85 hours, 33 minutes.
"It's just the most incredible experience," he said, talking of the scenery and the people in the Alps. "The Aosta Valley community is totally supportive. There are 1,200 volunteers. You could not replicate this race anywhere else in the world. The mountain running culture is unparalleled."
The Tor des Geants is now so popular "the entries closed this year in less than half an hour after they opened," Probst said.
Temperatures at night fell well below freezing, but he kept on running.
"I love the cold. You learn to sleep when your body tells you to," Probst said. "I think I slept a total of about 10 hours. Your time in the race includes all your stops. At night, you run with very powerful headlamps."
Probst was among the hundreds of runners delayed by a snow and ice storm on the final leg.
"Seventy-three runners, 69 men and four women, finished the full 330K before the storm delayed the rest of us about five hours. Eventually, they cut the race about 30K short, so I wound up running about 188 miles."
He started at 10 a.m. on Sunday, Sept. 9, and arrived at the finish at 6 a.m. on Friday, Sept. 14.
Probst's experience have spurred he and his brother Tim - "he's the entrepreneur" - to start an internet business, Sustainable Racing Supplies.
"What I would also like to do is bring back the Mount Baker Marathon, which they ran a century ago," he said of the long-ago predecessor to the Ski to Sea race.