When You’re “The Best”, You’re The Best (Dusty, Ch. 5)

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Facebook/Richard Narum

The United States Ski Association (USSA) Junior National Cross-Country Ski Championship was a chance to Dusty to strut his stuff on a national stage. Twice, it had proven a missed opportunity. The third time, he stopped asking for the chance and simply took it.

Begging forgiveness, the adage holds, is easier than asking permission. Had he ever once begged forgiveness, this would easily describe Dusty’s world outlook. But the truth is, he never felt he was doing anything wrong in making his own way. He grabbed life by the balls because it made the most sense. If anyone owed an apology, it was all the people who made rules to needlessly stymie the progress and stifle the enthusiasm of he and others like him.

So it was natural that he would clash with USSA, the national governing body of Nordic skiing. It was a bureaucracy making rules about a sport that should be simple, where everyone races and the fastest one wins. That it could be so complicated to show up to race in the first place would spur Dusty, along with Ed Kohler, to call USSA’s bluff and show it was possible to ski without any of the bullshit.

But just to be fair, he gave USSA’s method two separate chances first.

The first was in 1991, when Junior Nationals was held in Anchorage, Alaska. In order to qualify, skiers needed to race a minimum number of USSA-sanctioned events. Based on a points system and a qualifying race, USSA accepted 40 boys and 40 girls from ten separate regions across the country.

Dusty and Kohler qualified, easily. But qualified racers still had to pay their own way. Neither Kohler nor Dusty came from wealthy households, and while neither was in danger of going hungry, a no-expenses-paid trip to Alaska was not in the cards after the expenses required to qualify – including equipment and travel to races during the season – were factored in.

In 1992, the duo qualified again, this time along with Scott Jurek. Junior Nationals that year was held in Rumford, Maine, and the meet’s location within the Continental United States allowed the trio to scrape together the means to travel there and compete with the Midwest region’s delegation.

Rumford is a paper mill town of roughly 5,000 people in the western reaches of Maine in the foothills of the White Mountains. The small town, according to Kohler, was hugely supportive of Nordic skiing but had also had a lean winter, requiring race organizers to shovel snow into place in order to create a completely skiable race course.

When the Midwest delegation arrived there, Dusty made sure everyone knew who he was – right away – by walking over to the hotel treadmill adjacent to the lobby as his coaches were checking in. Cranking the treadmill up to full speed, Dusty hammered along at top end for a minute until fatigue set in and one misstep sent him flying off the back of the machine.

“It was totally contrary to what everyone would do since they were serious and they were there to race, so he made a big impression there,” Kohler says.

Dusty would be a thorn in the veritable side of coaches and officials from his and other delegations all week. He so grated on the adults that when he later approached a group of them and said “I think my ankle is broken,” they figured he was crying “wolf” and ignored him.

The injury in question had Dusty hobbling around before competition even started. The day before the first race, he was out on a practice loop on what Kohler described as “slushy, sloppy spring snow” when he crossed his skis on a turn and crashed, hard, turning a boot in the process. He got up and tried to walk. He couldn’t.

For his many skirmishes with the ground at Chester Bowl, Dusty knew something was awry. But repeated attempts to convince a coach to drive him to the hospital fell on deaf ears. One coach in particular, whom Kohler identifies only as Mark, would barely give Dusty the time of day.

It was two full days before an adult, concerned that Dusty was still limping (and not using the situation to his advantage or making a joke out of it) said “someone should take Dusty to get x-rayed.”

That someone was none other than Mark, who tersely drove Dusty to the hospital and then back to his hotel, whereupon the latter announced, opening the door on crutches to roommates Kohler and Jurek: “Yep, it’s fuckin’ broken!”

To the chagrin of everyone, especially Dusty, he was now forced to sit in a hotel room for the remainder of the meet, with no outlet for his energy. So he got creative.

The hotel the teams were staying at was shaped like a giant “C,” and had outdoor walkways on the upper floors. Dusty would crutch his way outside and, spying another team in the courtyard or on the walkway across from him, would start hucking snowballs with terrifying precision and feracity. The other teams would attempt to return fire – usually poorly.

“Look at you, throwing like a cripple!” Dusty shouted, still hanging on to his own crutches, “just punishing” the other teams while he taunted them, as Kohler puts it.

Soon, the wounded Dusty found another passion project. A couple of days after Dusty’s x-ray, Mark, the coach who had been notoriously curt with Dusty after his fall, was walking and talking into a walkie-talkie when he slipped on some ice, fell to the ground and cracked a rib.

Dusty spent the rest of the week trying to make Mark laugh before traveling home.

***

With two missed chances in the books, Dusty spent the 1993 season ruing Anchorage and Maine and chomping at the bit to return to Junior Nationals. The meet happened to be at Giant’s Ridge, in his backyard in Minnesota’s Iron Range, that year.

He and Kohler wanted badly to ski on the highest stage in their home state, but their perpetual concern was finances. Travel was less of a problem this year, but the expense of traveling to (end entering) the required minimum number of meets, and getting a qualifier to meet the entry standard, was adding up over the years.

So it was by sheer luck that Kohler happened to be flipping through the USSA rulebook early in the season when he noticed something missing. “It never mentioned a qualifying race being required for entry to Junior Nationals,” he says. “It only said you have to pay $35 or something.”

He promptly phoned USSA to inquire about the loophole. He pressed the woman on the phone, who eventually – reluctantly – said “yes, technically you can do that.”

She apparently then looked into it, as she shortly thereafter called Kohler back to clarify a few things.

“She said ‘you won’t get any support’,” he recalls. “She meant coaching, waxing, that sort of thing.”

“And I said ‘sounds great!’” he continues. “We travel to Giant’s Ridge every weekend already. So I talked to Dusty about it, and we talked to my brother [who was also competing], and the three of us said ‘yeah, let’s do it!’”

First, they had to settle on a team name, as the moniker “Midwest” was no longer available. They quickly arrived at “The Best.”

The name was chosen not out of pomposity, but rather for its potential place on a catchy t-shirt. The boys arrived at Giant’s Ridge wearing those t-shirts, which were emblazoned with the slogan “When you’re The Best, you’re The Best.”

For this and their lack of a delegation, Dusty and Kohler were slightly out of place from the moment they arrived. Making the situation more awkward was the fact that one of the coaches for the Midwest team was one of the coaches for Kohler’s team at St. Paul Central.

“It was awkward for him, anyway,” Kohler says. “We just thought it was funny.”

For one thing, they were without a place to stay. As host delegation, the Midwest team was entitled to stay in the dorm-style accommodations of the Giant’s Ridge “Olympic Training Center,” whose amenities included a wax room. Dusty and Kohler tried to wax their skis there but were turned away.

“They wouldn’t let us into that building, even to socialize,” Kohler says. “They didn’t know how to handle it. But it didn’t bother us too much.”

Instead, “The Best” was busy making friends with other delegations at the Eveleth Super 8, where Dusty’s dad, then a sales rep for Yellow Pages, had brokered a swap of phone books in exchange for a room for his son and his friend.

Meanwhile, Dusty and Kohler had to sort out their representation. They weren’t allowed to have coaches per their absence from an official team, but were required to have a presence at coaches’ meetings. So they attended these nighttime meetings, eating nachos and drinking soda while the coaches went through their orders of business. “The Best” sat in the back and kept their mouths shut. Usually.

“The night before one of the races, the groomer was talking about his plans to groom the course around midnight,” Kohler says. “He said he could go back around, after he put in corduroy for the skate, and put in classic tracks on the downhills.”

Kohler further explains that, at least for elite skiers, remaining in tracks on a downhill can be annoying when they become glazed over, and make passing other skiers more difficult. Or, as Dusty put it:

“I think skiers of this level are perfectly capable of skiing downhills,” he chimed in from the back. Perhaps realizing his objection didn’t have its usual knife twist, he added: “Why don’t we just let the groomer get some sleep?”

“Yeah, we pissed some people off,” Kohler says. “But we sure backed it up.”

The next day, sans classic tracks on the downhills, Kohler won the classic race convincingly. The day following, Dusty won the skate. Eyeing the final event – a team relay – the Midwest delegation begrudgingly approached “The Best” to join their team.

They added the Midwest’s best skier, who led things off in the three-man, classic-classic-skate relay (whether skate or classic constitutes two of three legs alternates from year to year). Kohler put them solidly in the lead, and with Dusty skating as anchor, “The Best/Now With Midwest” was so far ahead he flopped to the ground short of the finish line and crawled his way in on his hands and knees.

The following year, two new rules were implemented:

“Something about flagrant displays at the finish, and that you couldn’t go without being on a team any more,” Kohler says. “So I guess we left an impression.”

No Bullshit – Just Skiing (Dusty, Ch. 4)

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Facebook/Scott Jurek

At the base of Chester Bowl sits a 3-kilometer Nordic ski loop. Like most of Chester Bowl’s amenities, the Nordic track is…homely. And like much of Minnesota’s snow, it is usually covered with a sheet of ice.

“It’s pretty rough,” Dusty says. “If you could make it around Chester Bowl, especially before they widened the loop, you could probably ski anything.”

By the time he was nearing sixth grade, Dusty was starting to grow bored with the 175 vertical feet Chester’s alpine hill offered; his creative endeavors had expanded to include gunning down the hill in Nordic equipment.

The equipment was not fancy, and its origins are unclear. “I was using trackless, no-wax skis and 3-milimeter bindings,” he says. “Not racing equipment.”

Meanwhile, Dusty had accrued a hefty aerobic base swimming for the YMCA. But his mom got in a fight with the swimming coach, and Dusty was left looking for another outlet. Given how much time he spent at Chester and his talent for moving about with long boards attached to his feet, Nordic skiing presented the perfect way to satiate Dusty’s boundless energy. His parents called George Hovland, a local skier to whom they had been referred by a mutual friend, Chuck Kurtis.

“They called and said ‘our son would like to cross-country ski,’ and we went up to Chester Park which is where I lived and I got him on skis and showed him the basic classic technique,” Hovland says. “There was no skating at the time but he picked up on it rapidly.”

From what Hovland knew of the Olsons, he sensed he had a gifted athlete on his hands. “I heard from [Kurtis] that Dusty’s father had decided to run Grandma’s Marathon the day before the race one year, and he finished with absolutely no training,” he says. “At this point I thought either this guy is nuts, or he’s an incredible natural athlete.”

One night early in their lessons, the direct descendant of this “incredible natural athlete” skied smack into a streetlight next to the Chester Bowl chalet. For the thousandth time, Dusty peeled himself off Chester’s snow and kept going.

“I skied there every day I possibly could,” Dusty says. He gradually learned to skate ski, even on his trackless, no-wax skis with the 3mm bindings, and in his first Nordic combined race he finished well ahead of everyone his age.

This caught the attention of Dave Israel, a top amateur skier during the 1980s who was in grad school in Duluth at the time. Israel had led the University of Minnesota Duluth to a team NSAC title with a second place individual finish in college and had tried out for the US Ski Team but, lacking what he called “the natural talent to be a competitive international racer,” he soon turned his focus to a family and career in academics.

“Dusty was probably about 9 or 10 years old and was skiing and running on skis past most of the skiers in the race on some very slow, fiscal, no-wax skis,” Israel, now a Biology professor at Lake Superior College, says of the race. “I remember his dad introducing us after the race and I complemented him on his fitness and encouraged him to continue racing.”

Dusty’s father asked Israel if he would coach Dusty; Israel agreed.

“After that, Dusty just started appearing at our apartment,” Israel says.

The first several lessons consisted of five minutes of skiing followed by an extensive snowball fight. “I was entirely too serious, and he was a goofy, seemingly hyperactive kid, but probably normal for a boy his age,” Israel says. “Being a young newlywed graduate student, I really didn’t know anything about working with kids.”

Israel adapted quickly enough, though, concocting a regimen where Dusty would ski-jour – or be dragged – behind his oversized springer spaniel, Jo-Jo; meanwhile, Israel would ski alongside on the multi-use snowmobile trails.

“It was fun enough for him, it tired out his hyperactive dog, and I got my workouts in,” Israel says.

But Israel’s role in Dusty’s life soon evolved from occasional coach to friend and mentor. Ultimately, the Israel household would provide a solid foundation in rocky times.

“A short time later [Dusty’s] parents went through a divorce, and with all the turmoil that surrounds that he spent quite a bit of time with us,” Israel says. “His mom would let us borrow her old station wagon to go grouse hunting and we had some good adventures getting it stuck and unstuck on the rutted four-wheel drive roads north and west of Duluth.”

In a precursor to Dusty’s future endeavors on the water, he and Israel even went whitewater kayaking a few times. “He eventually carried [it] to much higher levels than I was willing to go,” Israel says.

Dusty came to spend more and more time at the Israel’s home over the ensuing years, sometimes staying with them for weeks or months at a time. As with almost any setting, Dusty transitioned in seamlessly, as though he were part of the family all along.

“I remember him joking around with our four-year-old daughter, prodding her to see how many laps she could run around the house while he consumed his stack of a dozen pancakes after a long run,” Israel says.

The coaching was paying off, meanwhile. Dusty rose through the age-group ranks, obtaining a sponsorship from the local ski shop, Ski Hut, by age 12. When high school rolled around, Dusty had all but outgrown the program at Duluth East.

“He wasn’t thrilled with the coaching he was getting [at East],” says Rick Callies, who coached the Nordic ski team at St. Paul Central High School. One of Callies’ athletes, Ed Kohler, was also an elite skier and had become friends with Dusty through traveling and competing with him on the US Ski Association (USSA) circuit on weekends in places like Ironwood, Michigan, and Giant’s Ridge.

“Dusty was kind of the outcast at his high school program,” Kohler elaborates. “He was more motivated and adventurous and East was a little too stuffy for his liking.”

One year, several parents from the “stuffy” East Nordic program organized an elaborate end-of-season banquet, complete with an expensive catered dinner; the food went all but untouched by the team when Dusty showed up late with a dozen or so pizzas he had ordered and the pies proved a more popular dinner option among his teammates. Angry at his irreverence, the parents who had organized the banquet kicked him out. It is hard to imagine Dusty took it too hard – the banquet wasn’t his style, outside the chance to wreak havoc.

Soon Dusty, who was traveling to the Twin Cities regularly to visit his father, would often use the trips to join up with Kohler and train under Callies.

“I never coached Dusty directly, but he started joining in on stuff we did,” Callies clarifies. Those endeavors included the Central team’s infamous 90k day on the outskirts of Hayward, Wisconsin. At times they were joined by Scott Jurek who, like Dusty, occasionally eschewed the training at his own Proctor High School to train under Callies’ guidance. Whereas Kohler and Dusty could normally shake Jurek easily, his resilience on the 90k day offered the first hints that he would excel at ultra-endurance events.

But Dusty was still beating Jurek then. Callies notes that not only was Dusty a huge athletic talent – he matched it with an unparalleled work ethic and drive to improve as an athlete. That rare and valuable pairing made Dusty a good fit among Central’s skiers, with whom he soon assimilated.

“At Central, we pretty much out-trained everybody and Dusty just took to that mode,” Callies says. “From an early age he was doing stuff that most of us would have considered outrageous.”

It was Dusty’s defining paradox: how could such a legendary slacker, who seems to value enjoying the moment above all else, summon such a legendary work ethic on skis – or in any other endurance-related pursuit, for that matter? He trained his ass off, but he was still the Dustball. “He could go fast, but he kind of reminded you of Beavis and Butthead,” Callies continues.

Maybe he wasn’t a slacker at all. Dusty is laid back, to be certain, but often has a project to which he fully devotes his time and energy, explains his sister, Tonya. The fact that he has fun in the meantime is a testament to his work-life balance, which he works just as fastidiously to maintain.

“He was like me,” Callies says. “[Skiing] was the first thing I remembered being successful at, and he was successful at it so he channeled his energy into it. You finally find something you’re good at and can succeed at, and can get some recognition for, so you get dedicated to it.”

“I’m guessing he’s a lot like a lot of us in that that was an outlet,” Callies continues. “He had a rough childhood and he wasn’t a scholar.”

Tonya says that Dusty has always been willing to work hard at something where he recognized he could succeed. She also says he has historically done better with athletics because it was an area where he was supported and had access to resources. One area where he may have succeeded but lacked that support, she explains, was in academics.

It was due partially to his being diagnosed as learning disabled early in his childhood, Tonya says. That “disability” has since been recognized as dyslexia, a condition to which learners can adapt with the right resources.

“Partially due to family stuff and partially due to resources, he just never was one to think if he worked hard in school he could accomplish what he wanted to. He’s one of the most creative and intelligent people I know,” Tonya says, noting that Dusty taught himself graphic design at one point. “Some of the most successful executives in the world are dyslexic. But academics weren’t presented as an option to him, so he never had the chance.”

“But he never pursued going to college as hard as he did his athletics, partially because he grew up being told he could be an Olympic athlete,” she continues. “That wasn’t unrealistic except for finances and social support playing into that equation ultimately weren’t enough, especially in a sport like Nordic skiing where you need the means to pursue it.”

Callies puts it more bluntly. “You have to be wealthy now to be successful as a skier in the US,” he says. “Athletically he was as good as anyone I ever saw. Had he had the money to play the game, he would have been on the US ski team. He’s gifted – a better pure athlete than Jurek – but he had his circumstances and he didn’t want to play that game.”

“He never doped either, which is funny because I don’t think he’s exactly anti-drug,” Callies continues. “But he never gave into it because it was another one of those things, and that wasn’t what he was there for.”

For Dusty, it was about skiing as fast as he could. It was as pure an endeavor as he could imagine. And for all the times the game held him back – disqualifying him from the state meet because of bad grades, or cornering him in a high school program that wasn’t working for him – Dusty just wanted to test his mettle against the best skiers his age in the US. No bullshit – just skiing.

He would get his chance, along with Kohler. But first, they would have to beat “the game” one more epic time.

Dusty, Ch. 3: The Swedish Cowboy

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Chester Bowl, Duluth

Minnesota has no mountains, and no ocean on its border. But Minnesotans are dedicated to their outdoor recreation – give them big hills or a sizeable lake, and they will make the most of it. For those growing up here, honing a craft like skiing or climbing can be repetitive, limited to well-preserved but smaller spots that are few and far between in a mostly flat state. Those who eventually migrate to the mountains will never take the seemingly infinite space for granted; but for those outdoors-lovers who stay tied to the state through a job, family, or sheer want, things could certainly be worse.

Nestled on the hillside overlooking Duluth, 117-acre[1] Chester Bowl ski area perfectly encapsulates this mentality. Adjacent to college campuses to its northeast and northwest, and to a city of 86,000 to its south, its 175 vertical feet1 of alpine ski slope aren’t exactly crammed into the larger Chester Park area it calls home, but they’re close. Chester Bowl is a very small ski hill. And it was a perfect playground for a pre-teen Dusty Olson, whose parents had him on skis from an early age.

“Chester was maybe two miles from my house, so I would ride my bike there or get dropped off by my parents,” Dusty recalls. “Then one of the ski jumping coaches would usually give me a ride home. We could store our gear in the chalet or the garage behind the chalet. It was a pretty unique place to grow up.”

Soon, the pre-teen Dusty was also hanging out at Chester during the summer, traipsing around the hiking trails during the park’s summer day camp, providing “day care,” as Dusty describes it, for wealthy kids from Hillside – “even though I was from the East End.”

“He never did work here, but he was always around, volunteering to help with stuff,” says Thom Storm, the program director at Chester Bowl. As Dusty grew older he would come running through en route to logging a dozen or more miles on the trails surrounding the city, training for the ski season or his next footrace.

Storm would also gift Olson with one of his many nicknames – “The Swedish Cowboy,” where Swedish denotes the heritage of the name Olson and “Cowboy” was the first thing Storm thought of when he heard the name “Dusty.”

Yet for all its summer intrigue for an active, outdoors-obsessed Dusty, winter was the real time to play at Chester. Before long, Dusty proved himself not only a talented downhill skier but one who was either oblivious to or didn’t care about the risks of pushing the envelope of his own abilities. “We would build our own jumps in the middle of the hill and fly off those things,” he says. “Then you’d have [Todd] Gremmels doing backflips off these jumps in front of a bunch of eight-year-old kids, getting us all fired up.”

Gremmels was a 20-something ski instructor at Chester who would come to mentor Dusty as a downhiller – and later crew for him at the Edmund Fitzgerald 100k. He recalls Dusty as a “wild child.” “He had long hair, like Wolf Boy. He reminded me a lot of myself when I was younger,” Gremmels says. “We had the rope tow and we jumped off big jumps. He was just this long-haired, crazy downhill skier.”

“I’d probably be a lot more appropriate if I hadn’t met [Gremmels] when I was 12,” Dusty deadpans.

Gremmels was immediately impressed with Dusty’s fearlessness on the slope. “Downhilling, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the most extreme things you can do, and Dusty was never afraid of any of it,” he says. “He just threw him body into anything. Pure abandon…he would see adults doing something and would want to do it himself.”

Sure enough, Olson was spurred by Gremmels to attempt a backflip one day off their homemade jump. “He never had any experience on a trampoline or anything, so I tried to discourage him,” Gremmels says. “Of course, that didn’t work, so he went and did it anyway.”

Olson landed hard – on his head – then “bounced,” in Gremmels’ words, and righted himself, ready to try again. Soon, he was landing hard on purpose, setting his ski bindings so his tips would dig into the ground as he wheeled around, playing Superman as he flew toward a face-first meeting with the snow. A couple incidents led to cracked ribs and a tweaked ankle, but these wouldn’t deter Dusty.

“He’s an irreverent soul,” Gremmels says. “Just a constant ‘screw you, you tell me I can’t do this? Well I’m gonna go out and do it’.”

But when it came to defying gravity at Chester Bowl, Dusty had barely gotten off the ground.

***

Given its size, you could reasonably bet Chester Bowl is not a place that regularly produces Olympians.

You would be wrong. For several decades in the 20th century, the hill was a hotspot not only a sanctuary for alpine skiers but a national hub of the less-popular but higher-flying sport of ski jumping.

Ski jumping propels participants down a gigantic ramp and through the air; the jump terminates just a few feet above the ground and sends bodies down the remainder of the hill level to, but floating above, the surface below. Given a big enough ramp, world-class jumpers might be launched over 100 meters through the air, reaching speeds over 70 miles per hour.

One such ramp called Chester Bowl home. In 1924, the Duluth Ski Club built “Big Chester” – a ski jump rising 115 feet off the ground that was the largest in the world at the time – on Chester’s grounds. Smaller slides were added and by the 1970s, Chester was home to five ski jumps and provided the training grounds for several Olympic ski jumpers, including Adrian Watt, Jim Denney, and Greg Swor[2].

Ski jumping is a highly specialized sport that requires specific equipment – including ski bindings that detach at the heel, opposite the bindings of downhill skis – and careful training.

Or, in Dusty’s case, it required whatever skis he already owned, and whatever experience he had garnered on the improvised levitation catalysts he and his friends built on the alpine hill. As far as he was concerned, in fact, the carefully-engineered ski jumps were safer than whatever he was normally launching off of.

His sister explains that Dusty is nothing if not a tester of limits. Sitting with her on the dock at a cabin, they would dangle their feet in the water, seeing whose feet could collect more leeches. “It would totally freak him out,” Tonya recalls, “but he’d always try to get more than me.” At pancake breakfasts, he would eat to the point of vomiting or inducing a day of gastrointestinal misery, all to outdo his sister. Plus, he notes, if he could make himself throw up he wouldn’t have to go to school that day.

And at Chester Bowl, the grade school-aged Dusty quickly outgrew the hill’s vertical offerings and found new ways to entertain himself, skiing down the hill in only his boots, going down on one ski, and – when he was still short enough – skiing between Tonya’s legs.

“He was never satisfied with simply jumping off a jump,” Tonya says. “He would find ways to make the jump bigger or harder, or make the process of going off the jump harder.” This included going off the jump backwards, launching off it on one ski, or pulling his hat over his eyes as a blindfold. And when he outgrew those homemade ramps altogether, he moved on to the “real” jumps.

Chester hosted ski jumping meets each Tuesday and most kids on the hill would come for the free cup of soda and to compete for the traveling trophy that was taller than nine-year-old Dusty. It didn’t take the Swedish Cowboy long to give it a try on his own, launching up to 100 feet off “Little Chester,” the 30-meter jump, in his downhill skis – heels attached and all. By age 12, he had upgraded to the 55-meter Big Chester.

In Dusty’s backyard, nothing would prove his match – not even the renowned Glen Plake.

When Plake swung through Duluth as part of a promotional tour near the turn of the decade, he sat firmly atop the world of extreme skiing. The oft-mohawked freestyler was sponsored by K2 and made frequent appearances on posters and in ski videos; in 1989’s “License to Thrill,” Plake is shown glamorously bombing down sunbathed mountains and glaciers in California and British Columbia, plowing through fresh powder and occasionally falling spectacularly, to the music of Nasty Rox, Inc.

Plake’s tour had officially taken him to nearby Spirit Mountain, but when he heard about Chester Bowl’s selection of ski jumps, he made an unscheduled stop at the smaller neighboring hill to launch off Little Chester. It was over Christmas break, and Plake had a captive audience of young skiers, including Dusty, who by now was in high school.

“[Plake] had this little pickup truck with a trailer behind it,” Storm recalls. “And his wife was there, dressed to the nines with a full-length white fur coat. He was a big deal.”

Dusty was characteristically irreverent. “He was going off Little Chester, so I was giving him shit, like ‘why don’t you go off Big Chester with me?’”

Plake declined to take on Chester’s largest jump. Dusty proceeded without him – again with his downhill skis.

“So that went down as the time Plake chickened out on Big Chester and Dusty went anyway,” says Gremmels.

And so it was that, around age 14, Dusty had seemingly done everything there was to do at his local hill, then invented some new things and done all of them, too. But somewhere between doing backflips on the alpine hill and jumping off Big Chester, George Hovland had seen Dusty and put him on a pair of Nordic skis. Dusty’s days on the snow – at Chester and elsewhere – were just getting started.

[1] Chesterbowl.org/about

[2] Lost Duluth: Landmarks, Industries, Building, Homes and the Neighborhoods in Which They Stood. 2011. Zenith City Press, Duluth, Minnesota.

Snowshoe Running is Complete F***ing Misery, with Eric Hartmark

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Reason 1: You can be out-leaned by Kelly Mortensen at the end. Photo: David Hyopponen

As a runner, winter provides some options. You can throw on the Yaktrax and keep running the same routes. You can cross-train, turning to skis or a fat-tire bike to go easy on your joints and mind.

Or, you can double down, and make running twice as hard with a pair of snowshoes.

“During my first snowshoe race, I thought I was extremely out of shape,” says Eric Hartmark, a distance runner-turned snowshoe racer extraordinaire from Duluth, Minnesota. “I was hurting very badly early in the race. I later realized that snowshoeing is just a lot more painful than road racing.”

Hartmark, 36, a former Brooks-Hansons pro runner who, at the urging of his former coach Kelly Mortensen, first strapped on borrowed boards for a national championship qualifier in 2011 (after an attempt in 2010 was foiled by a no-race-day-registration policy, which he later learned didn’t exist).

He has twice won the US Snowshoe Association (USSSA) national championship and thrice more made the podium. Four times, he has donned the red, white and blue at the International Snowshoe Federation (ISSF) World Championship, finishing as high as second.

And still, he can’t deny that snowshoe running just completely sucks.

“It is fairly common to clip your ankles with the snowshoes while running,” he says. “The running form is also quite a bit more awkward when running on snowshoes. [You have a] little bit of a strange or wider stride.”

Plus, Mortensen adds, “you have more weight on your feet, so you are naturally running slower. With that, your heart and lungs are working harder, and [you] are forced to slow down.”

One advantage is that when you faceplant, the snow is a little gentler than the bare, rocky trail. “Although that is only if you are not trampled by snowshoe racers shortly after you fall,” Hartmark clarifies.

It happened to him once, at the 2013 ISSF World Championship in Val di Non, Trentino, Italy. The misadventure started before he packed when, again, he needed to borrow a pair of snowshoes. He owned some by now, but they had been manufactured without bindings – a weight advantage he believed to be in violation of ISSF rules.

Standing on the crowded start line in his borrowed pair, he learned he needed to have the new kicks certified by a race official, the nearest of whom was behind the starting chute, packed with competitors and difficult to navigate with cumbersome dinner plates tied to one’s feet.

Time winding down, he wedged his way through the veritable cattle car, found an Italian-speaking official who could sufficiently interpret his frantic gesturing to mean “I need a certification tag,” and squeezed his way back to the front of the line, where he noticed “over 90 percent” of his competitors lacked bindings on their snowshoes.

The ISSF bylaws apparently only loosely enforced, Hartmark says a lot of European competitors began sliding ahead of the start line, and ahead of him, as he struggled to understand the Italian PA announcer. “They kept gradually inching forward,” he says. “When the race started, a lot of them were a full meter in front of the line.”

At the gun, he was choked off, struggling to find room to step (or breathe) in a narrow passageway, much further behind the leaders than he was accustomed. A small strip of snow, imported from another city, comprised the race track, and proved too slender to allow passing on the outside.

After a quarter mile or so, Hartmark found a rhythm, began passing people, and started jonesing for a position with the lead pack. But a competitor barreled through the narrow space between he and an adjacent racer, slamming (deliberately, it seemed) into Hartmark, who was thrown off balance but stayed upright.

Just ahead, the ne’er-do-well put the same move on Hartmark’s American teammate, who wasn’t as lucky, and went down hard.

“I quickly jumped, trying to avoid stepping on him, but lost my balance in mid-air, flew forward and landed on my chest,” Hartmark says. “I quickly pushed my hands into the ground in an attempt to get back up, only to feel the sharp spikes of a snowshoe in my back, forcing my face back into the snow.”

“I went to get up again and saw a snowshoe narrowly miss my face,” he continues.

In other words, stick to the Yaktrax, or the skis, this winter.

Dusty, Ch. 2: A Family Kind of Guy

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Facebook/Aaron Bastien

“SEE-ster! SEE-ster!”

A young Tonya Olson stirred awake in her room. It was Christmas morning – about 3 AM – and her younger brother Dusty was the first one up.

“SEE-ster!” Dusty urged his sister, five years his senior, awake. “Look what I brought!” It was all of her Christmas presents, which he’d dragged up and laid in a pile on her floor, even going to the trouble of unwrapping them first.

Dusty’s wake-up calls were a regular part of Tonya’s childhood. More often, he would prompt the family dog to jump on her bed and dash away before she could pin the deed on him. Other times, he would sit on the edge of her bed, swinging his legs, whispering “see-ster!” until she was awake. Sometimes it took hours, especially if Dusty had woken in the middle of the night and sought what he perceived to be the safer room of his sister. Dusty was gregarious from a young age, and Tonya was his closest confidant.

“This is who he was from his earliest years,” recalls Tonya. “When he was two, he had double hernia surgery and within a few days of being home from the hospital, he climbed out of his crib and came to my room to hang out.”

One year after he famously unwrapped his sister’s Christmas gifts, a slightly wiser Dusty still snuck downstairs early to take a peek at everyone’s presents; this time, though, he haphazardly taped the wrapping back together before anyone else woke up. He swears no one noticed.

Tonya and Dusty were never very close to their older brother, she says, so the younger duo stuck together from an early age. “It was us against the world,” Tonya recalls. “I did my best to take care of him, and he did the same.”

“We were kind of late bloomers,” she adds, noting that Dusty was short for his age and that she gifted him the nickname “Runtie” – a name she still uses, despite his having grown to 6-foot-2.

They particularly grew close when the Olsons lived in a one-bedroom suite in the Hotel Duluth for the first year after the family moved to Minnesota from Portland, Oregon, where Dusty had been born. The three Olson kids would sleep on the suite’s couch and made forts in the living room to pass the time, but before long the space proved too small for the self-ascribed “hyperactive” kid, Dusty.

“They would probably have him on Ritalin today,” Tonya says. “But we just figured he needed some exercise.” So their dad would issue the decree – get out of the suite. Go to the YMCA. Burn off some energy.

Tonya and Dusty would traipse around downtown Duluth, hanging out at a pet store and walking to the aforementioned YMCA, where they took class upon class and where Dusty began to harvest the endless energy and grit that would come to define him. First in the pool, on the Y’s swim team, and later on the indoor track, where Tonya would unwittingly find herself in a competition with her brother, he would churn out lap after lap. On the track, Tonya says, simply lapping her once or twice was not sufficient – Dusty would run himself into the ground, ceasing only once he collapsed in a pool of exhaustion.

Before nearby Chester Bowl became a daily excursion for Dusty, he and Tonya would occasionally spend hours on the tiny ski hill, Tonya holding her own and Dusty doing his best to razzle her. Tonya would struggle with the rope tow, getting hauled partway up the hill only to lose her grip on the frozen rope and slide down backwards; meanwhile, “Runtie” would zip between her legs on skis or pass her as closely as possible, riding the edge of control as he employed only one ski – sometimes no skis – to barrel to the bottom of the slope.

***

To a few people, like Tonya, Dusty was literally family. To many others, he doesn’t fit the biological profile – it just seems that way.

Michael Goulette was near Dusty’s age and had met the Dustball two or three times while he was playing soccer at the College of Saint Scholastica in Duluth. They became roommates and friends once Michael moved into the House of Gravity, the legendary off-campus residence so named because its occupants were often rendered unable to stand by the copious amount of ganja they smoked from an REI coffee mug they’d fashioned into a bong and hung from the living room ceiling. The roommates, including Dusty, would swing it around to each other until they bemoaned, restricted to the couches lining the room’s perimeter, that the forces of gravity seemed stronger within the house’s walls.

“We had a closet full of plants back when it was really risky to do that,” Michael says.

Dusty was characteristically undeterred by the law. When he won the Voyageur 50-mile in the early 90s, he converted the ceramic mug he won as a prize into a portable bit of paraphernalia he could use when he was too impatient to wait for its communal swinging counterpart, or if he was in a different room.

It was typical Dusty, according to Michael.

He and Dusty became “fast friends,” as Michael describes it, so intertwined in each others’ circles that Michael began dating a girl, unaware that she was one of Dusty’s old flames. “She never told me,” he says,” but ever since then I swore I would never get involved with one of Dusty’s exes.”

More recently, Michael says, he and an ex-girlfriend were fighting and she tried to get Dusty, her regular skiing partner, on her side. Dusty rebuffed her, saying “I have a penis, man! Whose side do you think I’m on?”

Ever since then, Michael and Dusty have agreed to avoid the other’s love interests, past or present. Meanwhile, ironically, they sparred as if they were two roosters competing for the same mate. “He’d make fun of me because I was stronger than he was, I could do more pull-ups,” Michael says. “But he’d just school me at the endurance stuff, whenever we went skinning or hiking, anything like that.”

Downhill skiing was more of a wash. Michael was a world-class mogul skier, competing at US nationals and traveling on the Bud Mogul Tour. But Dusty was a burgeoning telemark skier at the same time. “Anything I could ski, that fucker could go over the same stuff free-heeled,” Michael says.

Dusty’s talent, Michael explains, lie in taking to his pursuits quickly, and diving into each of them headlong at full speed, often simultaneously, while he burned the candle at both ends by partying into the early morning and still rising early to train his harder than most of his peers.

“He’d party like a madman and then get up and run,” Michael says. “He was quiet about that. He never bragged about how he was an athlete, but everybody knew.”

Another part of Dusty everyone knew was his laugh. It was so infectious, as was the spirit that accompanied it, that Dusty would come to be unlikely best friends with another Goulette – Michael’s dad, Tom. “Greybeard,” as Michael calls him, was working as a carpenter in the Twin Cities in 1998 when he was diagnosed with kidney cancer and given a low chance of survival. He swore that if he pulled through, he would move out west and become a ski bum.

“My son and I always had the same life philosophy, but he lived it and I didn’t,” says the elder Goulette.

He would get his chance to change that when, down one kidney from surgery, he made what he describes as a “miracle” recovery. In 1999, he grew out his beard, earning the aforementioned nickname, and relocated to Colorado. His aim was initially to stay for one ski season, but 14 years later he is still there.

“They say you become your father, but it turns out he became me,” Michael says.

And when Tom started a landscaping business to make ends meet in Colorado, Dusty, with his dog Russie, ventured west to put his carpentry skills to use.

Russie is Dusty’s longest-tenured companion, and at her decade-plus age her attachment to Dusty is an anomaly for a guy who has otherwise stringently avoided putting down roots or committing to any one semblance of family. His family takes the form of whomever he happens to meet, wherever he happens to be. In the late 90s, the “who” was the Goulettes, and the “where” was Tom’s condo in Colorado.

“We basically consider Dusty a member of the family, and I think he considers himself one as well,” Tom says. “He refers to himself as my ‘good son.’ And I don’t think I ever charged him rent.”

For the next year Dusty, and often Michael, lived with Greybeard; Dusty would rise every morning before dawn to run double-digit miles with Russie. When he got back, he would teach Tom how to make pancakes. The trio skied 110 days that winter, Tom yelling at snowboarders from the chairlift.

Dusty and Michael partied like animals, and Tom would never bat an eye when the younger duo pulled out a bong or needed him to act as a designated driver.

Occasionally, too, they would work.

Tom recalls a project where his company re-roofed a four-story high condo; he stopped by the project site to check on his crew and, climbing to the top, was greeted by the site of Michael, Dusty and Russie atop the building.

“It turns out Russie could climb extension ladders,” he says. “But she couldn’t climb down, so Dusty had to carry her all the way back down. This was no big deal to him.”

Dusty’s nonchalance – and the physical feats that paradoxically accompanied it – always baffled Tom, who would rise each morning to find Dusty having finished his pre-dawn run. “That kind of dedication to running – or maybe it was an addiction – was impressive,” Tom says.

Dusty – the consummate surrogate family member – would return hospitality whenever possible. Several years after the trio swung hammers and skied for a year in Colorado, Michael was returning to Minnesota after a long stint of mountaineering in Alaska.

“I was doing thousands of hours of stuff, and it was just getting batshit crazy, the stuff I was doing,” Michael says of his time in Alaska. “So at one point I get spooked, I freak out on top of a mountain, and I decide to quit and come back to Minnesota so I can see the trees in the fall.”

He returned – “without a pot to piss in,” he says – and there was Dusty to put him up. As a bonus, Dusty gifted him a new pair of ski boots, disseminating the perks of working for Rossignol at the time.

“He’s the most generous guy,” Michael says. “But he likes to fly low.”

“Someone once asked my dad how he knew Dusty, and he said ‘I don’t know, I guess I’m just lucky,’” he continues. “And I think that says it all.”

Chronicles of a Dustball – the book?

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A few years ago, working as Trail Runner Magazine’s sort-of remote intern, I turned a rambling interview with Dusty Olson into a profile that, with the editors’ pushing, snowballed into my first print feature. It is here.

Anyone who knows Dusty – outside the persona built for him in books by Chris McDougall and Scott Jurek – knows the stories touched upon in that article aren’t even the tip of the iceberg. They’re like the shavings from the tip of the iceberg that have drifted through his many circles of acquaintances and, being deemed family-friendly enough to be shared widely (which is still a stretch), became part of the public domain.

After the article came out, Dusty started regaling me with more and more stories via e-mail, urging me to start recounting them with the same flare. I added those to the ones I left out of the article, and to the extended cut of a few that made it in, started interviewing the other people in these stories, and started piecing together what kind of resembled a book. Or a novella. Or just a collection of longform stories about Dusty. I don’t really know what you want to call it, which is pretty fitting for our friend from Duluth.

For a little bit, there was funding, though that ran dry, and as my role with Trail Runner (and, later, The Gear Junkie) ramped up, this project fell on the back burner. It sure was fun, though.

So I’ve decided to publish what I’ve got so far up here. In the wildest scenario, there will be enough interest for me to continue writing. At the very least, I wanted to share it with the people who would probably find these stories most compelling. Once a week or so, I’ll throw up another chapter. Some of them are atrocious first drafts. Some of them are okay. Here’s the first one, which is adapted from interviews with Olson, Todd Gremmels, and this incredible race report by Jason Cork and Brad Nelson:

***

The Edmund Fitzgerald 100K

“If I get second can I fuck your daughter?”

Dusty Olson was five hours and 15 minutes into the 2002 Edmund Fitzgerald 100k, which ran on roads from Findland to Duluth along Lake Superior’s north shore. An annual race, “Edmund Fitz” was doubling as the US 100k championship that year.

“Hell, you can fuck me if you get second!” Todd Gremmels shouted back. He was driving alongside Dusty in the latter’s Volkswagon, crawling south on Highway 61 with the door propped open to give the runner updates on his progress.

With about two hours to go, Dusty was in third, and closing in on the leaders. He had made up nearly a minute and a half on second-place Charles Hubbard in the last 20 minutes. Chad Ricklefs – “Bug Boy,” as Dusty and Gremmels would call him – was in first, almost 14 minutes ahead of Dusty, but the gap was closing, slowly.

While the real prize apparently lay with a runner-up finish, Dusty still had his eyes on the leader. Ricklefs, who that summer had won the Leadville 100, had publicly declared his intention to end Scott Jurek’s winning streak at Western States the following June. Dusty, ever loyal to his friend, took this as a personal affront and vowed to fell Ricklefs at Edmund Fitz.

Adding further intrigue was Ricklefs’ declaration that he would also be able to outdrink Dusty after the race today. Ricklefs, like anyone who heard his challenge, likely knew this was untrue, but must have relished the agitation it caused his rival.

Not that it changed Dusty’s post-race plans one bit.

“Win or lose, I’ll still booze,” he relayed early in the race to Jason Cork, a former roommate who with Brad Nelson was covering the race for Ripsaw News. Cork called this Dusty’s “first printable quote” that day.

Cork and Nelson’s day had started turbulently. Near sunrise, they were en route to Finland, which they believed to be the location of the race start; having heard the logistical tidbit only from Dusty, however, it was with scant confidence they drove that direction. As they approached the tiny north shore town, the grill of their Ford Escort became a bulls-eye for an in-flight dove, “desperately scaring us and killing the bird of peace,” they wrote in their report. “It was a bad sign.”

Upon arriving in Finland, Cork and Nelson were relieved to see several people dressed as race officials and school buses. “Where is the start line?” they asked one reflective vest-clad volunteer.

“Uh, right here,” he responded.

Cork and Nelson rested easy for twenty minutes – flummoxed only by the discovery that their Irish Cream had leaked and thoroughly soaked the contents of a backpack, leaving them without dry, warm clothes and, more importantly, without a means to “Irish up” their coffee – until another official notified Cork and Nelson that the race had started at 7:00. The reporters, having arrived at 7:02, had given the runners a 22-minute head start. But it was a long race, and 12 minutes later Dusty was relaying his post-race ambitions to them as he passed the intersection of County Road 31 and Tangness Road. Cork and Nelson wondered aloud what units are used to measure tangness.

At the 10k mark, Gremmels attempted to hand Dusty a replenished bottle, the contents of which were a mystery to observers who saw the badly-fumbled handoff. The only known ingredient was electrolytes, unless Dusty was using “electrolytes” as a euphemism when he asked for them. After Dusty regrouped and made off, refueled, down the road, Cork and Nelson inquired as to what was in the bottle.

“It doesn’t matter what I give him – I could give him straight gin and it’d be okay,” Gremmels replied. “He could be nipping on a tequila bottle and he’d do fine. You could cut his Achilles tendon and he’d still finish.”

After spending the next 15 minutes with Gremmels, Cork inevitably asked whether the runner and crew chief had smoked a lot of weed on the way up that morning.

“No, no – I’m 45,” Gremmels said, according to Cork. “I just did a lot of acid in the 70s.”

Just after 9 AM, Dusty was in fourth place, a little over four minutes off the lead, as he ran by Gremmels, Cork and Nelson. “Who’s leading?” he asked. “Is it the guy who looks like a Mosquito?”

Ricklefs, whose slight build and wraparound sunglasses would earn him the moniker “Bug Boy” by the day’s end, was indeed in first. He would remain there, surging and increasing his lead, for most of the rest of the morning. But at about 11:30, 60k into the race, the gap stopped growing. Charles Hubbard, in second, began fading even harder. With 30k to go, Dusty was 13 minutes behind Ricklefs and ten minutes behind Hubbard.

“Those guy fucking waddle, I got ‘em,” Dusty shouted.

It was then that Dusty – by then, as Gremmels put it, the fastest-moving thing on the course – inquired about his incentives to earn runner-up status. Gremmels phoned his daughter, a student at Harvard Law School, but only confirmed that “second wasn’t good enough,” as Cork and Nelson would write.

He withholds the news from Dusty, who was surging and near the 90k mark was only three minutes behind Hubbard. When asked what he was feeding his runner, Gremmels replied “liquid crack.” It was not clear whether he was joking.

At 93k, Dusty passed Hubbard hard. He continued to reel in Ricklefs but ran out of road, finishing second in 7 hours, 17 minutes – seven and-a-half minutes behind Ricklefs, who won the US 100k title in 7:09:29.

Gremmels immediately handed Dusty a Miller High Life, which Dusty promptly cracked open. As Hubbard came into view and struggled toward the line, Dusty told Cork and Nelson he would bring his dirty socks to the third-place finisher. “Here’s my socks!” Dusty shouted to Hubbard. “You gonna do my laundry? ‘Cause I made you my bitch!”

Hubbard responded by collapsing. He was carried to a medical tent and later, according to Gremmels, was taken to the hospital. “Dusty will probably end up doing his own laundry,” Cork and Nelson wrote.

Dusty, meanwhile, sought some medication of his own.

“Get my van!” he shouted to Gremmels. Gremmels insisted he finish his beer first.

“No, get my van!” Dusty egged him on. “I’ve got my special medicine in my van!”

The Skinny for the week Donald Sterling slipped out of the news cycle

The Superior “spring” races were this weekend at Lutsen. I could literally not care less whether the 50k again served as the USA Track & Field Minnesota Ultra-Trail Championship, as it has in the past.

The big concern going in were trail conditions, as Lake Superior has been providing its not-so-immediate vicinity with its own second winter this spring. Just a week before we were getting reports from both the RD and others out scoping that in spots where snow persisted, it was deep, and that though dry trail existed, it was wedged between mud and other nastiness. In other words, the notably tough Superior Hiking Trial was going to be even tougher. This caused Kurt Decker to bail on the race because he isn’t tough anymore. Just kidding, he had a wedding to go to. Which is disappointing. Priorities. Your twitter handle isn’t “@mnweddingattender.”

@mnweddingcrasher would be cool though.

Anyway,

It seems things managed to mostly clear up in time for the race, but conditions were still far from ideal. Ben Cogger (Duluth) still managed to break four hours, winning in 3:54:18. He must have run alone for a lot of it because he was 23 minutes (exactly) ahead of runner-up Jonas Holmberg Thunder Bay). Adopted Johnnie and relative city-slicker Dimitri Drekonja (Minneapolis) was third, nary a minute behind in 4:18:21.

Christi Nowak (St. Paul) continued to show she’s back to her unbeatable form, besting the rest of the women’s field by nearly an hour. She won (good for 10th overall) in 5:01:32 while Tiffany Kari (Duluth) was second in 5:56:00). Shawn Severson (Alexandria) was third overall and first master in 6:00:25.

50k results are here.

Meanwhile, Heather Kampf’s Husband dominated another JV race, winning the 25k in 1:53:29. His margin of victory over Andrew Papke-Larson (Decorah, Iowa) was only about 48 seconds, but Benny Boy also took a nasty spill and a wrong turn. Send your put-downs and words of derision to Ben.Kampf@adidas.com.

Emma Spoon (Decorah) won the women’s race in 2:12:44.

And it appears Ryan Braun took a break from cheating in baseball to run this race as he finished seventh in 2:05:35. Unless there’s a different Ryan Braun – come to think of it, Roid Man probably doesn’t live in Rochester, MN, as this one does. Sorry, trail-running, non-PED-using, better-state-residing version of Ryan Braun. Nice run.

Long-form 25k results can be found here.

Etc.

Ultra runners fancy themselves a tough bunch (rightfully so), but I’d compel those of you who abhor the roads to step out of your comfort zone and race the Brian Kraft Memorial 5k next weekend. It’s fast and flat and hurts so good. Why?

1) Speedwork isn’t fun, but it’s good for you. There’s a reason Krar and Sage, not Anton, have been winning races lately.

2) It’s around Nokomis, so think of it as one lap of the old FANS course. Then divide 24 or 12 hours by your 5k time and inflate your ego with an imaginary new PR from FANS.

3) It’s an old-school race. No one wears a costume and jumps around and the spectators are watching the race instead of holding glittery signs. You don’t get a medal for finishing and there’s no beer garden or music festival after. Everyone runs fast and then moves on with their lives. 60 or so guys (and a couple gals) broke 17 minutes at it last year because the Twin Cities are awesome at running. So, if you appreciate running because of running, and not because it give you new photos to post on Facebook, this race is for you.

4) While it’s on the team circuit, you can register for the race the regular way and not have to give a dime to USATF!

5) It’s on Memorial Day, so you won’t be working.

6) You will probably beat me. Seriously – I’m into heavy training for Grandma’s and have never been more tired. Last night the roommates and I were watching a movie and the next thing I know it’s 3 AM and I wake up on the hardwood floor in a puddle of drool. Road running is hard.

Back on the subject of Superior, let’s venture further back in the pack and congratulate those who were copleting their first-ever 50k. Among them were Lucas Geadelmann, Brett Balfe, Jessica Johnson and Colleen Supple, who were completing their trip through TC Running Company’s debut 50k training group. Awesome work, guys.

I guess I’ll go take a nap now (see #6).