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Dusty Olson can paddle Class-5 rapids, ski masterfully over moguls and outrun most people, no matter the distance. He’s also one of the funniest people in ultrarunning. He just hasn’t had the chance to show everyone.
“[Dusty’s] been a lot of places and been in a lot of situations that lend themselves to good stories…” Here, Olson on a run near Chamonix, France.
To know Dusty Olson is to know his laugh. It’s also the easiest way to spot him.
Not much about him stands out among other Minnesotans. His 6-foot-2 frame, imposing and athletic by most standards, is just a touch above average in a place where Norse ancestry is the norm. His trademark hair, often swept back and reaching his shoulders, is shorter these days.
But that bellowing guffaw—which is easy to bring on—is pure Tommy Chong.
I first heard the laugh at a book-signing event for Born to Run in a Minneapolis suburb. I was sitting in the back next to Olson as author Christopher McDougall espoused the benefits of barefoot running to an attentive crowd.
“Yeah, I run barefoot,” Olson whispered, cackling. “Like when the husband comes home early. I can run barefoot fast, man!”
Scott Jurek—returning to his home state—had been billed as the guest of honor for the event. A few dozen people showed up for a chance to run with the Western States icon but were pleasantly surprised to find Olson, whom they knew from the book, there as well. At Jurek’s urging, he took part in the Q&A, where he held forth on two main topics: first, that he inspired Jurek to run his first ultra, and, second, that he often swore at Jurek when crewing for him. While he was answering questions, something about his demeanor seemed different than that of the vaunted runner or the author.
It wasn’t that Olson, 38, seemed out of place taking questions from Born to Run devotees, and it wasn’t that he was annoyed to take part in the event; Jurek introduced him as a friend and treated him like an equal, and Olson seemed happy to be there. It was that he seemed to have more fun sitting in the back, peddling snark.
The Untold Story
“[Dusty]’s been a lot of places and been in a lot of situations that lend themselves to good stories, so he’s a lot of fun to run with,” says Kurt Decker, who manages a running store in the Twin Cities and is active in the local ultra scene. “He’ll have these hilarious stories and one-liners, and with some of them you think, ‘Well, I’m glad we’re in the woods and the only ones hearing this.’”
He has clocked a 3:08 at Oregon’s Bendistillery 50K, and has twice placed in the top 10 at the competitive White River 50-Mile. In the 1990s he was an elite cross-country skier, winning Junior Nationals in the 15K skate in 1993, winning the prestigious Pepsi Challenge race and placing high in the American Birkebeiner. In 1995 Olson completed a solo circumnavigation of Lake Superior in a kayak.
But you might not know that if you came to know him the way most people have: as part of the Scott Jurek story. Immortalized by Born to Run and, more recently, Jurek’s memoir, Eat and Run, the caricature of Olson has fit a consistent mold—he is the free-wheeling, foul-mouthed sidekick, the skier who was more talented in high school, who convinced “Jerker” to try his first ultra and who, after Jurek beat Olson in that race and never looked back, stayed at Jurek’s side as a consistent crew member and pacer through the latter’s most dominant years.
Olson, according to the story recently reinforced by Outside, was the assistant, second fiddle in both the workload and the glory during the period when Jurek won the Western States 100 seven straight times (including a course record), won Death Valley’s 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon twice and set a course record en route to winning the Hardrock 100.
All of that happened, yes—but there’s a lot more to Olson’s story. You just have to ask him to tell it.
Scott Jurek, in his Western States 100-Mile heyday, and Olson, pacing, at the Rucky Chucky river crossing. Photo by Patitucci Photo.
Finding a Niche—or Three
Olson’s own opportunities as an athlete had been plentiful, and he had pursued nearly all of them, sometimes simultaneously. Born in Portland, Oregon, Olson grew up in Duluth, Minnesota, where his parents would take him to the local YMCA.
“I was a hyperactive little kid, so they would drop me off there and I would be running around and swimming a lot,” Olson says. “The lifeguards just had me do laps and laps and laps, and eventually they put me on the Y’s swim team.”
Before long, he was also playing in the northern Minnesota snow. “I lived about two miles from Chester Bowl [ski area], so in third grade I was riding my bike up there almost every day,” Olson says. “They had downhill skiing and ski jumping there, plus a lot of cross-country ski trails.”
But Olson, whose father had run Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, had the makings of an endurance athlete. “My parents were never into actually supporting me, but they’d drop me off at the races,” he says. “To hear others tell the story, basically a car would pull up, then a little kid would jump out and they’d drive away.”
He was also convinced to try cross-country skiing by a member of the local high-school team, as well as by Dave Israel, a skier who lived in Duluth. “Dave helped me through my teenage years since I didn’t have a very good time at home,” Olson says. “He was pretty much the first and only coach I had.”
Regardless, Olson had found a niche. At Duluth East High School, Olson enjoyed success as a skier—as long as his grades didn’t get him suspended from competition ahead of the state meet. He finished third in the region as a ninth grader, and won regionals as a senior prior to placing fifth at the state meet. In 1993, he won junior nationals in the skate and relay.
“Dusty had a habit of independence and kind of turned himself away from authority,” says Ed Kohler, who skied against Olson in high school and was on the junior-nationals-winning relay team with him. “He listens to everyone and everyone’s advice, but he doesn’t like a formal coaching relationship. He still knows a lot of stuff, just from ‘going to the University of Life,’ as he calls it.”
Olson was also an accomplished runner, earning all-state honors as a senior.
That would have been enough activity for most high schoolers, but Olson’s appetite for pushing himself as an athlete was insatiable.
“In high school I was bike racing a lot, too,” he says. “I started doing triathlons and got third in the Brewhouse Triathlon [in Duluth] when I was 17. I was also a Class 5 whitewater paddler and spent a lot of time doing that.”
Kohler recalled a day when he and Olson were at a friend’s house in St. Paul, watching homemade kayaking videos, when Olson was struck by inspiration.
“After a few beers he thought it would be a good idea to bring one of their kayaks in the house and ride it down the stairs into the basement,” Kohler says. “Then after a few more beers, he thought it would be a good idea to go down backwards.”
Olson, Jurek and Jenny Uehisa, Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah. Photo by Justin Bastien.
Dusty the Runner
Olson’s foray into ultras was the product of his appetite for training volume and his anemic finances.
“The summer after high school, I was riding my bike a lot, sometimes up from the Twin Cities,” he says. “I would do 40 hours of training a week. I was used to riding three to five hours at a time, three to five hundred miles a week.”
But working for minimum wage at the Ski Hut shop in Duluth did little to support his cycling habit. “Then, I started running, and would spend the same amount of time running as I spent on the bike, going on three-, four-, five-hour runs,” he says. “I was going like 180, 200 miles a week, like [Anton] Krupicka mileage. So sooner or later it was like, ‘Heck, this Voyageur [50 Mile] isn’t much different than the training runs I’ve been doing.’”
A month later, he was on the starting line.
“I started out really slow, going out with some ultrarunning veterans from the area,” he says. “Then at the turnaround, going up Spirit Mountain [ski area], I noticed people weren’t keeping up with me. So I put my head down and clocked an 18-minute 5K split at the top of the hill, and ended up winning the thing.”
Olson also put his training to use on the roads, running Grandma’s Marathon 12 consecutive years, going as fast as 2:36. One of his encounters with Grandma’s lives in local legend, though not because of the time he ran.
“In 1994, the year I was doing crazy mileage, I was [partying with my friends] at the Anchor Bar and … it was three or four in the morning before I finally got home. I figured I’ve got three hours to sleep before the bus takes us to the start line [Grandma’s is a point- to-point course that finishes in Duluth]. I’m figuring I can’t take a nap or I might miss it.”
So Olson ran the entire course backwards and slept at the start line. “I slept in a nice drafty spot for an hour and a half before the race started, then ran back.”
Olson prides himself on his sporting versatility, from ultrarunning to skiing to paddling. Photo by Justin Bastien.
Dusty the Sidekick
Yet the way Olson would come to be defined—at least in running circles outside Duluth, where he is considered a local legend all his own—was as a prominent but not leading figure in Jurek’s development, life and career. The super-domestique. That certainly wasn’t how it started, though.
“I looked up to [Olson] a lot as far as someone who worked really hard in training,” Jurek says. “Dusty resonated with me when it came to the work ethic early on in my career—put in the miles, work your butt off. That’s who he was.”
Of course, their athletic fortunes reversed somewhat, and while Olson is not bitter— despite what some tellings of the story suggest—he admits his eventual role wasn’t his dream as an athlete.
“The whole thing kind of snuck up on me,” Olson says. “When Scott asked me to pace at Angeles Crest in 1998, I was like, ‘Sweet, I’ll do it.’ The first couple years I was just helping a friend out. But as Scott started having more and more good results, I had more and more pacing responsibilities, and I was able to focus less on my own opportunities to train and race.”
Not that he was required to help. “We were buddies, and I asked him to crew for me because we liked each other’s company,” Jurek says. “We both loved it. But people sometimes see his role as a supporting role. It’s unfortunate now, but for some reason a lot of people see it in a different way.”
Jurek’s life wasn’t all glitz and glam, either. Most elite ultrarunners don’t rake in huge paychecks today, and that was even more the case in the early 2000s. “I was working extremely hard the whole time,” Jurek says. “Dusty was too. I wanted him to be in on that because he kept it fun. It’s too bad people get this impression that there’s sour grapes, that I got all the fame and glory and Dusty got nothing.”
Olson, for his part, says he was happy to help a friend.
Olson running the East Rim, Zion National Park, Utah. Photo by Justin Bastien.
“I was happy to help Scott…[even though] it was hard to juggle it with my job as a self-employed carpenter and my own life,” he continues. “But being a Midwesterner, you just kind of put your head down and work hard for someone, and hope it comes around. It is what it is.”
Olson also accepts that this scenario may have been an inevitable result of Jurek’s willingness—and Olson’s reluctance—to focus on just one athletic pursuit. “I might not have had the results he has, but I’m well-rounded,” he says. “I can rip through moguls on telemark skis, and paddle through steep creeks.”
Kohler, who lives in St. Paul but has stayed in touch with Olson since high school, says it fits Olson’s friends-first mentality.
“Even with all the time [he travels], whenever he’s passing through the Twin Cities, he’s always good at staying in touch and coming around,” Kohler says. “He’s always good about trying to get together.”
These days, Olson is a more autonomous fixture on the running and skiing scene than during Jurek’s peak of success. For several years he split his time between Duluth in the summer and Winter Park, Colorado, in the winter, before a job change found him coaching a high-school ski team in Minnesota.
He has also fought a recurring bout of Lyme disease that has prevented him from training much in the past year, though in at least one encounter with Decker, Olson appeared not to have lost his sense of humor.
“I’m hardly running right now,” he said, lifting his shirt to demonstrate the weight he had lost from Lyme. “But look how fit I am! I haven’t been this fit in years.”
It’s hardly the first speed bump in the road for Olson, whose story often reverts to his putting his head down and grinding it out. Failing that, his ability to handle adversity with humor is second to none.
“I’m half run bum, half ski bum,” he says of his own uncertain path. “I’d say I’ve got it pretty figured out.”
Alex Kurt is a freelance writer and a graduate student at the University of Minnesota. He lives and occasionally runs on pavement in Minneapolis.