Outdoors athlete Dusty Olson truly is 'a man for all seasons'
A few days before the Section 7 Nordic ski meet, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton assistant coach Dusty Olson was busy waxing skis in the back room of the Pine Valley chalet. The iron he was using to melt powdered wax onto the skis filled the air with haze and an acrid odor. Despite the minor smog attack, a small crowd of Cloquet Ski Club parents gathered to watch Olson work, as if he were a living display at some sort of ski museum.
Maybe it was the apron -- more likely it is thousands of hours of practice -- but Olson was the picture of a craftsman as he scraped away the old wax and built a new surface across the bottom of each pair of skis. No motion wasted, long, fluid strokes ... he made it look simple and effortless.
Jon Waugh called Olson "the Zen master of waxing."
"That's Dusty, you know, from 'Born to Run,'" Waugh said outside the chalet, referring to the bestselling book about endurance running and author Christopher McDougall's search to become a better runner. In the book, Olson is credited with inspiring buddy Scott Jurek to run his first ultra-marathon: the Minnesota Voyageur 50-mile Trail Ultramarathon, which starts in Carlton and winds through Jay Cooke State Park and up to Spirit Mountain before turning around and heading back to Carlton for the finish.
The year before (in 1993), at the age of 19, Olson won the Voyageur. The next year he encouraged Jurek to join him. During that second race, while Olson stopped to pull his shoe out of the mud, Jurek continued and discovered that he, too, had what it took to finish the endurance race. That year Olson finished third, Jurek second and Jarrow Wahman took first.
But Olson is much more than a supporting actor in Jurek's run to ultramarathon fame, although he did log a lot of miles as a support runner for his longtime friend. Olson is the stuff of his own legends, including the time he was out with friends into the wee hours of the morning the night before Grandma's Marathon. Worried he might oversleep and miss the race, Olson decided to head to Two Harbors and the start line -- on foot.
In effect, he ran two marathons that day: one in the dark alone; the other with thousands of other runners in the actual race (after he'd slept 90 minutes curled up by the start line).
Although running has been a big part of his life, skiing is the sport Olson pursued.
A Duluth native -- "Born to Run" incorrectly places him in Proctor -- Olson started skiing young at Duluth's Chester Bowl.
"I pretty much grew up at Chester Bowl," said Olson, noting that his mother, Ione Bolstad, grew up in Cloquet and even dated longtime jumping coach Joe Nowak once. (Her parents were Sylvia and Lloyd Bolstad.) "We lived a little ways away; my parents were into alpine skiing. I was going off the ski jumps at Chester Bowl and winning tournaments when I was 8 or 9."
The folks there eventually encouraged him to try Nordic Combined, a sport that combines ski jumping and cross country (or Nordic) skiing.
"I'd never even been to a Nordic ski race," he said. "But family life got a little weird when I was a teenager and I kind of found skiing. It was pretty much the easiest way to get out of the house. I could go ride my bike or go skiing."
At some point Olson's jumping coach told him he "had no future in skiing" so Olson -- in typical fashion -- stopped jumping and started focusing on skiing instead.
As a student athlete at East High School in Duluth, Olson ran cross country and skied on the Nordic team. He won Region 7 titles in both sports the same year, a rare "double," he called it.
Skiing fits his outgoing, jack-of-all-trades personality.
"Nordic skiing is a full-body workout," he said. "The thing is, pretty much anything you do is training for Nordic. You can ride a bike in the morning, run in the afternoon, canoe at night. You're not limited to one thing. Heck, doing a hard-labor job can be called training. National champions [and Olympians] Ben Husaby and Justin Wadsworth would split wood in the summer."
Did we mention he also kayaked all the way around Lake Superior in 1995?
The athletically gifted Olson chose to pursue Nordic skiing after high school, rather than running or competitive biking, another talent.
"I could have been a pretty decent bike rider ... I probably would have had to take some drugs at some point," he says with a grin, referring to Lance Armstrong's recent fall from grace.
Although he broke his ankle at Junior Nationals his senior year in high school, Olson went back the next year and won two races: the 15K skate and the relay race (his was the fastest leg).
"That was back when the Midwest was competitive," he said.
It wasn't easy to be a skier at that level though. Olson didn't have money or the backing. He worked full time and trained pretty much full time as well. That's also how he became so good at waxing skis; learning to wax his own skis, then working as a wax tech and repping for wax and ski companies when he could.
At one time, Olson figures he was solidly in the top 20 Nordic skiers in the country. He came in 5 seconds behind Husby at the Mora Vasaloppet, a 58K race in Mora, Minn. He won the Pepsi Challenge the same year. He's finished in the top 25 of the American Birkebeiner 10 times. The list goes on.
In conversation, Olson doesn't come across as a hard-core competitor. The fact that he paced his friend, Jurek, instead of running against him all those years seems to offer proof of that.
Olson said he supported Jurek because he was a friend, "a buddy helping a buddy."
But he stresses that just because he's an easy-going "colorful" person, it doesn't mean he's not competitive.
"When the gun starts, I like to race hard," he asserts. "But I enjoy it. Pushing yourself. Getting to the limit. I've done better having fun with it. Keep good energy flowing, that's a better approach for me, at least."
His attitude may be the key to his longevity both as a runner and a skier.
"I look at some of the people I raced against -- super-intense, type-A people -- who don't even ski anymore," he said, then chuckles before adding: "Or they invite their wives along so the pace is slower."
He's not sexist -- although he does say that his dog, Russy, is the only girl who will ever understand him -- just blunt.
"I have a [former elite skiing] friend, I'd say he's a chauvinist, whose wife is now super-fit and faster than him," Olson said. "It's poetic
He is good with the one-liners.
Olson approaches a recent health issue with the same humor.
When discussing his battle with Lyme disease, the self-employed carpenter (with no health insurance) revealed he had to sell a home he'd purchased -- and planned to operate as a rental after he fixed it up -- to help cover expenses. Friends also held a fundraiser in Duluth last fall.
"I donated my second home to Lyme's research," Olson cracks.
His is a fairly nasty case. Although he remembers pulling a tick off (after running in Jay Cooke State Park), he never developed the telltale bulls-eye rash. When he started showing symptoms, he chalked it up to fatigue after running more than 200 miles in a week and traveling to Colorado to pace Jurek in another ultramarathon. For weeks, he would sleep a lot, get a little better, go back to work and relapse again. He thought he had the flu.
Typical symptoms of Lyme disease include fever, headache, fatigue, and the bulls-eye rash. If left untreated, infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.
"I was basically crippled in a matter of months," Olson said. "I could hardly bend over to tie my shoes, and my left hand was so arthritic I couldn't button my pants."
Worse, he couldn't think straight.
"I could hardly do the alphabet," he said. "Last summer, I'd find myself running on trails I'd been on thousands of times having to think about where to go."
He was diagnosed with five different tick-related diseases, when he finally found a specialist in Winona, Minn.
It's an ongoing battle, one he said he's winning. The symptoms are going away. But it's an expensive fight, especially after the recession knocked the bottom out of his carpentry business and put a stop to winters out West being a ski bum.
It's also slowed him down. Olson waxed skis for Boulder Nordic Sport at this year's Birkie, instead of racing and potentially derailing the progress made by a combination of naturopathic treatment and potent antibiotics.
That's part of the reason he came back to coaching in Cloquet, a Nordic team he'd assisted in 2006. That year, he said, the boys team actually beat perennial powerhouse Duluth East at the conference meet.
Maybe he's come full circle. After all, Olson did go to kindergarten in Cloquet.
"It's fun working with kids, turning them onto the sport, teaching them little tips, watching them get better, sharing everything I've learned in the past 25 years with the next generation," he said. "It's fun when you give them just a little piece of advice and watch them turn into better skiers with just a couple corrections."
He talks about longtime Nordic ski coach Mike Marciniak, whose teams dominated state competitions some 30 years ago.
"There's so much history in the Cloquet ski program," he said. "Generally, when there's a motivated kid in the area, he wins State."
He's been too serious for too long though.
"That was before they had scrubbers at the paper factory," he adds. "You've got even more of a chance now that the kids won't all have asthma!"