Greg Hexum travels many trailsWhen Esko’s Greg Hexum hit the trail at the recent Book Across the Bay snowshoe race, it was with the sort of steely intensity that overtakes an athlete in pursuit of his sport. However, as he plunged through the night, he began to enter a dimension that transcended all the hard work and exertion.
By: Wendy Johnson, Pine Journal
When Esko’s Greg Hexum hit the trail at the recent Book Across the Bay snowshoe race, it was with the sort of steely intensity that overtakes an athlete in pursuit of his sport. However, as he plunged through the night, he began to enter a dimension that transcended all the hard work and exertion.
“I’ve run thousands of races; none of them is like Book Across the Bay,” related Hexum. “At that race, 4,000 skiers and snowshoers race across Lake Superior from Ashland to Washburn, Wisconsin. The race starts at dark and the course is lit by thousands of ice candles. Each of the 10 kilometers is marked by a bonfire. It is magical.”
Hexum admitted this year’s race was especially tough because the warm weather had melted virtually all of the snow off the lake.
“The race directors brought in some heavy equipment to grind the top couple inches of ice into dust,” he explained. “It was impressive that the race could be held at all, but they pulled it off.”
Hexum went on to win the race out of a field of 998 snowshoers with a time of 29 hours, 57 seconds. He crossed the finish line some 30 seconds ahead of the second-place finisher, who was almost half his age.
“I’ve won the race a few times,” he said, “but this race was memorable because it was my first race as a ‘Master,’ which means I am now in the over-40 age group.”
A life-long athlete who has excelled at cross country running as well as snowshoeing, Hexum is the first to admit that while sports are the mortar that helps hold together his foundation, the foundation itself is family and career.
“Running is just something I do for fun, stress relief, and health,” he reflected. “Yes, I can still race fast sometimes, but I take more pride in my family and work than in my athletic accomplishments at this point. That’s not to say my athletic life isn’t important. It is just not what my life revolves around.”
What his life does revolve around is Gretchen – his wife of nine years who he says is “a supportive, intelligent and beautiful person” – as well as their soon-to-be-7-year-old daughter Ingrid and the career in education he has established during his past 16 years at Esko High School.
“I am proud to be the high school principal at Esko High School, where every day is a great day to be an Eskomo,” he said. “Being principal is a consuming and rewarding experience. I am fortunate to work with exemplary, high-performing teachers and 600 incredible kids and their families. Being in a school setting like Esko’s is something I never take for granted. Like the other staff members in my school, the success of Esko High School students is a top priority in not only my work, but my life.”
Hexum grew up just north of Duluth, in Pike Lake, and attended Proctor High School. Both of his parents were educators and he said they had a profound influence on the importance he placed on school and school activities.
“Like all people, I think, I see my parents differently as an adult and now as a parent myself,” said Hexum. “In hindsight, I am amazed by the amount of time my folks put into my interests and activities. I can’t remember even one incidence of them pushing me into something I wasn’t interested in, but I also can’t remember them not supporting one of my interests. With my parents, there was an incredibly clear, mostly unspoken, understanding, however, that all my fun and games were contingent on me being a good person and student. I think I lived up to their expectations most of the time.”
Like a lot of kids in the ’70s, Hexum ran or rode his bike pretty much everywhere, which he said was just a regular part of his lifestyle growing up in Pike Lake. His family was active and on the go all the time and his parents were supportive of any physical activity he wanted to try.
“I played every conceivable sport, participating in a number of youth sports including baseball, soccer, basketball and hockey,” he said. “What drew me to running was that Coach [Dick] Saarela held a series of elementary cross country meets at the six elementary schools that existed in the school district. While I didn’t ever win any of those races, I was near the top, allowing me to feel successful. I clearly remember the positive feedback that I received from Coach Saarela and the members of the Proctor cross country team.”
Another event that Hexum thrived on was the Park Point One-Mile race for kids ages 12 and under. The race was held in conjunction with the Park Point Five-Miler and was a precursor to today’s Wednesday Night at the Races events sponsored by Grandma’s.
“When I was 12,” related Hexum, “I was able to win the mile race, and that probably sealed the deal for my decision to start cross country in seventh grade.”
During Hexum’s high school years, he became what he modestly calls “a pretty good” high school hockey player, making the Lake Superior All-Conference team in 1989, on a “very good” Proctor Rails team.
“We beat Derek Plante and the Lumberjacks twice my senior year!” he said with a grin.
He admitted, however, that his talents and size made him better at endurance sports. His cross country and track coaches at Proctor High School were the late Dick Saarela and Cloquet resident Dan Stein.
“These two gentlemen are responsible for my short and long term success in sports,” said Hexum. “Mr. Saarela was an old-school Finn. I learned from him the importance of consistent, unwavering hard work. From an educational standpoint I was impressed, even at the time, that Mr. Saarela paid as much attention and put as much effort into the ‘back of the pack’ athletes as he did the top runners. His work ethic and attention to detail was palpable in our teams. I finished high school cross country and track with multiple all-state honors with Mr. Saarela’s guidance. That said, it was Dan Stein, our assistant coach, who cultivated my passion for running. Mr. Stein helped direct my intense competitiveness and provided me with mentorship in pursuing collegiate athletics. I am forever in the debt of these two people.”
There was another teacher who had a direct and measurable impact on Hexum – Rory Johnson, who is now the activities director at Proctor High School.
“I will always remember being selected to be a student assistant for Mr. Johnson’s first period physical education class for students with physical and developmental disabilities,” related Hexum. “Mr. Johnson’s positive spirit, passion for teaching and learning and rapport with his students was a tipping point for me. When I interacted with Mr. Johnson’s students as their mentor, I felt fulfilled in a way I couldn’t have described as a high school senior. In retrospect, this was the first time I felt a calling to be an
Hexum also credits many other role models in his life for the various qualities to which he eventually aspired. One of his lifetime friends is fellow endurance athlete, educator, Twig youth hockey player and “Pike Laker,” Mike Bushey.
“I mention Mike, who is now a Cloquet Middle School teacher and the CEC girls hockey coach, because since childhood, Mike has set the standard in my life for positive attitude and energy,” said Hexum. “While I’m not in his classroom every day, I can say with 100 percent certainty that every one of his students knows what I am talking about. I can’t tell you how many times in my life I’ve found myself thinking, ‘What would Bushey’s reaction to this situation be?’ This question challenges me to maintain the most positive energy possible.”
Not surprisingly, Hexum said when he speaks with the teachers he works with at Esko High School, all of them have similar stories about their experiences with teachers and coaches.
“It is important for those of us in education careers to remember the powerful impact we can have on young people and the responsibility that comes with that,” he
Part way through Hexum’s senior year in high school, he signed a National Letter of Intent to attend the University of North Dakota and compete for the Fighting Sioux cross country and track and field teams. He said his first years at UND were “an awesome but difficult” learning experience.
Though he blossomed academically and experienced some success in athletics, he struggled through some significant injuries and didn’t reach the top level of college sport during his first two years.
“I struggled with something that many college athletes struggle with,” he admitted. “We referred to it as ‘top dog syndrome’ at North Dakota. The vast majority of college athletes were among the best in their respective states. It is as much a mental challenge as a physical one to start from scratch as a college athlete. However obvious it is to say, not everybody gets to be the ‘top dog.’”
Things started to come together for Hexum in his junior year at UND when he earned All-American status at the NCAA cross country meet. Later that year he set some University of North Dakota track and field records while continually increasing his training to match his new goals.
Hexum finished off his degree and running career successfully at North Dakota.
“I am proud to have been a four-year varsity athlete for the Fighting Sioux while graduating with academic honors,” he said.
It was in his post-collegiate running, however, that Hexum first experienced running as a chore and decided to switch gears a bit.
“What rekindled my joy for running was training and racing on trails,” he related. “I enjoy the natural environment, unmarked miles, and freedom from the stopwatch. I like the varying terrain, the sense of adventure, and the moderate risk of falling down.”
Today, Hexum does 90 percent of his running and racing on trails, avoiding roads and treadmills as much as possible.
“Road racing and road running just don’t inspire me like being in the woods does,” he said. “For me, trail running gets me to the essence of why I run. I feel independent, relaxed and healthy after a trail run or snowshoe. I think that’s probably similar to anybody who likes being outdoors.”
Hexum started snowshoe running about 15 years ago as a way to get onto trails in the winter.
“Snowshoe racing gives me something to focus on through the potentially oppressive winters in Minnesota,” he explained. “It allows me to be out on my beloved trails in the winter. Training for snowshoe running is just like training for any other kind of running, just slower. The new high-tech, lightweight snowshoes make the experience fun, but it ain’t easy!”
It took him until age 35 to win a national championship, winning the USSSA National Snowshoe Championships in 2006 and 2007. He also made the U.S. National Team last year with a fourth-place finish at the national championship.
“I’ve been fortunate to maintain some generous sponsors who, in conjunction with the U.S. National Team have helped me race across the U.S. and in Europe,” said Hexum.
Even in the light of recent successes on the race course, Hexum said he is happiest when his days revolve around family and work at Esko High School.
“I hate to oversimplify,” he said, “but my biggest goals in life are to be a good husband, father and principal. I’ve come to find out in life that those things tend to grow together. In terms of running and snowshoeing, I hope to run tomorrow and the next day and next year and as long as possible. I am old enough to feel the progressive wear and tear on my body. I have made a concerted effort to streamline my running with the goal of running into my 60s. After that, I will take up sailing!”