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Area cross country runners head to the lake for season warm-up

Moose Lake-Willow River's Ethan Olsen will likely dominate Section 7A this year and easily took first place at the Chub Lake race. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal1 / 3
Two of Cloquet's top female runners, freshman Lauren Cawcutt and junior Elise Pickar, race side by side during the first lap at Chub Lake. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal2 / 3
Varsity boys and girls teams from around the region take off at Chub Lake Thursday. The race at Chub Lake is not an official race, but it does kick off the cross country running season every year for more than a half dozen local teams. Jana Peterson/Pine Journal3 / 3

High school cross country runners are an interesting group. They're supposed to compete against each other, but once the race is over, you often see a different side of them.

Last week's practice race at Carlton's Chub Lake Park showed how true that statement is. The event is a non-competitive way for kids to get their race shoes on again, and catch up with friends.

"It's actually a very social event," Cloquet coach Mike Bushey said. "These kids are in a unique sport. They know each other, train and run together, warm up and cool down together, and then they don't see each other for a time. So an event like Chub Lake gives them a chance to reconvene."

Even though the race isn't a "real" race, Moose Lake-Willow River senior Ethan Olson still ran very well. Coming off a fifth-place finish at last year's state meet, he grabbed the headlines — and praise from his competition.

"In running terms, he's a stud," Esko coach Jerimy Hallsten said, smiling. "He's disciplined, he's smart. His discipline is unreal. He puts in the work and he gets results."

"We love that kid," Bushey said of Olson. "It's so much fun to watch a local kid be diligent. Everything he gets, he's earned, and he's humble about it. He's polite and 'please and thank you' and I just enjoy that. I don't care what school they're from. I just appreciate kids who do things like Ethan. We wish him nothing but the best."

For his part, Olson, a senior, is — you guessed it — modest about his chances this season.

"It felt great to be in the top five," he said. "At state last year there was a breakaway pack and I was in it and stayed in it. Even though I didn't win, I have the chance to go back there and do better this year if I work hard enough."

And he does. Olson estimates he puts in 60 miles a week on the road and also runs distances in track in the spring.

"I'm just hoping things go as smoothly as they did last year," he said. "I haven't been injured or anything so I hope that keeps up, but the thing I learned is that I'm capable of doing things I didn't think I could do."

Olson wants to study mathematics and run in college, but hasn't made a decision on his future quite yet.

"For me the thing is to get through this year and help my team get to state as a team," he said.

Meanwhile, Cloquet and Esko both bring young teams to competition this year.

"We lost a great group of seniors from last year so it's a bit of a rebuilding year for us," Bushey said. "The boys were a great group of leaders and now we have a talented group of young kids coming up who those departed seniors led. We have to replace the leadership we've had for six years and that will be a challenge."

Aiden Ripp — who spent the summer in Europe training with the U.S. Nordic Combined ski team as part of his other passion — is expected to lead the boys team with Blaine Bong and Blake Desmond. The girls team lost star runner Anja Maijala to graduation, but returns Elise Pickar, Kelli Lorenz, Lauren Cawcutt and Franny Slater, among others.

"The girls team is much deeper than we have been in years past," Bushey said.

In Esko, Hallsten's teams should be solid. The boys will be bolstered by the transfer arrival of Isaiah Arntson from Detroit Lakes, where he ran middle distance in track last spring.

The girls graduated only two seniors from last year, and have only one senior this year in Nellie Helberg. The strength of last year's team was in very young runners, virtually all of whom are back this fall.

"It was a deep team but also very young and sometimes you see that in girls' running," Hallsten said. "It's not unheard of for seventh- and eighth-grade girls to do very well at the varsity level."

Perhaps the most famous example of that is Duluth's Kara Goucher, who as Kara Wheeler won just about everything there was to win at Duluth East before her sophomore year of high school. Or perhaps Esko's own Marisa Shady, who won the state A championship in 2010 as a sophomore.

"Our top three runners last year at times were seventh-graders," Hallsten said.

But it all came back to Chub Lake and the start of a new season.

"We took the kids to McCarthy Beach (in Sturgeon Lake) for some extra practice and worked them hard," Hallsten said. "Then we went to Chub Lake and had some fun, sort of a glorified tempo run to let runners see where they are at before the season starts. Chub Lake is great for that."

And it's even great for seeing old friends.