Chronicles of a Dustball
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.