In cycling, they're called super-domestiques. They carry bottles, cover attacks and protect their team leaders. Sometimes, they're allowed to race for themselves—when the boss crashes out, gets busted for doping or has bad legs. On the rarest of occasions, super-domestiques clash with their captains, as Greg Lemond and Bernard Hinault had a penchant for doing.
Running has its sometimes-controversial equivalent to the domestique: the pacemaker. These rabbits don't really race; they set the pace. And while they may be fast, they never win (so long as you discount the 1994 Los Angeles Marathon). The pay ranges from low to nonexistent, but some say records could not be broken without them.
If you're looking for a rabbit, Dusty Olson is one of the world's best. And as is often the case, Olson is known less for the pace he sets than for the man he paces: The ultramarathoner legend Scott Jurek. Olsen also just happens to be Jurek’s best/oldest friend and longtime pacer. Now, Jurek has a book out, and Olson is finally getting some long-overdue recognition. But it has come with a price: flak for his less-than-conservative ways. Scott Rosenfield spoke with Olson on the heels of Jurek’s book release to explore the sometimes-tense relationship between running’s leading man and his good friend.
You’ve paced Jurek to his biggest wins. Could he have done it without you?
For Scott's sake, I'd say yes. He's a strong person. I definitely helped him out and was there for him, but I'd like to think he would have won them all without me there.
When it comes to the bottom line, it isn't the pacer winning the race; it's the racer.
You read about the agony and the ecstasy of the ultrarunner, but the pacer is always a footnote.
Nobody cares about the pacer. The pacer comes in. The pacer needs water. Nobody fills the pacer's bottle up. I'm there filling up Scott’s water bottles, making sure Scott’s got food. If he runs out of water he gets mine. If he runs out of food he get's whatever I have. It's not easy being a pacer, man.
You didn’t dream of becoming a top-flight ultrarunner, yet you won the 1993 Minnesota Voyager, a 50-mile trail race. Did that change your outlook on running?
Not really. I was kind of more focused on nordic skiing. I was ranked 40th in nordic skiing in the country. I was just doing ultrarunning in the summer.
The 1994 Yoyager started Jurek’s career, but your victory in ’93 didn’t have the same effect on you. Why is that?
It takes a certain level of OCD, and also it takes support to get to that next level. I kind of made an athletic mistake. I bought a house in Duluth when I was 22 years old. No one in Duluth ever really gave me a job that paid me more than minimum wage where I could train and focus on my racing. You can have all the talent in the world, be better than anyone in the world, but if you cannot make it to the races or feed yourself, you're not going to make it.
And when did you transition from racer to pacer. What happened?
In the summer I was working really hard trying to make money so I could take winter off [for skiing]. Between that and putting Scott’s races in, I didn’t have control over my race schedule. Sometimes Scott’s races overlapped races I wanted to do. A lot of times I had to work my butt off before Scott’s events or after his events. It took my racing out of the question.
So why did you stick with it?
It was important to Scott. At the start, it was pretty cool to watch Scott make the step. I remember seeing Ben Hian on MTV sports—this big ultrarunner—and we show up to Angelges Crest and Scott Jurek is out there giving him a run for his money in his very first ultra.
Have you ever tried to take a step back from pacing and crewing?
I've tried. But Runner's World makes a story about how we're no longer friends ... at this point my racing career with Scott Jurek is like a dead-end, non-paying job which you can never quit—with no alimony. I should be able to split and get half of the sponsorship and endorsements for all we've gone through. Unfortunately, it's not the way.
Near the end, it got rather tiresome. The first time I put my foot down and said no, there's a negative Runner’s World article talking about how we're no longer friends and stuff like that. Scott wouldn’t take no for an answer. He had his girlfriend calling me up trying to convince me.
Even at one of our friend’s funeral they were approaching me. He didn’t need a pacer; he just needs crew. And he’s got his girlfriend there to crew him. Why do I have to be there? I was working my butt off, working like 60, 70, 80 hours a week.
The Runner’s World article you mentioned is fairly controversial. What did it get wrong?
It was definitely miswritten—completely a story of fiction. We were still friends. If anything, Scott pushed our friendship extremely hard because he just wouldn't accept the fact that I had work to do. I’m just trying to explain to him. I’m like, "Scott, I’ve got two houses. On top of that, I’m a good athlete too. Why do I have to answer your call everywhere."
Scott pushed my friendship with him pretty hard. That's why I didn’t talk to him for a little bit. It was pretty frustrating. Especially at Western that year, a good friend of mine ... I was doing a roofing job, busting my butt off on this roofing job so I could get it done before I had to leave town [for Jurek] and a good friend of mine calls me up. And he was having some troubles, and he told me he really needed to talk to me. It was really important. I was working until dark every night, and I was like I’ll call him when I get to the airport. When I called him at the airport, I found out he’d killed himself. I decided I needed to start working on my own friends, my own life other than just Scott.
Were there other tensions between you and Scott as the years went on?
When it got to be more and more of a career for him, my budget didn't get any better. In the last couple years of his marriage, they'd fly me in as late as possible because his wife didn't want me around more than she had to. In the second Badwater, they flew me in 12 hours before the race. It was a pretty rough adjustment to go from 60-70 degrees in Minnesota to 130 degrees and being expected to run with him.
Scott never negotiated a sponsorship for myself with Brooks or anything like that. I was getting shoes through Scott’s sponsorship. I was never sponsored through myself, yet other companies wanted to sponsor me, but Scott wanted me running with his sponsor.
How does your relationship stand with Scott now?
He's kind of mad at me now because I cannot afford to go on the book tour. He's still asking me to do stuff when I cannot get paid for it. Generally, we're really good friends.
What is his new book missing?
If there isn't one chapter or paragraph to say that he stops every 100 yards to take a poo it can't really be completely right. You know what it's like pacing a vegan for 15 years? I always brought extra toilet paper for him. It was always a joke: Scott, man, you've got it all wrong. You shouldn't be going after Brooks, you should be going after Scott’s toilet paper. The general public can relate to that.
Are you happy with how the book portrays you?
A skilled writer could get the point across and not put in such blunt stuff. I could see some conservative parents reading that book and not wanting me to be around their kids—the House of Gravity section and stuff like that. You don’t want high school students looking up to stuff like that.