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.