Hippie Dan made Thunder Cookies that were like chocolate chip cookies on steroids, with oatmeal and whole wheat our and peanut butter and tons of butter. They were the best cookies I had ever tasted. (Rumor has it he once ran a secret bakery in the back of the shop, long since closed, and Dusty and his stoner pals used to sample those goods a lot.)
He was also a local running legend. People said that when he was younger, he would ride his bike to the local races. Then, wearing blue jeans, he would leave all the people wearing shorts gasping as he shot ahead of them. Even Dusty seemed in awe of Hippie Dan. Dan had been running for twenty years. He didn’t have a car or a phone. Eventually he would get rid of his refrigerator. He talked about solar energy and living off the grid and minimising impact – he produced one small garbage can of trash over an entire year. He also talked a lot about fossil fuels and the foolishness of humans. Essentially, he was trying to lessen his impact on the earth long before that became the trend. Some people called him the Unabaker.
Once Hippie Dan invited me to run with him. We followed his yellow labs, Zoot and Otis, and he told me to watch how effortlessly they ran. He encouraged me to notice how they seemed connected to their surroundings. Simplicity, he said, simplicity and a connection to the land made us happy and granted us freedom. As a bonus, it made us better runners. I didn’t know it, but it was a lesson I would learn years later in a hidden canyon in Mexico. I longed for happiness and freedom as much as the next guy, probably even more, considering my schoolwork and jobs and the situation at home. I could see the wisdom in a simpler-is- better philosophy. But simple for me had never been, well, simple. I had always tackled problems by study and focus. Consequently, when I began training with Dusty for his upcoming Voyageur, I suggested we read up on race strategy and training techniques. Maybe, I said, we should do some intervals or alternate sprints and jogs. Maybe we should count our strides. I think I mentioned heart rate monitors and lactate thresholds. Dusty told me I was full of shit. He said I thought too much. Do monster distances, he said, work your tail off, and that’s what will save your ass. He mimicked the Ricker’s voice as he beamed, “If you want to win, get out and train, and then train some more!”
So we spent that spring chugging monster distances that lasted 2,3,4 hours, runs all through and around Duluth. Dusty would come by and knock on my dorm door, and I’d take a break from The Brothers Karamazov, or War and Peace, or upper-level physics and anatomy and physiology, and we’d head out. We ran on paths that would narrow to trails and on trails that would narrow to almost nothing. We were running where deer bounded, where coyotes rambled. We ran through calf-deep snow and streams swollen with spring melt so cold that after a while I couldn’t feel my feet. Somewhere between my agonised, gasping high school forays to Adolph Store and now, running had turned into something other than training. It had turned into a kind of meditation, a place where I could let my mind – usually occupied with school, thoughts of the future, or concerns about my mom – oat free. My body was doing by itself what I had always struggled to make it do. I wasn’t stuck on my dead- end street. No bully was spitting in my face. I felt as if I was flying. Dusty knew all the animal paths in the area, and after that spring, I knew them, too. We ran free all spring, sometimes talking, sometimes silent. We ran the way we always ran, Dusty in the lead, me behind. I knew my place, and it was fine. It was all quite fine.
I know a novelist who says he was never happier than when he was working on his first book, which turned out to be so bad that he never showed the manuscript to anyone. He said his joy came from the way time stopped and from all he learned about himself and his craft during those sessions. Running with Dusty that spring – not racing, running – I understood what the writer had been talking about.
Photograph by Ian Corless
Extract taken from Eat and Run: My Unlikely Journey to Ultramarathon Greatness, by Scott Jurek, publishes by Bloomsbury, £8.99, paperback.