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Running man

Wabasso’s Joel Dudgeon has run over 66,000 miles in the past three decades

In the Academy Award-winning 1994 Hollywood movie, Forrest Gump, actor Tom Hanks ran back and forth across the country for three years just because he felt like running.

For Joel Dudgeon, 47, of Wabasso, running for enjoyment and the pure physical challenge of doing it day after day is something that he started more than three decades ago. He has covered over 66,000 miles midway through 32 years of roadside footsteps.

It’s an epic long-distance journey that would make the Forrest Gump movie character proud. The miles add up to take the dedicated Dudgeon across America about 22 times, or on an incredible 8.5 times around the planet Earth.

Also consider some prolific statistics Dudgeon has meticulously recorded in his journal. Breaking down the decades, Dudgeon went out for a run 2,603 times during the 1980s and piled up 16,403 miles for an average of 6.03 miles per run.

The next 10 years Dudgeon ran 3,608 times for 19,633 miles or nearly 5.4 miles per run in the 1990s. In the following 2000s decade he kept on running and compiled nearly an identical 3,601 times for 19,590 miles and another 5.4 miles per run average.

And, he shows no sign of slowing down. Since 2010, he’s stayed on a similar pace, having run nearly 10,500 miles.

“I guess you could say I’ve had more than a passing interest in running to be able to go out almost every day and do it for five or six miles in all kinds of weather conditions since I started,” Dudgeon commented.

As a youngster running around the elementary school playground at Our Lady of Victory School in Lucan, Dudgeon demonstrated early that he had a talent to become a successful athletic competitor. As an eighth-grader, he ran the mile for Wabasso High School at the Dist. 10 meet in 5:15.

After playing three high school sports and graduating in 1985, he earned Northern Sun All-Conference cross country honors as a freshman for Southwest State University in Marshall. When the track season concluded the next spring Southwest unexpectedly cut its program, and Dudgeon transferred to Winona State University. There he participated in track for three more years and obtained his elementary education degree in 1990. During four years of college he averaged 453 runs per year.

He began his teaching career in Iowa and after one year had an opportunity to return to Wabasso, where he’s taught elementary students for 25 years and coaches junior high sports teams.

“When I came back to Wabasso I probably was in my physical prime,” said Dudgeon. “I was running better than I did in college and had my fastest 10K race time and career best half marathon.”

Since catching the running fever in 1983, Dudgeon’s records reveal that he’s run nearly 11,500 times, averaging yearly runs of more than 400 times eight different years.

Having mostly run the same roads and routes for so long, he knows every mile in and out of Wabasso in all directions. Finding new places to run has become an interesting quest.

“Up until gas prices got so high I used to drive to an area town and run three or four miles there,” Joel noted. “I’ve run in almost 200 Minnesota towns, South Dakota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Wyoming, Oregon and Canada.”

“When traveling to be with family for Christmas, or if I’m going on vacation or driving someplace on weekends, the shoes come along,” says Joel. “Once while on vacation in Wyoming I had the cool experience of running next to a herd of elk standing by the side of the road near Cody.”

His roadside views of farms, fields of green, fall colors and winter snow provides the backdrop for a canvas painting as he runs through the change of four seasons. He’s seen the good and bad of driving habits too and shakes his head at those who toss away items and litter. He’s been chased and bitten by dogs who dislike runners and experienced the pain of frostbite on bitterly cold winter days.

“I’ve had some close calls with vehicles when we share narrow shoulders along the road, and easily half the drivers I meet I see them talking on cell phones,” he said. “Plus, there seems to be a lot more aluminum cans lying out there with the fast food bags.”

Dudgeon says winter months can be a tough season for runners too. “Last year was a bad one…there was a time when the roads were so icy I only had a 150-yard clear stretch of pavement to run on, so I ran that back and forth to the corner of the street to get in three miles,” he commented.

Sometimes Dudgeon will get stopped while he’s running by people driving in vehicles asking for directions. “And people also shout out the movie line, “Run Forrest Run” as they go past me. I’d like to know how many times I’ve heard someone yell that at me.”

He tries to run 45 to 50 miles a week and figures he’s probably worn out 200 pairs of shoes in the last three-plus decades. “Running shoes have changed so much from when I started out,” he explained. “It used to be that you were only supposed to run two miles a day to break them in but now that’s not necessary since shoes have improved dramatically.”

Still there are times when he might not feel like lacing up his shoes for a run. Sore muscles might be protesting for him to take a day off, but discipline and motivation win out. “If you look for excuses, you’ll find them. So if I take a day off sometimes I’m afraid I’ll want to take two, so I just keep going,” he said.

Dudgeon thinks he’s only taken one day off for a foot injury in the past 20 years and feels pretty lucky. “I usually don’t run real long distances enough to get hurt,” he commented. He’s only run two full length marathons at Grandma’s in Duluth and the Twin Cities Marathon.

Dudgeon says he’s a structured person and benefits from running by the effort he puts into it. “It’s great to be fit and healthy and that’s my personal challenge to stay that way,” he said. “My students have also responded to what can be accomplished when presented with setting goals.” For a couple of years during “I Love To Read” month, Dudgeon challenged his students to meet their reading goals and he’d run a minute for all the books that were read. “The amount of minutes added up so much that I had to run three straight hours…it was 15 miles around city blocks in Wabasso,” he recalled.

Dudgeon won his first career road race at neighboring Walnut Grove in 1983 and has since claimed 128 wins in 305 starts. His banner year was 1999, when he won 10 times out of 13 races, mostly of the 5K and 10K variety.

Other highlights include running 16 races in 1995, with seven first places. Two of them came on consecutive days in 5K runs at Granite Falls and Pipestone to reach 35 career wins.

In 1998 he won five out of eight races that year, including a half marathon at Brookings, S.D. “ A lot of people run for exercise, which is good, but not everybody races,” Joel explained. “But for me if you’re not competitive, you won’t get better. Training the body hurts, but in the end I like to compete against myself, and the ultimate goal is to see how fast I can run from point A to B.” That mindset helped him win four races in a row in 1990.

Three times he’s participated in the grueling Jasper-Banff Canada Relay Race, in 1988, 1989 and 1993. “It took our relay team 20 hours to run 180 miles in the Canadian Rockies, from Jasper to Banff,” Joel stated. “On the leg I ran it was hilly, and running at midnight in the mountains, you couldn’t see very much in the dark,” he recalled.

Dudgeon says he thinks about a lot of things when he runs but mostly its about stuff he needs to get done and have ready for another day of teaching his students. “I wish I had a notebook with me sometimes to write down some of the ideas I get.”

Running also helped him reduce stress when he coached the high school girls’ basketball teams for four years, as he often would go out for a run after games.

“You rethink the game and realize a loss wasn’t so bad as it seemed a few hours earlier,” he said. “Running helped me stay focused on the big picture and that problems on the basketball court weren’t as difficult as they seemed.”

Running was therapeutic for him too on the day of his mother’s funeral. “She was a big influence in my life and supportive of my running career,” he explained. “After the funeral I ran 18 miles…I just kept going. Thinking about her made the miles go fast that day.”

Although Dudgeon runs mostly alone, he doesn’t consider it a lonely sport, even though he once ran four miles around the tiny town of Verdi near the Minnesota-South Dakota border and never saw one person.

“Running has allowed me to meet a lot of different, interesting people. It’s never boring, and as long as I enjoy the daily experience and stay healthy, I’ll continue.”

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