Duncan Douglas: Old, Jacked and Still Skiing Strong

Audrey ManganOctober 5, 20113
Duncan Douglas
Duncan Douglas rollerskiing on his treadmill in Honeoye Falls, NY. Photo courtesy of Duncan Douglas.

There is only one thing that I really know about Duncan.  Duncan truly enjoys punishing himself through endurance activity more than any other human that I know. Training is his drug of choice and he is a serious addict. – Tim Burke

Utter the name “Duncan Douglas” to anyone who knows anything about skiing, and you are guaranteed to elicit one of three responses: (1) dismissive incredulity, (2) respectful awe, or (3) idolizing hero-worship. If you hadn’t heard of the two-time Olympic biathlete before 2007, when he beat Kris Freeman to win the first Climb to the Castle on custom V2s, you certainly did in the ensuing uproar over wheel speed limitations.

For all the US ski community at large presumes to know about Douglas, there seems to be a general consensus there’s something about him—like what really motivates an ex-Olympian past his prime to try to prove that you can be fast and old—that can’t quite be pinned down. His is a rare enigma in a sport that keeps tabs on everybody’s business. This is perhaps why, at the height of its internet glory, Jacked Up Old Man got a few thousand hits a month. How that compares to regular FasterSkier blog traffic is proprietary information, but suffice it to say that for an anesthesiologist from Upstate New York, that’s pretty impressive.

Jacked Up Old Man, that legendary persona that captivated young and old ski fans alike, has now all but disappeared from the blogosphere. The Vancouver Olympics, which he was unabashedly shooting for, have come and gone without him. But at the age of 45, Douglas shows no signs of stopping.

When the idea for a story on Douglas came up during a FasterSkier planning meeting, I leapt at the chance to write it. As a native on Honeoye Falls, NY, where Douglas now lives, I’d grown up hearing about his latest athletic insanity from my high school ski coach, his good friend Bernie Gardner. Stories of some ex-Olympian biking up the Whiteface Mountain toll road five times in one morning were somehow supposed to goad us all into training harder for our next league meet.

And so the assignment was mine. What began as a simple workout piece turned into a full-on profile, as it became apparent that a brief account of Douglas on his rollerski treadmill couldn’t really do him justice. Nevermind what this guy does to get in shape, the real question is: why?

It is a testament to the infectiousness of Douglas’s enthusiasm for training that he convinced me to wake up before dawn for a strength workout when we had already planned a rollerski later that day. I got the impression over the phone that the treadmill demo I’d been hoping for was not going to be possible, but a roller-board session at 5:00 a.m. seemed like a good substitute for hardcore. So, we agreed to meet at ‘Area 143,’ the small barn in his backyard that houses his workout equipment.

Douglas had already started the circuit when I arrived the next morning: 50 reps on the roller-board, a minute of plyos, and 20 reps with an ab wheel. Repeat.

“You might want to do only twenty of these,” he said, stepping down from an original model of the VasaTrainer. Instead of being positioned flat on one’s stomach to muscle up the slide, like most trainers I’d seen before, Douglas’s version allowed for a pretty close approximation of an upright double pole. It looked painful.

“I’ve gotten off the roller-board wagon. Normally I like to do a workout like this three or four times a week. After a few months of that, I can go out on rollerskis and double pole like it’s nothing,” he said in between sets.

With a seemingly limitless tolerance for pain and general exhaustion, “nothing” for Douglas probably qualifies as excruciating for others. Never mind the fact that he races 30 to 40 times a year; he’s on call up to three times a week as an anesthesiologist at Rochester General Hospital and could be asked to leave his family at a moment’s notice for deployment as a National Guardsman.

Duncan Douglas racing
Douglas racing this winter. Courtesy photo.

When I asked Tim Burke, a 2006 and 2010 Olympian who lives and trains out of Lake Placid, NY, to describe his fellow biathlete, this is what he wrote: “Duncan once told me that when he was training full time, he would go for a three hour run and if his average heart rate was not high enough when he finished, he would simply drink a coffee and a coke and do the run again. Another time, he was telling me how much he trained when he was my age. So I asked him, ‘Did you ever train over 1000 hours in a year?’ He simply replied, ‘Try 2000.’ If anyone else told me these stories, I would simply cry bullshit, but Duncan is crazy enough that you just never really know.”

This was the difficult thing about interviewing Douglas: it was hard to know when he was being serious, and when he was simply saying something for pure shock value, and probably laughing to himself while I tried to figure out whether he was joking or not. He’s so fit now you have to wonder: maybe he really did train 2000 hours a year when he was on the biathlon team.

According to the man who taught Douglas to ski at St. Lawrence University, he’s always attacked life with unwavering intensity. Robert Axtell, who retired from coaching at St. Lawrence in 2008, recalled Douglas’s first ski race at Tupper Lake.

“I was still racing quite a bit at the time,” said Axtell. “Duncan didn’t really know what to do, so I said to him, ‘Just follow me, and when you get ready to go, go.’ It was a mass start in a big field, and I was going along pretty good. I looked behind me for Duncan—he wasn’t there. I looked ahead, and there he was going up the hill. He ended up winning his first race.”

Douglas was at St. Lawrence for less than two years, and in that time qualified for NCAAs. Despite his brief time as college racer, he always maintained a strong relationship with his coach. Douglas lived with Axtell for a time, and would ski at night in the lit loop behind Axtell’s house.

With a seemingly insatiable appetite for self-inflicted pain and suffering, it would seem that Douglas would have been a difficult athlete to reign in. But Axtell said that the young Douglas was perfectly coachable, willing to learn and listen.

“He does what’s best for Duncan,” explained Axtell. “I think maybe people will think he won’t listen; he’s had coaches in the past he kind of balked at…but years ago he was really eager to learn and get ahead.”

“There might be times when he over trains,” Axtell conceded. “But he’s the type of person who can get by on very little rest; he’s just a high energy individual.”

This was my training partner for three separate workouts on a Monday in August. Our morning strength session was, predictably, excruciating. Within the first ten reps on the VasaTrainer my arms were screaming. I could tell my triceps were going to make me pay for thinking I could keep up.

“Right now I’ll do 15 to 20 sets of these, but eventually I’ll get up to 30,” said Douglas in between exercises. I decided it would be best for me not to bother counting how many sets it took for me to decide to start rolling tape instead.

Extreme muscle soreness didn’t set in until the next day, however, so I was still ready to tackle our rollerski scheduled for that afternoon. We met at the site of local club Rochester Nordic Racing’s (RNR) afternoon practice. I arrived earlier than Douglas to tag along for a warm-up with the RNR juniors. Upon hearing who would be stopping by later, head coach Jason Hettenbaugh told his athletes, “Keep an eye out: if you’re lucky, you might spot a Jacked Up Old Man on the road!”

Most of Douglas’s fan base might be over the age of 40, but you wouldn’t know it from the reactions this announcement elicited from the 20 or so high school kids around me. Five years after I’d graduated high school, Douglas was still being held up as the epitome of no-excuses dedication for local juniors. No more Olympics to ostensibly train for? No matter. “I’m just happy to get out there now,” he said after he arrived and we started an easy skate rollerski past farm fields.

At the December 2009 Mt. Itasca US Olympic Trial selection races in Coleraine, MN, which served as a pre-qualifier for a shot at the last few places on the Vancouver biathlon team, Douglas finished ninth in his best three out of five races. The US Biathlon Association ended up taking the top four guys from that event to IBU Cup races in Altenberg, Germany, where the last few spots on the Vancouver biathlon team were contested. After Mt. Itasca, Douglas took to his blog to talk about coming up short of his goal.

“Yes, I would’ve been thrilled to race in another Olympics and would not have tried if it wasn’t possible. The truth of the matter is that I just love training and racing,” he wrote.

Setting such a lofty goal for himself simply let him get away with the sheer volume of training that he would love to dedicate to the pursuit of athletic excellence all the time, Olympics or no. With a wife, four kids, and a demanding job, Douglas recognized that being an athlete was now a more selfish endeavor than when he was younger.

It was partly out of the need for an efficient way to fit in quality training that first prompted Douglas to purchase the piece of training equipment normally reserved for physiological testing labs. With few training partners and no coach but himself, Douglas set out make his comeback with a tool that let him rollerski in the dark before and after work.

“I used to rollerski around here in the dark with my headlamp, but that got to be too dangerous,” he explained.

He obtained the used Skatemill three years ago from the Netherlands, where it originated. His particular machine was a demo model in its previous life, and the company sent a technician to Douglas’s house to help him set it up. He had to rework the electricity coming to the barn so that it could handle the voltage the treadmill required. With the small shooting range he has set up in his backyard just outside the barn, he can combine rollerski workouts with target practice, simulating a winter race as best as possible.

“It was cheaper than building a rollerski loop,” he said.

The treadmill, it turned out, was perfectly operational, so back to The 143 we went after our rollerski, this time with my brother, Steve, in tow. After a quick safety briefing (“hit this red button to turn it off”), Douglas strapped into the harness and slowly brought the treadmill to speed. Skiing with it set to a 10% grade, he settled into an easy V2 near the front of the platform.

Though I’d prepared for the real thing by watching a few YouTube videos of Douglas on the treadmill, I was still struck by its sheer size. It was like being in some sort of NASA virtual-reality lab, only here we were mapping out the limits of an addiction to endurance sport, and the lengths to which a person would go to achieve a goal. There was nothing virtual about it.

When it was my turn to buckle into the harness, I was a little nervous. I started off without poles, to give myself a chance to get used to the feel of the belt moving under the skis. Surprisingly, rollerskiing on the treadmill was more like skiing on snow than on asphalt. It was easier to balance on one ski and let the belt freely move under my feet more. Of course, if I lost my balance for a split second here I’d end up flying off the back. At least asphalt stops moving if you fall.

After adding poles and experimenting with V1 and V2 for a few minutes, I decided I’d had enough for one day. Douglas is just as busy as ever, after all, and it was time to let him have dinner and get back to his family.

Before I’d tagged along for this series of workouts with Douglas, I had my theories as to why he held the attention of the ski world. I assumed it had something to do with his dedication to this sport beyond all reason.

But in spending a few hours with him, I realized there was more to it than that. I was honestly inspired when I drove away from his house that evening. If Douglas, with more than enough distractions in his life to make him surrender his aspirations of being a world class athlete, could find a way to still be competitive with skiers 20 years his junior, then what the hell was my excuse? True, I probably couldn’t afford my own rollerski treadmill, but my day spent trying to keep up with a jacked up old man made me realize that it actually wasn’t that hard. Painful, maybe, but all it really took was a commitment to a goal and the decision to try and meet it no matter what. A healthy enjoyment of punishing yourself certainly didn’t hurt either.

Correction: We originally stated the Robert Axtell retired as the head coach at St. Lawrence University in 2008. While he was the head coach from 1963 to 1973, he was an assistant when he returned to the program from 2001 to 2008. Ethan Townshend has been the St. Lawrence head coach since 2003. We apologize for the mistake.

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Audrey Mangan

Audrey Mangan (@audreymangan) is an Associate Editor at FasterSkier and lives in Colorado. She learned to love skiing at home in Western New York.

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  • T.Eastman

    October 5, 2011 at 11:20 pm

    You captured the subject quite well!

    I think I might have been the guy Duncan blasted by in his first ski victory at a local race in Tupper Lake.

    Duncan has provided not just good fodder for stories, but a great attitude about the fun of training.

  • bobxcski

    October 6, 2011 at 6:59 am

    Anything that is known or perceived to be known about Duncan is only the tip of the iceberg…the real Jacked-Up lurks beneath that… Duncan, Do you use climbing skins when you ski up Mt Marcy ??? “Only when I double pole up it” !!!

  • nordic_dave

    October 7, 2011 at 9:00 am

    Audrey, you did a nice job capturing the essence of Duncan, I.e. nobody works harder except for a few Navy Seals he has met. Like them, pain and discomfort is relative and to be embraced until no longer painful.

    There are however other aspects of Duncan. He is a man of honor and a gentleman who can be very personable. Behind the tough guy “I’m insane about pain” exterior he can be sensitive and rational.

    His wife is a to recognized as a true hero for loving him and letting him pursue his passion. He is a great father so yes there are many sides to Duncan & only the Army psychologists have the whole profile under lock and key.

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