“Can I call you back tomorrow?” Pat Lanin wondered. “I gotta get this doggone wood unloaded and split. My kids got me a cord as a present, so firewood is my new sport.” He seemed eager, happy really, to get at it.
Lanin recently turned 80, or as he likes to call it, his second 40th birthday. The original man of the woods, his considerable life force comes from being outdoors on his 145 acres of woodland near Brainerd. Together with his wife of 61 years, Emily — “she’s the brains behind all of this” — he in ways pioneered the sports of running and cross-country skiing in Minnesota. Science teacher, coach, race director, organizer and competitor, Lanin’s outdoor life has been a long and colorful trail.
Lanin described the picturesque spots and critical junctures along the way, starting with what he called a “dirt poor” childhood in Virginia, Minn.
“As a kid, I was outside a heck of a lot more than I was inside because there were things I wanted to do outside. That’s still true. My goal is to die in the woods.
“I’ll tell you how I got this way. My grandfather would be working on the farm, put down his tools, and walk into the woods. Then he’d come back and start working again. It was like refreshment for him to have that connection. I’ve inherited that,” he said.
Below is a conversation with Lanin (edited for length and clarity):
On his connection to the land
“I have this wooded property with three year-round streams, trails, a 70-foot-deep ravine that’s heavily wooded. It’s unique. I heat my house and water with wood, so I put up six or seven cords. All the paneling and wood in my house was from this property. We’ve got large gardens. Yeah, for sure, it’s part of me.”
On Finns and saunas
“My mother’s side is Finnish, and saunas are important to the Finns. You’ve got to pronounce it ‘SOW-nuh.’ Like a lot of Finns, my mother was born in a sauna. It was like a sweat lodge is to Native Americans. We have two saunas — a wood-fired one and an electric. I don’t take showers anymore, just saunas. I don’t get crazy with it — 150 or 155 degrees. It’s nice — that’s the reason my ancestors lived so long.”
On early enterprise
“When I was 12 or 13, a buddy and I had trap lines. I ran mine with a bicycle, with cable wire wrapped around the tires in the winter. We trapped ermine, muskrat, mink, and traded the pelts for clothes at a clothing store, haggling back and forth. A muskrat pelt was worth a $1-$1.50.”
On his start in sports
“When I was a sophomore, the track coach, who was also the swimming coach, said, ‘Patrick, I think you would be a good man on the track team.’ That was after he’d seen me swim. I ran the longest distances they had — mile and half-mile. I wasn’t very good. Our town didn’t have cross-country. We didn’t have a ski team either, but we had wooden skis with the strap over the toe. We’d bushwhack and find hills to go down.”
On jumping into life
“We were married right out of high school. My dad got a job for me as a lineman in Maplewood. We stayed with an aunt in east St. Paul. She had another renter living there who was a project manager at 3M, and through him, I got a pretty darn good job at 3M. That was in 1959. My boss encouraged me to get a college degree, so I started at the University of Minnesota. He allowed me to work 8 p.m. to midnight. We had three kids by the time I graduated in 1966.”
“I was working at 3M and Emily was pregnant but not covered by my insurance, so we had to foot the bill. We found an old Swedish doctor, Dr. Youngren, who would come to the house for checkups and the delivery, all for $150. I was the midwife, his assistant. He came in with iodine and his bag, and started giving orders — ‘Do this and this.’ He was there maybe 10 minutes. That was our second child; the first was born up in Virginia.”
On running in his spare time
“I’d run around (Lake) Phalen. It would be weeks or months before I saw another person, even walking. I had no goals, I just enjoyed it. First I ran one lap, then two, then farther out in Roseville. Somewhere around 1961, I met Bob Harris, who had the idea for the Minnesota Road Runners Club [today’s Minnesota Distance Running Association]. Bob was not that organized, so he assigned me the job of secretary. There were less than a dozen guys in it at first. While I was at the U, I ran for Roy Griak — varsity in cross-country, JV in track. I improved a lot but never broke 5 minutes for the mile.”
On being a running rebel
“Running was a counterculture thing back then [1960s]. It was not mainstream. A lot of runners had long hair; I thought it was fantastic, like you were being a revolutionary. My hair was down over my collar.”
At Hopkins: “I started teaching science at Hopkins West Junior High in 1966, and taught for 31 years. I was the track coach at Hopkins High School, boys, of course — there was no girls’ teams. I started an informal junior high track program for girls. I thought, what the heck, I run. Finns are very egalitarian — their language has one personal pronoun. Han means man or woman. We had a girls’ junior high conference before Title IV. When the Hopkins high schools split, they needed a cross-country ski coach at Eisenhower. Not having skied previously, the (athletic director) told me it was ‘just like running on skis.’ Over the years, I coached four kids who went on to be Olympians: Joan Guetschow and Andy Erickson in biathlon, Bob Kempainen in the marathon in 1992 and 1996, and Garrott Kuzzy in cross-country skiing.”
It’s all Emily: “It’s easy for me to take credit for things, but it was Emily. Starting the Minnesota Road Runners Club, the paperwork and organization, that was Emily’s doing. In the 1970s, she did the timing for the Hopkins Raspberry Run. There were 800 to 900 finishers, and no computers. She became the race director, and she ran it many times, too. As cross-country ski coach at Hopkins, what started as a triangular meet became the largest cross-country ski event in the world. Emily worked her magic there as well. She’s also one of the best athletes I’ve ever coached — her ability to convert ideas into movement is remarkable.”
Multisport athlete: “I’ve competed seriously in running, cycling (road and off-road), triathlon, and cross-country skiing. I competed in the first mountain bike race in Minnesota, over in Kenwood Park. A lot of runners put one foot in front of the other and do nothing else — that’s not me. I enjoy doing a lot of other sports. I like being outdoors, the competition, and definitely the people. You meet a lot of characters; all my friends I’ve met through various activities. I hike, I don’t run any more, which has more to do with ego than anything else — 10 minute miles just isn’t running to me. I’ve got studded tires on my mountain bike until the snow gets decent for skiing.”
I’ve been there three times. In 1995, I biked around southeastern Finland for a week. In 2009, when I was 70, I did a seven-day, 440-kilometer ski event from Russia to Sweden across part of Finnish Lapland. There were some hard days but it was very enjoyable. I got food poisoning two days before I started and lost six pounds. The first three days were pretty tough, but you deal with stuff. And in 2017, we found out my mother’s family had dozens of cousins in western Finland. We visited and were treated like royalty.”
“I seem to heal very well. In 2013, I was hit on my bike by a guy on a Harley. It knocked out some teeth, broke all the ribs on the left side, dislocated my collarbone. I had road rash and cuts head to toe. I was out of the hospital in three days and back on my bike in five weeks. That same year, a chain saw cut through my boot and took a chunk of flesh out of my big toe, almost to the bone. Now you can’t even see the scar. You have to be very, very careful how you select your ancestors. It’s all genetics! My dad smoked three to four packs of Camels a day. My mom smoked, too, but she eventually quit. When we were kids, you could see a blue haze about four feet off the ground in our house. But my brother just turned 75 and my sister is 77 — we’re all in excellent health. My mother was the earliest to die on her side of the family and she was 94. My grandparents lived well into their 90s.”
Back to the land: “We bought this property from some Finnish people in the 1970s, and adjacent land with a lake house on it in 1987. Emily was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 1986; they gave her a 30 percent chance of surviving two years. That was 32 years ago. She was thinking if she didn’t survive, the insurance would pay off the mortgage. We moved up here in 1997 when I retired.”
Sarah Barker is a freelance writer from St. Paul.