BROOKINGS – For Joel deBlonk, now back in Brookings, 2010 was a rough year. His mother died at age 57.
“That kind of woke me up a little bit,” he said. “And then that same year, my girlfriend that was here with me and we moved to California, we broke up. I’m not like a person that gets depressed, but that was kind of a rough year with all that happening.”
He came to realize that life is short. Come 2011, he started running. It would lead to a satisfying vagabond existence with an old dog named “Pup,” living in a van for three years and visiting and trail-running in all of America’s 50 states.
Following graduation from Brookings High School in 2002, deBlonk continued his education, in radio broadcasting at Brown College in the Twin Cities.
“I kind of had a big head when I got out and turned down a bunch of little markets and ended up working at 3M (in Brookings),” he said.
Four years later took a transfer to a 3M plant in Orange County, California, and worked for six years. During those years, he made several road trips back to the Brookings area to visit family and run some road races.
In 2011, deBlonk ran eight half-marathons (13.1 miles). In 2013, he ran the Brookings Marathon (26.2 miles), finishing 19th out of 195 runners in 3 hours, 29 minutes and 15 seconds. At the time he didn’t realize he’d became a dedicated “trail runner.”
‘Guys were just beasts’
Living in California, deBlonk met a trail-running group in Santa Monica and began going out with them.
“Instead of running marathons and road races on roads or bike paths and stuff like that, in California, where the weather is usually nice, 60 to 70 degrees, they were running trails in the mountains,” he said.
“Those guys were just beasts. I’d run half marathons on the road. We’re literally running up mountains on the back trails and stuff like that. They’re super fast. They do ultra-marathons – like 50 milers, 100 milers, 135-mile races and stuff on the trail.”
It didn’t take deBlonk long to discover he was in a different league.
“I’m the new guy and I showed up super early, because they run at 6 o’clock in the morning,” said deBlonk, smiling as he recalled his introduction to trail running. “I have my road half-marathon shirt on and I’m looking kind of cool.”
Then he saw some of the other shirts, whose wearers had run trail races of 50, 100 and 135 miles.
“Then I started shrinking up,” he said. “My half marathon means nothing to these guys.”
That first time out deBlonk ran 7 miles in hill country.
“And that’s when I fell in love with trail running,” he said. He found the trail runners a super-friendly and laid-back group.
Like many a convert to a new cause, deBlonk had lofty ambitions. He aspired to run a 100-miler but decided that 50 miles was good enough.
No set destination
On Sept. 1, 2014, deBlonk quit his 3M job in California. A couple job opportunities in Colorado ski country didn’t come to fruition, and he returned to Brookings. He had sold pretty much everything he had; left were “all his clothes, a full-size mattress an some memory-type stuff.”
He bought a 2004 Ford conversion van in Brookings and outfitted it for some long-haul driving.
“I basically built my van around what I still had, which was just my full-size mattress,” deBlonk explained. “My van is basically just one big bed. I got a left-handed desk, so I could put in a mini-fridge. Then I had a water jug.
“My shower was just a 5-gallon collapsible water jug that I would put outside on top of the van.” The van has no toilet or cooking stove.
“It’s pretty minimalist. I don’t have the nice hardwood floors.”
On Nov. 7, 2014, deBlonk and Pup left Brookings with no particular game plan.
“I did not have a set route or destination,” he said. “I would travel from trailhead to trailhead, town to town, based off recommendations from people I would meet along the way or wherever the road would lead.”
Still a wandering spirit
He admitted that when he left Brookings, “it was a little nerve-wracking. I wasn’t meeting anybody and it was starting to get cold.” And he didn’t get very far.
“I was almost on my deathbed,” deBlonk explained. “I only made it to Vermillion. I was sick and I was staying in the Lions Park by the armory.”
He was able to plug a fan into free electricity to stay warm. His dad urged him to come back home. He didn’t. He knew if he went back, he’d stay.
“It took me almost two months, from September to November, to leave, to finally pull the trigger,” he added. “If I come back, I won’t go. I was already kind of nervous, just quitting everything to do this.”
He didn’t give up. He toughed it out with Nyquil and heavy doses of Vitamin C to boost his immune system.
From Vermillion he headed to Arkansas, stopping along the way, staying in campgrounds, national forests and Wal-Mart parking lots. DeBlonk said throughout all his travels he only paid to camp on three occasions.
Over three years he drove his van to and ran trails in 49 states. He flew to Hawaii, visiting three of its islands, and made it the 50th state in which he has run trails. He returned from Alaska a couple months ago.
During those three years, Brookings served as a sort of base to travel to and from in his van. He would spend summers here before leaving to follow warmer weather.
After Arkansas came Florida and then north along the East Coast as the weather there got warmer. Come summer 2015, he was back in Brookings for a couple months.
DeBlonk admitted to not having the best dietary habits: “If I was in cities, I’d eat fast food. I’m the worst trail runner you’ll ever meet. I eat junk food and fast food.”
Staples included pasta, bananas, bagels and peanut butter and jelly.
Now back home for a while and doing some work in radio, deBlonk has at least one major life-lesson learned to reflect on.
“I thought through this whole travel, I’d find the perfect place to live, the perfect city somewhere,” he said. “To be honest with you, I never did find it. But I still have that wandering spirit.”
DeBlonk invites people to his social media pages to learn more about his travels with Pup: Facebook, JAdRunning; Instagram, @jadrunning; blog, www.jadrunning.com.
Contact John Kubal at [email protected]