Iron County Coffee Connections – Community Blog

A community blog focusing on the people of Iron County. University of Wisconsin Extension Community Development Educator Joseph Wendell Miller will interview members of the community and publish a long-form blog post on what he learns. It’s a fun way to share stories from the people of Iron County and let others know something they might not have known while introducing Joseph to new folks. If you know someone with a good story who is willing to share it over coffee (or tea, or a smoothie, no discrimination here), feel contact Joseph at 715-561-2695 or

Check out the first Iron County Coffee Connections blog post below!

Tom Soltis was never an athlete. He might even tell you he’s still not, but he’d at least concede that with nearly a dozen marathons and half-marathons under his belt, he is a runner. Although his passion for running started just a few years back, there was no hesitation when I asked if he plans to keep going after running the Boston Marathon on April 15th. “Oh yeah, I’ll keep running, that’s for sure,” he says over coffee at Contrast in Ironwood.

It all started in Alaska. Not with runs, but hikes—mountain hikes. The kind that go nearly vertical and stay that way for a good long while. At first, Tom just wanted to see if he could do it. Then he noticed it got easier. He felt stronger, better. He soon found himself on other trails, in his spare time and in life.

I get the sense Tom Soltis likes the cold. In the early 2000s, he traded a lack of job satisfaction on the Gogebic Range for better luck in Alaska. He’d been there before, during his time in the Coast Guard, so it was nothing new to him and he knew what to expect. Maybe Alaska wasn’t cold or dark enough this time around though, because around 2019, Tom was headed for Antarctica. A plumber by trade, his skills were in high demand at McMurdo Station and the opportunity was way too good to pass up. The frigid, hard-packed tundra is where Tom’s running journey really started, despite his high school football coach telling him, “You run like an old plow horse!”

Antarctica seems like a special place the way Tom talks about it. He has several lookbooks full of photos from his time there, even some showing a polar plunge where a big hole was cut into the ice, a swimming pool ladder dropped in, and people in swim gear tethered to ropes are jumping into the icy water. The spirit of teamwork and camaraderie described in his stories make it sound like an incredibly close-knit community. They have to be close: accountability is everything down there, where the –50°F temperatures can end a poorly outfitted life pretty quick. It was that close-knit community that convinced Tom to run a two-mile Race Around the World, in which runners get dressed in a whole lot of cold weather gear and take a lap around the south pole. When he finished, he felt pretty good about it, and just like that, the old plow horse caught the running bug.

Next up was a half-marathon (13.1 miles) in Antarctica. That took a lot to get through, but Tom crossed the finish line hand-in-hand with his buddies, no less than six arms raised high in triumph. Apparently, the owner of two of those arms was behind him the last few miles shouting that he wasn’t going to walk, he wasn’t going to fall out, that he could do it and his friends would be right there with him. “I had about a quarter inch of ice built up on the inside of my goggles,” Tom says. “Couldn’t see nothin’ but shapes.”

Then came the Paavo Nurmi, his first full marathon. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he ran the Paavo virtually that year. As the hometown run, it was important to him, and the missing crowds and fanfare notwithstanding, he ran his best. It may not have been the time he was going for or the pace he wanted, but he ran it with friends and finished strong. The Paavo was the first 26.2 Tom completed, and it was like an avalanche starting down a hill—no way to stop it.

The avalanche became about the numbers. At first, just like the Kenai Mountains, it was a question of whether he could do it. After running the Pine Line Marathon in Medford, the Wausau Marathon, the Whistlestop Marathon in Ashland, and the Cellcom Green Bay Marathon, it became clear the tightening Boston-qualifying race times for his bracket were attainable, but he’d need to do it sooner rather than later. Friends and family offered support, a mentor-figure reassured him he could do it. By 2023, the goal was mere minutes away, and he got a chance to prove it to himself at his repeat of the Pine Line Marathon. On April 22, 2023, Tom ran his best time yet and well within the 4:05:00 Boston qualifying time: he crossed the Medford finish line at 3:55:45. In theory, the old plow horse made the cut, but the Pine Line was no longer a Boston Marathon-qualifying race, meaning Tom would need to do it again. The Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth would be his official proving ground.

There were setbacks. “I tore my rotator cuff,” Tom says after taking a sip. “It wasn’t bad enough that I needed surgery, but it put me out of commission for a while. I don’t run if I’m not feeling good… to heck with that.” There were arthritis flare-ups bad enough that he could barely put his socks on. The weather, as anyone on the Range that year can attest, was not conducive to running outdoors. But Tom’s community of runners—namely the Easy Striders—kept him going. The support must have made a difference because he kept at it, training hard throughout the spring. At the largest race on the shores of Lake Superior, in a sea of almost 9,000 other runners, Tom crossed the finish line in Duluth at 3:59:22—a Boston-qualifying time.

Although he had a qualifying time, an in-person Paavo was a mountain worth climbing. During the summer months, Tom works on Stockton Island, the second-largest of the Apostle Islands. Stockton Island, or Wiisaakodewan-minis in Ojibwemowin, is a one-of-a-kind ecosystem that allows blueberries and even carnivorous plants to thrive. I can tell Tom loves being out there. “That helps my training a lot, too, since I’m on my feet out there from 6:00am to around 4:00pm every day,” he says. Between work, training, and runs with the Striders, Tom was ready to take on the 2023 Paavo. In spite of the injuries, issues, and fact that he already had a Boston-qualifying time, he ran hard and nearly matched his overall best time. He crossed the finish line in Hurley at 3:57:01.

He planned to use his Grandma’s time no matter what, since it’s the bigger race and has sent a lot of runners to Boston. “But,” he says, “my friend told me to always use my best time, no matter what. If they have a problem with the time, he said, they’ll contact me to straighten it out. But always go with your best time. So I did.” Sage advice. Due to new limits on the number of runners, the Boston Athletic Association once again tightened the qualifying time for Tom’s bracket. If he hadn’t used the Paavo Nurmi Marathon as his qualifying time, he’d have been over by almost a full minute.

So now it’s time. Tom’s been working toward this race for over four years, though it’s been more than forty since that day in high school when his coach compared his running to an old plow horse. “I still have to run the race, still have to cross the finish line,” Tom says. I take comfort in Tom’s nervousness. Because even with all those miles and marathons on his shoe soles, he’s not resting on his laurels. He’s clear-eyed about the reality of running, of striving for something that isn’t guaranteed or given freely. Because even though he’s heading to the most competitive distance race in the country, he won’t let his past successes blind his future progress. That makes it a hell of a lot easier to put my own anxieties and nerves into perspective. We all have goals, we all have struggles, and we all lose sleep wrestling with the important things in our lives. What I’ve learned from Tom over the course of our mugs of Contrast coffee is that the support of a community, an understanding of the past, and a dedication to making a better future for ourselves can be the difference between failure and success.

You can cheer Tom Soltis on this Monday, April 15th, 2024 as he runs the 128th Boston Marathon whether you’re in Hurley, Boston, Alaska, Antarctica, or possibly even the International Space Station. His bib number is #22856, he runs in Wave 3, Corral 7 and he takes off at 9:50am (Central Time). The Boston Athletic Association mobile app is the best way to watch or keep track of Tom on the course. The app is available for Android and Apple phones by searching for B.A.A. Racing App in the app store.

Good luck, Tom, and enjoy the run!



If you would like to learn more about Community Development resources in Iron County, please contact:

Joseph Miller
Community Development Educator

Extension Iron County
300 Taconite Street, Suite 118
Hurley, WI 54534
Phone: 715-561-2695


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