Monday, October 01, 2007

On The Record with Jon Olsen (An Interview)

When I say “the record”, I mean the extraordinary course record that 32-year-old Jon Olsen set at the 2007 Rio del Lago 100-mile (15:32, an hour faster than the course record he set the previous year) in his third consecutive win there in three years. This Modesto, CA-based ultrarunner has been clocking wicked-fast times in local California courses for the last couple of years, including wins at the 2007 Pacifica 50k (4:45), 2007 Sequoia 50k (4:42), three top-20 finishes at Western States (fastest of 19:19), and top three finishes at the 2006 Quicksilver 50-mile (2nd, 7:02), 2006 Helen Klein 50-mile (2nd, 6:05), 2006 Tahoe Rim Trail 50k (2nd, 4:51), and the 2007 Miwok 100k (3rd, 8:35). Somehow he keeps getting faster each year, despite being an active father of two and managing a career as a teacher.

I caught up with Jon during his recovery from the Rio 100 to hear about the race and see what’s next on his race schedule.

First, congratulations on your course record win at Rio (RDL)! Can you tell us a bit more about how the race went for you, and any changes in strategy from the previous two years?

This year was much different than the previous two years because I didn’t race between RDL and Western States (WS). I decided instead to train for RDL as opposed to just running it. I also decided to take the lead from the gun. I wanted to be aggressive this year and try not to hold anything back. The weather allowed me to use this as a viable race strategy. However, early in the race I didn’t hold to this. I allowed Mark Tanaka to catch up near Rattlesnake Bar and we ran through the Power Plant aid station together. Then Mark said to me “Jon, with this weather you should just go for it.” He reminded me about how I had been running the race to this point, which was mostly running scared (likely due to my blow-up at WS this year), so I ran angry for the next thirty miles. Even when my stomach shut down at about mile 60, I didn’t slow down and ran consistently. I finished knowing there were about 15 minutes more to take off the record, but those are the things that will get me out training and trying to get better.

It looked like you had an awesome crew at RDL . Who are these folks, and are they the same ones who crewed you at previous RDL’s and States?

My two older sisters, Lori and Michelle, are my crew. They have crewed for me through three WS and three RDL’s. They love it. I know most crews dread the job but they thrive in it. They have it down to an art. They are also the only people besides my wife, Denise, that can put up with my race attitude and my complaining. I know with this crew I have an advantage over the field at any race I compete in. I also have fast and experienced pacers like John Souza, Jeff Lozano, Lewis Ase, and Wesley Porter. They have had a hand in many of my best performances.

(Jon's sister Lori helps Jon to a record-setting 2007 Rio)

You mentioned that you “blew up” at States, but I saw that you finished 17th in 20:26:41 (third sub-21 hour finish). That’s a remarkable time, but it sounds like things didn’t go as planned?

I have some tough memories of WS this year, particularly what accumulated between miles 81 and 93.5. Up until then I was having the race of my life. I don’t think I was ever out of the top fifteen, and for most of the race I was in the top 10. I came into the Foresthill aid station in seventh place with two runners ahead within five minutes. I passed the Korean runner coming out of Cal 1 and arrived at the river in sixth place (and had just ran the Cal section fifteen minutes faster than last year). As I’m crossing the river I saw Andy Jones Wilkins, but had expected he would pass me. As I am walking up to Green Gate I passed Lon Freeman and I found myself in fifth place, which was nice but temporary, I expected. When I arrived at the Green Gate aid station, I drank a whole can of soup and immediately knew it wasn’t settling well. Within a mile the soup reared its ugly head. AJW passed me as I was fertilizing the soil and offered his help but I told him to keep running, that I will be fine. Well, for the next ten miles I tried to get my stomach right but I couldn’t. I still however find myself running and not slowing too much, and still in sixth place.

About a mile out of Browns and I had no energy left and my electrolytes were ridiculously low. I found myself walking and stopping and walking and stopping. I tried to sit down multiple times but my pacer wanted me to keep moving. I finally arrived at the Highway 49 aid station in bad condition. This is my running club’s aid station and they immediately put me in a chair, which soon led to the cot. Well, after laying there for 1 ½ hours I was finally able to keep some food down so I walked the course from there. Crossing the finish line brought joy but at the same time I felt a huge disappointment fall over me. It was a tough race.

(Jon cranks through the 2007 Western States, photo courtesy of Don Lundell)

What other 100-milers have you run previously, or do you primarily focus on these two?

I have only run one other 100 mile race and that was the 2006 USATF 100-mile National Championship at the Rocky Raccoon 100. It is my only DNF and on arguably the easiest 100 mile course in the US. Otherwise, I primarily center my year around Western States and RDL.

(Jon in high spirits at the starting line of the Pacifica 50k)

You have had some impressive results at ultras of all distances over the last couple of years. What are your favorite distances and races? Do you throw in road races or marathons as well?

I do very little road running. Each year I run the California International Marathon for fun, but this year I am going to pass because I have raced so much already. Regarding my favorite race distance, that would be 50 miles. It is just long enough that it provides each runner for those ups and downs in a race. The runners that are able to handle these most efficiently are rewarded. However, 50 miles is just short enough that you can attack the course.

Even though 50 mile races are my favorite, my two favorite races are longer. I have only run Miwok once but it is already one of my favorite races. The weather is almost always beautiful that time of the year and the course has a great mix of pavement, single track, technical single track, and fast dirt roads. And the beauty of the course is off the charts! This makes Miwok one of my favorites, but my #1 favorite would be Western States. I know it has a lot of hype, but there is no other race I compete in that gives me goose bumps at the start line. It is the single most competitive race of the year. If you finish in the top 20 in that race, you can feel confident you are a pretty good runner.

Can you tell us a bit about your training? What is a typical week look like? Do you do any regular cross-training? Any changes to your training in the last couple of years?

As everyone probably knows, I am one lost pound away from being in the hospital (ie, thin). But all kidding aside, my body doesn’t handle downhill courses very well because my leg muscles are non existent. The single biggest change I have made in the last year is lifting weights twice a week. I feel it has made a huge difference. I increased my mileage this last year going into Western States. I typically put together strings of 70 mile weeks running five times a week. Then, I would peak with one week in the 80’s. This year, however, I strung together about five weeks in the eighties and had a peak week in the 90’s. I hope to continue this in 2008.
Here is a typical training week for me about eight weeks out from a hundred. Monday- off, Tuesday- 12 to 13 miles medium, Wednesday- 12 to 13 with 3 x 2 mile repeats incorporated in, Thursday- 10-12 easy, Friday-off, Saturday- 30 miles out of town with hills, Sunday- 20 miles easy flat. This would put me at 85 or so miles. It is hard to train for hilly races because Modesto is pancake flat so I have to go out of town for any hill work. I do rig my treadmill to simulate downhill running but it isn’t as easy on the body as running on dirt.

How do you balance time between training and your family? Are your co-workers at your school supportive of your crazy hobby?

Most of my co-workers know of my secret addiction. I teach mathematics at Prescott Middle School. It is hard to hide it because in 2005 and 2006 my principal, Tom Freeman, put my lunch and pre-period back to back. This allowed me to run during school. As you might tell my principal is one of my biggest supporters. My co-workers would see me out there and so did my students. They became very interested in my passion and I would even get some kids to run with me during their lunch time.

Scott, as you know balancing running family and work is always difficult. This becomes especially difficult when are training for 100 mile races in which you want to be competitive. I can tell you that it doesn’t work without a very patient and loving wife. I can’t count how many times Denise unselfishly put her needs aside so I can train, as has my family for that matter (Nathanael is 2, and Lauren is 4 months old). Knowing this, I try to get most of my runs done before work. I have a running partner, John Souza, that I run with about three or four times a week and many of those runs begin at 5 in the morning. This allows me to come home from work and be home. The weekends, however, are a different story.

Planning helps. In December each year my wife and I sit down and map out the year. We list any races and any weekends I plan to do a long run out of town. Without this planning and the early morning runs it wouldn’t work. My wife is awesome!

What motivates you to train so vigorously? What is it that you enjoy the most about ultras?

I know this sounds cliché but I want to be the best ultra runner I can possibly be. I haven’t been bashful in saying that I would like to win Western States in the next five years. I don’t know if I can or even if it is possible, but I want to put myself in a situation that I have that chance. I am not being egotistical, that is just my goal. I am not out here just because I like being out in nature (although it is nice). I run ultras because it challenges you like no other sport and it gives me a chance to be competitive. At the end of the day the man or women who wins did so because they were the toughest, not necessarily the fastest. In fact, the runner with the fastest marathon pr doesn’t usually win. I am out here to compete. That is what pushes me to train.

Do you run with a club or regular training partners, or do you train solo most of the time? Has the cross-country team at your school roped you into their training?

I am a proud team member of “Team X” (what used to be Team Vasque) We have begun getting together as a Nor Cal group and train periodically. Other Team X members include Jasper Halekas, Jed Tukman, Carrie Sisk, Mark Lantz, Emma Davies, and Ethan Veneklasen. I am also a proud member of the Shadowchase Running Club in Modesto, California. They run the Highway 49 aid station at Western States. Many people might know Barbara Elia and Linda McFaddan who are also members of Shadowchase.

I do much of my training with John Souza. He has transitioned to ultras this year, and has already qualified for and signed up for Western States. If I run with anybody it is John, otherwise I am on my own. John is ironically a cross-country coach at Davis High School in Modesto. I think they are currently ranked third in the state. I have run with the team a few times but I haven’t yet been pulled into coaching, even though I eventually aspire to be a cross country coach some day. I plan on starting a cross country program at my middle school next year.

Have you always been a runner? When did you get started in ultras?

I am glad you asked. I haven’t always been a runner. I actually only ran one year in high school. My first passion was football. From the time I was eight, I wanted to play division 1 college football. This dream was realized in 1995 and 1996 when I attended The University of Texas of El Paso of a full ride scholarship. In 1995 I was the starting punter and in 1996 I was the starting punter and place kicker. After my college football days I didn’t have anything to fill that competitive void. In 2000 I decided to run my first marathon and the rest is history. I peaked in the marathon in the summer of 2004 when I ran a 2:41 marathon at the Rock n’ Roll marathon. I was soon dreaming of Olympic trials, but that ended three weeks later at Western States when I decided to volunteer to work my running clubs aid station at the 2004 Western States 100 mile race. The rest was truly history.

When you flew by me at Rio around mile 55, I saw you down a can of soup. Can you tell us a bit about your food and drinking strategies for a 100-miler? When and where do you eat solid food, if at all?

It is funny you bring up the chicken noodle soup because that was my kryptonite at WS this year. I had been drinking the soup straight from the can instead of diluting it with water and that proved to be too much for my stomach at the end of a 100 miler. I usually stick to simple foods like gels, pretzels, bananas, and chips for my quick carbs during a 100 mile race. I will about four times during the race consume a bottle of Boost diluted. This is my main calorie and protein source, and it has worked well for me. I do better with liquid forms of food as opposed to solids.

(Jon is paced during the 2007 Western States)

When you blazed through the 2006 Helen Klein 50-miler (2nd in 6:05:19), you had your tunes cranking the whole way. Do you race a lot with tunes, and what do you like to listen to?

It is funny because Greg Crowther in his race report from Miwok nicknamed me “skinny music man.” I don’t really rely on music too often. I actually handed my music over to my crew at mile 38 or RDL. I find that I run faster and smarter when I am not listening to music, but when I am listening to my music you will find Cake, Van Halen, Jay Z, Nelly Furtado, The Verve, and Justin Timberlake on my play list. It is funny because I would prefer listening to a random college football or pro football game instead of music if I had a choice.

Funny! Timberlake has made his way onto a few ultra playlists. I will be trying States for the first time next year. Any tips you would like to share with a rookie?

I am jealous! I wish I was in already. I don’t consider myself experienced at 100 milers but I have a few things I live by. The first thing is to eat and drink early and often. Once you get behind it is hard to catch up. Also, the first thirty miles at WS are difficult. Take your time and make sure you come through Robinson Flat feeling good. This is very important because some fast sections follow Robinson Flat and you can make up a lot of time between Robinson and Last Chance. Next, take your time on the downhills in the canyons. If you run them too hard you quads will be toast before you even reach the halfway point. Walk the uphills through the canyons. The goal should be to get to Michigan in one piece. The first two years, I had difficulty when I got to Michigan Bluff but last year I came into Michigan with some energy and was able to ride it to the river. Lastly, remember if you get to Foresthill and you aren’t suffering, the last 38 is very run able and will be spent passing a lot of people.

I see you’re signed up for the San Francisco 24-Hour Run on Oct 21st. Will that be the first time you’ve done a 24-hour race?

Yes, this is my first 24-hour race. I have always been fascinated with 24-hour races, and decided this year to try one. I have no expectations. Well, I am lying - I do have expectations but I just don’t know how well my legs will have recovered from RDL to realize them. People think I am crazy to do this four weeks after a 100 mile race but I am really excited. I am sure this will be the toughest race I have done to date. I hope to come out more mentally strong than I was going in.

I have no doubt that will happen! What else do you have planned for the season? What are you hoping to tackle for 2008?

I have a lot of rest planned. This will be the last race of the fall and winter for me. I will take November and December off and begin the healing process, so I can begin training for a summer 100. My hopes are to get through the WS lottery. If this happens, I will run Quicksilver or Miwok in preparation. Otherwise, I will run the Tahoe Rim 100 mile. For the fall I plan to take a year off from RDL and go outside my comfort zone. I may try Angelas Crest or the San Diego 100 mile. I am also thinking about even maybe trying the 72 mile run around Tahoe. Unfortunately I really don’t know my plans. I am at the end of a very long year and after the 24 hour I am just looking forward to rest and recovery.

What else would you like to accomplish in ultrarunning over the next year, decade, etc.?

In the next year I would like to place in the top five at WS and or win the Tahoe Rim Trail 100 mile race. As for long term goals, I would like to win WS in the next five years. Moreover, depending on how this SF One day race goes, I would like to run on the AUA 24 hour national team.

Thanks so much for the interview, and congratulations again on the third win/course record at Rio. Best of luck at the SF 24-hour! - SD


  1. Thanks Scott & Jon for yet another excellent, insightful interview.

    I'm always rooting for Jon, I appreciate the fact that he's out there to win.

    Great stuff.

    Will G.

  2. As always, a very insightful interview. I've probably learned as much from these interviews about ultra and trail running as I have from any other source.

    Thanks, Scott and Jon, for taking the time to do this.


  3. You know someone is really good when they not only get first place, but finish the day before those who finish 2nd-75th, as Jon did at RDL. I bet he not only has a shot at top-5 next year at WS but also the win. Awesome interview!

  4. Scott,

    Great interview. Jon is truly one of the great guys in our sport and his win at Rio was awesome. I thought he had top-5 at WS this past year and then the stomach got the best of him. Some guys would have dropped at that point but not Jon. That's class. Assuming it all stays together he'll be threat at every WS for the next ten years.


    PS -- I can assure you that soup out of a can works great. Especially when you mix it with some Pringles:)

  5. Anyone who can cover 100 hilly miles in less than 16 hours is certainly one of the best in the sport. It's amazing to think he may only have begun to tap his potential! Andre

  6. Thanks for the great interview, Scott, and congratulations to Jon on his recent, record-breaking win at RDL (must be the playlist!).
    It will be exciting to see Jon take on TRT or the 72-mile Tahoe ultra next year. Best of luck with the long-term goals.
    Take care,

  7. great interview scott. jon had a great day and you did too in spite of running extra miles.
    tom riley

  8. oh, jon is the "real deal" along with ajw. both impressive years.

  9. I see Jons name in Ultrarunning magazine all the time and he is definitely one of the better ultrarunners in the nation. I look forward to his results at the 24 hour!


  10. Great interview, guys, and great run, Jon. I would've been embarrassed if you hadn't started widening your gap (more than I might be embarrassed that you beat me by almost 3 hours).

    Jon's gutsy attitude is the ideal essence of the competitive aspect of our sport: "I don’t know if I can or even if it is possible, but I want to put myself in a situation that I have that chance." His finishing at States even when things went really bad was also admirable. Many other fast guys would've dropped once things got bad-- a few actually did-- so way to stick it out, even if your time was a disappointment.

    Good luck, Jon, at Sarah and Wendell's SF 24-Hour Run-- look forward to seeing a probably awesome result, as well as tracking your progress in the years to come.

  11. Is Jon using his pacers and crew at the 24 hour? Or will that one be more of a solo effort?

  12. I'm working on a website to create a free national database of trail information. For most of the activities I'm accommodating there's a sport-sanctioned rating scheme. Trail running doesn't have one.

    Would you be willing to discuss creating one with me?

    I was thinking of using the Yosemite Rating Scheme (hiking) times the distance. So you could describe a trail as a 3 by 18 (3X18).

    What makes sense? If you blog about it I'm sure we could get a discussion going that could help.


    (The college student who gives plasma to pay for his site hosting, got a job as a TA to pay for a GPS and other gear, spends too much time on the website, taking 15 semester hours, and still not getting college credit for the project)

  13. Great interview Scott and Jon

    Thanks for the great insights into Western States and also the details on your training regime. Jon is one of the nicest guys you’d ever hope to meet on the trails (well at the start/end of the trail – since he is flying when he on em). Congratulations on a very impressive demolition of the Rio del Lago course. I arrived at Cavitt School only nine minutes ahead of you – and you had run a half marathon more than me to get to the same place!

    Don’t get too dizzy at the 24-hour Hamster Run :-)

    Cheers, Paul

  14. great job this year, Jon. I heard rumors that it was when you heard my name announced coming into HWY 49 that you got up off your cot and kept going. Glad you did, whatever the reason.
    That's great that your school is supportive, enjoy that! I quit teaching because our superintendent told me if he had his way teachers wouldn't have any hobbies, and not even their own kids and would spend 100% of their time focused on teaching. My outside "addictions" just didn't fit with what he thought I should be doing in my spare time.
    See you soon at a race.

  15. Jon's reply to the question about crewing for the 24 hour:

    Good question. I will have no crew at this race and I am looking forward to that because I want to come out of this race with some new experiences. I may run the Tahoe 100 mile and if it is the 100 mile National Championship you are not allowed pacers. I need that practice. I many however have a few friends come out but not to crew. I am really looking forward to it, BUT I don't think I will be saying that 16 hours into the race. ;-)

  16. Great interview with a very classy guy. Toughing it out at WS and finishing well off your goal is far more impressive than running strong all day.

    Super fast time at Rio. Very cool that Mark encouraged you to go for it, and you did.

    You should definitely give the Tahoe 72 a shot. It's a really cool event, even if the pavement (or ice this year) isn't very forgiving. And having your great crew is very necessary.

    All the best at the 24 hour and getting into WS next year.


  17. Another wonderful interview. Thanks so much for posting!!!

  18. Hi, Scott

    Huge Jon Olsen fan. thanks for posting the interview. i root for this guy every time he races. one of the nicest guys out there.

    Scott Wolfe
    Eugene, Oregon

  19. Jon Olsen is my math teacher!


  21. olsen.good job im proud 0f you.4rm your favorite student aida!

  22. hey Mr.Olsen
    its Monica ya no the 1 in yur 2nd period math class
    so i agree that ur gunna run ma miles at skool rite?

  23. hi MR OLSEN!!



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