Jon Olsen Blog, Finale: The journey to world champion

May 13, 2013 

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(BART AH YOU/bahyou@modbee.com) Prescott Senior Elementary School teacher Jon Olsen will represent the U.S. at the 100K world championships in Italy this month. April 3, 2012

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As I sit here on the plane back to Modesto, I am reflecting back on the race and you couldn't have written a better script. One of our teammates Mike Morton (172.5 miles and World Champion in 2012) was not able to run because of injury.

I had a sacral sheer that prevented me from doing much training at all the last four weeks. And because of this injury and two qualified runners deciding not to go, two alternates were placed on the team with minimal qualification standards (140 miles); however with a boatload of talent but very little "24-hour" experience. Which still left us one member short of the six allowed.

Then, throw in travel difficulties teammate Harvey Lewis had. His plan was to arrive Friday but because of a weather delay he was forced to change flights and the result was a 5 a.m. Saturday morning arrival into Amsterdam. The race started at noon on Saturday and it was in Steenbergen, a 1 hour, 45 minute train ride from Amsterdam. This had the makings for a team disaster!

The night before the race as Joe Fejes and I were about to turn out the lights and go to bed, I said something that the whole team was thinking but no one was saying: "Our team is a mess." ... he grinned and began to laugh as I explained what I meant by that. Then I ended with, "BUT ... I think there will be a silver lining. Everyone will step-up and we together as a team will run a phenomenal race."

I wanted to be the guy the team could lean on during the race. I wanted to put this team on my back and carry them to victory. Four weeks ago I had no doubt I could do this but with my injury, I didn't know if I would make it through the first two hours.

The weather forecast called for wind and rain until noon (race start), then it would clear for the afternoon but remain windy and the rain would return in the evening turning from showers to a steady rain. The race would end with clear skies and a light breeze.

We headed to the start line and the weather forecasters were right; the rain had stopped. The gun went off to cloudy skies and I immediately tried to lock into my "happy" pace. This was difficult because I could feel my glute start to tighten.

I spent the next two hours trying to find a stride and a route on the course that relieved stress off of my hip. In the process I got lapped by the leaders. They were on a World Record pace at that point, so I knew they would either crash or have to back off that pace. And to my surprise, three hours into the race, I had no noticeable hip pain. It was like a crazed dog breaking free from its chains. I was ready to roll and roll I did. A 7:50 pace per mile felt very comfortable, so I held onto that for hours. I was running ridiculously relaxed and in control.

And with this new-found freedom, I slowly began to climb up the leader board. Team USA Assistant Coach Mike Spinnler asked me prior to the race if I had any timed splits I wanted during the race. I told him a 12-hour, 100-mile split, and when I hit 18 hours I want to know what place the team/I are in. Then, every hour I wanted to know what progress I had made.

As we approached hour six, seven, and eight, the race felt easy. My crew, Mike Falbo and I worked together effortlessly in our food exchanges which allowed me to focus on my running and therefore be more relaxed.

Mike Spinnler gave me a huge vote of confidence when he said, "You look the best of anyone in the race and I mean that." Every lap he reminded me to stay relaxed and not to push the pace. I could read between the lines. He was telling me that I was gaining on the leaders and I didn't need to run any faster than I was and I would catch them.

My name was beginning to make its way around the course as the Dutch announcer was updating results on the sound system that had speakers spread out along the course. It was becoming comical because even I was starting to get tired of hearing my name. But I didn't need to know how to speak Dutch to know what he was saying. I was making my way up the leader board and quickly.

And as my name continued to make its way around the course, the people of Steenbergen who were out there to support the runners began to start saying my name as well! I was becoming a little rock star for a day I guess you could say. (Smile)

As night fall came, 10 hours into the race, I was getting excited. I knew we would have about eight hours of darkness and I wanted to own it. I knew a lot of movement in the leader happened at night and I wanted to use the night as a positive and not a negative. And I did just that, but a little wrinkle was added. The rain and stronger winds arrived and at around midnight I made my only significant pit stop of the race to change clothing.

At the same time as the heavens opened, the Dutch announcers packed up for the night and wouldn't be back till first daylight. The course became eerily quiet. I just kept plugging along ... lap after lap.

It was time for pizza as the calories I was taking in weren't hearty enough. Two slices of cheese pizza became a pizza sandwich and before I got through the refreshment zone, it was devoured. My experience in races like these told me that after about 12 hours, eating every 26 minutes or so wasn't enough. I needed to eat less at a time but more often, so instead of eating every other lap, I would eat two out of three laps. This would work beautifully until the end of the race.

In a two-hour span between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m., I went from third to first in the steady cold rain and wind. The funny thing is, I didn't even know I was in first until, of all people, the Japanese coach told me! Which is ironic because it was one of his very own runners that I overtook for first.

Just about the time I took the lead I began to hit my first low spot of the race. My pace was slowing from 8:10 pace down to the 8:20/8:30s. It was all due to me me being tired. I tried to fight through it with some Coke/caffeinated gels, but it just didn't do it. My tiredness got so bad at about 2 a.m. that I could run straight. I was "stagger running."

I got desperate! I brought some 5-Hour Energy to share with the team, but I had no intentions of taking one myself. I had never tried the product during the race and you know what they say, don't try new things on race day. But like I said, I was desperate. So I downed one with some mashed potatoes and amazingly, within 10 minutes, I was born again. I told Mike Spinnler as I ran by on the next lap that I was back from the dead. I picked my pace back up to 8:10. This is where I made my big move. And in the next three hours, I went from a seven-minute lead to a 5k lead.

The light was beginning to peek through the night sky. Morning was near. Six hours in the daylight ... the highs were becoming less frequent and the lows were coming more often. I was constantly having to fight off the negative thoughts in my head. The last six hours were going to be a mental race.

My breathing was relaxed and steady, but the legs were stiffening and very sore. However, there was no reason to let up. I kept pushing forward ... my pace was reduced to a 8:45-9:10 per mile pace. And amazingly, I was still increasing my lead. The Dutch announcers were back on and the community of Steenbergen was making its way back to the course. I used this as motivation as my name was reverberated around the course. To my astonishment many of the other teams' delegations were beginning to clap as I went by. They were showing me respect for the work I had done all day and night, and now morning. It felt good, but with four hours to go, anything could happen.

I had convinced myself if I had made it to 23 hours and if I had a big enough lead, I would jog the first two laps of the last hour, then walk it in. This was a sure sign I was breaking down mentally. But when head coach Howard Nippert informed me that Germany picked up 5k of their team deficit in one hour, that threw my walking plan out the window. He told me I needed to keep hammering, and as discouraging as that bit if news was, it saved me because I didn't have an out anymore. I was going to finish this race running.

The time became too daunting so I broke it up into four laps an hour. This seemed doable. Running for four hours did not. These are the kind if mind games you have to play late in these 24-hour races.

Another bit of help came from and Australian friend who I met randomly at the train station when I first arrived to Bergen Op Zoom. Early on in the race he commented to me that maybe he would join me for a few laps later in the race. And he kept his promise. Our paces met three times in the morning hours and his conversations and company help drown out the negative thoughts I was having.

The last two hours were a war. I was putting together 13:20 laps and I knew if I could keep doing that, I would win. Easier said then done because every fiber in me wanted to walk. I wouldn't let myself do it. I walked only 10 yards all day and wasn't going to start it again.

Finally, it became clear: I was going to win.

On a number of occasions the thought of it brought tears to my eyes. My mind began to think about what my wife was doing and thinking about back home in Modesto as she was following the results online. How badly I wanted her here to share this with me. She has been apart of this journey. The sacrifices made by both of us in our schedules, the emotional ups and downs, she has seen it all. And today would mark the biggest moment in my running career and I wanted to share it with number one teammate! I knew she was watching and I knew she would be so proud.

With 30 minutes to go, I passed through the refreshment zone where the countries and their crews are situated and it looked like a scene out of the Tour de France. All the crew members were lining the road and cheering for me as I went by. Wow! What a moment!

Then I came to our crew station at the end of the row and was handed the American flag. My day was done and it was time to celebrate. I jogged a lap with the flag and as I got back to the start/finish area, I proceeded to give all the spectators high fives as I ran by. Many of these spectators were out here all night and deserved to be a part if this moment. This was my way of saying thanks.

With about 12 minutes left on the clock, I started my last lap of the competition. I was soon joined by teammate John Dennis, the eventual silver medalist. I handed him the flag and gave him his well-deserved trip with the flag. It was a hard-fought day. Emotions spilled over as I saw coaches Howard Nippert and Mike Spinnler.

John Dennis and I decided to finish this partial lap together as we congratulated each other. The horn sounded, we dropped our stick that signified our final distance ... and it was over.

One of our teammate's sons brought me my bag of clothing for after the race. This bag also contained my cellphone. I quickly called my wife as race officials were ready to escort John and I to be drug tested. I won't share what we talked about, but my wife and I shared more tears than words let me just tell you that. This is the phone call I have been dreaming about for the past four months.

After walking back about a mile from where we finished to be drug tested and almost passing out on the toilet, I made it to the awards ceremony in one piece ... barely. Standing at the top of that podium as the winner of such a tough race and hearing your country's national anthem playing for you was absolutely overwhelming. I was the world champion! Wow!

Soon after that, the men's team took that same step to the top of the podium and listened to that beautiful national anthem. What a hard-fought victory by our team. We came out of nowhere, but in the end, we won handily.

And that wouldn't be the last time the Star Spangled Banner would play. The women's team fought off Japan to the very last hour to claim their world championship. Add John Dennis' and Sabrina Little's silver medals and Suzanna Bon's bronze medal, and I would say the U.S. represented quite well.

I could have done without the four weeks of drama leading up to the race, but it was worth it to say the least. I am so glad I was able to share this moment with the community who has embraced and constantly supported my talent. Thank you, Modesto!


The morning after....

I often get asked, "How do you feel the day after a race?" This being a 24-hour race, the body endures a lot of pounding over a long period of time. So it is no surprise, that my body is absolutely trashed!

Routine tasks are not done with ease. Body movements that used to involve little to no thought, involve an exhausting checks and balances process to determine if I can even complete the given task or movement. My feet are very swollen and going up or down any small step takes a lot of energy, pain, and effort on my part. This is why I opted for "special assistance" at the airport. It was the only thing that got me on time to my connection at Heathrow Airport.

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