Jon Olsen’s North American 100-Mile Record Report

[Editor’s Note: Previous to last Saturday, the American 100-mile track record was held by Bernd Heinrich at 12:27:01, a record that had stood since 1984. The previous American 100-mile road record was held by Rae Clark, who ran 12:12:19 in 1989. And the overall North American 100-mile record was 12:05:43, set by Canadian Andy Jones in 1997 on a road course. But last Saturday, at the 2013 Sri Chinmoy Self-Transcendence Annual Ultra Classic 24 Hour race in Ottawa, Canada and on an indoor track, Californian Jon Olsen set a new North American 100-mile record of 11:59:28. Here is his story.]

North American 100-mile record holder, Jon Olsen.
All photos courtesy of Jon Olsen.

“The IAU 100k World Championships have been cancelled.” These infamous words were uttered for the second time this year. First, when the original host country, South Korea, had to cancel and now South Africa was unable to host either. It was now August, and with a third and final attempt at saving the 100k World Championships in the hands of The United Arab Emirates (Dubai), it was time to make alternate race plans.

I had been allowing my body to heal from the 24 Hour World Championships in Steenbergen, the Netherlands in May. I won that race on an injured body, and because of that, I required more than usual recovery time. I resumed training at the beginning of July. This would give me enough time to build back the base I had lost and then have August and September to train hard and peak for the scheduled 100k World Championships at the end of October, although they were just hanging on by a thread. It was now August and with the 100k very much in doubt, I was forced with a dilemma. I knew my body would be in peak shape near the end of September and if the 100k did not matriculate, then what would I do? Would I ‘downshift’ and save my legs for the Desert Solstice 24 Hour in December, which I already was registered for or would I race now (September) while my body was healthy and in good race shape?

Good health is never guaranteed and, at 39 years of age, my GREAT performance clock is ticking, so I decided to race in September at the Sri Chimnoy Ultra Classic in Ottawa, Canada, if the 100k was not saved.

Well, lo and behold, we received the news at the end of August that the 100k was going to happen and that the race would be held on December 20th in Dubai! My initial reaction was disappointment because one of my goals this year was to attempt to break the 100-Mile American Record (12:12) set by Rae Clark back in 1989 and I was going to do this in Phoenix at the Desert Solstice 24 Hour track race. Obviously that would be out of the question if I was in Dubai at 100k Worlds. At Desert Solstice last year, I ran 12:29 and knew with some minor changes, I could make a better attempt at the record. Now, I would have to cancel my plans to go to Phoenix, but I wasn’t ready to cancel my goal of breaking the 100-Mile American Record.

With twelve weeks between the Ultra Classic 24 Hour and the 100k World Championships, I had enough time to recover and help Team USA to a gold medal in Dubai. However, I soon found out that the dream of gold would have to wait. The drama of the 2013 IAU 100k World Championships was finally over one week later when it was cancelled completely.

The focus was now solely on the 100-mile record. For the first time that I can remember, I enjoyed the two-week taper. I finished this taper period with a 1:18 half marathon at the Peace Officers Memorial Half Marathon in my home town of Modesto just six days before the big day. I used this race to ‘wake up’ my fast-twitch muscles. I wouldn’t be telling you the truth if I didn’t say I was a little… I mean… a lot nervous to run so hard so close to my 100-mile attempt.

I made my final travel plans and, with the addition of my wife as crew chief, I was ready to go to Ottawa. This would be the first time, except the 2012 100k World Championships, my wife had crewed for me since our two children were born. To say I was excited to have her by my side each and every lap was a huge understatement.

Jon with his wife, Denise.

After taking a red-eye flight from San Francisco, we arrived in Ottawa early Friday morning. We were able to check in early to our hotel and had an enjoyable 30-minute, shake-out run together near the hotel. We followed that with lunch, a last-minute grocery stop, and a much-needed nap.

We awoke three hours later and made our way to the Louis-Riel Dome, the site for the pre-race check-in and the indoor track that I would get to know intimately in the course of rounding it 402 times! While at the Dome, I met up with my running mentor and 12-hour participant, Mark Dorion, who finished third place in his race. A couple issues that occupied my thoughts the evening prior to the race were the temperature inside the Dome, restrooms, and where to put my aid table.

Jon with his mentor, Mark Dorion.

You would think that, because this was an indoor track, the climate inside the Dome would be relatively consistent; however, no air conditioning or heating would be used during the event, so the temperatures would fluctuate depending on outside temperature and those forces inside the track. With 70-plus runners on the track for the warmest part of the day, a 77-degree Fahrenheit high outside, a soccer birthday party, and an adult soccer game on the infield, it heated up noticeably during the day. I made sure to bring enough S!Caps and make water consumption a focus. Although I don’t frequently run shirtless, I knew the shirt would come off at some point during this race.

Obviously, in a race such as this, you don’t want to waste any precious time. Restroom stops are one of those necessary, but dreaded, time wasters in any race. I knew I may need to use the restroom about three times during the race. However, there were no track-side restrooms. The restrooms were located through a revolving door and down the hall. This wasn’t an option. I needed to come up with an alternate plan. Facebook friend Rose, a past runner of this race, got wind of my trip to Ottawa and recommended getting a bucket that I could put track-side. As obscure as this may have sounded to the average person, it was a fantastic idea! My wife also suggested I buy a handheld urinal. The two in combination would do the ticket.

My wife and I spent some time walking around the track looking for an ideal spot to set up the ‘potty rest stop.’ After carefully propping up some exercise floor mats, our outhouse was finished. Next, we placed our table in the middle of the front turn. This would allow my wife to see me from either direction of the track and put her in the center of the friendly crew area which would help pass the time.

It goes without saying that, from the moment I arrived at the race, I was treated like royalty. The Self-Transcendence race staff provided me with a table and chairs to use during the event, but more importantly they made me feel like we were part of a team. They wanted to do all they could to help this record happen. After a late dinner, at 8 p.m., we headed back to the hotel for bed as the 6:30 a.m. wake-up call loomed over us.

Panic struck me as we stood posing for a picture at the start of the race. I reached to change my watch from time to chrono and the band broke. I thought, Are you kidding me? I needed the watch. There was no way I could stay on pace without it. I decided I would just have to hold it. If I could hold two full water bottles for 20-plus hours, I could certainly hold a watch.

Within seconds, the gun went off, and the 402-lap journey began. What made this 100 miles different than any other 100-mile race in the past was my pace. I knew I needed to run around 7:15 per mile to break Rae’s record. This meant I would have to run uncomfortable from earlier on in the race than I usually liked to. I would basically be racing from the gun. There was no easing into the pace.

The first hour or two went by rather quickly and uneventfully. My pace hovered between 7:10-7:15 per mile. I was grabbing some water about every other lap and would drop my bottle at the end of the turn on the infield of the track. After I did this three times, my wife would go pick up the bottles and repeat the process.

My fluid of choice was solely water, with S!Caps serving as my primary electrolyte replacement. Obviously, calorie consumption is of utmost importance early on in the race while your body isn’t taxed and the stomach can digest more efficiently. I consumed a Vespa every two hours and then tried to rotate starch, salty/fatty, and sugary foods every 20 minutes in small amounts. I would stick to this plan the entire race. My foods of choice were cold instant mashed potatoes, gel, chips, and gummy worms with some chocolate thrown in as well.

Track races are perfect for my ‘OCD’ mentality. I checked the splits on my watch each and every lap and it kept me focused and motivated. Moreover, the constant encouragement from the other 70-plus participants, the sight of my wife each lap, and hearing my mentor and biggest cheerleader, Mark, from anywhere on the track as he shared his running knowledge with fellow runners, was amazing.

As I ran around the track, lane one would part like the Red Sea. Everyone knew how precious each second could be. I came through 50k in a comfortable 3:43, and 50 miles in 5:58 right before we switched directions.

At that point, I felt so good that I had my wife begin to cut up my Hokas so they would ready for after I finished the 100 miles. I had a secondary goal for the race. If I felt good I wanted to run all 24 hours and take a crack Mike Morton’s American 24-Hour Record. On a side note, the lady crewing next to my wife, who was a Canadian, was beside herself when she saw my wife cutting material out of the toe box of my Hokas. She couldn’t believe someone would do that to a pair of $170 shoes because it’s hard for them to get Hokas in Ottawa. She really looked angry and had a talk with me about that after the race.

Well, the 24-hour feeling was short lived as I hit 100k in 7:28. I had a feeling this was where the race was going to start. Doubts, for the first time, were starting to creep into my head as the pace was starting to take its toll on my body. My hip flexors and feet were aching. The hamstrings were tightening up. The effects of the humidity were starting to show as the salt was starting to accumulate all over my body. It was time to take the shirt off and try to cool off. I slowed slightly as I literally ran into my running shorts that I had to don to hold my bib number after I removed my shirt. I asked my wife for a 5 Hour Energy, and for the first time, I asked for my iPod. It was time to get serious. It was going to be a 4.5-hour grind. This was uncharted territory for me. I wasn’t used to having to work so hard for so long. I wondered if it was even possible to run 7:15 splits the rest of the way. Should I back off a little as I had banked some time early in the race? I was here to do one thing and that was to break the 100-mile record so I decided to push on and nothing else mattered. Now that I knew I wasn’t going past 100 miles, there was no reason to save anything in the tank. If I was going to break the record, then I would give it my all!

If I could maintain what I was doing, I could possibly break 12 hours. This was very motivating. My pace did not slow. It actually held steady at about 7:05-7:10 pace. I was holding on to each mile split for dear life. I just didn’t want to give in to the pain. In my experience, pain is not an indicator of when to back off but heart rate is. Since my breathing was under control, I pushed on.

As I headed into the last hours of the race, I felt like I was redlining. The talking stopped, I called, “Track!” louder, and my eyes were pointed down at the track instead of ahead like earlier in the race. In addition, I handed the nutrition keys over to my wife. I told her she was in charge of when I ate. Whatever she handed in front of me I would eat. I told her Coke, Vespa, and mashed potatoes the rest of the way. That was it!  I made my last pee stop at seven hours and wasn’t stopping until the end.

The mental mind games I played were fierce, but I grabbed onto any motivation I could find. It could be a lap split, a mile split, 20, 15, 10 miles to go, or any encouragement from spectators. The motivation that had pushed me along for laps earlier on now pushed me only a few feet. I started to realize that no one was going to make this happen but me. It was just like when that alarm went off on any given morning at 4 a.m. for my daily run. I had no one to meet me or tell me to get up but myself. I was either going to get this record or not.

With a marathon to go, I had 3:10 to break 12 hours. I knew that was a 7:12 pace. So each lap I focused on maintaining that pace. With 10 miles to go, I had 1:14. With 8 miles to go I had 58 minutes. It was going to be close.

I could see my lap counter, Sanchita, working nervously with other staff to make sure each lap was counted. This nervousness was motivating. They could sense what was about to happen. They weren’t the only ones; you could see it on my wife’s face. She was trying to remain calm as she had been all day, tirelessly tending to my every need, but she was a duck in water. The people in the crew area were abuzz. Lane one was almost completely empty as the runners knew what was taking place. As much as I wanted to admit that the record was mine, I’ve been in too many races to know that the wheels can fall off without warning. You take nothing for granted in this sport.

With each lap, that once-imaginary finish line became more and more real. With one mile to go, I could finally see the finish line and dug deep for four victorious laps. The thought of doing this feat in front of my wife, the one that has sacrificed so much to make this happen, and Mark Dorion, the man who single-handedly introduced this sport to me and has mentored me through the good times and the bad, almost brought me to tears as I rounded the track a couple more times.

It is amazing what the sight of the finish line can do. All of the sudden, my legs didn’t ache, my stride became longer, and each breath became effortless. I was going to finish this race just as I started it. I rounded the final turn and headed to the back turn where the 100-mile finish would be. With my fists pumped in the air and my wife cheering me on, I crossed the finish line. This signified the end to 12 of the toughest hours I’ve ever run. And to think, my name will now be listed as the 100-Mile American and North American Record holder is unreal.

Records are meant to be broken and I know this mark will be broken in the near future, but to say that I am the fastest American EVER to run 100 miles is so rewarding. However, it doesn’t define me as a runner and certainly not as a person. I often get asked these days, “What is your training like?” and “What do you eat?” And though my training and diet have changed through the years, I think the difference is this: I don’t race in search of something. When I race, it is a celebration of what God has bestowed upon me. He has given me a gift that allows me to do things with running that I never thought possible.

Jon with his trophy from the race.

Guest Writer: a contributor to iRunFar.com.

View Comments (75)

  • So, Jon ran 3 consecutive Boston Qualifying marathons for his age group and then held pace for another 21 miles.

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  • Jon,

    You are one of the classiest individuals I know. You deserve every bit of the fame and the honor that the world is bestowing on you. You are an amazing athlete and I am in awe of all that you have achieved in the past few years - a result of your dedication, talent and physical and mental strength.

    May you continue to soar even higher!

    Hugs.

    Rajeev

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  • Absolutely awesome, ow-striking and inspiring, the story, the focus, determination, and the "why" at the end. Heartfelt congrats.

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  • Jon: Amazing, wow & fantastic race report.

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  • Oh. My. Sweet. Goodness. Holy. Frickin'. Amazing.

    And, thanks so much for the detailed report. I love all those inside particulars and logistics solutions. This was awesome.

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  • I would love to see you and Mike M. have a perfect race at the 24 Hour World Championships and push each other (race) to a new 24 hour american record.

    That pace you kept was incredible.

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    • Ditto! That is the plan. If it happens..someone is going to put up some serious miles!

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  • Absolutely tremendous. What a celebration of your gifts! And huge props to your family! Congratulations!

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  • For once words fail me. A truly superb performance.

    The best part is that - in a sport full of classy people - Jon is one of the absolute classiest.

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  • So happy for you, Jon. And to set the record with your wife as your assistant: that's awesome.

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  • I loved this...

    "I just didn’t want to give in to the pain. In my experience, pain is not an indicator of when to back off but heart rate is. Since my breathing was under control, I pushed on."

    I've found that to be very true. Excellent effort Jon - I'm in awe of your accomplishment!

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  • Awesome race report. AWESOME FREAKING RACE! Many congratulations!!

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  • Full time teacher, parent, and now huge American record holder!

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  • Huge congrats, Jon! And awesome recap. Glad that Doobie was there to share it with you! Simply incredible.

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  • Incredible race Jon. I bet with the VESPA flowing that sub-12 hours was like a blink. If I were Yiannis, I would be nervous about the next time you line up for the 24 hour.

    Congrats,

    Jeremy

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  • Jon, so glad your training and amazing effort paid off, what a great story and page you are adding to the US ultra history book! And in such a humble, human and smart way, pure ultra class! See you again soon on the trails!

    PS: also glad that Denise could be with you for such a wonderful experience. Love the image of the duck in the water... ;-)

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  • I too run as celebration of God. But I still, run in search of something.

    Thank you for an inspiring write-up. What an amazing privilege and accomplishment! 100 miles faster than any North American in history. Awesome.

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  • Jon-- Wowwowwowwow! No fading whatsoever-- what a phenomenally amazing run! Thanks for writing up all the details on this one. Your GREAT performance clock hopefully won't run low too soon, cause it's GREAT fun watching you continue to pull off this stuff. PS, say hi to Denise.

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  • Wow!

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  • Jon, it was a pleasure and an honour to share the track with you and for you to break the record in my home town. You flew around so often and so fast it was nearly imposible to offer words of encouragement (on the speed issue you hit the 100 mile mark as I hit 50 miles...that is fast). I also think that your wife deserves a lot of credit and is an example of how crew support can make or break a record attempt. She also cheered on other runners as we slowly made our way around the track which was always good for a boost when the legs started to move slow. So once again congradulations on the new record and thanks for the running lesson. Oh by the way not sure if you knew this...there is an unwritten Canadian (specifically Orleans) requirement that for every km you plass someone you owe them a beer at some point. So maybe the next time we run at the same race I may speak with you about collecting my 80 bottles of beer...and it will need to be a Canadian beer of course!!!

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  • Amazing!!!!

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