Running not for her best time, but for love

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 3, 2012 - 6:56 AM

Friends and family will run the Twin Cities Marathon with Johanna Olson as she battles a recurring brain tumor.

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Johanna Olson moves towards the morning sun while running on the pathway along the Deschutes River in Bend Ore. on Sept. 19, 2012. A tenacious tumor lurks inside Olson's brain, a shadow that has stalked her since she was 18 years old.

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It is billed as the most beautiful urban marathon in the country, and with good reason. Not that Johanna Olson really noticed. Whenever she ran the Twin Cities Marathon, the elite runner from Wadena, Minn., had been so focused on a fast time that she didn't give much attention to the scenery around her.

She will view the race from a wholly different perspective Sunday. Olson, 33, will be "ralking" -- running and walking the 26.2 miles -- among the 12,000 citizen runners, less than 13 months after her third surgery to remove a recurring brain tumor. A dozen relatives and friends will do the race with her, while a few dozen more will encourage her along the course through Minneapolis and St. Paul.

Olson set a goal of running the Twin Cities Marathon several months ago while undergoing chemotherapy. When she discontinued the treatment in April, it had made her so weak she could barely run two miles. Her tumor returned in July, and its rapid growth forced her to leave her job as an exercise physiologist.

It could not stop her from running. A two-time Olympic Trials qualifier and former NCAA Division III cross-country champion, Olson found that her sport gave her the physical and emotional strength to fight her tumor, as well as a sense of normalcy and peace. It will feel strange, she said, to run at the back of the pack Sunday. At the same time, taking it slow will enable her to relish it all the more.

"It sounds so cheesy, but truly, I love running," said Olson, who now lives in Bend, Ore. "It's who I am. It's a part of me. Even if I can only run for 10 minutes, I feel whole and happy. And if everything else is falling to pieces, I go for a run, and I feel like things are going to be OK.

"People have asked me what my goal is, and I tell them, '12-minute miles.' And they say, 'What?' But this is about doing this together. This is a celebration of life."

Olson's parents are among those who will run and walk with her. Her father, Terry, has coached the boys' and girls' cross-country teams at Wadena-Deer Creek High School for 25 years. He last ran a marathon 16 years ago; her mother, Jane Bagstad, hasn't done one in 28 years.

Running as therapy

Johanna wrote a training program that all of them have followed, and her parents said they are ready. They will run among a group that includes veterans and first-timers, some of whom are coming in from Idaho, Oregon and Massachusetts.

"I just want to be able to finish and to do this with Johanna," said Bagstad, who at 61 is a year younger than her husband. "It doesn't matter to her how slow she is. Even after her surgeries and chemo, any time she felt decent, she would run -- even at 4 a.m. When she runs, that's the one time she feels normal."

That is how it's been since Olson ran her first race -- a 5K -- as a third-grader. Under her dad's guidance, she finished second at the state championship three consecutive times after placing third as a freshman.

During Olson's freshman year at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, she began to see spots and suddenly was struck with excruciating headaches. One week later, she underwent surgery at the Mayo Clinic for a grade II glioma. She was told it was a slow-growing type of brain tumor. She also was told it almost certainly would return.

Four weeks after her surgery, Olson resumed running. She missed her sophomore season when the tumor redeveloped and was treated with radiation therapy. Once healthy, she ran better than ever, earning All-America honors seven times and winning the Division III title in 2000 on the third anniversary of her brain surgery.

Trials and trials

Olson coached briefly at Eden Prairie High School before moving to the West Coast to train, coach and attend graduate school. She ran a career-best time of 2 hours, 43 minutes, 27 seconds at the 2003 Twin Cities Marathon, her first race at the distance, and finished 45th and 46th at the Olympic trials in 2004 and 2008.

She finished her 2008 season at the Twin Cities Marathon, which would turn out to be her last race as an elite competitor.

The tumor reappeared in July 2009; since then, Olson has had two surgeries and two rounds of chemotherapy. During her second course of treatment, she decided she needed a goal.

"It was so daunting," she said. "Running was the thing that kept me going; when I could run, I could still feel hope and joy for the future. So I said to my mom, 'If I do the Twin Cities Marathon, will you do it with me?'"

Soon, her dad was on board, too. Then she asked her friend Angenie McCleary -- whom she met during a race -- to join them. Olson had had to quit chemotherapy in April, six months early, because it had destroyed her blood-cell counts. As weak as Olson was, McCleary knew her friend was serious about running the marathon.

"I told her I thought it was a great idea," said McCleary, who will travel from Idaho for the race. "I thought it was a very tall order, but I'm not surprised. This is the main thing that's kept her going the last six months."

Different atmosphere

Olson's training program includes four runs per week, with the longest set at 21 miles. The last time she ran a marathon was in early 2011. When her tumor recurred last July, it quickly doubled in size, interfering with her math skills, reading comprehension and energy level. She now is receiving biweekly infusions of the drug Avastin; when she returns from the marathon, she will have a scan to determine whether it is working.

McCleary has had T-shirts made for "Team JoHa" in Olson's favorite color, blue, with a design featuring two clasped hands. After the race, the entire group will gather for a party.

In the past, when Olson ran the Twin Cities Marathon, being amid the elite field made her want to run faster. This time, she will be among people who simply want to run, to soak up the beauty around them and feel the rush of finishing 26.2 miles. That's an experience she wants to stretch out as long as possible.

"It's going to be neat to be in this totally different atmosphere, but it's still the same marathon I've run three times," she said. "I'll get to really see things, like the houses on Summit Avenue. It's going to take me twice as long as it used to. But I'm just so thankful that I still get to be out there with other people that love running."

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