Early one day in the summer of 1995, Sue Olsen went down to the Lake Harriet and lined up with about 50 other runners for the “FANS 24-Hour Ultra Race.” At 8 a.m., they started going around the lake, which they would circle for an entire day. As an ultrarunner (and future holder of the U.S. 48-hour record), Olsen was not out of her element. Except that on this day, she was nine months pregnant.
“I sat out in the hot part of the day,” Olsen says now. “And I slept some in the night. Back then I would normally be running 130 miles, but I only ran 62 miles. So I was taking it easy.”
The next day, her son John Miles was born.
This year, at age 61, Olsen, of Burnsville, returns for her 28th race, having accumulated 2,914.5 miles (exact mileage matters) since her first FANS. She followed the event as the race moved to Lake Nokomis, then to Fort Snelling State Park, which is where she hopes to be the first runner to top 3,000 miles when the race begins June 2.
FANS, which stands for “Furthering Achievement through a Network of Support,” was started in 1990 by ultrarunner Bob Frawley to raise money for college scholarships for children from underserved communities. After failing to get into the Western States 100-mile endurance run two consecutive years via lottery, Frawley scheduled the FANS 24 Hour Run on the same day as Western States. The two are no longer the same day, but FANS still does raise money. About $662,167 have been raised for “FANS scholars” in the last 11 years, according to Julie Graves of the nonprofit Pillsbury United Communities, which works in Minneapolis neighborhoods. The run has drawn runners from around the world. To date, FANS participants have run about 184,220 miles.
Frawley, with the help of Carol Zazubek, directed the race for the first decade, but got burned out as the race grew, attracting more runners from out of state who wanted to log miles and break records. So he handed it off to various directors, until Paul and Pat Sackett took it over in 2004. Next year, after 15 years, they will pass the baton to new directors.
“The high point is just the feel of the event,” said Paul Sackett. “People come, they pitch tents. Many of them decorate and we have a contest for who’s got the most interesting and fun campsite. There are all these volunteers who come year in and year out to support and cheer on the runners. The whole day just has this fun, special feel.”
Ed Rousseau, 78, of Minneapolis, known best as “Fast Eddie,” will return for his 29th FANS. He has run one more than Olsen, who missed the first race, and ranks just behind her in miles at 2,638.
“The Fans race is totally unique compared to marathons and many other of the ultras,” Rosseau said. “The food, the volunteer services, the course down at Fort Snelling. You get to see top competitors coming out of the woodwork every year. You never know who you’re going to see, but you’re going to see some great ones, like Courtney [Dauwalter], for example.”
Dauwalter (“runs like a bloody reindeer,” said Rousseau) grew up in the metro and now lives in Colorado. In 2013, she came to FANS to try to hit a new milestone: 100 miles. She’d run some shorter ultras — a 50-kilometer and a 50-mile. But after she dropped out of her first 100-mile race, she needed to explore her limits.
“I wanted to prove to myself that I could physically do it,” Dauwalter said. “FANS was the perfect setup for that. So I sent out an e-mail to all my extended family and friends and my coach from high school cross-country. All of them came out at different parts in the day and ran laps with me. Once I hit 100 it was like, ‘I’m not moving a step further.’ I was stooped over and whimpering for the last, probably, five hours. But hitting that 100 miles gave me a little more confidence in what I was capable of.”
Three years later, Dauwalter broke Olsen’s 22-year-old FANS record, running 135.7 miles (Olsen ran 130.75 in 1994). In 2017, Dauwalter went on to set the American 24-hour record twice, running 155 and 159 miles. This year, she’ll compete at Western States three weeks after FANS.
“This event has sort of been the launching of half a dozen people who have gone on to do extraordinary things,” Frawley said. “Sue was one of the first.”
Like all ultramarathons, timed races and looped races have gotten more popular. On June 9 in Duluth, there is the Last Runner Standing, in which competitors run a 4.2-mile loop every hour, until only one person remains. The Upper Midwest Trail Runners also launched a “Timed Race” series, that includes FANS, along with the Lake Elmo Night Owl six-hour run, the Icebox 480 eight-hour run, and other races.
So what is it that draws people to run in a circle for an entire day?
“For me it’s a question of what I can really do,” said Olsen. “Because you set a lot of limits in your mind, of what you can and can’t do. And it’s taught me that we can do way more than we think we can, in any part of our life.”
There’s something else for fans of FANS.
“You make friends in ultramarathons that are dear friend forever,” Rousseau said. “You see them having good performances. You see them out there hurting and sick. You get to know their crews, and their crews are often their spouses. So there’s a friendship that draws you into it.”
But for Fast Eddie and others, the miles count, too.
“I’m 78 this year,” he said. “At the rate I’m going, God-willing, when I’m 83 or 84 I’ll hit 3,000. But the race has to continue, and I’ve got to stay vertical.”
Frank Bures is a freelance writer from Minneapolis.