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Johanna Olson ready for the run of her life

Fighting brain cancer and relishing a marathon

by JEFF CORDES

Johanna Olson enjoys a trail walk near Sun Valley in August.
Courtesy photo

     You have to understand three things about Johanna Olson to understand why her quest to participate in the Twin Cities Marathon on Sunday, Oct. 7 is so remarkable.

     The first thing is Johanna’s sincere gratitude for life itself. Her name, in Hebrew, means “God is Gracious.” And everything about the 33-year-old native of the hinterlands of Minnesota demonstrates just that.

     The second thing is her passion for running, something that has dominated her life since she did her first 5-kilometer race at age eight.

     And the third is her 15-year struggle with brain cancer. She has undergone three brain surgeries, the most recent last September. The last year has been tremendously difficult as her brain tumor has grown and limited the things she can do.

     Nevertheless, in May she signed up for the Twin Cities Marathon, about the same time that the two-time U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials participant did a 10k Mother’s Day race in her current home of Bend, Ore.

     She finished the 10k in 1.02:57, sticking to her plan of running for five minutes and walking for two in her first “event” since last September’s surgery. Actually, she calls her new brand of running “ralks,” a combination of run and walk.

     In a year that has offered “some of the most excruciating pain I had ever experienced,” her marathon training is what really helps to keep her “feeling alive,” Johanna wrote on the blog published on her Web site, savejohannasbrain.com.

     At each step along the way, Johanna with her steely determination and wonderful way of looking at things has bravely stood up to cancer and fought back with the one constant passion covering 25 years of her life—running.

     “Joha” and her legion of supporters will run the Twin Cities Marathon together to celebrate life and Johanna’s amazing spirit. Fellow runners will come from many places along Johanna’s road over the past 15 years—Ketchum, Bend, Spokane and Corvallis.

     Olson, a native of the small town of Wadena, Minn. 160 miles northwest of Minneapolis, was a star runner in high school who picked up the pace and became an All-American at Iowa’s Luther College.

     She led the Wadena Deer Creek Wolverines to the state high school championship during her senior year. But in her first semester at college, Johanna was diagnosed with a Grade 4 glioma brain tumor.

     Ever since, cancer has been a companion that has tested Johanna’s stubbornness and strength to the limit. She has responded by living her life with a positive outlook and a desire to fulfill her dreams.

     She moved to Ketchum to see the West in 2003 and immediately became the fastest female runner in a town of incredibly fast runners. She completed her master’s degree in Oregon. She has coached young athletes and conveyed the joy she has felt in putting one foot in front of the other.

     In September, she learned to surf along with other cancer survivors on the coast of California. And in another week, she’s be running from the Metrodome to the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul.

     She wrote on her blog this past summer, during some of her worst days, “So for today, I am going to (try) to accept where I am and move forward with a little hop in my step and a smile. For I am truly grateful for the life I have. The people I have met ‘because of my brain tumor’ have shaped my life in countless positive ways.”


15 years of ups, downs and always running

     Johanna Olson says it best herself about the ups and downs of her life over the last 15 years on her savejohannasbrain.com Web site.

     She wrote, “15 years ago I could never have imagined that I would have three brain surgeries, radiation and chemotherapy and now another tumor. But here I am!

     “Through these experiences, I hope that I have become a better person, helped others along the way, and that I continue to embrace the wonderful life that I have been given. The support I have, and continue to receive, inspires me each day.

     “Thank you.”

     And what have some of those experiences been that have brought out the best in Johanna? Here’s a time line since 1997, supplemented by some of her gentle humor:

     · Fall of 1997—Began her collegiate running career for the “Norse Nation” at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. As a freshman she was runner-up at the conference meet. One day, she started seeing black spots on her way to biology class.

     She said, “This soon turned into severe headaches and vomiting. So basically it was like most other people’s Sunday mornings in college, but without the beer and shame.”

     · Nov. 18, 1997—Had surgery at the Mayo Clinic to remove a brain tumor. She returned to Luther in December to finish first semester courses. She ran track in spring.

     · 1998—Took medical hardship from running because her tumor had returned and she needed to have radiation five times a week for six weeks.

     · 2000—On the third anniversary of her first brain surgery, she won the NCAA Division 3 cross country championship at Spokane, Wash. as an undefeated runner for Luther College. Over her college career she was a seven-time All-American. In 2001, she was Division 3’s National Track and Field “Athlete of the Year.”

     · 2001—Graduated from Luther College with a health education major and physical education and biology minors. She coached cross country and track and Eden Prairie High School in Minnesota.

     · 2003—Now 24, she moved to Ketchum for adventure and high altitude training. Won the Adams Gulch Run in June. Captured Elephant’s Perch Backcountry Run 10-miler in July at 1.05:40, 11th overall of 208 finishers on that course.

     · 2004—Set a new Backcountry Run 10-mile women’s record of 1.02:21, seven minutes faster than runner-up Angenie McCleary, who became a good friend. Her record stood for seven years until Morgan Arritola ran 1.00:31 in 2011. Johanna competed in the 2004 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials at St. Louis, placing 44th in 2.46:59.

     · 2005—Won the inaugural Sun Valley Half Marathon 13.1-miler in 1.23:58, nearly 12 minutes ahead of the next-fastest woman. Her record in that race still stands after eight runnings, approached only by Arritola’s winning 1.25:17 in 2011.

     · 2005-08—Attended Oregon State University in Corvallis, where she earned her master’s degree in exercise and sports science. She worked as a substitute teacher in Spokane, Wash. during the 2008-09 school year, also coaching track and field at one of the nation’s top running schools, North Central High.

     · 2008—Finished 46th in 2.43:39 in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials at Boston.

     · July 2009—Johanna’s brain tumor returned and she had her second surgery, moving to Minnesota to be near family and her doctors. While undergoing 10 rounds of chemotherapy, she worked full-time at Starbucks and volunteered as a track coach a Hamline University.

     · 2010—Back out West, she took a job as the Exercise Physiology Lab Coordinator at Central Oregon Community College in Bend, Ore.

     · July 2011—After only 14 months of clean scans, a routine MRI discovered that Johanna’s tumor had returned. It was removed in her third brain surgery Sept. 20, 2011 at the Mayo Clinic, with the same neurosurgeon that had performed her previous two. She began a regimen of Temodar (oral chemotherapy).

     · End of Sept. 2011—On her blog, Johanna submitted “a playlist to help you rock out during your next tumor removal experience.”

     · Oct. 2011—Johanna was inducted into the Luther College Hall of Fame.

     · Nov. 2011—Visual impairment, headaches and other post-surgery challenges have been difficult, but Johanna manages to run two full laps without stopping at a middle school track back in Bend. Her days are surprisingly full, and she is humbled by the support of her Bend “family.”

     · May 2012—After months of on-and-off struggles and feeling “really cruddy,” Johanna has a new dream and officially registers for the 2012 Twin Cities Marathon set for Oct. 7. She said she plans to run and train with her mother. “I need to feel alive and get moving again. I will be nearing the end of one year of chemotherapy.” By the end of May, she’s glad to be able to run 30 minutes continuously. By July, she ran nine miles along Deschutes River.

     · July 2012—Chemo was hard on Johanna’s blood and she had to stop after six months. Doctors found the tumor had returned during a 12-week scan in mid-July. In the two months she wasn’t on chemo, it had grown to the size of a nickel. Another scan four weeks later, in Bend, found the tumor had doubled in size. She knew it was changing because of her visual, cognitive and reading problems. She starts Avastin, intended to starve the tumor of its blood supply.

     · Aug. 2012—Stating that Sun Valley is her “most healing place in the world,” Johanna visits her friend Angenie McCleary in Ketchum and they run the Harriman Trail together, eight miles up and eight miles down. “She is so dedicated to running,” said McCleary. “A lot of people couldn’t do it at all.”

     · Sept. 2012—On the one-year anniversary of her third brain surgery, Johanna writes on her blog, “It’s kind of a cool feeling to actually feel genuinely grateful to be still here.”

     · Sept. 10, 2012—Johanna attends the First Descents Surf Camp at Santa Barbara, Ca. First Descents is a non-profit organization offering young adults with cancer a free week-long outdoor adventure. She wrote on her blog afterward, “Words can’t describe the week. None of us asked for cancer and there is no rhyme or reason for any of these people to have been dealt this card. But, because of it, we all learned to surf!”

     · Saturday, Sept. 22—The Bend Bulletin newspaper publishes a lengthy feature piece about Johanna by writer Heidi Hagemeier that is titled “Never Stop Running—Johanna Olson refuses to let the shadow of a brain tumor darken her spirit or her drive.”

     · Oct. 7, 2012—The 31st running of the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon begins at 8 a.m. near the Metrodome in Minneapolis. Due to participate are Johanna along with 15 other marathoners like McCleary who will be wearing special t-shirts in her honor. There will be as least 25 other supporters. Joining her will be her parents Jane Bagstad and Terry Olson, who was her running coach in high school.

     “Cross country and marathon season is the best part of this time of year. We are about to embark on what I believe is going to be our family’s great adventure,” she wrote. “It’s going to be a party!”


A message from Johanna

     The Idaho Mountain Express on Tuesday asked Johanna Olson to send a message to her friends and admirers in Ketchum.

     As she prepared for what she called the great adventure of running in the Twin Cities Marathon at Minneapolis Oct. 7, Johanna wrote this:

     “I moved to Ketchum with no idea what I was getting into! I drove across the country never having seen it with just what I could put in my car. I thought living at altitude would be good for training. Little did I know that I would fall in love with the place as so many do.

     “I have moved many times since leaving Ketchum to go to graduate school but ‘the valley’ travels with me on all of my journeys. It really does. With the return of my brain tumor this July, what did I do? I came to Ketchum to stay with Angenie (McCleary) and to feel the healing powers of the mountains, the people, and the trails.

     “Ketchum is where I fell in love with the West and it is where I return every chance I get to refuel, play, and see old friends.

     “Part of who I am as an adult stems from my wonderful experiences there. From ‘my regulars’ at Tully’s, to coaching at the high school and many jobs in between, I am who I am because of all of my experiences. I am so grateful to still be a part of the area and it will always be my home away from home.

     “It sounds kind of cheesy but it is really how I feel. I really think about Ketchum and how much I love it almost every day. It is the home in my heart. When I need rejuvenation it is where I go. There is something magical there.”

Johanna and her friend Angenie McCleary in the summer.
Courtesy photo



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