I think the whole training for ultras and doing these different endurance sports, it lends itself to adjusting to this parenting part of life because so many things can go wrong in a race. You’ve done everything perfectly and then event day hits and something happens and you have to adjust. I think that has helped us be a little bit more flexible.
The thought of training for a 100-mile ultra intimidates most people, but for Olan Johnson, it’s a comfortably uncomfortable process.
The steady rhythm of her feet on the ground for mile after mile, the blissfully long training days, the thoughtful preparation for race day conditions … it all brings her to a state of indescribable happiness, not to mention an insane sense of accomplishment at the end of the race itself.
And while she hopes to get back out there and add on some big miles soon, the addition of a newborn to her family is a new and exciting challenge.
“ … Going from 100% all in training to absolutely nothing, or close to nothing, or dropping down to mileage that is more moderate – that was a huge shift mentally,” says Olan. “But on the other side of it, we have this beautiful baby, and we’re super happy, and he’s great, so we wouldn’t change any of that. Now it’s just a matter of what we’re going to do to get back into training.”
Olan and wife, Ericka, welcomed a baby boy into the world just a couple of months ago and are so excited for the new family dynamic, even if it means a little less sleep for the time being and lots of challenges as their lives change with each coming day.
It may not seem like it from the outside looking in, but having all this experience training for ultras actually helps when it comes to raising a kid, too, says Olan.
“I think about that stuff, and I’m like you know … I think the whole training for ultras and doing these different endurance sports, it lends itself to adjusting to this parenting part of life because so many things can go wrong in a race. You’ve done everything perfectly and then event day hits and something happens and you have to adjust. I think that has helped us be a little bit more flexible or to adjust to those changes and not be phased by them.”
Olan has been on the ambassador team for nearly two years and says she’s so grateful that Athletic Brewing has been a healthy way to enjoy beer when in the middle of a long training block or when hanging with friends who want to go out for a drink without feeling left out. She’s also an avid gamer and has built an online community who also shares in the love of computer games, endurance sports and NA beer.
Learn more about Olan and her family, how training for ultras can be measured in tacos, and which races she’d like to tackle next!
Tell me a little bit about yourself, and how fitness and sports came into your life.
I would say I’ve always been very athletic. Growing up, I always did a variety of different sports. Not anything endurance related, though, I was more into tennis and other team sports, but I always liked challenging myself.
That’s probably one of the biggest standout things about my personality. If I find a challenge that I want to take on or some sort of adventure that I want to go on, I’ll do what I can to make it happen. It might not happen immediately, but where there’s a will there’s a way.
That’s how I found myself getting into ultra running; I had seen these crazy desert races, and I was like, “Oh, that would be cool. I should do that.” Of course, I had never run anything longer than a half marathon, but at some point I’ll figure it out.
(Image courtesy of Grand Mesa Ultras)
So the endurance training and ultras started a little bit later in your life?
Exactly, yeah. My first ultra event that I signed up for was in 2018, obviously with the training races that I had to do to lead up to that, I hit 50K, 50 miles, and things like that. But when I had signed up for that, I came home to my wife and said, “I signed up for this race that I've been talking about for a really long time.” So that was pretty intense. It was the same thing. I just hadn’t run long distance. I figured I’ll figure out a way to train for it and finally run a marathon and I’ll keep going.
What were those early days like, learning how to train?
It was pretty tough. I initially started trying to train on my own. I knew about being careful about adding mileage too fast and things like that, but I really went in with no idea what I was doing. I trained for 4 to 5 months, and then I got an injury. We initially thought it was stress fractures, but it was probably just really bad shin splints. It took me out of running for the event that I wanted to do. I had to wait a whole year because with recovery, I wasn’t going to be able to get the mileage I needed to actually run the event. So at that point I hired a coach. I work with Jen Segger – she’s out of Squamish, British Columbia. I’ve been working with her since 2017 or so. She helped get me back into running shape and following a really good schedule and correct loading. That really put me on the right track for success. Since then, I haven’t had any major injuries, just those little niggles here and there that come up that you have to treat. She’s been a great help, and she’s helped me through a lot of the new distances that I’ve done, like the 100-milers.
I can’t even fathom running a 100 mile race, that’s a lot of miles!
I know! I love it though, it's a great challenge. You see that mileage, you see that number and think, “Oh man, I can never do that.”
But I hate thinking like that because all it takes is that determination. You say – I’m going to commit to this and we’re just gonna have a slow and steady build to that mileage. You can do it.
(Image courtesy of Trail Adventure Running)
What is it about ultra running that really captivates you? I know you said you like to challenge yourself, but you can challenge yourself in a lot of different ways, so what is it about ultra that really sticks out?
I think because you have to be prepared on three different levels – there’s not just the physical aspects of it, like being physically ready. You have the mental part of it – being able to get through some of those really big lows that you’re gonna hit, or those walls. And then you have the logistics factor, which I really enjoy. What do you pack, what’s in your drop bag, how much nutrition do you need, how many salt pills are you going to take, when are you going to take them … all that fine-tuning, all those details. I love trying to think through all those different strategies. Nutrition is fun for me, too. Being able to experiment with different brands has been a lot of fun, and seeing what works and what doesn’t.
You and your wife, Ericka, just welcomed a newborn into the world. Congratulations! How has it been going with the new family member?
Thank you! For me the biggest change was going from training all the time to scaling back. I remember when we were initially going through the process of getting pregnant, I had planned on still running a 100-miler, but of course the clinic was like you clearly can’t do that because it’s going to put your body through a lot of shock, and you don’t want to do that. That was very disappointing, but you realize, OK, I want this one thing, this is what we’re working toward, we have to change what those goals look like.
But going from 100% all in training to absolutely nothing, or close to nothing, or dropping down to mileage that is more moderate – that was a huge shift mentally. I’m that type of person that if I’m gonna do something, I want to go all out. So if it means going from running a marathon every weekend to walking a couple of miles here and there, that’s tough. So you’re like – I don’t want to do it at all. But I was able to stick with some training initially, and then as pregnancy progressed, it was absolutely nothing. I got used to that.
And I think the changes in your body was another big thing, too, which you expect, but you don't expect how hard it’s going to hit you until you’re actually in it. So that was tough.
But on the other side of it, we have this beautiful baby, and we’re super happy, and he’s great, so we wouldn’t change any of that. Now it’s just a matter of what we’re going to do to get back into training. And then balancing … right now, I can’t just go out and say, “I’m going to go out for a six hour run, see you guys later.” I have to be a little bit more accessible. It’ll be finding those compromises with my wife and figuring out how best to balance him. Do we just do treadmill runs? Can I split things between treadmill and the neighborhood so that I’ll always be close by? We’ll figure that out.
Is your wife also a runner?
No – she prefers weightlifting. She likes powerlifting a lot more. I tried to get her to run with me. We thought it would be fun to do a multi-day stage race. We were gonna try to train together, and we made it a couple of weeks, and she was like, “No, this isn’t fun, I have to go back to weightlifting.”
Now that your little one is just a few weeks old, how has life been with the new addition to your family?
I think the lack of sleep has been the biggest issue. Just living your life in two- to three-hour increments. And then trying to balance life. Everyone has been like, “When baby sleeps, you sleep.” I know that’s a great idea, but you’re still interested in other things, like I have all these chores I need to do, or I want to catch up on this TV show, or I have a few seconds to hop on a video game or something. So you go do that, then the nighttime comes, and it’s a bit brutal to keep waking up every few hours. So the sleep thing has been the biggest adjustment.
He turned a month old on Saturday, which is crazy to me. We’ve finally figured out a rhythm – he’s getting a bit more consistent, so it’s helping us. We’re hoping – fingers crossed – it stays like that, but I know he’s gonna hit a milestone and it’ll throw everything off and we’ll have to adjust again.
I think about that stuff, and I’m like you know … I think the whole training for ultras and doing these different endurance sports, it lends itself to adjusting to this parenting part of life because so many things can go wrong in a race. You’ve done everything perfectly and then event day hits and something happens and you have to adjust. I think that has helped us be a little bit more flexible or to adjust to those changes and not be phased by them.
All right, I have to ask you about this – your Instagram handle is “Will Run For Tacos” … you have to tell me the story behind that one.
I just have always been obsessed with Taco Bell and Chipotle. It’s my favorite, really. Every time I do a long run, I’m like, oh now I can have this many tacos. It became sort of a joke. How many can I eat now that I’m running so much? I have made it through a [Taco Bell] 12-pack before, which is crazy. I don’t think I can do that now. That was a great PR for me. It’s probably the one that I’m most proud of.
And then what I started doing, in the area around DC, we have all these wonderful little taco shops. A lot of them are accessible whether you’re just running in the city or along the local trails. So I would plan these taco runs, like I would plan to run 50k today, but 50K is gonna bring me to this particular restaurant. I’m going to recover by eating the tacos by that spot. It helped with making the runs more fun. It wasn’t just like – I’ve got to go out for 5-6 hours. Let’s make it fun and creative, and add a different goal to distract from the day-in, day-out of I’ve got this many miles to run.
Another cool hobby of yours is computer gaming and streaming on Twitch. What else do you do in terms of computers, hardware and gaming?
I’ve started to get into the mechanical keyboard hobby which is a whole other rabbit hole to go down that I probably made the mistake of becoming too interested in. Now, I’m like – look at all these switches and mods I can do. All these different vendors are coming out with cool looking things and really nice sounding switches. I feel like that’s really bad for my wallet.
But it’s fun. It’s something that I got into because of people that I met through Twitch and through streaming. They’ve helped facilitate that new interest. I figured why not, let’s give it a try.
Interestingly enough, I didn’t realize that there were folks that were ambassadors in the streaming community, too. I found it was a fun way to promote the brand. Within the gaming community, I found some other folks who were very interested either in the biking scene or the running scene, even doing ultras. They were like, “Oh my gosh, you’ve got Athletic, that’s great,” then they’d try it because of things that we were talking about on stream. That was my preferred drink when I was gaming because I love the taste of beer, but sometimes I don’t want to be hit with all the alcohol when you’re trying to concentrate. I didn’t want to kill my K/D [kills to death ratio] any more than I had been. But it was cool to chat with them and hear their experiences about it and hear their experiences about drinking Athletic.
That’s really cool to connect like that. I think that’s kind of a unique thing, because I think gaming is another place where drinking is common. It’s more mellow, you put on a game, you drink, you relax, and while I know we talk about sports a lot here, there is the competitive gaming scene which is seriously taking off right now. It’s really an interesting world over there. It’s cool that you’re in that space as well.
Yeah, I have to get back to it. That was another thing that took a pause with the whole pregnancy. Now, with him being around, it’s like – OK, you can’t sit online for that many hours. It’s a lot, though. It’s a different type of endurance. You have to be on and interacting with people, and if you’re someone like me, who is a little bit more introverted, it can be a lot to prepare to sit and talk with people endlessly for a certain amount of time. It’s tough. You definitely need to plan out a good schedule.
We’ll see what happens. I still game in my free time. Now it’s just more casual with friends and people that I've met in the streaming community. [It’s nice] when I need to have adult conversations and not just these little coos and things like that. He’s great, but he does not talk back yet!
What games do you play?
I still play Call of Duty. I went back into Fortnite. They took the building part out, which that’s super helpful because I was never good at that part anyway. And then I still like to play indie games and puzzle games. I’m kind of all over in terms of genre.
How did you find the ambassador program?
I have an allergy to alcohol. When I drink it, I just feel horrible. I flush and it’s almost like I will go through an entire hangover when we’re still hanging out, which is good in the sense that I would never wake up with hangover because it’s already worked its way through my system, but I feel awful while I’m at whatever event I’m at or or hanging out with friends. It doesn’t make it very pleasant. It was also [impacting my training]. I’d have to make a choice: Do I go out and enjoy a drink with my friends and then potentially start my training day later or potentially cancel it because I feel bad, or do I just not drink at all?
But sometimes you just want to have a cold beer with your friends. Ultimately, I just did not like feeling as bad as I did. When I found Athletic, I was like: This is great! It was not just finding a non-alcoholic beer, but finding one that would taste good, too, because that’s part of the experience.
I love the idea that Athletic was making all these craft beers and really taking a lot of effort into making them taste really good and to have a huge variety. So that is also how I found the ambassador program. I was like: I love this so much, I can have a drink, not feel really bad, still knock out my training and still hit the goals that I need to … like they say, not compromise anything.
That’s why I wanted to join the ambassador program because I know there are people out there like me that have the sensitivity and have this reaction. Let me try to introduce it to people, and raise awareness about the brand within the athletic community generally, because some people don’t even know that an NA beer is an option. I think that’s incredibly important too, when you have this goal or you’re training for this event, and don’t want to compromise the results of [your] training.
Especially with ultra running, if you don't hit your long run, especially when you’re at a certain point in your training, it can be pretty detrimental, because that’s a huge block you just missed, and you’re never gonna get that back. Then you run the risk of hurting yourself next week when you’ve added 30 minutes or an hour and you’re not ready for it.
One of the things I love about Athletic is just how involved the company is in different causes. Whether it’s supporting LGBTQ issues or various communities like that – that’s really neat. And then having the different products that come out with proceeds going to certain charities – I love that. It’s been a very cool way to be involved. When we live some really busy lives, we’re not able to be as involved as we want to be, so having the company help facilitate some of that participation is really cool.
(Image courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra)
How has the ambassador program helped you in your professional, personal or athletic endeavors?
Definitely I would say the biggest change would be on the personal level. The experience that I had with Twitch, and being able to reach out to a different group of people and meeting people that also had shared interests. If I hadn’t, I wouldn't have known that these people were also athletes and also competed in their own sports. It’s been cool, and then we actually have something else to talk about, not just the game. It’s cool to help build those authentic personal relationships.
Even within the running community, I’ve done some meetups with people and have brought those beers with me. It’s been neat to show those folks that this is actually an NA option that tastes good. It’s a good talking point too.
It’s helped me reconnect with some other folks too that I’ve been friends with for a long time and then, life happens, you know, work gets busy, they move to a different city or country. Because of the ambassador program and posting about Athletic, it brought me back in touch with those folks. I had a friend who was also pregnant, she had her son, and [she was] breastfeeding. That was a really good alternative for her.
What are some of your proudest achievements?
That multi-day stage race, the Grand to Grand. I ran that in 2018. That was one of the things I’m most proud of completing. It was a very long training session for me. I started, then got injured and had to restart the whole process. So it was so cool to finally see that come to fruition and actually make it to the start line, and then make it to the finish line.
That was that dream that I had for like 11 years. Since 2008, I had wanted to do one of those races. I just didn’t know how I was going to do it. Then to finally put all the pieces together, do all the training, commit to it … to go from just running a half marathon to finally doing such a big event over the course of several days and running a ridiculous amount of miles. That was really cool. It was fun to meet everyone, all the competitors from all over the world who came to do the race. It was really awesome.
It’s a beautiful course. It goes from the north rim of the Grand Canyon to the top of the Grand Staircase. It’s out in Arizona and Utah. It’s gorgeous. It gives you that taste of what desert racing is like for us in the states without leaving the U.S. One of the factors to me in picking that one was that I wanted to do a desert race like the Four Deserts Series, but that is a huge commitment to go to an international event without ever having done anything like that before.
So what do you think – are you going to do some of the international ones?
Absolutely! Now that I know that I can make it through and that I don’t feel horrible afterward. That was the unfortunate thing about the pandemic. I had planned to do a multi-day stage race every year, and then everything kind of started going downhill. As travel restrictions tightened, I signed up for the Grand to Grand’s sister race, Mauna to Mauna in Hawaii. But even that got canceled for two years in a row. I’m glad things are opening up again. Hopefully we won’t have to cancel anymore.
(Image courtesy of Grand to Grand Ultra)
What is a bucket list event or race that you’d love to compete in?
One of my big bucket list races is the Ice Ultra from Beyond the Ultimate. That is in Arctic Sweden, and you’re running in snowshoes. So not only are you dealing with the snow and the ice, you also are using different equipment. Before I got pregnant, the last race that I did was a snowshoe race. That was a lot harder than I thought it was gonna be. It gave me perspective on a lot of things I need to work on before I would be even close to ready to taking on that race. But it’s just one that sticks out as being ridiculously hard and challenging but I could see the reward being very high of finishing.
Do you enjoy traveling, and where are your favorite places to visit?
I don’t travel for this job [as a cyber threat analyst] anymore, which is a good thing because it allows me to spend more time with family and more time for training. But I do love to travel. I hope once we’re on the other side of this pandemic, I hope that we can continue to go and travel for fun and do more family vacations and things overseas. I don’t mind traveling within the U.S., but the magic part is just going to foreign countries and experiencing different cultures and cities – that would be nice to do again.
I hope that a lot of our travels will be race-centric. We’re gonna go wherever there’s an ultra! I would love to at some point go to UTMB Chamonix, even if it’s just to spectate. That’s definitely a bucket list place. It’s probably a bucket list event too, but to just go there and experience what it’s like for that week, that would be really cool.
What do you like to do on rest days?
I would still say the biggest thing is just hanging out with family and resting. And then also video gaming – it’s something that I used to do pre-baby as well.
What gets you up and out of bed every day?
This little guy right here. He does not let you sleep in whatsoever.
What does living without compromise mean to you?
If you put your mind to something, just seeing it through and not compromising the steps that you would have to take to achieve that goal, whether it’s a work goal or a training goal. One of the examples I can give of that is, with work, I used to travel a lot for work, and I was deployed for a significant amount of the year, but I was still training for my ultras. I would have to balance really demanding work hours with trying to get the mileage in, even if it meant waking up at 2 or 3 in the morning before my shift started and getting a 4 to 5 hour run, and then going to work – I would do it. The training that I did leading up to Grand to Grand, the majority of that, I would say like 90%, was on a treadmill. The only time I would see the trails was at the actual event, which was kind of mind blowing.
But when I think of living without compromise, I think of that. Where there’s a will there’s a way, and I will make it happen. It was definitely tough. I have an appreciation for getting outside. The treadmill training was really good, but that’s all we had. It definitely taught me a lot about – OK, if I need to get something done, these are the lengths in which I’m going to go to get it done. If this is what it takes, this is what it takes.
What do you think you’ll do next? What’s on the horizon?
I’ll be hopefully cleared at the end of April to start training again. That’s going to be a whole lot of work with my coach to try and figure out what the best course of action looks like. Part of me wants to do Grand to Grand again in 2023. It was that first one that got me into ultras, and it would be really cool for that to be the one to get me back into running and racing. That might be something, but I think it’s gonna take a long time to get there.
It’ll be interesting. I’m very curious to see what training looks like. I think I want to enjoy it a little bit more. When I initially started training , I didn’t do too many fun runs. I was very serious about it. It would be nice to just go out and do runs with friends, or do some local 5ks, or some of the shorter races where everybody seems to have a lot of fun. It would be nice to go in with that lighthearted [feel of] this is fun, I’m going to enjoy what I’m doing and not push myself so hard and be so serious about it.
It would be cool to do some runs with [my son] too. I’m looking forward to the jogging stroller, that’s gonna be cool. Just to go out in the neighborhood.
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