Changing Course: Warren graduate Devon Olson’s newfound passion leads to his winning 70-mile run

For the vast majority of athletes, the peak of success in sports most often takes place in high school. They grow up playing Little League baseball and YMCA rec league soccer, have their moment of glory in high school, and then move on to bigger things.

For Warren Area High School graduate Devon Olson, the story is completely reversed.

There was no burning interest in sports for Olson as a child, but things can change in a hurry. In June, Olson ran in the 70.5-mile Laurel Highlands Ultra Trail Run.

And he won.

Olson’s past experience in organized sports was limited to playing football in seventh and eighth grades at Beaty. He didn’t participate in any high school athletic programs, and the thought of taking up running never entered his mind. Instead, he turned to other hobbies to occupy his time.

“When I was in high school, I was playing music all the time.” Olson said. “When I do something, I do it to the best of my abilities, so I was pretty serious about it. I was in quite a few bands. I still do music, but not quite as actively. I’ll always have that, but I kind of found the same thing in running that I found in music.”

Olson, currently enrolled at the University of Pittsburgh and on pace to graduate in the fall with a marketing degree, decided to take up running just as a means of exercise.

“I started running about three years ago, and it was mainly to get in shape,” said Olson. “Suddenly, I started realizing how much I enjoyed it, and that I was decent at it.”

It didn’t take long for Olson to run to a bigger stage than just a jog in the park.

In May of 2012, he took on the Pittsburgh Marathon and finished with a time of 3:21.11. Considering it was his first-ever marathon, and “I didn’t really know what I was doing nutritionally or strategically,” the result was a great one.

As Olson continued to adapt to his new sport, he made the switch from road running to trail running.

“I started getting into trail running, and I realized that it’s a lot better for the body, and a better full-body workout as well,” he said. “It’s also a lot more peaceful to be running on trails than roads.”

It was around that time that Olson started reading about adventure races as well as ultra-marathon races.

“I started reading about these guys who were running 100 miles, and I was shocked,” said Olson. “I didn’t even believe it.”

Olson started participating in longer and longer races, and immediately began finishing near the top of the pack; second place in the Marshall Mangler 50k in November of 2012; sixth place in the Table Rock Ultras 50-mile in North Carolina a month later, and; third place in the Glacier Ridge 50-mile at Moraine State Park in April of 2013.

The results were astounding for someone who had just recently taken up running as a serious interest.

“I think (my results) shocked my siblings,” he admitted.

It was early in 2013 when Olson heard about the Laurel Highlands Ultra 70.5-mile trail run – a race that is claimed to be the “toughest 70 miles in Pennsylvania.”

He started training four months prior, but a minor injury he suffered after the Glacier Ridge race threatened to slow him down. Still, Olson had a goal and was determined to meet it.

“I had my heart and mind set on Laurel for the last four months leading up to it,” said Olson. “My recovery was pretty fast. I can run a marathon now and recover in a couple days; a year ago it was totally different.”

Olson’s training involves running five or six days a week, with at least one day of rest, but the specifics depend on the type of race he’s preparing for.

“There’s a lot of differences between marathons and ultra races,” he said. “A marathon is like a sprint for me now.”

And so the Laurel Highlands race finally rolled around, and Olson began working his way toward the front of the pack.

“I figured I wasn’t going to come out super fast,” said Olson. “The first part of the course is the hardest, with over 5,000 feet of ascending and descending. All of a sudden, mile 30 comes and I’m picking off guys left and right.”

Of course, Olson also had some help along the way. Eric Morelli, a fellow runner whom Olson has bonded with over their shared interest, paced him the whole way. They ran the final 24 miles together.

“Once I picked up Eric is when I really started going fast,” said Olson. “We did the last 24 miles in four hours. After running 46 miles, it was a crazy burst of energy that none of us anticipated. The same guy was winning the race all the way up to about 55 miles, and we passed him. He ended up dropping out of the race.”

Olson finally reached the end, finishing in first place with a time of 12 hours, five minutes and 27 seconds. The runner-up finished 15 minutes behind him, at 12:22:04. Other results ranged from 13 hours all to way to the 22-hour mark. And, while Olson had high expectations for a strong finish, first place came as a bit of a surprise, even to him.

“Let’s put it this way,” Olson started. “I knew from the (Glacier Ridge) race I ran in April, placing third with some pretty fast guys, I would be able to get into the top ten, maybe top five. I definitely wasn’t thinking first. I was thinking I just wanted to have a good day out there and finish the race. I would have been happy just to finish the race and have my friends and family there.”

The support of Olson’s family along the way has helped him to reach new heights that would have seemed impossible a few years ago.

“When he first started running, I didn’t really understand what was going on,” Devon’s father, Gary, said. “It’s hard for me to understand 70 miles. A lot of people ask me why he (does it), and I sort of wondered that myself. I remember asking, ‘What do you think about when you’re running?’ And he said ‘I just think about putting one foot in front of the other.’ It’s a difficult thing to do, no doubt about it. That’s something he’ll have for the rest of his life. We’re truly happy for him.”

The rest of his life is starting now.

“I’ve only been running ultra races less than a year, so I think they thought I was a little crazy at first,” said Olson. “But they’re coming around now. My mom and dad were both really excited that I won. My sister Lindsay has been at every race but one. She’s been tremendous. You really need a supportive crew along the way. Sometimes it’s just nice to see someone you know, after running.”

When Olson says winning isn’t the most important thing to him, he really means it.

“I’m just as proud of my other races as (the Laurel Highlands race),” he said. “Obviously, I realize there’s no money in what I’m doing, but it’s something that I love doing, and I’m finding out more and more that I’m not too bad at it.”

After winning a 70.5-mile trail run, what could possibly be next on Olson’s agenda?

The answer is easy: The Burning River 100-Mile Endurance Run held July 27 and 28 that runs through Cuyahoga Valley National Park in Ohio.

“I’ve been looking at the Burning River 100, and I think it’s a good option for my first 100-mile,” said Olson. “I definitely want to do it. Some really elite guys run in it, but I think I can place well. I’ve already started running again. I’ve come this far, why stop now?”