STANFORD, Calif. -- With each steady stride, Stanford senior Erik Olson gathers momentum for the finishing kick of his collegiate career.
At Stanford, where runners have annually defined excellence in collegiate racing, Olson now finds himself in a position of leadership and the heir to greats such as Chris Derrick, Ian Dobson, and the Hauser twins.
Olson in some ways is the unknown in Stanford’s annual quest for an NCAA cross country championship. It’s taken him three years to fully recover from the onset of injuries that began during his freshman year. But as he springboards off his first All-America track season, the feeling is that Olson’s best running is imminent.
Olson has spent his summer in Palo Alto and training on the trails of the mid-peninsula. He will join the team when it reports on Aug. 29 for training camp. After the season-opening USF Invitational at Golden Gate Park on Aug. 31, the Cardinal departs for high-altitude training at Mammoth Mountain.
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The team needs Olson. Last season, sophomore twins Jim and Joe Rosa emerged as frontrunners on a team that came into the NCAA Championships with high hopes that it could contend for a national title. But the team struggled mightily, finishing 16th in a worst-case scenario for a team that entered the race ranked No. 2.
Olson, though not especially happy with his 87th-place performance, was Stanford’s second runner that day on the trails of E.P. “Tom” Sawyer Park in Louisville, Ky, after a season spent mostly on the fringe of the top five. If nothing else, the cross country postseason provided the impetus to his best track season – one highlighted by personal bests of 13:46.12 in the 5,000 meters and 29:06.14 in the 10,000.
What’s next? The answer may help determine Stanford’s finish this fall.
“Erik Olson can be a top 30 guy in the NCAA’s,” said cross country coach Chris Miltenberg, Stanford’s Franklin P. Johnson Director of Track and Field.
Assuming Olson maintains his health, there seems little doubt that he is capable of producing his finest season and fighting for alpha status on a team that returns all but two of its top seven.
And, as for team leadership, Olson insists “it’s not a monarchy, it’s more of a parliamentary system.” With upperclassmen such as the Rosas and senior Tyler Stutzman, a three-time track All-America, Olson feels more comfortable sharing the load. Regardless, he will be vital in both performance and leadership if Stanford is to erase the memories of last season’s NCAA nightmare.
The Cardinal had won the high-powered Wisconsin Invitational and was second in the Pac-12s before capturing the NCAA West Regional for the third time in four years.
“Last year was our first without a superstar, so we had to prove ourselves early in the season,” Olson said. “We won some big races, and got it in our heads that we were really good. Then, when it started getting hard, we didn’t know how to act.”
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Learning from struggle
The crash was difficult, but also necessary.
“It really transformed the entire track season after that,” Olson said. “It benefited me and it benefited the team. A lot of guys became mentally stronger.”
Another advantage between last season and this is having a full year under Miltenberg. The coach was hired just days before the team was to report and Olson said Stanford’s runners carried a disadvantage of training during the summer under one coach and opening the season with another, who had different philosophies and methods than predecessor Jason Dunn, now at Kentucky.
Now, Miltenberg is able to tailor training plans to each individual, building on what was established over their previous nine months together.
For Olson, last year marked his first return to the type of mileage he put in going into his freshman year. It also brought glimpses of the success that seemed Olson’s destiny when he arrived after starring at Marin County’s Novato High School.
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Marin County is characterized by the affluence of its citizens, the liberalism of its politics, and the idyllic settings of small towns and beaches under the forested silhouette of massive Mt. Tamalpais. However, Novato is a little different. Its lagoons, hillsides, and ranches have more in common with Sonoma County’s Petaluma, the next town north on Highway 101, then, say, the hip houseboats of Sausalito.
Olson was a baseball and basketball player until he moved from Illinois to Novato when he was in sixth grade. The Olson family soon became friends with the family of George Bousquette, Novato High’s cross country coach who persuaded Olson to try running.
When Olson joined the team as a freshman, he was among only five boys in the entire program. By the time he graduated, Olson had won a state Division III cross country crown, captured every varsity distance race at the Marin County Athletic League championships over a three-year stretch, and helped the Hornets develop into an area running power.
Olson’s local legend was cemented with his performance as a high schooler at the infamous Dipsea Race, the nation’s oldest annual cross country race and a Marin County rite of passage. The 7.4-mile event from Mill Valley to Stinson Beach was first raced in 1905 and is as eccentric as its area citizens, with shortcuts encouraged over a series of narrow single-track mountainous ascents and descents, often alongside shoulder-high bushes of poison oak.
Runners begin with handicaps according to age, which meant Olson had to start 23 minutes behind the first wave. Still, Olson managed to elbow his way to fifth place.
“The thing that amazed me most was how brutal the 50-year-old men were,” Olson said. “They were so aggressive and wouldn’t let you pass. They didn’t care at all about their bodies. They would just throw themselves down the mountain.
“That was eye-opening. It was good. It was the first time I actually saw aggressive racing, similar to college.”
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The race from hell
His freshman year was going smoothly. He placed 11th to help Stanford to the Pac-10 cross country title and was the Cardinal’s No. 5 runner on its fourth-place NCAA team. He went on to capture the U.S. junior national cross country championship and qualified for junior worlds in Spain.
But Olson’s huge increase in weekly mileage (to 80) in preparation for the season began to take its toll soon after Olson broke 14 minutes in the 5,000 at the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation indoor championships.
“Mentally, I felt that was my last race,” Olson said of that indoor 5K. “I needed a break.”
But less than two weeks later, Olson was preparing to race again, this time in Punta Umbria, Spain.
Olson began experiencing pain in his fibula, a non-weight bearing bone in the ankle. He compensated on his training runs by hobbling to take the pressure off.
Then, he had to run the race – a four-lap 8-kilometer event. And the kicker … he had to leap over four barriers on each lap.
“I was compensating for an injury, I was worn out, and I was pushing myself past my physical limits,” Olson recalled. “It was the perfect storm.”
Not only did Olson break the fibula during the race, but he experienced shooting pains in his opposite femur, in what would be diagnosed as a stress reaction.
“It was horrible,” Olson said. “I got pulled off because I was starting to get lapped by the Kenyans.”
The injuries began an injury cycle that Olson said, “was hard to get out of.”
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A new hope
It wasn’t until 2012-13 that Olson finally was able to complete cross country, and indoor and outdoor track seasons in the same academic year. It came with success, but Olson still sees room for improvement.
His entire training schedule, after all, was one of build-up and catch-up. He never experienced a taper or plateau to his training. This year, Olson will have the benefit of what might be called a normal year – a beginning, middle and end that will maximize his chances of success at the NCAA Championships.
An added benefit of the months of consistent training is the security of confidence. And Olson has never been more confident than he is now.
“Our focus last year was to prove that we were still a national title contender, which we did – until nationals,” Olson said. “This year we want to be a national title contender at nationals.”
And the senior from Marin County could be leading the way.