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Two days before 33-year-old Johanna Olson lost her 15-year battle with brain cancer, her older sister, Marney, leaned over her hospice bed and whispered, "rabbit, rabbit, rabbit." It was a tradition, something the sisters had said to each other for luck on the first of each month for as long as they could remember. It was particularly important to say on the first day of the year, and it was Jan. 1, 2013. Even in these hard moments when it seemed luck wasn't on her side, Johanna joked that it could have been much worse if those propitious words hadn't been uttered. And while Johanna's body, once strong and swift, was finally succumbing to disease, no one who knew her would have been surprised to hear that she still considered herself lucky.
Olson hailed from a small town in northern Minnesota, the product of parents who were marathoners and outdoor enthusiasts. Growing up Nordic skiing, hiking and swimming in the area lakes with her parents and sister and eating her grandmother's homemade lefse, she once jokingly likened her upbringing to "A Prairie Home Companion." The boisterous, snowy blonde looked the part.
Her running career began in seventh grade for Wadena-Deer Creek High School, during which she qualified for the state cross country meet. By the end of her prep career, she'd earned five other state meet berths, and tallied three runner-up finishes. Division I schools lined up to recruit the young runner out of the North woods, but she insisted on blazing her own trail.
Two years earlier, Marney had enrolled at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, and since then Johanna had been on coach Betsy Emerson's radar. When Johanna visited campus with her sister as a sophomore, Emerson remembers being struck by the high-schooler's easygoing confidence and vibrancy.
"Here came in this little blondie with a smile on her face and her letter jacket weighed down with patches and medals," Emerson said. "I remember keeping my fingers crossed that Johanna might consider Luther."
Despite the allure of full-ride scholarships and big league programs, the budding runner was drawn to the Division III liberal arts school with a strong academic reputation. Emerson identified her as a rare talent when Olson finished second at the conference meet and led her team to qualify for regionals during her freshman year.
Johanna brought out the best in her teammates. I could go one by one and describe how much better each athlete became during the time they ran with her.” -- Betsy Emerson
In the sport of running, momentum is key, both literally and figuratively. Riding high on the success of her first collegiate season, Olson vied to earn a spot on the starting line at nationals.
It took her seeing several black spots on her way to biology class and a piercing headache one day to drastically alter those plans. A few days after the conference championships, Olson made an appointment to see a doctor about her symptoms. The diagnosis that came back was stunning: a Grade II glioma, a tumor in the parietal and occipital lobes of her brain. Surgery was necessary. Immediately.
Though Olson bounced back sooner than most expected, allowing her to finish in the top five at the conference meet in the 5,000 meters that spring, doctors discovered the tumor had grown back early in her sophomore year. Continuing with her full-time schoolwork, Olson drove to the Mayo Clinic five days a week for six weeks of radiation treatments, which left her weak and nauseous. Her teammates took turns making the 140-mile roundtrip with her. It was then that doctors confirmed her condition would be chronic. It wasn't a matter of if the tumor would reappear, but when.
Undaunted, Olson returned to the team and began rebuilding her fitness. An inspiration to both her teammates and to running rivals, she made a comeback that was nothing short of spectacular. Not only would she be faster than she had been before, but the force of her drive seemed to scoop up those around her and propel them to be better too.
"Johanna brought out the best in her teammates," Emerson said. "I could go one by one and describe how much better each athlete became during the time they ran with her."
Her teammates say that it wasn't just her against-the-odds story but her unrelenting enthusiasm that made her someone everyone just wanted to be around.
By the end of junior year, Olson had led her team to a conference championship, was an All-American and had received the prestigious Honda Inspiration Award. Finally able to ride the wave of momentum, Olson never lost a race during her senior year. On a snowy day in Spokane, Wash., she capped off that season by running away from the rest of the field and winning the 2000 NCAA Division III cross country title on the third anniversary of her brain surgery.
"Johanna just never thought, 'I'm not going to be able to do this.' It was always, 'I'm going to work really hard to get where I want to be,' " said her sister, Marney.
That winter, she would also anchor Luther's distance medley relay on the indoor track, receiving the baton in last place during the race for the national title, but still managing to seize the championship. Upon graduation, Olson was a seven-time All-American, three-time academic All-American and an NCAA postgraduate scholar.
The collegiate running scene was not the end of the road for Olson, who had a growing number of clean scans under her belt. Two years after graduating from Luther, she bumped up her training mileage, eliciting a finish in 2 hours, 43 minutes, 27 seconds at the 2003 Twin Cities Marathon. Not only was she the third American to cross the line, the time also qualified her for the following year's Olympic trials, where she would place 44th in 2:46:59.
Training as a full-time graduate student in exercise and sports science at Oregon State, she again qualified for the trials in 2008.
"Seeing how she prepared for it was just the next level mentally and physically," remembers Robyn Wangberg, one of her teammates from Luther who trained with Olson in Corvallis, Ore. Off a 2:43:39 trials finish, Olson signed up for the 2008 Twin Cities Marathon the following fall.
It was around that time, after a decade of good health, that Olson began experiencing peculiar symptoms. There were instances when she sensed she had a third arm and other days when her head just hurt. A scan confirmed her fears: The tumor had returned.
When she was able to begin running several months after again having surgery, she noted in her blog a sense of wholeness, writing, "I used to try to say running was not who I was, but yesterday I happily realized, it is who I am, or at least a huge part of me."
Olson simply refused to stop moving forward in life or with running. Having sought treatment in the Twin Cities, she headed back west to take a job as the exercise physiology lab coordinator at Central Oregon Community College in Bend. After just over a year of spotless scans, an MRI showed that once again, the tumor was back. This led to her third brain surgery, on Sept. 20, 2011, along with a regimen of oral chemotherapy.
Olson soon decided she needed a new goal. She called her parents and asked them if they would consider participating with her in the 2012 Twin Cities Marathon in the coming fall. Instead of running, however, she proposed that they "ralk." Olson would draw up a training plan and they would run 4 minutes and walk 1 minute all the way from downtown Minneapolis to the state capitol in St. Paul.
"Johanna always got that runner's high, even when she wasn't running Olympic trials times," Marney said. "She had the same love for it no matter what."
While she hoped the marathon would be a celebration of the conclusion of chemo, her low blood counts that summer meant putting the treatments on hold. In the meantime, she continued to train, biked nearly everywhere and learned to surf.
When Sunday, Oct. 7, 2012, arrived, 15 other marathoners joined Olson, all donning blue "Team Joha" shirts at the start line of the Twin Cities Marathon. As 11,000 runners were unleashed on the streets of Minneapolis, the team was cheered on by spectators proudly wearing the blue shirts all along the 26.2-mile course.
They came from Massachusetts, Washington, Idaho, Oregon and all corners of Minnesota. While Johanna had touched many, the sum of these parts didn't come into focus until everyone congregated on marathon morning.
"People yelled her name all along the way and jumped in the race with us," her mom, Jane Bagstad, said. "It was the last big thing we were able to do together."
For Olson it was always about fighting for minutes on the clock. Every step counted and each second mattered; time spent being anything but joyful was wasted. For her last marathon, she savored each moment. Finishing in 5:09:54, the minutes on the clock took on new meaning.
It wasn't until the day after Christmas that doctors determined the tumor had spread and all treatment options were exhausted. As her family converged on her hospice room in Bend, she was surrounded by photographs of her favorite places to run. It was in the mountains of Sun Valley, on the craggy paths of Bend, and along the calm lakes of northern Minnesota. When she ran, it was hard for Johanna to ever feel anything but lucky.