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Ultrarunner with arthritic condition pushes bounds of possibility



Adventure-healing and the Triple Crown of 200s

By Bay Stephens EBS Staff Writer

Big Sky – Through deep forests, along red rock canyon rims, and over misted mountains, Big Sky resident Helgi Olafson runs—for hundreds of miles at a time. A wandering adventure-seeker with an arthritic condition that in some ways has become his super power, Olafson is one of only 24 athletes in the world in the running to complete the 2018 Triple Crown of 200s, a series of three 200-mile ultramarathons in three consecutive months.

Free altitude training drew Olafson to work at Big Sky’s Lone Mountain Ranch last December as a chef for the winter season. This summer he’s been a guide and naturalist for the ranch, leading guests on hikes and trips to Yellowstone National Park and pounding out thin-air Triple Crown training in his time off.

The Bigfoot 200 Endurance Run in Washington’s Cascade Mountains in August, the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run circumnavigating California and Nevada’s Lake Tahoe in September, and the Moab 240 Endurance Run in Utah in October comprise the grueling Triple Crown of 200s, totaling 645.8 miles. Olafson has completed the 2018 Bigfoot and Tahoe 200s; only the Moab 240 awaits.

Olafson came to Big Sky last December for free altitude training, working at Lone Mountain Ranch. He whirred snowshoes all winter to train and, when the snow melted, has trained on a 106-mile route he mapped out in Big Sky’s backcountry that gains 33,000 feet of elevation. PHOTO BY BAY STEPHENS

Such extreme athletics are the arena of only a handful of hardened competitors, yet Olafson belongs to an even more exclusive group of athletes: those competing with ankylosing spondylitis. As he explains it, AS is a condition that causes joints to fuse due to an inflammation and calcification of the points where ligaments attach to bones. In a nutshell, his body responds to inflammation by generating bone in those areas, which can lead to immobility.

When Olafson was diagnosed at 19, he thought his life was over. But he had a good doctor that gave him hope.

“He basically reassured me that it wasn’t the end,” Olafson said. “I could still live my normal life, and he recommended that I do that. So I did, and I didn’t let it get to me.”

He led an active life from then on, but he didn’t become serious about fitness until he was 27 when he joined an outrigger canoe team in Hawaii, and was invited to fill a spot on a triathlon team. After the race, he bought a bike and began knocking off his own triathlons.

Exercise became his medicine. As long as he remains active, his joints don’t get the chance to fuse. As he wrote in a race report from the Bigfoot 200, “If I don’t move it … I will lose it.”

Much of Olafson’s drive in his athletic pursuits has been to raise awareness for AS and to motivate those with the disease to fight impending immobility with exercise. Individuals with AS across the globe have been inspired by Olafson to get out and do something about their condition. He’s received messages and emails from people telling him how they were running their first race because of him.

“I’m just thankful that I have the opportunity to inspire people,” he said. “It’s nice to see the work that I’ve put in to try to help people actually come to fruition.”

Olafson has chosen gratefulness in the face of his condition, which has provided an excuse to live adventurously, and exemplify an alternative lifestyle for those suffering from AS.

“I thank AS,” he wrote in the same race report. “I am lucky to have this condition because it is a forever
reminder to get my ass out there and crush it!”

Crush it he has. In the past eight years, he’s run two Ironman triathlons, 15 half-Ironmans, 10 marathons, 10 half-marathons, 15 Olympic-distance triathlons, two 50Ks—including the 2018 Rut Trifecta at Big Sky Resort—two 100Ks and now three 200-milers. Last October he ran the Moab 240, his first 200-miler, the longest race he’d done up to then being the Bigfoot 100k that August, a 170-mile jump in one month.

By listening to and conditioning his body, Olafson aggressively pushes the bounds of possibility to show what the human body can do.

In addition to extreme ultras in the near future, Olafson intends to run the Triple Crown again in 2020 for the title—while running from race to race, a 1,384-mile feat in less than three months. He hopes to gather sponsorship and a team that includes those with AS to support him throughout the endeavor, and helping spread the word about the condition and the medicinal power of exercise.

Along with raising awareness and inspiring hope, Olafson knows it will be an adventure.

“Wherever adventure is,” he said, “I’m going there.”

Email Helgi Olafson at to learn more about his mission to raise awareness about ankylosing spondylitis.

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