Interview: John Halvorsen – Chair, Run Ottawa

This month we interviewed John Halvorsen, Chair of the Run Ottawa Board. Halvorsen is not only a big part of the continued success of the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, he is also former Norwegian Champion in the 5,000 and 10,000 metres, a two-time Olympian, and a record four-time Canadian University Cross-Country Champion. He also set the record in the Ottawa 10K in 1988 (28:12) and held it for over 20 years.

1. How did you get your start in distance running?

JH: I grew up in Norway where soccer and cross-country skiing were the most popular sports. My older brother, who was more of a skier but ran as cross training, was asked by a local track club to participate in a road relay and I just followed along. I was 10 or 11. I definitely was not particularly good at that time but I stayed with it and, once the races got longer, it just took off from there. So, I like to blame my brother for this running thing.

2. When did you know you were really serious about this running thing?

JH: My family moved to Ottawa in 1980 when my father became Defense Attaché at the Norwegian Embassy. I started running cross-country in Grade 9 at Ottawa’s Sir Robert Borden High School and ended up competing at OFSAA where I was 13th the first year. Then, in Grade 12, I went back to Norway for a year and I got hooked up with the national team development coach. That was when running really became serious for me. The next year I came back to Ottawa for grade 13 and ended up winning OFSAA.

3. How did your training change after being named to the Norwegian team?

JH: There was additional support and there was more structure. One of my key messages to young runners who want to succeed is you need fairly long-term and consistent training. That’s what I got and it elevated me to a different level. There were also some intangible things about being on the team such as the feeling of belonging to an elite group that I think was very important for me mentally. The discussions and planning we did with the national team coaches was an affirmation that I belonged at that level.

4. Why did you decide to return to Canada and attend the University of Ottawa?

JH: It was just a comfort factor. The first reason I came back was my brother was still here. I also had many friends here from high school, and while I did have the opportunity to go to school elsewhere, like in the U.S., I was confident this was where I wanted to be. I believe the most important thing for an athlete is to be comfortable and happy in their environment.

At the University of Ottawa we ended up building one of the strongest cross-country teams ever in Canada. Everyone on the team was at a national team level and to be a counting team member you had to run a sub 30-minute 10K.

5. Why did you get involved as an organizer of the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend?

JH: Running a lot of road races in the U.S. showed me that such events could be a very large and successful part of the City fabric, driving community fund raising, tourism and athleticism for everyone. In the fall of 1999, I was chatting to one of the volunteer board members of the Race Weekend and I said “I think there’s a lot good things that we can do in Ottawa for the city if we understand how to unlock the possibilities.” And he said, “Why don’t you get involved?” So I did, first becoming a general board member, then volunteer race director, and now Chair.

6. What are your future goals for the event?

JH: In terms of the future, our big issue now is how to manage growth. Can the race grow more significantly? Yes. But it must be carefully managed. One of my goals is to grow the Marathon to be the largest in Canada and a more significant event on the North American Calendar. I would also love to see the Marathon or 10K become an IAAF Gold Label event. It is definitely possible. But always, it’s the overall improvement of the runner’s experience that comes first.

7. Why do you think the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend is such a success?

JH: To me, the weekend is a success because of the participation of our volunteers. There is also a constant process of improvement and refinement that the Race Director and Race Committee is involved in after every event.  We ask ourselves “What went well? What didn’t go well? What can we do better?” based on what happened and what opinions we receive. For example, we know there have been complaints about congestion in some of the races, so we work on ways to improve that. It becomes a year round process.

8. What do you love about the Tamarack Ottawa Race weekend?

JH: What I love about the weekend is getting the chance to watch people finish their races, whether it be a 5K, 10K or Marathon, and witnessing their accomplishment and how they share it with their families and friends. Some get really emotional due to their running accomplishment or because they are running for a reason. It is very satisfying to think we play a part in that.

9. Finally, who or what has inspired you over the years as an elite long-distance runner?

JH: From a young age, when I started running, I admired the Norwegian runner Grete Waitz. I saw her run and win numerous World Cross Country Championships and then win the New York Marathon nine times. She passed away last April from cancer, but not before founding an important Norwegian cancer foundation (, which basically means Active Against Cancer.  We also hosted Grete here in Ottawa in 2005. She was someone I really looked up to in my youth and had the good fortune to get to know later as an adult.