Jon Albon is world renowned in the world of ultra running and obstacle course racing (OCR). Having emigrated from the UK to Norway back in 2014, Jon has since turned his passion for running into a career that has seen him crowned the undefeated OCR world champion, Trail Running World Champion, Ultra Skyrunning World Champion and two-times winner of Skyrunning World Series.
Yet, competitive elite sport didn’t come naturally to Jon, something he opens up about in the new documentary, Finding My Feet, commissioned by endurance sports TV. We spoke to Jon at his home in Norway where he moved to live with his Norwegian wife, Henriette.
Jon’s journey into elite ultra running and OCR was not a foregone conclusion when he was a young boy. In fact, the new documentary openly talks about his journey from a shy boy – who was more comfortable following his siblings and their passions rather than making his own choices – to the athlete he is today.
Jon picks up the story;
“I never really ran as a kid, my main sporting interest when I was young was in skate hockey, mainly because my brother played. We’d play together outside our garage on the little bit of block paving and then he joined a team, so that I joined the team as well. We really got into it and played games pretty much every weekend and training once or twice during the week. My folks always encouraged us but were never pushing me. They just wanted me to do something I enjoyed.
“When it came to running, I ran on sports day at school and whenever the teacher asked for two people to go out and do cross country, I was always picked. It’s not like I never ran, but it definitely was not my focus. If I was honest, I had no interest in running properly or doing any sort of training. If I did run it was more just for the enjoyment.
“When I quit skate hockey, I was around 20 years old, and I wanted to stay fit. That’s when I discovered running and realised how much I just love to do it. I really enjoyed just being out especially in nature but just being out and training and making myself tired. It wasn’t just the feeling of running I loved, but the time after the run where I felt like I’d done something, take a warm shower, have some nice food and get that nice feeling of achievement afterwards. My general love of just being out there and running grew from there.”
The heart of the documentary is the freedom and opportunities that opened for Jon when he changed his way of thinking and started to say ‘yes’. It is hard to believe that such an accomplished athlete had to build his confidence from the ground up, yet that drive to try new things, to break out of the mould didn’t come naturally.
“The only reason I’ve got here is because I’ve been willing to say yes, to go out and do things.” Jon says “To sometimes be a little bit uncomfortable so I can have a better feeling afterwards.”
After school Jon went to work in London where he continued running and training on his way to and from work. It was also where Jon met his wife to be, and a chain of events was set in motion that would result in Jon Albon becoming one of the most celebrated athletes of his generation.
We asked Jon about his journey from just loving running to the moment he turned professional, a subject close to his heart that was to change his life and outlook forever.
“The decision to turn pro all happened in conjunction with me moving to Norway in 2014.” says Jon “I’d already quit my job in the UK and made this big step of moving to a different country. It was a massive change and a leap into the unknown – but that’s what you do for love!
“At that time, I didn’t get a job in Norway because I couldn’t speak Norwegian well enough, so I spent that those first few weeks training. I was in good shape and entered a couple of big races in the States – and won. We were sat there with the prize money from those races my wife just said to me “Well, why don’t you just try and run as your job.” It was never a career I’d really considered, it just kind of all happened naturally and now five years later, here we still are.
“For me I think it was the right time as well. I really believe that running for enjoyment was a very powerful motivation for me and if I’ve been told what to do by coach as a kid, I wouldn’t have been as successful. Because running was always just for me, I feel as though I’ve found my own place in the world and it really feels like where I belong.”
From the early days when Jon started running, to today with World Championships under his belt, we really wanted to get underneath the drive behind Jon’s success. What is it that keeps him motivated to run and compete?
“You might find this strange, but I was never much of a competitive person. But, saying that, I have become more competitive over the years, mainly because I was winning races and now I feel like I have to continue winning them.
“So obviously there is a competitive element in that I want to train and do well in races, but more than that, I genuinely really like being fit and healthy so I’m always going to get up and train based on that.
“When I lived in London – when I was also working full time – I think I just really enjoy being tired. There was a pivotal moment when Henriette moved back to university after a six months working stint in the capital that, and I thought well I can either sit down and watch TV, or I can just make myself tired and train – I chose to train all the time. I think part of that was that I lived in such a pokey little apartment room and I just didn’t want to spend anytime there!
“I think I’m also like a little bit addicted of that feeling of being tired. In my mind, if you’re tired you can’t feel like you’re wasting your life, whereas if you have lots of energy you can feel like you should be doing something more or fulfilling your life in someway … if you’ve been training loads and you’re really tired I said you’ve got to rest and there’s no way you can feel like you’re missing out.”
Throughout his career, Jon has been challenged with a foot injury. Something he has recently been resolving through surgery. But how does he mentally deal with challenges in life and as an elite athlete?
“I think I’m generally quite a positive person” explains Jon “that doesn’t overthink about stuff too much, but I guess it also comes down to personality; whether you are willing to always give your most, or are you someone that will use it as an excuse to give up. I think I’ve always run with a lot of heart and I’ve always just given everything – no matter what.
“There are always injuries that you have to deal with, the biggest one being my foot, but I think I generally try to look on the positive side and don’t really see the bad things as being all that bad – it’s just something you cope with and get through. I also always think that if something bad does happen it could be much worse, I’m just doing what I love and having fun all the time. There’s a lot of people in a lot worse situations than me. If I do get shin splints or even if I have broken bones in my foot, life is still much better than a lot of people in the world.
“When it came to the recovery from my foot surgery, which to be honest I am still in the process of, I’ve been quite positive. But obviously there are moments when you just look at yourself and I just want to be able to go and run. It can be frustrating, but you have to be patient and am now enjoying slowly regaining my freedom.
“You also have to take the small wins. I recently went for a 5k run on a gravel path for the first time since the surgery. And it felt like I was in the middle of nowhere, like I was conquering some sort of natural wonder that no one’s ever run along – I got so much enjoyment from it and in reality it was a normal little walking path. Whereas before to get the same feeling I’d have to run up a ridge in the middle of nowhere. I’ve just had to change my reference points in the short term. But I will be back to conquering those ridge lines.”
Since bursting onto the scenes in OCR and ultra-running, Jon has won some of the biggest events on the calendar. So for somebody who has achieved so much, we asked Jon what he was most proud of.
“One that sticks out for me was the Trail Running World Championships last year. To actually wear the GB kit, run a really good race and win in your country’s colours, was amazing. It was the first time that I really felt like I’ve won an actual World Championship event. This was also the first event that I’d trained specifically for. Normally I just train to be really fit and go and race, but this one was different. I tailored my training, was in good form and executed on the day. But I never want to be too proud of myself, because I know that’s a really easy way to get complacent.
“Other things that stand out within OCR was the Spartan World Championships. I’d just moved to Norway and got on a flight to the US. No one knew who I was, they didn’t even know my name for the TV coverage, and I managed to win. That was quite a kick, especially as the Americans are really good at building up hype around their races. That was the first race that it became apparent that I was actually good at Obstacle Course Racing and that’s what then drove me on to become a full-time athlete.
“One more, on a personal note, was the year after the Spartan World Championship when I was racing the Sky Running series. I’d had a terrible race three weeks before in the Dolomites and came 21st, I think. It was the worst race ever. But three weeks later I came back to Norway, married my wife and for our honeymoon we went up to the Tromso Sky Race. I remember sitting there as Kílian Jornet was explaining about the race. It sounded really scary and dangerous, I was thinking to myself that I hadn’t got the experience and asked my wife, ‘do you think I should do this?’ [we’re guessing she said ‘yes’ – ed]
“I was doing pretty well, but felt I had a load left in the tank, so sped up as we approached our last mountain pass. I see this guy in the woods just before we start climbing and I just run past him – I’d taken the lead. I absolutely destroy myself for the next two hours thinking he was right behind me the whole time finally and crossed the finish line 17 minutes ahead of second place. It turned out that the man I’d passed was Luis Alberto who was the current Sky Running Ultra-World Champion and Trail Running World Champion at the time. I just beat this guy by 17 minutes, and no one even knew who I was.”
Talking to Jon it sometimes feels as though even he doesn’t appreciate the calibre of an athlete he’s become. It’s humbling to hear and feel his passion for trail running and nature. Competing and winning seems to come as a by product of his training rather than the motivation that really drives his love of the sport.
“I think outperforming where I think I’m going be is quite a theme” says Jon “because my confidence level is relatively low. But it has got a lot more in the last year. I’ve never been that confident in my abilities but thankfully once I get running, I forget about all that and then actually crossing the line first I’m always surprising myself.
“I think that works in my favour because it’s not like I’m beating myself up for not winning. However, as I win more races, that’s another challenge I have to deal with. People now expect me to win, and if you’re winning or you’re not winning easy enough you start to put pressure on yourself. I definitely prefer being the underdog!”
So where is Jon looking next?
“I guess hopefully having two working feet so I can continue running would be nice, ha!” jokes Jon
“I think Kílian [Jornet] is – in my mind – the best Ultra Runner ever. So to be able to beat Kílian in a race would be really fun. But I don’t think that’s going to be a possibility especially if he goes off and does more Alpine type challenges.
“Other than that, to win some of the really big classic races and once my foot is back, move onto some of the UTMB races and see if I can go the distance. I love being the underdog, the one that nobody expects to win – so I can see me trying something new or different in the future.”
The conversation with Jon then turned to the future of the sport, OCR and running. With different factions and events running their own races, we asked Jon what his thoughts were about the future of ultra running as a sport.
“I guess it’s a double-edged sword isn’t it?” says Jon “As soon as you start making a sport more spectator friendly so there’s more money for athletes and more athletes can live from the sport, it ultimately would probably take something away from the soul of the sport.
“It would be great to see it in the Olympics, but I think at the moment you’d end up doing laps around the mountain biking course or something and it’s going to completely detract from the feeling of why you do these sports in the first place. It’s the same for obstacle course racing, making short looped courses with standardised obstacles and things, it really detracts from a lot from why OCR is such a great sport.
“Ultimately, you don’t want to sacrifice the sport you love but you’d like for it to be a little bit more recognised.”
Finally we asked one last question about where in the world Jon would love to race. Having travelled extensively, we were interested to find out where’s top of his list to race next.
“I would have said Norway” says Jon “but we’ve just moved to pretty much the nicest place in Norway so I guess maybe somewhere like New Zealand. All the pictures I see from there are stunning.”
Jon’s journey from London to Norway, has seen him achieve some of the highest honours in trail running, and is a story of transformation from a young, shy boy to an athlete at the pinnacle of his sport. We’re grateful Jon took the time to tell us his story and look forward to seeing what comes next for him.
To see Jon talking first-hand about how the power of one word ‘yes’ changed his life forever, tune in to watch his new documentary Finding My Feet, available now on endurance sports TV. Readers of Like The Wind Magazine have been given an exclusive one month trial allowing you to watch this new documentary along with over 400 other endurance sport programmes for free.
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