John Halvorsen knows Ottawa Race Weekend inside and out.
In his days as a high-performance runner, Halvorsen knew what it was like to wait anxiously in the front row with the elite runners and less than half an hour later have the finish line all to himself.
An unprecedented four times, he combined his race focus and particular running style—springing forward on the balls of his feet instead of rolling from his heels to his toes—to win what was then called the Nordion 10-kilometre race. In his first victory in 1988, the Ottawa runner set the race record of 28 minutes, 12 seconds, which stood for 21 years until Ethiopia’s Deriba Merga crushed it at 27:23.9. During an eight-year period, Halvorsen also won the race in 1991, 1992 and 1995.
In his 10-year, international running career, Halvorsen represented his native Norway at two Summer Olympic Games, one world track and field championships, eight senior world cross-country running championships and was the top road racer in North America in 1989. He learned a lot about staging races in his travels and wanted to share that knowledge with Ottawa Race Weekend board of directors.
Halvorsen, 52, sat on the board from 1999 through 2011, including three years as chair, and presented his ideas as Ottawa Race Weekend grew into a world-class, multi-day running festival under the quiet and solid leadership of race director and president Jim Robinson.
When Robinson stepped down after 16 years as race director in 2013, Halvorsen was anointed as the man at the top, a position he has held for more than six rollercoaster years. Under his tenure, Halvorsen has seen Canada’s highly acclaimed running weekend experience highs and lows. Race registration has approached 50,000 participants and earned Gold-Label certification from the International Association of Athletics Federations for the marathon and 10-kilometre races. But in recent years, he has seen overall registration dip and hit 33,000 last year for a variety of reasons.
In April, Halvorsen announced he would step down as race director and president, after the 2019 races on the last weekend in May. The University of Ottawa graduate, who holds two degrees, decided to return to the high-tech sector, after previously serving 18 years with Nortel, LG Nortel, Ericsson-LG in product design, strategy and product management.
As a result of his outstanding achievements as a world-class runner and contributions as a volunteer and full-time race administrator, Halvorsen will be inducted into the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame on May 31 at Lansdowne Park’s Horticultural Building.
Born and raised in Oslo, Norway, Halvorsen only started running when he was in Grade 7, a year before his father became defence attache at the Embassy of Norway and moved his family to Ottawa. At that time, running was only a dryland training tool for Halvorsen’s cross-country skiing season.
When Halvorsen entered Sir Robert Borden High School in Grade 9, he discovered students could play team or individual sports, which wasn’t part of the Norwegian secondary school program. Halvorsen took full advantage of this opportunity as a cross-country runner in the fall and a track runner in the spring.
In his Grade 13 graduation year, Halvorsen won the 1984 Ontario Federation of School Athletic Associations provincial high school boys’ senior cross-country running championship. One of the top runners in the former Carleton Board of Education, he competed in the OFSAA cross-country and track and field championships every year, except the 1983-84 school year, when he returned to Norway for one year with his family.
After following his brother into the field of running seven years previous, Halvorsen looked up to Hakon again, when he enrolled at the University of Ottawa, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering (cum laude) and a master’s degree in business administration with a focus on marketing and finance.
When he wasn’t in the classroom, Halvorsen continued to develop his running prowess and was a dominant runner on the overland trails.
In his fifth and final year wearing the Gee-Gees’ singlet, Halvorson won a special award for capturing his fourth career individual gold medal at the Canadian Interuniversity Athletic Union (now U Sports) men’s cross-country running championships.
At the CIAU championships, Halvorsen was the Gee-Gees’ team leader, winning the men’s title in 1986, 1987, 1988 and 1990. As part of a team with runners like Richard Charette, Bob Rice, Alain Boucher and his brother, the Gee-Gees earned team gold medals in 1986, 1987 and 1990 as well as bronze in 1985.
The Ontario University Athletics championships saw Halvorsen produce almost identical results with four individual titles from 1986-88 and 1990, and lead the University of Ottawa to team gold in 1986, 1987 and 1990 as well as a silver in 1985 and a fourth place in 1988. Halvorsen didn’t attend university in 1989-90.
Although he wasn’t, and still isn’t, a Canadian citizen, Halvorsen twice captured the men’s title at the Canadian Track and Field Association (now Athletics Canada) cross-country running championships. He also was named an All-Canadian five times for his strong performances.
In the latter half of his university career, Halvorsen was an emerging international talent.
At only 22, he represented Norway at the 1988 Summer Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea, placing 16th in the men’s 10,000 metres. Four years later in Barcelona, Spain, he finished 19th in the 25-lap endurance race. After running 27:51 and 27:56 to qualify for the Norwegian team, his legs gave out in the 10,000-metre Barcelona Olympic final and he finished 19th and last in 29:53.
His career-best time for 10,000 metres on the track was 27:43. His fastest time for the 5,000 metres was 13:20.
In 1989, Halvorsen concentrated on the North American road racing circuit, earning the No. 1 ranking by Runners’ World magazine. He competed in nine races in the United States and never missed the podium, posting six victories, one second-place finish and two thirds.
Halvorsen attempted to compete in the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta, but two Achilles tendon operations held him back.
“A lot of people say it’s genetics, but it’s a real focus on all of the details to be a good runner,” said Halvorsen, whose father was a gymnast and mother played team handball.
Halvorsen was also in “a happy environment” and had strong results, when he ran at Borden and the University of Ottawa.
“That environment translated to success. I had focus and a drive to execute,” said Halvorsen, a seven-time Norwegian track champion who had a personal-best 10th at the 1989 world senior cross-country running championships on home turf.
When his competitive running days ended, Halvorsen didn’t run into the sunset, but rather into the limelight as a volunteer.
A natural fit
In 1996, Jim Robinson took control of the troubled Ottawa Race Weekend and slowly built it into Canada’s largest weekend of running with participation well exceeding 40,000 runners. Halvorsen was named to the board of directors in 1999.
“When I started, I saw it as an event with an opportunity. Every year we did a little better,” said the modest Halvorsen. “We had the ability to tap into a great volunteer group, which was mostly the same every year.”
During his time on the board, he served as chair for three years and was the race director.
Before he announced his decision to leave Ottawa Race Weekend as a full-time employee, Halvorsen spoke about ways to recharge the running festival, something Robinson did two decades ago. The race weekend has been hurt in recent years by the number of runners levelling off, more and different outdoor events for athletes to test their fitness, hotel pricing and fewer runners from Quebec.
“We must continue to do what we always do, spending time on details and modify marketing and be more modern with more social media,” said Halvorsen, who plans to serve as a race volunteer in the future.
Halvorsen also has been a board member for Athletics Canada, chair of the Athletics Canada Run Canada Committee and a volunteer coach with Nakkertok Nordic ski club in Cantley, Quebec.
Celebrate John Halvorsen’s induction into the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame on Friday, May 31 at the Horticulture Building—it’s going to be a remarkable night of entertainment and networking. Buy your tickets online before they sell out.
Visit the Ottawa Sport Hall of Fame (located at Ottawa City Hall) between May and September 2019 to see the latest exhibit entitled ‘Ottawa Marathon: 45 Years Running’, celebrating the signature event of Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend.