Less than four hours removed from his third straight OCR World Championships win, Jon Albon sat sprawled out in front of me, seemingly oblivious to the awe being bestowed upon him by the international obstacle racing community. Although self-described as nervous and shy as a kid, he appeared to be neither as we chatted comfortably for nearly an hour – interrupted periodically by congratulatory fans.
This story could be about his rise to OCR glory or his skyrunning success, but that is old news and would also miss the side of Jon that most in the OCR community will never see. The human side. Regular ol’ Jon who views himself as no different than anyone else meandering around Blue Mountain that Saturday afternoon. Elite athlete status and the accompanying entrapments clearly do not have a stranglehold on his identity. Not only does he believe he isn’t special, he wants everyone else to believe it too; as if non-recognition of that would somehow scratch his soul. He stays vigilant against the praise heaped upon him. “If everybody is saying ‘Jon, you’re great’ and ‘Jon, you’re awesome’, you start to believe it up here” he said pointing to his head. “Then people want you to show up at races and be the person they’ve created, not the person you really are.” It’s why his return to Norway, where he has lived with his wife since 2014, is a welcome relief, a place to exhale. “In Norway, no one knows me. It keeps me humble.”
Norway, I suspect, is where you would find Albon at his core. The Jon Albon who runs through woods and over mountains because it is fun, not because he is driven to win yet another championship. It is Norway where he lives a life free of the vices found elsewhere in the western world – the vices of enduring long stressful work days just to afford the latest gadget, drive the newest car, and buy whatever else one thinks will fill the void, but ultimately doesn’t.
Perhaps it is because we both grew up in relatively rural areas or maybe there was a strange interaction between my Kentucky accent and his British one, but our back porch sort of conversation steered toward yearnings of a simple life. He leaned in with interest and his speech became more animated as we affirmed each other’s thoughts about improving lives. If everyone stopped chasing money, grew less of fond of the digital world, drank water instead of Coke and Redbull, and ate food instead of food-like substances, then the world would start to heal itself of much of the obesity, stress, and mental health disorders that plague so many. These aren’t novel proclamations, but they hint once again at a Jon Albon who prefers to create a natural immunity to the world. The one consciously living a deliberate lifestyle void of supplements, greed, and thoughtless drifting with societal trends.
Describing Albon as a reflective thinker is not an overstatement and perhaps that is the key to understanding who he really is. He ponders often and deeply about life, about what makes him happy, and of course about the sport of OCR. He worries that OCR has lost its way. As the weekend hobby gradually turned into a sport, it invited stricter rules, standardized obstacles, different athletes, prize money and sponsorships. For better or worse, the innocence is now lost and for many, OCR has become less about going out in the woods, getting muddy, overcoming challenges, and having fun and morphed into elite competitions with specialized training regimens, prescribed obstacles, and microscopic evaluations of the people within. That lament may seem odd coming from someone who has profited greatly from this evolution, but Albon didn’t enter the sport as an elite competitor so his perspective is understandable. When asked how he deals with sponsorships and all the people now trying to get a piece of him, his answer reflected a grounded approach to life. Reluctant to align himself with any one group, he approaches sponsorship opportunities like he would friendships. “Is this someone I can believe and trust to do the right thing?” I sensed his concern that his increased popularity and the rise of the sport full of prize money and sponsorships would inevitably bring more and stronger temptations to take shortcuts and compromise principles. Everything he said and portrayed to me in that 1-hour conversation led me to believe he would rather give up organized racing altogether than to be overly-influenced by the desire to win at all costs just to please sponsors and race organizers.
As our conversation turned back to obstacle racing, Jon preached (to the choir, I might add) that for obstacle racing to sustain any semblance of its original self, it absolutely has to remain fun. FUN! Not torture! Very few people want to spend money to undertake the sustained agony of dunks in frigid water and a mile-long carry of a bucket of rocks. “Who really wants to do that every weekend?! Once or twice perhaps to prove that you can do it, but after a while what’s the point? People find obstacle racing because they want to get out in nature and enjoy themselves.” When it stops being fun, they will stop coming, and when the ‘regular’ racers stop coming, the sport as we know it will cease to exist.
At the end of the day and the end of an obstacle racing season, the greatest obstacle racer on the planet wasn’t advocating for fruitful contracts, TV shows, endorsements, Olympics, or any other shiny object sparkling on the OCR horizon. All Jon Albon seems to really want is to run in nature with like-minded people, challenge himself, have fun while doing it, and return to Norway to live a peace-filled life……………. like a regular person.