Yacht Chef Tackles Epic Challenge for a Cause

Mar 21, 2022 by Susan Jobe
Credit: Photos by Nathaniel Bailey

2,850-mile feat raises funds to help those with a debilitating auto-immune disorder

I was guzzling caffeine at 7 a.m., trying to shake off my sleepy stupor, when Helgi Olafson marched into the coffee shop, gave me a brisk “nice to meet you” bear hug, then bounced off to the counter to order some food. I was already aware that the man I was about to interview was not your average “cup of Joe.” Nevertheless, I was struck by his vigor, knowing as I did what no one else there would ever have guessed: that he was still in recovery from a nearly 3,000-mile, self-propelled race across the unforgiving terrain of the American West; that he battles a debilitating arthritic disorder that fuses the spine and locks the joints; and that his foot was broken!

You see, Olafson is a man on a mission, a chef on a quest. The goal? To raise awareness and funds to help those who suffer spondyloarthritis — a group of closely related, rheumatic, auto-immune diseases that, according to the Spondylitis Association of America, afflict one in every 100 people living in the U.S. Olafson himself was diagnosed with one form of the disorder, ankylosing spondylitis (AS), when he was 19. The degenerative condition causes inflammation of tendons and ligaments where they attach to bones, he explained. The body tries to fortify those areas of inflammation with more bone tissue, which results in calcification. “Basically, if you lead a sedentary lifestyle, then those calcifications can grow together and you can’t move your joints,” he said.

“Sedentary” is not a word that would seem to exist in Olafson’s vocabulary. “I’m lucky because, as a chef, I’m moving around a lot,” he said. But that’s an understatement. If motion is the medicine, the man is clearly an addict — and not averse to frequent overdoses. While for most people, staying active means daily walks and regular visits to the gym, for Olafson it means running and biking hundreds of miles at a stretch. Last summer, the former triathlete and longtime ultramarathon runner raised the bar with “Helgi Olafson’s Trans Triple Crown of 200s.” The plan was to run 2,850 miles to raise $28,550 for the Spondylitis Association of America, while inspiring others with the disease to keep on moving and never give up.

Helgi Olafson crosses the Cispus River in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest during the Bigfoot 200. The river provided an opportunity for many runners to cool off after moving through the heat throughout the race.

The challenge would begin Aug. 13 at the starting line of the Bigfoot 200 — a 206.5-mile trail race nonstop through the Cascade Mountains of Washington, with more than 42,000 feet of elevation gain and terrain that varies from the volcanic lava fields of Mount St. Helens to mountaintop ridge lines and deep, old-growth forest. For many, finishing this race would be the feat of a lifetime. For Olafson, it was just the first step. Next would be the Tahoe 200 Endurance Run, a 205-mile race through the Nevada-California wilderness surrounding the largest alpine lake in the country, then on to the Moab 240, a punishing race that follows the Colorado River through the red rock canyons and harsh desert mountains of eastern Utah.

In the ultrarunning world, finishing all three of these races within a 3-month span is known as The Triple Crown of 200s. It’s been done before by many runners, including Olafson. But now his intention was to also run the entire distance from one race to the next, and hopefully set a few FKTs (fastest known times) on the trails along the way. I say “was” because, as with all the best laid schemes of mice and men, shit happens. And what happened to Olafson was this: While he was on a training run on the Lava Lake Trail in the Gallatin Range of Big Sky, Montana, six days before the Bigfoot 200 began, he fell and fractured his left foot. Technically, it was an avulsion fracture on the inside of the fifth phalanx. Later, an MRI would reveal that a tendon on the fourth toe also was severed at the plantar plate. Much, much later, a surgeon would create a new tendon, add screws, and shave bone away to make room for the toe to come back down. But at that time, all Olafson knew was that he hurt his foot — and that it was not going to stop him.

Helgi Olafson looks at the course ahead from an aid station during the Bigfoot 200. The first day of the race combined extreme heat and poor air quality, making running extremely challenging.

Insanely, he ran the Bigfoot 200 anyway, finishing 80th out of about 250 racers, half of whom dropped out before the finish line. But the agonizing 102 hours and 46 minutes he endured in the race took a heavy toll on his fractured foot. A piece of bone from the injured toe broke off with the tendon attached, Olafson said, and it was pulled back through the other tendons, causing a chain reaction of injury throughout the rest of the foot. Still, he refused to give up. The challenge, he said, was not about his personal courage and perseverance; his motivation was rooted in a passion for the cause. “It’s a really good cause. It gives me strength to be out there.”

Because of his broken foot, Olafson and his support crew decided he should continue the next part of the journey on bicycle, so off they went, heading south on the Pacific Coast Trail for the Tahoe 200. Switching to road pedals and thicker-soled shoes helped ease some of the pain in his foot — except when climbing, he said. When he was able to cover 160 miles in the first day despite the pain, he thought: I can do this. “I was getting little wins every day,” he said.

Then, just as they neared the Oregon-California border, they got word that raging wildfires had blanketed the region with toxic smoke, so the Tahoe 200 race had been canceled. “California was, like — no human should have been in that place breathing, that’s how bad it was,” Olafson said. Quickly shifting gears, he cycled north instead, with the intent to replicate the exact distance of the canceled Tahoe race somewhere in Idaho, where the air quality was better. He would then head south again to rejoin the original route along the American Discovery Trail to Utah, where the Moab 240 was set to begin Oct. 8. The hope was that he would be off the bicycle and back on his feet by then.

Helgi Olafson cycles through the Jack Fire in Umpqua National Forest. Air quality was extremely poor throughout much of the project because of the many active wildfires throughout the western United States during the summer.

Olafson credits his experience on yachts for developing a flexible mindset and ability to work well under pressure — both crucial components of not only this particular challenge, but of endurance sports in general. Being a yacht chef, he said, has taught him to remain calm in any situation, “because overacting doesn’t achieve anything.” His yachting career began in 2011, when he answered an ad on Craigslist. A charter chef was wanted on a wooden fantail yacht built in 1931 that was bound for the Inside Passage of Alaska. Cramped quarters made for a very “intimate” environment, Olafson said. For the guests, the yachting experience was more about whale-watching, hiking, and fishing; for the chef, it meant a primitive kitchen with a propane grill and a propane stove. It was an experience he treasures to this day.

Following that season in Alaska, Olafson worked as a casting judge for the TV show Master Chef, traveling to open casting calls in various cities to score aspiring contestants on their skills. He got his STCW in 2015, then took a job on his first superyacht, M/Y Polly (now Gazelle), a 135-foot (45m) Alloy. Since then, he has worked on M/Y Next Chapter, a 131-foot (40m) Westport; M/Y Indigo, a 112-foot (34m)Westport; and M/Y Lady Sheridan, a 190-foot (58m)Abeking & Rasmussen. Olafson is currently chef on M/Y KOJU, a 121-foot (37m) Benetti launched in 2021 as Hull No. 1. But when I first spoke with him, just after the Bigfoot 200, he was between jobs. “Yachting has been a good career for me, because I can take time to go on adventures,”he said.

And in Idaho, his next big adventure was to begin. As Olafson barreled down the highways and trails, Nathaniel Bailey, a photojournalist from Montana, followed along in Olafson’s massive, tricked-out fortress of a truck, complete with kitchen, shower, water-purifier, sleeping cabin, foot surgery and first-aid dispensary — all built by Olafson and organized into tight, efficient, yacht-like compartments. Bailey, who can himself run a 4-minute, 7-second mile, was nursing an injured ankle from the same trail back in Montana that had left Olafson with a broken toe. Nevertheless, he crewed Olafson throughout the challenge, tending to his needs and documenting the journey. Other runners joined for shorter segments along the way to serve as pacers, crew, and chief encouragers. “I couldn’t have done it without them,” Olafson said.

There’s a science to successful endurance racing, and as a chef, Olafson is well-aware of the food component that is crucial to that strategy. About 10 days into the challenge, after he had been on the bike for five days, he felt lethargic. “I would get going and I’d still be able to crush the miles, but I was super tired,” he said “Nathaniel got some iron pills for himself, and the next thing I know, I was taking an iron pill with magnesium citrate every day, and it was like, boom! There’s my energy back.” Olafson estimates that he burned about 14,000 to 15,000 calories on most days. “I wasn’t getting enough meat. I couldn’t eat enough, and the protein powder was making my stomach hurt, so I had to figure something out. The iron was a great addition.”

Somewhere along the way to Idaho, it was decided that as an alternative to the canceled race in Tahoe, Olafson would attempt an ultramarathon known as IMTUF (Idaho Mountain Trail and Ultra Festival), a 104-mile race with an elevation gain of about 22,000 feet in the Salmon River Mountain Range. Because the race was half as long as the Tahoe 200, Olafson would have to do a second loop after the official race was over. Race director Jeremy Humphrey, himself an accomplished ultramarathon runner, noted that it had never been done before and agreed to let him try. Then added, “I don’t think it can be done.”

Olafson completed the official, single-loop race 30 minutes before the 36-hour cutoff time. Adding to the broken toe bone and twisted tendons, his tortured feet were now badly blistered and missing several toenails. A nurse at the finish line cleaned and bandaged them as best she could before he headed out again, this time in the opposite direction. It was on this second loop, in the cold of the third night, that he really started to fall apart, Olafson said. He mistakenly thought he had just one more night to endure, so word from his crew that, no, there were two more nights ahead was devastating. On the fourth night, the race director appeared, bearing cannisters of coffee, tea, and hot broth with rice, as well as news that the whole IMTUF community was following his progress and cheering him on. He finished with 20 minutes to spare, but only because he somehow summoned the strength to run 8-minute miles in the final stretch — a credit to pacers Adam Scully-Power and Eric Ortiz, he said, as well as to the race director, who ran fast behind him for seven miles, pushing him on.

Next would be the Moab 240, the final race in the Triple Crown. After a few days’ rest, Olafson was feeling pretty good. So good, in fact, that he decided to add in another “little” challenge on the way to Moab: He would run 107 miles, with 45,000 feet of gain, along the Uinta Highline Trail in the Uinta Mountains, the only mountain range in the country that runs from east to west. The terrain was sketchy, with loads of scree and horrible footing. And it was dangerous, with places like Dead Horse Pass, where one false step could send you straight into a vertical drop of thousands of feet. Olafson had run 60 miles of the trail before a snowstorm made it impossible for his support crew to bring him supplies. They hunkered down at a campsite for two nights, then drove back to the exact place where Olafson had detoured off the road to run the trail. There, he jumped on his bike again to continue his journey to Moab, where the ultimate finish line awaited.

When asked about the highpoints of his adventure, Olafson mentioned a bike path going into Moab near Arches National Park. “It’s so cool,” he said. “Nice, beautiful, tarred pavement. It’s twisty-turny, uppy-downy — arches everywhere. And you know that Moab’s right there. That was a huge day for me.”

Other highpoints? “Finishing every one of the races, or knowing that I was going to finish, was huge. I shed a lot of tears out there, not knowing if I could do it — but also knowing that I could,” he said. “I think the highpoints are born when you have low points that you need to figure out.”

The low point that Olafson had to figure out in Moab came midway through the second day, about 100 miles in, when the tibialis anterior muscle just above the ankle of his fractured foot became a problem. “I had to keep going, but I couldn’t run,” he said. “And going downhill was even harder than going uphill. It hurt so bad.” Soon the injury began twisting his ankle, so that his whole foot was turning inward. Crew and race volunteers taped the foot, elevated it, iced it — essentially putting patches on his tires at every aid station, he said. One of the medics taped a “V” on his shin, then put compression on top and added a wrap. “I had all these different things trying to just at least get me to the next aid station.”

Helgi Olafson runs the Porcupine Rim trail in Moab, Utah, during the last day of the Moab 250 ultramarathon, the final race in his project. At higher elevations, snow had fallen the previous night, soaking runners still on the course and leading to muddy conditions.

Olafson finished the Moab 240 in just under 110 hours and 2 minutes. He credits his crew for getting him to the finish line, as well as his experience as an endurance athlete, “cause I knew if I kept going, I’d be alright.” When asked about the mental fortitude required to get through these extreme physical challenges, he replied that it’s not so much about the how as it is about the why. Ankylosing spondylitis. “It’s almost like I have a superpower, you know? Because I’ve been able to overcome so much adversity, physically and mentally — because it’s a depressing thing to have your bones fusing together.”

If he didn’t have AS and that incentive to stay out there, does he think he would ever have even become an ultrarunner?  “I don’t know. Maybe not,” he said. “I’m definitely glad that I did.” The belief that a lot of his drive comes from being able to overcome his condition makes him keenly aware of its benefit to him as a human being, he said. But he is also aware that the confidence it has built within him leaves him with little patience for those less motivated. “Because I know what their potential is, and they don’t. And it becomes a very off-putting vibe sometimes,” he explained. “I don’t have time for this kind of stuff — I want to be around people who believe in themselves and, you know, get shit done.”

Follow Olafson’s adventures at Instagram.com/helgiolafson.

Donations to the Spondylitis Association of America can be made here.   

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About Susan Jobe

Susan Jobe is the Editor-in-Chief of Triton News.

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