The Johns Hopkins Gazette: July 23, 2001
July 23, 2001
VOL. 30, NO. 40


Time Out With...
Toks Fashola, of CSOS, ultramarathoner

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette
Johns Hopkins Gazette Online Edition

If there is one thing you can say about Olatokunbo "Toks" Fashola, it's that she goes the extra mile. Getting her to stop is another matter.

Fashola, a research scientist at the Center for Social Organization of Schools, is part of a select, and somewhat peculiar, group of people who compete in ultramarathons. Not familiar with the term? Well, imagine running three marathons consecutively, all within 48 hours, and (pardon the pun) you're on the right track. Or, more often, you're in the woods, the desert or on a mountain trail.

CSOS research scientist Toks Fashola
takes a break at her desk.

The formal definition of an ultramarathon is any race on an open course that exceeds 26 miles, 385 yards, the official distance of a marathon. Most ultras fall in the range of 31 to 100 miles, but some are considerably longer than that.

When not running--and sometimes when she is--Fashola is focused on her work, which deals with schoolwide reform, after-school programs and programs geared toward bilingual education. Fashola, who came to CSOS in 1995, is the lead author of several studies on schoolwide reform, a topic about which she frequently lectures and has co-written a book. Fashola is the solo author of a new book, Building Effective After-School Programs (Corwin Press), scheduled for release in September. The book is dedicated to the late John H. Hollifield Jr., CSOS's former associate director, whom Fashola considered "one of my greatest cheerleaders."

This past weekend, Fashola was scheduled to be among 200 runners competing in the Vermont 100-Mile Endurance Run, a hilly race with a 30-hour cutoff point. The previous ultramarathons she finished were merely 50 miles long. The Gazette caught up with Fashola just prior to her most challenging race to date so she could share her thoughts about running, training and the importance of not getting lost.

(To find out how Fashola fared, visit this page.)

Q: Why does one decide one day, I want to run an ultramarathon?

A: It's a funny story. Should I tell it? I was writing my dissertation, doing my last-minute edits and finishes, and they really can be a pain. Take out this comma, take out this, put this table in, make this line another inch longer. Just ridiculous stuff, and I was really starting to hate my dissertation. I had to find omething that I hated more so that when I went back to my dissertation I would say, Oh, this is a piece of cake. And the one thing that I hated more than my dissertation was long-distance running. I was a sprinter in high school, but I did not like long-distance running.

Q. You didn't just jump right into ultramarathons, did you?

A: No. I started entering 5K races, and then a 10K. And then I did a 10-miler and I realized, honestly, truly, the farther I ran, the stronger my finish was. I did my first marathon in 1998. And I ran into a few people after the race, three separate people actually, who convinced me to run this ultramarathon called the JFK 50-Miler in Hagerstown. I had many doubts, but they said, With your discipline and training schedule, you'll do fine. One of the guys was this man named Henry Buzz Sawyer. He was the one who really convinced me to do it. He told me about the JFK on his 70th birthday. He had run it and finished.

Q: Are these races nonstop?

A: In some cases, people sleep. It's very rare, though. Generally, you go all the way through and then crash and burn.

Q: Describe to me the feeling of just having finished a 50-mile race.

A: That first time, I was a changed person for life. Some people have collapsed. Some people cross the finish line, and they are like, I am never doing this again. Some burst into tears. I was too excited; I was on fire. I was like, This is so cool.

Q: What was your most fearful ultramarathon moment?

A: I fell on the Appalachian TrailŠand I could not get up, and this was maybe mile 9. If there had been no one behind meŠI don't know what would have happened. Additionally, on some of the courses you have rattlesnakes. You also have poison ivy; you have black bears (laughs). And some people, like me, just get lost.

Q: What is the pinnacle of the sport, the Super Bowl of ultramarathons?

A: I would say the toughest in the States is the Hardrock 100 [in Silverton, Colo.]. Some you have to qualify for; some you just enter. In the Western states some of the courses are just brutal. The elevation is atrocious.

Q: What was your time in that first ultramarathon?

A: In the JFK you have 14 hours to finish. The first year I finished in 13 hours, 43 minutes and 20-something seconds.

Q: What is the key to running in, and finishing, an ultramarathon?

A: You have to see it as a positive thing. I meditate while I run. I think about work while I run. I think about life while I run. It is a great way to end the week, and a great way to start the week. Some people run to run, some people run to compete, some people run for fun. I run for all of those reasons. But when I'm training for a specific ultra, I try to visualize myself at mile 30, at mile 80. I certainly don't visualize myself at the start because at the start I'm going, Oh Lord, why am I doing this? Most importantly, you have to visualize yourself finishing. When I train, I am literally visualizing myself crossing the line that says "finish," upright and happy.

Q: What is the longest distance you've ever run?

A: Ninety-two miles, at the Rocky Raccoon. That is one I got lost on. I have a terrible sense of direction. That was also a good mental experience because I realized I had more guts that I thought that I had.

Q: Complete this sentence: The typical ultramarathon runner is...

A: Awesome [laughs]. Let me see--well-rounded, adventurous, dedicated. You want only one word, don't you? Disciplined.

Q: Are there some ultramarathons you won't compete in?

A: There are some crazy ultras. Like the Barkley Marathon [a 100-mile trail run in Mississippi]. That is an insane race. It's nuts because of the terrain, the distance. The guy who created it has never finished his own race. He hides pages of a book all around, and you go all over looking for them. So it's an ultramarathon-slash-scavenger hunt. And it rains, and it snows, or there is lightning. So you get the extremist, like the Mount Everest people--you know, Why do you do it? Because it's there.

Q: How do people typically respond when they find out you run utlramarathons?

A: They say I'm crazy [laughs]. They are like, What? Some people say ultrarunners are control freaks. Some say we have death wishes. And some say we have addictive personalities--and it goes on and on. I see it as a form of self-improvement.

Q: OK, so you run ultramarathons. Any other physical challenges in your future?

A: I did a biathlon a little while ago, and that was amazing. But the only bad thing was I think I came in last [laughs]. I didn't know how to adjust the speeds on the bicycle. In the future, in addition to the ultras, I'd like to do some triathlons next year.

Q: Does any part of your athletic regimen translate into your work life?

A: To a certain extent, my personality fits my work. And to a certain extent, my work fits my personality. As you probably know, as a research scientist you tend to be very, very precise. Control is a big deal. All of your information has to be accurate. And when you do an ultra, anything can happen at any point. You are just throwing yourself to the whims of the great outdoors. And so, one of the things that ultra running has really done for me is show me there are no guarantees. You plan to finish, you plan to succeed, but there are no guarantees that you are going to finish and succeed, because anything can happen. But it's nice to know that even knowing that, you are still willing to go out and give it your best shot. I think that is cool.

This is the second in an occasional series of informal conversations with staff and faculty who do unique work or have unusual outside interests. If you know someone you think others in the Hopkins community would like to read about, please write to Lois Perschetz, Gazette editor, at