5 questions with…ultramarathon runner, faculty member Jim Van Orman

Jim Van OrmanLast weekend marked the 38th annual Rite Aid Cleveland Marathon—a grueling 26.2-mile race throughout the city. The traditional marathon is a daunting task for most, but most are not like ultramarathon runner Jim Van Orman.

A North Florida native, Van Orman was primarily a recreational cyclist before moving to Boston to attend graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. While there, he took up running because “he didn’t want to die weaving through Boston traffic on a bike,” he said.

Van Orman’s progression from casual runner to ultramarathoner was both quick and recent. Within the past year, he started running ultramarathons—defined as any distance greater than the traditional 26.2 miles—just to see how far he could push himself.

“I had a stress fracture in my foot from running, and when I came back I started trail running,” said Van Orman, associate professor of earth, environmental and planetary sciences. “It turns out that most trail races are at long distances, beyond the marathon. So, last year, I ran a 50K and a double marathon and felt OK after both.”

Van Orman’s success in each event encouraged him to sign up for the 2014 Outrun 24 ultramarathon at the Chapin Forest Reservation in Kirtland. The 24-hour race began at 8 a.m. on April 26, with a course consisting of a single, mile-long loop. A day—and 120 miles—later, Van Orman had set the course record, beating the closest competitor by 15 miles. His distance also crushed a previous personal record by nearly 70 miles.

“This was the most fun I’ve had in a race,” he said. “I got to know a lot of people because I’d pass them and chat throughout the course of the race since it all took place on a single loop.”

Van Orman had to pace himself and keep his body fueled for 24 hours, and adjust to running in the dark.

“I had to run much slower than I was used to, to make sure I didn’t wear myself out too early in the race. I also had to eat on the go,” Van Orman said. “In addition to those challenges, my headlamp died during the night, but I was fortunate enough to borrow an extra.”

To train for the event, Van Orman ran short-mid distances during the week, with longer runs on the weekend. He tried to get these long, time-consuming runs in any way he could.

“Sometimes I’d just run back from wherever my family and I happened to be,” Van Orman said. “A few times I ran back from shopping trips in Peninsula to our home in Shaker Heights.”

Since the race, Van Orman has been recovering and keeping busy with his teaching and research. Every fall, he teaches an introductory geology course, and also teaches geochemistry and a SAGES department seminar titled “Introduction to Geological Research.”

Most recently, he wrote a proposal to NASA that examines how potassium, uranium and thorium (the main heat producers inside planets) are distributed between a planet’s core and mantle.

Eventually, Van Orman plans to get back on the trail and has set his sights on the Burning River 100-mile endurance run from Cleveland to Akron late this summer.

Read more about the (ultra) marathon man in this week’s five questions.

1. Who do you consider your greatest role model?
Physical chemist Harold Urey. He did a lot of amazing work in geochemistry early on coming out of WWII.

2. How do you keep up with the news?
I read most of my news online. I read The New York Times, The Washington Post and also get some news from Facebook.

3. What is the most challenging class you’ve ever taken?
The toughest class I ever took was an applied math course at MIT.  It was designed as a review course for incoming graduate engineering students, and I was not well prepared as a geochemistry PhD candidate.

4. What do you consider to be the best invention of all time?
The wheel, due to its role in the increased efficiency of transportation. I know this answer makes no sense for a runner, but I’m glad other people have wheels.

5. What is your favorite thing about Case Western Reserve?
The people that I’ve gotten to know here throughout the years. I’ve also come to love the location of the university in University Circle and really enjoy living in Cleveland.