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YMCA of San Francisco Runner Spotlight

Nathan OlsonMegan Kelly KossarSergey VasylievJen Gaarder-Wang | Steve Snyder

Nathan Olson

I’ve been following Nathan Olson around since 9th grade Spanish II, until two years ago when he moved across the country and two blocks away from me in San Francisco. We’ve run countless miles across the country, many most notably on our hometown trails in Duluth, Minn. during high school cross country and track practice, and summers during college.

I’ve always been amazed by his perseverance in getting a run in no matter what is happening in his life. If he has a 12-hour day ahead, or is suffering through a 12-hour hangover, he gets out there. I’ve asked him many times what his secret is to accomplishing his weekly mileage goal: it’s going for a run, even if it’s just a short one.

This steady approach to fitness: rock by rock until you build a mountain as Confuscious said, is to me, the key to Nathan’s long-lasting fitness. He’s rarely injured (except for some plantar fasciitis in 2015), maintains great speed (low 7s per mile), and has run consistently for almost 25 years.

I asked my favorite running buddy some questions about our favorite hobby:


How long have you been running?

Almost 25 years! The first time I started running was in 6th grade. On my first day, I am fairly certain I showed up in my school clothes which consisted of some ill-fitting denim shorts; I ran in them that day but I showed up in proper running attire at the next practice.

Any favorite pre- or post-run snacks?

For my morning runs, my go-to breakfast is oatmeal with granola. On race days, I add half a banana. A high school running coach once told me that something sweet (a donut or a cookie, for example) is totally fine for that boost of blood sugar after a hard run. I’ve taken that to heart, so post-run I usually go for the nearest cookie I can find. 

What do you do to help you prepare for a good run?

A good night’s rest is definitely important. I’m going to have more energy and generally feel better about my body after solid sleep. Mental energy is equally important as physical energy. When I plan out my run (whether it be a target distance, the route, or both) and anticipate it as positively as I can, I am more likely to have a good run.

What’s your all-time favorite race (aside from the Presidio Trail Run)? Why?

Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth, Minn. I’ve never actually run the full marathon so I can only speak to the half-marathon course, but it has spectacular views of the scenic North Shore of northern Minnesota. It is truly a community event from the spectators to the volunteers to the runners themselves. The food tents at the finish line are also a runner’s dream (imagine endless ice cream and fresh fruit for all your refueling needs). Duluth is also my hometown so I’m a bit biased, but I highly recommend it.

What is your 2021 running/fitness goal?

My goal for 2021 is running 1,000 miles for the year (with a weekly goal of 20 miles per week on average). It feels achievable to me but also helps push me; I don’t have to do that many long runs if I don’t have time but I should try and add on those extra miles when I’m feeling good.

Where do you get your grit?

Since we’re talking about running, I think I am going to cite that as a source. It really takes a lot of mental perseverance to get out there and stay out there. There are times when it hurts, whether it’s on a regular run or on race day, and yet we push through it. The catharsis and euphoria I feel after a really good run is worth it. It’s like developing a good habit, one I have to keep working on, but one I know that continues to strengthen me as I strengthen it.

How do you motivate yourself when you just don’t want to go?

Gosh, I have those feelings SO many times. Sometimes I’ll play one of my favorite Carly Rae Jepsen songs (cue “Cut To The Feeling”) to get in the mood. Sometime I just remind myself that we are all trying to do the best we can, especially after the year of trauma we have collectively experienced. And sometimes I just have to tell myself it’s ok to go shorter than I planned or it’s ok if I just don’t want to go at all.

What advice do you have for other runners who are just trying to get out there?

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. Just getting out there, no matter how far, is something to celebrate! If you feel safe enough to do so, run with someone else or join a running club. Sometimes I spend a lot of time focusing on how far or how fast I’ve run that I forget about just enjoying it; running without a watch or distancing/timing yourself can be liberating. Give whatever you can and reward yourself with a cookie at the end :)



Megan Kelly Kossar

For many of us it’s been a challenge to stay strong of mind, body, and spirit since the pandemic began more than a year ago. For Megan Kelly Kossar, a licensed clinical social worker, single mother of two, and Impala, (an elite development all-women’s running racing team) she uses running races, albeit virtually now, to test her mental condition. 

Kossar says that focus leads to achieving life’s goals.

“When I race, I feel that I walk (or rather, run) my talk; the advice I give to my clients,” Kossar said. And no doubt it would take focus to score consistently in the 80-90% national class range for masters in the USA Track & Field Pacific Association.

Megan shared some tips on how she stays strong, of mind and body: ​


What do you do to help you prepare for a good run?

Lots of training and goals. I run speed work two times per week and run every day. Thanks to the YMCA, pre-COVID19, I was a regular fixture at the Richmond District Y using weight machines and stretching.

What do you do to recover?

I try to get plenty of sleep and stretch two times a week. My Impala Coach, Tony Coffey, told me that sleep is as important as your longest training run or speed workout. 

I always run the next day but I make it an easy, enjoyable experience without any time goals.

Where do you get your grit?

In 2001, I ran my first sub-four hour marathon after my doctor told me that I was too sick to run it. But my father, who is also an MD, told me that I could do anything that I set my mind to. That was the start of great running dreams. And, thus far, I have accomplished most of them.

During my senior year of college, I picked up track and field and broke the mile record. Back then, a 5:11 was fast. But, since it was my senior year, later in life, I wanted to challenge myself competitively and run faster every year.

How do you motivate yourself when you just don’t want to go?

My labradoodle loves to run so right after morning coffee she brings me the leash!

What advice do you have for other runners who are just trying to get out there?

Start with a small goal, achieve it, and repeat.



Sergey Vasyliev 

Sergey Vasyliev has placed in the top three for males in the 10K race the past several years of the Presidio Trail Run. He attributes his wins to it being his backyard race as he lives and works in the Presidio National Park. 

As anyone who has run any distance of the Presidio Trail Run knows, it’s a tough course of rolling hills intermixed with two very steep, long hills. In the last three-quarters of the race there is one last uphill, sand trap to finish, just in case you aren't gassed enough. To run it fast is difficult and requires training and mental stamina.

Sergey shared some of his training and racing secrets for all of us who are looking for a bit more speed and grit this year.


How long have you been running?

I started to run in my university years, so for about 20 years now. But that was more occasional running. Only in 2013 I seriously bumped up my weekly mileage, bought good gear and running shoes and started to run on a regular basis to [complete] my first half-marathon.

What’s your favorite run to do and why?

Most of my runs are in the Presidio and along Crissy Field and Marina Green. The Presidio provides some of the best hiking trails in the area and tough terrain – very good for workouts. Crissy Field works great on easy days, because it is so flat, with beautiful views of the Golden Gate Bridge.

How have you won the Presidio Trail Run the last several years? It's such a tough course!    

I work and live in the Presidio and run the park’s trails almost every day. Naturally, I think of the Presidio Trail Run as my home race and I love it for many reasons: it’s long enough, but at the same time short enough. A 10K is a great balance for hilly race; it is very challenging and has some technical sections. It’s not too crowded with participants, and all the great people who participate and organize the race. 

When I first heard of the Presidio Trail Run about six or seven years ago I knew it would be one of my favorite races. I missed a few years because I was traveling, but after that I have had a few podiums in a row, though only took first place in 2020, when it was virtual. (Sergey ran the actual 10K course in 2020.)

What is your 2021 running/fitness goal?

In 2021 I'm planning to do a couple of steps more than in 2020 and ride a couple of miles more on my bike than I did the previous year. Given my combined mileage around 2,500 miles per year it is a good enough challenge for me. Also I would like to keep chasing my 5K PR (personal record). I'm a competitive runner and chasing PRs is very good motivation for training. And I always say, for any run, the hardest part is from the couch to the door.



Jen Gaarder-Wang 

Pre-pandemic and before her family’s move to the East Bay, Jen Gaarder-Wang used to be a fixture around the Presidio Community YMCA and nearby neighborhoods. After discovering YKids 11 years ago, Jen gave herself a birthday present by dropping off her daughter Rory and taking a couple of wee hours for herself. 

A steward of local parks, an avid tennis player and champion, mother, wife and runner, Jen knows the key to her own kindness and happiness: just getting out there, preferably in an old, comfy Trail Run tee.

Jen answered some questions we’ve all been wanting to ask:

What is your favorite run to do and why?

Last year we moved to Orinda, and my pandemic savior is to do a run that includes an uphill of about 1,100 feet on a dirt/mud trail—I get it almost to myself and I always feel great when I make it to the top. When we lived in SF, I loved going from the Y to Baker Beach and back—the views were unbeatable and I loved the feel of the trail under my feet.

What is your 2021 running/fitness goal?

To get a bit faster and go a bit farther regularly...I have to be careful with my knees so I can’t get too ambitious. :)

How do you motivate yourself when you just don't want to go?    

I know that my runs are necessary to me being kind and happy, so I basically have to go. Also I don’t worry about being slow, and I give myself props for getting out there when I’m tired or if it’s raining or cold. 


You’re going to feel great. Start small and be proud of how ever many steps you take!



Steve Snyder 

Steve Snyder ran 4,406 miles in 2020 (which is an average of 84.7 miles per week or 12 miles per day) which makes it hard for any runner to vy for the top leader position no matter how much you’re training on the YMCA of San Francisco Runners & Walkers Group (but we dare you to try). At 58 not only does Steve run many, many miles, he runs them fast; up, down and all around San Francisco’s hills all times of day and night. (For example, during one week in July he ran 14 miles on a Thursday, followed by a 25-miler two days later. Less than 24 hours after finishing 25 miles at a 10:24 pace, he ran a 13.1 mile half marathon at a 9:08 pace, and this seems to be, just an average week.)

To add to his list of running accomplishments, he virtually completed running across America this year, coast to coast, a total of 2,572 miles. He embodies the Y’s spirit through his generous and unwavering support of other runners no matter how fast or far, helping seniors into and out their cars so they can access the Y’s facilities, and through his support of time, resources and energy to the Y community.

Local legend Steve answered some questions we’ve all been wanting to ask:

How long have you been running?

I ran my first mile chasing my big brother in the summer of 1968 at age 6 while we watched Jim Ryun chase Kip Keino for the 1500-meter Olympic title in Mexico City. We were living in Ann Arbor, Mich. and ran half a mile down a country road from our home and back. We ran the mile a few more times until we discovered bikes.

My second bit of running started around 1974 at age 13 in San Francisco. I'd run a few training 5K’s a week. I'd run by myself, with my big brother, and sometimes would run into Walt Stack, founder of the Dolphin South End Runners Club (the largest running club in San Francisco) and run with him along Crissy Field and on the Golden Gate Bridge. A 5K was an endurance feat for me at the time and it was hard to imagine how people could run Bay to Breakers (a 12K). My running ended in 1976 with a cracked kneecap while playing football in the neighborhood. 

Third and present running started in July 2000 at age 38 after a 24-year detour into unhealthy ways; drinking, smoking, and weight gain. 

I’ve been running for a total of 23 years.

What do you do to help you prepare for a good run?

I don't like to start until I'm relaxed and ready and am in a relatively relaxed mood and not preoccupied with something else. Like today I was going to run but then I could tell my wife wanted me to stay home and do some quiet work around the house with her. So, I'm hoping to run a few hours later after dinner. For me a proper warm-up is necessary if I'm running an organized run with an official start – otherwise I start off slow and warm-up on the run (frequently I see the run as just a bunch of warm-up runs pieced together).

What’s your all-time favorite race? Why?    

Probably the double SF Marathon. I like the journey downtown (which I don't get to do often anymore). I enjoy the camaraderie on the run – the small field (30 to 50 runners or so) and showing San Francisco to visiting runners and helping them navigate the city in the middle of the night. And then a few hours later jumping into a field of 30,000 runners on the same course which is then well-lit and marked. The two runs ran back-to-back are [literally] night and day. 



2021 Presidio Trail Run Registration