The unbearable lightness of ultrarunning: Timothy Olson

If you ever get the chance to venture to some mountainous trails in Boulder, Colorado, you might just run into a lone soul mediating on a rock, seemingly cut off from civilization. With his long, blond hair, you could be forgiven for mistaking him for a laid back hippy trying to find actualization in the mountains. However, if you are even remotely interested in the world of ultrarunning, you will instantly recognize him.

You might know Timothy Allen Olson as the course-record holder of the Western States 100. It is considered the Holy Grail for ultrarunners, where they are greeted by rugged snow-clad terrains in the high valleys of the Sierra Nevada Mountains, and scorching temperatures in the low valleys towards the end of the 100 mile course. Flagbearers like Tim Twietmeyer who completed the race 25 times, Ann Trason who won it 14 times, and Scott Jurek who won the race 7 consecutive times have left their formidable impressions on this course. Timothy Olson has not just won it twice already since he ventured into ultrarunning in 2010, he also set the course record by completing the punishing 100 miles in 14:46:44. However, the endurance trail began for him long before the starting line of the Western States. Even before he would take his first step towards claiming his share of glory in the endurance circuit, Olson had already walked miles upon proverbial miles in some pretty difficult shoes. As a teenager, he began rebelling against a strict religious upbringing and dropping out of Christian college in the early 2000s. For years, he had held on to beliefs that he did not share, not wanting to disappoint his parents. However, when he finally broke free, he drifted off to the deep and dark waters of drug addiction. Olson recalls this time in his life as one where he had to make some of the toughest decisions in his life, “I knew that I wasn’t taking care of my body or myself.” One moment he was a promising cross-country athlete, and in the next moment he had dropped out of college, was using hard drugs, and hanging out with drug dealers. He recalls breaking down, reaching an absolute abyss, and realizing that he needed to turn his life around now before he lost everything. How does one even begin to emerge from such darkness to find oneself again?

“I needed to just enjoy life again, be grateful for each moment and remember the joy of just being,” he says. Olson recalls the powerful moment when he realized that he needed to awaken his mind with meditation, and reclaim his body with exercise, “Meditation is exercise for the mind. I know I am going to have thoughts, feelings and emotions that won’t always be positive, but I try to observe these feelings rather than react hastily to them. This has taught me to calmly make the best choice when problems arise in life or on the trail.” After an arduous battle with drug addiction, Olson focused on reconnecting with himself and his loved ones, and doing something he had always wanted to do – travel. He recalls the wondrous time when he would be out on the road, blasting music, and letting the American landscape wash over him. When he was temporarily working in Wisconsin during his travels, he met his wife Krista at a coffee shop. They had an instant connection, and had soon moved in together. He had also started to get his life back on track – literally and otherwise. He finished college and started coaching high school kids for running. In teaching them how to run, he rediscovered his own joy in running. In the middle of the freezing Wisconsin winter, Timothy and Krista decided that they needed to temporarily escape somewhere warm and bright. Their journeys led them to Ashland, Oregon, where after a run in the beautiful countryside, the couple had decided that they had fallen in love with the trails and the mountains. In 2010, soon after they moved to Ashland, Olson got involved with the local running community. Legendary ultrarunners trained in the famed trails of Ashland, and soon Olson was tagging along with some of the best runners in the circuit like Western States legends Jenn Shelton and Anton Krupicka. In 2010, it was quite a leap of imagination for Olson, going from running track in high school, to now keeping up with seasoned ultrarunners on 100 milers. He found himself training for multiple 50K races, and when he found himself bagging a 4th place finish at a local 50K, he began wondering if he could actually get good – really good– at running long distance endurance races. He signed up for the Waldo 100K and Pine to Palm 100K races in 2010, resolved to go for a competitive finish, but still determined to have a good time running on some of the most beautiful racing terrains in the States.

Olson won both the 100K events, merely one year after embarking on his ultrarunning journey. He already knew that he wanted to attempt the Western States, the race that every American ultrarunner worth their salt wanted to attempt. Olson made an impressive debut on the course, placing 6th, but no one – not even Olson himself – would have predicted that he would have a major breakthrough on his second attempt in 2012. The record that Olson set on the Western States course in 2012 still stands. Looking back, how does he feel about the course record? “I didn’t go into it even thinking about a course record, I just went out to run, give it my all and enjoy the day. I was familiar with some sections of the course and tried to simulate those in my training. There’s a lot of descending on that course, so in my training I would run up to Mt. Ashland with about 5K of vertical in 13 miles, and then run down at a race-like tempo.” He sums it up with his characteristic modesty, “It worked out ok.”In 2013, Olson defended his title successfully, cementing his arrival among the world’s most promising ultrarunning athletes. Olson thinks that his meditative running has a big part to play in his success. 100K races like the Western States are unbelievably tough on the body and mind. Running out of fuel, intense nausea and cramps, hallucinations are common experiences even for seasoned athletes during such races. Olson thinks that it is his spiritual connection with running that keeps him focused and grounded. “This connection to nature has always been within me – running and meditation have only allowed me to become more aware of it. Through running, I fully experience my love and appreciation for nature, and being in tune with my body and nature. Running and meditation is a daily practice and helps me strengthen these connections,” reiterates Olson.

That being said, he doesn’t deny that ultrarunning has particularly significant challenges. However, he has learned to enjoy them and accept them as a natural part of long distance running. “Accepting this allows me to enjoy it, even in a competitive race. The hard part of competitive racing for me is the ego. I want to do well, but I try to remain positive no matter the results and not stress about results. All I can do is give my best in my training. When a race comes up, I give everything I have that day and try to be content with the results.”

His family – wife, Krista and son, Tristan – are his bedrock, and accompany him on the road when he travelling to events.

Surely being on the road constantly must get difficult at times? “Sometimes I am not there for them when they need me, because I am focusing on a race. That is really hard,” he admits. However, he wouldn’t have it any other way. They are an incredible tight-knit family unit. “Overall they add so much to my life and their presence gives me much positive energy. They are a huge inspiration to me and I just go out every day trying to be the best person, husband, father and runner I can be in that moment. I mess up a lot, but I try not to judge myself and move forward confidently.”

Olson is delighted to know that there is a burgeoning ultrarunning scene in India, and we ask him how runners in India can deal with a lack of recreational spaces for running, especially in the cities. How can runners in India learn to truly escape our surroundings and run with an unfettered frame of mind? Olson thinks that the answer is to be curious in our surroundings, to explore what is around us, and most importantly, to explore what is within us. His advice for giving 100% to every run, is to remain present and grateful during each run. “I guess I would say, try not to escape. Instead, find the stillness and beauty even in the mundane.”Just like us, Olson too, has to sometimes contend with running on a treadmill instead of outdoors. “It’s difficult for me too when I’m not running where I would like to be. Sometimes when I run on a treadmill or in a city, I listen to music or sing to myself. When I don’t have a lot of time or nice trails and/or mountains, I try to find something steep or put the incline up to 15% on the treadmill.” His advice for city runners who are looking to beat daily stress, is to run a hard uphill sprint – a technique that invigorates him and helps him focus on the rest of the day. For high altitude races with steep inclines, like the notorious Transvulcania (considered one of the hardest ultramarathons in the world with a net elevation gain of 4,415 meters), he tries to simulate the course as closely as possible. This involves running in the mountains in different locations across the States. He also incorporates climbing, biking, yoga and sauna sessions to cross-train. His final push before an event is particularly challenging he says, “Two weeks before the race I’ll do my biggest run and throw in a lot of vertical gain. I go anywhere from 3-6 hours, depending on the distance of my race.” For an athlete at his level who is training in some of the most brutal terrains, Olson is particularly mindful of staying injury-free. “I believe bodywork, nutrition and meditation to be preventive medicine. I try to take really good care of my body, showing it lots of love my eating organic and whole foods,” stresses Olson. However, injury prevention doesn’t stop at the physical level for Olson – he works equally as hard on mind. “I like to mediate at least once a day and try to schedule regular body work by getting acupuncture and massage work.”Olson says that runners also need to realize when to stop. “I have learned to slow down before it becomes a big problem. I try to decrease my training when I notice a problem arising.” Olson further says that sometimes, regardless of whether you are an elite or recreational runner, you just have to take a break.

There’s some solace for mere mortals like us. Just like us, even elite athletes like Olson have off days, when training feels like a chore. What sets him apart from most runners is that he can dig deep even on hard days and find the strength to run in the mountains. “Sometimes the hardest part is just getting out the door,” he admits. “However, once I start a run, I rarely regret it. I think of different motivations to help me get my mind ready for a training day. I also write down different things that motivate me and then read them when I don’t feel like getting out.”Nutrition, of course, is a cornerstone of his training. Like every aspect of his life, Olson takes a holistic, almost spiritual, approach to food. Given the distances he logs on a regular basis, Olson has primed his body to burn fats efficiently, and relies on sources like avocados, nut butters, nuts, seeds, and olive oil. He is a big proponent of using healthy fats as fuel, particularly coconut oil, which he incorporates into his diet in a big way. His choice of carbohydrate sources are natural and locally grown organic foods such as berries (for smoothies), and root vegetables like sweet potatoes and parsnips cooked in coconut oil. He has a similar grounded outlook towards recovery nutrition. He replenishes his body after runs with green smoothies, which he loves making with bananas, kale, and a protein powder.  “Everything in moderation,” is the sum of his nutritional philosophy, he says. “Even though I am not very big on wheat or grains, I’ll also occasionally have some white rice or corn tortillas depending if I go out for tacos or sushi, Thai and/or Indian food where white rice is a yummy side.” Olson prefers buying his produce from farmers or local grocery stores, where he can rest assured that the produce is being treated with respect.We finally ask if he has any advice for runners in India, especially ultrarunners who want to emulate his achievements? Surprisingly, the first thing he says has nothing to do with training itself. “Just enjoy the moment, it’s not all about winning or losing; the best part of trail running is just being outside and exploring,” is his foremost bit of advice.”As you get into longer distances, remember to take advice, but ultimately try a bunch of ideas for yourself to determine your optimal race/run plan. Try out different shoes, socks, gear, nutrition – what works for me might not work the best for you.”

“Just stay positive and keep with it if you enjoy what you are doing, being happy is key.”All we can say to that is, amen. If there’s an athlete who personifies running’s transformative power, it’s Timothy Olson.

He is a living emblem of the sport’s ability to pull one out of the depths of darkness, and propel them towards the glorious light where their true destiny in life awaits.You can read more about Timothy Olson on his website timothyallenolson.com.

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