Timothy Olson’s Return to Competition
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The parallels between Timothy Olson and a modern-day, trail-running Jesus go well beyond his long flowing hair and sinewy, tan body.
Olson rose to glory early in his running career, around 30 years old, and developed a substantial following with his racing and mindfulness teachings. Then he all but disappeared from the scene. His racing declined dramatically due to overtraining.
Recently, though, at 33-years old, he’s had an ultra-racing resurrection. On April 26th, he handily won the Penyagolosa Trails 116K ultramarathon, his first ultra win since 2013.
In short, Timothy Allen Olson is back from the dead.
Olson, of Amherst, Wisconsin, rose to elite ultraunning status quickly—and unexpectedly. He hadn’t run in college, didn’t do well in high school and spent much of his younger years lost and aimless. “I was a nobody,” he says.
Then he moved to Oregon and fell in love with the mountains. He met and worked with professional runners Hal Koerner and Erik Skaggs and began running and training with them. “I wanted to prove to myself that I could work hard and have success. I was kind of a bum for a few years,” he says. “So I decided to go hard.”
In 2012, after only two years of serious running, Olson won Western States 100 Endurance Run and set the record that remains to this day—14 hours 46 minutes. That same year, he won the Bandera 50K, Waldo 100K and took 2nd in the Lake Sonoma 50 Miler.
“It was a whirlwind,” he says. “I went from having a massage practice and working at a running store, just trying to make a living and pay the bills, to a sponsorship with The North Face.”
After winning Western States again the following year, in 2013, Olson went on to place 4th at the Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc (UTMB).
Then, it started to hit the fan.
While running Hardrock in 2014, Olson couldn’t get his body to run downhill toward the 45-mile mark. “I was miserable, vomiting; lungs just wrecked, laying on the ground,” he says. Then, later that year, he DNFd for the first time in his career at the UTMB. “After that, my body was just pretty toast and not accepting any training without feeling super tired,” he says. “I realized I needed to take a step back.”
Olson’s mindfulness practice has always been a core part of his training and when his body started to decline, it took on an even bigger role, both as a way of coping and as a way of balancing his life more. He scaled back his mileage and settled in for the long ride of recovery. “When you have challenges in your life it’s not going to change over night,” he says. “When you’re racing ultra distances, it really takes a lot out of your body.”
He started going to the gym for strength training and reduced from 160-mile weeks to 50 or 80. He started enjoying varied activities, like scrambling around the flatirons near his new home in Boulder, Colorado or just playing with his kids (Tristan, four, and Kai, one).
Olson was still racing, of course, just less. He accepted that he might never get back to the elite level. He developed his Run Mindful Retreats business with his wife, Krista, and enjoyed traveling with his family and hosting mindfulness retreats.
However… he wasn’t going down without a fight. “I knew I might never get back to that [elite] level, but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t going to give my best effort,” he says. “You only live this life once; I’m going to experience it for all it’s worth.”
Slowly, Olson’s body recovered. Within the last year he’s been able to ramp back up to 100-mile weeks. When he toed the line of the Penyagalosa Trails 116K, part of Spain’s Ultra Cup, he was feeling fresh and energized. He thought he might actually have a chance to win, if he listened to his body. His only real goal was to finish feeling good.
Olson hovered around 10th place for the first 40K. He knew the lead pack was competitive and was particularly aware of Didrik Hermansen, a Norwegian who placed second at Western States in 2016. “My mantra for the race was presence and patience,” says Olson. “I wanted to make sure I was feeling okay, that I was paying attention in each moment.”
Then, things started clicking. His easy pace at the start (still a smoking 31 miles in 4.5 hours) prepared him to kick it into gear for the second half. “I started firing on all cylinders,” he says.
Olson knew there was a hefty climb leading up to the 70K aid station and, with everything going smoothly, he started passing people. By the time he reached 80K, he had passed Hermansen for the lead and managed a sizeable gap right away. “I didn’t expect to be in the lead there,” he says of the 80K aid station. “I try to stay positive, but racing has been really hard the last few years. It was a really good feeling to be back to where I know I can be.”
At the end of the Penyagolosa, Olson was back in a familiar place. “You go from hunting to being hunted,” he says. “I hadn’t been in that situation in a while so it felt really good.”
He was satisfied with his win, but was happier just to share the paella, wine and panoramic view with his family.
Despite his recent increase in mileage—and the win—Olson is being careful not to let old habits creep back up.
“I’m prioritizing good blocks of training and focusing on strengthening,” he says. He is also focusing on quality mileage versus high-quantity mileage.
His approach is obviously working.
If Olson does well in one more race within Spain’s Ultra Cup, which is part of the Ultra World Tour, he’ll win it.
But Olson’s version of success has changed over the years. When he started, his ego was in charge. He wanted to prove that he was a bum no longer. Now, he evaluates success based on “what I’m putting into the world and leaving behind. If I never win a race again, I could care less.”
Olson hopes to run some Ultra Trail World Tour races in the next year, specifically Diagonale des Fous in October. For 2018, he has his sights set on UTMB. For now, Olson’s happy to travel with his family and continue “introducing mindfulness to runners, hikers and outdoor enthusiasts.”