The champion ultrarunner has followed a long trail to the top.
It’s 7:46 p.m. on June 23, and the sunset light is long and gold. Timothy Olson enters the Placer High School track in Auburn, Calif., and the crowd of 2,000 erupts. Tattoos bared and sweat shining on his muscular chest, he wears only black running shorts, a not- yet-on-the-market pair of Pearl Izumis, and the M6 bib indicating that he finished sixth at this race, the Western States 100, last year.
As Olson does his celebratory run around the track, half of his long hair bounces with his stride while the other half is matted to his head by the rigors of the race. Rounding the last corner, he smiles as if to say, “I can’t believe it, either.” He slows to a jog and high- fives the folks lining the inside of the track.
He crosses beneath the clock—his winning time is recorded as 14 hours, 46 minutes and 44 seconds, more than 20 minutes faster than anyone has run this race since its inception as an official race in 1977—and turns to the crowd. Placing his hands in the prayer position, he bows. He and his wife Krista kiss and his hands grasp her belly as he leans down to greet the baby growing inside, a little boy they’ve already named Tristan.
Twenty-nine-year-old, Ashland, Ore.- based massage therapist, race director, and elite ultrarunner Timothy Olson says he has a beautiful life. But he didn’t always feel this way, he explains three months after his Western States win and six weeks after Tristan’s birth, while lying on his bed with the baby on his chest. “There were times when I didn’t want to be alive,” he says, pausing for a moment. “This little man and my wife. My business and home. My family and friends. All these miles of trails to run. I can’t believe I was once so lost.”
Raised in Amherst, a 1,000-resident town in central Wisconsin’s agricultural landscape, running was interchangeable with little-kid play for Olson. “We ran laps around my yard and sprinted through cornfield mazes we made.” In high school, Olson took on cross country to get in shape for basketball, his then-favorite sport. But he found cross country runners to be more his kind. “We were eccentric. We listened to ‘MmmBop’ on our boom box before each meet. We embraced dorky.”
Olson’s home life was governed by loving yet, strict Christian parents. “I grew up not wanting to disappoint them,” he says. “I did everything they asked of me.” Boxed in by more than corn and soybean fields, Olson entered young adulthood knowing neither who he was nor what he wanted to be.
“Underage drinking and drug experiments came, first,” says Olson about his downward slope. “Later, I used drugs every day, multiple kinds, to mask the feeling of being lost.” It was a rough time and he was in a downward spiral. “I eventually dropped out of college,” he recalls. “A friend ended up in prison, another committed suicide, and a few others I knew died from drug overuse.”
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“Over time, I understood that the terrible things happening around me were my life, too,” he says. But then, miraculously, his life changed. Perhaps it was a hint of his tenacious character forcing its way to the surface.
“I was in the shower. I was bawling my eyes out, just heaving with these sobs,” he says. “I suddenly wanted to be sober. And alive.” He repeats, “I wanted to be alive.”
Running regained a central place in Olson’s life when he began coaching cross country and track in Amherst. “I kept clean for the team, to be the best coach I knew how.” Plus, the physicality of running calmed his mind. In 2007, Olson discovered beauty in wild places via a solo road trip around the American west, met Krista in a random coffee-shop encounter back at home and decided to finish college.
They married a year later and, a short time later, headed west in search of a place they could call home. “Ashland felt right,” he says. “We loved the trails and the natural spaces that are part of the town.”
When Olson attended a group run at the local running store, Rogue Valley Runners, he learned that Ashland’s trails were also home to a wickedly talented and passionate passel of ultrarunners. Soon he was running routes with several thousand feet of elevation change, trying to hang on the heels of elite runners Hal Koerner, Erik Skaggs, Ian Torrence, Jenn Shelton and Tony Krupicka. “I got my ass kicked by those guys,” jokes Olson says with a hearty laugh.
“He was a newbie!” says Torrence, who now lives in Flagstaff, Ariz., and, coaches at McMillan Running. “But he was also a sponge, asking questions about injury, shoes, nutrition, everything.” It wasn’t long, Torrence says, before Olson was leading the pack.
“If you’re from the Midwest, you know about the community that is Lambeau Field during a Packers game,” Olson says when explaining the draw of ultrarunning. “The conversations on the trail and the parties after long runs and races … ultrarunning has the same kind of community.”
Olson is also propelled by his daily communal with nature. “I breathe fresh air. I look at the grass, trees, and, sometimes, snow. I am in the present moment. I feel peace. I am free.”
The ultrarunning stardom Olson gained winning Western States last summer was precluded by a steady-as-he-goes rise. But 2012 was a big year beyond his biggest win. He also won the Bandera 100K in Texas in January and the Waldo 100K in Oregon in August. He collected runner-up finishes at the Lake Sonoma 50 and Leona Divide 50 in California in April and turned in a third-place showing at September’s Run Rabbit Run 100, in Steamboat Springs, Colo.
Colorado-based ultrarunner Dylan Bowman and Olson ran close together for the first half of Western States.
“At about mile 40, when he was low on fuel between aid stations, Timothy looked vulnerable,” Bowman says. “He grunted into his trademark ‘animal-mode,’ entered the pain cave to get through it, and blew us all away that day.”
Olson hasn’t forgotten his history, and this is clearer than the strong Midwestern accent through which he speaks.
“I’ll forever remember the day Tristan was born, and I want to be a good dad every day we share this Earth,” he says. “I have so much to live for, so many people to live for.”
This piece first appeared in the December 2012 issue of Competitor magazine.