My Path to Contentment: From Addict to Awakened Ultrarunner

“Just be,” I told myself as I struggled to run the last miles of the Lake Sonoma 50 miler last week. When you give it your all, it’s hard to feel comfortable the whole time. Being out of your comfort zone and being ok with that is an important part of running ultras. It’s fairly easy to feel comfortable and want to keep that state all the time. To do great things, you need to step out of your comfort zone and be vulnerable.

I’ve spent many years not being content with who I am and struggling to love my self and just be. We all have insecurities and it’s hard to let yourself be completely free when those negative thoughts creep into your conscience. Bryon Powell asked me in an interview preceding my ass whooping from Dakota, “what has made me be a strong ultrarunner?” So on my run today I went into myself and really thought about what makes me tic.

Timothy Olson 2012 Lake Sonoma 50

Racing the Lake Sonoma 50. Photo courtesy of Drymax.

I’ve never been a super strong runner or an amazing athlete. Anything I’ve accomplished in life took lots of hard work and dedication. The same goes with ultrarunning. I think my PR in high school for a cross-country 5k was around 16 minutes. I’m not the most talented, but I like pushing myself, too see what I am capable of.

After high school I entered a very confusing time in my life and struggled with who I was, what I wanted to be and just loving my self. I was very insecure which led to many poor decisions. After not partying at all in high school I started experimenting with drugs and alcohol. Trying to “fit in,” although being a pretty shy/insecure individual, I was trying to be more outgoing with the help of “party favors.”

It was pretty easy for me to enjoy this “new me” and become rather addicted to the alcohol and various drugs that helped me achieve this freedom of not caring what others thought of me. This fake confidence led to many poor decisions that wrecked my body and also ended me up in jail (drug conviction, 10 years ago). Even with a wake up call of being thrown in jail, I was too addicted and could not stop these overindulgences. Over the next few years of torturing my body I missed out on many worthwhile activities and friendships. I didn’t run college cross country or track. I dropped out of college for a while and really hated myself for what I became. I was not happy; I lived in a pretty depressed state besides the times when I was high. I knew things needed to change, but how?

So after a few years of being on probation, being reminded continually I was a criminal and dipping into a downward spiral of depression and self hate, I basically wanted my life to end. I remember a moment when I was alone taking a shower, trying to sober up and just sobbing hysterically. I wanted to die, but still deep-deep inside there was this internal battle that would not let me give in. I felt like I needed to prove the world wrong, and myself. I had this moment of satori/awakening when I decide to stop being weak and to start living!

Timothy Olson Fort Collins road trip

In Fort Collins after my awakening.

Running was my lifesaver. I first started back running to detox, clean out my body and pass that fun, pee in a cup, drug test. I ran to forget, I ran for peace, I ran because it was all I could do and it healed me. Running helped me to look inside myself, forgive myself, trust myself and learn from my past. Running let out all sorts of emotions; I found myself crying, laughing, screaming and puking through this road of recovery.

It didn’t just change overnight, but there were significant times when life became clearer and I wanted to live again. I started running daily and after sobering up and staying clean for a while I started to coach cross country and track at my local high school where I grew up. This was life changing. I came to help these kids out and encourage them to make good life decisions. It ended up being a huge blessing for me. I made running fun for them and in return, my love of running kept growing and growing. I entered my first local 5k and I just started running (Forest Gump style). It was mostly just around back roads and cornfields of Wisconsin, but it felt freeing and was a lot better for my body then cruising around, blaring music way too loud and probably ingesting maybe just a little too much acid.

I finally graduated from college and had nothing holding me back, so the day after coaching track season was done I took off on a road trip. Just my dog and me, we hit the open road, living in our car, on our way to the Pacific Ocean. Along the way, I would run on any beautiful trails I could find. I spent some really fun times in the foothills of Fort Collins, Colorado, slept under the stars by the Maze Canyons in Utah and ran down and stayed the night at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I still didn’t know ultrarunning existed, but I was already falling in love with these beautiful Western landscapes and knew this is where I wanted to end up.

Timothy Olson Canyon Lands Maze Utah

In the Maze.

I came back from my trip out West, finally content with who I was and feeling a deep connection between my soul and the beauty of nature. A few months later I met my beautiful wife Krista. It was her last day working at a downtown coffee shop in my hometown and when I saw her I knew I wanted to ask her out. We went on a date that night and to make the story short, eventually fell in love and knew we had found our other half. Her and my now father in-law, with whom I ran my first marathon, are quite into running, so I fit right in. Krista and I would go for runs together, which turned into our lifestyle that we celebrate daily. I love to run alone, but also with my wife, friends and, down the road, I will love running with my son!

Krista and Timothy Olson

Me with Krista.

To return back to the question by Bryon, What has sparked my recent success in the ultra world? After years of not knowing who I was and destroying my body I knew I wanted more with my life than just sitting on a couch destroying brain cells and watching my body decay away. I witnessed friends spiral into deep addictions, destroying their lives, ending up in prison, committing suicide, overdosing and losing their sanity. This awakening sparked something inside that made me want to live and enjoy life to the utmost. I’ve been in pretty low, dark places, but through this I have acquired a new found strength. Through adversity, I feel I have a lion-heart that is strong, fearless and will not give up. I do the best I can every day and my hope is to inspire and bring joy to everyone I meet.

We all have a past and have probably screwed up a time or more. You can let those moments cripple you, give up and stop living OR you can resurrect, strive to live each day deeply and happily in peace. I’ve learned that our minds and hearts are just as powerful as our quads and hamstrings. Believe in yourself, believe in love, believe in the positive, believe in the impossible, don’t ever give up, and the next thing you know you might just find yourself running a 100 miles!

Timothy Olson 2011 TNF 50

Me after the 2011 TNF 50. Photo: Brett Rivers

There are 115 comments

  1. zeke

    Nice piece! I enjoyed reading it as your story is my story. It must be no coincidence that so many others have commented on their own struggles with addiction and how running was a path away from that destructive lifestyle. Although, sometimes i feel i have just transfered my addiction to drugs into a running addiction. At least the later is physically, mentally and spiritually healthy. The look forward to meeting you, perhaps at western.

  2. Jim

    Tim, thanks much for writing that! Reading it I saw a lot of myself in there and really hope to change things around as you have…you know, get busy living and find that happy place in life. Still working on that but knowing your story will give me a little more hope.

  3. Frenchy

    Just brilliant Tim. Thank you for baring your soul with us in your writing. We all have a past. Sometimes it's not pretty. But we also have a future that we can shape any way we want. Keep running!

  4. Phil Jeremy

    I always remembering seeing your vid on youtube at Western States and not knowing who you were. It was inspiring then….and having followed your career since and reading this article, I am now doubly inspired.

    Thank you for sharing your story.

  5. Erik BahnsenPo

    Thanks for sharing your story.I made similar poor choices and abused drugs at a few points in my life.On my last stint with drugs my friends and I would listen to Widespread Panic exclusively.So after finally moving on from drugs for the last time I couldn't listen to Panic anymore or I immediately craved high.So I decided to train for a marathon and listen to only Panic. It was very uplifting to trade highs while listening to my favorite band and being able to do so without craving drugs.

  6. RobRoz

    Thank you for bringing a tear to my eye and an inspiration to my heart! PI posted this link, and I was meant to read it today! Appreciate your spirit and congrats to you!!

  7. matt h

    beautiful story, quite inspiring. i have gone through a similar transformation after turning thirty with nothing to show, running has changed all aspects of my life. I appreciate your courage and honesty in this article. Thank you.

  8. Brandon Baker

    I knew instantly that you would be an inspiration not just as an athlete, but an athlete to relate to… Godspeed in your endeavors and thank you for the courage to change- Keep rockin' Sole-to-Soul!!!

  9. aj

    Tim, where in Wisconsin are you from? I may have to bump you up to number 1 in my fantasy ultra runners pool! Roes had the spot cause he's from AK where I was born….but I was raised in Janesville, wi and i know how dam tough you cheeseheads can be!
    Best wishes,
    Aj

  10. Craig Foster

    Tim,

    So inspiring…I can certainly relate. I struggled with those same addictions for years because I didn't know how to fit in and live out in the real world. It took me many years to find it; but running has helped to change everything for me.

    Hope to meet you someday…

  11. Richard Dodd

    Hey, Aj – sorry to butt in; I'm from Milwaukee if you want to read my comment/story from the 26th on this string…us cheeseheads ARE tough!

  12. Steven Fredericks

    Great story, I like a great many out there have been in your shoes. We have also struggled with an addiction of one kind or another. As a security officer in a community corrections center, I saw addicts everyday. In fact I used to have to give them that dreaded Pee in a cup test. I was given the opportunity to teach a few classes with some of the high level inmates, what I used as a tool was running. We would spend the hour taking about what it is they could do to change. I tried to get them into running. Unfortunately I was re-assigned and was unable to continue with the teaching. Thank you for your story because it gives me hope that maybe someday I can help or make a difference in an addicts life.

  13. Kelly

    Thank u so much!!! Sobered up 5 yrs ago..still haunted with the.jail past …use to.run even drinking I.ran …and this hit me hard to go back out there ..thank u and God Bless

  14. Tony Mollica

    Way to go Tim! It doesn't matter if we get it "right" from the beginning, only that we end up getting it "right" eventually. Of course, the sooner the better.

    Congratulations on turning your life around!

  15. Anonymous

    Amazing what running can do. I could relate a bit! Great story. I plan to run 100 miles some day =) I loooove running forest gump style.

  16. Alan Hoogasian

    Thanks for writing this and sharing your experience! Running changes lives in a way that only experiencing it can illustrate. Also, great race at Ice Age yesterday! It was a rough one!

  17. Stacey

    Congratulations! As a new runner, every day I'm in awe of how much running is changing me as a person: The way I think, the way I feel, and how I look at life. Your story is very inspiring. I'm happy for you!!

  18. Mat Grills

    Tim, a truly inspirational story and one that will touch many people! I just want to encourage you on your journey! Keep running strong, staying in the moment and loving every second we are blessed with! I love reading about what you are up to so keep up the super work! Take it easy mate. Mat

  19. Yalus

    Amazing! This is exactly what I felt the day I decided I wanted to run. I struggled with depression for many years, and it absorbed me to the point of wanting to just die. My life was meaningless, I was in despair and I couldn't see a way out. One day, I just felt like running, and I did. It gave me so much power. I learned to talk to myself, to give me comfort. Running took me to places where nobody can take you, but just yourself. I loved it so much. My mistake though about it was that I felt too confident of my accomplishment that I stopped for a long time thinking I beat my worse enemy. How foolish I was!. I have taken running again, and this time I am not going to stop. I got too cocky with myself thinking I beat depression the first time, but the truth is depression can be deceiving and it will sneak up on you when you least expect it. So I have decided that I am not going to quit running this time, and I am not going to let my self confidence and cockiness get to my head either. I am going to be proud of my accomplishments but always very humble and keep at it. Thanks for your story. It reminded me who I became at one point of my life. I will be that person again but this time with a hint of compassion towards others and towards myself.

  20. Leslie Gerein

    I came back to re-read this article (as I'm sure others will) after your win at Western States. Last year, I sat quietly at the far end of California Street for hours and hours – watching runners. Out of all of the men, you were the guy who came by looking calm, relaxed, happy and truly at peace out there. You radiated it, I couldn't help but notice. "Who was that guy?" I thought to myself. "There's a guy who's truly thriving". So, thrive on Timothy Olsen! And just be. Life is truly an easy and enjoyable path once people figure that out.

  21. Lisa Gunnoe

    Thank you for sharing something so persona. You inspire and I'm sure one more person will have hope in a future because of your story!

    God bless and happy running!

    Lisa

  22. Karen

    If only 1% of addicts followed you or thought of you inspiring. Preaching to the converted, albeit brave, is not going to make much difference to the other 99%

    Not you're problem though. On a personal level, well done.

  23. waldo

    As someone struggling with alcohol, I loved my running but sometimes could not get up to do the hard work, in the beginning of this year I quit alcohol with the help of the power greater than myself and the tool is my running, I am enjoying it so much more, giving it my all and strive to someday tell my full story as you do.Congrats on WS, I was dissappointed Ryan did not win but to now know a fellow addict did, makes this sport even greater.

  24. James @reddirtrunner

    Came back to re-read after the race. Thought this was appropriate…

    “Knowing others is intelligence; knowing yourself is true wisdom.

    Mastering others is strength; mastering yourself is true power.”

    Lao Tzu

  25. christian griffith

    dood. last year at White River I really took notice and thought you were well on your way to greatness. As I watched the leaderboard at Western States, I was stoked to see you killing it. 14:46, man, damn, dood. sick stuff, but reading your story is even far more inspiring than that. This sport is filled with people running from a demon-filled past, including me, and we all know far to well how important it is to never go back there. You're the man dude. Much deserved victory, course record, and kudos as both a runner and a man. Much respect.

  26. Anonymous

    aww what an inspiring story, as somebody else said my running partner has swapped his addictions for an addiction to running, he sometimes slips but on the whole is working towards running an ultra with me. good to see you have turned your life around. you are an inspiration.

  27. Adam

    I loved reading this…I too was in a deep addiction with drugs and an addiction to the feelings, people don't realize you can become addicted to both. I have used running to help me find the same release and same content feeling with myself and the world as you have spoken. I loved the way you put it, like reading my own feelings. Keep up the good work

  28. Rushes

    Bravo Timothy! Some of us are addicted to different things, not necessarily substances, but equally damaging! I am a newbee to running, started in mid my 30s, its hard, but yes, I hope to discover the freedom of spirit from running, as you do. Thank you for sharing your inspiring story. Big hugs!

  29. Anthony

    You just told my life story. I am older than you and my son runs now, faster and farther than me and it is fabulous to watch as a father and I am sure you and Krista will enjoy watching your son become a runner.

    It has been a blessing from God that I am where I am today and stories like yours and so many others are what people need who are in that place, they need to know they are not alone and that there is hope and life, that they don't have to live in that dark place all they have to do is have that desire and ask for help.

    God Bless you and your family Timothy you are a true inspiration and proof that with hope, desire, hard work and commitment anything is possible.

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