Timothy Olson finished fourth overall and first American at the 2013 The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc. In this interview, Timothy talks about how a sore calf muscle prevented him from climbing well in the race’s second half, what sort of self-talk he used to keep pushing as hard as he could, and which “locals” ran a part of the race with him.
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Timothy Olson Post-2013 TNF UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Timothy Olson after the 2013 UTMB where Timmy finished fourth. Nice work, man.
Timothy Olson: Thank you. It was a hard-fought fourth place.
iRF: Yeah. A little different than Western States out there, eh?
Olson: Yeah, just a tiny bit. Western States definitely felt a lot flatter than this. Yeah, I just had a difficult one out there yesterday.
iRF: What was difficult—aside from the mountains—what was hard for you this time?
Olson: My body just didn’t respond very well yesterday. I tweaked my ankle the week before and I think that led to compensation on the other side. My calf just like was strained 50k into the race and I couldn’t climb at all. That’s the thing I look forward to in races, and I’m just hiking up every climb. I couldn’t push off at all on that calf. I was debating for a very long time—many hours of like, Should I stop or not? Mentally and emotionally, really, I took a beating yesterday. I was broken numerous times out there. I’ve never had a race where I was just, really, just crushed. But I kept telling myself after I kind of decided that I wasn’t quitting that it just makes it that better. When you’re just totally demoralized, that’s your chance to overcome that, and what a better feeling to finish. So I wasn’t worried about the time. I was just like, Let’s finish this race off and go see the family.
iRF: You seem to do pretty well dealing with darkness. At Western States you talked about how you really like getting to the physical point of totally being… just laying it all out there and digging into the well even deeper when you’re just flat out. Here, on the emotional side as well. How do you overcome those dark moments?
Olson: Yeah, I think at Western States it was more like taking your body to this extreme because it’s just that much faster and you don’t go through the night. This one was just really mentally draining on me. That was really hard to overcome. I spent a lot of the time talking myself out of just wanting to sit down and cry for awhile. That was hard. I had some conversation with some nice cows out there. They were looking at me like, What are you doing? I agreed with them. I didn’t know what I was doing out there. Yeah. It was just a really long time going through the whole night which was interesting. Going over those passes where it was really foggy, and my head was foggy. So I was just in this totally different world. Then you go into an aid station and you have the language barrier. So you just want to keep moving, and that’s all I could really think of doing. As I kept going through, it was slow, but it’s like I just needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other and eventually it would be done for that run.
iRF: It appeared that at some point you went back and went from survival mode to race mode or beast mode, as it were. I think coming into Vallorcine you were literally, like… I don’t know if grunting might be the right word. There were some…
Olson: Growls… I don’t know, lots of random noises come out. Like I could run downhill and I was taking that to my advantage because that was the only time I could ever pick up any time. I’m paying for it now. My quads are really good and hurt. It was finally to that moment where I got past all the emotional stuff that was going on inside, and I was finally able to go into that more primal beast mode which I love to do in 100’s. That felt good to finally be gaining on people and finally feeling like more of myself when I race. I just wasn’t feeling my normal just really “animal”—really trying to go after the course just because I was limited in my emotions throughout the day. That felt great. I was gaining on people. The sunrise came out and that’s just an awesome time. It’s glowing—the mountains to the side were glowing. That was really awesome to see. That motivated me.
Then I started to see my crew a few more times. That’s always motivational just to get to the next spot. There were times in the later stages through the night when I was getting to the next aid station, but I was out of gels and there were none at the aid station besides bread and meat and cheese. I just wasn’t feeling like a sandwich in the middle of the night. So I was just working through a lot there. As I got into the later stages of the race and got to see my family and encouragement from them, and knew that even if it would be a struggle, I was going to finish the race. That felt good—just keep getting to the next spot and go from there.
iRF: So metaphorically and literally, the sun came up and the darkness went.
Olson: Yes. And I look forward to that in races. I like going to those dark spots and overcoming it. In ultras, you think you’ve hit your lowest low in the last race, but ultras just keep surprising me of how dark it can really get and try to overcome it. It’s a good feeling when you do and finish.
iRF: Speaking literally of the darkness, correct me if I’m wrong, but this is the first time you’ve run at sundown and still running when the sun came up the next morning?
Olson: No, Run Rabbit Run last year. And I’ve done some good training runs to kind of do that, but this year I didn’t do enough night running. That would have helped a little bit.
iRF: In what way?
Olson: Just being comfortable out there. I’ve always enjoyed the dark because you just have your headlamp and all you can see is that next step. You can’t see the big mountain that’s in front of you.
iRF: Which is really nice.
Olson: Which is nice, but for me, too, I don’t do a lot of caffeine, so the sleep deprivation and trying to figure out which caffeine I can use to help make my stomach be ok. You go through the night and you’re pounding caffeine and then you have to add more gels—that’s just a bad combination. But it was fun. I got enough caffeine in me that I was able to stay alert and awake and made it through.
iRF: And Krista searched all of France for some kombucha?
Olson: Yeah, I had some kombucha green tea, which was actually delicious. I’ve never had that in a race. I really enjoyed it. I was burping it up later.
iRF: There are worse flavors.
Olson: Yeah, I like kombucha.
iRF: When you went into sort of the beast mode later on in the race, what are you thinking when that’s going on? Are you aiming at… even if you’re an hour back, are you thinking, I’m going to win this thing, or are you just focusing three meters ahead and getting there as fast as you can?
Olson: I think when I get into that mode, I’m just very present in that moment and try not to worry about anything else going on around me. I’m just pushing it really hard right there. That’s my favorite part of racing. I was able to finally get to that stage. Then people were giving me the information that I was closer to people than I thought. That sparks a little bit of, Ok, I can go gain on them a little bit. I didn’t have the race I exactly wanted, but I was really happy to finish and finish strong. What I came here for was to have a satisfying run in the mountains. The thing about 100’s is that they never go as expected. That’s what makes them so great because you don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m just enjoying a satisfying run in the mountains, in the Alps, and I’m very grateful for that.
iRF: You and Mike Foote finished very close together? Did you get to spend some time on the trail, work together, anything like that?
Olson: We did. We pulled each other back and forth for quite awhile. I think Champex-Lac, I was just feeling miserable and then he came in right behind me. I didn’t know who was behind me, and I was really happy that it was Mike. He’s a teammate on The North Face me and just a good buddy and a good guy. So we got to chat a little bit. It was a little bit later on when he caught me on some climbs. It was funny because I was doing well on the descents and he was doing well on the uphill. So we were just kind of going back and forth. He got ahead of me a little bit and he’s hollering at me to “Let’s keep going.” Then I’d get going a little bit ahead on the downhill, and I’m like, “C’mon, Mike.” So we worked really well. It was really nice to have conversation even a little bit. It’s not like we talked much but just knowing someone and talking to them a little bit felt wonderful. We knew we were going to finish close to each other and, yeah, it just sparked each other on.
iRF: Normally people give a lot of lip service to going out slow and being in control early on, but you and the rest of the Americans did one heck of a job of not doing a track race down to Les Houches.
Olson: I think we came in with that mindset, I think all of us. I watched some of the interviews and all of us were like, “Yeah, we’re going to try to take it easy and not worry about what place we were.”
iRF: Did anybody actually say anything when you were doing that stretch?
Olson: Doing that stretch?
iRF: Between the Americans?
Olson: No, no, not at all. Yeah, I wasn’t even running with many Americans. I was running with Vajin Armstrong from New Zealand for a while. We had a funny section getting into St. Gervais, before that on the first climb, three goats joined us for the run. They were running with Vajin and Miguel Heras—they were all running together—and three goats ran over 30 minutes with us.
iRF: So you had like your spirit animals out there.
Olson: Basically. Their little bellies were waddling all over the place, but they were hilarious. I’ve never run that long with a goat. They were crossing the bridges. There were a couple times where they stopped—they were huffing and puffing and working hard. Then they ran after us again and would pass us on this single track trail. We’d be running and all the sudden a goat would jump in front of us and… so we were just playing back and forth with these goats for a half an hour.
iRF: That’s incredible.
Olson: Yeah, entertaining.
iRF: A lot of people are happy to see their crews at aid stations, but more than anyone else I see, you stop and take the time to give Krista a kiss or pick up Tristan. How important is that to you in a race?
Olson: Yeah, they’re huge inspirations to me and it’s what I think about a lot when I’m running. Sometimes you’re worried about the finish. There are so many things to worry about. I really like to just keep them in my mind. They’re both really cute, so it’s good positive thoughts to think about. Yesterday was really special, too, just because actually yesterday was me and Krista’s fifth year anniversary. You know you have an amazing wife when she spends her fifth anniversary—I should be taking her out for a nice meal—but she followed me around the mountain, sleep deprived, taking care of Tristan and taking care of me. I’m just very blessed with Krista, Tristan, and my family that supports me. That’s what pushes me along a lot of times, too. It was great towards the end getting to see them more because Tristan was up, so I got to see his smiling face. That pushes me forward.
iRF: Do you think you’ll have Krista out here crewing for you next year?
Olson: Yeah, definitely, as much as we can afford, I love having them with me at races.
iRF: And would UTMB be one of them next year?
Olson: Possibly. I’m not sure exactly what I’ll end up doing next year. There are so many races out there. I wanted to do Run Rabbit Run, too, but I think I’m going to have to pull back and not do that. I’m good and broken now. I love Fred and like supporting races like that that support the athletes. Yeah, so we’ll see what I do next year. But I really have something to come back here; I want to run this race again and hopefully have a better effort. I hope to spend a lot more time in Europe next year as I run. There are lots of really cool races out here and a good community of people. That was another huge point of yesterday. You run through three countries. You get to meet so many people on the trail, all the volunteers, all the people cheering. It was such a good experience even though I suffered a lot, the people here are great. So I hope to be back again for that.
iRF: Was the race everything you expected? Not your race, but the UTMB?
Olson: Yeah, I’m glad I got to do the recon beforehand to see some of the views. The bummer for yesterday was the most beautiful part of the trail was in the dark. You know there are these big mountains out there, but you can’t see them. Eventually the lights come on, but it’s on the backside of the course and it’s just a short section. The views around here are just spectacular, so I kept those in my mind as I was running. This is just a really cool place to come. I hope to come back again next year or soon just to come and run the course, stay in the refugios. It’s such a great place for a holiday or to live here and to be able to use these trails.
iRF: Congratulations on a great run, Timothy.
Olson: Thanks for being out here. You did an amazing job.
iRF: Our pleasure.
Olson: Yeah, right on.
iRF: One quick semi-serious bonus question for you, Timothy. Is it correct to say you have a pretty low-carbohydrate diet normally?
iRF: But in races you do switch over to…
Olson: To carbs? Yes. I do use gels exclusively for the race. My preparation beforehand is a pretty low-carb diet and that’s basically just because I’m gluten-free and I don’t do grains really at all.
iRF: Because you have issues with gluten.
Olson: Yeah, it messes with my stomach and just over time kind of figuring out what works best for me, I’ve basically gone grain-free and more paleo type of diet. It works really well for me for racing just because I don’t really use all that. And then when I come to race, I use it really strategically when I have a gel, and I don’t do them as much. When people are using five gels or three gels per hour, I’m using one. I’m putting less stuff in there and I’m able to use it, but then my stomach doesn’t get tired of it as quick. For the 100-mile distance you’re using fat so much because you’re going at a slower pace, so it works well. I’m continuing using that for now.