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 116 comments

  1. Fernando N. Baeza

    Tim,

    Thats respectable, so respectable! Nicely written! That last paragraph was definately inspiring! I had no idea, thank you for sharing… Fernando

  2. Perry

    Powerful story – heard an Avett Brothers song last night while running – "The Perfect Space" – kept running through my mind as I read this article. Thank you.

  3. ultrarunnergirl

    Reading this makes me want to cheer for Timothy! So glad you made it out of the bad place you were in and found ultrarunning. We all have our demons and for me, experiencing the highs and lows of an ultra make me feel more alive than anything else. Thanks for sharing your story!

  4. Dan

    Tim, thank you so much for sharing your story. I have been struggling with hitting a wall with my running, it becoming more about times and distances than the joy I had being out in nature. Your story reminds me that those of us who do this are the lucky ones. Very inspiring stuff.

  5. Mike W

    Tim,

    Wow, man. Thank you so much for sharing this. That takes guts and we've all benefitted from it. Love Like Fernando and others, that last paragraph really got me. You're son is fortunate to have you as his father.

    – Mike

  6. Bill

    Tim,

    God bless you and thanx for being so vulnerable and sharing your story with the world!

    May you continue to succeed in ultrarunning and life as you have so already.

  7. David T.

    There are so many who, even though they are not abusing substances, are still: "just sitting on a couch destroying brain cells and watching my[their]

    body[ies] decay away."

    Your story provides hope. Thanks so much for sharing.

    David T.

  8. David

    Tim,

    I can relate to your story on many levels. We should chat sometime (412) 802-5252. Also, congratulations on the upcoming edition to the family!

    Best,

    David

  9. olga

    Absolutely awesome. I know of many ultrarunners whom had found savings in this sport, a replacement of sorts, a cleansing experience…My own son is going through stage of peeing in a cup and living on probation and parole after serving, and as his awakening slowly happening he keeps saying he wants to be like me. He may not run, but he knows and aware my saying to him every day: life is an ultrarun, all it matters is one foot in front of another in a general forward direction. Great life, Tim.

  10. Ian Scott

    Thank you for sharing a bit of your history, very powerful and encouraging. I love that the ultra community is so down to earth and willing to talk to anyone, very rare to find these days.

    Best of luck to you and Krista on your journey through parenthood.

    Ian

  11. Seamus Foy

    Great piece! I definitely have a similar story, but I'm not even close to where you are. I notice, however, that the more I run the better my life is when I'm not running. Best part: I'm getting much better. I'm about to attempt my first 50M in 9 days. Reading this is getting me amped!

    Bryon, I also have to say that iRunFar just keeps getting better. The gear reviews and race reports are awesome, but the many guest columns are enlightening. Great stuff from many of the elite: Dakota Jones, Geoff Roes, a great piece by Joe Grant, Uhan's articles on injury, AJW, and others I am forgetting. Now we get this fascinating piece from Tim Olson. These articles contain so much fascinating insight into ultramarathons and beyond, revealing much about the human body and mind. I hope there will be more of these!

    Also, ultrarunners are exponentially more likely to be great writers than the general public. Coincidence…?

  12. Jess Mullen

    Thanks Tim! I have been down that same road and had my awakening 11 years and hope to never forget where I came from and to always cherish this wonderful life. We met once at Waldo… last year or the year before and you seemed like such a nice, content, peaceful person – cheers to you :)

  13. Tom Caughlan

    Tim,

    Great story. As a teen therapist I'm always trying to steer kids into the outdoors and finding something special for themselves. I will use your story for inspiration for them.

    Thanks for sharing it.

  14. David

    Thanks for sharing your story, hopefully others can learn from it. And for your information, 16 mins for 5K is pretty darn good for a high schooler! ;-)

  15. Gingeezy

    This hits very deep for me Tim, thanks for sharing and it is good to know some other people out there have similar backgrounds. I am so "lucky" in a sense to have come out unscathed, but in the end luck has nothing to do with it. I made a conscious decision to change and live life to the fullest. very good write up my friend.

  16. CJ

    Awesome post Tim! Very inspiring indeed. Your line…

    "This awakening sparked something inside that made me want to live and enjoy life to the utmost"…

    reminds me of the words of Jesus when he says in John 10:10…

    "The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full."

    Keep running strong! I look forward to meeting you in person one day

  17. Lisa Bliss

    Thanks for sharing your story, Tim. I dig your honesty. Like some others here, I too can relate. May you continue to spread joy around you.

  18. Richard Dodd

    Thanks for sharing, Timothy – I have a very similar story involving alcoholism. The disease kept me from running a step for 3-1/2 years; but I returned to run a 3:03 marathon last Fall past the age of 52. Keep on inspiring!

    Here's my similar story.

  19. Linda Quirk

    Absolutely well written and heartfelt piece. This is the reason why Runwell was founded, in the hopes that we can help someone else find themselves & get a second chance at life. Thank you for sharing your personal thoughts and feelings. This article, if it helps even one person to take the next step, is so worth it. You are amazing and may you continue to Runwell.

  20. Debbie Loomis

    We are proud of you Tim! It takes a lot of inner strength and courage to share your story. Your story will help others who are facing similar problems! Good Luck this weekend!

  21. Timothy Olson

    WOW!!!! Thank you all for such positive and loving messages! I'm glad I could share this with you. Life takes us on many paths, having a community I can be vulnerable with makes it all worth the trip. Thank you

  22. Gerell

    You have struck a chord with a lot of people with your piece. It is powerful what we can do mentally and that the physical is just a long for the ride, wherever that may be… Good Luck at the race this weekend! Enjoy what you are able to do and realize.

  23. Anonymous

    AWESOME!!!

    As some one who has dealt with substance abuse issues, before starting to run and sadly at times as I continue. I have to say…THANKS it's nice to hear things like this from a person I feel I can relate too and also happens to be at the top of the ultrarunning world.

    Thanks Tim!!!

  24. mtnrunner2

    Great story, you certainly turned it around. Goes to show… running outside makes you happy. And that's what we need.

  25. Sniffer

    Tim thanks for taking the time to share about you and your life. If our paths ever cross I hope to tell you in person how inspirational this short read has been.

  26. Simon

    Tim, I had a ton of respect for you as a runner before I read this, now I have a ton of respect for you as a person too. This is such an inspiring article. Thank you so much.

    Bryon, irunfar just gets better and better and better…

  27. Rob

    Wow! Tim, thank you for sharing. I admire your strength and determination and I wish you the very best. Congrats to both you and your wife on expecting a baby boy. Cheers!

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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!

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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!!

  34. 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.

  35. 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!!!

  36. 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

  37. 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…

  38. 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!

  39. 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.

  40. 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

  41. 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!

  42. 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.

  43. 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!

  44. 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!!

  45. 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

  46. 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.

  47. 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.

  48. 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

  49. 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.

  50. 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.

  51. 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

  52. 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.

  53. 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.

  54. 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

  55. 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!

  56. 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.

  57. Nakul

    wow.. truly one of the most amazing things i have read..

    i hope you achieve whatever you want in your life…and wish you and your wife the best of health always…

  58. jordan

    I struggled with alcholism for years, long story short I ran my first 50mi in 6:24 this fall… must be something to this running :)

  59. Eric

    Thanks for that story of honesty and self-reflection. Really enjoyed it. Congratulations on becoming an elite athlete from such a low place. You definitely inspire people you don't even know exist, which is pretty amazing.

  60. Joseph Phillips

    Tim, Your story, your message has the hard-won truth of experience. Your struggles are shared by many people. I smoked a pack a day for 20 years and decided to quit. I ran to "clear my lungs", but found such enjoyment with running that I let it teach me. As an ardent pupil of running, I learned that a good connection to the natural world brought me to a place that was meaningful, and gave me eyes through which I discover great joy. Three years later I just completed my third running of what's considered the eastern US hardest mile-for-mile race event, and I feel awesome. I no longer wonder how I can this. I wonder why other people think they can't. When your body and mind are focused in an activity and you reach meditative truths, you become that which transforms matter into spirit. Namaste.

    And Happy Father's Day!

  61. Kevin

    Thank you for sharing your story. You are an inspiration. Running has taken the place of some very destructive habits for many including me. Congratulations on your continued success and health.

  62. rojohnson15

    Yours is an inspiring story of victory over drug addiction. Congratulations on your recovery and on building a strong foundation for your life today.

  63. Anthony

    Sad to see him now drinking alcohol and liking tweets about smoking weed. God bless you and your family and hopefully your bottom isn’t death.

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