Catching Up With Timothy Olson

Catching up with ultrarunner and father Timothy Olson.

By on March 15, 2021 | Comments

Thanks to Patagonia for sponsoring this week’s Catching Up With article!

“Pura vida! It’s such a touristy thing to say, but it’s Costa Rica,” Timothy Olson emphasized of the popular Costa Rica saying that means “pure life” in Spanish. He continues, “Once you get out of the capital city of San Jose, it really is pura vida. It’s more relaxed, it’s a different atmosphere, and it’s one that I love.”

I love it too, and held onto Olson’s every word about his life between Costa Rica and the U.S. “We went in November of 2019 and stayed almost nine months–our visa kept getting extended. We came back to the U.S. in June 2020 and stayed four months before going back to Costa Rica last fall,” he said of the back and forth. “With everything going on, it was nice to be in a small community. All of my runs were by myself. I see farmers and that’s it, I’ve become friends with a lot of them.” The Olson family has just returned from another four-month stay in Costa Rica and is now back in Boulder, Colorado. We back up to his start in Costa Rica though.

“We decided to go there three years ago,” he said after a short memory pause. “When we travel, we like to look at the website, and we looked for elevation gain right by the beach. You can go up to 12,500 feet on Mount Chirripó, just a 90-minute drive from the ocean. It’s only 30 or 40 miles away, but 90 minutes, and it’s the biggest mountain in Costa Rica. We checked that area out and fell in love with it. We were in the town of Tinamaste this last time. There’s the second-biggest organic farmer’s market in the country there.” The town itself has a population of just over 10,000, but the Tuesday market pulls from the greater region for a diverse mix of some 45 vendors. “When we went three years ago, we met a lot of cool people, connected with the farmer’s market. We wanted good food, the ocean, mountains. My wife Krista has rheumatoid arthritis and when it gets cold in the winter months in Colorado, this helps her joints, body, and mood. All of that abundance really speaks to us,” Olson smiled as he recounted.

The Olson family in Costa Rica (left to right): Krista, Kai, Timothy, and Tristan. All photos courtesy of Timothy Olson unless otherwise noted.

Olson keeps describing the area and his life there with genuine happiness. “It’s super hot, but I run right up in the mountains. There aren’t a lot of trails, if they’re not used a lot they’re swallowed up by the jungle. Trails don’t last well. And my kids have met their best friends there. They’ve spent so many hours running around the jungle. The jungle’s no joke. There are different plants, trees, spikes, pokey things, bugs, animals. They’re learning the ways of the land, it’s perfect for the way we live. We home school our boys,” he said of eight-year-old Tristan and five-year-old Kai. “It’s like turning the outdoor space into a school, to explore nature, guide that education.”

I mention the book The Adventurer’s Son by Roman Dial as another example of the jungle’s danger and Olson promises to give it a read. “There’s something around every twist and turn. How to run through the jungle took a while to learn. Don’t grab trees because there are spikes and thorns, and you’re always watching your feet for snakes and poison dart frogs. There are all kinds of animals, it’s a really diverse area.” I ask about travel around Costa Rica, or even around Central America, and Olson explains it away. “There’s plenty to explore in this area and it’s really nice just staying in our area. It feels like home. It’s really special, the friends we have there, it’s turned into our second home. It’s close to the beach, the trails I run, and the Diamante Waterfall,” the thought pops into his head. “It’s one of the biggest, longest waterfalls, 300 feet, and all the water goes to all the rivers and places that I run. I jump in those rivers! It’s pretty special, so green, vibrant, so much life. I can run to the ocean or up a peak to see the ocean, every day.”

Timothy with Tristan as a baby after winning the 2013 Western States 100. Photo: iRunFar

Olson feels fit and won The Coastal Challenge stage race in Costa Rica in February 2021, last month. “Three years ago, I sprained my ankle on the fourth day of The Coastal Challenge,” he recalled. “It was the worst I’d ever sprained an ankle too–eight to nine months to not feel pain–so I wanted to come back. Stage racing is different than one big race, each day compounds. It can be extremely challenging. It felt good to be back racing, it’d been a year since I’d raced. I felt grateful I could get in a race and finish it.”

He speaks with a lot of excitement about Costa Rica, but I jump in and turn back to homeschooling, knowing that I’ve got a five-year-old learning to read too. “My wife takes the lead and makes sure there’s direction. It’s really amazing, they read, do math, all the normal school things, and follow what sparks their interest. Tristan will say, ‘I want to learn about…,’ and we’ll say, ‘Okay, let’s learn how to read about that.’ And they’re so connected to nature, I think that’s really vital. As the kids get older, especially in high school, it’s totally their call how on they want to learn,” he said of the potential for a traditional education. “They’re learning, they pick up a few new words every week,” Olson said of the kids and the Spanish language. “I speak, not fluently–my wife is much more fluent–but I can get around.”

Goofing off with Tristan in Costa Rica.

I know Olson is a big proponent of meditation and so I press on potential unique aspects to that practice in Costa Rica. Olson answers, “Meditation is a practice I’ve used for a long time. There are definitely ceremonies going on, I’m aware of it.”

He recalled a recent experience at a Costa Rican temazcal, or sweat lodge, though. Simply, it’s a bit of a homemade outdoor sauna. “They put up this bamboo frame, blankets over the top, fire outside, and use volcanic rocks. They’re glowing red. It’s very ceremonial, the person leading it will say prayers to the fires, to the water, the rooms of the earth. It’s extremely hard,” Olson said, stretching ‘extremely’ for emphasis.

“The first time I did one in Oregon was right before my first 50k and I remember thinking I was going to die, it’s so challenging, but I came out and felt divine, reborn, and ready to do my first ultramarathon. On this one I worked with the people who put it together on the land and it was a group that came together to really honor that land. It was really intense, but you come out and see clearer, breathe deeper.” I ask about the duration, how long a session lasts, and Olson related that it’s a couple of hours, this particular one rotating between four directions. “When you put water on the rocks it’s really steamy and each time there’s a purpose. Each person leading it has a unique way of doing it, but there were four sessions, about 30 minutes each,” he recalled.

Timothy with a sloth in Costa Rica.

Olson talks about his planned effort to run the entire Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), the 2,653-mile trail that runs from Mexico to Canada. “I do feel better from overtraining, over racing. My body tapped out, but I learned a lot, learned how to balance life. The pro athlete lifestyle is so unique and I had a few years that were hard, but my body’s adapted. I could have had it a lot worse,” Olson, a two-time Western States 100 winner, reflected. “I’ve done a lot to restore my body, eat well, continue to exercise, meditation helps to restore, and I’ve recalibrated my mindset over the years. It can be hard and overwhelming to stay at the top and I don’t have the same reasons to run for the last few years. It’s been a reboot and I’m grateful for what running’s done for me. My body feels strong, my heart feels strong, and my mind is strong. I’m transitioning. There are still races I want to do, but I feel compelled to do some long things too and I’m going to really dive in. I’m going for the [supported, northbound] PCT fastest known time (FKT) this summer.”

“When I moved to Ashland, Oregon, the trail out my doorstep connected to the PCT, and I’ve been thinking about this the last four to five years. This year I feel really fit and excited, my family is excited to join for bits, and this time, this big adventure, it feels like there’s hope, a light at the end of the tunnel, and the world needs some hope,” Olson, now 38 years old, gushed. “I’m going south to north, starting at the end of May, early June. Fifty-two days, eight hours, I’m going to try to lower that FKT. It’ll be great to be able to see the world outdoors, connect with myself, nature. It can be the transcendence that I appreciate so much from trail running. It’ll be supported, I want to hike with my boys, look at the moon together, and it’ll be very fueled by community, we all inspire each other.”

[Editor’s Note: The current supported, northbound Pacific Crest Trail fastest known time was set by Karel Sabbe at 52 days, eight hours, and 25 minutes in 2016.]

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The Olson family.

Justin Mock

Justin Mock is the This Week In Running columnist for iRunFar. He’s been writing about running for 10 years. Based in Europe, Justin has run as fast as 2:29 for a road marathon and finished as high as fourth in the Pikes Peak Marathon.