My Path to Contentment: From Addict to Awakened Ultrarunner

Timothy Olson explains how he went from drug addict to top ultramarathoner and the lessons his journey has for everyone.

By on April 26, 2012 | Comments

“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

Timothy Olson
Timothy Olson is the 2012 and 2013 Western States champion and the course record holder. He's a global athlete for The North Face and an outdoor ambassador for Natura Health Products and Injinji Toesocks. A massage therapist, he lives with his wife and son in Ashland, Oregon where he spends his time out playing and connecting to nature in the mountains. He also maintains his own blog.