Running With an Ultra Dad
Tim Olson on how to run—and win—100 milers while making it look easy
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Timothy Olson has been running his whole life. Growing up in Wisconsin, he competed on his high school cross-country and track teams. Now 30, he’s bringing his speed to the ultra circuit. In 2012, he set a new course record at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, becoming to the first competitor in the race’s history to break 15 hours. He notched a back-to-back win this July, and went on to finish fourth at the prestigious Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 100-mile sufferfest, on August 30. I tracked Olson down on the road, where he’s been traveling with his wife, Krista, and their one-year-old son, Tristan, all summer. What are his secrets for training for, and winning, ultras? Put in the miles—serious miles—and make sure you’re always having fun.
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How did you first start running ultras?
In 2009, I started running longer and longer as I learned more about how my body worked in massage school. I was the test dummy. I would run lots and have little niggles, and then I would figure out the best way to resolve them. As I started to run more in the mountains, my passion and desire to spend more time in the mountains grew each day.
How did your training and racing change after your son was born?
It was a challenge at first, but I just learned how to balance it all. I had to put my massage practice on hold, which allowed me to spend more time with my son. I normally start the day with him and eventually take him to child care for a few hours so I can go train. I learned to fit in runs when it worked and backed down my mileage a bit. For racing, my wife has been a huge support. Also, we’ve had our parents come and join us for races. It’s a vacation for them, and they get to sped time with their grandson.
What’s a typical week of training like for you at your peak?
I pretty much only run trails. Each week is different and my mileage jumps up and down from 90-130 miles per week. I try to get three to four long days in each week that are over four hours. Those days are intense workouts with lots of vertical gain and sometimes really fast miles at the end to finish a hard day. The other day are more casual and include stroller rides, where I go for a run pushing my son in a stroller. I also do on some big steep hikes up Mount Ashland with my son on my back. We hike up together and then enjoy the views from the top. He really loves it, too, so it’s fun for both of us.
Do you cross-train?
I’ll cross-train in the winter with some biking at the YMCA, and this winter I hope to incorporate more backcountry skiing.
Do you follow a training plan or have a coach?
I like to go by feel, I don’t have a coach or an exact plan. I have goal races and try to be in the best possible shape at those times. After a race, I try to let my body heal as much as possible by eating well and enjoying other areas of my life.
How do you juggle parenting with training?
It can be a tough balance at times, but my wife and I just communicate with each other. She’s very considerate of my running. Some days I run, and some days I have to take an easy day or not at all. We also try to spend time with all three of us running together with the running stroller. We even did a marathon distance together on forest service roads, which was a lot of fun. It might not be as intense of a workout but the family time together makes for some of my favorite runs. Running is supposed to be fun, so we make it a family activity when possible; I’ve also learned to run at all times of the day. During naps or after he goes to bed can work well, too.
Do you feel like you’ve found the right balance?
Most days, yes. I’m continually learning and trying to be the best husband, father and runner I can be.
Do you work also?
Right now, I’m a professional runner and father; I find it to be a lot more work than when I was a massage therapist. Running is just running, but now that running is my business and profession, lots more goes along with it and I spend a lot of time on the phone and in front of a computer. Plus being a dad is a lot of work, but luckily both are very fulfilling and I couldn’t ask for better jobs.
Does your wife run?
She runs four to five days a week and has been getting into ultras the last few years. We get some long runs in together on the weekends. When we do stroller runs up big climbs like Mount Ashland, I push the stroller and then we go the same speed; it’s a good workout for us both. We strategically plan the run when it’s time for him to take a nap, we will also take breaks and have picnics together on the trail. We’ve also found the importance of taking our own time and finding a good babysitter. Almost every Saturday morning we have a babysitter for a couple hours, so we can both start out our weekend with some personal running time and then have the rest of the weekend together as a family.
You recently decided to pack your stuff and travel for an extended period with your family. What has that been like?
It is just a perfect time in our life for this adventure. My wife was ready to move on from her job, so we thought we would rent out our house and travel for a while. We are exploring the world, running lots, living simply and enjoying time together. We love camping and we all love playing in the outdoors, so we travel from race to race and camp and visit friends and family along the way. I’m blessed with a few amazing sponsors like The North Face that make it possible.
We’ve learned (and are learning) to live simply, with less and together; it has made for a fun journey. At any time we can return to Ashland, but for the time being we are exploring and witnessing the next chapter in our lives. Yes, we are living the dream, but things happen and you have to learn to mold to the way life takes you. On our way back form Salt Lake, we had our tires blow up and needed four new tires, which wasn’t so much fun. After UTMB, we are off to Colorado for a little bit before we go back to Ashland and put on our race, the Enchanted Forest Wine Run, which introduces kids of all ages to the trails with a half marathon, 5k, and kids’ run in the wine country of Oregon. After that we’ll spend some time visiting family in Florida and eventually get to Latin America and spend a month there.
What do you love most about long distance trail running?
The peace and freedom it brings to every moment. It makes you like a kid, just totally emerged in the present moment and in tune with nature; you bring those feelings and emotions into every aspect of your life and really try to enjoy whatever life brings your way.
What do you love most about racing?
Mountain and trail running is a lifestyle and racing is the celebration of that lifestyle. We’ve made many amazing friends we’ve met at races, and that camaraderie is present before during and after the event. All these friends become family and are interwoven into your life. Maybe you only see them a couple times a year, but you have great times and memories together. I race to share those experiences with others, even though sometimes training is a solo journey.
What’s the toughest part?
Sometimes it hurts, there are really low patches and you just want to give up. Some days I feel selfish and wonder what is the point? After battling through doubts and realizing the huge benefits running and connecting with nature on a daily basis can have, I’ve learned to embrace the highs with the lows. Persevering through the hard patches make other moments that much more rewarding—not just in running but in all aspects of my life.