You know all that crap about learning more from losses than victories? From times when the train went off the rails rather than smartly pulling into the station? Whether that has a shred of validity or not, disasters make for great reading, so instead of talking with the medal-chested smiling winner of the July 11th Hardrock 100 Endurance Run, Kilian Jornet, who stopped to take snaps for the home folks enroute to crushing the course record in 22 hours 41 minutes, we'll learn from Timothy Olson, above, who also finished. More than nine hours and maybe some internal organs later. That photo is Olson's favorite because he feels it captures what trail running, and in a larger sense, life, is all about—that one can get to some absurdly low places, such as laying on a pile of trash, but if you're determined and don't have a jagged bone poking through your skin, that's not the end. This is….
photo credit: iRunFar.com/Bryon Powell
Olson, grew up, and got lost for a while, in Wisconsin, but found himself when he and his wife Krista settled in Ashland, Oregon in 2008. Through the strong trail running community there, he discovered mountains, kale and an ability, even a predilection, for going into the pain cave of very long distances and grunting his way back out again. He started running ultras in 2009 and by 2010 had already racked up some impressive wins at distances from 50 to 100 miles, but Olson's strength really seemed to be in suffering. He suffered better than anyone.
Even when everything goes right in an ultra run (which you may have gathered from the photo, is not 100 percent running) there will undoubtedly be some discomfort, as dentists like to call it, so when things go wrong in an ultra, all the violence that weather and topography can muster join forces with a body that has cruelly turned against its owner in the most monstrous, lurid manner—the ninth circle of hell begins to look pleasant, and much quicker. And the learning begins.
Olson, now a sponsored runner, completed his Ph.D in suffering with the Hardrock thesis project, refusing to give up as others, some of them accountants, trotted by his bent and heaving form, and he contemplated for 33 hours such questions as: Why suffer? Why not quit? But never: Why me? I talked to Olson via phone.
Exactly what went wrong in Hardrock?
Nothing I can put my finger on. The first 30 miles were relatively easy, the altitude [Hardrock averages over 11,000 feet] wasn't bad, everything flowed. Then the wheels just came off. In the climb out of Telluride, I thought the altitude must be getting to me because I was dizzy. I thought I needed to get down off this big pass at 35 miles, so I took a Red Bull at an aid station.
Do you usually drink Red Bull?
Nope, I don't, but I was feeling really tired and thought it might help. It worked instantly. I got a knot in my throat, felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. I was going through some knee-deep snow which was OK because I thought it would wake me up. I threw up five or six times, and was walking, downhill, so I knew things were going badly. I started thinking, Man it's really sucking today.
Where's that power of positive thinking?
[laughs] I'd put in so much time, hard nine- and ten-hour runs at altitude, and things were still going horribly wrong, and I didn't know how to fix it. I not only felt crappy, but was bummed that I felt crappy, throwing up everything I ate. Negative calories—it's really hard to turn that around during a race. I was pretty weak when I got to Ouray. My quads were shot so I sat down but there were so many cameras around, I just wanted to get out of there, so I walked/shuffled on. It took me 90 minutes to go a mile-and-a-half. It was at about 13,000 feet and I couldn't catch my breath. It felt like my lungs were locking up. I must have wandered onto some private property because I fell onto this pile of garbage. There was a foam pad on top of the garbage that had been there for about a year and every animal in the neighborhood had peed on it but I thought it was the most comfortable thing. My goal was to relax and let my lungs relax, so I just laid there. I had no clue what to do and I was dealing with my ego—I had put all this effort into it, really dedicated the whole year to this race, about ten people had passed me and it was really sucking. I was planning on dropping. I could walk 1-½ miles back to the aid station and drop.
This wasn't even halfway yet, was it?
No, it was about 45 miles.
Why didn't you just go back 1-½ miles?
Well, I got up off the comfy piece of foam, threw up again and felt better. I hiked, ate some gels and in three or four minutes I had the same terrible chest feeling. I was out of water and had been drinking from streams. I was so depleted I didn't care about giardia. I'd had a flask of Sprite but used it to rinse my mouth out after I threw up. I had a pacer with me at that point and he had some water but that was for him [pacers can't carry supplies for the runner they're pacing].
Who was your pacer?
Chris Rennaker. We've been really good friends for almost six years. I know I can trust him. He's basically there for safety, in case I deliriously fell off a cliff or something. But if he hadn't been there, I would have been talking to trees and that would have been really crazy.
I was trying to be positive—there was a gorgeous sunset—but every time I thought of finishing, I knew I couldn't do it. I was six hours off pace and still had to get through the night, so the new plan was to survive to the next aid station. I could barely walk, threw up a bunch more. Right at dusk my body was shutting down, I was freezing, nothing was working and I was pretty scared, but I got to this aid station called Engineer that's in the middle of nowhere. Delirious. You can't drop out there really because there's no car access so you'd have to walk quite a way to get picked up. All the food and supplies at that aid station are hiked in. The food looked awful but I had my raincoat on and I was sitting by the fire talking with the guys on a high school cross country team who run that aid station. I don't usually eat grains but I saw some Fritos and they looked tasty and salty.
Are Fritos a grain?
Maybe not, but they tasted good. I ate Fritos, had some water and Sprite and they talked to me and I honestly enjoyed my time there. But I needed to move on after half-hour. We had one headlamp between me and the pacer, it was getting dark and we had a 13,000-foot climb ahead of us. That's when we saw lightning, but I really wanted to get to that next aid station—I knew I'd see my wife there. As we got up to the pass, the lightning was striking so close—right around my head—I dropped down on all fours. I forgot about racing and switched to just wanting to live. Maybe the Fritos kicked in or whatever but I started running really fast and yelling at my pacer, Let's go!, and the lightning was striking all around us, and I was thinking, My wife is going to be so mad at me for running through this. We got down a couple thousand feet very quickly—it was raining and sleeting and my legs hurt but I was trying to live, and that was cool. I was really scared. I never felt so alive, as they say.
I got to Grouse Gulch aid station [60 miles] and found myself in a car with Dakota Jones and Erik Skaggs and had a really good time for about 40 minutes. I was delirious and didn't know what I was saying but it must have been funny because everyone was laughing. My front pocket was still loaded with Fritos, so I ate some of those and some Epic Bars and Krista got me all kinds of clothes but I kept forgetting to change into them. Normally I'm real minimalist in terms of clothing but I was freezing and it was pouring down rain and sleet, so I put on four layers—arm sleeves and a new shirt and a puffy jacket and a raincoat over that. I've never worn so much. I had planned to drop there but after a while my wife told me I didn't look that bad, and to get out of there. It was sort of hard because I knew our place in Silverton with the warm bed and the shower and the hot tub and a glass of wine was a 20-minute drive from where I was, but if I kept going it would be another 15 hours of suffering [he under-estimated—it took 17 hours from there]. I was in better spirits by that point so I decided to go to the next aid station. I felt good for about an hour but on the hike up Handies Peak [14,000+ feet] it was raining and sleeting and I felt shitty. I embraced that feeling of crap; everything sucked, everything hurt, but I was moving and that's what I wanted to do. My heart wanted to continue. It was a positive thing to keep moving forward. It was a very hard 33 hours.
Did you incur any lasting damage? Blood in urine? Stress fractures?
No, my body was in pretty good shape afterward. I peed blood in Western States and Transgrancanaria, but no, I was still peeing and it wasn't brown so I wasn't having kidney failure. Apparently I just couldn't digest anything. I blew out my quads but other than that…
What were your first go-to's for fixing what was wrong? Music, aspirin, salt?
In a bad patch I tried listening to music but it didn't feel right. For quite a while I was running by a river; I love rivers. They talk to you and make cool sounds so I listened to that river. I tried to focus on breathing. I was doing salt pills early on but I threw that up. All the different colors—shot blocks were red, there was some white stuff and brown... I took some ibuprofen or aspirin, I don't even know exactly which it was, the last 20 miles. I try not to usually because it's not good for your kidneys, but I was hurting a lot.
Do you train for pain? You don't run 100 miles in training but do you ever train to simulate the exhaustion, altitude, weather and pounding on your legs?
Half my training is just pleasure, enjoying running in the mountains. But I also do big runs, 9- and 10-hour runs at a faster pace, really bombing down the mountains, pounding my quads to simulate race day. I'd been in Silverton for several weeks and had run 80 percent of the course by race day, so yes, I guess I train for pain.
Why didn't you drop out at Grouse Gulch, as you had intended?
I wanted to have the best race I could. I don't train to win, I train to have a satisfying experience, connect to the earth, and somehow, get back to Silverton and kiss the rock [Hardrock finishers must kiss the big painted rock at the finish line]. I wanted to set a course record, I mean, that would have been fun, but the effort was to finish, to be my best possible self on that day. Wanting to quit and suffering and finishing is what ultrarunning is all about. It's about things going terribly wrong, and figuring out how to get through.
How did you make yourself leave the aid station?
I honestly don't know. I was kind of ready to give up but at the same time I knew I'd be disappointed in myself. Sometimes you need a helping hand to kind of give you a push. My wife knew it wouldn't be detrimental to me. I wasn't peeing blood or anything; we talk about this beforehand. It was a bit of tough love. The first step is the hardest: Once I took that one step, I was good to go.
When you're going to crack, is there something you do first to prolong giving up a little longer?
I try to put thoughts of quitting out of my mind. I think of my son, Tristan. He's a two-year-old; he does crazy, funny stuff all the time. I call out to him, Tristan, here I am, here I am. I touch my heart. I talk to my wife that way too. It's like you're having a conversation. We're really tight. We're there in spirit. I channel that love into those hard moments, try to think of positive things. That helps me accept feeling shitty.
Have you ever dropped out of a race?
I've never quit a race, unfortunately. It's not my goal to never quit; it's just that I've never got to the point where I can't move forward. That's why I got into ultras—to be challenged, rocked to my core. If I had a broken bone hanging out, I'd quit. And I will drop out, I just don't know when it's going to happen. I'm looking forward to it actually, some day when I can say, I had kind of a crappy race today. I need to be done. It's a hurdle I'll have to get over. An ultra is about beating up your ego too. I like being humbled. I've won races and it feels good, but being humbled is better. Then you're grateful for little things. Like Fritos.
Hardrock 100 took more than twice as long as Western States 100 [where Olson has the course record of 14 hours 46 minutes] How did the sheer difference in time on the course affect you?
Western States is a completely different race; it's pretty easy compared to UTMB [Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc] and Hardrock. When you run really fast, it's prestigious. I kind of like that. But after Hardrock, some people were like, Why'd you run so slow? There's a great community at Hardrock, a mountain spirit. I have to accept what was given to me on that day. Some people ran 40 hours and were like, Man, everything went perfect!
You mentioned this battle between your mind, that wants to keep going, and your body that wants to quit. Do you try to separate the two, distract yourself?
I don't separate mind and body. I try to be aware of what's going on and accept it. I don't tune that out, I try to go into it, to fix it. I think about whether my mechanics are off, if I'm not getting enough oxygen. I check posture, straighten up, and think, What am I doing wrong? I think a lot of people try to tune out the pain and that works for them. I dive into what's going wrong and see what I can do to turn it around.
Does being a sponsored athlete ever come to mind when you're thinking about dropping? The fact that this is your job?
It doesn't affect me much… maybe there's more pressure, but I thought, The North Face is not going to like this, for about a minute. If I lost sponsorship, I could care less. Running in the mountains is a passion. I could easily go back to another career. I feel really blessed to be able to do this for a living and take care of my family in this way, but I would never try to run for the wrong reason. I like the fact that most people are in this sport because they love being out in nature. It's grassroots. I think how beautiful it is to run from a state of gratitude and happiness.
How do you deal with a bad race and self-worth?
Every teenager, everyone post-college, has negative thoughts about themselves, feelings of depression. During rough patches in races, I've thought, What am I doing? and had a pity party for myself. But I turn that around pretty quick—I have too much to be thankful for. That's part of the drama, the allure—I have control, not of the vomiting and the rain, but of my reaction to that. Hardrock was going really crappy but if you just keep moving, you can turn it into something pretty awesome, pretty transcendent.
Does your background with addiction have anything to do with your toughness? Do you ever think, I overcame that so I can do this?
It used to, but not really any more. I'm just very grateful to be beyond that. I tried killing myself with alcohol and drugs, but it's been a lot of years since then. I don't normally think of that when running because it brings up bad emotions. I was a loser for many years, I'm just so grateful to have a loving family now. That's where my strength comes from.
Well, your family, your career, were not just given to you. Some of that has been by your own actions.
I am a determined person. Turning my life around was a huge thing for me. By comparison, a hard patch in a run is not that big a deal.
You're one of the few top ultrarunners who has never dropped out of a race, aren't you?
I probably am about the only person who hasn't dropped.
What's the most difficult thing you've ever done?
[Sighs, thinking…] Being a parent is really hard. It's a lot of work, juggling travel and running, trying to take care of my family and making sure they're comfortable and happy. I have huge respect for parents. I have a different career; we don't really have a home. We're staying with some friends in LA right now, getting things out of our storage locker. Then we'll go back to Ashland [Oregon] for a week and then to Europe to train for UTMB. It adds a dimension of difficulty with a two-year-old but we're happy with what we've been doing. The difficulties in an ultra are simple compared to when your son is screaming at 3 am and you don't know what's the matter or what he's feeling.
Is suffering necessary to make the good things sweeter?
I don't know if it's necessary. It's certainly possible to live comfortably all the time, but I like it. I like going out of my comfort zone; it's a whole other life when you go beyond comfort. I like going after the impossible and being in uncomfortable situations. A lot of amazing, inspiring people in this world didn't get that way by being comfortable. I'm not trying to suffer but I'm not running away from uncomfortable situations. It makes life meaningful and a wild experience.
Louis Zamperini's (Unbroken) suffering was out of his control but yours is totally within control, a choice. Does that make it easier or more difficult to continue in a race?
That type of suffering is a whole other league. At any moment, I can stop and call it a day. The fact that I could have dropped out at Grouse Gulch, having that option, actually made it easier to keep going. The fact that I choose to do this … I don't know whether that makes it harder or easier to suffer, but it makes it funnier. I laughed after I barfed every time. I paid money for this, this is my career and I'm laying on a pile of garbage, vomiting! Life is very funny. I'm always intrigued by what might happen if I do this or that. I put myself into these situations and when it gets bad I just have to laugh at myself. I find ultrarunning the funniest sport in the world. I smile a lot and laugh, doing that well.
Holocaust survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl wrote: "Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom." Has suffering helped you grow as a person? Has it improved your life?
Yeah I keep telling myself that. I think it makes you a better person. I chose running as a way to get out of a bad situation in my life. Once I got into it, I feel like I became a better person, and I don't regret any of it. But there's a risk, of getting used to walking near the edge. If you're used to peeing blood... I think about my family. I want to enjoy them. If I felt I was playing Russian roulette, I'd quit this in a heartbeat. I have no clue how long I'll do this, but I plan to be in the mountains for the rest of my life. If running has to fade away, that's ok.
Do you think you're a masochist?
Not at all. I don't torture myself for the sake of suffering. My goal is to have really powerful connections to the earth. I like to spend a really long time out in nature; the longer I'm out there, the more like an animal I am, the more energy I get from the earth. The longer I'm out there, it takes me further toward an uncomfortable spot. Definitely, there are moments of suffering, but there's a transformation that happens in the midst of suffering where it turns into acceptance. You can take those moments to try to learn more about yourself. I'm drawn to ultras as a deep way to connect to nature and to my innermost self, to see if I can turn those hard times into powerful uplifting times. I don't think, wow did I suffer. I think, I persevered and look at the man I'm becoming. I do ultras to be the best possible version of myself. Overcoming difficulties in an ultra helps me be more compassionate as a father and a husband. Instead of being an asshole when things are difficult, I try love instead of anger. It helps me a lot in life.
Top photo credit: Chris Rennaker