Ultra Runner Timothy Allen Olson is Proof You Can Balance Intensity and Mindfulness

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Ultra Runner Timothy Allen Olson is Proof You Can Balance Intensity and Mindfulness

Timothy Allen Olson’s adventure from druggy to two-time winner and current record holder of the Western States 100 Mile Race (one of the most grueling endurance sports competitions in the world) is one of the most remarkable journeys in sports today.

Olson didn’t only emerge from the darkness as a prodigious runner, he started movements called Run Mindful and Adventure Mindful with workshops in Boulder, Colorado and Malibu, California. His weeklong workshops involve local organic food, running and meditating—they provide an opportunity to slow down and go offline or reach the next level in fitness.

Olson’s philosophy hinges on being the best father, partner and runner possible by combining meditation, diet and running unimaginable distances. Now, as one of the most successful long distance runners on earth, Olson is all about balance, which he says makes him stronger and more productive in all areas of life.

He spoke with Paste Health from his home in Boulder about juggling family, health and his running career, while adventuring to the best running destinations on earth and competing at an elite level with the whole family in tow. Along with his wife Krista and their children, Olson works to bring a message of mindfulness and adventure to the world, while at the same time winning some of the world’s most difficult running races.

Paste Health I know from other interviews with you that you turned your focus to running as a way to emerge from a dark place in your life. When did running became more than an escape and turn into your lifestyle?

Timothy Olson Probably 2010 or 2011, after moving to Oregon to go to massage school. I was opened up to moralistic living and meditation, and how I can transform and heal my body through eating good whole foods. Through sitting meditation I was able to understand my body more, which is when I saw how beneficial opening my mind was. Instead of wanting to escape the world I created or trying to numb the pain from different fears and different things that had gone on in my life, I transformed those fears into taking care of myself. That’s when I started running a lot more and using running as a way to connect with nature and to be more mindful in the present moment.

PH When did mindfulness and presence become integrated into your running practice?

TO I think it was from the beginning. Running was always part of my life but it wasn’t really until 2011 when I really got into it and meditation became an almost daily activity. I started meditating in 2009 and it was slow progress. So maybe I wouldn’t meditate every day but then I would use running more as my meditation. I think that’s fine. It’s a form of meditation for me and I think it’s a really great way to connect with myself and the present moment. But in 2011 I really started to feel the benefits of meditation—I felt more grounded, I felt more present and more mindful throughout the day because of sitting meditation practice.

PH What advice do you have for people who work 9-5, and don’t have the time or motivation to go out running, let alone sit still for 15 or 20 minutes and meditate? How can someone get started with a simple mindfulness practice?

TO Everybody can find 10 minutes in their day to be still, but then finding an hour plus to exercise, especially with family and everything—that’s extremely hard. I think the more you practice meditation, the more you realize how productive you can become with your time. Maybe you just got done with a big meeting, a phone call at work, an email, whatever, and you take just one minute to breath and focus on the present moment. If you can fit in a few of those breathing sessions throughout the day—little bitty meditations—I think you’ll notice the benefits of it. And those benefits will help me carve out more time for health in the future.

PH How does meditation fit in with family?

TO Sometimes when I’m meditating I will actually think about a few people and they will be part of my intention for my meditation that day. So I’m breathing and I’m thinking, “OK, if I do this meditation it’s going to benefit my wife and children. I will be more present so that when I do play with my children I will play with them completely and be really aware of them and what they’re going through.” When you take time to meditate and be present, the benefits extend into future tasks and other parts of your life.

Photo by Krista Olson

PH Considering the current state of international affairs, and the divisions at home in the U.S., how can mindfulness help bring people together and spread more positivity around the world?

TO The motto that I use a lot when I run is basically, “how you treat people matters.” By thinking about how our actions affect situations, we can react and respond from a place of love and compassion. That’s what I hope to keep putting out in the world. We’re all searching for someone to talk to, someone to connect with. A lot of people join different groups like CrossFit or do ultra running to connect with people.

PH Do you have a favorite running destination in the world?

TO My favorite place to run in the whole world is Colorado. Another place is this group of islands that I’ve been to a few times now and I really love it—The Canary Islands. For me it’s really special, even spiritual, running from the sea to the mountains. Some of the places I’ve visited, I run from zero to 9,000 feet.

PH Tell us a little bit about your diet.

TO Trying to find out what works best for you is one of the most important things you can do for your body. I don’t follow a specific diet, but I do lean more toward the primal, paleo-ish diet. I don’t do a lot of grains and mostly stick to vegetables of many different varieties and grass-fed pasture-raised meat. It’s very important to me how the animals are treated and what they’re fed because the nutrients are definitely different. For example, I don’t eat meat if I’m at a hotel. Then I eat nuts, seeds and avocadoes. So higher fat, moderate protein and low carbohydrates—that’s my diet. I do use carbs, but I use them more strategically. If I go on a training run over four hours I will definitely bring some kind of sugar or carbohydrate source.

PH Why do you eat this way?

TO The goal is to be fat adapted so my insulin isn’t spiking all the time, and my brain and body function on fat.

PH What about alcohol? Do you enjoy Colorado’s craft beers?

TO I used to drink beer and I loved it way too much. Then I stopped consuming alcohol for years … I just needed to watch myself with that because it was just a problem in my life. I do love a good IPA or something but I don’t drink anything with grains, so I don’t get to enjoy all the wonderful beers out here in Colorado. My dad and brother do, so I’ll go out with them and have a sip of one of theirs.

PH How does the trinity of diet, meditation and running—the cornerstones of Run Mindful—function symbiotically to make you the best father, partner and runner possible?

TO Our retreats are all about balancing those external and internal factors. If I just ran hardcore everyday without focusing on anything else, my life would be really unbalanced and I wouldn’t enjoy it. So there is a balance between enjoying your work, enjoying your hobbies and enjoying your family so you can really take care of yourself and the ones you love. Nutrition, family and the hobbies that I love are the keys to balance.

PH What’s coming in 2017 for Run Mindful and your career?

TO I’m trying to grow Run Mindful, we just never want it to grow too much, especially right now that I’m racing. I have a lineup of races I’m going to do this year. I’m probably going to do the Ultra Trail World Tour. With Adventure Mindful we want to incorporate mindfulness into our outdoors offerings, not just for running. We have some good sponsorship opportunities that will allow us to travel more as a family. I want to show that you can take your whole family on these adventures.

Devon Van Houten Maldonado is a writer, painter and runner from Boulder, Colorado, currently living and working in Mexico City.