The Science of Mindfulness and Running

By Mackenzie Havey | Feb. 06, 2018, 6:09 p.m. (ET)

trail running

“I focused on each step and every breath even if they were a little worn. I arrived at the point in the race that I live for, the simple moments when you’ve reached down to your core and all you can do is keep running. I dreamt of this happening for months, waiting for the heart to take over.”

These are the words of Timothy Olson in his post-race account for the popular ultrarunning website, iRunFar, after his record-setting first-place finish at the Western States Endurance Run in 2012. He shifted into this state around mile 80 when he left the rest of the competition behind. The oldest 100-mile trail run in the U.S., the historic course starts in Squaw Valley, California, and runs west to Auburn, traversing the trans-Sierra portion of the Western States Trail, which stretches from Salt Lake City, Utah, to Sacramento.

The footpath was long ago trodden by the Paiute and Washoe peoples and later, in the middle to late 1800s, by the enterprising gold rush prospectors as a connection between the bustling gold camps of California and the booming silver mines of Nevada. Each June, runners climb more than 18,000 feet (5,486 meters) and descend 23,000 feet (7,010 meters) on these rugged trails over mountain passes, river crossings and remote wilderness. One of the most competitive 100-mile races on the planet, it’s no easy feat to even claim a spot at the prestigious start line.

As Olson navigated the final 20 miles of the course that late summer day in 2012, he experienced an intense focus and fluidity of movement, often referred to as “flow.” Despite the long day, his aching legs and weary mind, his body traveled almost mystically through space, navigating each step with precision as he moved closer to the finish line in Auburn. “I was possessed by the trail,” he wrote.

With just 7 miles to go, he stopped at an aid station and filled his hand-held bottle with Sierra Mist one last time and took off toward the finish in hopes of maintaining his lead. His physical pain was intense and he knew his muscles might seize up at any moment as he descended into the American River Canyon before arriving at the imposing No Hands Bridge. The structure looms 150 feet (45 meters) over the American River, which flows from the Sierra Nevada mountain range to its confluence with the Sacramento River.

mindful runningAs Olson pounded over the bridge that evening, he smiled to himself. “This is actually happening,” he thought. “I’m going to win Western States.” He navigated the final mile in an intense present-moment euphoria. The air buzzed with excitement. He felt out-of-body and electrified with awe and gratitude. The soft, late-day summer sun warmed him as it set in the mountains. Shirtless and sporting a healthy tan, Olson entered the Placer High School stadium and ran the final 300 meters on the track as he high-fived cheering fans standing on the in-field. His dirty and sweat-soaked blonde hair bounced at his shoulders as he strode across the finish line in a time of 14 hours, 46 minutes and 44 seconds, more than 20 minutes faster than anyone had ever run the race in its 36-year history.

Olson was welcomed on the track by his wife, Krista. They embraced before he leaned over to kiss her belly, pregnant with their first child. This was not only a major breakthrough in the ultrarunner’s career, but also his life. Things hadn’t always been this luminous for Olson. His story is one that shows that sometimes we have to hit rock bottom before we make the choice to wake up, climb out of the canyon of despair, one step at a time, across the old bridge, and toward something better.

Growing up in North Central Wisconsin’s Tomorrow Valley, Olson logged many miles as a youngster through the corn and soybean fields near his home in the small village of Amherst. In high school, he joined the cross-country team to get in shape for basketball. He was a good runner, but after fleeing the nest for college, he stopped. Inertia took hold. A backward slide began. And he got lost.

Bad choices and destructive detours led Olson to drop out of college and spiral down the path of drugs and alcohol. He gained weight, got depressed, and eventually ended up in jail with a drug conviction. Hard-core drugs made life feel like it wasn’t worth living, but he also worried he couldn’t live without the chemicals.

He returned to running in 2006, when he was on probation for the drug conviction, in an attempt to detox his body and mind. On his road to sobriety, the opportunity to coach cross-country and track at his old high school in Wisconsin arose. This was a turning point for him. He rediscovered a joy of the sport through the eyes of the kids he coached. Soon he found himself running down the same rural backroads he once drove getting high and blaring loud music. His lungs burned and his legs resisted, but somehow it didn’t hurt as bad as the lowest moments of his former life.

He went back to college, met his future wife, and kept on running. After he graduated, the couple headed west to Ashland, Oregon, a community of about 20,000 in the foothills of the scenic Siskiyou and Cascade ranges just north of the California border. He took to the natural beauty of the trails and eventually fell in with a new kind of crowd. Instead of drug dealers and addicts, he found kinship with a tribe of accomplished trail runners who lived and trained in the area.

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I first met Olson just outside San Francisco on a press trip in 2013, about a year and a half after his big win at Western States, a race he won again that next year. I joined a group of writers and professional runners for breakfast at a sunny café in Mill Valley. Over coffee and eggs, Olson told me about his young son and the adventures he enjoyed with his wife as they traveled and he raced around the globe. Interestingly, it wasn’t his training or future races he focused on, but rather, his family. There was a serene intensity about him and a sense of yogic philosophy humming in the background of his sentiments.

Olson’s shift from addict to awakening fully eclipsed in 2009 when he was first introduced to mindfulness and the idea of “living in the now.” The synergy between body and mind just made sense to him as he traversed the mountain trails near his home in Ashland. He began observing the ever-changing nature of his breath and paying attention to how his body moved, focusing in on specific muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones and how they all worked together to propel him forward.

“I noticed the more I practiced mindfulness and meditation, the more my runs would just click and flow,” he told me. “I found that as I let go of any expectations and just appreciated the moment, the more focused and aware I was.”

It was also around that time when he entered his first ultra race, a 50-kilometer event at which he came in sixth. The term “transformation” sounds trite, but that’s the best way to describe what happened next. As Olson ran more miles and committed to serious mindfulness training, his life shifted. Not only did he begin his ascent to the top ranks of the professional ultrarunning world, he became increasingly content and more absorbed in the delights of everyday life in a way he’d never experienced before. There was something about this simple mindful running practice that changed the way he moved through the world. He explained:

“It’s about being in the present moment on a run, connecting with your breath and your senses and enjoying movement not based on results, times or feelings. I focus on my breath and the rising and falling of my body and let thoughts, feelings and emotions arise, but I don’t try to get rid of them. I stay curious and practice being at ease with them. It’s as simple as that.”

Today, Olson continues to compete in the upper echelons of ultra mountain running. When he’s not on the move, he leads mindful running retreats where he shares the good word of present-moment awareness with other runners. He emphasized one important point to me: “Bringing mindfulness into anything you’re passionate about ignites your overall enjoyment of the whole experience. You become more skilled by becoming engaged in and focused on what you’re doing in the moment. The more you enjoy running, the better you are.”

This excerpt is republished from “Mindful Running: How Meditative Running can Improve Performance and Make You a Happier, More Fulfilled Person” (Bloomsbury Publishing) by Mackenzie Havey. Learn more at mindfulrunningbook.com.

Mackenzie L. Havey (née Lobby) writes about endurance sports, mind/body health and wellness, and adventure travel. Her work has appeared in Runner’s World, USA Triathlon, Triathlete, TheAtlantic.com, ESPN.com, the Star Tribune and elsewhere. In addition to completing 14 marathons and an Ironman triathlon, she is a USA Track & Field-certified coach, an instructor in the Physical Activity Program in the School of Kinesiology at the University of Minnesota, and has done training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. She studied English at the College of St. Benedict and has a master’s in kinesiology with an emphasis in sport and exercise psychology from the University of Minnesota. She lives with her husband, daughter, and vizsla in Minneapolis. Learn more at mlhavey.com.