[Reproduced from an interview with my alma mater, Chico State. Thanks, Nick!]
Tim Tollefson chatted with a hiker on a bus bound for the John Muir Trail early one morning this summer. The man planned to make the 28-mile journey from Tuolumne Meadows to Agnew Meadows in three days. His eyes widened when Tollefson said the route would take him about four hours.
These days, Tollefson is used to that kind of reaction.
“I get a lot of blank stares, open mouths and people asking ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Tollefson said. “And it is crazy. It just happens to be a crazy that fuels my passion.”
A former steeplechase and cross country star at Chico State, Tollefson discovered a passion, and talent, for running ultramarathons. Ultramarathons are any foot race longer than the traditional marathon (26.2 miles).
Tollefson was the 2014 USA 50-kilometer Trail National Champion and took second at one of the most unique and prestigious ultras in the world – the 2015 Courmayeur Champex Chamonix, a 101k race stretching from Italy to France. He’s also signed on as a Nike-sponsored athlete as a result of his running achievements.
This isn’t something Tollefson jumped into overnight. He’s risen through the distance ranks, spanning half marathons and marathons, 8ks and 10ks in college and three-mile courses in high school. Along the way, he’s had his fair share of trials and tribulations within the sport.
Before any of that, Tollefson just wanted to stay in shape for soccer.
Career as a ‘Cat
Tollefson wasn’t recruited by Chico State, partly because he only ran one season of cross country at Rocklin High School. He ran in middle school to stay in shape, but dropped the sport in high school to focus on soccer. At one point, though, Tollefson’s running ability surpassed his pure soccer skills. He had to be persuaded to run cross country during his senior season. He didn’t know it at the time, but that is where Tollefson’s journey to the upper-echelons of the world of ultramarathons began.
Tollefson’s year of high school running wasn’t exactly imbedded with awards and accomplishments. He didn’t qualify for the state meet, and he wasn’t recruited by any college. He had potential as a runner, though, and his high school coaches convinced Chico State Head Coach Gary Towne that with an opportunity and training, Tollefson could make an impact on Chico State’s distance program.
Towne let him walk onto the team in 2003, but he had to hit the ground running – literally. His weekly mileage bumped from 35 in high school to almost 90 at the collegiate level.
“His first year here, there weren’t a lot of shining moments as far as performances,” Towne said. “But he had a couple that gave me hope that he could be a competitive runner at this level.”
Slowly, Tollefson began to feel like he belonged. He handled his workload as a college runner, and positive results soon followed.
In track and field, Tollefson was introduced to the steeplechase. Towne saw him as a natural hurdler and knew enough about his running ability to give Tollefson a shot. It led to Tollefson’s first breakthrough in college, a 9:09 steeplechase performance.
“It became the focus for me athletically,” Tollefson said. “Along with that came more success. That makes things more enjoyable.”
Tollefson won the California Collegiate Athletic Association steeplechase championship in 2007. He became a three-time NCAA Championship qualifier in the steeplechase and a two-time NCAA Championship finalist. He found success in cross country, too, taking third in the 2007 NCAA Western Regional. Despite his pedigree in the steeplechase, Towne views that as Tollefson’s defining moment.
“When you reflect on it, this kid barely made our team,” Towne said. “Now he’s third overall in the West Region. There’s a lot of performances that were up there, but that regional race stands out quite a bit.”
Chasing the marathon
Accolades aside, both Towne and Tollefson felt there was unfinished business by the time he wrapped up his senior year. Tollefson fell one spot short of All-America status three times in his career, and that left a bad taste in his mouth. Tollefson wanted to continue working, and it was Towne who encouraged him to make qualifying for the Olympic Marathon Trials his next goal.
“He had such a limited background when he got here. He was really just starting to find himself as a runner,” Towne said. “He knew and I knew that he had it in him to run at that level.”
The training wasn’t a huge change for Tollefson, who credits Towne and the Chico State program for preparing its athletes to make a transition to running outside of college.
Tollefson’s biggest challenge was readying himself for the toll marathon running demands.
“I had to harden my body and mind,” Tollefson said. “It takes a lot emotionally and physically out of you.”
Tollefson qualified for the 2012 Olympic Marathon Trials, finishing just under the 2 hour, 19 minute standard. The next year, however, the Olympic qualifying mark was lowered to 2:18:00. It created a new challenge for Tollefson, who had just snuck under the previous standard with a personal best 2:18:26. Even when he felt fully prepared as an athlete, variables like weather conditions and varying competition levels got in his way.
“It’s a huge challenge chasing a marathon. It’s not an event where you can restructure your focus and do another one the following week,” Tollefson said. “It’s something that you don’t take for granted. You don’t know when you might get another opportunity, so when it goes well, it’s something you really cherish.”
In December 2013, Tollefson missed the qualifying mark by 30 seconds. The next spring, he went to work preparing for another shot at the standard in June. He missed it by a minute.
Tollefson hit a breaking point. He was frustrated by his marathon performances, and felt like he needed to take a step back from it all. He decided he would revisit the marathon later, and instead took the opportunity to explore the hundreds of miles of trails that surround his home in Mammoth Lakes.
As focused as he was on marathon training, Tollefson had never taken the time to explore. When he finally did, it opened a new avenue in the sport for him.
Hitting the Trails
The first logical question to ask Tollefson, as least in this writer’s head, was: how do you wrap your head around running so many miles at once?
“You have to be a little insane,” Tollefson said. “But I tell people it’s all about the preparation. If you’re doing what’s necessary to prepare the body and mind, then the hardest thing is mentally accepting that the body can do this.”
Tollefson ran his first ultramarathon in September of 2014 at the USA Track and Field 50k Trail Championships in Bend, Ore. Prior to the race, he focused his training on overcoming the drastic changes in elevation. He would find the mileage wasn’t much farther than the marathons he was used to, but Tollefson’s first ultra featured single track trails and 4,000 feet of climbing. He needed to prepare accordingly.
Tollefson won the championship in record time, finishing in 3:24:24, three minutes ahead of the previous course record.
“It was like running a cross country race that never ended,” Tollefson said. “We were hammering corners, up and down. It was pretty enjoyable.”
Nike took notice of Tollefson’s successful debut and quickly signed him to the Nike Trail team. After years of running on his own with little outside assistance, Tollefson was back to something he truly enjoys: being part of a team.
“It’s a huge achievement and I’m very grateful,” Tollefson said. “That’s always been a dream of mine.”
Ultramarathons aren’t all fun and games. Tollefson learned that the hard way. After stepping up in distance and taking eighth place at the North Face 50-miler in Marin, Tollefson was humbled in his second 50-miler ever. Twenty-two miles into the race, Tollefson was ready to give up. He had hit a wall, and he could already start to feel himself physically shut down.
He found a way to stay in the race for the final 28 miles, and after a little under seven hours of running, Tollefson finished seventh. For him, the key was continuing to push mentally and reminding himself the pain is only temporary.
“The pain of quitting lasts so much longer than the physical pain you have after a race,” Tollefson said. “Pulling the plug and giving up is something that haunts you.”
Performances like that give Tollefson motivation to make it through dark patches in races, where mental demons can get the best of runners. He understands he’ll hit lows spots mentally. Having something positive to focus on during ultras helps him survive the waves of a race.
This September, Tollefson took on the Courmayeur Champex Chamonix, a 101-kilometer trek through Italy, Switzerland and France that includes five major mountain passes and over 20,000 feet of climbing. At just under 63 miles, this marked his first attempt at anything over 50, but the competitor in Tollefson was pushing for a win.
After 12 hours of running, Tollefson crossed the finish line in second place. It felt like a win. An hour and a half after the race, Tollefson couldn’t get up and down stairs. But at the race’s finish, even after all of those grueling miles, an adrenaline-filled Tollefson bounced up and down in pure excitement, waving and blowing kisses to the crowd that lined the streets.
“It still kind of gives me chills,” he said. “It’s a very emotional and raw experience, and it’s hard to describe without actually going through it. I didn’t win, but in a lot of ways it feels like a victory.”
Marking his Miles
Growing up in the Sacramento Valley, Tollefson was well aware of the Western States Endurance Run, a 100-mile trail race from Squaw Valley to Auburn. Back then, he couldn’t understand why people would want to run 100
miles. He never imagined he’d be the runner tackling those kinds of distance races. But here he is.
Tollefson will be the first to say he’s taken an interesting path. For a college walk-on to scale mountains in Europe with the fastest ultramarathoners in the world has been quite a journey.
Of course, he’s had his fair share of challenges along the way. All-America status evaded him during his Wildcat career, and Tollefson spent years chasing a marathon standard that remained agonizingly just out of grasp.
Those struggles eventually gave way to some of the best moments of Tollefson’s career. He regards running his first NCAA qualifying time in the steeplechase at Chico State as one of the highlights. And he’ll never forget what he overcame to stand on the finish line in France.
Moving forward, Tollefson plans on taking another shot at the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials. He’s excited to get back into some 8k and 10k races, and he’d even like to get back into the steeplechase that started his success as a Wildcat. There’s a lot he still wants to do, and his coach at Chico State understands.
“That’s him in a nutshell,” Towne said. “He still has that fire in him to prove to others and prove to himself what he can do on the big stage.”
For now, Tollefson will keep running at home in Mammoth, where he works as a physical therapist and physiologist at the S.P.O.R.T Center and Performance Lab. The center specializes in outpatient orthopedics, treating a diverse population of athletes. Tollefson’s main clients in the performance lab are runners, cyclists and skiers.
Outside of work, Tollefson has endless trails to train on and the ideal running partner in wife Lindsay (Nelson) Tollefson, another Chico State product who took third place at this year’s USATF 50k Trail Championships. She also qualified for the 2016 Olympic Trials Marathon after reaching the standard in January 2014.
When it comes down to it, running ultramarathons fuels two of Tollefson’s greatest passions: spending time with his wife and exploring the majestic mountains he calls home. He wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Just being able to go out and get lost in some amazing wilderness is something that brings me great joy,” Tollefson said. “Having that opportunity every day, it seems unfair that I get to do this.”
Maybe he’s not so crazy after all.