There’s running a good first 100 miler… and, then, there’s taking third at UTMB in your 100-mile debut like Tim Tollefson did this weekend. In the following interview, Tim talks about what his expectations were going into the race, how Zach Miller’s race benefitted him, how his race went in general, and what it felt like finishing UTMB.
For more on the race, read our 2016 UTMB results article.
[Click here if you can’t see the video above.]
Tim Tollefson Post-2016 UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar, and I’m here in Chamonix, France. It’s the day after the 2016 UTMB. I’m with men’s podium finisher, Tim Tollefson. Dude, you made the UTMB podium!
Tim Tollefson: I did! It’s crazy, right?
iRunFar: Is it crazy?
Tollefson: On paper it’s crazy.
iRunFar: On paper.
Tollefson: I mean, I wasn’t expecting to finish in the top three, but I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t think it was possible on a good day.
iRunFar: Most people take into goal races like this with A, B, C goals—your dream goal, what you actually think is possible. Lay that out for me. What, on paper, did you think you could do?
Tollefson: I guess for people outside of our own personal relationships and our camp…
iRunFar: “What I said to the public was…”
Tollefson: Yeah, it was probably a big surprise. First and foremost, finishing was the number-one objective. Essentially my longest race before this was CCC, the 101k. I did Transgrancanaria, but it was hardly a race for me for various reasons. So to run another 42 miles was daunting. I had no idea how my body would respond when I’m that far into a race time or distance-wise. So just completing it was definitely an objective. That said, I did think a top 10 was doable just looking at my training. I was confident that was possible. Then my coach, he just reminded me to run as though I’m a podium guy. Don’t doubt yourself later in the race. It was in the back of my head, but it didn’t become a reality until I saw you going into Champex-Lac. You said, “You’re ninth, but you’re about to be in eighth,” because Andy Symonds was…
iRunFar: Having a little walk in the woods. Sorry, Andy.
Tollefson: As I passed Andy, I said, “How are you? Are you okay?” He said, “No, my legs are gassed.” Then he mentioned that I looked stronger than everyone he’d seen go by, and if I kept climbing, I could be on the podium at the end. That was the first time it registered that maybe this was possible. Until that point, I wasn’t even thinking about the podium. I had these objectives throughout the race that I’d set. I was checking them off. Then at that point it became, Okay, maybe this could happen.
iRunFar: I want to rewind and go back early in the race a little bit. This is your second time in the UTMB scene. You ran to a third place [Editor’s Note: Correction, second place.] at the CCC last year. You saw the circus. You saw the spectacle. You saw how much energy there is. But when the race started, you exhibited a lot of poise and patience. How did you resist?
Tollefson: I know. It’s tough especially as a road guy or a guy with a history of racing on the roads at 5k to the marathon. The temptation… the first eight kilometers is almost on a paved road or a gravel road.
iRunFar: It’s a runner’s race for the first 8k.
Tollefson: It is. Letting loose, and of course everyone is fresh, it’s tempting to be running 6:00 pace for the first five miles. One thing I really learned from great coaches in the marathon was displaying great emotional control. Any marathon coach will instruct that a marathon is a 20-mile tempo and a 10k race at the end. If you’re racing the first 13 miles, you’re doing it wrong. That was kind of my focus in this. I kind of thought or broke it into a 120k adventure—I want to enjoy it as much as possible—but then tack on a really, really hard 50k and close hard. That was kind of the goal. I felt like I executed that pretty closely. I got to La Fouly and Champex-Lac feeling like I had a lot of fight in my legs. I’d had some low points through the night but got through them pretty quickly which was nice. Then when it was ready to kind of turn it on, I was gaining confidence as I passed people that were struggling. Verbally and visually I could tell that there was carnage. I have to thank Zach [Miller] for that. We didn’t plan that out, but without a doubt, his race strategy played into David Laney’s and my execution.
iRunFar: Destroyed people in front of you. Made room for you to sweep in.
iRunFar: Well, if it wasn’t Zach, it was going to be somebody else or some other people’s.
Tollefson: That is true.
iRunFar: This was some 40-odd miles of racing unknown territory for you. How did you literally pace yourself? This is a place where a lot of people are. They run 50 milers; they run 100k’s; then they make this giant leap to racing 100 milers. How did you literally pace yourself? Did you slow yourself down? Were you running by heartrate? Were you looking at the people around you?
Tollefson: I definitely was very cognizant of my effort. I consciously slowed myself down. A good friend, Fernando, who actually finished his second UTMB this morning…
Tollefson: Yeah, Fernando!
iRunFar: Somebody on social media called it a vision quest last night. We all want to know if you had a vision quest, buddy.
Tollefson: I’m sure he did. Oh, man. We spent the first four days with Topher Gaylord’s family in Courmayeur when I got to Italy last week. We checked out that side of the course. One thing Fernando kept telling me, he said, “Just lock into your forever pace.” I had that mantra going in my head early on where I was just locking into my forever pace. Okay, this is an effort I could go forever. I knew I wasn’t pushing hard. I needed that energy come the climbs. After I started passing people at Champex-Lac, those next three climbs were brutal.
iRunFar: Super brutal.
Tollefson: They were really tough. There were a few times where I got into race mode to the point where I passed a guy, and then he came up on me, and I felt myself pushing too hard. You know, let him go. Go back into your forever pace. You still have two giant climbs after this. I was constantly just trying to tell myself, Don’t push yet. You want to push the final climb. That’s kind of what I did when I finally saw Zach for the first time. I redlined on that climb knowing that I’m within 10 or 15k of the finish. I think I can at least stagger across the finish line at that point. Before that, I was fearful of going too hard.
iRunFar: How was your nutrition?
Tollefson: Nutrition was pretty solid. I was using Roctane drinks that Gu makes. Early on I was drinking about one per hour. I talked Magda [Boulet] at Western States. She was doing that during her Western States win. She’d drink one bottle per hour. I was aiming for about one bottle per hour and then supplementing that with other stuff, but the last 50k here, Champex-Lac to the finish, it was heating up here. It got really warm and I historically do terrible in the heat. I was fearful that I would blow up. You’re exposed out there. At that point I started drinking two bottles an hour which is more than I’ve ever done. I was sweating so much. I was drinking 500 calories per hour at that point.
iRunFar: And it was going down?
Tollefson: It was going down. I wasn’t having any problems there. It was probably the best my nutrition has ever gone. During the night, there were times where I was drinking Coke in the aid stations and drinking some of their soup. Occasionally I was having these mini-sugar bonks after that where I’d get nauseous and feel lightheaded. It was a bit scary, but it never lasted longer than maybe 10 or 15 minutes which was nice.
iRunFar: Talk to me a little bit about the team then. There were three Americans who had outstanding performances yesterday—third, fourth, sixth—three people who had very dominant presences in the race whether it was late-race surges or early race pushing. When I interviewed David and Zach before the race, they kind of made no bones about it. “Yeah, we’re teammates, but we’re going to be racing each other.” Can you talk about what that was like? On the last climb up to Tete aux Vents, there’s Zach. You have to pass him to move into podium position. I know you guys are racing each other, but what was that actually like to have to put your teammate away?
Tollefson: It was tough because… it was heartbreaking for me because throughout the race I was getting reports that Zach is crushing people. I was jazzed about it thinking this was his day, He is amazing, and he’s going to be a god after this.
iRunFar: He’s going to be a god. He already is one. I’m kidding.
Tollefson: I know he is. In Europe, he pretty much is. Everyone knows Zach.
iRunFar: I’m pretty sure someone has carved a sculpture of him somewhere. That would be awkward. I don’t want to see it.
Tollefson: On that climb, Laney was closing on me. Zach is up ahead. I’m trying to close on Zach and Laney is closing on me. I kept looking back, and Laney was getting closer and closer. I started, for the first time in the race, I went into the red. I was redlining. Hold off Laney. I was fearful I’d lose my fourth-place position. At the same time…
iRunFar: You weren’t looking ahead at that point.
Tollefson: I was more concerned about David.
iRunFar: I would be kind of concerned about him, too, with how he closed last year.
Tollefson: On the final descent, once I did have third, all I was thinking was, Laney is going to kick you down. Laney is going to kick you down. (Like he did to Seth Swanson.) Also on that final climb, the three of us are going up together essentially although we’re at totally different stages of our own personal races. I thought to myself, How ironic would it be if we all just blew each other up right here… if we all fell out of the top 10, because I’m trying to hold off Laney, and Zach is trying to hold me off, and I’m trying to catch Zach, and we all just completely disintegrate. When I did make contact with Zach for the first time, I asked, “Are you okay? Do you need gels or fluid?” He said, “No, I’m just cooked.” I said, “Do you mind if I take off and go for second place?” He said, “Of course, it’s a race.” I felt bad because I want to be there with him. I think David even said he envisioned all three of us moving up together going for second place, but we were all at different stages at that point. It was hard to leave him just knowing that he was struggling. In typical Miller fashion, I started pushing, and instantly for a minute he latched on. I turned around and thought he was going to have a second wind and come back into third place. It didn’t last very long. I think it finally caught up to him. He had an incredible day.
iRunFar: Talk to me about Tete aux Vents to the finish. We had three people placed up in spots on that traverse and descent. Everyone said you were just a totally different Tim. You were this happy-go-lucky guy for 160k, and then you were this dude who was stressed and working it and working it so hard.
Tollefson: That’s probably a fair assessment. That final, when you traverse across to La Flegere, in a lot of ways that reminded me of some of the Eastern Sierra trails I run in the backcountry. You have these high-granite steps, and it really just brought me back home. At that point, although I was 100% in race mode and engaged, I was internally enjoying it. I just got into a nice rhythm. I was hammering that section. Part of it was still the fear that Laney was going to catch me. Part of it was that maybe I could get up to second place. I don’t know what I was running—my watch had died at that point—but it felt like I was moving pretty quickly across there. Some of those times where you’re floating across the trail despite the technicality, that’s kind of how it felt. 160k in, but I was light on my feet.
iRunFar: 160k flow. Because, us down here, we were looking and actually following your splits to Gediminas [Grinius], and they were decreasing numbers. Did you at any point catch sight of him? Could you see him out there?
Tollefson: No, although when I left Zach I said I’d see how close I could get to second, I didn’t know the distance or the time gap. I think internally I knew it was something that probably wouldn’t happen, but it was something to go after. On the final… when you descend out of La Flegere, you initially have some switchbacks that were pretty rooty and technical. Then you hit a gravel road. When I hit the gravel road, the road marathoner came out in me. I wish I had my watch. I think I was under 6:00 pace running down that. There was someone running with a camera behind me, and I think I dropped him. I just got in a rhythm. Then someone said, “He’s four minutes ahead.” I didn’t know how long I had left to the finish, but I thought, If I’m going 6:00 pace and he’s going 7:00 or 8:00 pace, I could make up a minute or two per mile. Then I started thinking, Okay, let’s really turn it on. Then once it leveled out from a descent to a flat, my legs reminded me they were gassed. I thought, I don’t have much left in me. I’m just using gravity right now. I think ultimately I ran out of real estate. Maybe if there were a couple more kilometers… I’m very pleased with how it went. I just wanted to complete that race. I’m walking away with so many positive experiences and learning opportunities. From the start to the finish, I never put myself in it to win unlike Zach. Zach went for it.
iRunFar: Went to win.
Tollefson: Went to win. I was not going to win. Maybe in a future 100, if I ever do one, maybe I’ll go in with a different mentality, but it was nice not to have any stress. I went in just to enjoy it, and I enjoyed that race.
iRunFar: You’re a guy who at least when it comes to this part of your life, you wear your heart on your sleeve. Your heart was this big thing at the finish yesterday. You came into the finish. You had this moment of self-celebration. Then you just went out again and high-fived everybody else. I don’t know if you knew, but the announcer was like, “Well, there he goes. He’s really far out there now.”
Tollefson: “He disappeared.”
iRunFar: “The race director is waiting for you to come back, but there he is.”
Tollefson: Sorry, Catherine [Poletti].
iRunFar: I just want you to try to express how that moment went.
Tollefson: It’s hard to describe it. It’s not like I ever… I don’t visualize in training winning—I didn’t win, but doing well at the finish line. I’m more concerned about the process, not the outcome. So when that comes to fruition and I have a banner day, I guess there’s just something internal that comes out. It’s nothing that’s planned or orchestrated. If it… you’ve been at the finish line, and it’s truly this magical experience that Chamonix offers. I was fortunate to run collegiate athletics and go to the NCAA Championships and run some big major marathons…
iRunFar: You’ve seen a lot of different types of races with different energies.
Tollefson: Correct. Some of those World Marathon Majors, you have 40,000 people in the race and a million people lining the streets which is an incredible amount of energy, but there’s something more personal about this one that… the fans are so knowledgeable and supportive.
iRunFar: The people who are on the sidelines are actually part of the sport rather than random city…
Tollefson: Just bystanders… like a Chicagoan saying, “Oh, there’s a run going on, so I walked out and start cheering.”
iRunFar: Exactly. Knowledgeable and passionate people.
Tollefson: I’ve been really lucky to have two positive experiences. I feel like maybe I should just retire from Chamonix and not try and get a third one next year and blow it.
iRunFar: Congratulations to you. It was fun to watch your race.
Tollefson: Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate it. Thanks for being out there.
iRunFar: Of course. Congrats.