After two third-place UTMB finishes, Tim Tollefson returns because he says he’s still looking for more. In this interview, Tim talks about how he deals with the pressure of the UTMB scene, the difficult balance of trying to incrementally improve his fitness without getting injured, and if he’s again ready for the psychological challenges of running 100 miles.
Tim Tollefson Pre-UTMB 2018 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar and I’m with Tim Tollefson. It’s a couple of days before the 2018 Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc. Hi Tim!
Tim Tollefson: Hi, nice to see you again.
iRunFar: You, too. How’s it going?
Tollefson: It’s going pretty well.
iRunFar: We’re here at the finish line for all of the races. The kids’ race, the teenagers’ race, the YCC, is going to fire off in a few minutes.
Tollefson: Yeah, it’s not a bad place to be on this afternoon.
iRunFar: All of your future competition is warming up and about to race.
Tollefson: They look pretty fierce, honestly. Like, those kids have some wheels.
iRunFar: You are not in unfamiliar territory right now. This is your fourth time at the UTMB festival of races. You’ve run one time at CCC, twice at UTMB, and – if I can get my acronyms right – you’re back for another go at UTMB.
Tollefson: Yeah, back for one more. Oh, I’ll backtrack that. I’m back for the fourth year in a row. It’s a race that I always seem to add on my calendar. It’s gone alright, but there’s still some unfinished business out there.
iRunFar: Unfinished business. You’re now a person who has two third-place finishes at UTMB and a second-place finish at CCC. I think there’s a lot of people out there who would love to have your résumé. But you still have unfinished business?
Tollefson: I’m a student of the sport. I’m learning every year. Lindsay pointed out to me that this month marks my fourth year of ultrarunning. Friday will be my third 100-mile race, and it happens to be my third UTMB. So on paper, I guess Zach Miller and I are the two least-experienced 100-mile racers in the field, but it’s kind of fun to be the underdog.
iRunFar: That concept of being an underdog American is, I think, something that punctuates your name. I can’t help but wonder: do you like that feeling? Do you wish people’s opinion of you matched your performances here? How does that feel?
Tollefson: I’m fine with it. I don’t want my face up on a billboard. I think experiencing this week at UTMB is really fun because the energy and kind of the fanfare is unlike anything else we’ll find in the ultra world. Then, after one week, I get to go back to the Sierra and kind of tuck away into the mountain and just enjoy time with friends up the alpine and just kind of escape. Personally, for ultrarunning, I’m not looking for any self-validation. I don’t measure my self worth through results. I’d love to win this race, that’s why I keep coming back, but if it doesn’t happen, I won’t be heartbroken. It’s not what I’m seeking out there as the number one objective. So, if my name’s not written in the stars, so be it.
iRunFar: I want to talk for just a minute about the ground feel of “ground zero UTMB.” You’ve said before that you really like the energy here. It’s selfie-city down there. As you’re walking the streets to and fro, you become the subject of selfies with a lot of people. For people watching this interview who haven’t been to Chamonix, can you transport them here? What’s it really like?
Tollefson: You know, I think it’s the collection of a lot of passionate trail fans globally who kind of just migrate to the valley here at the end of August each year. It is fun because, as I mentioned, we don’t get to experience this normally, where if someone notices you or wants a photo, there’s a novelty there and it’s enjoyable.
I don’t like selfies, so I’ll never hold the camera. If someone else takes it, I’m happy to [participate], but I don’t think I have the selfie face. I don’t have the right angles. I don’t know, it’s neat. You have a lot of like-minded people that are drawn here probably because they’re enamored by the thought of a grand tour of Mont Blanc and an adventure that we’re all sharing. Whether you’re in first or at the back of the pack – and the bell curve, the majority of people, are in that 40-44-hour mark of when they’re going to be finishing. I think it’s just a fun experience where it’s kind of like a major city marathon and a Superbowl rolled into a trail event.
Stateside, you couldn’t envision that. It just wouldn’t exist. I think that’s neat that we don’t have it, though, also. I was talking to François D’Haene and a lot of Americans come here and we’re just blown away by how you have these refugios or huts and you can run to places and have nice meals. What we don’t recognize [as Americans marveling at the area around Mont Blanc] is that you lose true wilderness. François loves coming to California or anywhere in the western United States, because he can go out and run the John Muir Trail, cross maybe one road, see a few hikers… and to him, that is something beautiful.
iRunFar: And no one will ask him for a selfie.
Tollefson: No one would ask him. They’d look at him and say, “Why do you have so much spandex on?”
iRunFar: It’s weird [to Americans] all that kit. Though they wouldn’t say kit, either.
Tollefson: No, no. But it’s neat that we have both ends of the spectrum. For us, as Americans, it’s something unique to be out here.
iRunFar: Let’s talk about your preparation for this race. I mean, to improve from a couple of third-place finishes to something like second or a win… we’re talking about micro-improvements. You know, day-to-day micro-improvements in your training, getting very small percentage point improvements. Is that how you look at your preparations for this? “If I can make myself a teensy bit better on this day, then it’ll add up?”
Tollefson: Pretty much. Personally, I find that if I tweak too many variables at once, I’ll burn out. I kind of did that leading into Transgrancanariathis year. I got real aggressive and I trained hard. I was perhaps the fittest I’ve ever been, but I broke before the race started. It was all lost. So, this summer I was definitely more calculated where I didn’t want to build as hard. I was also dealing with some iron issues that prevented my build-up. I think maybe that was a blessing, where I’m currently rounding into fitness.
In an ideal world, I would have designed it where I had done more before this race, but a few key workouts went better than before last year’s race. I think I’m in at least as good of shape. It’s my third 100-mile race, so I can’t speak like a veteran, but at this point: if you’re healthy, that’s half the battle. And if you’re in the right mindset, and you’re ready to engage in those low moments and find a reason to push on, I think that’s a really important piece of the puzzle. It’s a variable that I’m ready to embrace. I’m hopeful that I’ve done enough physical training, that my mental capacity will be able to carry me through as I manage the little variables that are critical to executing a good 100 miler.
iRunFar: What’s your secret to closing well? I know you said this is your third 100 and you did both of your previous ones here, but you’ve closed well at both of your previous races.
Tollefson: I think they key is that you’ve got to walk the early hills to Les Houches [8 kilometers/5 miles]. You’re getting passed by women and guys in their seventies. I think that managing my emotions early on, and having the emotional control to not burn too many matches in the first 100-120 kilometers is kind of something that, as I’ve mentioned in the past, I’ve drawn from my marathon experience. Anyone can run a hard 20 miles in a marathon; it’s what you do in the final 10k. As I approached the 100-mile distance, I had a healthy respect for it. It’s so unknown and so daunting that I wanted to run a good 120k and then bring home a hard 50k. So, that’s sort of been the approach. That’s why, both times, I had a lot left in the end.
[Meghan and Tim look over their shoulders to watch the youth race in the background]
iRunFar: You can just see them in the corner of the interview. That’s so awesome. Allez! Allez! Go Jack!
Tollefson: Allez! Allez! Go Jack! [Turning back to Meghan] I think that I wouldn’t change either of my experiences, they worked out, but I finished with a little too much energy at the end both times. Last year was with much less energy, but still maybe a fraction too much where I came out of it really well, remarkably. So, this year I think I’ll be a little more aggressive early on. But aggressive for me doesn’t mean, oh, I need to let my ego lead the race. I love running alone, so if 95% of my race is solo when all of the other guys take off, I’ll be like, “au revoir!” [waves]
iRunFar: Says the guy who came to an event with 10,000 people in total. “I love being alone!”
Tollefson: We frontrunners have a different experience than the conga lines. I don’t know. I think finishing strong is a goal, and then you enjoy the race more if you’re not just grasping for straws. As Bryon Powell saw at my Transgrancanaria in 2016, it was the most miserable death march I’ve ever had. I think that instilled even more healthy respect to not bite off too much early on. It may mean that I don’t pull a Zach Miller and have one of those amazing once-in-a-lifetime performances, but if I have to look back on my career and in the end I missed out on a few but I enjoyed the journey along the way, honestly, I think I’d be okay with that.
iRunFar: Knowing you didn’t run for 60k or 80k feeling awful when you’re in a beautiful place like this.
Tollefson: When you can look into Zach’s eyes at the end of one of those races, it’s enough to give you nightmares. I don’t ever want to feel that way. I love Zach and I respect the hell out of him, but I don’t think I have it in my personality to do that.
iRunFar: My Bryon says that a lot, too – that he just doesn’t like to suffer that badly.
Tollefson: I’m a wimp. I like to push hard in training, and then the race itself is just a victory lap. I’m going out there to share it with others. I’m going to be competitive and go almost as hard as I can, but, yeah, I don’t like to hurt that much.
iRunFar: I want to talk for a second about the concept of an American man winning UTMB. This is a thing that lots of Americans like to talk about right now. The idea of “Team America” bringing home a win at UTMB – where do you sit with that? I know you’d like to be that guy. There’s people who talk about being the first, or whether we can do it at all. What are your thoughts on that?
Tollefson: We definitely can do it. It’s a matter of time. Do I need to be the first? No. My friend and crew chief, Dre, she’s reading Tommy Caldwell‘s book right now, The Push. He talks about the Dawn Wall [of Yosemite’s El Capitan, which he was the first person to free climb]. I saw a lot of parallels in that. It starts the book by counting down at something like seven years, four months, and however many days until he did it. For me, if I have to look back and it took eight years, eleven months and however many days until I can say I was the UTMB champion, I’m fine with that. There could be seven other Americans before me. I don’t need to be that first.
But I just think it’s a matter of time [before an American man wins]. We’re learning how to train properly for this. A big thing, also, is that people are realizing that when you come over to the valley, as tempting as it is to go up to all of these places, keep it chill. You can blow your race just because you want to experience everything, especially if you can’t spend your whole summer here prepping. I think that’s something we’ve started to realize.
iRunFar: Terrain FOMO.
Tollefson: Yeah, terrain FOMO. It’s really hard, as you can see right now on this cloudless day [looks behind him at the mountain in the background].
iRunFar: It’s ridiculous, right? These mountains are talking to you. Wait until Friday to talk back.
Tollefson: They are calling. I put them on hold.
iRunFar: Well, good luck to you.
Tollefson: Thank you.
iRunFar: We look forward to watching you make your, I guess it’s your third-and-three-quarters turn around the mountain.