Tim Tollefson took third at the 2019 Madeira Island Ultra-Trail, but he says it hurt a bit to do so. In the following interview, Tim talks about how his race unfolded, including all the miles he ran with François D’haene and Germain Grangier, what happened mid-race when he started having some trouble, how he managed to keep himself together to run strong to his third-place finish, and if the discomfort of ultrarunning is at all worthwhile.
For more on how the race played out, read our MIUT results article.
Tim Tollefson Post-2019 Madeira Island Ultra-Trail Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Tim Tollefson. He’s the third-place finisher of the 2019 Madeira Island Ultra-Trail. Good morning Tim, this is take five of this interview.
Tim Tollefson: I really do feel like Bill Murray right now, Groundhog Day. Yeah, good morning everyone.
iRunFar: So it’s mid-morning here at Madeira Island. It’s been, I don’t know 12, 15 hours, 18 hours since you finished. How’s the body feeling?
Tollefson: Progressively better. Definitely the first six to 10 hours after the race were just miserable and the race itself is pretty, pretty difficult and challenging and uncomfortable. And then the aftermath though is–it’s equally if not more so kind of painstaking. I was talking to [my wife] Lindsay or Billy [Yang] or someone and I was like, our sport is not right. Why are we doing this is seriously ridiculous–I did thoroughly enjoy maybe seven or eight hours of it.
Tollefson: And then the final six to seven hours it was like, this is ridiculous, why am I doing this? You know, I could just stop at any point. But then I was like, the closer you get to finish then you don’t want to let those other eight, nine, 10, 11, 12 hours go to waste. It’s just a tough sport, but we do it ourselves.
iRunFar: Okay so in fairness, every distance of racing has its own challenge, like the 400 [meters] is inherently really painful for the final hundred meters.
Tollefson: Or the 800 [meters] is one of the hardest races on the face of the earth.
iRunFar: Right, those you generally recover pretty quickly. It’s a minute of sheer awfulness afterward and then you’re generally okay. Do you ever question why you’ve chosen ultrarunning as your path given that the race involves suffering and then the post-race involves plenty of more suffering?
Tollefson: Pretty much on a weekly basis, especially after these. I did actually tell Lindsay last night, I love so much about the sport. That’s why I’m still in it. But when I go through something like this it makes me question how long is my body actually gonna’ hold up to it? It’s demanding, both emotionally, physically, from like an endocrine standpoint. A lot of different systems in the body probably aren’t going to be a real sustainable if we’re not careful and as we’ve seen in the past with some greats in the sport. But it yeah it’s hard, it’s a tough sport. And it does make me miss something like the mile or the marathon where you see an end in sight and it’s right there. With something like this, it took me 14-and-a-half hours, or [some] people took 32 hours, it doesn’t feel like the end is ever in sight. The amount of mental fortitude that it takes for something like this is on a different level than the short, intense, high, very painful races like the 800 [meters] or so.
iRunFar: Well let’s back up to the hours of goodness that you did have in your race. The race fired off from midnight in Porto Moniz, which is a little town on the north side of the island. Talk about the early hours of the race and what that was like for you.
Tollefson: It was it was a beautiful night. There was a pretty stiff breeze out there but it was kind of warm so I didn’t find the temperature intolerable at all. I found myself in a nice pack with Seth [Swanson] and a few other guys trailing François [D’haene] for the first climb. Then as we went into the second climb, I ended up overtaking a bunch of people incidentally and then during that second climb it’s a pretty long one–oh no not that one, I was just kind of running by myself, which was nice because that second descent is really steep and my knee issue that I’ve been dealing with, I was concerned about and I was…
iRunFar: You were feeling it there?
Tollefson: I was feeling it but also I was concerned more for what was to come and because I was by myself I was able to just run my own pace. So I took the descent actually quite easy, even walked some of the areas that were really bad just because I was being extra cautious. I didn’t want to just completely blow out, creating an issue where with 12 more hours facing me… But then probably on the third climb François caught up to me and then for the next, I don’t know maybe five hours, we basically were running together and had a lot of fun actually. Him and Germain [Grangier], we had a nice little pack of three guys kind of taking turns leading. I probably led a majority of some of those miles but it was honestly just a super-fun night. Running across the island in the jungle kind of felt like Fern Gully in areas where it’s just so green and lush. You have this overhanging jungle experience. The moon was also kind of peeking out along the way. Yeah it was it was super fun actually. I didn’t think about time, distance, and it was kind of like, oh okay a couple of hours just went by. Those are the types of races that you feel like things are just clicking, which early on is pretty nice when that happens.
iRunFar: A nice feeling.
Tollefson: Yeah, yeah.
iRunFar: Now I think ultimately it ended up being a marathon’s distance–a little under a marathon–that the three of you were together. I think there was a little bit of leapfrogging going on. Were you guys legit working together and spending time together? What was that like?
Tollefson: We were. I think it was the third descent–I found that one probably the most technical of the race. You’re kind of going down this rutted-out gully and at one point Germain, he fell. So François and I stopped and went back to make sure he was okay and then François fell. And then François is like, “One, one, zero.” And then I fell and he’s like, “One, one, one.” So we were keeping track of how many times everyone fell. But we were just kind of having a good time and I would say we were basically working together. And then at one point there was–I can’t remember where, it was before the climb before we dropped down to the halfway point where the drop bags were.
iRunFar: It’s at Curral [das Freiras].
Tollefson: Yeah and there’s a really steep ascent you’re going up. You’re next to a pipeline and you’re basically going up steps that are steep enough you could have a ladder. I was hurting at that point and I think they both noticed it, so they ended up pushing a little because I kept seeing them turn around to look. I could see their headlamps…
iRunFar: To see if they were losing you or not?
Tollefson: Yep. And I was like, “Oh touché guys. I thought we were just having fun here.”
iRunFar: ”Oh we are racing already, I didn’t know.”
Tollefson: Yeah, the night is young. We got up to this more levada [trail], where it’s a nice, flat area. At that point I was feeling really good because the flat, runnable sections are just relatively easy for me. At that point I pulled a little rope-a-dope on them where I held back intentionally, maybe 25, 30 meters. I could see their headlamps but I didn’t want to make contact with them. They kept looking back and I was like, they’re gonna’ start squeezing the pace more. I was hoping maybe they’d tire themselves out unnecessarily while I’m just kind of recovering and hanging out. And then eventually I caught back up and I was like, “Bonjour.”
iRunFar: ”I’m back.”
Tollefson: It was fun. When I had the lead sometimes I was actually, especially on those flat sections, I could hear them breathing kind of hard. So I would start ratcheting it down a little bit to test to see how they would respond. I think there were some little tactics going on in there but obviously it is early, six, seven, eight hours into the race. There was a lot of time left. And then where we saw you at Curral, I was feeling good off that big descent going in. But then when we left, they both had a crew, they got out of there really quickly and I was fumbling to find my drop bag and trying to figure that out. Then I never saw them again after that. Then I sort of went into my own little demise.
iRunFar: Yeah on the long climb from Curral to Pico Ruivo, you lost a lot of time.
Tollefson: I lost a lot.
iRunFar: I think including your extra time in the aid station you lost 14 minutes between the inbound at Curral and the peak.
Tollefson: And that was probably what like 10 kilometers?
iRunFar: Yeah, 10 and a half k.
Tollefson: Yeah that was bad, that was really bad. I was suffering. Going up that climb, it’s not a particularly steep climb but it’s long and steady.
iRunFar: It goes forever doesn’t it?
Tollefson: Yep, and I just got into a, not even a bad mental space, but physically I was feeling lightheaded almost starting to think, am I gonna’ enter that hallucinogenic kind of state? I was eating and drinking but I just kind of was in a funk. Then at some point Diego [Pazos] passed me and he asked me if I was all right. I was like, not really but I’m just gonna’ keep going. And it was kind of nice to have him there because it gave me a switch back into, let’s chase him down. But no, I just really, really struggled. From there to the finish basically all the uphills progressively got worse for me and I think that is a testament to the lack of preparation I had in training for that much gain in a race. Obviously I did more running in prep than someone like François did, but I think that he had an incredible amount of just vertical.
iRunFar: Tons of ski vertical.
Tollefson: Yep. So if I end up doing something like this again, I need to probably implement that if we have a big winter like we did.
iRunFar: Time to buy, I don’t know, a Stairmaster or a VersaClimber or something.
Tollefson: Lindsay suggested that because she loves the Stairmaster.
iRunFar: You guys can have Stairmaster Sunday dates or something.
Tollefson: Yeah. I’ll stick to the skiing, I think. I just need to be outside. Toward the last five hours of the race, I really struggled on the climbs and it was just my fitness wasn’t quite there.
iRunFar: I want to ask you about the section between the island’s highpoint, Pico Ruivo and the next peak. It was 5.5 kilometers, it’s really steep, you’re kind of following this spiny ridgeline and you drop down you go through a couple tunnel. There’s some stairs bolted into the cliff faces. When I saw your split coming to Pico Ruivo, having fallen quite far back from who you had been with, I was like, uh oh, is this the beginning of Tim Tollefson’s demise? But then you showed up at Pico Areeiro and you said, “Well, my climbing legs are cooked but I’m fine otherwise.” And you were in good spirits. That section did not break you. What did you think of it?
Tollefson: I thought it was awesome. It was super fun because like you said you’re going down these steep staircases, they’re definitely taller than they are deep where it’s–you have to hold on to the rails to get down them. And then it’s mixed in with these little pathways right on the edge of the cliff that have probably 500 meters just below you or maybe more. And then you’re entering tunnels. I just thought the variety was neat. It’s something you don’t typically find on a race course.
What was really hard though is, so this was daylight now, and when you go through those tunnels, some of them are long and it is pitch dark in there. My headlamp was in my pack because I put it away at the aid station and I couldn’t see a thing. I was holding on to the walls and then at one point I was like, this is kind of dumb, I’m gonna’ trip on something. Because I had no idea what the footing was like. I was like, if I trip and go down it’s gonna’ be embarrassing. I could have just taken 30 seconds to get out of my headlamp but I was being stubborn I didn’t want to. So I’m sitting there, holding on the walls, going through there, can’t see a thing. Then I dropped a pole and I was like, shit. And I turned around and I was on the ground feeling around in the darkness because I couldn’t find the pole. I was like, dammit. And I almost pulled out my headlamp. Then I found it and I gripped the poles really tight and then I was tiptoeing toward–but I walked through the whole tunnel because I don’t want to fall.
It’s something different that kind of mixes it up especially when 10 hours into something and you need something to kind of change your attitude and mindset. I really enjoyed it, that part of the course. You’re up basically traversing that ridgeline between the two high points and it’s stunning. It was a beautiful day, really windy, but again it wasn’t cold, which was nice.
iRunFar: Totally clear though. The clouds were below you.
Tollefson: Yeah it was awesome. I had fun, so maybe that’s where I wasn’t trying to pick anything up, but maybe I just didn’t lose more ground because I got engaged in a different way.
iRunFar: I don’t remember your exact words but you said, when you passed me at Pico Areeiro at the end of that 5k section, you said something like, “I’m gonna’ pick off so and so.” You were in fourth position, and you ultimately did move up into third place. So what was going on in your head? Were you like, I’m gonna’ be fine when I get to the runnable stuff. I’m gonna’ pick off somebody?
Tollefson: My thought was, I told you, I’m gonna’ pick off Jordi, but I meant Diego. And because right before Pico Ruivo on the climb, Diego just hammered me like I couldn’t stand a chance. But then we hit flats and I would make up ground on him. I was like, oh this is a good sign, I can’t climb right now but I can run flat. And then the downs I felt pretty good. And so in my mind I thought, looking at the course map, the final 15 kilometers or so is pretty much along levadas or down and flat and then down. I thought, well if I can keep my legs in somewhat decent shape in the final 15, 20 kilometers, I should be able to make up five, 10-plus minutes on someone like Diego.
So that was what I said. I was like, “I think I can catch Diego.” But it turns out I ended up catching Germain, which he fell and hurt himself. I was hopeful but then it got to the point where someone said, “Oh Diego’s only a few minutes in front of you,” and I started hammering some of the downs. But I ended up kind of blowing my quads doing that.
iRunFar: Oh, is that right?
Tollefson: And then when we actually hit the flat section, which is so beautiful when you’re traversing it along the coastline, underneath the cliffs. You’re on this path that was cut out into the side of the cliff. You’re a thousand feet up above the ocean, absolutely stunning. I could barely run because I had toasted my quads and I was like, dammit, I’m gonna’ get caught by fourth or fifth or sixth place.
iRunFar: ”Because I can’t run the runnable stuff. I’m supposed to be a runner.”
Tollefson: I had a really hard, hard finish. Even though it’s pretty much flat for the final 10k, it was really challenging, never ending. It just felt like I was never actually going to get to the finish line.
iRunFar: Finishing in a podium position at a big, internationally competitive, long mountain ultra is now a very familiar place for you.
Tollefson: Yeah, it is.
iRunFar: It’s getting more and more familiar by the race.
Tollefson: I think if we were betting, it might be a sure one. I did look back through and Ultra-Trail World Tour races, I’ve done 10 of them now.
iRunFar: Really? Wow. You are taking the world tour.
Tollefson: I’m trying to get my passport. I hear I get some cool little poster.
iRunFar: The problem is, they add races every year.
Tollefson: Yeah I know, I’ll never get there. I have six seconds or thirds and one first place. I made some comment yesterday on Twitter that I feel like the Des Linden of the Ultra-Trail World Tour or ultra majors, where I am always a bridesmaid.
iRunFar: But then there is that one time.
Tollefson: Yeah, but if I keep showing up, it’s gonna’ happen. For most of us that aren’t the gods like Kilian [Jornet] or François or Pau [Capell], I feel like we’re striving for that perfect day and it’s what’s going to keep me going after it.
iRunFar: So it took record rain and wind conditions at the Boston Marathon for Des to really show her strength. Are we talking a blizzard of a couple feet of snow for you?
Tollefson: I would love that at UTMB. If we could drum that up, I think that would be my year.
iRunFar: So you’re saying there’s a chance?
Tollefson: I always have to remind myself I’m entering my fifth year of ultrarunning, so compared to some people I’m still relatively new to the game. There’s a lot of stuff I can continue to learn and grow upon. For the most part I’m excited for it, so hopefully I will get my day someday. Let’s say I didn’t and I keep getting–or even if I don’t even podium anymore–I think it’s pretty awesome to be able to do this and have the opportunities. It’s not too shabby. I still think [the ocean is] pretty bland and it’s not that–if we look that way toward the mountains it’s better.
iRunFar: Fortunately the ocean has not come after us since that interview a few days ago when you said you hate–I think it was, “I hate the ocean?”
Tollefson: I have been known to say that.
iRunFar: Last question for you, where else are you planning to race in 2019?
Tollefson: Right now I’m on the U.S. team for the Trail World Championships, which is in five weeks back in Portugal.
iRunFar: That’s pretty quick, yeah.
Tollefson: I need to see how I recover after this. I’m gonna’ take a full week off which I normally don’t do. But even leading it into this race with the knee problem, I think it was highlighting that my body was starting to kind of crack and so I need a proper break. So I’m gonna’ take a week off and I’m gonna’ focus probably on skiing for the next week or two. Just kind of do something different. If I feel like I can recover and get maybe two or three weeks of training, I’d love to do it because I believe it’s only 44k so it’s technically an ultra but that’s my style. And maybe 2,000 meters of vert. I think that could be a super-fun race to do. Other than that I’m looking at UTMB and then some maybe one or two personal projects, but kind of up in the air right now.
iRunFar: Fantastic. Let’s hope you recover quick so we see you at the Trail World Championships.
Tollefson: Will you be there?
iRunFar: We will be there, yes.
Tollefson: Okay. Maybe I won’t go then. We have done enough interviews.
iRunFar: Well, congratulations to you on your podium finish.
Tollefson: Thank you, thanks for being out there.
iRunFar: We’ll see you back in Portugal perhaps.
Tollefson: Oh, happy anniversary Lindsay.
iRunFar: Is it really your anniversary, today?
Tollefson: Yeah, yeah I think we’ve been together 14 years. Something like that.
iRunFar: You got married 14 years ago?
Tollefson: We’ve been together 14 years. This is our wedding anniversary today and I don’t know how long that’s been.
Tollefson: It was kind of like you guys.
iRunFar: How long has it been?
Tollefson: I think seven or eight years but it was it was like–we eloped. Parents just showed up. To us it was more a procedural thing to kind of move forward and get her on my health insurance. We knew we were going to be together, but it didn’t feel like a wedding.
iRunFar: Well happy day-of-making-it-legal Lindsay.
Tollefson: Yes. We beat the system.