Tim Tollefson lines up as one of the race favorites at the 2019 Madeira Island Ultra-Trail. In this interview–which is only a little about running–Tim talks about the crazy roads of Madeira Island; what the record-setting winter was like in his Mammoth Lakes, California home; how psychology played a huge part of his fall and winter running; and if he has a MIUT race plan.
Tim Tollefson Pre-2019 Madeira Island Ultra-Trail Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar and I am with Tim Tollefson. It is a couple days before the 2019 Madeira Island Ultra-Trail. We’re Americans on Madeira Island.
Tim Tollefson: We are and there is no shortage of us though.
iRunFar: There are a lot of tourists here on the island.
Tollefson: A lot of grey hairs.
iRunFar: So you arrived here to the island yesterday and you have been out on an adventure today, what are your thoughts on this particular island in the Atlantic Ocean? You are experiencing them all, little by little.
Tollefson: I am. I like this one so far. Driving up to the high point of the race, it is stunning up there. And I decided on my morning run that I like being up there a lot more than on the coastline here. I don’t know what it is, maybe it’s just the nature of this island kind of climate, it takes a toll on everything. And you run through some areas that are kind of a little dilapidated and it was also dark but, some areas that were a little seedy and kind of had that experience on Gran Canaria also like the abandoned mall, post-apocalyptic feel. But when you get higher up…
iRunFar: Anybody out there?
Tollefson: No one is coming to save you. But when you get up there it is very lush and green and jagged-rock ridgelines so yeah, I thought it was pretty rad. As you are saying, well you didn’t warn me, the route that we took, which I think it almost–well the first mile and a half or two miles would have been a vertical kilometer if it had extended out further.
iRunFar: An actual VK but it is a paved road.
Tollefson: In a car, yeah. Which was pretty cool.
iRunFar: Sorry I didn’t tell you about that.
Tollefson: I think I would actually rather be on foot than in a car.
iRunFar: 100%, I want to go hike it.
Tollefson: It was pretty sketchy, barely a one-lane road with cars going both ways. Did you see the sheep?
iRunFar: No I did not.
Tollefson: There was sheep grazing I was like, going to knock them off but, yeah.
iRunFar: So this road is like three miles long, just under three miles long and basically 2,400 feet of climb. It is a paved single-lane road that just goes from the ocean like halfway up the side of the mountain.
Tollefson: Can you imagine, and there are houses on both sides, can you imagine pulling into your driveway? Doing a right-hand turn, what is it like 20, 25% grade, maybe 30% in some areas.
iRunFar: I just want to know if the people, we eventually have to talk about your race, I just want to talk…
Tollefson: No one wants to hear about that.
iRunFar: I wonder if people who live their whole life on that road actually get their cars geared slightly differently so that you can do that. Because I have a 15-year-old [Toyota] 4Runner and if I had that it would be no problem, but I am in a Volkswagen Up.
Tollefson: Volkswagen Up? I’m in a Peugeot.
iRunFar: I mean, we saw your car yesterday, it is small too.
Tollefson: It is. I think that’s better though so that there is less risk of hitting things. Like I told you, there are tunnels everywhere on the island which is kind of cool but I pulled onto I guess we will call it the highway and you merged inside the tunnel in the car in front of me got scared so he was halfway into the lane of traffic and he started backing up into me and I barely, I have a manual…
iRunFar: How daring.
Tollefson: Yeah, they asked me if I wanted it I was like, yeah, heck yeah. I think it’s better for roads like, without a doubt it’s better for the road that we drove up but I’m backing up in the tunnel and maybe he didn’t see me I didn’t have my lights on but five minutes after landing on the island, I’m going to get in my first car accident in my life in a tunnel in Madeira, it’s going to be rad. But thankfully I have avoided it.
iRunFar: Okay so it is April and you live at what is it, 9,000 feet or 8,000 feet?
Tollefson: So the town of Mammoth Lakes is 7,800, 7,900.
iRunFar: And you guys have had an absolute record winter. I feel like you are this rare winter mammal coming out of hibernation right now.
Tollefson: It feels that way, we have had a lot of snow, in February alone I think we had 250 inches of snow in the first two-and-a-half weeks. We just got slammed. So it has been interesting, great for skiing and I’m thankful that I am finally embracing the ski mountaineering kind of… or utilizing that for training. I haven’t quite gone full bore and I think because I’m still nervous about getting injured because my skiing is not very good. Because I know François [D’haene], he has only been in running shoes for maybe two weeks where he has done…
iRunFar: He has done a couple long runs maybe.
Tollefson: Did you see his second week back running? Ridiculous.
iRunFar: Like 140 miles.
Tollefson: Hundred and 45 miles with 42,000 feet of climbing, second week back. And I’m breaking running 20,000 feet a week or something but whatever. But he did a proper ski season like for probably months of big days, never in running shoes. I’m trying to get there but my downhill technique kind of prevents me from doing it fully as I just, I need to get that skill set better. So I did ski more, which I am hoping will help. Maybe just a clash of some skiers out there.
iRunFar: Yeah, it is like skiers putting on their running shoes. See what happens in the mountains. But I also want to ask, you were pretty avid on social media talking about you shoveled all of the snow that fell, like you didn’t use machinery.
Tollefson: Yeah, so it… You know I guess part of that is we don’t have a snowblower but the other thing is, I don’t know, I kind of enjoy that kind of manual labor aspect of it. You hit a threshold where you are done shoveling, you don’t want to go out there for the second or third time but it is still there and it is still coming down. But I don’t know, it’s a neat way to kind of get a little strength training in and for me I kind of almost, like we have a slightly large driveway and when I’m shoveling it, it becomes my little Zen garden whereas I get these perfect lines going and I kind of just nerd out on it and it is soothing. So maybe that’s like my happy place shoveling.
iRunFar: Do you listen to books on tape or podcasts while you are doing it?
Tollefson: No I don’t.
iRunFar: You are just in the zone? Flow state?
Tollefson: Flow state for sure. And sometimes so much that we have some roommates right now that are living with us and they come out and they are like, “Tim you’re in sandals.” Oh yeah, I am I didn’t notice. But we are in California so the sun comes out. Eventually.
iRunFar: Eventually, sometimes.
Tollefson: So it has been a big winter.
iRunFar: So let’s back up a little bit, the last time we talk to you was before UTMB last August, where the great thigh-slashing incident of 2018 occurred. What has your fall and winter sort of felt like from an actual running perspective? How long did it take to recover, because I think that wound ended up being pretty deep?
Tollefson: It was and in hindsight to me it seemed kind of ridiculous that it derailed my race the way it did. I got stitches, took a little time to heal, but I was fine. It was more I think just the nature of how it got me and it was debilitating enough that I couldn’t run anymore so I’m sure I could have hiked to the finish. And not maybe completely ruined myself but I kind of was at that point I was like, my race is over. I was losing ground and I wasn’t being competitive and I have had those death marches before on an island not too far from here.
iRunFar: On Gran Canaria.
Tollefson: Yeah but you know I think what was interesting is that the physical injury healed but emotionally and psychologically it took out a lot more than I wanted to admit and it took me probably a good two months before I came to terms with it. I kind of brushed it off like, I just do this for fun, I love the journey in the process and those are true that I wouldn’t train the way I do if I didn’t care about the outcome. I wouldn’t be putting in these ridiculous work weeks and the long runs that anyone does trying to squeeze the most out of their body if they didn’t somewhat care about that end result. And I think I brushed it off maybe too much where it really kind of ate away at me and I had to kind of accept it but that emotional toll took longer than any physical aspect and so I kind of…
And then I got back in, I finally kinda found a groove where I was going to train for TNF but it took me a while before I could even do that, I would go for runs and I just kinda felt empty. And I just kind of struggled with that and then The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 Mile Championships got canceled, I actually decided not to race that before got canceled and then I was like, oh that makes my decision even better.
And then I kind of also, then I struggled to find rhythm again and it wasn’t until probably mid-January, Lindsay, she is away at school, she came home and we had a couple weeks together and I kind of got into probably more of just that normal state of feeling like life was in order. And I had a really good training block leading into my first race of the year, the USATF 50k National Trail Championships and I was sort of the focus of the winter. Which again it was kind of, I was nervous about it because we had so much snow and that was actually two weeks before the race is when we got hammered with our biggest storms and 200 inches fell just before the race like in those two weeks and I was like, I did spend more time in ski boots then in running shoes and I was a little nervous.
But it ended up going pretty well so it was kind of, and like I told you I keep saying I’m not going to train for a winter ultra and then every year I train for a winter ultra. And I think some of that is driven honestly by wanting to keep sponsors happy and also I mean it’s fun to go to races. In the back of your mind it’s like if I don’t perform I am not doing my job and so the winter is a hard time for mountain athletes I think in that regard.
iRunFar: When it’s January in the middle of winter and you are in the mountains thinking about Madeira Island in April, it sounds so fantastic but then, yeah putting in the time in the sort of circumstances you are in gets pretty challenging.
Tollefson: It does. And getting here is awesome and it can be an escape from the snow but I don’t get injured often but the three times I have had injuries that derailed races were all during training blocks. It has never happened to me in the summer, spring, or fall so there must be something about me pushing the physiological limit for myself in those cold, icy, somewhat-dangerous conditions for running that kind of pushed me over the edge where if you are riding the fine line there is not a lot of room for error and maybe that is why I keep coming up short a little bit.
iRunFar: You are 100% going to retire to some tropical island someday and be like, “I like the heat, my body likes the heat.”
Tollefson: Lindsay would love that. I still hate the ocean but…
iRunFar: I’m sorry to that giant body of water behind us.
Tollefson: It’s boring.
iRunFar: ”I hate you.” I don’t, he does.
Tollefson: Look at it, there’s no personality, it goes on forever, it’s flat.
iRunFar: I feel like, I mean there is a tsunami that could come and kill us in retribution right now. I love you.
Tollefson: I love the earth, I hate the ocean.
iRunFar: So no tropical retirement?
Tollefson: I will for Lindsay but I think I want a nice coastline like something in let’s say Carmel or Monterey although we can’t afford those places but that’s where…
iRunFar: A tiny little shack.
Tollefson: A tiny little shack on 17 Mile Drive would do it. Someday we will probably move more westward for her because she loves the heat and the ocean.
iRunFar: Okay. Last question for you, we are here on Madeira, you are running 115-kilometer race that in my opinion is incredibly diverse terrain, like you are going to see everything. You have had the experience of coming to an island and running one of these transact-island races before. What have you got in your head in terms of how you’re going to face Friday night and get this figured out this time?
Tollefson: You know I’ve given that a lot of thought and boiled it down to a pretty foolproof plan. I’m just going to get out hard, go hard in the middle, and then go really hard at the end.
iRunFar: That sounds good.
Tollefson: And I don’t think I will really notice the change…
Tollefson: Yeah, I’m going to pull a Miller, a Zach Miller, and just black out.
iRunFar: So will you be doing that heavy breathing and stuff that…
Tollefson: I’m really going to make whoever’s with me pretty upset. The amount of breathing that I’m doing. Yeah, I don’t know.
iRunFar: I’m just going to go out hard, stay hard. Amazing.
Tollefson: It seems like that works for a lot of people.
iRunFar: It works for some people and then it doesn’t work for a lot of people too.
Tollefson: I’m going to light off some fireworks. And I think that, something like this, I traverse, I have yet to have one go well and this will be my third attempt. The first Transgrancanaria race I was injured going in, second one actually I was injured going in and this one I’m hopefully not injured, I am dealing with a little something, so it has yet to go well but I think I am drawn to that aspect of so many different climates and change of footing and kind of views. I think Friday is a wonderful thing especially if you’re going to be out there for 13 hours or 20 hours or however long it takes. It’s nice to have some sort of change in the stimuli. So I don’t know, we will see. I’m pretty stoked on getting out there though, just seen the high point today it kind of excited me to give it a go. And I think this is my type of race where the final 15k–wait, 15k? Yeah I think the final 15k is basically straight downhill or pretty much.
iRunFar: Flat and downhill.
Tollefson: Yeah, so I like that. Downhill finishes is kind of what I dream of.
iRunFar: Awesome. So keep dreaming and we will see you out on the trails on Saturday.
Tollefson: Sounds good, thanks.
iRunFar: Good luck to you Tim.
Tollefson: Thank you.