Tim Tollefson took second at the 2015 CCC and third at last year’s UTMB. Now he’s back to race UTMB again. In this interview, Tim talks about what he’s learned from racing around Mont Blanc previously, what his training has looked like this year in comparison to previous years, and what he thinks about racing in this weekend’s forecasted inclement weather.
[Editor’s Note: We apologize for the rainstorm and the raindrops on the camera!]
Tim Tollefson Pre-UTMB Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar with Tim Tollefson before the 2017 UTMB. How are you, Tim?
Tim Tollefson: I’ll take my gum out. I’m doing pretty well, yeah.
iRunFar: Saving that for later?
Tollefson: I don’t waste a good piece of gum.
iRunFar: You’re feeling good before UTMB?
Tollefson: I am. I’m feeling good, excited, happy to be here, healthy—pretty much a perfect combination. I can’t complain.
iRunFar: So far you’ve had a pretty good combination at the UTMB races.
Tollefson: I guess I have yet to have a really bad race, and I’m hoping this year is no different, but you never know until you get out there.
iRunFar: Can you compare your experiences with CCC two years ago and UTMB last year because they were both good races?
Tollefson: They both ended up pretty good. I had low points in both of them. CCC was my first 100k; UTMB was my first 100 miler. They were uncharted territory in a sense for both of those distances. To do that here, I thought was fun being able to explore the Alps. I think that will hopefully help me getting out here for a third time. I know the course really well now. Unlike some other people during races that they blacked out or don’t remember anything, I consciously remember almost every step of that trail. I’ve gone back and replayed both races in my head a hundred times. I’m excited to get out and work on some areas that I might be able to notch down a bit, and I know areas I need to be a little more careful on.
iRunFar: How does that work out in the actual race? There’s the dynamic of actually racing other people whether you’re strategizing or just running with other people. Do you then push those places where you think you can make up time, or do you just settle into the race as it develops as a whole?
Tollefson: I think a little bit of both. I’m still new to ultrarunning, but something I’ve learned from marathoning and athletics is you really need to run your own race especially with these longer races. It’s imperative to run your own race, so I try to implement that race strategy as best I can knowing that especially this year, there’s going to be such a depth at the front of the field, maybe taking a few chances and putting myself in it and giving myself a chance is something that is going to be worthwhile as opposed too just sitting back as long as I did last year.
iRunFar: Yeah, we were just talking about it. Up until last year, it basically was true that if you were going to be on the podium at UTMB, you’ve got to be in the top 10 at Courmayeur. Except last year, two of the top three were not in the top 10.
Tollefson: Yeah, Ludovic [Pommeret] and I screwed that up. I think last year worked out in our favor because we had someone like Zach [Miller] pace setting. I talked to David Laney ahead of time, and we knew that if Zach employed that strategy, we were going to be able to just gobble up quite a bit of carnage from Champex-Lac to the finish. That kind of happened. This year, as we mentioned, with the depth that we’re seeing in the field, we’re going to throw 10 darts at the wall and three or four are going to stick. It won’t happen that someone off the pack an hour like I was at Courmeyeur—and hour behind the leaders—I don’t think you’re going to be able to come back and get top three.
iRunFar: Let’s just throw out two names, even if Jim [Walmsley] and Zach take it out really hard, you’re still going to have behind them Kilian [Jornet], Xavier [Thévenard], François [D’haene], Gediminas [Grinius], you, David…
Tollefson: Yeah, you can’t underestimate those guys’ potential, and you can’t predict that all of them are going to drop out. That’s just not going to happen.
iRunFar: But with a couple guys who might go out hard, there’s an increased chance of one of them having a perfect day and sticking it. Do you think about that at all in terms of your own strategy?
Tollefson: Yeah, I’ve definitely visualized what it might be like to be in that lead pack the entire way, but I think personally for myself, it’s going to be listening to internal cues about how my body is feeling early on. If that means I do need to back off a little bit, I will have the confidence to know that the training that I’ve done will allow a good second half of the race and just kind of have that little bit of maturity to say, Hey, it would be cool to be in the front, but I don’t need to be in the front. I think that is something that has worked out for me in the past. You can look at a dozen of other examples, both men and women, who have take the same approach, and I think that gives me the best chance of doing well. At the same time, I do want to give myself a shot, so I think being closer to the leaders at halfway is going to be important. Who knows, maybe if the weather is bad and slows everyone down, and then I’m comfortable in the front pack. It will be interesting. I kind of feel like my strategy is to have multiple game plans and then just being willing to pull which ever one is necessary on the day.
iRunFar: It just started raining here. There’s a good chance of a good bit of rain Friday into Saturday. You train in the Sierra Nevada, and it’s not particularly known for a lot of rain over the summer.
Tollefson: No, we’re pretty dry. We’ve had a few thunderstorms, but I didn’t actually run in them.
iRunFar: So how do you prepare for that possibility? It could be wet the entire time.
Tollefson: It could dump on us. My approach would be to control the variables that I can. If it’s raining, everyone is dealing with it. I’ll just try and stay dry, use my equipment properly, still stay on top of my nutrition, and not get freaked out about a variable I can’t change. I think you can use mental energy freaking out on something like that. I personally in the past have not minded adverse conditions because I think it throws some people off their game. I don’t think guys like Xavier, Francois, or Kilian are thrown off their game. Maybe worse temperatures or conditions are better for them. Some of the others in the field, it may really just throw a wrench into their approach. They maybe aren’t used to those types of conditions and can just kind of make people freak out. Although I don’t deal with rain, I dealt with a horrific winter this last year, just a little bit over 600 inches of snow. I’m no stranger to running in just terrible conditions and just gutting it out. I wouldn’t mind some snow on the passes other than they may then cancel or reroute the race which we do not want to see happen this year.
iRunFar: What does it feel like to be in what I think is the best trail-ultra field ever?
Tollefson: I think it’s pretty exciting. That’s part of the reason I really wanted to come back here because I knew regardless it was going to be competitive. I didn’t know it was going to be this competitive. I joked with Lindsay, my wife, that I always choose the wrong year to do races. I sign up for a race and all a sudden it gets super deep. “Man, I thought it was going to be a relatively low-key event.” UTMB is never low key, but I am excited. It’s kind of fun to be a part of it and all the excitement around it. To me, it feels more like with marathoning the Olympic Trials or going to a major city marathon. That kind of stuff really motivates me to compete.
iRunFar: How has your training been? You’ve had a good season so far starting off in Hong Kong [100k], winning Ultra-Trail Australia, you ran Speedgoat in second a couple weeks ago… are you feeling strong?
Tollefson: I… yeah… the normal. Training has been going good. I’m feeling strong and ready to be out there.
iRunFar: There are a lot of guys who if you’re looking on Strava or their training logs are just doing a ton. What has your training been like? Is it controlled? Do you have a real game plan for what you’re doing out there?
Tollefson: Yeah, I think I’m so new to this sport. I’m only in my third year. I don’t have a lot of experience, but I have 15 years of competitive running experience. Something I’m trying to employ in ultrarunning is that kind of methodical long-term, slow-build-up approach. If it means my best races are still two or three years down the road, I’m okay with that because I want to be around two or three years down the road. Last year coming into UTMB, I’d done more climbing per week in the two month build-up than I ever had. This year, I’ve increased that by 30 to 40% per week and am still feeling healthy and strong. I’ve been able to handle more vert per week, and I feel more prepared after learning stuff from last year. Mario, my coach, and I, we’ve talked about… “Hey, just don’t pay attention to other people.” I actually unfollowed people on Strava because I don’t want to know what they’re doing. I feel like I’m already pushing my personal envelope enough. You see what other people are doing, and you start thinking you maybe need to do more. That’s a dangerous game to get into. Having Strava, which is cool, is also a double-edged sword. You can really put yourself in a well. I think that coming to this line, if I’m 10% undertrained compared to the others, that might be better than if a person is 1% overtrained. I think that gives me a better opportunity for a successful day. I’m excited. I think I’ve at least done enough to run the race I’m hoping for, and maybe at the end, that’s a 10th place finish, and I say, “Maybe I can improve on these things next year,” and I’ll be back. We’ll see.
iRunFar: What did your taper look like? When did you start and how aggressive?
Tollefson: My last big long run was two weeks ago. It was just a 35 miler with an ample amount of climbing—four passes of Mammoth Mountain, my ski resort which sits at 11,000 feet. I did that last year. It was one of those kind of confidence-building workouts. You get through that, four passes of an 11,000-foot peak and some technical terrain, and you kind of feel like, I can handle what UTMB is going to throw at me. Then I’ve just dropped my mileage a bit still with some vert. My legs are feeling pretty good.
iRunFar: Best of luck out there, Tim. Enjoy.