For Tim Tollefson, running the Western States 100 for the first time will be a bit like running home, as he grew up on the west side of the Sierra Nevada and has run the course’s later miles hundreds of times. In the following interview, Tim talks about how excited he is to run Western States, why he put off running it, why the course plays to his strengths, why he ran last year’s Javelina Jundred ahead of Western States, and how dealing with his mental health during the pandemic could help his running.
Tim Tollefson Pre-2021 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Bryon Powell of iRunFar here with Tim Tollefson before the 2021 Western States 100. How are you Tim?
Tim Tollefson: I’m doing pretty good.
Tollefson: It’s nice to be back.
iRunFar: Feel a little bit more like normal?
Tollefson: It does. Yeah, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen you in person.
Tollefson: Was China the last time we saw each other?
iRunFar: Yeah. The last time we saw you was up in the high country, Szechuan province. Good to see ya. Welcome back to racing, I know you’ve done one race in the interim but this is the first time that you’re back at a big event. What does it feel like to be coming back and toeing the line?
Tollefson: It’s exciting. I just drove up with Billy [Yang] and we were chatting about it. Honestly more than the competitive side of the sport it’s just nice to be with the community again and starting to see people in person. Not over Zoom calls and I think it’s just a testament to how far we have come as a country and really as a world but I’m thankful for the opportunity to be here.
iRunFar: Yet does feel like, it’s always a reunion coming to Western States, but almost one with both a sense of relief and a bigger sense of just camaraderie and coming together. There’s almost, a lot of times there’s a lot of nervous energy at the start of Western States and it’s more a deep sigh of relief or something, I don’t know. Does it feel that way to you at all?
Tollefson: I guess you could ask me on Saturday morning, but no, I’m coming into this one probably in the most relaxed state I ever have been. I think the pandemic allowed some of that to occur just with personal, internal work and so I’m honestly just kind of experiencing some gratitude for even being here.
iRunFar: How much do you want to run Western States?
Tollefson: Really bad. It’s been high on the list, but I’ve publicly for years said, I don’t want to run that, but I was just putting that out there to keep distance knowing that at some point I was going to be here. I just wanted to come in and do the race—the volunteers and the whole community—justice by feeling like I was ready to give it an honest effort. And for many years I wasn’t in a place to do that, so I just kept it at bay.
iRunFar: There seem to be so many reasons that this is a race for you. Are there any that you can articulate?
Tollefson: Yeah, there are a lot. Growing up as a kid on the west side over in Rocklin, California, it was the first ultramarathon I ever learned about. My high-school coaches had done it, we had kind of jokingly ribbed our Coach [Angie] Pozzi that, whenever we would cool down we were doing Posey pace, it was our States pace. Now it’s like, if I can hold Posey pace at the end of this I will be pretty psyched. But yeah, it was my introduction to the sport, and also I think as a runner it suits a lot of my strengths. If you look at UTMB, a course that I have done well at, I excelled on the downhills and on the uphills I would lose ground. I think this really suits a lot of the skill sets that I have and it’s neat to finally be able to race in front of friends and family that have never been able to travel abroad to see me run.
iRunFar: Seems like a pretty good set of things coming together for you this weekend. I mean, not only you grew up on the west side but now you live on the east side of the Sierra. You can use that to train for UTMB but it’s pretty comparable to what you’re going to see in the first 40 miles of the race, correct?
Tollefson: Yeah, I have not been on miles four through 30 on this, but I’m told that it’s not any more precarious then kind of our usual trails that I run daily. So I’m excited and the curiosity is there for that first 50k, just the early Alpine start and see what’s out there.
iRunFar: Did you intentionally keep that as a treat, or?
Tollefson: I guess maybe. Logistically it’s a little harder to run the early stages here, you have to wait for the snow to melt and then once it’s melted it’s basically race time typically. So I didn’t make any effort for it. I think Mammoth in the Eastern Sierra is an overlooked training ground for anything, any race in the world. I mean we have dry, dusty trails. I mean, Bishop has been triple digits, which is just down the road from us. We have plenty of opportunity to prepare for any of the demands that States will throw at us.
iRunFar: Yeah, so you live at Mammoth Lakes, you obviously have done tons of running in the high country I’m sure. Have you specifically done some runs down in the lowlands to get ready for the heat?
Tollefson: I have, yeah, I have thrown out a couple in 90 to 100-degree Fahrenheit temps just to kind of shock the body a little bit and hopefully that works in complement with my heat-train protocol I’ve been trying to work out.
iRunFar: What does that look like?
Tollefson: So we don’t have access to a sauna but Roxie Vogel over at GU Energy, she’s helped me out with a protocol that we did before Javelina (Jundred), which was hot bath soaks. So after runs and periodically throughout the week following a kind of strategy, I will just soak in a tub. And it’s harder than I thought it would be.
iRunFar: It’s uncomfortable.
Tollefson: It is, like I sweat. That’s exactly what you need to do, kind of prime the system.
iRunFar: So you mentioned Javelina, and you’ve had all the success at UTMB, like this big mountainous 100. You also ran Javelina last year, did you choose it specifically thinking about Western States or what was your thinking about running that?
Tollefson: Yeah, it definitely was with States in mind. And it was kind of a perfect opportunity for me to go out to a race that was low-key, I could experiment with things and I would say it was a low risk race and it was my first flat 100. It’s not flat–there are probably 6,000 or 7,000 feet of total gain maybe, but it’s just rolling desert trail.
iRunFar: And entirely runnable.
Tollefson: Yeah, entirely runnable. Not a lick of shade, you can try and lie under a cactus but it’s not there. And it’s always a nice exposure, for me, just working on some other kind of internal mental stuff, it was a nice opportunity to go out and implement some strategies with, like I said, kind of a low risk environment where there was nothing riding on it.
iRunFar: Obviously, you ran well though, 13:28 there, that’s a little faster than anybody’s ever done at Western. But did you have any lessons from running that faster type of 100? Anything that was quite different than say UTMB?
Tollefson: I loved it.
Tollefson: I mean honestly, I do not like hiking so it is kind of funny that perennially you will find me at these big mountain 100s or mountain races. But not carrying the pack, not hiking, not having the required gear. All of those things were nice.
iRunFar: I mean, not strange because there have been plenty of others you’ve done but, that have all the success at UTMB, where you come from a pure running background. Are you excited say, about the stretch down from Cal Street down to the river or some of the runnable sections down in the last 15 miles?
Tollefson: I am. But I think States is a course that you really have to respect, all the people I have spoken to in just being on the course I would agree that it’s a course you have to run with, not against. If you try to fight it it’s going to buck you. And I think we see that often where someone might have the legs to run Cal Street or Green Gate to the finish. I mean, who knows how I’ll execute it but if I can stay within myself, I drool over those final 38 miles, I mean I paced Alex Nichols 38 miles one year. I have run from Green Gate to the finish and No Hands Bridge hundreds of times throughout my life so it’s a place I can run almost blindfolded.
iRunFar: It’s home.
Tollefson: It is. In a lot of ways this is a coming home of sorts. Just to get home and my family will be at the track and it will remind me of the good old days in middle school and high school racing up there.
iRunFar: Nice. You talked a little bit about holding yourself back, is that one of the things you can point to for your consistent success at, let’s just say longer ultras, 125k and up?
Tollefson: Yeah. I think, I definitely approach each race–I try to dissect where I think my strengths will suit the course and often I just implement a training cycle that’s going to mimic that. But I think everyone is capable of kind of having a concerted start out of the gates and then come home strong and it prevents some epic blowups. But I think I may have also kind of starved myself of the opportunity of knocking some out of the park by being too conservative. But for me personally, I like to gain something from each effort knowing that I’m excited to do it again and refine it, versus blowing up, going home with my tail between my legs, and feeling as though I have obtained excuses of why I didn’t do well and then take that negative mindset into the next one.
iRunFar: So you would do some iterative improvement at Western States rather than go for the grand slam on the first swing?
Tollefson: Yeah, I think objectively on paper I, with probably four other guys in the field, have the tools to win this, but I’m not going in with the mindset of I need to win this. It’s much more of, I want to walk away from the track on Saturday night, hopefully, that I’m proud of my effort.
iRunFar: And you don’t know what that is. You can feel that, right?
Tollefson: Yeah. And I mean, plenty of times in my career I have robbed myself of that experience because I have tied the outcome to something else so I think it’s kind of having a new perspective with having 18 months off of real racing, is kind of allowing me to come here with that new kind of outlook. And I’m excited for that because that’s something that’s repeatable and if I end up fortunate to come back for more years at States, maybe at some point I will have a cougar but if I don’t, that’s okay too.
iRunFar: You mentioned a couple times earlier in the interview, refining your mental state or your mental process or tools, can you tell me a little bit more about that?
Tollefson: Yeah, so, the biggest thing for me is actually I have been–with the encouragement of [my wife] Lindsay Tollefson and some family and close friends—finally sought some help for mental health issues, not race specific. But I’m noticing after 16 months of therapy that there are a lot of carryover parallels to my sporting life. And sport is something I care about dearly, so I’m excited to start taking some of those tools in my kit and applying them to sport now. But it’s definitely just been kind of my changing perspective on how I be myself, view others, dealing with stress anxiety, and a number of different things, and just having an overall healthy relationship with things that have plagued me for a long time that I have just sort of suppressed, like any good Midwestern upbringer… That’s not even a word.
iRunFar: Did that come out a little bit at Javelina or were you not at a place for that yet? That mindset?
Tollefson: It was, and that actually–we said, approaching Javelina I knew I could gain a lot of knowledge on racing in the heat, that I could apply to States. But when I said low risk it was kind of like, hey it’s a pandemic year, very unusual that there are less people around, I don’t feel on display or vulnerable so it felt much easier to dip my toe back in the water in that sense. It was kind of like hey, this is a safe place where I can just be me, essentially.
iRunFar: Well I hope you can be you and enjoy your time out there, and run on home.
Tollefson: I will.