Tim Tollefson returns to the 2022 Western States 100 after having placed fifth at last year’s race. In the following interview, Tim talks about how he wants to be a better version of himself on race day, how he’s learning to wear his heart more on his sleeve, and what his “best day” at Western States might look like this year.
Tim Tollefson Pre-2022 Western States 100 Interview Transcript
iRunFar: Meghan Hicks of iRunFar. I’m with Tim Tollefson. It’s a couple of days before the 2022 Western States 100. You are back. We are back. Hi, Tim.
Tim Tollefson: Hello. Good to see you.
iRunFar: Good to see you, too. How are you doing?
Tollefson: I’m doing really well.
iRunFar: Do you have anything else to say about how you’re doing? [laughs]
Tollefson: We can wrap up the interview there. Next question, let’s go.
Tollefson: [laughs] Yeah, things are, things are really good. I remember actually being here a year ago with Bryon [Powell], and we had a conversation and I feel like I was saying a lot of the things that maybe I’ll say right now. But this time, a year later with more experience under my belt just personally with stuff, I actually am believing the things I’m saying. Which I think is an important step forward in anyone’s journey.
iRunFar: I think that’s a really good place to start this interview because I think from the outside looking in, it looked like you had a pretty good race last year. Like had some struggles, but in the end, finished strong. But I think as we’ve learned by you sharing a bit more this year, it was a very different experience from the inside out.
Tollefson: Definitely. Yeah, I would have thought, maybe I’m in my eighth year of ultrarunning, that that would have been enough experience to employ wisdom in the moment, but it didn’t happen last year. And yeah, I mean objectively, maybe on the outside, fifth place, 16:55 isn’t terrible. Although also, it’s probably one of my worst performances in my career. But what really was hard or heartbreaking for me is I basically just like I went in, really thinking I was going to have a perfect day.
And I think I was initially setting myself up for potential struggles, where we know that’s not possible. But like, a lot of us might visualize those perfect days and I felt like I was ready. But because I was so hard set on that, the moment I started encountering problems, I didn’t troubleshoot them the way I’ve done in other ultras. It was more just, “Oh, it’s not going perfect.”
And then I started catastrophizing my day before it even happened. So, like, by the time I got to Cal Street, I had quit mentally. Like, I really legitimately wanted to drop out and had my crew been there, or there was an exit on Cal 2, like, I would have taken it. I mean, it was just like to me, there was no point fighting anymore, which is embarrassing to say, but that’s where I was. And thankfully, I didn’t have the option.
You know, Joanne, the medical director there, sat with me, cried with me, and you know, basically just was like, she could tell I was just in a bad mental space. And then sure enough, after I started eating and drinking again, I was able to fight. And I am proud that I fought hard the last three and a half, four hours. And so yeah, I mean, I ended on a good note.
But it was, it was something I’m not proud of, because, and I think probably one of the biggest things, I had an opportunity to run States and I squandered it and a lot of people won’t get this opportunity. And it really, I think, as I reflect on that, that’s what hurt the most was like, I was just taking the day for granted and I shouldn’t do that. Like we don’t always get another try.
iRunFar: I think you’ve already kind of answered my next question, but what have you taken forward from that experience last year? Like because I think there’s some metaphors for life and there’s also lessons for ultrarunning in there. What’s going to be in your pocket because last year happened?
Tollefson: I think probably the biggest thing I’ve learned in this, like it started to bleed over from just like personal therapy into running, is being kind to myself. Like I’m perfectly imperfect. We all are. Like you try to like maybe, or you have these dreams of things going one way and when it doesn’t happen, roll with it. And I mean, we know that’s ultrarunning, but sometimes you forget it in the moment.
And so, I think like just being kind to myself, giving myself grace when I fumble or stumble or mess up. And know that I don’t need to give up on that moment. Like, sometimes I feel like it’s almost like, you know, you drop your phone. That doesn’t mean you then have to smash the screen. It’s like it’s not all or nothing. And I sometimes do that. It’s like, “Oh, things are starting to go poorly. Let’s just double down on how poor it can get and let’s find rock bottom.”
iRunFar: Let’s make it real shitty. [laughs]
Tollefson: [laughs] And then like, you know, it’s like the why. Like, you don’t have to do it. Like we all work too hard to give up. But I was talking to some close friends the other day and, something I struggle with is vulnerability, like letting people in, in my life. And I think that’s probably true for a lot of people. It’s just uncomfortable to actually get below the surface level but what I’ve learned is that, like the ultimate act of self-care, or self-love, or acceptance would be like letting those around that want to help in. Let them help. Lean on them for support.
You know, and I feel like if I’m out there on Saturday, if I can just practice that, if the ultimate self-care would be to nourish my body and let others help me along the course. Like because I can’t do it alone. And I think that’s, that’s really what I’m seeking is like proving what can be done when I let other people in and, yeah, maybe, well no it is true for life. You know, like, let’s let others support us and connect but so yeah, it’s um, I think that’s probably what is the biggest thing that I learned is like, don’t give up on yourself, you know. And, you know, those lows are going to be low, but there’s always something on the other side. You just have to give yourself a chance to see where it might take you.
iRunFar: I love that. It’s and I think the sky is agreeing with you right now with these rumbles of thunder. Mother Nature’s like, “Yeah, Tim!”
Tollefson: [laughs] Yeah, it’s, I mean, that’s another lesson. I think just like to bring up nature like, I don’t know, you know, nature is so imperfect. And we love it for its imperfections. But we don’t grant that same grace to ourselves. It’s like, you beat yourself up, or knock the shit out of yourself for you know, things that you don’t like and it’s like, but then why can we grant everything else all that grace?
And also, I think using the nature analogy, like everything’s impermanent. Like, it doesn’t last forever. Your lows aren’t going to last forever at States. Like it’s going to be super low. It’s going to be dark out there, but it’s going to pass. Like I started in training, appreciating, like, how precious that moment is. And to not necessarily want it to be over because you’ll never get that moment back. And it might be a hard moment, but there’s something in that moment that’s worth experiencing.
iRunFar: You’re there for some sort of reason.
Tollefson: Exactly. Yeah. So, I think that’s what makes it so special. Recognizing how you’ll never have that same opportunity again. Yeah.
iRunFar: I think one of the things I’m learning from this interview so far is that I will have no idea what’s actually in your head when I see you out on the course on Saturday. You could be like, way into existential wonderland or you could just be floating on a cloud. Yeah. That will be fun.
Tollefson: [laughs] Yeah, sometimes you don’t want to know what’s in my head, I’m sure, but that’s true for everyone.
Tollefson: But, yeah, and actually, I was talking to Lindsay [Tollefson, Tim’s wife], that in the last couple of months, I’ve had moments where the noise in my head is so quiet and it’s been pretty liberating. And I think, that just tells me that I’m on the right path. Like, I’ve been more present for this block than I have in any of my career. And I know it’s like, you know, kind of cheesy to say, but honestly, it feels like because of that, like I’ve already won this cycle. Like I’m chasing some audacious goals out there, but I don’t need them to happen anymore.
Because, like the last several months were so enjoyable, like, and I can’t honestly say that at any other point. Like I needed the result to do something for me. And then I was so worried about getting injured or sick that like, if I couldn’t be there, it was all wasted. And when you’re living that far in the future, you can’t enjoy the present. And I think that’s something that I just continue to work on. Because I know it’s not going to be perfect, but it’s something worth trying for.
iRunFar: I love it. You mentioned your training a little bit. For those of us who get to follow you on Strava, it really has looked near perfect. There have been no blips. It’s just been yeah, like great quality, quantity for months.
Tollefson: I guess if I had a talent, it would be consistency. I’m not much of anything else.
iRunFar: Isn’t that like 90% of ultrarunning? [laughs]
Tollefson: I know right? And I don’t have a lot else going for me but, but I’m damn consistent. And I mean, I owe that to a bit of an addictive personality. But yeah, training. It’s been good. I opened the year with a block for Way Too Cool [50k]. And my coach Mario and I intentionally backed off everything.
Less volume, fewer workouts, less intensity, and we focused on just my head. And giving myself energy and time to do what I know is the crux of my career. And I went into that race, not confident physically, but was able to kind of scrape the bottom of the well mentally and it was like, oh, we’re on to something. Like less is more for me at this point in my career.
iRunFar: I wonder if that’s because in part it’s something different from what you’ve been doing?
Tollefson: I think so. And then also, I mean, I just need to make friends with my own head. So, I think that’s been a big thing. And so, this block, what’s actually been fun was for the last month, I signed off of all social medias.
iRunFar: Oh, wow.
Tollefson: I mean, I challenge anyone do that. It’s amazing. It’s, life is so much better. I’m sure maybe sponsors will eventually drop me but it’s, I know there’s balance to be had there. But for me, I needed to. And so, I don’t know what’s going on in the running world, which has been really refreshing.
iRunFar: That’s fun.
Tollefson: And but it’s allowed me to prioritize what’s important, and that’s the people around me, my own running, and not getting caught up in all that noise. So, like with the workouts, though, yeah, it’s gone really well. You know, we’ve just prioritized quality and for me, nutrition has been a crux.
I’ve had a really hard relationship with food, but I’ve been able to focus my training around getting stuff in and it’s gone really well. And not surprisingly, I feel better on runs. I recover quicker. So, it’s kind of like, oh, I guess all these nutritionists and coaches knew what they were talking about.
iRunFar: Nutrients work.
Tollefson: They do. But it’s, I just told someone like I’m coming in feeling like I wish I’d done more, which for a 100 is probably where you want to be. Like not cooked. I didn’t have any hero workouts. I had some good ones and probably mile-for-mile it was on par with my best-ever season of 2017 before UTMB. But unlike that year, I am better; I’m in a better mental space.
So yeah, I’m excited to see what happens. You know, maybe I’ve had some corner pieces of the puzzle in place for a few years. And I’m starting to fill in like the center and feel like I’m getting closer to like being able to see, you know, what that masterpiece looks like.
iRunFar: That really complicated floral arrangement on the table that you just can’t figure out.
Tollefson: Yeah, and yeah, maybe we’ll never fully figure it out, but it’d be nice to get a little more clarity.
iRunFar: Well, your hair is looking pretty good for the race as well.
Tollefson: I need a haircut. I didn’t get one yet. But I’m wearing a hat so no one’s going to see it.
iRunFar: Well, we’re seeing it now. Well, it sounds like things are in a really good place in terms of like there’s stored potential energy here just waiting to be unleashed in kind of the right way on Saturday.
Tollefson: I think that’s a fair assessment. Yeah, I’m just, I guess, if I think of ultra races, this is one of the few in the world that leaves me curious. Like UTMB and some others, I mean obviously, I haven’t run a lot of races. But my curiosity lies with this race still, because I know I was so far off what I’m capable of out there and last year, when I finally stopped having my pity party and decided to keep going, you know.
iRunFar: You got rolling.
Tollefson: I was able to roll the last 15 miles and, and it’s kind of like, I know better. Like if I’d just not, like, quit for four hours in the middle, I think my day would have been a little bit different. So, I’m excited for another opportunity. Like I said, I don’t want to take it for granted. You know I sat through the lottery last year in person for this race and I was tearing up because you see how hard people, not how hard, how long people have been waiting for that opportunity to get on the start line.
And as elites, I think we … and I do think it’s okay … to earn your spot on the course through qualifying at an elite level, but I think we, it’s easy for us to feel like, “Oh, if it doesn’t go well, I’ll just do it next year.” Because we can. Like which, again, it’s not unfairness there, but I think sometimes you maybe lose sight of how special it is to be out here. And I don’t want to stand with you on Sunday and say, “Well, maybe there’s next year.”
So, I know, and Lindsay keeps reminding me, “Every time you go out hard in a race, you blow up.” Like well, that’s not always true, but I know what she’s saying. Like in States, of course, you need to take care of yourself early. And so that’s the plan. And my mantra is, “Be a leaf in a stream.” I’m just going to flow with the terrain. Some points I’ll be going quicker, might get caught in some terrain traps and spiral a little bit but like you know, work through it.
iRunFar: Eventually you’ll keep going.
Tollefson: You’ll keep going. You just make sure that you don’t get out of the stream.
iRunFar: No sitting in the chair for more than two minutes, three minutes maybe.
Tollefson: Oh, my God. I told my crew to you know, I want some tough love. And also, something I’ve never done in my career is I’m having a pacer. So that, actually like debriefing after last year, had I had a pacer Joanne would have let me out of the aid station like a half-hour earlier, but she just didn’t want me to walk down the trail solo.
I was like, “Tim, you’re an idiot. Why didn’t you just have a pacer? Like, you could have run, a half-hour, like right there half-hour faster.” I could have just walked down the trail! So yeah, I’m both scared to have a pacer but excited because I know it’s going to help.
iRunFar: It will help. I think you’re in a good place. And I wish you the best of luck in being the leaf in the stream.
Tollefson: Thank you.
iRunFar: But there’s uphill at this race. So, it’s not entirely, anyway.
Tollefson: It doesn’t have to make sense.
iRunFar: [laughs] Okay. Best of luck to you.
Tollefson: Thank you.
iRunFar: Thanks for that.