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First Time’s The Charm: Interview With Tim Tollefson

The 29-year-old, 2:18-marathoner from Mammoth Lakes won the U.S. 50K trail title on Sunday in his first ultramarathon attempt.

The 29-year-old, 2:18-marathoner from Mammoth Lakes won the U.S. 50K trail title on Sunday in his first ultramarathon attempt. 

Prior to this past weekend, Tim Tollefson had never raced longer than the marathon distance, nor did he have much competitive experience on the trails. None of that mattered, however, as the 29-year-old from Mammoth Lakes, Calif., ran away with his first national title on Sunday at the Flagline 50K in Bend, Ore., an event that served at the USA 50K Trail Championships.

Tollefson, who qualified for the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon and owns a 2:18:26 marathon PR, pulled away from early leaders David Roche and Ryan Bak just after the 7-mile mark to win in 3 hours, 24 minutes and 4 seconds—more than three minutes under Max King’s previous course record of 3:27:54 from 2011.

We caught up with Tollefson, who works full-time as a physical therapist and exercise physiologist, to talk about the race, discuss the changes he made to his training while preparing for his first ultra and to see what his future racing plans hold.

Tim, big win and a course record for you this past weekend at the Flagline 50K in Bend, your ultramarathon debut, which doubled as the U.S. Trail 50K Championship. How are you feeling today, 24 hours removed from the race?

Aside from a little raw skin on my thighs, hips and stomach from a nosedive sustained during the race, and residual hip and hamstring tightness, everything is recovering the way I had hoped. I did my usual post-race marathon routine of a very short jog, roll, stretch and ice bath session that seems to help cure the “run over by a truck” syndrome. Knowing the race would be fast, I made a game-time decision to wear a lighter pair of shoes that I’d never taken on mountain terrain before. It proved to be successful but I blistered and will likely lose five toenails as a result. If my feet don’t give me any problems, I’ll resume easy running tomorrow.

Flagline was stacked with quite a few guys who have pretty accomplished off-road resumes, including Ryan Bak who lives in Bend, David Roche who won the U.S. Trail 10K title a few weeks ago and was on the U.S. Mountain Running team, and David Laney of Nike Trail Elite. Take us through the race.

Planning a strategy for a distance and terrain that I had never raced was challenging. So after David [Roche] immediately took the reigns from the start, I was content settling into third right behind Ryan [Bak]. It essentially became a three-man race half a mile in. Knowing the first 10K had a net downhill, I wasn’t shocked we clipped off several mid-5:30 miles. Just after Mile 7, Ryan took over and I tucked in behind him for about a quarter mile. As we began a 4-mile climb I noticed he pulled out a gel and I thought to myself, “Why not surge and try to catch him off guard as he’s choking down his gel?” To my surprise he didn’t respond, so I stayed on the throttle for nearly two miles to open a gap in hopes that he’d lose sight of me through the forest. Once I was clear I eased back on my effort and ended up running solo to the finish. I looked back just twice, the first being at roughly mile 26.

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Ryan had significantly eaten into my lead—perhaps just 90 seconds back—and I began to regret a miscalculated fueling strategy. As the inevitable bonk overtook my body, I tripped and face-planted into a rock pile around mile 27. This snapped me out of the funk I was in but my overall focus was now on damage control and survival mode. I tried to throw in intermittent surges and frequently change up my cadence, hoping to find something to keep me moving forward.

The next glance back happened at roughly mile 31. Ryan was now just 30 seconds back as we started the final climb to the finish. I am well aware of how accomplished he is on both the roads and trail and the last thing I needed was for him to make contact with me. If that were to occur, I didn’t like my odds of out-kicking him. A quick revelation of how terrible it would be to lead for 24 miles only to be out-leaned at the finish forced me into a gear I didn’t really have and helped me to narrowly hold on and cross the line first.

Often in a road marathon, you’re aiming to hit specific splits to come in under a goal time. Obviously things are a lot more unpredictable on the trails. What was your strategy going into the race? And looking back afterward, how did you feel about your execution?

Although a secondary goal was to take down Max’s course record, I wasn’t at all concerned with individual splits throughout the race for the very reason you mention—unpredictable terrain. I guess my strategy was to make decisions on the fly. I had prepared so that I was ready to hammer uphill sections, control the technical descents or surge under 5-minute pace on flats—I just didn’t know which tools I’d have to pull out. Looking back, I’m very happy with the execution minus my fueling fiasco.

Were you confident going into the race that you could contend for the win? Or did you gain confidence with each passing mile that you might be able to take it?

There was a quiet confidence going in. I knew that I had prepared well for a successful outcome, but I also had a great deal of respect for Ryan, the Davids [Roche and Laney] and the 50K distance. People close to me knew that I wanted the title, however, but I also have experienced the unpredictability that marathoning can throw at you in the later stages of a race. So, I had a very healthy respect for what an ultra race could unleash after 30 miles of racing and nearly 4,000 feet of climbing.

Ultrarunning presents a whole different set of challenges that are often foreign to competitive road marathoners. What were some of the biggest issues or obstacles you encountered during the race on Sunday and how did you deal with them?

The biggest challenge was following other runners on singletrack trail. My trail training is done solo and I’m used to being able to see several steps ahead. After numerous poorly placed steps and rolling my ankle I was very anxious to take the lead and have nothing but open trail. Another difference I found was that on the roads we typically aim to stay as relaxed as possible, run a consistent pace and turn the brain off to dissociate from the pain you’re going to experience. It’s essentially a time trial, which I find very stressful.

Racing on the trails was, in fact, liberating for my mind! I enjoyed the change in scenery, terrain, varying grades, creek crossings and constant turns. It’s the very reason I gravitated toward events like the steeplechase and had poor success on flat marathon courses and 5,000m races on the track. I’m not a very good rhythm runner—I need constant change. Out on the trail I was able to seemingly float along the course and just enjoy doing what I love most—running singletrack!

So why the Flagline 50K, and why target a national championship for your first ultra/trail event rather than something a little more low-key?

A big part in that decision was that I love to compete. I had hoped for the opportunity to race some of the guys I really respect in the sport and see how I matched up against them. It was sort of a litmus test to myself.

From a training and nutrition perspective, how did you shift your preparation for your first off-road, ultra-distance event?

I talked a good amount with Josh Cox about this variable. Knowing that our goal time was to run under 3:30, we didn’t think many changes needed to be made from my approach on the roads. So I practiced taking a PowerGel every eight miles on my long runs and sipping a PowerBar drink mix every two miles. During the race I ended up consuming three gels, 22 ounces of fluids and one Fig Newton. In hindsight, I should’ve taken a gel every 5-6 miles and refilled my bottle as I began bonking hard the final 10K of the race.

On the roads, you’re a 2:18 guy looking for a big breakthrough before the 2016 Olympic cycle, and on the trails, you’re a national champion your first time out. With this win under your belt, is there any more of an appeal to trail and ultrarunning both from a competitive standpoint, and possibly even from a sponsorship standpoint?

Honestly, there is. My entire running career I’ve been playing catch-up to the guys with better genetics and ideal running economy than I inherited. I was always athletic, had great footwork in soccer, could hurdle, climb and balance on anything, but my heart was with running. Unfortunately though, I wasn’t that great in high school. My college coach at Chico State took that mediocre kid and turned him into a five-time NCAA Division II qualifier, but I fell short of All-American status by one spot three separate times.

I was the student-athlete that knew all the other top contenders in the nation, but no one knew who I was. Even with my big breakout in 2011—with qualifying for the Olympic Trials in the marathon—my family, friends and me were beyond excited and proud, but I still wasn’t competitive on the national scale. So, to finally be considered a national-caliber athlete after nearly 14 years in the sport, someone that can contend for titles and hopefully represent team USA on the trails one day, is all foreign, albeit exciting, territory to be in.

I’ve joked with my wife Lindsay that we are both just too damn stubborn to give up competing in a sport that we truly love. If it takes another 10 years to accomplish what kids in their early 20s are doing, then so be it. We look to teammates and friends like Deena (Kastor), Josh (Cox), Mike (McKeeman) and Meb (Keflezighi) for daily inspiration and reminders that successes can continue well into one’s late 30s, or early 40s! We enjoy putting in 100-plus miles a week despite working over full-time and using vacation hours to travel to races. We appreciate weekends as a time that we can put our feet up and do nothing after a hard training session and maybe even capture one of those elusive naps our professional friends talk about. It’s all we’ve ever known. At the heart of everything we just love to run. But if trail and ultrarunning opened doors for actual sponsorship opportunities and I could work just 30 hours a week in the clinic and classroom and devote more time to training and recovering, you wouldn’t have to ask me twice.

So what’s next for you? Will you dabble in more trail and ultra races this year, shift your focus back to the roads or try to strike a balance between the two?

Prior to Flagline the focus was to end the year at my favorite marathon, CIM [Cal International Marathon], in hopes of nabbing my second Olympic Trials mark. But [Sunday]’s race perhaps is going to open up a different path for me. Being new to the [trail and ultra] scene I’m completely unaware of how different circuits and seasons are set up, so continuing to network with other athletes and races will hopefully shed some light on what’s out there and available. I believe that it’s possible to be a successful hybrid runner, as much of my prep for this race was traditional marathon training with a few changes, and I foresee that being a realistic direction for me. It would be a lie to say I didn’t look over The NorthFace 50’s website and dream about that $10,000 first prize. I really believe that the longer the race gets, the better and more competitive I will become, but I’m not sure that I’m ready to go off the deep end just yet.