With an affinity for running up mountains, one Mammoth local is crushing some of the hardest trail races in the world. What’s he gunning for? Becoming the first American man to win the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc—and plenty of sweets at the finish line.
Tim Tollefson, 32, was injured and undertrained going into the Transgrancanaria Ultra Marathon last spring. “I expected a death march, but it turned into more of a death march than I ever could have ever imagined,” he said.
The 125K race climbs more than 26,000 feet in Spain’s Canary Islands. Tollefson was only running it to achieve the final qualifying points he needed for the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) later that summer, but at the 50K point, he realized that finishing at all was going to be difficult. “There were times when I was coming down a treacherous section of the trail and a devil on my shoulder was telling me to throw myself off the cliff because then it would all be over,” Tollefson said.
Every step was excruciating.
“During the race, I’d completely sworn off ultras. The only reason I was doing the race was to get the points for UTMB. I thought, this is a stupid sport. Why am I finishing if I am just getting points for something I’ll never do?”
“Enough time goes by that you forget how awful it was, how many times you swore off running, and latch on to the positive stuff and the hard parts start to disappear.”
He finished the race despite the devil on his shoulder and six months later, Tollefson finished third in his 100-mile debut at UTMB, which is considered one of the most competitive and challenging ultra trail races in the world.
“It was magical,” he said.
Does he still think it’s a stupid sport? “No—it’s a bit irrational and crazy, but not stupid,” Tollefson said. “Any time you can practice getting through the tough mental components of a race you come out a little stronger. Enough time goes by that you forget how awful it was, how many times you swore off running, and latch on to the positive stuff and the hard parts start to disappear.”
His podium finish at the Ultra-Trail World Tour event cemented his status, not only as a top American but also as a foremost contender on the international stage. In May he won his first international event, the 2017 Ultra Trail Australia 100K, and later this summer he will return to Chamonix to try and become the first American man to win UTMB.
Tollefson’s breakthrough race at the 2016 UTMB came on the heels of a race where he practically swore off ultrarunning, but it was not the first time he turned a dark moment into considerable success.
In 2013, when Tollefson crossed the finish line of the California International Marathon (CIM) in 2 hours, 18 minutes, and 29 seconds, he nearly walked away from the sport. It was his second-fastest marathon ever, but the time was just outside of the U.S. Olympic Trials marathon standard. He tried repeatedly and kept coming up short of the standard. It was then that he decided to make the switch to trail racing. (He eventually qualified for the Olympic Trials retroactively when the IAAF changed the Olympic standards and competed for the second time at the trials in 2016.)
“He was looking for something new to rekindle his competitiveness and his love for running,” his coach Mario Fraioli said. “He loves the trails, he loves being out in nature by himself. He thrives on that solitude and he likes a good challenge.”
In Tollefson’s first race longer than the marathon distance—and first race on dirt—he won the 2014 Trail National Championship at the Flagline 50K in Bend, Oregon, setting the course record and catching the eye of sponsors along the way. (He signed with Nike Trail Team, but has since switched and is currently sponsored by Hoka One One.)
“When he first started [racing trail ultras] I thought it was a small pool of people and that’s probably why he was doing well,” says Tim’s wife Lindsay Tollefson, “but personally, I’ve done so poorly on the trails I realized there is a special technique and talent that it takes. Tim loves it.”
Outside Online also doubted road runners switching to the trails and published a story citing a source that said Tollefson and others “have been unable to establish themselves in more competitive ultras” because the “longer, more extreme events ultimately require a separate skill set, both in terms of physical fitness and fortitude.”
Just days after the article was published, Tollefson finished second in his first 100K race at the 2015 Courmayeur – Champex – Chamonix (CCC), the little sister race of UTMB. “I think he liked [the Outside article],” Fraioli said. “He didn’t let it get to him, and it was fun proving it wrong.”
On hard days, he often runs up and down the 11,054-foot summit as many as three or four times.
What makes Tollefson successful on the trails is the fact that he loves the training, and he’s dedicated to it. “He likes running to the top of Mammoth Mountain—that’s fun for him,” Lindsay says. “Even on easy days, he likes to run up there.”
On hard days, he often runs up and down the 11,054-foot summit as many as three or four times, maintaining a threshold effort on the descent and running easily downhill back home on the paved bike path. Or he’ll do a couple laps around the Mammoth Crest, or a through-run from Yosemite National Park back home.
Since making the switch to full-time ultra trail running, Tollefson’s training has switched from repetitive road runs to what his coach likes to call: Choose your own adventure. “I give him the guidelines to mimic the specific needs of the event we are preparing for but give him the freedom to piece together the trails,” Fraioli said. “Being in Mammoth, it was easy enough for him to do because of the elevation and the mountains that he’s surrounded by.”
The downhill jog Tollefson ran for his cool down after Mammoth Mountain hill-repeats was by no coincidence. The final miles of UTMB were downhill on pavement. Tollefson knew his legs would be thrashed at that point in the race and was prepared for the beating. It served him well as he passed a few competitors in the final stage of the race to place third. “Tim picks the more mountainous trail races and then he trains for them,” says his former Nike Trail teammate David Laney. “Before UTMB, he did a 35-mile run with 10,000 feet of climbing. I don’t think anybody does that—it’s a ton… And he has the best hair in ultrarunning. After UTMB it was perfect. I was like, ‘What did you do out there?’”
Besides maintaining envy-worthy ultra-hair, what Tollefson did out there in the 106-mile race that circumnavigates Mount Blanc and climbs 32,000 feet, was run patiently and finish strong. “For UTMB, the main draw was to completely circumnavigate Mont Blanc—that was calling me,” Tollefson said. “I really wanted to get out there and explore that trail.”
This year he opened his season with a fifth-place finish at the Hong Kong 100K Ultra Trail Race, which wasn’t a particularly good or bad performance in his opinion. It was the snowiest winter on record in Mammoth Lakes and his training was a combination of any road that he could find cleared of snow, the treadmill, or driving down the hill to Bishop once in awhile when he had the luxury of time. (He works a full-time job as a physical therapist at Mammoth Hospital’s SPORT Center.) Many days, he found himself running uphill into the wind on the highway that leads into town, passing people putting on chains and being passed by SUVs with skis and snowboards on the racks. “It wasn’t pleasant,” he said. “I will not train for another winter ultra.”
After Hong Kong, he dedicated the rest of the winter to enjoying the snow. He started backcountry skiing and raced ski-mountaineering for the first time. He intends to dedicate this fall to a training block on the roads. Even though he says he is committed to trail running, Tollefson plans to race the CIM this December, aiming for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials qualifier.
Aside from simply loving trail running and exploring the mountains, Tollefson has a special appreciation for the amount of sugar he can consume after a long run. Like most ultrarunners, he likes to talk about food.
“I wonder if I could get a donut sponsorship?”
“I definitely go to sweets after a run,” he says. “As soon as I can get my hands on a donut or anything sugary, that’s what I’ll gobble down.”
He loves maple buttermilk bars or any cake donut covered in icing and sprinkles. “Immediately after a race, I go to beer because races don’t offer donuts, but if I am actually making a purchase it will be a donut,” says Tollefson. “I wonder if I could get a donut sponsorship? I should contact Dunkin Donuts.”
But whether running the CIM or UTMB, what’s even better than post-race treats for Tollefson is going home. “There are few places that make me as happy as being here in Mammoth.”