Going the Distance

Photo of Alisha Valvanis in Seattle Storm statium. Photo courtesy of Terrence Vaccaro/NBAE

Cross Country Alum Moves From Walk-On to World Class

Tim Tollefson chatted with a hiker bound for the John Muir Trail one morning this summer. The stranger planned to make the 28-mile journey from Tuolumne Meadows to Agnew Meadows in three days. His eyes widened when Tollefson said the route would take him about four hours.

He's used to that kind of reaction. 

“I get a lot of blank stares, open mouths, and people asking ‘Are you crazy?’” Tollefson said. “It is crazy. It just happens to be a crazy that fuels my passion.”

The former Chico State steeplechase and cross country star has an admittedly unusual talent for running ultramarathons, a type of race longer than 26.2 miles. Tollefson was the 2014 USA 50-kilometer Trail National Champion and this year took second at one of the most unique and prestigious ultramarathons in the world, a 101-kilometer race stretching from Italy to France. His marathons and ultramarathons are quite a leap from his 3-mile high school courses and the 8ks and 10ks he ran in college. 

"It's a huge challenge, chasing a marathon. It's not an event where you can restructure your focus and do another one the following week," Tollefson said. "It's something that you don't take for granted. You don't know when you might get another opportunity, so when it goes well, it's something you really cherish."

In September, Tim Tollefson (left), placed second in the Courmayeur Champex  Chamonix, a nearly 63-mile trek that includes 20,000 feet of climbing. Watch a  video of Tollefson crossing the finish line at http://tinyurl.com/Tollefson2.

In September, Tim Tollefson (left), placed second in the Courmayeur Champex Chamonix, a nearly 63-mile trek that includes 20,000 feet of climbing. Watch a video of Tollefson crossing the finish line at http://tinyurl.com/Tollefson2.

 Love on the Run  

When Tollefson walked on to the Chico State track team as a rookie in 2003, he hit the ground running—bumping his mileage from 35 to almost 90 miles a week.

Four years later, he won the California Collegiate Athletic Association (CCAA) steeplechase championship with a 9-minute, 9-second performance. He became a three-time National Collegiate Association (NCAA) championship qualifier and a two-time NCAA championship finalist, and also found success in cross country, taking third in the 2007 NCAA Western Regional Championships.

When Tollefson graduated with a BS in exercise physiology in 2008, both he and head coach Gary Towne felt he had unfinished business. It was Towne who encouraged him to make qualifying for the Olympic Marathon Trials his next goal.

“He was really just starting to find himself as a runner,” Towne said. “He knew, and I knew, that he had it in him to run at that level.”

In 2012, Tollefson qualified for the Olympic Marathon Trials, finishing just under the 2-hour, 19-minute standard with a personal best: 2:18:26. The next year, the Olympic qualifying mark was lowered to 2:18:00, and Tollefson missed it by 30 seconds. In a subsequent attempt in June 2014, success eluded him by a minute.

Frustrated, he decided to take a break and explore the hundreds of miles of trails that surround his home in Mammoth Lakes. For companionship, he was joined by his wife, Lindsay Tollefson, another Wildcat cross country standout who has furthered her running reputation post-college. 

Lindsay Tollefson (then Nelson) was the 2007 CCAA 10-kilometer champion, eventually finishing the same season with a 10th-place NCAA 10k finish. She was also a part of the 2007 Chico State women's cross country team that finished fourth at the NCAA championships, where she placed 46th overall.

After dating during and after college, the couple married in 2012. The following year, they ran the California International Marathon with a combined time of 5 hours—he in 2:18:29 and she in 2:41:31—and are believed to have set a new record for the fastest marathon run by a married couple in the same event.

 Hitting the Trails 

The Tollefsons have run countless races together, pacing each other and cheering each other across finish lines. 

When Tollefson decided he was done running roads, his wife opted to hit the trails alongside him. With a new challenge came newfound love.

“On the road, I can run as hard as I possibly can and close my eyes and push through the pain. On the trails, I have to open my eyes and actually focus. If I don’t, I’ll fall,” said Lindsay Tollefson, noting that her husband coaxes her normally cautious self to not worry. “To run these races, you have to be fearless.”

Conquering narrow trails and 4,000 feet of climbing, Tollefson ran his first ultramarathon in September 2014 at the USA Track and Field 50k Trail Championships in Bend, Oregon. He won in record time, finishing in 3:24:24, three minutes ahead of the previous course record.

“It was like running a cross country race that never ended,” Tollefson said.     “We were hammering corners, up and down. It was pretty enjoyable.”

The Tollefsons both have completed several other 35K, 50K, and 50-mile trail adventures. In their most challenging moments, Tim Tollefson reminds himself pain is only temporary.

“The pain of quitting lasts so much longer than the physical pain you have after a race,” he said. “Pulling the plug and giving up is something that haunts you.”

This September, Tollefson took on the Courmayeur Champex Chamonix, a nearly 63-mile trek through Italy, Switzerland, and France that includes five major mountain passes and over 20,000 feet of climbing. 

After 12 hours of running, he crossed the finish line in second place. Adrenaline-filled, he bounced up and down in pure excitement, waving and blowing kisses to the crowd.

“It still kind of gives me chills,” he said. “It’s a very emotional and raw experience, and it’s hard to describe without actually going through it. I didn’t win, but in a lot of ways it feels like a victory.”

im Tollefson, left, and wife Lindsay Tollefson at the Lake Sonoma 50-miler in April 2015

im Tollefson, left, and wife Lindsay Tollefson at the Lake Sonoma 50-miler in April 2015

 Marking his Miles  

Moving forward, he plans on taking another shot at the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, which Lindsay Tollefson has already qualified for after reaching the standard in January 2014. She is one of at least six Wildcat alums who have qualified. 

For now, Tollefson will keep running in Mammoth, where he works as a physical therapist and physiologist at the S.P.O.R.T Center and Performance Lab, treating a diverse population of athletes, including runners, cyclists, and skiers.

He has endless trails to train on and the ideal running partner in his wife, who took third place at this year’s USA Track and Field 50k Trail Championships. Both have been signed to the Nike Elite Trail team, and say running together is their favorite adventure.

“We always focus on the same goals and same races. We typically have the same workouts and same race,” Lindsay Tollefson said. “It’s been really nice to have someone to suffer with.”

She fondly remembers her husband’s support at the Long Beach International City Bank Marathon, in which she finished second in 2010. His encouragement was strongest in the last three miles as he ran alongside her, pacing her to an Olympic Trials time.

“There was a lot of pain at that point. He was screaming at me like it was life or death. I was well under the mark, but it was really encouraging,” she said. “He carried me through the whole race to my first Olympic Trials mark, which is pretty special.”

Running ultramarathons fuels two of Tollefson’s greatest passions: spending time with his wife and exploring the majestic mountains he calls home. 

“Just being able to go out and get lost in some amazing wilderness is something that brings me great joy,” he said. “Having that opportunity every day, it seems unfair that I get to do this.”

 Maybe he’s not so crazy after all.

About the Author
Nick Woodard is Chico State's sports information assistant. A senior journalism major, he'll graduate in the spring with a double emphasis in news and public relations, and a minor in creative writing.