Tim Tollefson competing in a trail running race

Q&A: Tim Tollefson Has His Sights on the Western States 100 Endurance Run

The Western States Endurance Run is the world’s oldest 100-mile trail race. It’s also one of the world’s most storied ultramarathons. To learn more about what to expect during his first Western States, Julbo ambassador Jeff Colt interviewed ultramarathon veteran Tim Tollefson. Both athletes will toe the line this weekend in Olympic Village, California.

Jeff, 31, has been working to get into Western States since 2017 and earned a Golden Ticket to this year’s Western States after placing third in February’s Black Canyon 100K. Tim, 37, placed fifth in last year’s Western States and has competed in ultramarathons for nearly a decade, twice placeing third at the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, arguably the world’s premier ultramarathon. Both athletes will toe the line at Olympic Village, California, this Saturday, racing 100-miles across the Sierra Nevada.

Jeff and Tim connected a week ago to talk about what makes Western States so unique, the finer points of nutrition and hydration for running 100 miles and how Tim has prepared mentally and physically to run his best race.

Tim Tollefson crosses a snowfield during Italy's Lavaredo Ultra Trail in 2019. [Photo] Courtesy Lavaredo Ultra Trail

JEFF COLT: Why does WS100 stand out as special?

TIM TOLLEFSON: The community around it and the history of the event dating back to the mid ’70s…it’s one of the original 100-mile races in the U.S., and it’s a very special event to be a part of, given it has become a proving ground for athletes in each generation. It’s a grand privilege to participate in this race, which is really like the Boston Marathon of our sport.=.

JEFF COLT: What about the course stands out as special?

TIM TOLLEFSON: What’s neat about the States course is how varied the entire hundred miles is. The first 50km we could label “the high country.” It’s a little more high altitude—singletrack, rocky terrain as you’re going through the alpine. On a snow year you could be encountering a lot of runoff and postholing. It can be a great opportunity for runners to dig themselves into an anaerobic hole that they can’t get out of when they enter the more runnable terrain.

The next big section is the Canyons, from 30 miles to mile 60. You’re dealing with quad-punishing descents and lung-busting climbs—three doses in a row, right as the day starts to heat up.

On paper, States really is a runnable 100, especially the last 38 miles—no significant climbs. But because of the first two sections, most people get to Foresthill and they’ve blown their quads and they’ve depleted all of their glycogen. So really the third part of the race, which is when the race really starts, is from Foresthill to the finish. But if you don’t have the legs and you can’t run, you’re reduced to a pedestrian pace despite feeling like you should be able to rip it.

JEFF COLT: What is your approach for 100-mile races, and how do you change that strategy for WS100?

TIM TOLLEFSON: I’m a believer for every ultra: last half, best half. But something like States, especially, you’re going to give back tenfold any time you make up in the first 62 if you’re too aggressive. And that’s what really gets people. If you’re reduced to a hobble along Cal Street and from Green Gate to the finish, you’re hemorrhaging time. 

For any ultra, I focus on emotional control, where I know I want to close and finish strong. I’d rather hunt than be hunted. For something like States, I have to be especially cognizant of my nutrition. When you’re dealing with really hot temperatures, you can’t get by with some of the errors you make in your nutritional plan like you can on a cool mountain course. I’ve had to prioritize training myself to eat while running, training my mind to be OK with taking in calories while running because I’m not going to finish where I want to without that steady drip in my system.

For Western States, I want to be a leaf in a stream. I’m going to run with the terrain, not against it. There will be parts when it’ll be flowing faster and I’m just going to let it go, but I’m not forcing the pace.

Then there will be times when we encounter terrain that slows us down or maybe we get caught up in a little eddy and spiral a bit, and you just ride it out. But knowing that if you’re just smooth and flow throughout the entire course…that gives you the best opportunity not to burn too many matches early and to actually have legs when it matters in the last 20 miles.

JEFF COLT: The path of least resistance, in some ways?

TIM TOLLEFSON: Yes. Be like water.

Jeff Colt, of Carbondale, Colorado, placed third in February's Black Canyon 100K, earning his spot at this year's Western State 100. [Photo] Amanda Cortese

JEFF COLT: In the first five hours of the race, what is your strategy for remaining calm and ensuring you are conservative?

TIM TOLLEFSON: A big focus for my ultrarunning has been to tap into some of these mental strategies and practices I’ve developed to be present and remain in the moment. I think that is incredibly important so I don’t get caught up in other people’s races. I need to focus on what's best for myself, and if that means letting other guys go early, I want to remain in the moment and focus on myself. The first 5.5 hours is going to be about focusing on my nutrition and letting my breath control my effort. Then I’ll be able to fight when it matters most. 

JEFF COLT: I like to think of ultras as long-distance eating competitions, as we are typically competing against a course, the conditions and our own self-care or ability to keep fueled. It sounds like your strategy is to really force the nutrition and hydration, but trying to be more effortless with the pace and the course. How have you been training for the conditions and the inevitable heat?

TIM TOLLEFSON: I’m wrapping up my heat training protocol this week. It’s been a blend of ambient temperature outside running in Bishop, California, near my house and supplementing that with hot soaks. I feel like heat training is a really good way to work on mindful practice and coming back to your breath. It’s a challenge: You’re not moving, there’s nothing to stimulate your mind, you have to just sit with the discomfort, and I feel like that’s really good prep for an ultra. I sometimes feel like a 30-minute soak is harder than my four-hour long run.

[Photo] Tim Tollefson

JEFF COLT: Looking back on your effort last year, what do you think you did right and what did you miss the mark on?

TIM TOLLEFSON: I ran my own race early, which I was proud of. I didn’t get caught up in what others were doing, and I let people go early, so I set myself up for a chance. But what I really messed up was my nutrition. I knew I was behind, but I consciously made the decision not to try and make a change. That ultimately really bit me. As I was coming out of Michigan Bluff, I was on empty, and I dug myself into a hole that took a long time to get out of. 

JEFF COLT: What are the actionable steps you're going to take with nutrition, hydration and cooling to mitigate the effects of heat?

 Nutritionally, I’m committed to consuming 350 calories an hour or more of Gu products that I’ve been using in training. For cooling strategies, the usual: Keep my body as wet as possible, I’ll be wearing a shirt and a hat, and I like having sunglasses on where I can create my own oasis outside of the heat. In my little head bubble, things will feel nice and cool. At all of the aid stations from Michigan Bluff on, I’ll dawn an ice bandana, as I think there is a psychological benefit of feeling cooler. Wherever I am able to, I’ll soak in water if it’s available. Then, lastly, I’ll focus on controlling my breath. If your breathing gets out of control and your heart rate spikes, you end up burning through special stores that need to be preserved for the end of the race. It’s all about controlling my heart rate. 

JEFF COLT: What has your training looked like for Western States?

TIM TOLLEFSON: My training has been solid. There haven’t been any hero workouts, but what I’ve learned in my career is that I don’t really need those. While that can be good for confidence, I think just stacking consistency is what pays off. I’ve had six or seven really solid weeks. No weeks on Strava that people are drooling over, but for me, I know it’s gotten me to a place physically where I know I am ready to handle the demands of the course. I feel like I wanted to do more, which is always a better place than feeling like I’m one-percent overtrained.

A lot of the intention over the last couple months has been focusing on my mindset and psychological preparation to be much more comfortable with myself and why I’m doing these things. I feel like I’m in a better emotional state than I ever have been heading into an ultra. For that reason, I’ve been able to be much more present during my training blocks. I wasn’t worried about getting to the race healthy or what the outcome is going to be, so in a lot of ways it feels like I’ve already won. This journey on the 25th with everyone else is just going to be a bonus track. 

[Photo] Jeff Colt

JEFF COLT: What does your taper look like the next two weeks?

TIM TOLLEFSON: My typical training focuses on mileage and vert. So this block has been working toward 90-100 miles a week with roughly 20,000 feet of climbing. As I look forward to this week, I’ll be wrapping up my heat protocol, and I’ll probably put in about 80 percent volume of my typical week. I’ll spend more time letting myself visualize the race. The race week I’ll drop my mileage to 60 percent of a normal week and just cruise in. I’ll spend time with loved ones and get myself in a good mental space where I’m ready to suffer.

Tim Tollefson won the 2019 Lavaredo Ultra Trail. [Photo] Courtesy Lavaredo Ultra Trail

JEFF COLT: In my short career, I’ve attributed more and more success to my mental health and headspace than to my fitness on race day. When you talk about that mental space, what are you trying to tap into?

TIM TOLLEFSON: That’s a good question and I agree. I think the mental aspect is so much more powerful than the physical. Everyone is fit enough, and we’re likely never actually going to run our true potential, cause the central governor in our brain shuts us down early, but if you can learn to override that, that comes from the mental side.

In my mind, I visualize my goal of having my best day out there, and I do believe that my best day could be a victory, but I’m not focusing on that. I focus on what I need to do to have my best day. That would be taking care of myself, nutrition, cooling strategies, listening to my crew—so I really start to visualize those aspects knowing that, when those stack together, I’ll have my best day.

JEFF COLT: Anything else you want to share about States?

TIM TOLLEFSON: It’s really not hard on paper to be top 10 at States if your goal is to be top 10 at States—you just have to run with emotional control through Foresthill, and you’re going to mow people down in the final 38. Practice that emotional control, run within yourself, take care of yourself. If you go out and aim for a top-5 finish, maybe you’re gambling a little bit, but if you want to be top 10, dude, you’re going to be top 10 if you just run smart.