“I gave this guy the hammer (highest team award) for a reason people, that reason is because he committed more than anyone to training his ass off and doing every little thing to be great… He does his core exercises in the summer, he hits every mile Gary (Chico State Cross Country and Track coach) plans for him and he is not afraid to take risks to become great, and it has paid off….for those freshmen out there who don’t think they have what it takes to make it on this team, Gary recommended looking at the improvement from my 1st to 2nd year here, well, I recommend looking at Tim’s improvement over the last 3 years. He was like a lot of you young guys, he ran I think 10:30 in the 2 mile, and 4:29 in the 1600 and had a relatively frustrating first year trying to get those times down, ending as probably a 9:50 2 miler at the end of the year time trial… He is proof that hard work is what it takes to be good and you guys should learn from that….”
–Email Message to Chico State Team in 2006 from Senior Runner, Pat Boivin (Author of this article) with the purpose of encouraging the younger athletes to have a hard summer of training inspired by teammate Tim Tollefson
I’ve had the pleasure of knowing Tim Tollefson since he was in junior high. At that point he was just a solid runner we were looking forward to having on our team at Rocklin High School in the near future. When he got there a couple of years later, despite all our efforts, he couldn’t be convinced to join the cross country team. Soccer was the sport for Tim. Luckily for us, and for his career, he was able to do track in the spring. He showed promise in the sport, but lacked the year round training most distance runner’s require. After I graduated from high school, I continued to try to convince him to do cross country. He finally gave in and ran it his senior year. A couple of stress fractures in one season ended the hopes of building on that season and his track career was capped off by respectable, but unspectacular PR’s. (4:32, 10:28, 17:11 for the 1600, 3200, 5000 respectively)
Not one to be content remaining a mediocre runner through his life, Tim chose to run at Chico State, which had a reputation for developing talent. He was only going to be able to walk on to the team and try to survive amongst an extremely talented incoming class.
Making the travel roster was not going to be an easy task and despite a history of stress fractures Tim refused to hold back in his pursuit of making the team at Chico. His career would be a solid one, and his senior year he was able to be the leader amongst a strong group of athletes in Cross Country. His track career was solid and he left a great mark as a multi-time national qualifier in the steeplechase. A case of Mono his senior year left him a spot away from earning All-American honors in the event. He would graduate with a 9:05 PR in the 3000m Steeple, and a 5k best of a little over 15 minutes.
Since then, Tim has dedicated himself to two things, physical therapy school and becoming the absolute best runner he can be by any means possible. Tim began his post-collegiate career like many do, he joined a club team. He wasn’t fast enough to earn all the perks that come with being part of the elite group of a club team. Nothing about his races indicated he’d have a goal of one day qualifying for the Olympic Trials in the marathon, but he ran some solid races. In 2010, he joined his fellow alumni in the forming of a club looking to make a splash. The Chico Track Club wasn’t going to offer him any of the free shoes or training gear other clubs might offer, but it was going to give him the chance to run while representing his friends, and his alma mater. His career, at least it seemed, got a spark from this. Going into 2011 with a PR in the half marathon of 1 hour 12 minutes, Tim decided he was going to give the Olympic Trials a shot. For perspective, it would require setting a personal best in the half marathon by two and a half minutes, and then doing it again without stopping. Prior to this, his only marathon experience was pacing his fiancé to an Olympic Trials qualifying mark. Somewhere along the 26.2 miles of helping her, he realized he was willing to do whatever it took to join her in Houston at the Trials.
This year began with the Davis Stampede Half Marathon, and a new PR of 1:09:38, still slightly slower than the pace he was going to have to run for 26.2 in order to qualify for the trials himself. While finishing up his class work and racing some low key Pacific Association circuit races for Chico TC, Tim kept his focus on the San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, where he would take his first real step towards running under 2:19. The injury bug crept up on him and forced a reduced training plan in the weeks leading up to the race, but not wanting to waste the months of hard work he put in, he went ahead and ran. He crossed the half way point in a near personal best at 1:12, but in his first real attempt at racing 26.2 miles he met the infamous wall in the closing miles and staggered to the finish in 2:29:22.
The weeks after this race would begin a whirlwind of changes for Tim. He began a series of internships to finish his physical therapy schooling, and also transformed as a runner. With his first internship taking place in Mammoth Lakes, California, an opportunity was born for Tim. Living and training with some of the country’s best athletes allowed him the chance to see first hand what it took to excel at the marathon distance. Tim embraced the chance and dove in and began training with anyone he could. I can personally recall weekly text messages about the tempo or long run he did with Josh Cox and Mike McKeeman (his current coach) that week, and being stunned at the times he was dropping, without even considering he was doing it at altitude.
During his stay in Mammoth, Tim lowered his half marathon PR to 1:08:02 at the America’s Finest City Half Marathon in San Diego. The late summer, and fall months were spent in San Diego, doing the second of three internships, this one much less convenient for training. With long work hours and daylight getting shorter, the majority of his runs began around 5 a.m. (Suggested Read: Finding Motivation to Run in the Morning) He had little time for double days, so he focused on quality single day sessions and got the most out of weekend workouts he could. His focus remained on the next marathon, and on running a smarter, more balanced approach. The Chicago Marathon fell on a weekend in between his San Diego internship, and his final internship in Gulf Breeze, Florida. In order to satisfy his obligation to the internship he drove across the country, alone, stopping only a few times to rest where he had family or friends. He arrived in Chicago ready to run, but certainly not under ideal circumstances. He took the race as a chance to go after a quality time, but didn’t chase the Olympic Trials standards. He finished in what all of his friends considered an amazing race, 2:21:59.
Few people would walk away from that race with a plan on dropping 3 minutes only 8 weeks later, but Tim wasted no time figuring out how to fit the California International Marathon into his internship schedule. Being the most ideal last chance race available, and also a hometown event with his team, left no doubt in his mind that’s where he needed to put it all on the line. A week off to recover from Chicago, then 7 weeks back on the early morning running schedule and Tim would find himself in much better shape than he could have expected. The only thing standing between him and his dream was a 2,300 mile trek across the U.S. Since he was unable to leave his internship until midweek, Tim only drove a portion of the way, about 12 hours. He drove to Dallas, Texas, hopped on a flight to Sacramento, and arrived Friday night.
After warming up with Tim in the hour before the race, I knew he was ready to go. He had a confidence that was surprisingly strong for a guy who needed to chop 3 minutes off his best time in order to achieve what he had spent so much time and effort aiming for. The race itself could truly best be described with one word, perfect. The weather was good, the pacing was smooth, and his body was ready to go. The pack of runners with the same dream as Tim cruised through the half way point in 1:09:38. It didn’t take long for the race’s victims to start falling back. The pack of runners on pace dwindled to 4 guys by mile 20. When most people usually find themselves hitting the wall, such as Tim had experienced before, he suddenly found himself clicking off the fastest miles of his race.
Watching Tim round the final turn, I saw a look on his face that could only be summed up in one word, priceless. Pure happiness completely took over the fatigue his body surely felt. He spent the entire final 150 meters in a personal celebration, while his friends and family along with the masses cheered loudly on the side of the course. 2:18:26.
Describing Tim’s journey to this point is no easy task. He was never expected to be an Olympic Trials qualifier. He defied odds and shocked even those that believed in him most. As this article is written, the man who should be on top of the world, who is receiving constant attention and headlines broadcasted across running’s hottest websites, is humbly driving in his car. Finishing up the final miles of the drive home to Sacramento, concluding a journey that only few ever get the chance to attempt.
If you’d like to follow the next journey for Tim, you can hear great advice, awesome workout details, and more by checking him out on twitter @TimTollefson and @ChicoTC
About the Author: Patrick Boivin was a 4-time Cross Country All-American while at Chico State, and has been coaching at the collegiate level for the last 6 years, beginning at Chico State and now overseeing the cross country and distance programs at Soka University in Orange County, CA. Patrick is still an avid runner, currently representing Chico TC club based out of Northern California.