Race directors are busy people. Race directors who are also full-time athletes are the ultimate definition of a Type A Energizer Bunny. Several weeks ago, I was on a phone call with race director and elite trail runner, Tim Tollefson, before his event, The Mammoth Trail Fest. Only minutes into our conversation he had to put down the phone and take another call regarding race logistics.
“Working as a race director can sometimes feel never ending,” jokes Tollefson when he returned to the phone to carry on our conversation, “But it’s also been a really fun challenge. It’s pushing me in new ways that my running career never has before.”
Tollefson founded the Mammoth Trail Fest in 2022 (Mammoth Lakes, CA), and now in its second year the event is already one of the most competitive trail running races in the United States and has earned the designation as part of the 2023 Golden Trail World Series.
Elite athletes from around the world such as Remi Bonnet, Judith Wyder, Dani Moreno, and Max King, have competed in this event. In the following article, I catch up with Tollefson about the goals of his event, how he juggles both a professional running career and race directing, and his upcoming role as the keynote speaker at the 2023 US Trail Running Conference. Featured photo courtesy Miguel Rua.
Inspired by Europe, celebrating community in the U.S.
Tollefson has raced in Europe on the largest stages in the sport countless times. His top performances include a top-five finish at the Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run, two-time podium at the Speedgoat 50K, Canyons 100K champion, Lavaredo 120K Ultra Trail champion, 2nd place at UTMB-CCC, Ultra Trail Australia champion, and a third place finish at UTMB.
Many regard UTMB as the greatest event in long distance trail running, and his third place finish is still one of the highest by an American male in the history of the race. From his travels racing overseas, Tollefson was inspired to create his own unique event, The Mammoth Trail Fest, that would incorporate ideas from his favorite competitions, “There’s many factors at play and I’ve taken inspiration from my world travels. I’ve taken pieces of events I’ve loved and shaped them into something that would fit for our area and community here in Mammoth Lakes, California.”
Although large “UTMB-style” races have had success in the past several decades in Europe, copying this format was not exactly what Tollefson had in mind for Mammoth Trail Fest. The United States has yet to garner crowds and participant numbers as high as those in Europe, and for many American race directors, Tollefson included, participant numbers alone are not goal, “I love UTMB but it’s very impersonal,” says Tollefson, “A swarm of 50,000 people doesn’t allow for that same intimate feel as some of our more popular American races such as the Broken Arrow Skyrace or The Rut. The Rut and Broken Arrow are large by US standards, though still small when compared to European races, but they have a large community. That is something special we have here stateside. One of our goals at Trailfest is to bring in new folks while introducing them to the amazing trail running culture we have established here in the U.S.”
Athlete-RD or RD-athlete?
From his experience over the past decade as a professional trail runner, Tollefson has become closely attuned to the needs of other elite runners. This has helped him in his race directing career to create an event that caters towards the front of the pack, but he admits he had some blindspots when it came to his goal of creating an event for all participants, “It’s been a huge growth opportunity for me taking on this role as race director at Mammoth Trail Fest. In our first year in 2022, I made some mistakes. I was thinking like a front of the pack runner. I didn’t recognize how the needs of a 3 hour and 12 hour 50K runner are much different and it was a good opportunity to step outside of what I thought I knew about this sport and reach out to others in the community for advice. We’re learning to make the event better every year and a welcome experience for all types of runners.”
A career in professional running also left Tollefson with an understanding of the importance of drug testing at trail running events. As the sport continues to grow, and sponsorship, prize money, and media exposure increases, so too does the need for “clean sport” initiatives that educate athletes on how to steer clear of performance enhancing drugs and tainted substances. Tollefson elaborates, “Having drug testing at our event is something we’re really proud of. We feel it’s important we focus on and preserve the integrity of the sport for those who are pouring their lives into it. Our athletes are tested by USADA (US Anti Doping Agency), the highest standard of testing in the U.S.”
Tollefson describes the process of working with USADA for other race directors who are interested in doing the same at their events, “USADA was very excited to work with us. They have the athletes interests at heart and are first and foremost an educational institution. They want to work with athletes. But for athletes who have never gone through this process, it can be scary. That’s why we put on live educational conferences before the race for our athletes, agents and anyone interested to educate them on what the process of drug testing was like. We hope to set up a framework at Mammoth Trail Fest for drug testing at trail running events so other races can jump in without overworking themselves.”
Tip: Want to learn more about “Clean Sport?” Read our article Call For Clean Sport: A Conversation In Trail Running.
Tollefson still finds time for his own career as a professional athlete, but he admits that his role as race director is filling him up in ways that running alone never had, “My individual career is still very important to me and I have goals I’m chasing, but what I look forward to most everyday is diving into my work for Trailfest and figuring out how we can make this experience better for our runners. That leads to more conversations and connections in the sport, which fills me up a lot. Being able to use my experience in the ultra running world, or talking with mentors such as race directors Craig Thornley (Western States 100 Mile Endurance Run), Jamil Coury (Aravaipa Running) or Julie Fingar (Way Too Cool 50K) and putting parts of our experiences together to test the ways we can leverage this platform to make positive changes we want to see in this sport.”
Keynote Speaker at US Trail Running Conference
The US Trail Running Conference, now in its eleventh year, is geared towards race directors, brands and trail running athletes and enthusiasts who want to learn more about and celebrate trail running. Event director, Terry Chiplin, reached out to Tollefson with hopes of bringing new perspectives to the 2023 conference and being part of creating a brighter future for the sport.
Tollefson describes the process of how the opportunity came about to join the conference, “I have a general life philosophy of saying yes to everything and weeding things out afterwards. I had one very impactful conversation with Terry Chiplin that turned into interest about the conference and wanting to be more involved. My vision for Trailfest aligned very much with the conference and Terry asked if I’d be willing to give the keynote speech on the opening day. I’ve followed the conference for several years from afar and I can’t wait to finally take part.”
Tollefson’s keynote will focus on The Mammoth Trail Fest’s three pillars of “sustainability, stewardship and community building” as well as “Out-of the box thinking on marketing of how to build an event.” Tollefson elaborates further on his intention for the speech, “The conference has been somewhat old school in years prior, but now we’re approaching a new wave of race directing and development of events. I’d like to share what I’ve done to help the Trailfest take off as quickly as it has these past two years.”
Tip: Read our recap from the 2022 US Trail Running Conference.
Trailfest celebrates a healthier mental approach to racing
Although the Mammoth Trail Fest is quickly becoming one of the most competitive trail races in the U.S., Tollefson retains a commitment to establishing a friendly and not overly competitive feel for all participants. Over the past several years, Tollefson has been outspoken about the importance of mental health for runners. He advocates for healthier ways to deal with the stress of wins, losses, and DNFs (Did Not Finish) all the way from the front of the pack (where Tollefson usually finds himself) to the back of the pack.
Tollefson explains his focus on promoting a healthy mental space at the Mammoth Trail Fest, “Promoting mental health at the Mammoth Trail Fest was something I subconsciously leaned into because of my own struggles over the past few years. This is something that affects thousands of runners, not just those with the pressure of making a podium or pleasing sponsors. We dedicated our first night of the festival to discussion panel topics about life loss, failures and reminding people it’s ok not to finish a race. We are always worth more than our results. I told all of our runners, ‘I want you all to finish but you may not and that doesn’t mean you won’t have a great time out on course.’ Learn, connect, grow and don’t go home disappointed because your race didn’t go the way you hoped. I’ve had so many races where I’ve felt great going into the race but didn’t have the race I wanted. I then spent the day depressed and not talking to anyone, missing out on great opportunities to be in the community.”
Tollefson encourages his runners to lose the pressure of always obtaining good results and instead recognize that no matter what happens, there are so many ways at his event to have a great time. Tollefson concludes, “It’s important to acknowledge how powerful race directors and the full community of runners are. We can make changes if we want to and make a healthier racing space for everyone.”
Follow Tim Tollefson here. Curious to learn more about Tollefson’s journey to a healthier mental space? Watch his documentary with Outside. Stay tuned for the American Trail Running Association’s coverage of the US Trail Running Conference, featuring Tim Tollefson’s keynote speech, October 18 to 20, 2023.