Tim Tollefson appeared to have everything as a runner. He was a collegiate steeplechase champion, a 2-time US Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier, and is one of the country’s most accomplished ultra runners. He podiumed at UTMB in both his 100K and 100 mile debuts, and went on to win the Javelina Jundred, Lavaredo Ultra Trail 120K, and the Ultra Trail Australia 100K.
But appearances can be deceiving, and a focus on appearances can be devastating. Tim suffered from body dysmorphia and its accompanying OCD for two decades. As he relates in What Goes Unsaid, a film project he participated in last year for World Mental Health Day, “I’ve spent a lifetime hating myself for what I’m not, instead of being thankful for what I am.” Now, largely through his involvement with the running community, he’s come to appreciate running for the gift that it is.
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Tim fell in love with running when he was in grade school, but it quickly became a way for him to find acceptance. “That’s not to say there haven’t been moments of pure joy throughout my career,” he says, “but I think the last time I just loved running for pure running was when I was a child.”
He was bullied in school, but that changed when the other kids became aware of his running ability. “After a long period of being on the short end of receiving a lot of hurtful and harmful things, I was able to display that I had some value as a runner and that kind of won the bullies over. Suddenly I had something to give, and I was sort of accepted into the athletic domain, if you will. And in that group were a lot of the people that had been pushing me around. So I think through achievement, it started highlighting that, ‘Oh, this kid has something of value that we want.’ And that started to muddy my view of running and sport at an early age.”
In high school, he was exposed to the greater running culture, and its dominant view that thin equals fast. “It started to really plant seeds in my head that to be accepted or stay in this tribe, I needed to conform and look a certain way or show up a certain way. And so throughout high school, I’d say there was a lot of joy in running, but then I was much more cognizant of my body.”
Tim’s desire to be what he saw as the physical ideal of a runner increased when he went to college. As a collegiate athlete, he says, “You’re surrounded by top performers and you’ve weeded out a lot of the individuals from the high school scene that are no longer competing. And I think it gets worse every level you get up higher, you’re kind of going through this fine filter where only a few people remain. And it’s easy to cherry pick external aesthetics as to why these people might be successful. When in reality, you know, each person has gotten there with a much different set of circumstances.
“There’s that pressure cooker; there’s a four year window. This is your chance; it’s now or never. So it kind of promotes that, ‘Let’s do anything we can to be successful.’ And I feel like in running, in particular, weight is that low-hanging fruit that we can manipulate. So we latch on to it very quickly. I connected the dots that I need to change my body to be successful in this sport.”
But instead of making him more successful, cutting calories caused his performance to suffer. As time went on, his obsession with his weight impacted more than his running. “I got to the point where a lot of this stuff was bleeding over from my athletic career into daily life, where I was feeling suffocated and I wasn’t able to be present or show up at work or in relationships. And it just got to a point where I was really drowning in my own thoughts, and I could not not fixate on food and calories and the way my body looked.
“I started avoiding social situations. I wouldn’t even make it to dinner without losing my control, or what I thought was control, around food. So then I was afraid to go to dinner because I was already past my daily quota of calories, and going out would have just caused me even more anxiety. That led to a lot of withdrawing from society and from relationships, and then in that isolation, these thoughts we tell ourselves, or the thoughts that automatically happen and that we latch on to, they’re in an echo chamber and aren’t checked with reality. And I think it’s easy for you then to drink your own story of why the world is the way it is. And it’s not until you give voice to these things that are threatening, or that you’re fearful of, that you start to realize that once you change the way you see things, the things you see start to change.”
Tim finally reached out for help to try to understand why he was behaving in such a self-destructive way. Getting involved with the running community, beyond competing himself, has helped him reframe his own relationship with the sport. He serves as a pacer for other elite runners, volunteers at the California International Marathon, and puts on the Mammoth Trail Fest, a multi-day experience in California’s Eastern Sierra. “There’s beauty in taking the focus off of yourself and putting it on to someone else. And that in turn has allowed me to enjoy running again for the first time in decades.
“Running was a tool I had that was being used to manipulate my body or my food choices, or to try and acquire some status or acceptance or love in a perceived tribe that I was chasing. And if I didn’t have a race on the calendar, if I was injured, I felt like I was hopeless, like I wasn’t gonna run if I couldn’t do these things. I started recognizing that my ‘why’ that was driving everything was not sustainable. It wasn’t a healthy ‘why’ to build a foundation of love for the sport. So now, as I shift that focus towards serving our community or offering opportunities for people to do things that I had the fortune to do, it’s allowed me to really re-fall in love with running and appreciate what a gift running is, because just the act of running is a gift.
“But at the same time, I find myself battling this thought that I’ve given up on my athletic aspirations myself, because those seeds that were planted as an adolescent and nurtured inappropriately for so many years are still there. And I have a hard time battling the thought that, ‘Oh, if I am not counting my calories or if I’m not weighing myself, do I even care about elite performance?’ I know the answer is, ‘Of course, I do’, but I have to challenge these automatic, deep-seated beliefs that I hold and that’s been a struggle. But it’s something that I also am looking towards as a challenge. I think that as I confront those little mini-demons that I have, it will allow me to then self-actualize and get the most out of what I have in the remaining year or two of my pro career that I think I still have. And so that fills me with hope that there’s still something out there to chase.”
As part of his recovery journey, Tim is trying to be kinder to himself, a practice that he believes would benefit everyone. “It’s a very hard thing to do, practicing that self-love or self-acceptance. I struggle with it daily. But the moments that I find it clicks, when what I’m doing aligns with what my true values are, it’s so much more rewarding and life feels richer. I just would encourage people to be kind with yourself because you’re never gonna have it perfect. There’s not some mountain top where you hit and now you’re the sustainable runner, or now you have a great relationship with food, or now you fill-in-the-blank. I think it’s embracing our imperfections and realizing that those aren’t inadequacies. Rather, celebrate what makes you unique and just lean into that self love.”
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