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Ultrarunner Tim Tollefson shares mental health challenges in new film

As the California-based runner reveals, male athletes as well as females may be affected by eating disorders

Tim Tollefson Photo by: Andy Cochrane

Tim Tollefson is a celebrated American ultratrail runner with wins at big races like the Javelina Jundred, Lavaredo Ultra Trail 120K and Ultra Trail Australia 100K; in 2017 he was third overall at Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB), finishing well under 20 hours. But then followed a string of failures, including at this year’s UTMB, which went badly from the start, forcing him to drop out about four hours in. (Tollefson went into the race with a positive COVID result.) A new film, What Goes Unsaid, reveals something only those closest to Tollefson knew previously–alongside his many successes and the admiration of his fans, for years Tollefson has been dealing with poor mental health and an eating disorder.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Tim Tollefson (@timtollefson)

Tollefson, who is sponsored by Coros, had a tough adjustment when his family moved from rural Minnesota to the Auburn, Calif. (the sight of the iconic Western States 100 finish) when he was 10, and he was bullied– for wearing glasses, for his accent and his haircut. He started running in middle school, which helped him feel more accepted. But it also made him want to be leaner, and more like the other runners’ body types he observed on the team; and since he wasn’t the only one trying to eat less to force his body to conform to an “ideal” body weight, he didn’t realize how insidious and dangerous it could be. 

Tollefson qualified for the 2012 Olympic Marathon trials, but struggled in his brief marathon career, ultimately switching to trail running, which he hoped would bring greater success (and therefore self-acceptance). UTMB represented, in his mind, the acme of achievement in the ultratrail world–and he describes his 2017 podium finish, where he broke 20 hours (along with winner François D’Haene and runner-up Kilian Jornet) as the best race of his career. (He finished third in 2016 also.)

But the euphoria was short-lived. In 2018, he returned to UTMB and DNF’d–and again in 2019 and 2021. In the flim, he reveals that, even during the good years, he would almost be paralyzed with anxiety over being seen by others, and by perfectionism, severe body dysmorphia and obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Interestingly, this is one of the reasons he was attracted to UTMB: it starts in the evening, and much of the first half of the race takes place in darkness. By the time the sun rises, he has run long enough to feel slightly less bad about being seen. “I feel thin again, because I’ve run for 12 hours,” says Tollefson.

 
Tim Tollefson
Photo: Andy Cochrane

Tollefson says it’s not the running, or the altitude, that strikes fear into his heart–it’s being seen by other runners. He says he has been counting calories since 2003, and he only sought therapy recently. He now recognizes that what he sees when he looks in the mirror is distorted and not real. 

Having grown up in the area and competed at Placer High (where Western States runners finish), Tollefson avoided it until 2021. He admits he was always critical of the race, whose course is not as technical or as spectacular as UTMB’s. Ultimately, he realized he was holding it to an unfair standard–much as he had always done to himself and his body. And he decided to run it.

Tim Tollefson
Photo: Andy Cochrane

He finished fifth last year, and as his fans already know, this year he finished, but not without struggling mightily–against dehydration and a powerful urge to quit. He placed 33rd overall, with a time of 20:41:28. “I decided that I wasn’t going to give up on myself,” Tollefson told filmmaker Billy Yangwho was commentating, after finishing. He also felt he owed it to his crew the volunteers and the runners who didn’t make it off the waitlist, to finish. 

He shares his story now in the hope that it will encourage others to do the same. Several female athletes (including Olympic bronze medallist Molly Seidel, trail runner Amelia Boone and steeplchaser Allie Ostrander) have shared their stories, but as Tollefson’s makes clear, eating disorders are not limited to female athletes. (Canadian beer miler Corey Bellemore opened up about his own experience during the pandemic.) “When other people share things publicly, and I relate or emphathize, it makes me feel less alone,” he says. “I’ve never had the confidence to reach out to those people and say thank you, but I know it has an impact.”

 

 

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