Back when she first vied for a spot on her junior high track team, Carrie Tollefson was more interested in family bonding than running. “I tried out for track and field in seventh grade to be with my older sister, Kammie, who was one of the best hurdlers in the state,” says the Dawson, Minn., native. But Tollefson’s motives changed after that tryout race won her a spot on the small town’s high school varsity squad, and she finished an impressive ninth in the state cross-country championships.
What began as a way to connect with her sister soon turned into a passion. “At the state awards ceremony, the top eight finishers got to stand on boxes. Since I finished ninth, I was the first one in the awards lineup not to get my own box,” Tollefson recalls. “I remember telling my mom after the ceremony that I would never stand on the floor again. I said, ‘I want to be on the top box.’”
So that’s just what Tollefson did: She became the first (and only) high school runner in the nation to win five consecutive state cross-country titles.
Today, Tollefson is a professional runner and Olympian. She lives in St. Paul, Minn., with her husband, Charlie Peterson, trains year-round with Team USA Minnesota and travels the globe competing against the world’s top runners.
Tollefson also finds time to coach aspiring Olympians at a Minneapolis high school and will hold her first-ever running camp later this month. The 1999 Villanova grad has also parlayed her communications degree into occasional work as a television commentator for track-and-field events, including the NCAA cross-country championships.
Right now, though, one main event dominates Tollefson’s attention: the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. “Put me in a race and I’m happy there, wherever that may be, but I can hardly wait to get back to the Olympics,” says Tollefson, 30, who captured first place in the 1,500-meter run at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Trials and advanced to the semi-finals at the Olympics in Athens later that summer. “Your first time at the Games, you are taking it all in, and the second time around it’s more serious. Now I can go there and really use my ability and see what I’m made of.”
Olympic hopefuls qualify for the Games by achieving two goals: beating the Olympic qualifying time and placing in the top three at the U.S. Olympic Trials. “We get one day every four years to place in the top three in the country,” says Tollefson. “If you’re not on that day, you have to wait another four years.”
And though Tollefson, better known as a 3K and 5K runner than a miler, topped the U.S. field at the 2004 Olympic Trials, her time (4:08:32) did not meet the Olympic standard. So she hopped on a plane for Europe, where she ran two subpar 1,500s in England before racing to a personal-best 4:06:13 in Belgium and qualifying for Athens.
Tollefson, who is running 1,500-meter and 5K races during the current outdoor season, is now preparing herself for a top-of-the-box performance next July at the U.S. Olympic Trials in Eugene, Ore. She trains twice a day Monday through Friday, does a long run (12 to 18 miles) on Saturday and a recovery run on Sunday, piling up as many as 90 miles a week as part of a grueling schedule that has her competing 49 weeks out of the year.
That includes two or three additional sessions each week to “test her systems.” During these workouts, she does tempo runs (at about 85 percent of her maximum heart rate) and intervals (at about 90 to 95 percent) to build endurance. “I’ll do a 10-mile tempo run on the treadmill, and my pace is right around 5:45 [per mile]. I see a lot of people wondering if I’m going to make it!” she laughs. “I go at top speed, and when I’m done I’m sweating so much, I don’t just have to wipe off the top of the treadmill. I wipe off the whole treadmill!”
It’s all part of her commitment to excellence that has only grown through the years. “There are times when it’s hard, and when my body aches, but this is my true passion,” she says. “I think about running first thing in the morning and last thing at night. When you have an opportunity to be one of the best, it keeps things exciting and fresh.”
And perhaps a little stressful?
“At times, it can be stressful,” she admits. But ultimately, it’s all worth it. “It’s so exciting to see what you are made of as a person and to see if you can use the gifts you’ve been given. It’s nerve-wracking, but so rewarding in the end — just knowing you have tested your will and your strength.”
For information about the Carrie Tollefson Training Camp, scheduled for June 28 to July 1, 2007, in Minneapolis, visit www.carrietollefson.com.