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The exclusive group of 211 men and 246 women who have qualified for next month’s U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon is actually comprised of smaller, even more exclusive cliques, like “A” qualifiers (27 men and 42 women), sub-2:12 men (9), sub-2:30 women (10), and Olympians (7 men and 16 women).
But perhaps the most exclusive group are married couples. There are only four: Esther and Cole Atkins, Sara and Ryan Hall, Emma and Drew Polley, and Lindsay and Tim Tollefson. However, since Cole Atkins scratched with a foot injury and Ryan Hall retired from elite competition earlier this month, only the Polleys and the Tollefsons both plan to be on the starting line in Los Angeles on Sunday, February 13.
Recently, in a series of telephone interviews, both couples shared their paths to the Trials and hopes for race day with Race Results Weekly.
Californians Lindsay and Tim Tollefson, both 30, ran together at Chico State, graduating in 2008. They currently live in the thin air of Mammoth Lakes, Calif., the same high-altitude ski town which has long been home to Olympic Marathon bronze medalist Deena Kastor. Lindsay works as a property manager while Tim is a physical therapist; both have flexible schedules which allow enough time for training.
Before they were married in May, 2012 (Lindsay’s maiden name was Nelson), they both competed in the 2012 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Houston where Lindsay finished 130th in 2:52:55, and Tim was 79th in 2:27:00. Tim readily admitted that he had a less-than-stellar day. The race was this third marathon in three months, both shoes came untied, and he really felt like dropping out. He also had a messy infection in his foot the month before the race which seriously hampered his training.
“Although my official time in Houston was a far cry from what I am capable of accomplishing, I am 100 percent proud of it,” Tim wrote on his blog at the time. He continued: “I had a staph infection in my foot, which forced me to take off significant time from training. My focus changed from the Trials to keeping my foot (healthy) as it ballooned to nearly twice its size in 24 hours.”
After those Trials, the newly-wed Tollefsons made a plan to qualify again for 2016. They targeted the 2013 California International Marathon in Sacramento with its gently downhill course and typically cool, December weather. For Lindsay, it was a great day. She finished 11th, ran a personal best 2:41:31, and easily made the then-prevailing “B” qualifying standard of 2:43:00. But Tim wasn’t so lucky. He ran 2:18:29, 29 seconds over the men’s then-prevailing “B” standard of 2:18:00.
“We went into 2013 hoping that we were both going to knock out our qualifiers that day,” Tim explained. “It turned out that I was 29 seconds slow.” He added: “I guess I was distraught, as I came down the final 100 meters and I could see the clock tick by. But, I was excited because she (Lindsay) was on pace for a personal best and a qualifier.”
With the Trials more than two years off, Tim wasn’t worried about qualifying again, and Lindsay shared that view.
“It wasn’t too big of a deal, because we know there were more opportunities to hit it again,” Lindsay recalled. “We know we could try again in a couple of months.”
But Tim never hit the 2:18:00 standard. He ran 2:19:43 at Grandma’s Marathon in Duluth in June, 2014, a race he had really dedicated himself to in his training. He was crushed.
“I spent the entire spring training for Grandma’s Marathon,” he lamented. “I ran 2:19 at Grandmas Marathon and I was really frustrated.”
Tim decided that he needed a break from marathons, and began to explore his passion for mountain and trail running. He entered the USA 50K Trail Championships in Bend, Ore., in September, 2014. He not only won the race, bagging his first national title, but he set a course record.
“I’m going to put marathoning on the back burner,” he recalled telling himself. “It was really nice in the sense of (giving up) such structured and pace-oriented practice, and just go out and reignite the passion.”
Tollefson stuck with trail and ultrarunning in 2015 (he’s sponsored by Nike in their trail running program), and the 2:18 marathon never came. He began to accept that there would be no Olympic Marathon Trials for him in 2016 and he was fine with that. Instead, he arranged to run in a 125K ultramarathon in the Canary Islands three weeks later, part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour.
“It’s a very competitive field,” Tim said of the race in Spain. “One hundred twenty-five kilometers, up and over the main island, Gran Canaria. It traverses the volcano with about 6,000 feet of climbing. It’s basically the exact opposite of the LA Trials.”
But last December Tim got an unexpected gift. USA Track & Field had to soften the men’s Trials entry standard to 2:19:00 to be in compliance with the IAAF’s revised Olympic Game standards (the women’s standard was also softened to 2:45:00). Suddenly, Tollefson was a qualifier, which he called “an early Christmas present.”
“I remember Lindsay and I were running along Green Church Road in Mammoth,” Tim said. “A friend texted me ‘congrats.’ Congrats for what? I haven’t done anything.”
But due to his lack of dedicated marathon training, and Lindsay’s battle with a mysterious nerve problem which sometimes sends pain down both of her legs, the Tollefsons have tempered their expectations for the Trials. The race has become more about the honor of taking part in the once-every-four-year ritual by which the United States selects its Olympic Marathon team. The USA remains the only country with a binding, one-day, cutthroat trial.
“At this point I’d be happy to finish without having pain,” said Lindsay. “I don’t want to be running 6:30 (per mile) pace and finish. If I’m running low-mid 6’s, that would be great. That’s sort of the reality of where I’m at, and it sucks.”
Tim adds: “It’s a very special event. We get the question a lot from people, once we explain to them that we have no shot of making the top three. Non-runners don’t understand it. For a lot of us, making the Trials is our Olympics.”
Drew, 30, and Emma, 25, live in Seattle and are still newlyweds (they were married in November). Drew works as an environmental consultant (he’s an environmental engineer), while Emma works 25 hours a week as a barista.
“I’m not very good just having running on my plate for the day,” said Emma.
Drew is a seasoned marathoner, and qualified under the previous 2:18:00 standard at the same race as Lindsay Tollefson, the 2013 California International Marathon. In fact, he finished eighth in 2:17:23, three places ahead of Tim Tollefson. A year later at the same race, he ran 2:18:50, a mark which became a second qualifier after USATF loosened the standard to 2:19:00 last December. He doesn’t have a coach.
“I’ve been self-coached for last couple of years,” said Drew. “I’ve considered getting a coach, but with my work schedule it’s hard. For the time being I’m self-coached.”
Drew, who competed for Washington State during his NCAA career, ran the 2012 Trials and had a successful day. He finished 21st in 2:14:58, still his personal best. He’s turned optimistic about next month’s Trials, but only recently.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised in the last couple of months,” Drew said. “I’ve been able to run really high mileage; I don’t think I’m quite in the shape I was in the last Trials, but think I’m in 2:16 shape right now.” He added: “I’m really happy with where I am.”
But for Emma, the marathon is still new territory. The 2012 Mid-American Conference 5000m champion (both indoors and out) for the University of Toledo, she’s only covered the distance once, at the California International Marathon in 2014 where she finished 22nd in 2:42:11. Call her a reluctant marathoner.
“I wasn’t really sure at that point if I wanted to run a marathon, ever,” Emma recalled before starting her first marathon build-up with Drew coaching her. “I was really intimidated by the distance at that point.” She continued: “After seeing Drew get his qualifier, seeing him go through the training, I thought maybe I can do that.”
But having her husband coach her brought new strains to their relationship, something they can laugh about now.
“It was good for the most part,” said Emma, who is now coached by Mike Morgan. “We had a few disagreements just because I like to do track workouts a lot, and there isn’t a whole lot of place for track workouts in a marathon build-up.” She added: “There was a lot of whining on my side.”
“I can’t lie,” said Drew playfully. “It definitely put some pressure on there. That’s why I knew I had to get out of coaching (Emma). It’s hard when your fiance tells you she doesn’t want to do something.”
But under Coach Morgan, a 2:14:22 marathoner who was coached by Kevin and Keith Hanson of the Hanson Brooks Original Distance Project, Emma has embraced marathon training and is optimistic about the Trials.
“I’ve had a little more than a year under my belt and felt like I could have a little more of a bigger goal,” she said. “So, I’ve worked out 6:02 as a goal pace, about 2:38. That would be a great day for me. That would be a great progression.”
Drew may not be Emma’s coach anymore, but he’s the voice of experience. His best advice to avoid mistakes? Stick to your plan.
“The biggest one without question is getting caught up and going out too fast, due to too much adrenaline or just following the heard,” Drew intoned. “Time after time my best races came when I went out on my goal pace and finished strong in the end. You can lose a lot of time at the end. Emma is probably tired of me saying that.”
Both Drew and Emma are part of the Brooks Inspire Daily program, and will wear Brooks gear in the race.
“It’s been really great to be part of the Brooks family,” said Emma. “Being in Seattle it’s been very cool. They’re a really good brand to work with.”