Life on the run

Carrie Tollefson makes tracks as an elite runner

Some women put on sports shoes to go for a walk over their lunch hour at work. Carrie Tollefson puts on running shoes to do her work. She is a professional runner-a local woman who has made it big on both the national and international running scenes.

Miles to run
As a member of Team USA Minnesota and a professional runner for Adidas Corporation, 32-year-old Tollefson said running full time is a dream come true.

“[Running] is sort of my first love, besides my husband. My best friends have come out of the sport. I have traveled the world. My whole family has been able to watch me and guide me. Even though I have had heartaches and disappointments-and there are days when it is a love-hate relationship and it is hard to get out the door,” Tollefson said, “when I get back [from a run] I feel better.”

Running gives Tollefson joy, as well as a livelihood, and has taught her a lot about herself. “I have been able to see what I am truly made of.” Tollefson said. “It has made me the woman I am today.”

Tollefson became a professional runner, joining Adidas in 2000, and is under contract and paid by Adidas to train, race and “perform both on and off the track in a way that will represent their brand to the best of our ability,” she said of her role as a professional athlete. In 2001, Tollefson joined Team USA Minnesota, a Twin Cities-based organization formed to improve post-collegiate distance running opportunities and to develop future Olympians.

A typical training day for Tollefson and her teammates includes an eight-mile run in the morning followed by running four to six miles later that night. On alternate days, they run interval drills, speed runs and do hill exercises. Then there’s a long run on the weekend.

“I run anywhere from 70 to 90 miles a week along with strength and cross training,” Tollefson said, as she was heading to an hour-long workout on an underwater treadmill.

She values her training runs with her Team USA Minnesota running mates, who, as professionals are sponsored by different companies.”We are both collaborative and competitive,” Tollefson said. “The training is a group effort, [but] on race day it is up to one person to do [her] job. She admits though, “If you are in the same race you want to beat each other pretty bad. [But, as teammates], we support each other. We are the first to offer a shoulder to lean on.”

It is not only the physical training that counts in the sport of running. Tollefson prepares mentally for running, too. “I prepare by visualizing, using positive self talk and word cues,” she explained. “I practice this daily and love going into a race feeling as if I am prepared both mentally and physically. I am tough and resilient, or … I like to believe that,” she said.

“I have had to test myself. I don’t think everyone does that in life,” Tollefson said. And, when it comes to running, it is pretty cut and dried. “You either get to the finish line first or you don’t. The ultimate goal is to win every race.

“There are more races that I lost than I won. Every day I need to look in the mirror and say ‘I can do this.’ I think mental training is huge for a runner. There are no time outs, no breaks,” she said. “You have got to work through the bad patches where you want to give in or it is not going well. You might be in 8th place when you should be in 1st or 2nd. [You have to be] prepared for moments of distress or greatness.”

The starting line
Born in Dawson, Minn., Tollefson’s passion for running helped her win five consecutive individual Minnesota state cross-country titles and eight state track championships between 1989 and 1995. As a student at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, she earned five NCAA individual championships and was a member of the 1999 NCAA Cross Country championship team. She was National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) indoor track athlete of the year and the first person in NCAA history to win both the 3K and the 5K events.

As an Olympian in 2004, she missed qualifying for the 5K at the trials, her chosen race. “I was devastated,” she said. Instead of giving up, she jumped into the 1500, and ended up winning and being the only woman representing the U.S. at that distance.

Tollefson values running with her family. Her husband, Charlie, whom she met on a run, and her parents and two sisters give her support.

“As kids we saw my mom and dad be very active. [When I got married] I got a new training partner,” Tollefson said. She finds that some of the best conversations happened when out on a run. “You hear more [about what] the other person has to say. I talk about my dreams or a goal, We have a lot of deep conversations running,” she said.

“My family has always been there to cheer me on, to keep me focused, to keep me on my toes, but also to remind me that if this all ends tomorrow, they love me no matter what,” she said.

Bumps and bruises
Running for the past 20 years has been hard on her body, Tollefson admitted, “but it is proven now that people who are active are far better off than people who stay away from activity for fear of hurting their knees or hips,” she said. “If we don’t push our bodies to the limit, we would never know how far we can go physically.”

The thinking about who can run and how long you can run has changed in the world. “You can’t run forever,” Tollefson said. “You break down. [But people] used to say [you could run until your] early 30s, then late 30s or early 40s. Now all these moms are coming back and kicking butt. For a long time people did not know you could come back after pregnancy. The world does not end when you turn 30.”

Off the track, Tollefson, who lives in St. Paul, said she doesn’t see herself as just an athlete and thinks her job is to do more than run. In addition to her roles with Team USA Minnesota and Adidas, she is a motivational speaker, works as a running analyst for television and runs a summer camp for kids.

“The ups and downs, the injuries, the wins and losses add up,” Tollefson said, “but I have to remind myself that I am chasing a dream and achieving a goal.”