Interview with Carrie Tollefson
by Scott Douglas

Carrie Tollefson runs the 5,000 at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials.
(All photos: Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
Tollefson celebrates her 1,500m win at the 2004 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials.
Tollefson does commentary for Fox Sports Net at the 2003 NCAA Cross Country Championships in Waterloo, Iowa.

Carrie Tollefson was the lone U.S. female 1,500-meter runner at this summer's Olympics. After placing sixth in the 5,000 final at July's Olympic Trials, Tollefson led nearly every step of the 1,500 meter final and held on for the win. Neither she nor second- and third-place finishers Jen Toomey and Amy Rudolph had the Olympic "A" (4:05.80) or "B" (4:07.15) standards, thereby creating weeks of uncertainty about who would represent the U.S. in Athens in the event.

As recounted below, Tollefson wound up meeting the "B" standard, but fell just short of the "A" standard; if she had met the "A" standard, Suzy Favor Hamilton would have joined her on the team. Toomey and Rudolph were unable to meet the "A" standard, as they had to do to join the team, leaving Tollefson as the sole 1,500 representative.

Tollefson has long been known as more of a 3K and 5K runner than a miler, and set her 5K PR of 15:04 earlier this year. (Her 1,500m PR of 4:06.13 also dates from 2004.) A native of Dawson, Minnesota, in 2000 she graduated from Villanova University, where she won five individual NCAA titles (one in cross country, and two each in indoor and outdoor track). Now a member of Team USA Minnesota, Tollefson lives in St. Paul, Minnesota. Now that you're an Olympian, what's different (other than that you get a lot more calls like this)?
Carrie Tollefson:
The best part is that you get a lot of opportunities to go and share your stories. I've been doing a lot of that lately, talking with groups of kids. It's been four years since I've taken a long break from training, and with it being the end of an Olympic cycle, that's what I'm doing now, so I have extra time to talk with others.

One of the best things is signing autographs and writing 'Olympian' after my name. I still get a thrill from that.

FW: Is going around and talking to groups something new for you?
I think anyone who knows me will tell you I'm a talker. Ever since college, I've been coming back to Minnesota to talk to kids. [Almost] every summer, I've gone to running camps and spoken there. Now it's different in that [I'm speaking in a wider variety of] places.

FW: Does it still feel weird to hear yourself described as an Olympian in the 1,500, when that hasn't been your focus?
Not really. A lot of people tell me I'm not a 1,500-meter runner, and I know the 5K is where I should be, but I'm not going into the 1,500 thinking I'm not going to win. I mean, it was a big surprise after the 5K to come back and win the 1,500, but I always had that plan in the back of my mind, that if I didn't make the team in the 5K, there was the 1,500.

FW: From spring until the Trials, was your training geared toward the 5K?
For the most part, yes. I did a couple of 1,500-specific workouts, but those were more for my 5K finish than for the 1,500 per se. Running against people like Shayne Culpepper and Marla Runyan, I know I better be ready for a sprint at the end of a 5K. But really, everything was geared toward the 5K-you have to for that long of a race. I really only started training for the 1,500 after I made the team.

FW: Did you lead pretty much the whole way in the Trials 1,500 because you figured you had a better chance with a strong, steady pace than in a kicker's race?
I was just out there running. I just didn't have it in the 5K, so there I was in the 1,500, I was just going to run with all of my heart, wherever that put me. After I got out front, I thought, 'Uh oh, they're probably going to let you keep it. Be ready to react to all moves.' I know that with 400 to go, I was hanging on for dear life. I didn't really have a strategy beyond that.

FW: Did you know during the race that [Marla] Runyan had dropped out?
I didn't. With 400 to go, I thought, "They're all getting ready to go," Marla included. But I wasn't just thinking about her. I knew there were a lot of Olympic-caliber girls behind me.

FW: Getting back to your speaking gigs, what do you talk about?
This year, it's all about persevering and never giving up. It's not always about running — I might be talking to a large group of kids, and not a lot of them are going to identify if you just talk about running or sports. I show them my races and say, 'This is what I do for a living now, but when I was your age, I didn't know I'd be doing this. I was really into music. I thought I wanted to be an actor.' I tell them that no matter what you're in, you have to believe you can do it when times get tough. I tell them how disappointed I was after not making the team in the 5K, and then coming back to win the 1,500. I tell them it's like if you have a bad test, that doesn't mean you're a failure. Don't give up, and try your best on the next one.

FW: I'm interested in the logistics of being at the Olympics. If you're running an indoor meet in Minnesota, for example, assuming it's on schedule, you can time your warm-up and everything exactly like you want. What's it like at the Olympics?
Much different. We warmed up an hour and 40 minutes before the race. The jogging, your hard sprints, you had to be done with those 40 minutes before the race. Then you go to a call room, a small room where you're held, and maybe you can jump up and down. You're not doing any running in there. Then they take you to another room, and 25 to 30 minutes before the start is your last chance to use the bathroom. That was tough. You know how it is — the half hour before a race, you're going 8,000 more times. Then right before you're taken out on the track, there's a 25-meter straightaway where you can get two or three sprints in, and then you can do another two or three when they take you on the track. It helped knowing that everyone else had to go through the same thing.

FW: Was that your first experience with that sort of set-up?
Yes. I didn't really do that much different from my normal warm-up. I didn't want to get too nervous too early, to be all fired up an hour forty before the start.

FW: Did you go to the opening ceremonies?
Oh yes, that was an amazing moment. I won't ever forget that. When we walked out on the track, at that moment I really felt like an Olympian for the first time. There were a million American flags flying, and everyone was cheering for us.

FW: What about the rest of the time? Was it hard to keep from being distracted from your race?
We basically turn our game faces on. There are a lot of distractions, but in the race you're so focused that you can zone out from them. There was just once in my race where I said to myself, 'I'm running in the Olympics.' I'm usually so focused, but on the third lap of my first race, I was running well, I felt good, I said to myself, 'Oh my gosh, I'm running in the Olympics.' I think you have to soak that stuff up when it happens. But a lot of stuff didn't distract me. Next time around I won't have that 'it's my first time here' feeling, so I'll be more focused.

FW: What about the days before your race? How hard is it to do what you should in training?
I would run for 20 or 30 minutes around the athletes' village. That was a good thing about being there as a 1,500 runner — my longest run was only 30 minutes. We did the majority of our runs on the infield of the track to stay off the concrete. There was also a gravel loop of about one kilometer. It was okay — when you're in that atmosphere, you're fired up the whole time.

FW: Were you at the U.S. camp at Crete?
Yes, for eight days. It was nice running there; they had a really nice track for us. We were escorted by police when we would go to train to keep us safe.

FW: So after you won the Trials, did your training suddenly change to make you a 1,500 runner?
That was what I thought. I said to my coach, 'Okay, let's get going.' He said, 'Well, let's go over to Europe and get in one race in England, see what you run, take things from there.' Well, I got in the night before the race. As you know, it's hard to get acclimated to the time change in one day. I ran 4:13, then [4:10.45] five days later in London. But I had a really good 1,500 workout between the first race in Birmingham and London. I knew I was getting ready, so after the London race I made the decision to run in the Heusden meet in Belgium the next day. Everyone said, 'What are you doing?' I knew it was crazy, but I felt I could do it, and that's where I ran 4:06 [thereby meeting the Olympic "B" standard].

FW: What was that good workout between the two races in England?
I did a little tempo work in the morning, and in the evening did 200, 400, 300, 200 in 27, 58, 44, and 28. For me, that's good. For Suzy [Favor Hamilton], it's slow, but coming off doing almost all 5K stuff, I thought, 'That's good, the wheels are coming around.' So after the Heusden meet, I thought, 'I ran 4:06 here, I'll run 4:05 next time, maybe 4:04.' But it didn't happen. When you're racing that much it's hard to PR in every race.

FW: How long was it between running 4:06 and the Olympics?
Pretty far out, a bit over two weeks.

FW: Did you think you were still on the up part of the curve when you got to the Olympics?
Yes. After the semis I thought I could still PR if there were more races. I just didn't feel really good in my semi. We all ran together until the last 300, and I couldn't go, and I didn't know that girl was coming up behind me. [Note: Tollefson was the fastest non-qualifier for the final.] But I'm not complaining. It was a great experience. It really changed me as an athlete.

FW: How so?
Just to know that you always have to keep digging. That's how we're going to run faster. All of us can't think there's any limit. You just gotta keep going. I really don't know how I ran 4:06 in Zurich. We were all so tired, the four of us trying to make the team. We had had a hard last month between the Trials and then, trying to make the team. I know that a lot of girls are ticked off about what happened with the team and are going to come back strong next year in the 1,500 and 5K.

FW: Will you be focusing on the 5K?
I don't want to say 'focusing' on 5K. For us here at Team USA Minnesota, with Jenelle Detherage here, there's some speed for me to work with. I'll be working on both events — the 1,500 will only help me in the 5K, and 5K will only help me in the 1,500. Thank goodness I'm not going to be doing 10Ks — from 10K to 1,500 would be tough! You might see in a few 10Ks in a few years, though.

FW: Have you thought about the hypothetical of what you might have done differently if you had had the Olympic standard when you won the Trials?
I would do sort of what I did this year. I wouldn't race as much — maybe three races instead of five, in a longer span of time. But I'm a racer. I like to be out there, so what I did was okay.

Having to get the standard kept me really thinking, 'I want that USA across my chest.' I kept envisioning that. In an ideal world, I would have been out there racing but wouldn't have the standard in my way. It's tough, to get up every day and be thinking about it, to go into every race, some less than 24 hours apart, thinking, 'I have to get out there and PR.' I don't think I'll recommend what I did for someone looking to make the team next time, but if I have to do it that way again, I will. Whatever it takes.

FW: Are you still interested in becoming a TV broadcaster?

FW: Is it the sort of field where you can delay getting into it because of your running?
For now, I'm interested in sports broadcasting. What I do in my running can only help with this. For now, though, I'm completely focused on my running, and not seeking opportunities in the broadcast world. I'm announcing the Twin Cities Marathon for radio, and I do some other road race announcing, but I'm not going into the NBC studio saying, 'Can I get a part-time job?' I've been fortunate to do some work for Elite Racing. They're great — when I go to races, they make sure I can get a run in, get my lifting in. You can't do that in the real world. They don't care.

FW: What have you done for Elite Racing? On-air commentary?
CT: Yes. NCAA Pre-Nationals and Nationals, some 5Ks, some of the half-marathons. The last couple of falls I've been pretty booked with that sort of thing.

FW: How do you think there can be more good TV coverage of running, so that people who run like the coverage but it also reaches a larger audience?
Every four years, at the Olympics, track and field is the number one event that people want to watch. But no one really cares about running until the Olympics. If there was a way of getting us on TV more so that people could know the athletes, then people would care. I didn't see the Olympic coverage, but you could show the race and in the right hand corner show the athletes, tell their stories. The reason people like to watch other sports is that they get to know the team. They don't care about us as much because they never see us.

Running is a hard sport to broadcast. So much of what happens are minor changes that make a huge difference, especially in distance running. I don't think it's the commentators' fault. It's hard to portray what's happening in a broadcast voice when the same person has been leading for the last hour.

FW: Maybe there should be more people in kilts tackling the leader.
Oh, that was horrible. I'm not promoting that, obviously, but that's one way to keep people watching.

FW: You said at the beginning that you're taking a longer break now than you have in a while. What will you be doing when it's over?
I'll be focusing on cross country. For now, I have to heal up. I fell in February over a snowdrift and did something in the area of my psoas. I've been maintaining since then, trying to keep things in alignment. It may be a fracture, I don't know — I'm actually seeing a doctor today. Right now I should not be hurting doing a 4-mile run. Getting to the Olympics, you expect to have aches and pains, but this time of year, it shouldn't feel so bad, when I have some 90-mile weeks ahead of me.

So, find out what this is; hopefully this will be my last week of crosstraining. Then focus on cross country nationals, then crack top 10 at Worlds. I was 11th two years ago, so I want to get in that top 10.

(Interview conducted September 20, 2004, and posted September 23, 2004.)

Nothing contained herein may be reproduced online in any form without the express written permission of the New York Road Runners Club, Inc.