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Carrie Tollefson — August, 2021
Carrie Tollefson was a member of the 2004 USA Olympic team in the 1,500 meters where she advanced to the semifinals. She won the 2004 Olympic Trials 1,500 meters after finishing sixth at 5,000 meters. Carrie won the 2006 US Indoor National Championships 3,000 meters which qualified her for the 2006 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Moscow where she finished in seventh place. She is the 2006 USA Cross Country Champion at 4,000 meters. Carrie competed for Villanova University and is a five-time NCAA Champion. She won the 1997 NCAA Cross Country Championship and led Villanova to the NCAA Team Championship in 1998. Her other NCAA wins were the 3,000 meters indoors (1999 and 2000) and both the 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters outdoors in 1999. Carrie was a 12-time All-American, 19-time All-Big East Conference, 9-time Big East Champion and member of two Penn Relays 4 x 1,500-meter relay Champions. She was a 13-time Minnesota State Champion at Dawson High School with five wins in cross country (1990-94), four at 1,600 meters (1992-95) and four at 3,200 meters (1991-94). Tollefson's thirteen individual titles in cross-country and track are the most in Minnesota history as of 2021. Her personal best times include: 800m – 2:10.14; 1,500m – 4:06.13; mile – 4:27.96; 3,000m – 8:44.63; 2-miles – 9:51.26; 5,000m – 15:04.07; 10,000m – 32:58; marathon – 2:52:00 and 4x1,500m relay – 17:29.32. Carrie won the Honda Sports Award for Cross Country in 1998-99 and has been inducted into the Minnesota High School Hall of Fame in 2015 and the National High School HOF in 2018. She hosts ‘C Tolle Run,’ which includes online videos and podcasts; is an analyst and commentator for outlets including ESPN, NBC and USATF.tv and hosts summer running camps at St. Catherine University. Carrie resides in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband, Charlie, and their three children. She spent seventy-five minutes on the telephone for this interview in the summer of 2021.
GCR: BIG PICTURE As a distance runner you have been immersed in the sport of running for over thirty years since before your teenage years as an athlete, fan, interviewer, announcer, track camp holder and more. Could you have imagined as a middle school student from a small town in Minnesota, decades such as this and how has running and the running community contributed to and shaped your life?
CT I don’t know if I thought I would be a runner for this long. I did realize that once we get into the running community, it’s very hard to leave it because it is a such a nice, small, tight-knit group, but big community to be a part of. I grew up in Dawson, Minnesota, a town of sixteen hundred people. My dad was a football player in college and a lawyer by day. But he would run every single night. I saw it early on in my life and my sisters also ran. My mom did not run so much, but she walked religiously almost faster than she could run. It is in our family. But I don’t know that I could say when I was twelve years old and started competing that I would still be going strong at age forty-four. It’s been a dream come true to see what I was made of in this sport and to do something that I love for so long.
GCR: At the highest levels of sport athletes set goals to compete in the Olympics or World Championships and to represent their country. Can you describe what it meant then and what it means now to be a member of the 2002 USA World Cross Country Championships team, 2004 USA Olympic team, the 2006 USA IAAF World Indoor Championships team, and to pull on the USA jersey on other occasions.
CT Oh, my goodness – I’ve done multiple speeches throughout my life and tell people there is something about putting your jersey on. It doesn’t matter if it’s for your junior high, your high school, your college, and if you go on to compete as a pro for an organization or a foundation. For me, when I put on that USA jersey, it was like wearing all the jerseys at once because that was the ultimate jersey. It brought back all those memories of how I started and who I represented and why I was there. I didn’t have Tollefson on the front, but I had Tollefson on the back because, ultimately, it all came down to a big family goal. To make that Olympic team, we sacrificed a lot together. It’s special when we accomplish goals in life, and they don’t have to be the ultimate goal. Accomplishing small goals along the way is what we are made of. That is what gets us going, gets us up every day and fires us up before we go to bed at night. I’m lucky that I found it. I don’t know if a lot of people find what really makes them tick in life. It has been a blessing to find what makes me tick.
GCR: Let’s talk about some post-running items before we get back to details of your running career. First, for over ten years you have been doing video interviews and audio podcasts for ‘C Tolle Run.’ How fresh and exciting has it been for you to stay so close to the sport and dozens and hundreds of athletes as they grow and mature as competitors?
CT It's been a fun thing to do with ‘C Tolle Run.’ I started early in my professional running career kind of bugging the commentators and the media so they would know I wanted to do that when I finished my running career. In 2002 I ran the USA Cross Country Championships and finished second. I talked with Tony Reavis, who is a long-time big name in media in the word of track and field and road racing. I said, ‘Tony, I would love to work with you.’ He is the kindest man and called me up right away and told me there were Rock ‘n Roll Marathons where they needed a female voice. I was young in my athletic career as a pro, but he said we should do this, and he was very respectful about when I could travel and when I could do voiceovers. Being in this media world along with being an athlete are two worlds I love, and they have collided for years. It has been super fun to stay in the sport now while not having to run as fast.
GCR: You have done quite a bit of work as a running analyst and commentator for a variety of running events. Is the most exhilarating when you are the post-race interviewer down on the track, as you are for the American Track League, and you have the privilege of interviewing runners who just won races, set personal best times or both and you are sharing the moment with them?
CT That is my favorite thing! We all know Lewis Johnson and he is this wonderful, post-race interviewer and he is everywhere. He is a role model of mine and a very good friend. I always tell Lewis, ‘You can’t be everywhere, so when you can’t, could you recommend me?’ Maybe one day I will be able to help step in if he wants to venture off for something else and I will be an easy fallback woman. That is my absolute favorite role, being able to interview the athletes after their races or on ‘C Tolle Run’ where we get to dig a little deeper. It is such a joy, though there is also some heartache when interviewing athletes right after their races because sometimes it didn’t go their way. Sometimes we have to get the big story when someone didn’t make a team, or someone fell. But interviewing athletes after their racing is almost as good as when I was racing at my peak. It is one of the fun things I do.
GCR: You have hosted a yearly summer distance camp for teens at St. Catherine University for over ten years, though it was derailed recently by covid. How rewarding is it to mentor young runners and to help them grow as competitors and as fitness enthusiasts with healthy habits to last a lifetime in conjunction with your tagline ‘Get After It?
CT It's been a joy. I have seventh through twelfth graders participate every year though we haven’t had the camp in 2020 and 2021 because of covid. I have missed them dearly. It’s a lot to do because I am the Camp Director, I stay right in the dorm, and I am the one answering the e-mails. It’s my thing, but I also have my sister as my Co-Camp Director. She is a Physical Education teacher, so she knows how to keep kids entertained. My family all works at the camp, and we don’t just want attendees who will leave the camp thinking they will be great and fast runners. That isn’t what it is all about. We want runners to come and enjoy the community that I so enjoyed and get to know people. There are so many kids that are out running on the river road or at different meets and they are wearing their Carrie Tollefson Training Camp shirts. Some will come up to me and tell me they ran into another kid they met at camp. And that is why we teach them more than the ins and outs of the sport. More importantly, we teach them to be great human beings and very supportive of one another.
GCR: How has the ability you learned as a youth and young lady to balance academics, athletics and your social life benefitted you as you now juggle responsibilities of work, developing content for your website, parenting three pre-teen children and squeezing in quality time for your husband?
CT Running does teach us that. We are going to fit a run in unless it’s a day off, but we are going to fit it in. We prioritize and we schedule, and we are very meticulous. One of the best things I’ve learned is I can get ready super-fast. That is one great thing running has taught me. If I only have thirty minutes to run, shower and get ready, I’m going to take twenty-three minutes to run and seven minutes to get ready. It has been a big help in being able to set a schedule. The biggest thing is running has given me joy. When I’m finished with a run, whether it was a good run or not, I’m happier. I have a lot going on and juggle a lot but, at the end of the day, life is very good. One other thing we learn as an athlete is to look as the glass as half full rather than half empty and that carries over to life so much.
GCR: OLYMPIC TRIALS, OLYMPICS AND THE WORLD STAGE Before competing in an Olympics, an athlete must first make the team and you finished sixth in your main race, the 5,000 meters at the 2004 Olympic Trials. Can you describe how you had to switch focus for the 1,500 meters and then take us through the Olympic Trials 1,500-meter race where it wasn’t a fast pace and you led through 1,200 meters in 66.8, 2:14. And 3:20.8 before things wound up on the last lap and Jen Toomey passed you off the final curve before you caught her in the closing seconds to win by eleven hundredths of a second as the top four finishers all ran in the 4:08s?
CT It's a crazy story about how I made my Olympic team. I wouldn’t change it for the world because I really learned a lot about myself. I didn’t make the team in the 5k, where I had run before the Trials very fast for that time with a 15:04 that was the seventh fastest time by an American. Shane Culpepper ran 15:01 in the same race where I ran 15:04 and that was a tactical race where we ran even splits for 3k, slowed down, and then hammered home. It was an up and down race, and we knew we could run faster. Then, at the Trials everyone was fast and gearing to go. I was the one that kind of had a mental lapse. I was in third position with a kilometer to go and I remember a shift where I took a breather. And in that second three women went by me. It was a struggle to get home and not make that team. Then I ran the 1,500 meters and, as you said, basically was leading from start to finish in a race that was not necessarily where I was a favorite. I was a name in the race, but there were several other ladies that people were eyeing to make the team. When I came back from disappointment, I was devastated to not make the team in the event I thought I would make the team. It was very tough. When I won that 1,500-meter race, it was very special and life-changing.
GCR: What did you learn about yourself from that 2004 Olympic Trials experience?
CT I learned how tough I could be and when I wanted something badly enough, I would do whatever I had to do to get there. I am very proud of that race. I am a drug-free athlete. I’ve never even had alcohol in my life. I was an athlete who was scared to take Sudafed and even an iron supplement. I would say, ‘I don’t know. Can I just eat a ton of red meat?’ I would eat big steaks. My doctor did tell me I needed to take one iron supplement. I am proud of my career and how hard I worked and the way I did it. I don’t have a medal, but I have a lot of pride because I worked hard the right way.
GCR: Though you won the Olympic Trials, you needed a qualifying time. How stressful was racing multiple times in Europe and how exhilarating when you ran 4:06.13 in Zurich to qualify to race in the Olympics.
CT I did qualify for the Olympics by winning the Olympic Trials. But the kicker was that I had to go over to Europe and basically beat all the Americans every single time we raced. I was praying to God that all three of us would run 4:05.8, which was the Olympic standard. I ran 4:06.1 and 4:06.3 and the other Americans were also fast. We were running so close to the 4:05.8. We were getting hit with bad weather and still running 4:06. I think I ran something crazy like six-and-a-half races in twelve days because I ended up dropping from one because it was so bad. We all kind of bagged it so we could come back the next day to race. And those six-and-a-half races in twelve days were in six different countries.
GCR: I’m sure that tired you out for the Olympics. But, when you finally got to Athens, how would you describe your Olympic racing experience where you qualified for the semifinals in your heat, but then didn’t make it to the finals? Was it still an all-around, exciting experience?
CT It was amazing. It is so hard to be at the Olympics and to be ‘on’ both mentally and physically. I had severe injuries at the time. I had a double stress fracture on my pubic symphysis. I had torn my abs off the bone. I had torn my adductors. I was really, really hurt but no one could have known it because I was getting ready to do what I was meant to do and that was to run in the Olympic Games. I was icing before the race. The doctors wanted to give me cortisone injections before the race, and I told them not to because I was scared I wouldn’t feel my legs. It was a mess, but it was mind over matter. It is amazing what our minds can get our bodies through. That’s what a lot of Olympic athletes are dealing with at the Olympics. They’re just hanging on by a thread. It was very, very special and I will never forget that. The way that I made the team was hard. When I didn’t make the 1,500-meter final, it was sad, but at the same time it was good because I took a second to realize that I made it and I should be happy about it. I gave myself twenty-four hours to kind of hang my hat a little bit. But, after that initial twenty-four hours after not making the final, I was ready to be excited about what I had done and how far I had come.
GCR: While in Athens, did you participate in the Opening or Closing Ceremonies, watch other track and field events, attend other sporting events, and get to do a bit of sight-seeing?
CT Yes, I went to both the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. When it is your first Olympic Games, you take it all in. The second or third or fourth Olympic Games, for some people, I think they pick and choose a bit more. It does involve a lot of standing, especially before your event. But I loved it. The Opening Ceremonies were amazing. My mom and dad, my husband, my sisters and their husbands all came over to Athens. I didn’t get to see as much as you would think because the track and field events are always at the end of the Olympic Games. I was spending a lot of time resting and in treatment for being injured. We ended up staying a week after the Games and went to the island of Kythnos and hung out.
GCR: In 2006, you won the USA Cross Country Championships 4K race by seven seconds over Lauren Fleshman and Blake Russell with notables behind them of Sara Hall, Kara Goucher and Shannon Rowbury. What were the crunch points in that race that led to your victory over such a strong field?
CT I was clicking in 2006. I was having a very good year. I came back from surgery that fixed what we thought was most of my injury at the Olympics. After 2005 when I had that surgery, I was coming on hard and feeling good. I was putting things together. I had built a new confidence after making the Olympic team and wanted to see what I could do at the world level both at World Cross Country and the World Championships indoors. We had a strong team that year. Kara and I had raced since she was in eighth grade and I was in seventh grade. I knew all those women so well. It was one of the final years of the 4k distance at Worlds and I loved the 4k distance. I was sad to see that race discontinued.
GCR: Shortly thereafter, you won the 2006 USATF Indoor Championships 3,000 meters by less than a second over Sara Hall. How much did your cross-country strength contribute to this win and were you ahead or kicking from behind Sara?
CT I have to watch that race again because I can’t remember exactly how that played out. I’m sure I led because that is how I liked to run even though that isn’t always a smart move. Sara Hall has such a strong close and we have seen her at every distance be able to just rocket over the last 200 or 400 meters. Even in the marathon, she can just crush at the end when she has been grinding for twenty-six miles. I knew I had to outkick her and get the burners going fast.
GCR: Can you tell us a bit about your competitor, Sara Hall, becoming your teammate for the 2006 World Indoor Championships and any stories from that time?
CT What an honor to be with her in Russia. Sara and I had so much fun over there. We did a sixteen-mile run in our hotel. There had been about twenty-two inches of snow and we were trying to run outside. We made it a little bit and decided to go back to the hotel. We ran for an hour and forty minutes in the hotel. It was crazy. I don’t always remember races, but I remember the warmups, the cool downs, the training and the competitors. There aren’t many sports where you get close with your competitors. With all the women I raced over the years there were some ups and downs. There were some falls and tripping and people getting mad. There was pushing and shoving in races. But, at the end of the day, when someone else had a great day and helped me along to a great day, or my great day helped someone else along, it was so much fun.
GCR: At the 2006 IAAF World Indoor Championships in Moscow, you finished seventh in the 3000m in 8:59.13 as the top five women ran 8:38 to 8:44. Was it just a different level of competition when facing the best in the world or did other factors play into the outcome?
CT I have some reservations about the competition because I ran during a time that was very heavily dominated by the Russians and we know what has happened. I don’t want to call out each of the runners from that country because I don’t know their history, but it was a tough time in my career with that going on. We were dominated by the Russian Federation athletes. Now we look back and wonder what was going on. My time of 8:59 was a disappointment for me. That summer I ran in the 8:40s – I think 8:43 or 8:44. I thought I was ready to run better but it didn’t happen and that is part of it.
GCR: You had a tough 2007 with stomach and pelvis surgery, though you were able to come back and placed fourth in your heat and ninth in the semifinal of the 1,500 meters at the 2008 Olympic Trials. Where were you mentally as the four-year Olympic cycle wound to a close and was it time to change focus to family and career after nearly two decades of competitive running?
CT The fall that caused the injuries happened before the Olympics in January of 2004 and it wrecked me for most of the rest of my career. I was able to figure out how to get the most out of myself for a few years. Finally, I had that big surgery in 2007 and then 2008 was hard for me. They had reattached the abs to my pubic bone. They released my adductors. They rebuilt my whole pelvic wall. After the surgery I had six months of no running. But, in 2008 I was getting back in shape and was fit. Then I had pneumonia right before the Trials. It was about three-and-a-half weeks before the Trails and I was out for eight days. I could not run. By the time I got to the Trials, I could barely breathe. It was not a pretty sight. I was running in 2009 and was running well. I was feeling good. I got to the Nationals which was the qualifier for the World Championships and my foot was bothering me. I found out I had a stress reaction in my foot. I couldn’t finish the final and, when I came off the track, I said to my husband, ‘You know what? I’m sick of it. I’m done being hurt.’ We had put off having babies for a long time, I was back home in June and found out in July I was pregnant. It’s funny how it worked out. In 2008 I don’t think I was ready to shut it down. But, in 2009 it was time. It got to a point where I was ready to get down to running my best times and then found out I had two stress reactions in my left foot. I thought it was ridiculous, but that’s sports. That was my rough period where, for four or five years, I had one injury after another.
GCR: FORMATIVE YEARS AND HIGH SCHOOL RACING Were you an active child, in what sports did you participate and how did you start competitive running?
CT I was so active to the point where now with my kids being as active as they are that I understand the pain that my parents went through. I was going a hundred miles per hour all day long. I played basketball. I played volleyball. We golfed. We played every musical instrument you can think of. We were going all the time. I didn’t get into the sport of running until I was in seventh grade. I had run a couple road races with my family before then, but I never in a million years thought I would be a runner.
GCR: When you did focus on running, you had much success. One of your big feats is you won five consecutive Minnesota State High School Cross Country Championships from 1990 to 1994. What do you recall from your first State title in 1990 as an eighth grader where you beat Amy Wacholz of Lewiston-Altura by five seconds?
CT I don’t remember who was in second place. My mom could tell me, but I have the memory of my dad. Being the athlete that I was, and I am, my objective was to get to the finish line first and then to go have fun. I didn’t look at stats then like I do now when it is my job, and I must know details about athletes. I didn’t do that as a competitor. I did have a rivalry with Kara, and I did know how much I beat her by. But there weren’t many others where I did that.
GCR: The next three years you won State by a minimum of fifteen seconds before a battle with Kara Wheeler your senior year when you won by one point three seconds. What are some highlights of racing Kara that year when, as strong as you both are as competitors, both of you were racing hard to win?
CT We had gone back and forth as competitors. Also, my school classification kept changing. I was in class A in seventh and eighth grade, which are the small schools. Then I went to double A, back to A and again back to double A. Kara and I didn’t get to race against each other every year. During that senior year state race, in the middle of the race we talked to each other and decided to separate ourselves and go. We had fun racing against each other and we both wanted to beat each other, but we brought out the best in each other. We did look at each other and we separated ourselves a bit. We battled, she and I. So, I waited until we crested a hill with about a hundred meters to go. That’s when I took off and had enough space that I could celebrate. When you can, you’ve got to celebrate. That race was very special. I remember being on the stage when they awarded us our medals and everyone there gave us a standing ovation. She said it was for me. I don’t believe that. I think it was for us because they saw how hard we worked together. We were hugging. We were competitors, but we were friends. I think what people liked the most about watching Kara and I race was that, when it was over, we were friends. Even during the race we were friendly. That’s what it was about. We wanted to beat each other, but it was more important that we were having fun with each other.
GCR: Similar to your senior year cross country state win, your final State victory in track was a 5:00.4 in the 1,600 meters with Kara Wheeler second in 5:05.57. Was it a tactical race with a strong finish or did you put her away early?
CT That race was somewhat more tactical. I tried to keep some in reserve because I was going to be coming back in the 800 meters. I didn’t love the strategy we used that year. Instead of running the 1,600 meters and 3,200 meters like I had every other year, we dropped down and ran the 1,600 meters and 800 meters. So, I sat and kicked to win the 1,600 meters. I poured it on and got some distance. I came back in the 800 meters and ran against a phenomenal runner who was more of a 400-meter and 800-meter runner, and she ended up beating me right at the line. It was the first race I had lost in Minnesota since the eighth grade. I don’t remember the exact number, but I had won over a hundred and forty straight races. It was crazy.
GCR: Let’s go back to your first State win on the track which was also in eighth grade where you won the 3,200 meters in 10:41.36 with Molly Moulton of Rush City at 10:42.37 and Pam Drietz of Canby at 10:44.59 both close behind. Did you lead from the start, make a move mid-race or come from behind?
CT First, I would like to say that these girls are from towns like mine, and they are phenomenal runners. I don’t know what was happening in Minnesota, but we had some great runners. Running a 10:40 then is like running ten minutes flat now. We just didn’t see those kinds of times, and especially 10:20 or faster back then. I remember running that race and Pam Drietz had run fast going into the State meet. She was from a town about fifteen miles from Dawson, where I grew up, so I saw her a lot during the year. She was older so I could just follow her lead. I didn’t know what I was doing in the sport yet. I was just following people and trying to get to the finish line first. Molly Moulton is a rockstar human being. She just beat breast cancer. She is an awesome, awesome lady. Molly took the race out hard with Pam and I just sat. I outkicked them with two hundred meters to go because my coach told me, as a talented eighth grader, hold on for dear life and then outkick everybody. That was the strategy. I owe a lot to Molly and Pam because 10:41 was my PR until my junior year when I ran 10:30. Then I didn’t run the 3,200 meters much my senior year. Those two girls made me run fast early on. I was only thirteen or fourteen years old, and I was running that fast which was totally phenomenal.
GCR: From your freshman through junior years in 1992 to 1994, you won both the 1,600 meters and 3,200 meters with your closest competitor being Sho Kroeger of Lake Crystal who race the 1,660 meters strong to finish one second and three seconds behind you in 1993 and 1994. How tough a competitor was Sho Kroeger and how did you deal mentally with knowing you had a target on your back, and everyone was gunning for you?
CT The pressure did start to mount every single year. Then going back and forth from big school to little school classification had me racing everyone in the state. It wasn’t like I knew who I was going to race against because I was racing against girls who lived up to six hours away from me. We didn’t have the internet. I must remind people I’m that old! We would see The Harrier once a year and look at that for some information. Maybe there would be a list in the Star-Tribune, which is our big newspaper. It was hard to know what your competitors were doing every week. Sho Kroeger was amazing. She went on to run Division I at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Sho was smart because she came out and raced me a few times where I lived. She lived a good distance from me and so she came as a student of the sport and was trying to figure out how to beat me. We had a good rivalry, but sometimes they were tight because I had to come back and race the next day. They were often sit and kick kinds of races.
GCR: How did you decide to go to Villanova and were there other colleges in the mix of your choices?
CT I went to Villanova for a few reasons. First, they were the best. If you look at what Villanova did in the years prior to when I went, they were on top every single cross-country championship as a team and as individuals. They had numerous athletes that won NCAA Championships on the track. They also had Olympian after Olympian after Olympian. When they came to me and were interested, I was thinking, ‘What? This is amazing!’ I also liked Michigan, but it was my second choice mainly because the school is so big. I didn’t feel like I knew how to handle that massive campus. I went to and observed a class at Michigan that had three hundred students. I had three hundred kids in my high school, and we had seventh through twelfth graders. That was a lot of people to have in a classroom at Michigan. When I visited Villanova, it was a smaller ratio of around thirty to one of students to professors. It felt nice to be there at Villanova. Then their coaches would call me and tell me, ‘Hey Carrie, we’re fitting Jen Rhines for her fourth NCAA Championship ring.’ I thought, ‘Okay, I want that. I’ll be there.’
GCR: COLLEGIATE RACING How was your transition from high school to college in terms of living away from home, more rigorous academics and adjusting to a new coach?
CT It was tough. It was very tough. We drove there and it took us about twenty-six hours to get there by car. When I went on my recruiting trip it was only a two-and-a-half-hour flight. On the plane I thought, ‘This is doable.’ But when we drove there, I realized I couldn’t drive home on the weekends and Villanova was super far away from home. When I got there, I was very down in the dumps. I missed my family. I missed my small community. The academics were very hard. I ran the Pan American Games and missed my first week of school. In the very first class I went to I had a test on the material the students had been given that I didn’t have, so I failed my first test. Later in my first semester I remember getting a call from my coach saying, ‘You’re eligible!’ And we were celebrating because I did not have a good semester. But after that it was fine. I had good grades, though I had to work hard to get my GPA up since that first semester was so tough on me.
GCR: What were your top highlights of your first two years at Villanova where you did achieve All-American status at the 1996 NCAA Cross Country Championships and 1997 NCAA Outdoor Track Championship with a sixth place at 1,500 meters?
CT I had a roller coaster ride for the first three to four months of school, but then it came around. I’m thankful I had that. I went through a lot but, again, I learned how tough I could be. By my sophomore year it was good, and things started to click for me. I finished fifth in the NCAAs in cross-country and I was ready to go for the win.
GCR: At the 1997 NCAA Cross Country Championships, you won by five seconds over Amy Skieresz, with a tight pack of Angela Graham, Julia Stamps, Katie McGregor and your teammate, Carmen Douma, about twenty seconds back. What was your pre-race strategy, how did the race develop and what were the key moves that led to your victory?
CT That was one of those races where I was just sitting and feeding off what Amy Skieresz was doing. I knew that I needed to be very smart and conservative in that race because Amy was so good. It is hard to believe she didn’t go on to be a professional runner. I needed to get her on an off day, and I did. I think I was just as good as Amy but, in my eyes, she was almost unbeatable, and I needed to have a perfect race. I was fit. I knew I was strong, and I went into that race thinking I needed to keep my eyes on her and not let her get any gaps at all and she didn’t. I fed off whatever she was doing and with a thousand meters to go I pushed, and she didn’t go with me. If you watch that race, it is kind of funny because we are not supposed to look back and I was looking back like crazy to see if I was gaining distance on her. That five seconds happened right when I made my move and she never regained any of that. It was kind of a big move and then I maintained on the way in. I was looking back and celebrating from probably four hundred meters out.
GCR: Can you describe the roller coaster ride of emotions through 1998 when you had a benign tumor removed from your heel and a cadaver implant which caused you to miss half a year of running and then had to build back to fitness from zero?
CT That was horrible timing to come off my first NCAA Championship and to have the doctors say that things had changed with the tumor in my heel, and they needed to go in and ensure there was no cancer. They knew I had the tumor in my heel before that cross-country season and they allowed me to run because I believe they were very nervous that this was a career-ending injury. I ran that race knowing that I had something that was very wrong with me. Afterward, I went home for Christmas, came back in January, had my MRI and they said they had to stop me. I ended up having the surgery in February. They put donor bone in my heel. It was amazing what they did. I had about four months of no running. I came back and it was in June that I started running. In September I could do some workouts. We got to where we needed me to be to win an NCAA team championship.
GCR: How exciting was it that fall to finish eleventh at the NCAA Cross Country Championships and to lead your teammates – Sarah Goodman, Kristen Nicolini, Carmen Douma and Kristine Jost to a team victory and it was so close by only four points over Brigham Young and five points over Stanford? And what was it like waiting to hear the score and then the ensuing jubilation?
CT I was not ready to win as an individual but could run for the team. That was what I went to Villanova for, to have this amazing team. I am very proud of the effort we put forward. We came away with the win. I wasn’t me, but I was a good enough me to help the team. It was crazy after the race because it was taking so long to get the team scores and we went for a cool down. I remember seeing our coaches running toward us and it was like ‘Chariots of Fire.’ They came up to us and started hugging us. We don’t hug a lot. We would ‘high five.’ They were yelling, ‘We did it!’ It was super cool and one of those memories I will never forget. I don’t remember details. I’m not a detail girl. But that I will remember. I can still see all three of our coaches, Anthony, Geena and Marcus, running at us so thrilled that we put it together. When a team has one of their top athletes, and I am talking about myself, that isn’t quite themselves and you need them, my teammates were so encouraging. There wasn’t pressure from people to perform, but we had camaraderie that year that was unlike any other year. Everyone was excited to get me back and to get our team back. When we put it all together, it was very special.
GCR: You hit your stride again a few months later in 1999 at the indoor NCAAs. What were the key moves that led to your 3,000 meters victory with Amy Yoder, Sharolyn Shiels and Maggie Chan all within three to five seconds of you at the finish?
CT I was ready for that race. I didn’t sit and kick. I was more in command and at least felt more in command. I was very excited to run that race and happy I won. Then I came back and was second to Amy Skieresz in the 5,000 meters.
GCR: At the 1999 outdoor NCAAs you made history as the first woman to win the 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters in the same year. How tough were those races where you beat Kara Wheeler by three seconds in the shorter distance and Leigh Daniel by the same three seconds at the longer distance?
CT That was a tough double. We didn’t know how it was going to go and it was a gamble. The 3k race we ran hard, and I ran very hard for the win. I led a lot of that race and pushed hard. The 5k was about coming back and sitting and seeing if I could hang on and kick and I did. The race strategy was cut and dry for the 5k. And we didn’t understand the magnitude of winning the double. Nobody had done it in NCAA history, and I don’t think we knew that. At least my coaches didn’t tell me. That was cool because the next year Kara Wheeler won both races and two Minnesotans had done the double. The only other person who had ever done it is another Villanova athlete, Sheila Reid. It’s kind of fun to be in that small group. The NCAA doesn’t run the 3,000 meters outdoors anymore, so it is neat to have two Villanova girls and another Minnesotan who have that double under their names.
GCR: TRAINING What are the primary concepts of mental and physical training that you learned from your coaches, and could you give at least one big principle or idea you learned from each coach that molded your development as a runner?
CT When I was growing up, I had awesome coaches. Phil Gulstad was my main coach. John Shurb who is an 800-meter runner was a great coach and he is still coaching where I grew up. First and foremost, having two coaches whom I admire and still have contact with is a very nice thing. Coaches are more than a coach. They are mentors. They are friends. They are family members. I appreciate that I grew up with such great role models as coaches. Then I went to Villanova and had Geena Procaccio, John Marshall, Marcus O’Sullivan and others on the staff, but those three were my main coaches. Marcus and Geena are still in my ear every other week as a forty-four-year-old woman. They are forever my coaches. They are forever my favorite people. I love them. I can say that out loud. They are two super important people in my life. I am so thankful I have them. As a pro, Dennis Barker was my coach. He is amazing. He too is another guy in my family. He helped me achieve goals I never knew I was going to be able to achieve. He was there to lift me up. He will call me now randomly and say, ‘Hey Champ!’ I will think that coach is still calling me champ so I had better do something special today. Coaches are very important, and it is unfortunate when we hear a coach has not been good to someone. So, I have been so fortunate in life to have the right people who have been good to me and helped me be who I want to be.
GCR: What was your typical weekly milage in your building phase through high school, in college and post-collegiately?
CT In high school my average was thirty miles per week. I might have topped out at a forty-mile week once. So, it was very low mileage but intense. I ran with the guys at times. In college, I topped out my fifth year when I think I had a sixty-mile week. I usually was a forty-five to fifty miles per week girl on average. As a pro, I would top out around ninety miles in a week. I wish I had stayed closer to seventy-five or eighty miles because I had some injuries. But I would push the envelope a bit to get closer to ninety miles.
GCR: What were some of your favorite strength and speed workouts in high school, college and afterward and your ‘bread and butter’ workouts?
CT In high school, college and as a pro I loved the mile breakdown. That is where we do a mile, 1200 meters, 800 meters, two by 400 meters and two by two hundred meters. That is my favorite. Mentally I liked it because we did shorter segments. On each interval we would get faster and try to beat the pace from the previous interval and that meant things were going in the right direction. I also liked doing eight by a quarter mile. In high school and college, I did a lot of quarters. As a pro, that was always my race week workout. I would do them at 3,000-meter pace with one or two minutes of recovery. I also liked doing a long run which, for a middle-distance runner, was something many of my teammates or competitors who ran middle distances didn’t like. Every now and then my coaches would throw in some mini-tempos or speed in the long run, and I like to do that. I still do now as an old lady (laughing). My long run is the only purposeful run I have each week.
GCR: Did you focus on weight training and strength exercises?
CT In high school I did the ‘bigger, faster, stronger’ weightlifting program, if you remember that, from the 1980s and 1990s. I didn’t do the weightlifting necessarily for running, but for gym class. In college, I had a strict weightlifting regimen, but mainly because I was rehabbing from injuries. Marcus and Geena had us doing more circuit training and active drills. We used body weight and weren’t in the weight room much except when we were hurt. That was their philosophy. As a pro I did get into the weight room more. I had a strength and agility coach, Bill Welly, during the latter part of my career. He works with a lot of NFL players, professional runners and other athletes. We had fun becoming that athlete again. For a long part of my running career, I was just a runner and I needed to become more of an athlete. I did more agility work and that helped the end of my career.
GCR: WRAPUP AND FINAL THOUGHTS Since you have had success over your running career at the 1,600 meters and 3,200 meters in high school, 1,500 meters, 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters in college and you made the Olympic team at 1,500 meters, what is your favorite racing distance and why is that so?
CT I love the 3,000 meters. Now and then it will wake me up at night wishing I had done the steeplechase. It came into the world of track and field for females as an Olympic exhibition event in 2004. The following Olympic Games in 2008 it was an official event. In my career, they started having the steeplechase and I never raced it because I was so injury-prone during those years. I was having some issues with my heel, and I didn’t dabble in the steeplechase. But I think that would have been my event. I was a basketball player and was taller with some agility. I look at the success Americans have had in that event and think it would have been a fun event for me.
GCR: We have talked about several of your tough competitors. From your many years of racing, who were some of your favorite competitors in high school, college and post-collegiately due to their ability to give you a strong race and bring out your best?
CT In high school it was always fun to race Kara Wheeler. We had some great battles and were always thinking about the bigger picture. It was fun in high school. In college I loved racing my Villanova teammates. I knew if I could stay right with them or beat some of them, I could probably beat most of the best competitors in the country. I was with my Villanova teammates every day and they were always gunning for the podium. As a pro, I loved running with my Villanova teammate, Jen Rhines. She was someone that I looked up to every single day of my life. I still do and she is a great friend of mine. She was solid in every race. Even though she was a Villanova Wildcat, I knew if I put myself in position to be by her, I would be where I needed to be in races. Amy Rudolph was such a joy. She now coaches at Iowa State. She was awesome to run against and compete with because she lifts everybody up. Deena Kastor, Kara Goucher again as a pro, Shalane Flanagan was fun, Lauren Fleshman – I could go on and on and on. A lot of times it was the American ladies who were there with me every step of the way.
GCR: We discussed many of your races from your entire running career. Are there any top races that we missed where you beat a tough opponent, came from behind with a great kick, ran a big personal best time or all three that stand out?
CT One of my very first races where I thought, ‘I can do this. I can be very good as a pro,’ was that race in 2002 where I was second at the USA Cross Country Championships. Regina Jacobs beat me, and Suzy favor-Hamilton was in third at the 4,000-meter distance. I remember those two names were so big. They had done things on the National level. They had done things on the World level I wanted to do. I didn’t necessarily know that Regina Jacobs would take the race out the way she did. I didn’t know Suzy Favor-Hamilton liked to run four kilometers. I always thought she liked the 800 meters and 1,500 meters. They were phenomenal athletes and for me to run in the middle of that sandwich was an eye-opening experience. They were big names. They were older than me and it was that race that taught me something about me.
GCR: After a great career, there are often honors and you were inducted into the Minnesota High School Hall of Fame in 2015 and the National High School HOF in 2018. Is it both thrilling and humbling to be so honored?
CT It is – in Minnesota we have such a legacy of good runners, and it was an honor to be recognized there. When I heard I was gong to be in the National High School Hall of Fame, I thought, ‘wait a second! This is very awesome.’ They asked me to speak as the athlete representative. I spoke at the banquet during that evening, and it was a special night for us. My family, my sisters and my daughter were there. To have your career recognized is very special. As an athlete we always look back and think maybe we shouldn’t have trained so hard one year or should have let our body recover more. We always think of the ‘what ifs?’ I don’t have an American Record and I wanted one. I still want one! But, to have someone say, ‘You did well,’ feels good.
GCR: What is your current fitness routine and some of your goals for the future in terms of staying fit, working with the running community, charitable work and potential new adventures?
CT I have had children home with me since covid-19 began. Since March of 2020, my kids have been home with me. Life has been very crazy working full time and having three kids here. I have to get up early before my husband goes to work. He has had four days off during the pandemic and is at his office every day where it is quiet. I am hoping to run a marathon again. In 2019 I ran 2:51 for the marathon and am hopeful I can run around that time again. I don’t train properly for a marathon. I run probably thirty miles a week and half my mileage is my long run. But I enjoy it and that is what it’s all about. I run hard. I sweat hard. I get home and turn it off. I’m not the runner I used to be. I hardly stretch. I don’t weight lift. Once I get that run done, I feel like I can tackle a lot more. We will see what happens professionally. I like being in the world of sports and would like to stay in it. This is the first year all three of my kids are in school, so I have a little more time to see what I want to do in this next chapter.
GCR: When you are asked to sum up in a minute or two the major lessons you have learned during your life from the discipline of running, being a part of the running community in many aspects, mentoring teenagers, balancing life’s components and overcoming adversity, what you would like to share with my readers that will help them on the pathway to reaching their potential athletically and as a person that is the ‘Carrie Tollefson Philosophy of Life?’
CT The big thing I always think of when I go back to my career and how I have been in my post-competitive years is to be a persevering person. Once you learn that you’re not going to get every goal, but if you try to get it or you come back, you will figure out that you are tough. For me, being perseverant is so important. I have taken that throughout life as we have had so many ups and downs in the past year-and-a-half. But I always go back to those moments in my career where I came back from injury, I came back from illness, I came back. Life or sport may have changed, but I still know I’m tough. I still know I can get through. My word in life is being perseverant.
  Inside Stuff
Hobbies/Interests As a youth, all sports and I loved playing music and singing in my Christian singing group called ‘The Agapes.’ Also, travelling and spending time with my family
Nicknames ‘Care Bear’ was one. ‘Tolle’ which I use on ‘C Tolle Run,’ my podcast
Favorite movies I love ‘Grease’ and ‘Footloose.’ If it’s anything where I can get my feet tapping, I like it
Favorite TV shows We are big sports fans, so anytime we can watch a good NBA game. I like watching some reality TV here and there. But to be honest, when we sit down at night, we usually watch a sporting event
Favorite songs The first song that comes to mind is ‘American Woman’ by Lenny Kravitz. I have it on my playlist. I love that song! I love the beat and feel like he is talking to me because I want to wear the ‘USA’ all the time
Favorite books When I think of a good book, I think of Deena Kastor’s book. I love reading her mindset and through her own words. I have also listened to it. She has been a great role model and friend of mine
First car My very first car I had was my dad’s Cadillac. It was around a 1985 model. It had been his dad’s. I brought it to Villanova, and I crashed it. I ended up getting a Mustang because my brother-in-law is a Ford dealer and there was a good deal. I got a red Mustang. When I moved back to Minnesota, I got rid of that in a heartbeat because it doesn’t ride well in the snow
Current car Now I like SUVs. We had a Ford Escape for a while and now we have a Ford Explorer. We have to stick with Fords because we are team players in this family
First Jobs I coached summer recreation when I was in high school which is basically sports all day long for kids. My sisters seem to think that is a lie, but they were older and out of the house and didn’t realize that I did work. When I went to college I babysat. I loved being a nanny on the east coast. I also worked in the running stores. I did some radio spots when I was in college, so I was already in the media world, but not knowing I was doing something that was helping my future career
Family My parents are John and Ginger, and they are amazing. I just hope that I can be half the parent that they both are to me. They are so supportive. Also, they push us to do great things and they do it in a loving way. I hope I can help nudge my kids along like they did. My husband is Charlie. I have two sisters, Cammy and Stacey. I have six nieces and nephews, soon to gain three more. We have a big family. My children are Ruby who is eleven, Everett who is eight and Greer is five. We have a blast. Both of my sisters have three kids and they told me to think long and hard about having three kids. They love their kids and I had to have three kids because I was number three in our family. My mom and dad have enjoyed nine grandchildren and, like I said, now we are gaining three more. So, we have a wonderful, loud, crazy, athletic family
Pets I had a West Highland Terrier. So, we had a puppy from when I was in fifth grade all the way to when I was a pro runner. He lasted about sixteen or seventeen years. That was the only pet that I had. We don’t have a dog yet. We will probably get a dog if we get a pet. With the way that I travel now, I don’t know if my husband can handle any more
Favorite breakfast That is not my favorite meal of the day. I usually eat leftovers from dinner the night before for breakfast most oftentimes. You will find me at eight o’clock in the morning eating stir fry or fajitas
Favorite meal Stir fry and fajitas are probably my two favorite foods to eat. I love Mexican food and I love Asian food. A good pasta is always welcome as well
Favorite beverages I have never had any alcohol in my life. I love a good Dr. Pepper. I know it sounds crazy, but I love it after a good, hard long run. Oh, that cold Dr. Pepper is so good. I am also a girl who has a chocolate milkshake almost every single night. Those are my beverages. I know its kind of boring, but I am the first person on the dance floor and the last person to get off. So, I don’t need any alcohol
First running memory One of the things that stands out is in Elementary School I had the longest touchdown fence to fence. There were a couple of very good football players that couldn’t catch me. That is always a fun memory. My favorite memory is being able to be with my sister. My middle sister was still on the team when I was in seventh grade, and she was a senior. Being able to follow in the footsteps of my sisters was something I always wanted to do. It was an honor to race with Cammy and have Stacey cheering us on
Running heroes I always go back to Jen Rhines. She is a three-time Olympian. She’s a five-time NCAA Champion. She is kind and willing to help people. She is coaching and still running so well as a master’s runner. I could name so many others, but she comes to mind right away
Greatest running moments When I won my fifth NCAA championship that was a big one. I won NCAA Cross Country and, then after that major heel surgery, I won four more individually. Oh my gosh, it truly can happen to come back from something as devastating as that injury. So, that was a big moment. I think my favorite moment was when I won the 1,500 meters at the Olympic Trials. Running in the Olympics was such a cool experience and I loved it and I loved racing there. But making our team is harder than being at the Olympics and racing. There is so much pressure to make the U.S. team and to put it all together that one day every four years. That 1,500-meter Olympic Trials race in 2004 is probably the highlight of my career
Worst running moments I had plenty of those. Coming back in 2008 was very hard for me. I knew I wasn’t quite myself, but I couldn’t myself to get better. We can’t do that, but I was hoping I could and that was very tough. It was disappointing when I fell in the 2006 World Cross Country Championships in Fukuoka, Japan and had to get up. I fell very early in the race. My best friend from Canada, who is a Villanova teammate of mine, had to hop over me. She felt so badly. I told her later I would have been so mad if she stopped to help me because she needed to go and finish that race. That was a tough moment. I got all the way to the World Championships and then I fell. That is a tough pill to swallow
Childhood dreams I wanted to be a professional basketball player like Michael Jordan. That’s what I wanted to be for years. Even up until my senior year in high school, I was pretending to be Michael Jordan. I didn’t necessarily know I was going to be a professional runner. But once kind of figured out I could go to Villanova and once I won my first NCAA Championship that is when things started to click. I started thinking more about Olympic Games and professional running. But, in high school it was all about being a basketball player. I loved playing basketball. My center on my team went on to play professional basketball over in Italy. It was right before the start of the WNBA. We had a very good team, and it was cool to see her do so well
Funny memories Funny memories for me were being out in Dawson where I first started running and I ran all those years. I would have people stop me and ask me if I was lost or needed a ride in or needed water. They all knew I was training and preparing for a State Championship or an NCAA Championship or National Championship. But they still worried about me, and they would stop to make sure I was okay
Embarrassing moment This was also in Dawson when my dad and I were running. It was a week or two before the State Championships. A State Trooper from outside the area came through and he put his lights on and pulled us over. We were on the main drag next to our one and only fast-food place in Dawson which is the Dairy Queen. We got a written warning for running on the highway. Well, there’s nowhere else to run! Everyone including all my buddies and a guy I had a crush on were in the Dairy Queen watching us. I was standing with my dad and wearing these short running shorts while we were getting written up by the State Trooper. We ended up sending the State Trooper an article about who he had pulled over. In the article it talked about how my dad trained with me and he was the County Attorney. My dad had been running those roads for twenty-seven years. That was one of those moments I’ll never forget. I always loved running with my dad, and we laugh about getting pulled over and getting a written warning
Favorite places to travel I love going back out east to Villanova and New York City. I also love the west coast. That’s the nice thing about being a runner – you get to travel. And being a distance runner, you get to run around the cities and explore and that’s very special. When I go back to the east coast, it brings back a lot of memories and the running community is great. Around the globe, I loved competing in Japan. I loved running in Switzerland. That was so much fun. I had one opportunity to run in Norway and we ended up passing on it. I wish I had run there because I’m about ninety percent Norwegian and it would have bee fun to go there in that aspect