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With his race unraveling due to debilitating cramps, Tim Tollefson arrived at the Michigan Bluff aid station, mile 55 of the race, wanting to drop out of California’s Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run last June. He had twice finished on the podium at UTMB and was hoping for the same at Western States after a fifth-place finish in 2021. Fortunately, his coach, Mario Fraioli, knew the antidote.
“Can you walk just a little bit with me?” Fraioli asked. When Tollefson made it to the end of where the crew was permitted, Fraioli followed up. “Can you make it to the next aid?” By the time they got to Foresthill at mile 62, Tollefson rallied, and ran most of the remaining miles to the finish. Surviving to finish 21st wasn’t the day Tollefson envisioned, but it became a rich lesson in perseverance.
“Running and life parallel each other in numerous ways,” said Fraioli, 41, a coach, competitive masters runner, writer for this publication, and voice behind The Morning Shakeout podcast and e-newsletter. “Many of life’s biggest lessons can be learned through running–relationships, setting and working towards goals, failing and picking yourself back up. All of these aspects make you a better athlete, but more importantly, make you a better person.” Being there for Tollefson, Fraioli says, was a small piece in a bigger process they’ve been working on together for almost a decade.
Nineteen years into coaching professionally, Fraioli has worked with all kinds of athletes, from age-group elites to first-time marathoners, even a few world-class pros. Within trail running, he’s best known for coaching Tollefson, Mario Mendoza, and Devon Yanko, but unlike some of his coaching peers, he works mainly with road marathoners, track athletes, and amateurs tackling their first 5K or 10K. While this isn’t completely unique to Fraioli, it emphasizes his breadth of knowledge and his individual style of coaching.
“Every relationship is different. For example, Tim and I work closely and talk quite a bit. Mario (Mendoza) is more hands-off and I’m just an advisor of big picture things like race strategy and how to structure training,” said Fraioli, reiterating how impossible it is to have a single system that works for everyone. “A big part of my job is to get to know my athletes and customize their training and approach to racing for them. It has to fit their goals, lifestyle, and what they want to get out of it. That looks different for everybody.”
Fitting Running Into Life
After joining the cross country team as a junior at Auburn High School in Massachusetts 1998, Fraioli fell for the sport quickly. “Our coach was a custodian at the school and the team wasn’t serious, but I loved racing. We didn’t really train, we just went for runs and raced once a week. With only five runners, we weren’t great, but I loved how it was in my control.” Fraioli has been running competitively ever since, including a 2:34 at this years’ Boston Marathon.
His passion exploded while at Stonehill College in Easton, Massachusetts, under the guidance of Hall of Fame coach Karen Boen. He set several school records—including a 4:09.77 indoor mile record—and became the school’s first All-American runner.
“If she told me to run through a wall as fast as I could, I would have done it,” joked Fraioli. “She was super knowledgeable, but what stood out the most was how much she cared for us as student athletes. She helped me, as an 18-year-old, figure out how to fit running into the rest of my life. That influenced me more than anything.”
Fraioli started coaching after graduating college, but didn’t call it that at the time. Old teammates would ask him to write weekly schedules for races, like their first half marathon. Interested in training theory and helping others reach their goals, he said it came naturally. “It was almost as if they knew I wanted to be a coach. They didn’t pay me anything—I just did it to help them out and it grew from there.”
I’m in the relationship business. Success for me is a long relationship with an athlete.
Now a well-known personality in the sport, Fraioli has hosted the likes of Scott Fauble, Des Linden, Meb Keflezighi, and Aliphine Tuliamuk on his podcast. However, the limelight has also brought scrutiny, comparison, and pressure to always have an opinion. “Twitter is basically a shouting match,” said Fraioli. “I felt a pressure to, as a public figure, perform. I always had to have a take. It felt forced, uncomfortable, and occupied a lot of my head space. Most importantly, it took away my ability to be present as a partner, friend, and coach.”
In the fall of 2020, Fraioli deleted all of his social media accounts, deciding that they weren’t contributing to his life. “Social media takes away from things in the real world,” he said. “It felt like a cool kids party and I’m an introvert at heart. After being off for a few years, I’ve realized how much brain space it occupied; it was more than I want to admit. Now I can focus on real things, like relationships and coaching.”
How You Do Anything
At classic local races like northern California’s the Miwok 100K or the Dipsea, Fraioli will find his way to an especially challenging part of the course to cheer runners on. He doesn’t bring cowbells or costumes, but insists on always staying until the last runners pass by, so that every racer hears his words of encouragement. “‘The way we do anything is the way we do everything’ is a favorite motto. It’s a reminder to always show up,” Fraioli said.
Whether it’s a mid-race conversation with a struggling athlete or cheering on a stranger, Fraioli always emanates a calm and steady disposition. “I’ve been racing for 25 years and am still showing up,” said Fraioli, who, according to his athletes, is a metronome of consistency. “My relationship with running has evolved over the years to fit my life, but I’m still doing it. That’s what I encourage my athletes to do, too.”
Fraioli’s consistency goes beyond just training and racing, too. He has published his newsletter, a cult classic for running nerds, for 394 weeks straight, without fail. Every Tuesday morning he shares a new issue, with insights on workouts, gear, races, and trends in the running industry. It’s a great resource for all runners, woven together with “unapologetically subjective takes,” according to Fraioli.
While he keeps a close eye on new training methods and shares them in his newsletter, Fraioli maintains that “the wheel keeps getting reinvented, but ultimately it’s still a wheel.” He believes that whether you’re training to run a one mile or one hundred miles, it all starts with the boring basics, like sleep and nutrition. “Until you’ve addressed these things, we won’t talk much about the other stuff.”
Fraioli takes a demand-driven approach to coaching, looking at each event and addressing its unique challenges in training as if it were a puzzle to solve. “I’m not necessarily a high-mileage or high-intensity guy. I’m the right mileage and right intensity guy,” he said., “Long ultras have more elements to manage, and specificity is important. You can mimic all of it in training. Poles, hiking, heat, technical trails. Tracking time and perceived effort, not pace.”
The Relationship Business
One of the basic principles he demands from his athletes is goal setting. Fraioli has them write down what success looks like when they start a new training cycle and refer back to it after the race, to avoid shifting expectations. This helps athletes appreciate the process and keep things in perspective. “Races aren’t the final arbiter of success; they’re just one day. I remind athletes to not place outsized importance on whether they win or DNF. It won’t change who they are, their relationships, or what others think of them.”
For Fraioli, coaching success is even longer term. “I’m in the relationship business. Success for me is a long relationship with an athlete. Hopefully over that time I can help them realize some of the goals we’ve set and uncover new ones they didn’t know they had.” His ultimate goal is having athletes balance running and life, and taking lessons from one and applying them to the other.
“My job as a coach is to help athletes focus on the right things. To have this pursuit of running occupy a healthy place in their life,” said Fraioli, trying to pass on lessons he learned from Boen. “I try to install an even-keeled perspective with athletes: not too high, not too low. If a race doesn’t go well it’s not the end of the world. What matters is how you pick yourself back up.”