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Chasing The American Dream From Oslo

Annie Bersagel is proving she is one of America’s top distance runners, albeit while living in Norway.

After struggling with injuries and trying to find her place in the sport, Annie Bersagel is proving she is one of America’s top distance runners, albeit while living in Norway.

Annie Bersagel lined up near the front of the Dusseldorf Marathon on April 27 with the rest of the elite runners, quietly wondering if she would be able to run like them.

The 31-year-old American, who lives in Oslo, Norway, normally wouldn’t go into a race as big as this with unanswered questions. That wasn’t her nature. She wasn’t born with world-class speed. She made herself an elite runner through an unnatural penchant for hard work, sacrifice and a love for running—and many now think she could legitimately contend for a spot on the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. Simply put, at the late April start line, Bersagel was not loosey-goosey.

Before Dusseldorf, just as Bersagel was beginning to taper, she came down with the flu. She called it “the plague,” and while that description fits her wry sense of humor, which she uses to temper her studious personality, it was also somewhat accurate. Her body vibrated with coughs whenever she tried to run. After attempting to shake off the forced rest once she felt a little better, her legs were heavy.

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So when she lined up in Dusseldorf, her goal was to reach the halfway point in 75 minutes and then see what she could do from there. It was a realistic goal, given that she ran a 2:30:53 marathon PR last October, when she turned in somewhat of a surprise victory at the 2013 U.S. championships held in conjunction with the Twin Cities Marathon.

Still, a 75-minute half and another 2:30 marathon would be pushing it if she were completely healthy, let alone coming off a bout with “the plague.”

“I was prepared for things to fall apart,” Bersagel recalls.

At least one thing was going right that morning: It was cool and rainy, similar conditions to what she’s enjoyed while training in Oslo, where she has lived on and off since 2008.

At the start, she went out front with the lead pack, but two runners broke out ahead, intent on challenging the course record of 2:25:49. Bersagel, drawing from the same discipline that she used to mold herself into an elite, crossed the halfway mark in 75:02, just two seconds off her goal. She says she honestly had no idea how the remainder of the race might pan out, so she decided she’d run by “feel” the rest of the way and try to pick up the pace if she felt good. Her legs responded. They felt springy and light, not heavy. It was a best-case scenario, something every runner hopes for in the second half of a marathon but rarely encounters.

Bersagel could see the lead car when she reached the 38K mark (roughly 23.6 miles), and she had the lead at 40K when she finally began to hurt. But that was OK—she liked to hurt. (She told her high school coach once that her only goal in a race was to run so hard she would puke.) Still, even though she was in familiar territory, she expected the wheels to fall off.

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But they didn’t. She toughed it out to the finish line and won in 2:28:59. Through July 15, that’s the fourth fastest time by an American in 2014, trailing only the efforts of Shalane Flanagan (2:22:02) and Desiree Linden (2:23:54) on the net-downhill Boston Marathon course in April and Lauren Kleppin’s 2:28:48 in Los Angeles in March (another net downhill course).

In a way, it made sense. Bersagel was used to things going wrong in her running career. “The plague,” by comparison, was no big deal. Dusseldorf was symbolic of her career now. She was hurt, busy or sick for many years, but now she’s enjoying what all runners crave: a second wind.

Getting Started

The other girls of Colorado’s Greeley Central High School cross-country team giggled as they played volleyball during a day off from the grueling workouts that helped make them a contender for the 2000 state title. Over in the corner, Annie Bersagel brooded. She loved coach Woody Wilson’s coaching style because he made running fun. He’d play games, such as “Find the Bunny,” where teams of runners had to find a white stuffed bunny he’d hidden. But she hated the volleyball games. What was the point?

“I’d rather go for a run,” Bersagel whined to her coach.

“No, Annie,” he answered. “Today we’re just resting.”

Bersagel didn’t want to play volleyball because she was hopeless in any sport that involved a ball, even if she had played Little League baseball with her brother in the early 1990s. By default, Bersagel got into running because she was good at it, and it was nice to be good at a sport. Rather than pray for a ball to come her way in right field, she beat everyone else, even the guys, in the mile at her junior high school.

Despite her talent, she wasn’t always the fastest on her stacked high school team, Wilson says. But she was the most consistent, and that was true from the start. Her parents, who ran 5Ks for fun, suggested to Bersagel that, if she could run a mile around the track once and enjoy it, she could do it every day.

“Her will to be the best was the difference,” Wilson says. “So many kids you have to push, but not her. With her, I always had to pull the reins back.”

Wilson’s team did win the state title, despite everyone struggling with mono the day of the championships. (Bersagel, the only one who dodged it, remembers one of her teammates vomiting in the back of the van before the race.)

Bersagel could have attended Wake Forest on an academic scholarship—she worked hard in everything, not just running—but she chose to continue her running as well as her education. In college, she discovered what Wilson already knew, and it remains true today. Bersagel’s talent wasn’t her raw speed. It was the way she took advantage of every morsel of her ability. She worked hard and never wavered, and her body returned the favor.

Wilson recalls Bersagel giving up sugar and McDonald’s throughout her high school career, not just during the season, like most of his kids. It was that unrelenting hard work and discipline that helped her improve every year at Wake Forest. Not all runners drop their times every single year—Bersagel improved considerably and graduated as a five-time All-American, as well as with academic honors and degrees in economics and politics. To find an athlete as disciplined as Bersagel is pretty rare.

“I could count on her,” says Annie Bennett, her coach at Wake Forest. “Every moment, I loved coaching her.”

Bersagel began to think about running, at least semi-professionally, at the end of her sophomore year in 2003 when she qualified for the U.S. national track championships in the 10,000 meters. Bersagel didn’t win that day—she was ninth in 33:47—but she wasn’t blown away either. Plus she was star-struck by runners, such as Deena Kastor, who won that race in 31:28 and would go on to earn the bronze medal in the 2004 Olympic marathon.

“I think she said, ‘Good job,’ as she passed me,” Bersagel recalls with a laugh.

Bersagel continued to improve after she graduated from Wake Forest. In 2006, she won the U.S. half marathon championships in Kansas City, Mo.—in her debut 13.1-mile race— with a time of 1:14:36. Immediately there was talk about her being a strong contender at the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials, both for the 10K on the track and the marathon. She solidified her status as an up-and-coming American elite with a 10th place finish in the 2006 U.S. cross-country championships.

However, following that, running began to bring Bersagel heartbreak instead of joy.

Juggling A Full Schedule

In 2006, Bersagel also wavered on a plan for perhaps the first time in her life. She had won a Fulbright Scholarship to study at the University of Oslo. (She had worked as an intern at the U.S. Embassy in Oslo in 2004.) Her plan was to go to Norway for 10 months and then return to Minneapolis, where she had been training with an upstart post-collegiate training group called Team USA Minnesota.

However, she enjoyed the running environment overseas. The mornings were cool, the camaraderie was genuine and it was still competitive enough that the club record in the 10K was better than the U.S. record at the time. Plus Bersagel had a scholarship available in Norway that would allow her to finish her master’s degree in peace and conflict studies. She also began dating Øyvind Heiberg Sundby, the man who would become her husband in 2009. (With a grin, Bersagel swears he wasn’t the main reason she decided to stay in Norway.)

But amid her nonstop lifestyle, there were small signs something was about to give. After moving to Oslo, she was haunted by plantar fasciitis for a year and a half. When it finally cleared up, in 2008, she decided to skip the U.S. Olympic Trials; instead she stuck around to work for a demanding management and consulting firm.

At the start of 2009, she injured her hamstring, and it took her the rest of the year to fully recover. After she got married that same year, Bersagel moved to Palo Alto, Calif., to attend Stanford Law School on an NCAA postgraduate scholarship. She kept up her training during law school and entered the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Houston with the hopes of running a new PR. She was on 2:35 pace through the halfway point before colliding with another runner and pulling a hamstring. She eventually dropped out near mile 18.

During those last couple of action-packed years, Bersagel’s parents talked with her about quitting running. Bersagel spent hour after hour jogging in a therapy pool, while balancing a tough academic load. They’d watched her make remarkable sacrifices her whole life, rarely wasting more than 10 minutes on anything frivolous or nonsensical, as well as forgoing simple pleasures, such as eating a candy bar, for her running and academics. Her father, Matthew, a pastor, would wax poetic about letting things go. Or at least he’d try.

“I’d notice the more philosophical I’d get about it, or even just chat about preparing for life after running, she’d get mad and come out of the conversation with a new goal,” he says. “People assume we played a big role in the cultivation in her running, and we really don’t see it that way. We didn’t play a huge role. We played a parental role. I’m glad she hears her own drummers.”

Bersagel admits today she did think about listening to her father, but her husband was a runner, her friends were runners, so giving up running seemed harder than the work to keep it going.

“Every time I thought about quitting running,” she says, “I’d get sick to my stomach.”

Becoming A Contender

Bersagel’s last two marathons surprised even those who follow her closely. Her winning time in the U.S. marathon championships was 2 minutes faster than her current Norwegian coach, Knut Kvalheim, thought she would run. Bersagel was a little surprised herself, given that her best marathon time prior to that was 2:44, and she was only hoping to run 2:35, the time she’d been on pace for at the 2012 U.S. Olympic Trials. However, when the race started out faster than that, she decided to stay with the leaders.

“I knew I could run with the women ahead of me,” she says, “and so I knew it would be a painful race but that it would be painful for everyone.”

In training, Kvalheim emphasizes volume over speed work, and the faster workouts she does are more like long tempo runs, such as running at her half-marathon race pace for an hour. It’s twice as much running as what she did at Wake Forest, but the running isn’t as intense. She also hasn’t had any injuries recently despite her troubled past.

Bersagel still works full time (now as an investment advisor for KLP, a large financial firm in Oslo), but her personal life and job don’t prevent her from keeping an elite training schedule. Øyvind runs shorter, technical mountain races, not marathons, but they train together when they can. That training, like their love, is a durable bond.

“We probably wouldn’t have much time to talk together if we didn’t train together,” Bersagel says.

When she needs to save even more time, Bersagel runs to work with a backpack and a change of clothes. She keeps a few things stashed in the office so she can shower there. Bennett chuckles at that; it’s just another example of Bersagel’s commitment.

“I mean, she runs to work,” Bennett says with a laugh. “Who does that? But that’s the norm for her. That’s just who she is.”

There are definite disadvantages to living in Oslo, Bersagel says. She doesn’t have a shoe contract, nor does she put pressure on herself to try to get one. She is an American, and therefore, she’s not that interesting to Norwegians, Bersagel says. She gets a few shoes from her running club and buys the rest herself. She plans to cut her work hours to train for the 2016 U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon in Los Angeles, but she can’t afford to cut back too much.

“I would work a little less if I were sponsored,” she says.

This month marks 18 months until the trials in Los Angeles. Bersagel believes she can be a serious contender, and her 13th place finish at the World Half Marathon Championships on March 29 in Copenhagen is another good reason to believe her. She lowered her PR to 1:10:10 that day, finishing as the highest American in the race.

While Olympic potential will matter as the trials get closer, what matters now is that Bersagel is healthy, happy and enjoying running even more than ever before. She doesn’t mind the sacrifices she’s made to get where she is because, ultimately, she’d rather run than do just about anything else.

“I know the kind of margin of error of being in the best shape of your life and not be injured is razor-thin,” she says, “and right now I’m just having a blast.”