Second Time’s The Charm: Exclusive Interview with Annie Bersagel

Annie Bersagel, shown here competing at the Rock 'n' Roll San Jose Half Marathon in 2010, ran a massive marathon PR to capture the U.S. title on Sunday. Photo: PhotoRun.net

We caught up with the newly minted U.S. marathon champ before she headed back to Norway. 

There was considerable misinformation floating around just after Annie Bersagel broke the tape at Twin Cities Marathon as the 2013 U.S. Marathon Champion. She lived in Victoria, Minn. (her parents do), she lived in Lakeville, Minn. (her grandparents do), she was from Greenly, Colo. (she grew up in Greeley, Colo.), she had attended the University of Minnesota (hadn’t), she’d come out of nowhere (except for that U.S. Half Marathon Championship in 2006 [she won, 1:14:36] , and seventh at the 2011 Pan American Games, and the 32:54 10K and…), and that she had just won in 2:31:11 (actual winning time, 2:30:53 — better than her only other marathon finish by some 13 minutes).

And then there’s this whole Norwegian thing — uffda, very confusing.

RELATED: Arciniaga, Bersagel Capture U.S. Marathon Titles

I got hold of the very smart 30-year-old lawyer/U.S. marathon champ via Skype just minutes before her 11+ hour flight back to Norway to clear up some things up. After high school in Greeley, Colo., she attended Wake Forest University where she was a star student and distance runner, earning All-American honors in cross country three times, twice the Atlantic Coast Conference champion in outdoor 10,000 meters and once the ACC champ at indoor 5,000 meters. While she is of Norwegian heritage (thus, the many relatives in Minnesota), her interest in the culture bloomed during her undergraduate years when she took a language course in Oslo and interned for a summer at the U.S. Embassy there. She was named the 2006 NCAA Woman Of The Year, though she had graduated in December 2005 with honors in economics and politics. Bersagel joined training group Team USA Minnesota in January 2006 and won the U.S. Half Marathon Championship in June. Having been with Team USA Minnesota about a year, she earned a Fulbright Scholarship to study peace and conflict resolution at University of Oslo. Through a Minnesota connection, she found Norwegian coach Knut Kvalheim and joined the IK Tjalve running club, but she was plagued by plantar fasciitis for almost a year. Between injury, earning her Masters degree and long hours at a consulting firm, romance happened: She married Øyvind, a physical therapist and competitive mountain runner, in Norway in 2009 and promptly moved a continent away. As a means to an international career, Bersagel matriculated at Stanford Law School in the fall of 2009. This being a marriage of the beautiful minds, Øyvind earned a Fulbright Scholarship of his own to San Francisco State and newlywed bliss was restored in sunny California.

Here, we will pick up our conversation.

You had been out of school for a while, you were married, going to law school — did you think about quitting running?

I’ve always tried to remain competitive. I’ve never thought I’d focus on something else. Running is something I’ve had for myself and it’s something Øyvind and I do together, though mountain running is not my thing. In Norway, they only go up, about 8K on these super steep technical trails. Race directors couldn’t afford the insurance if they went down on those trails. So they race up, finish at the top and jog down. Anyway, my log is not super-impressive, but I run between 80 and 110 miles/week.

Who did you run with at Stanford?

I worked with Dena Evans, a former coach at Stanford, and joined New Balance Silicon Valley. There are a lot of Stanford grads in the group, a lot of fun people. There’s this Pacific regional association of USATF that sponsors cross country races and a road racing series. It’s a really great environment, particularly for people who are a notch below elite level. I probably raced 25 times a year, and was having a lot of fun.

And you entered 2009 Twin Cities Marathon, your first, because?

A number of reasons — it was a U.S. Championship that year too, I have a lot of family in the Twin Cities area and the qualifying time for the 2012 Olympic Trials Marathon, 2:45, seemed a manageable goal. I ran 2:44, it went fine, I was pleased with that effort.

So then, the focus was on the Olympic Trials Marathon?

Yes. Law school was busy but I had control over my time, and I was injury-free so I had a lot of consistency in training. Every summer, I went back to Norway and ran track. I started PRing in 2010 — 9:10 for 3K, 32:54 for 10K, and I PRed at 5K. Leading up to the Trials in January, I’d had a hamstring injury but it was getting better. In the race, I fell at mile one, then collided with another runner at mile eight, pulled the hamstring, and dropped out.

Then what?

I thought my 32:54 would get me into the 10K at the track trials, but not even close. All those women who had been doing marathon training set the bar pretty high. I graduated from law school in June, went back to Norway in July and took up pretty much where I’d left off — running the same routes, training with the same club and Knut (Kvalheim). I work for the International Law and Policy Institute.

Training with a full-time job?

I run twice a day with a long run on Sunday. Every morning at 6:15, I run with my husband and the Norwegian 1500 champ who lives very close. Then again after work. Twice a week, I run with my club. Because there’s no university-based athletics, there are a lot of students. It’s a really nice blend of people. I think the youngest is 15 and the oldest about 34. There are no strictly pro runners in the club, so everyone is working running around school or a job.

Winter in Oslo?

They don’t clear the streets of snow like they do here in the Twin Cities, so in the winter, we often run under Bislett Stadium. It’s like a tunnel, two lanes wide, 545 meters long with a slight hill. We do tempo runs of about 50 minutes down there, which is 25 to 27 laps.

How did 2013 Twin Cities Marathon come about?

I had planned to run Rotterdam (marathon) in the spring of 2013 but I spent the whole month of February in Minnesota studying for the bar. I ran U.S. Cross Country Championships at the beginning and Gate River at the end of the month, underwhelmingly, and determined I was not on track to run Rotterdam. I saw that Twin Cities was the U.S. Championship and I could combine it with a trip home (Minnesota is my U.S. home), so it was very attractive.

What was your training like?

I did road races in the spring, then track, including a PR at 1,500 (4:23.44) and at 5,000 (15:46.16). I started marathon training in June but really, if someone looked at my log, they would think, Is this it? I only hit 110 miles one week, otherwise 80 to 90. A lot of long sub-threshold. I raced a lot — six races in four weeks, with a couple half marathon/10K weekends, and my half-marathon PR three weeks prior to Twin Cities (1:12.01). I think that was key. After a run, Knut might have me do eight hill sprints. That was it. Based on the 1:12 half, we thought just under 2:35 was possible.

You arrived in the Twin Cities on Friday night for a Sunday morning race?

Yeah, about 9 PM. I was a little nervous about that but I was very diligent on the flight, wearing compression socks, walking around the plane every hour. Plus, the time difference was in my favor.

You went through halfway in 1:14 — were you a little freaked out by that?

I thought, This could be trouble, and kept wondering when I would blow up. I could just hear Knut saying, I told you so. But I didn’t come all this way to play it safe. I actually stopped checking my watch and just raced, but I knew I was well under 2:35 pace. A perhaps well-meaning spectator at about 25 miles said second place was gaining on me [in fact, Laura Portis was three minutes back] and there was so much cheering, I thought there must be someone right behind me. I wouldn’t have made it under 2:31 if I had known I was alone. Knut and I had discussed how going out hard would cost something in the end. When I talked to him on the phone after the race, he said, “I saw the video of the finish — it cost something alright.”

$25,000?

Øyvind wants to replace the tiles in the bathroom.

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