Chasing The American Dream From Oslo

Bersagel’s 2:28:59 marathon PR, set during her victory at the Dusseldorf Marathon on April 27, ranks her as the eighth-fastest American woman since 2011. Photo: Eirik Førde

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.

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