Oh look, here's a short video of one of the top US women on the New York City Marathon elite roster, Annie Bersagel, manifesting two of her many skills. Way under the US radar, Bersagel is the fastest Norwegian-speaking American marathoner. Or, the only full-time lawyer under 2:30. Or, the most operatic singer/runner currently living in Oslo. Or all those things.
Bersagel, 31, grew up in Greeley, Colorado, ran track and cross country at Wake Forest University, joined Team USA Minnesota distance training group for a year before earning a Fulbright Scholarship to study peace and conflict resolution at the University of Olso. There, she met and married exercise physiologist and mountain runner Øyvind Helberg Sundby. The two lived in California while she completed a law degree at Stanford, and moved back to Oslo in 2012.
Smart as a whip and super organized, Bersagel has always maintained parallel, carefully balanced lives—cerebral and sweat-based. As she applied for the Fulbright, she won the 2006 US Half Marathon Championship. She won the 2013 US Marathon Championship in 2:30:53, a ridiculous 13+ minute PR over her one previous 42K effort, while working full-time with the International Law and Policy Institute in Oslo. In March of this year, she lowered her half marathon best to 1:10:09, and in April, set a two-minute PR at the Dusseldorf Marathon, winning in 2:28:59. She had, at the time, just started full-time work as an advisor in responsible investments with KLP Asset Management in Oslo. That is the fifth fastest marathon run by an American woman this year.
Of the fourteen women on NYC Marathon's elite list who have broken the elusive 2:30 barrier, she is the only one who works full-time. And let's be clear—hers is not 40 hours a week at a running shoe store. The book she co-edited on the status of nuclear weapons in international law recently came out, at about the same time she was invited to the UN conference on climate change. This is an adult-dose job.
Round-edged and approachable, Bersagel looks like someone who can really rock a leather-elbowed cardigan and scholarly glasses, but she did not build her outrageously multifaceted CV on pablum theories. She'll do what it takes, at personal cost, to make things happen. The NYC Marathon is a step toward her ultimate goal of making the US Olympic team in 2016.
I caught up with Bersagel via Skype.
You have a very professional full-time job: Other elite runners just run. What are the pros and cons of your situation?
I really enjoy my job. I feel like if I were just running I'd go a little stir crazy. I've always been interested in an academic path, and I don't really want to off ramp. I couldn't get a better situation for combining with running than the one I have right now. My hours are predictable, 9:00 to 4:45, and it's rare to have work on the weekends. I can put things away when I go home. If I was a junior associate in a big law firm, for example, I'd have no idea when I was going home every night. Having a routine is key; I can plan ahead. Another pro for me is the sense of structure a job provides.
Cons? Well, the most obvious has to do with rest and the small margin for getting everything done in a day. If you start to slide and get tired or injured, it's hard to get back on track and make up for lost time. I try not to be too ambitious with to-do's. And necessarily, any long marathon training gets pushed to Saturdays. It's really hard to do it on a weekday because it gets pretty late, and then you still have to make dinner and try to get to bed at a decent time. lf Saturday comes and you're tired or traveling… there's just not a lot of flexibility in the schedule.
I read that you sometimes you run to work with a backpack—true?
Yeah, I use a mountain running backpack that fits snug. I just bring some clean clothes, something that doesn't wrinkle easily, and I leave shoes and a jacket at work. I did that a lot this summer. It saved so much time, and for that evening workout—if I got home and found the sofa first, it was game over. If I ran to work, well, I had to get home somehow. Good incentive. But it's straight downhill for 7k from my house to work in downtown Oslo, and it got to be too much pounding on my legs, so I don't do that much any more.
What does a typical day of training look like? And how many miles/week do you put in?
As to mileage, it has really varied. In early September, I had this hamstring thing and ran 4 miles the whole week and cross trained. In August, Oyvind and I got to go to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado for three wonderful weeks. I ran about 130 miles/week, slept and watched Netflix. It was the best vacation ever. I guess I get in 170K to 200K per week. I think in Ks...that's 100 to 120 miles/week.
But let's see, typical weekday… Get up at 6 am. Oyvind and I leave the house at 6:15 and meet up with our neighbor and maybe one other person. We get in a little over 11K running through the city, now that it's dark. In the summer, we ran through the forest, but now that it's dark in the morning we'd have to wear headlamps and that's a little annoying. Get ready for work, take the train downtown. At 4:45, I head home. Our training group, IK Tjalve, practices at 6 pm at the Norwegian Olympic Training Center near our house. Sometimes, we'll go to a nearby lake and do two-mile loops. That takes til about 7:30 or so. Come home, make dinner and try to get in bed by 9:30. Maybe we manage to pay a bill, but not much more than that.
You've been running competitively since 2006. To what do you credit your recent significant improvements?
I guess I've only recently been doing marathon training. Before that, I was really doing track training. And up until 2012, I was a grad student. Now I work during the day, but my schedule is predictable—there's no homework.
You won the Dusseldorf Marathon and set a two-minute PR, in bad weather, after two weeks of having the flu. It seems that, under better conditions, you could run faster.
The weather was pretty critical in my being able to win. Some of the women were faster on paper but didn't like the rain. If you're training in Eldoret or Addis, it probably seemed cold. It was a stroke of luck for me.
Have you had any setbacks?
My hamstring was bothering me in September. I was in Montreal for a conference and had planned to run the Montreal Rock 'N' Roll Half Marathon, but instead just cheered for my boss, who did run. It was still bothering me at the Great North Run: I ran underpar, 73 minutes and change. I was hoping to get close to or improve on my World Half time [1:10:09]. I've forgotten about the hamstring now. It was disappointing to miss that training, but maybe the rest will do me good.
Tell me about a key workout you've done for NYC.
I did this treadmill workout at the same pace as I'd done before my 1:10 half marathon. It's 3 times 3K, 2K,1K with 1 minute rest, and 2 minutes between sets. The 3K is at marathon pace, 2K at half marathon pace and 1K at 10K pace. That workout is actually our neighbor's—he's a 5,000 meter runner. After Dusseldorf, I read Ingrid Kristiansen's training blog—she published a lot of her workouts—and stole some stuff from that. One of them is three times 10 minutes at half marathon pace with five minutes in between but you don't totally rest, you keep up 6:30 pace or so. On the treadmill.
Do you do a lot of training on the treadmill?
Quite a bit. Almost all my running in Colorado was on a treadmill.
Really? I assumed you were out on mountain trails.
I have teammates who are training for the 1500, so sometimes I don't have anyone to run with. Also, with the treadmill, you don't have to think about pace; you just dial it in. I can practice drinking and do threshold intervals. I have a blood lactate kit, so I can step off the treadmill, and check to see if I'm going too fast or too slow.
Well, I'm not a sophisticated user. Once you get over the disgust of putting a needle in your finger, it's pretty easy. I just try not to get sweat in it.
Do you think about humanitarian law during workouts, or do you keep work and running separate?
If I'm doing a hard workout, I can't form too many complex thoughts; I can't do the math on my splits. But if I'm doing an easy workout, I might think through a problem from work.
Have you run part of the NYC course? What's your strategy?
Yes, I ran in Central Park earlier this fall. I'd love to be able to go into Central Park still feeling strong. Dusseldorf was flat and I was able to negative split. Central Park is rolling, so it's going to be critical to have extra energy in the tank for that last part. Since the elite women are separate from the men [through eight miles], it's a different kind of racing atmosphere. Time is not that critical, so I'm not really thinking about a time.
Are there people you're keying off of?
I probably should know more about the other American women, but I believe strongly there will be reasonable people to run with.
I don't think everyone in the field will go through a 67-minute first half. There's something to be said for running your own pace, but if that means running alone, you'd probably use less energy just going with a group.
How are you handling the taper? A lot of people don't like it.
Tapering is always lovely. I have no problem with tapering. I don't have to run in the morning, I can sleep in, and all the workouts this week are designed to feel good.
You had mentioned cutting back at work to go for the 2016 Olympic marathon trials, but it seems to be working pretty well for you as is. Is that still a thought?
It might be nice in terms of long marathon workouts, but I'm on a limited time contract with KLP. I don't know if they'll want me to stay, or if part-time would work...For now, I'm full-time through June 2015.
Any plans to move back to the US?
We bought an apartment about a year ago, and Oyvind is in a PhD program for cardiovascular physiology. Science indicates we'll be staying here at least in the near future.
photo credit: Arrangøren