2016 U.S. Olympic Team Marathon Trials

Annie Bersagel The Unlikeliest Of Contenders At Olympic Trials Marathon

Annie Bersagel The Unlikeliest Of Contenders At Olympic Trials Marathon

LOS ANGELES –– As Annie Bersagel made her way along the trail, she slowed her already gingerly pace to a walk after seemingly just the briefest of jogs. The

Feb 12, 2016 by Joe Battaglia
Annie Bersagel The Unlikeliest Of Contenders At Olympic Trials Marathon
LOS ANGELES –– As Annie Bersagel made her way along the trail, she slowed her already gingerly pace to a walk after seemingly just the briefest of jogs.

The sight of her not being able to continue was striking to all around her.

“There was a guy running behind me that was like, ‘Come on! You can do it! Keep going!’” Bersagel recalled. “I was like, ‘Believe me, I would love to.’”

Being forced to abandon her “run” after one minute and a few hundred meters just four months ago would rightfully seem like an unlikely starting point for a realistic chance at challenging for a spot in the Rio Olympics.

But Bersagel’s ascension to podium contender in Saturday’s U.S. Olympic Trials marathon is equally improbable, which might make the 32-year-old Norwegian resident and owner of the sixth-fastest qualifying time in the field the most dangerous marathoner still flying under the radar.

“I’ve never had a good marathon buildup,” Bersagel said Thursday at the JW Marriott. “But I think that the goal is so big that I had to keep going. What am I going to do, stop now?”

There have been times when Bersagel could have logically stepped away from running had it not been her first love.

The native of Greeley, Colo. earned multiple All-America honors in the 5000m and 10,000m at Wake Forest, but her biggest accomplishment as a college athlete was made in the classroom, as she was named the NCAA Scholar Athlete of the Year in 2006.

While she continued to pursue running after graduation, joining Team USA Minnesota and winning the U.S. Half Marathon Championship that year, she was also awarded a Fulbright Scholarship to study peace and conflict resolution at the University of Oslo. While in Norway, she met and married Øyvind Helberg Sundby, an exercise physiologist and mountain runner, which kept her tied to the sport.

Annie Bersagel competing in the Dusseldorf Marathon.
The couple returned to the United States while Bersagel attended law school at Stanford, and continued to run. In 2009, she qualified for the Olympic Trials marathon by running 2:44:17 at the Twin Cities Marathon. With everything else she had going on in her life, there was no way she was turning down the opportunity to race on America’s biggest stage in Houston in 2012.

“I felt like I was ready to make a breakthrough in terms of getting a new PR, but realistically I didn’t think I had much of a chance at making the team,” Bersagel said. “I though that maybe if I had a really good day, I could’ve run 2:35 or something like that if everything worked out. “

But, it didn’t.

Early in the race, Bersagel collided with another runner and pulled a hamstring, all before falling at mile one. She soldiered through the first loop but couldn’t go on. Rather than risk further injury, she walked off the course and back to the hotel.

Feeling “disappointed” and “a bit sad” at her inability to finish the race, Bersagel launched her energies into trying to qualify for the Olympic Trials on the track later that summer, but never made it to Eugene.

“It wasn’t a great year,” Bersagel understated.

As bad as things turned out, she was not ready to bury her head in her books or chain herself to a corporate desk back in Norway.

I wasn’t really running as a pro in the sense that I was only picking up a little bit of prize money here and there,” Bersagel said. “Running was something that I did because I loved it. Something that I discovered when I was at Stanford was that I didn’t need to apologize for it. If I wanted to run, even though I wasn’t winning big races, if that’s what mattered to me I should just go for it and not worry about it. If I didn’t need to give it up to continue my career, then why should I?
Unlike most runners with outside jobs at running stores and the like, Bersagel works fulltime as a responsible investments advisor for KLP Asset Management, a Norwegian company that manages public sector pension funds and insurance.

And despite living and training in a city so cold that it is impossible to log miles outdoors during the winter months, Bersagel adapted her training, which is guided by coach Knut Kvalheim, a former teammate of Steve Prefontaine at the University of Oregon, to include long runs on a treadmill and workouts on the indoor track below famed Bislett Stadium in Oslo.

That determination helped springboard Bersagel’s running from mere passion to sheer promise. In 2013, she won the U.S. Marathon championship, shaving some 14 minutes off her PR with a 2:30:53 at Twin Cities.

“It was meaningful for me because it was in Minnesota and that’s where my grandparents lived,” she explained. “They both passed away this year, sadly, but I remember my grandpa was so proud that he practically cried when I won that race.”

The following year, Bersagel was the top American finisher at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Copenhagen, finishing 13th in 70:10. A month later, she won the Dusseldorf Marathon in 2:28:59 despite battling a case of the flu so severe Bersagel jokingly likens it to “the plague.”

I remember going into the race and my name wasn’t on the list of contenders in any of the previews or anything like that, but I knew that I was fit,” Bersagel said. “I was running in Norway so nobody knew what I was doing. But they did after that race.
Later in 2014, Bersagel was the second fastest American and finished 10th overall at the New York City Marathon. In March of 2015, she earned her first sponsorship deal with apparel giant Under Armour. A month later, she repeated as champion in Dusseldorf, running a personal-best 2:28:29.

Annie Bersagel celebrates her victory in the Dusseldorf Marathon.

But that victory came with a cost. Six miles into the race, Bersagel fell and smashed her left knee. She fought through the pain but after the race learned that she had done significant ligament damage and would need microfracture surgery.

“I knew that the microfracture surgery might work or it might not,” she said. “Because I had success so late [in my career], I understood that it doesn’t last forever, but that was not the way it was going to end. I decided that either I stop there or I am going to go all in for this.”

After surgery, and while her “friends were out running in the sunshine,” Bersagel spent four to six hours a day for six weeks with her leg in a passive-motion machine. For general fitness, she pedaled furiously on an arm-bike while listening to Norwegian crime novels on audiobook. Eventually, she was able to begin running in a pool before graduating to an AlterG.

She credits her physical therapists at the Norwegian Olympic Training Center and the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs with getting her through some periods of low morale.

February 13 was what was in my head motivating me the whole time,” Bersagel said. “You'd be surprised if you tell people, ‘I had knee microfracture surgery, but I'm going to compete for a spot on the U.S. marathon team for the Olympics. The kind of response you get is, ‘That's nuts. How can I help you?’
Bersagel’s “official” return to running came on October 17, when she was allowed back outdoors on a trail to run four times one minute with a four minute walk break.

“It was real couch-to-5K program stuff,” she said.

She added that the first real milestone came in December when she ran a half marathon during the marathon relay at the Dallas Marathon. Until that point, she had only jogged about eight miles at her longest stretch.
Annie Bersagel won the 2016 Star Wars Half Marathon in 75:09 at Disneyland in January.

“I ran that race and my knee did not bother me during the race,” Bersagel said. “It hurt a heck of a lot after the race. It wasn’t a great performance, by any means, but I was like, ‘I think this is going to work.’”

Her upward trajectory continued last month when she won the women’s race at the Star Wars Half Marathon at Disneyland in Anaheim, clocking 75:09.

“It was more of a workout that anything, but it went so much easier than Dallas,” Bersagel said. “The whole time it has been baby steps in the right direction. I think the strategy has sort of been fake it until you make it.”

Bersagel has made it to the starting line here, haven taken perhaps the unlikeliest of courses to contention – which, of course, she knows will mean nothing when the gun goes off on Saturday.

“I wouldn’t come here if I didn’t feel like there was a chance,” Bersagel said. “Definitely, I am in better shape than I was four years ago. Have I done as many of the long runs and mileage that I did? No. But it’s the marathon. Crazy things happen. It’s going to be warm out there. It’s a championship race and there are a lot of people who have a great shot at making the team.

“I just want to take my chance as well.”

The Olympic Trials Marathon will be live on NBC.