The Greatest American Marathoner You’ve Never Heard Of
Annie Bersagel is fast and smart, and if she has her way, she’ll crush it in Rio
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You’d buy life insurance from Annie Bersagel. Heck, this is someone who could broker an international peace accord—well-spoken, level-headed, warm, self-deprecating, intelligent but not in an overbearing way. She exudes professionalism and lacks the sunken cheeks and brittle intensity of someone who lives in miles.
At the same time, her recent win and personal best performance at the Dusseldorf Marathon (2:28:29) ranked Bersagel fourth among U.S. women who’ve qualified for the Olympic trials, to be held in January 2016. She’s one of 12 U.S. women who’s broken two hours, 30 minutes for the marathon in the last three years. And of those top contenders for an Olympic spot, she’s the only one who ascended to the top ranks while holding down an equally high-level job as an international lawyer; Bersagel, 32, works full-time as an adviser for KLP Asset Management in Oslo. How does she do it? Lean in, my lycra-wrapped friends.
Bersagel grew up in Greeley, Colorado, and had a successful athletic career at Wake Forest University, running the 5,000 and 10,000 meters. After graduating, she won the U.S. Half-Marathon Championship in 2006, then promptly accepted the Fulbright Scholarship she’d been awarded to study in Norway. There, in between academics, she met and married exercise physiologist and accomplished mountain runner Øyvind Heiberg Sundby. The two lived in California while Bersagel completed her law degree at Stanford, and moved back to Oslo in 2012. But throughout her seven post-graduate years, she continued to train, logging up to 130 miles per week.
“I’m competitive by nature. Running is important to me—I just couldn’t let it go,” she said of her double life, via Skype. “My first marathon was a 2:44, so sponsors weren’t lining up. Life goes on, I was building a career. I really enjoy what I do, so I haven’t seen the need to be a full-time runner. The running improvement just happened.”
Improving from a creditable 2:44 marathon to an internationally competitive 2:30 “just happened” via planning, prioritizing her workouts, and grinding hard work. Most people would find the demands of both a high-powered job and top-level marathon training overwhelming, but Bersagel thrives on the structure (“She’s extremely structured, I would say,” Sundby pipes in.)
Monday through Friday, she’s out the door at 6:15 a.m. for 11K with Sundby and a friend, and after work, she joins her local Tjalve run club teammates and coach Knut Kvalheim for a tempo run, or an interval workout. Dinner around 8 p.m. and bed shortly thereafter leaves little slack in the schedule.
To be sure, Norwegians enjoy a better work/life balance with more vacation days than Americans, but even beyond that, KLP boasts an especially athlete-friendly culture. “Choosing this job was not an accident,” Bersagel said. “My boss is a triathlete. There are skiers, cyclists, runners—we’re kindred spirits.”
Oslo’s dark winter days and icy streets mean a lot of workouts are on the treadmill, but control freak—er, detail-oriented—Bersagel likes the treadmill, year round.
“I like being able to control the pace, and it makes you mentally tough. It prepares you for the monotony of running an even pace,” said the woman who ran 35K in one place while preparing for the Dusseldorf Marathon.
Bersagel is, in fact, following in the treadmill footsteps of Norwegian legend Ingrid Kristiansen, formerly a world record holder at 5,000 and 10,000 meters, and the marathon. Bersagel uses workouts from Kristiansen’s training log—a lot of fartlek with active recovery (recovery is not slow, maybe 6:20 pace), and medium runs at a fast pace.
“Her strengths are both mental and physical,” Sundby said. “She was born with good endurance, a very low resting heart rate, below 40 beats per minute. But she also has patience to keep training to reach her potential. She went five years without a PR, but didn’t give up. And Annie is a very good racer. She never takes it all out, mentally, in training, so she’s able to dig deep and give 100 percent in races. It’s not pretty sometimes, but I’ve never seen her give up.” Expect to see her approach the 2016 Olympic marathon trials with the same tenacity—just don't expect to see her give up her job to follow her Olympic dreams.
Bersagel’s annual contract with KLP was recently changed to a permanent position with an option for part-time hours through the 2016 Olympics. As usual, she’s approaching the situation thoughtfully.
“I’m trying to figure out how that will affect my training schedule,” she said. “There’s room for improvement certainly, but I don’t want to mess too much with the formula that’s worked so far.”