Forging Her Way: Annie Bersagel's tenacious drive to the top
By: Cait Chock
For most runners, stepping away with over a two minute marathon PR, it has come after months of their best, uninterrupted training. For Annie Bersagel it was after two weeks of barely being able to move due to the worst flu of her life. "I was just praying in the days beforehand that I wouldn't completely humiliate myself."
True to the tenacious, at times stubbornly iron-willed, nature distinct to the highest of athletes, she did all that she could to 'train'. Those 21 mile weeks were all her body could handle when normally, she would have been running five-times that amount and with hard workouts.
In stepping to the line of the Dusseldorf Marathon Bersagel had no idea what to expect. Understandably she was nervous. The fact she ran 2:28:59, winning the race speaks volumes. If she was capable of that under such conditions, just imagine what she could do when her training wasn't interrupted. "That race gave me confidence in that I would like to think that I could run faster given more optimal preparations. Of course, the buildup to a marathon rarely goes exactly according to plan, but I have something to strive for at least."
We'll have the opportunity to find out at the New York City Marathon.
Though for Bersagel, had she not battled 'the plague' prior to her 2:28, perhaps it would have felt too easy. This is a runner who is no stranger to overcoming obstacles, persevering when most would quit, and refusing to relent on her goals. This is a person who thrives under pressure, pushing herself to do better in all areas of her life, and gets restless with free time.
Bersagel has never known easy, and she has no desire to either. Now one of the best female American marathoners she isn't sponsored and training fits in around her full-time job as a lawyer. Training in Oslo, this means waking at 6am for her first run of the day; often times these runs are with a backpack on as she runs into work, showers, and slips into the office.
Her rise to 2013 USA Marathon champion has been gradual. Putting nose to grindstone, Bersagel was willing to put in the work, do whatever it took, year after year. Year after year she improved. Graduating from Wake Forest University and joining Team USA Minnesota for a short while, she made what to some would seem like an unusual decision to relocate to Oslo. A decision she made in order to pursue her studies under the Fulbright Scholarship.
Bersagel's life had always been split in two, equally important, facets: academics and athletics. The decision didn't seem all that unusual to the harrier and, coincidently, Oslo also turned out to be the best fit for her running too.
As part of the IK Tjalve running group coached by Knut Kvalheim, after work Bersagel meets with the club at 6pm for her second workout. Running up to 131 miles per week her, "key workouts are long threshold and sub-threshold runs and threshold intervals, plus one long run a week." Her most constant training partner being her husband, Öyvind Helberg Sundby, a mountain runner himself, the pair are both home by 8pm for dinner and then off to bed.
To run healthy
'The Plague' before the Dusseldorf Marathon. While most runners would have wallowed over their bad luck, this flu was nothing compared to what Bersagel had dealt with in the past. In fact it had been years of injury, being confined to cross training and a schedule riddled with doctor and therapy appointments that could be called her 'bad luck.' But she never wallowed.
When outsiders and even family struggled to keep supporting her decision to keep up the quest to be the runner she'd shown promise to be, Bersagel clung to the mission at hand. She did whatever it took to fit in her training and rehab between law school and work. Functioning in part due to her dedication to the dream but also because she couldn't imagine any other way. Running was a part of her.
"When the people you are closest to also follow a certain lifestyle -- in this case, as dedicated runners -- then there isn't the same pressure to quit and live a 'normal life'." She put her nose to the grindstone, tediously cross-trained away, and did whatever it took.
It paid off. In finally getting healthy she returned with a new perspective as well, "I try to step back every once in a while and reflect on how grateful I am that I've experienced so much improvement in the past couple years."
A shifted perspective but never a shift in the basal, unrelenting, driving force distinct to the runner, "To be clear though, I'm very thankful for what I've achieved, but I'm never satisfied -- that's an important distinction."
Today and Beyond
No more looking back, only forward, and for Bersagel the immediate future holds a work trip taking her to Montreal which, "happens to be the week of the Rock 'n Roll Half Marathon... My goal is to compete well and get a little more practice racing over the longer distances, rather than to gun for a PR." From there, the New York City Marathon.
There has been no plague yet and good fortune holding, her training will continue to progress uninterrupted. "As the race draws closer, I should get a better sense of what might be realistic. At this point, I am focused more on just getting to the line in the best shape possible." She joins one of the deepest American fields ever assembled, the chances for another startlingly large PR rather high.
Each year Bersagel elevates herself to another level, one of the top Americans today, she has two more years to turn herself into the top American by 2016. A promise she's made to herself is to scale back her job to allow more time for recovery and altitude training. But, "That's the plan, yes, though my husband has already made it clear he thinks I would be impossible to live with if I took the time off completely."
Bersagel is incredibly humble, "My teammates either work or study full-time and still train 10-13 times per week, so what I'm doing isn't all that special or unique." She doesn't view all she's overcome and what she's masterfully achieved as making her all that much different from anyone else. "Leaving a mark on the sport sounds a bit ambitious, but certainly there are quite a few athletes who have helped and inspired me along the way, so in that sense, I hope I'm able to pay it forward."
When a champion is willing to do whatever it takes, obstacles at hand can't be viewed as omnipresent or as daunting as they may actually be. To be a champion it means putting your head down, making it through the moment, the mile, and never settling.
Caitlin Chock (caitchock.com) set the then National High School 5k Record (15:52.88) in 2004 and previously ran for Nike. A freelance writer, artist, and designer she writes about all things running and founded Ezzere, her own line of running shirts (www.ezzere.com). You can read more, see her running comics, and her shirts at her website.