Annie Bersagel eyes unlikely Olympic marathon bid
LOS ANGELES -- Annie Bersagel held the corners of her U.S. Olympic Marathon trials bib with great care as she posed for photos in a hotel ballroom on Thursday. Perhaps no piece of paper -- even her Stanford Law School degree -- has been more hard-won.
The women's field for Saturday's race is full of interesting characters, but Bersagel, 32, has one of the most uncommon pedigrees. A native of Greeley, Colorado, who was a standout runner at Wake Forest University, Bersagel earned a Fulbright Scholarship, moved to Oslo, Norway, to study peace-and-conflict resolution and never left. Her support group there includes coach Knut Kvalheim, who ran with Steve Prefontaine at the University of Oregon, and husband Øyvind Heiberg Sundby, an exercise physiologist. She currently works as a responsible investments advisor for a Norwegian company that manages public sector pension funds and insurance -- a job that leads her to delve into environmental, human rights and political corruption issues.
Despite the constraints of training in a cold city, Bersagel has made steady progress as a marathoner. She fell early in the 2012 Olympic trials race in Houston and was forced to pull out, but recovered to win the 2013 U.S. championship at the Twin Cities Marathon. Bersagel was the second-fastest American female finisher (10th) in a notably blustery New York City Marathon in 2014, and set her personal best time of 2:28.29 when she won the 2015 Dusseldorf Marathon.
That race was costly, however. Bersagel fell and banged her left knee at the 6-mile mark. Adrenaline fueled her performance that day, but she had damaged cartilage and underwent microfracture surgery this past June. Her rehab was arduous and her presence in L.A was by no means guaranteed. Bersagel hasn't run more than a half-marathon at race pace since her injury, but is cautiously confident she can compete for one of three slots for Rio 2016.
Bersagel spoke with ESPN.com about her unique path to the marathon and how she overcame difficult injuries.
ESPN.com: Once you got out of college, did you prioritize career over running at first?
Bersagel: I've been just as serious and committed to running the entire time. It's just that I wasn't getting the results, so I wasn't on anyone's radar. Since I graduated from Wake Forest, I've been focused on the running, but I had some major career setbacks with injuries. Then I moved to Norway. I never really put the rest of my life on hold. I just continued to try and build a career path that made sense. For many years, I was the kind of runner who was a solid presence at U.S. championships, someone you could count on to finish between 10th and 30th. Then I broke through at the Twin Cities Marathon in 2013. Until then, my story or what I was doing was not that interesting to anyone else, and I don't blame them. [Twin Cities] was a big breakthrough for me, but it wasn't as if there was some kind of long-term plan going into that. Once that happened, I thought, "I would like to take this to another level."
ESPN.com: When you lined up for the trials four years ago in Houston, what was your expectation?
Bersagel: Realistically, I wasn't in the kind of shape where I was going to make the team, but I think I probably would have knocked a pretty good chunk off my then-personal best, which was 2:44. It's not as if I was all set to make the team but it was pretty disappointing nonetheless.
ESPN.com: You were the second-fastest American female finisher at the 2014 New York City Marathon, a very windy, tough day on a championship course. What did you learn from that race?
Bersagel: The way it worked out for me, I ended up running most of the race alone. I backed off fairly early on. It was kind of a calculated decision, with the wind, do you want to give up the potential drafting aide even if you think the pace is a little bit too quick? All the marathons I've run that have gone really well, I've come from behind, so I decided to back off and was reeling people in the whole time. But there was a very, very long stretch there where I was completely alone. When I was on the Queensboro Bridge, it was silent. I knew that it would be quiet, because there are no spectators allowed up there, but I could only hear my own footsteps, which was a bit eerie. I guess maybe in terms of learning, it was trusting that my race instincts were correct on that day. It was just going by feel.
ESPN.com: How well do you know the racing style and patterns of the other top women?
Bersagel: Shalane Flanagan and I were both in the ACC at the same time. She ran for North Carolina while I was running for Wake Forest, so I got my clock cleaned by her [in cross country and on the track] every weekend. I know Shalane pretty well. Desiree Linden, we met at a junior USATF camp back when we were seniors in high school. Same goes for Sara Hall; same age, raced against each other for a long time. Amy Hastings Cragg was a year behind me at Arizona State. I can't think of any I haven't raced against at some point. But I don't mean to say by that that I know what kind of strategy they're going to approach it with.
ESPN.com: What's it like to try to strive for excellence in both your job and your running?
Bersagel: I try to keep a very realistic level of what I can accomplish with both of them at any given point. For example, right now I'm working 60 percent [of her normal hours on the job]. Given the kind of preparations I had to make and coming back from knee surgery, 100 percent would be a little bit overly ambitious. You make your career on serendipity and opportunities that come about, and I feel really lucky to have found one that is such a good fit. I haven't found it to be a big hindrance. Part of that is because I never really lived as a full-time athlete. This really is my normal. I don't have anything else to compare it to. Especially when things are not going well, it's helpful to have something else to focus on.
ESPN.com: Your layoff after the microfracture surgery was the longest of your career. What was the toughest part of the rehab?
Bersagel: I did my last run at the end of May, and I didn't run outside again until Oct. 17. When I came back, I was allowed to do four [reps of] 1-minute jog with a 4-minute walk-rest. I was on this trail and there was a guy who came up from behind me who was running, and passed me just as I stopped, and said, "Come on, you can do it, keep going." (laughs) I wish. So that was a low point.
ESPN.com: Did you maintain confidence you were going to come back to full form?
Bersagel: Anyone who's gone through microfracture will tell you they had some periods of low morale. It's a very long recovery process. To give you an illustration, I had to be off work for six weeks, because I had my leg in one of these continuous passive-motion machines that just moves your knee back and forth, four to six hours a day. Kind of funny now when you look back on it, but it felt really pathetic. I did everything I could to stay in shape. Initially all I could do was arm-bike -- I arm-biked and listened to audiobooks. Then I kind of graduated to doing running in the pool, then biking, spinning where I couldn't put any weight on it, then elliptical and AlterG (anti-gravity treadmill), and that really helped. But for a long time, just sitting up all day would make my knee swell. I think I naively thought that I could cross-train my heart out, and even that was too much at the beginning. I've seen tremendous progress, but there have been more low points than I can count.
ESPN.com: What audiobooks?
Bersagel: Norwegian crime novels. Just anything to think of something else. I think I watched the Lindsey Vonn documentary maybe three times, about her recovery from knee surgery. You look for inspiration where you can get it. I just decided, I'm going to pretend I'm going to be there, and that I'm going to be competing for a shot on the team and do everything as if that will happen knowing that my progress could stop at any point along the way, but either you go for it all-in or you stay home. I worked with some great people at the Norwegian Olympic Training Center and the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, [Colorado]. 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. And how can I help you?"
ESPN.com: When did it become tangible that you were going to make it to Los Angeles?
Bersagel: I've only done two races. Dallas [a marathon relay on Dec. 13] was a really important test. I ran a half, and before that I had only jogged 8 miles at a stretch, I had gotten to the point where I could do long workouts on an AlterG at 75-85 percent of my body weight, but it was really untested. I remember thinking during the race as I hit Mile 8, "all right, we're in uncharted territory here." It held up well. Then with the Star Wars half-marathon [in Anaheim last month, which she won in 1:15:09], same thing. I tried to run it more as a tempo-type effort, and it was so much easier than Dallas. I made a lot of progress in a month. But I've had to resign myself to, this buildup is not going to be like any other buildup I've done, I won't be able to train the same way. Instead of grumbling about what I can't do, I need to focus on what I can do. We'll see how this goes. I guess the biggest thing I'm taking in confidence is, I know if I ran my personal best in a race where I knocked some cartilage loose in my knee at 10K, I know it's not going to come down to toughness.