"Calm confidence" is a favorite mantra that has turned into a state of being for 31-year-old elite runner Annie Bersagel. Running 100-plus-mile weeks, she has trained through a Fulbright scholarship, a master's program in peace and conflict studies at the University of Oslo in Norway and a law degree at Stanford.
As a member of the small pack of elite women toeing the line at this Sunday's TCS New York City Marathon, Bersagel is wholly unique. Without a big-brand shoe sponsorship, she is one of the few to have a "regular" day job. Living and training in Oslo, she juggles a high-stress career in competitive running with a high-stress career as an adviser for KLP Asset Management, not to mention various side projects, like co-editing a book on the governance of nuclear weapons under international law, which was published just this month.
Still, she holds one of the top five times among the American contingent in New York. Working toward the 2016 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, she is considered a rising star at the 26.2-mile distance.
While she may not be a household name, Bersagel most certainly didn't come out of nowhere. She has been hammering away on the competitive running scene for more than a decade, only recently experiencing the kind of success that boosts a runner to that next level.
The multiple-time All-American from Wake Forest was named NCAA Woman of the Year in 2006. That year, she also won the U.S. Half-Marathon Championship and represented the U.S. at the IAAF World Road Running Championships and Yokohama International Women's Ekiden. While she managed to run well at the 2011 Pan American Games, finishing fourth in the 10,000 meters, she suffered a string of sidelining injuries in the past several years.
So in 2013, when she pulled off a surprise win at the U.S. Marathon Championships, it was a major breakthrough.
Running on home soil at the Medtronic Twin Cities Marathon -- she lived in Minnesota during her adolescence and trained there after college, and much of her family resides there -- she snagged her second and most prestigious national title, outkicking the runner-up by nearly three minutes. She improved on her personal record by more than 10 minutes, finishing in 2:30:53, and suddenly found herself in a different class of runners.
"That was a turning point, both in the sense of finally feeling some success at the marathon distance and also winning in Minnesota, of all places," she said.
While some may have questioned her continuing to run competitively for so long, especially when she has a successful legal career going, that win explained it all. "I'm a competitive person by nature and I couldn't bear the thought of giving up," she said. "I always believed that my best days were ahead of me, even when the evidence was to the contrary."
In March, Bersagel finished 13th at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships in Copenhagen in a time of 1:10:10, the top American. Then came the Dusseldorf Marathon in April, where she won, finishing in an impressive 2:28:59. Considering that she lost several weeks of regular training leading up to the race due to a nasty cold, this result caught even her coach, Knut Kvalheim, off guard.
"Three weeks before, I was sure she was going to run well under 2:30 if conditions were good because her half-marathon at the world championships indicated she could go fast," said Kvalheim, a former Norwegian Olympian who ran with Steve Prefontaine at Oregon. "But then she got sick and it was a matter of just getting to the start line, and I asked her to start conservatively and quit immediately if she didn't feel well. So as you can understand, her race was a surprise to me."
With that momentum, Bersagel set her sights on New York City. Training mostly in Oslo, where she first moved in 2006 on a Fulbright scholarship and subsequently met her husband, she has been logging up to 130 miles each week. While she has taken an approach similar to her preparation for Dusseldorf, she's added in more long runs of around 23 miles on a hilly trail near her home.
Her days usually consist of an early morning wake-up call that sends her out the door by 6:15 a.m. to train with her husband, Oyvind Heidberg Sundby, an accomplished Norwegian mountain runner and exercise physiologist. Other days she runs to work -- about 4.5 miles -- schlepping a backpack with a change of clothes. This year, she told The New York Times, she did many long runs on a treadmill or indoor track. She's home for dinner by 8 p.m., then heads to bed.
Despite all the juggling, she insists that her concurrent careers complement each another. "It forces me to have more structure to my day," she said. "At the same time, it is a delicate balance to fit everything in and get enough sleep. There isn't much of a margin for error, and I don't have the most active social life from Monday to Friday."
While a day job would be a hindrance for some professional runners, Kvalheim says it works for Bersagel. "She is extremely structured and when she sets out to do things, she tries her best," he said. "No one can say what a different situation would have meant to her running."
Heading to New York City, her coach hopes she can build on her previous experiences for a top finish. "She will go into it with much the same thinking as her earlier marathons: Have an idea of what you want to do, but use the situation of having good competitors for the best race, without getting carried away," he said.
Bersagel plans to focus on her competition Sunday, rather than the clock. With results that have put her on a short list of potential runners to make the U.S. marathon squad for the 2016 Olympics in Rio, she shouldn't be underestimated going into the New York race.
"I tend to think of it in the same way as running a long-track workout -- just one lap at a time," she explained. "It's only now that a goal like making the U.S. Olympic team sounds plausible enough and close enough at hand to be a real motivating force between now and February 2016."