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The Best Norse In The Long Run

Oct. 27, 1986
Oct. 27, 1986

Table of Contents
Oct. 27, 1986

The World Series
Michigan-Iowa
Olympics
Kristiansen
Soccer

The Best Norse In The Long Run

Ingrid Kristiansen of Norway, a skier turned runner, is the fastest woman in the world over 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and in the marathon

Two framed certificates hang inside Arve and Ingrid Kristiansen's front door in suburban Oslo. One, a print of a dark and tossing sea submerging two struggling figures, tells how Arve saved a two-year-old boy from drowning in 1966, when he was 12. The other states that a grove of trees in Israel has been named for Ingrid, in thanks for her demonstrating last year in favor of free emigration for Soviet Jews.

This is an article from the Oct. 27, 1986 issue Original Layout

Ten seconds in this house and you know these people help out when they're needed.

Kristiansen has been painting a ceiling. Her face, jeans, sweatshirt, glasses and short tawny hair show points of white. She leads her guests past a room filled with blond lumber and plaster dust. Arve is there, a tan, bearded man in orange overalls. "It's going to be a workshop," he says. He has built much of their furniture, as well as the sauna. "You have to do something to keep your feet on the ground, something besides reading and thinking about Ingrid's running."

Arve spends two weeks a month here in Oslo. The other two weeks he is on oil drilling platforms in the North Sea, working for Statoil, the exploring arm of the Norwegian Oil Company.

There are balloons tied to the kitchen curtain rods, left over from their son Gaute's birthday party. Gaute, 3, is quiet and observant, with hair as white as linen. His mother holds him on her hip for a moment, gazing at their hillside view of pines, tile roofs and, beyond, the Oslo Fjord, reflecting clouds.

Like Joan Benoit Samuelson, one of her few real rivals in marathoning, Kristiansen is a domestic fury. She weaves rugs on a 30-year-old loom. She knits, crochets and makes many of Gaute's clothes. She bakes. She puts up preserves, and was disappointed that this year the wild blueberries were few. She reads. A large anthology of Pearl Buck novels is open on the coffee table.

"I'm kind of spoiled," she says. "From Oslo, I can fly to any track in Europe in a couple of hours. I can run. And then I can rush home."

Such quick trips have yielded incomparable performances. She won the 1985 London Marathon in 2:21:06, the fastest time ever by a woman. Last July, on her home track in Bislett Stadium, she covered 10,000 meters in 30:13.74, a staggering 45.68 seconds better than her own world record. In August, she flew to Stockholm and cut nearly 11 seconds from Zola Budd's 5,000-meter world record with 14:37.33. No other runner, male or female, has ever held the 5,000, 10,000 and marathon records at the same time.

Now she nears a historic barrier. In the Chicago marathon this weekend, weather cooperating, she intends to become the first woman to break 2 hours and 20 minutes, a time that for years separated the good from the world class among male marathoners.

Kristiansen takes a long training run once a week, and on this day she begins it by wading through wet ferns in a neighbor's backyard to a steep trail going up her hillside. This she climbs for a mile to Oslo's spectacular Holmenkollen ski jump. Before the first snows, the Holmenkollen championship cross-country ski course is a narrow, sandy road. Kristiansen and an old friend, Oslo city councilman and former Olympic 1,500-meter runner Arne Kvalheim, go easily at about seven minutes per mile over undulant hills, twittering like birds about the great ski races that have hallowed this ground.

Kristiansen's stride at this gentle speed is a light-footed shuffle, and the motion of her arms has more than a trace of the skier's backward push. She is 5'6" and 106 pounds, with the leanness produced by 100 hilly miles per week. Another consequence of such stress has been amenorrhea, the infrequent menstrual periods experienced by many gymnasts, ballet dancers and runners. For years she had been used to going months without a period. Thus, in 1983, she was ripe for the surprise of her life.

"In January I won the Houston Marathon," says Kristiansen. "I thought I recovered well, but I got beat by some runners I really shouldn't have lost to in 10-and 15-kilometer road races." Then she staggered home a bedraggled 35th in the world cross-country race in Gateshead, England, an event in which she had been sixth the year before.

Kristiansen's coach, Johan Kaggestad, was mystified. "My wife said, 'She must be pregnant. Ask her.' It was Ingrid's birthday and she was miserable, so I didn't. But the next day on the plane I brought it up, and she laughed and said, 'No, no.' But I said maybe it would be good to take a test." A week passed. "I answered the phone, and she was crying, not only that she was pregnant, but that she was five months pregnant."

The tears were of shock, not dismay. She wanted a baby, but she wanted to run, too. Kristiansen trained as much as she could before the birth. "When she got so round she couldn't run, she swam and biked and walked for hours," Kaggestad says. In effect she had the luxury of a four-month pregnancy.

Gaute was born Aug. 13, 1983. Kristiansen ran her first lowkey race on Oct. 1. In January, five months after delivering, she returned to the Houston Marathon, which she had won the year before while three months pregnant, and won it again, in 2:27:51, her best by 2:18. Now she was really on her way.

The runner was born on March 21, 1956, in Trondheim, in western Norway, about 240 miles north of Oslo. Her family name was Christensen. Her father worked in the oil business. Her mother kept their home. She has one brother, four years older. None was interested in organized sports, but her Norwegian birthright was a vigorous life. Her parents had to lock her skis and running shoes in a cupboard after dinner or she would be out past midnight, roving the country.

"In school," she says, "the boys did sports and the girls watched. But I was always more like a boy. I ran and played soccer. It was difficult. I had no good girlfriends until five or six years ago."

Kristiansen has an extraordinarily expressive face in conversation. Her forehead can furrow, her eyes squint and her mouth screw up as if her passing thoughts were squirts of lemon juice. It seems a manner formed in and by solitary effort, without much regard for what others thought of it.

She preferred skiing but couldn't deny her running talent. In 1971, at age 15, she came out of the woods to run 4:22.6 for the 1,500 meters, and made the Norwegian team for the European Championships in Helsinki. Her roommate, three years older, was a miler named Grete Andersen, who later would revolutionize women's marathoning under her married name of Waitz. "I was amazed to see Ingrid, morning and evening, doing pushups, lots of them," says Waitz. "That was for skiing. Running was obviously secondary to her."

In 1976 she was an alternate on the Norwegian Olympic ski team, and in 1978 she finished 15th in the 20-kilometer race at the world championships. "Not a good result," she says now. "Because the expectations of Norwegians in skiing are high." In skiing, she acquired the reputation of a born second.

Kristiansen combined skiing and running from '71 to '79, when she graduated from Trondheim Tekniske H‚àö‚àègskole. She began working as a technician at the Norwegian Cancer Research Institute in Trondheim. "A quiet job," she says. A stress fracture kept her from finishing her first competitive marathon, in New York that October, when Waitz ran a then world record 2:27:33. Waitz and Kristiansen raced six or seven times a year at 1,500 and 3,000 meters, and always Waitz won. Over the years, Kristiansen collected "20 or 30" silver medals behind Waitz in Norwegian championships.

The relationship between these two, so fixed in the standings, was fluid and tentative in emotion. "She was not my ideal, in the sense that I wanted to imitate everything about her," says Kristiansen, "but she showed what women could do if we trained like men. She showed that Norwegian girls can beat the best. It was frustrating to be behind her for those years, but there was always the feeling, 'If she can do it, I can do it, too.' "

First, Ingrid had to make some changes. She married Arve in 1981 and moved with him to the oil port of Stavanger, on Norway's remarkably mild west coast. There she could run year-round for the first time. And for coaching she turned to Kaggestad, a former 5,000-meter man who directed the Norwegian Nike distributorship. "She had built up tremendous aerobic capacity from the age of ten," he says. "But she had done no sophisticated training."

Kaggestad added variety and intensity, transforming her strength to speed. Now, even at 30, Kristiansen believes she can continue to improve. "In the 10,000, I think one second faster per lap is possible," she says. "Somebody can do 29:45. Me, O.K., but others, too. Mary [Slaney]. Zola [Budd]. Yes, I lapped everybody [when I set the record] by one or two laps, but that's because it was so new to them. When they catch up, the one lap will go away, and we'll be a group, like the men."

Two years ago the Kristiansens moved to Oslo, which is far from the warm Atlantic, and hence snowy for five months of the year. "So I bought a treadmill," says Kristiansen, "to run fast in the wintertime without having to go to the Bahamas." This demanding device inhabits a basement room. On it, the runner faces a mirror and a photograph of Benoit winning the 1983 Boston Marathon. After a few minutes, the runner senses control passing to the machine. You are not running so much as being run.

Still, it's better than dodging traffic on icy roads. "I live here," Kristiansen says, meaning Norway. "I want to be here. Besides, I never go more than 45 minutes or an hour."

Kaggestad says the treadmill work has become more valuable than the road training it replaced. "When she comes from the machine, she floats on the track. Her rhythm is better. So now she uses it in the summer, too."

And in winter she still cross-country skis almost every morning for 10 to 25 miles. "In fact, in winter I seldom run outdoors."

It is not unrelated that, except for her single stress fracture seven years ago, she has never been injured. "I've asked Ingrid, 'How come you never get hurt?' " Waitz says rather plaintively, for Waitz has been hurt a lot lately. "Her theory is that for years I did hard, intensive track training, while she skied and did long easy runs. Now I don't have legs for the track any more. As soon as I step on it, I'm hurt."

And a baby makes you come alive. "I don't think before Gaute that she really believed she could be a mother," says Arve. "She thought her whole hormone system was not working in that way. But now she is a more fulfilled person. There is nothing missing."

"I am better for having him," says Kristiansen. "My body's changed, but I'm also thinking more of Gaute and less of myself. You get more flexible, maybe, more able to make adjustments in training and not worry about them."

Kristiansen points out that there are other reasons, besides her child, for her improvement. For one, she was impelled to rebuild her competitive psyche by a traumatic experience, the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic marathon. Kristiansen by then had surpassed Waitz's best time with 2:24:26, a mark second only to Benoit's record 2:22:43.

The race began under morning fog. Just before three miles, Benoit surged away, forcing a decision upon the contenders. Should they go with her? Kristiansen looked to Waitz. "I have a lot of respect for the distance," Waitz said. "Maybe too much. When Joan left so early, I was convinced she would come back." Waitz let Benoit go.

It wasn't the distance that Kristiansen had too much respect for. It was Waitz. "I didn't use my head then," she says now. "If I had followed Joanie, maybe three or four other girls would have come too. It might have been a different race. But I waited for Grete. She stayed in the pack. So I stayed in the pack." She falls into regretful silence for a while, then says brightly, "If I could run just one race differently, it would be that one."

L.A.'s coastal fog lingered for a protective hour. Benoit built up an insurmountable lead. Waitz, running with back spasms, finished second and was glad to get it. Kristiansen was fourth, behind Portugal's Rosa Mota, and returned home painfully aware that she was not yet the complete marathoner. The body was able, but she was victim of her own reflexive habits of mind.

"I went to a psychologist named Willy Railo," she says. "Most of his work is with business people, musicians and actors. I had to agree with him when he said I had a Grete Waitz complex and a Joan Benoit complex." Railo explained that, not unnaturally, she had been programmed for 10 years to accept her role as No. 2.

To rise out of it, she began listening to tapes made by Railo that reassured her about her self-worth and made her imagine specific situations, specific responses. "There is a tape with two races," she says. "One is a marathon with Joanie, Grete and Rosa. And of course I win. Then there is a track race with Budd and Slaney. They are the runners I respect the most because they lead, they don't wait behind you to outsprint you. In the tape I have many troubles with them." She says the idea is not to imagine oneself eternally victorious but eternally tough, always reacting positively no matter how intimidating the challenge. "The key is you must control the race," she says. "Not let the race control you."

In 1985 she bent the London Marathon to her will. Running with cheerful abandon, she took 1:37 from Benoit Samuelson's world-best time with her 2:21:06. And six months later, last October, in the Chicago marathon, the two women raced for the first time since the Olympics. "Before the race," says Kristiansen, "I said to myself, 'Don't think of Joanie. This is your race.' But she took the lead. She was the boss."

The pace was fast. "In the first miles, I said, 'It's O.K., fast is better for me than for Joanie, because my 10,000 time is much faster than hers.' " For an hour and a half they ran together, each relishing the tension of shoulder-to-shoulder competition. "At 15 miles, I offered her a drink from my bottle," says Kristiansen. "She said no."

Later, Benoit Samuelson would reveal that she was feeling terrible at that point. "If Ingrid had kicked away then," she said, "I'd have settled for second." But Kristiansen was unaware of her rival's weakness, and Benoit Samuelson regrouped and launched her own attack at 18 miles. She won by 1:44, in 2:21:21, the second fastest ever.

Still, the 2:20 barrier stood unscathed. "This fall I think it will happen," says Kristiansen. "My track improvement means the pace will be easier, and my psychological training has taken care of the complexes. There is only one competitor now: the watch."

Kristiansen's friend Kvalheim, who has been running along listening to this, says, "You know, here in Norway if you make a promise like that, 20,000 people will come out to see you fail. It's a law here: You shouldn't think you are anyone special. We call it Jante Loven."

This is part of a famous assessment of the Norwegian character by Danish author and poet Aksel Sandemose. "It's quoted a lot in Norway," Kaggestad would say later. "And I think it's a problem. We live in a corner of the world. Young Norwegians going outside their own district or country are very skeptical of how they'll compete. Everyone says, 'There's no point in doing that.... Those guys there are pretty good.' "

Even Waitz has said, "I nearly fainted at the sight of the DDR on the East Germans' sweats the first time I had to face them. It was little me from little Norway." Waitz has been careful not to promise records.

Kristiansen, however, has matter-of-factly stated her capabilities, forecasting two 5,000 records and one 10,000. She hasn't missed yet. The result is that a popularity vote would give Waitz the all-Norwegian award.

That is a provincial shame because the three best female marathoners ever, Kristiansen, Waitz and Benoit Samuelson, all are models of stability, wit and integrity. The parallels are striking, and not coincidental. All are happily married. All are aware of their own compulsiveness and are able to keep it within healthy bounds. All have serious interests outside their running. (And all, as it happens, ski.) It has to be this way. Inevitably, those best at the marathon, this event that defines lasting it out, lead lives of balance. They have outlasted runners of comparable talent, who destroyed it in one way or another, through overtraining, overracing, dumb tactics or perfectionist burnout.

Kristiansen says there has never been a time when she had to discipline herself to get out and train, but career's end is not far off. "I think I will race hard through 1988," she says. "My goals are to win gold medals in the 10,000 in the world championships next year in Rome and in the Seoul Olympics." Remarkably, she will leave the marathon in those most important games to Waitz.

"Look at the drawbacks of marathoning in the summer," continues Kristiansen. "Rome and Seoul are hot and polluted, and NBC will dictate the time of the Olympic start with no thought given to the welfare of the athletes. No, marathons are best in America, in the fall."

When the weather is cool and the money green. "If I were simply out for money, I wouldn't run European track at all. I'd be on the American road-racing circuit," she says. "But the big U.S. marathons are very attractive." By winning the Boston Marathon last April, she took home $180,000. If she wins in Chicago she will earn $70,000, with bonuses of $25,000 for a course record, $50,000 for a world record and $50,000 more for a sub-2:20 performance.

Occasionally the runners have seen groups of children or couples out walking. One man was Kvalheim's physics teacher. Another, a craftsman, made a pendant for Kristiansen once. Norway is a small town. The long run concludes, having become a physical metaphor of how Kristiansen's life is arranged. Its surface has been cushiony, its vistas inviting, its hills hard but not brutal, the people along the way respectfully elated by her passage.

The weather has closed in, reducing the view to gloomy mists, but the new pine of the postrun sauna is as bright as Gaute's hair. Lunch is salad, goat cheese, scrambled eggs and Kristiansen's home-baked rolls. Hung along the kitchen walls are dried wreaths and bouquets given to her after victories. A large one is made of bay leaves. Thus, in a nicely resonant blending of two worlds, she can season a stew with a leaf from her laurels.

Her needlework is acquiring a dense pattern of hearts. "What I like is crocheting," she says, in fine summation. "You can plan for one shape, but you can change your mind, and when you are finished, it's another."

PHOTOJOHN MOSS/COLORIFICKaggestad and Kristiansen discuss Ingrid's training on a gentle jog near her Oslo home.PHOTOMICHAEL KING/ALL-SPORTKristiansen stopped ski racing in '79, but she still takes to the snow for winter training.PHOTOJOHN MOSS/COLORIFICAfter the birth of Gaute, says Arve, came fulfillment for Ingrid, and all of her world records.PHOTOSTEVEN E. SUTTON/DUOMOKristiansen let Samuelson get away in Chicago last year, but now vows "never again."