An old masters Christmas story via Texas, Norway and Bulgaria

Stephen Seiler's website logo from the 1990s.

Stephen Seiler’s website from 1990s.

Several weeks ago, a Bulgarian reader sent me a link to a 1996 article about a Norwegian marathoner named Tor Aanensen. The Bulgarian — Ventseslav “Ventsi” Ivanov — wrote me: “[Tor] trained patiently for 25 years till he became a world [10K] champion at the age of 55. … This story about patience and persistence can definitely serve as an inspiration for many novice runners, so please post the link on your website.” Because I tend to shy away from roadies (who have plenty of websites), I asked Ventsi if Tor had any track credits. Turns out he ran for Norway’s bronze medal M40 4×4 team in the 1981 Scandinavian veterans championships. I also was wary of rehashing an old story. But Christmas is all about old stories retold, so why not? And Ventsi even wrote to officials in Kristiansand, Norway, and determined that Tor is still alive (at 73). Moreover, Tor’s story is told by Texan Stephen Seiler, whose website in the late 1990s was among the few that focused on masters sports. (I linked to his MAPP site on my original masters page.) So as a tribute to Tor — and Ventsi’s determination to air this story — I’m reproducing it below. Merry Christmas, and have a 2014 as wonderful as Tor’s in the mid-1990s.

Here’s the story by Stephen Seiler from about 1996:

From Beginner to World Champion in just 25 years
A profile of patience and persistence

I am a Texan living in Norway. Believe me, there is some contrast there. Then again Norway revels in contrast, so perhaps I fit in better than I imagine. The land here lurches up defiantly from the sea as solid rock, not sandy beaches. In winter, parts of this very northern land do not see the sun for months. In Summer, the sun never sets. In the harbor 1/2 mile from my house, million dollar designer sailboats share space with wooden vessels built using methods that haven’t changed in 500 years.

Perhaps the biggest contrast of all is this: oil money has made Norway a rich and progressive nation, yet much of this wealth is used to hold on tenaciously to traditional ways of life. Not the least of these traditions is a reverence and respect for endurance, and the athletes who demonstrate it. This is a land where the popularity of distance running, cross country skiing, orienteering, and cycling are merely manifestations of a culture that still prizes substance over style, and respects stamina more than speed.

I am from the USA, home of the Whopper. Size and speed baby! Air Jordan, The Shaq, The Big Hurt, The Refrigerator. Do something brash and brilliant, then cut to a commercial so I can get a beer. This is Norway. Fifty kilometer cross-country ski races are televised without commercial interruption.

National hero status is reserved for endurance athletes. Four and a half million people are spread thin along this 1000 mile long country. Yet 48,000 women joined Grete Waitz this year for her annual 5k run. Thirty-four thousand competed in an annual distance relay this year. World marathon record holder Ingred Christiansen is still a regular at the local races.

The endurance guys even seem to get the best nicknames in Norway. Johan Olav (The Boss) skated his way to glory by dominating the longest races in the 94 Olympics. Bjørn Dahlie and teammate Vegar (The Terminator) Ulvang sit atop the brutally competitive world of cross-country skiing.

Norwegians just don’t get figure skating, with no finish-line, or baseball, with its overpaid folks sitting half the time, spitting for accuracy. However, show a cross country skier climbing a hill at murderous speed, mouth agape in the search for oxygen, frosty air bellowing, saliva streaming down his (or her) chin, and they understand and admire. That is spit well spent. World class runners converge on tiny Bislett Stadium in Oslo each summer for one reason. They know they will be carried to great performances by standing- room only audiences that appreciate unrelenting effort and reward it with rhythmic, roaring applause. Norwegians understand running.

So, which valiant young Viking did Norway choose as its 1995 male Runner of the Year? It was 56 year old Tor Aanensen, father of six, and the only gray-headed grandfather I know with 7% body fat. In 1995, he posted age-group world bests for the 10k (32:40), 1/2 marathon 1:12:09, and marathon (2:34:20). This year, he battled both a stiff Belgian headwind and stiffer international competition to capture a 7 second victory in the 55-59 age group of the World Masters 10k Championships. He’s the fastest masters runner you’ve never heard of, and he only lives about a mile away from me here in Kristiansand, on the far south coast of this very northern land. After hearing about this guy, I decided to go on the hunt for his “secrets”.

First, I immediately did what any exercise physiologist who studies aging and performance would do. I invited him to a lab to run up a “treadmill hill” that never ends and gets steeper on command, while sporting a big mouthpiece in his mouth and enduring periodic stabs of his fingers. Well, actually I just invited him to do some running on a treadmill. My Norwegian is pretty bad so I didn’t go into details. He was told to “come well rested.” Something must have gotten lost in the translation.

Otherwise, perhaps he wouldn’t have gone out for a 8 mile run at 7 a.m. the morning of the tests. Who knows, maybe he would have even held off on the 2 hour forest run that came at lunch time the same day. After getting to know this guy, I doubt it. It was his day off and the sun was shining.

Secret #1: The guy really loves to run, pure and simple.

Despite breaking a major rule of performance testing, Tor’s VO2 max (67 ml/min/kg and lactate threshold (85% of VO2 max) values merely confirmed the obvious; he was a 130 pound aerobic machine. No tricks, no secrets. So much for $60,000 worth of equipment. In fact, these values were pretty much exactly what I would have predicted for any talented young guy running 32:30 10k times. Whan I look up from the computer display to his gray hair and weathering face, I remembered the crux of the matter. This guy is no young buck, he’s 56! The fancy equipment gave me a physiological snapshot when I needed a lifetime video.

Patient Beginnings

Tor laced up his first pair of running shoes at an age when many elite runners are thinking of hanging up theirs. The year was 1970 so calling them “running shoes” is perhaps being a little generous. At 30, he was too old to keep getting his wiry 130 pound frame bent and beat up playing soccer in the local company league, and too young to become part of the sofa. His wife’s cousin got him out the door on his first “jogge tur.” Words and phrases like “intensity”, “volume”, “interval training”, and “speedwork” were not in his vocabulary (in Norwegian or English).

The best word to describe his running program during the first 3-4 years might be “conservative.” Another might be “unstructured”. “Willy-nilly” also comes to mind. Most runs were 30-45 minutes, seldom more than an hour. Soemtimes he ran 4 times in one week, sometimes only one. As for training routines, well the manic-depressive terrain around here is sufficient to transform any run into a hill session, and “fartlek” training was invented in these parts (fart=speed, lek = play in Norwegian). But, there were no intervals on the track.

There was no first marathon pushing him into an over-ambitious program of increasing mileage. There was no pressure. In fact, Tor did not compete in so much as a local road race for the first 6 years. Was this a conscious decision to avoid doing too much too soon? Was he just scared of competition? A lot of very aggressive acts are done in the name of religion. In Tor’s case, religion made him patient instead.

A little bit of investigation revealed that Tor is a Lommelendding, a conservative Mennonite-like sect that have their own rules, their own schools, their own neighborhoods. They keep to their own. Running in a local race would have meant getting his name in the paper, maybe even his picture. Instead of taking that risk, he ran anonymously in Baneheia, the massive city forest that served as his play ground, bringing no attention to his himself, his wife and children, or his congregation. Then one day he changed his mind, or perhaps he just followed his own mind for once. Six years after his first run, Tor began to race.

His reasons for the change of heart remain his own, but he hasn’t looked back. The race was a local 15 km “skogsløp” or cross-country event. His time was 1 hour and 7 minutes, good for a 10th place in the 35-42 age group. No flood of publicity followed, no picture in the paper. It was an inauspicious beginning for a man that would be an age-group world champion 20 years later.

In search of the magic formula

Despite the mediocre result, or perhaps because of it, the competitive fire was lit. Now after 6 years of running, when for many the passion has passed into habit, and we assume that our fastest days are well behind us, Tor began to “train” and he began to race, often in local track races. At age 37, he broke 18 minutes for 5k on the track, at 39 he broke 17. The 16 minute barrier fell when he was 42. At 44, his PR in the 5k dropped to 15:12, his all-time best, achieved 14 years after he started running.

Given the language limitations, and the fact that I am a physiologist, not a journalist, my approach to unraveling Tor’s training methods was centered around probing the 14 years worth of training logs that he gave me. I would draw my own conclusions, then seek clarification from Tor later, with a translator present to make sure I got things straight.

As I used my growing Norwegian vocabulary to decipher his training from the early 80s, it seemed clear that he possessed two qualities that seem mutually exclusive in many endurance athletes. First, Tor was driven to run; he ran often and he ran hard. Second, he also seemed to understand the value of rest. Two running sessions a day were common, but so were complete rest days, sometimes two in a row. Regularly interspersed among the high volume weeks were the “rolig uke” (easy week). Tor, What is your system for scheduling your training weeks and rest days?

Secret # 2: “I always listen to my body. If I feel good, I run. If I am tired, I rest. Also, if I have to paint the house or work in the garden.”

Most of his quality workouts take the form of hard “tempo” runs of 4 to 10 miles. And he is not one to skimp on mileage. Back in the 80s, the mileage ranged from a low of 40 miles to a high of about 80. Any concessions to advancing age? More mileage. The hard weeks now come in at about 95 miles. Tor, you’re not 36 any more. Has anything about your training changed? “No, my training speeds are unchanged over the last 15 years. I still do just as many intervals just as fast. But, I have to admit, I never have pushed intervals to max speed. That is not necessary.”

The logs I studied most were from the early 80s, well before physiologists and runners started making sojourns to east Africa to draw blood samples from the world record crushers, and search for their secrets. Still, it all looked very Kenyan.

To get a better picture of his routine, I ran on his home training turf, Baneheia , the “city forest” that rises above the sea-side city, preserved from development since 1641. What I found was the kind of running terrain that kills you but leaves you thirsty for more. I ran on narrow forest trails, long steep hills that often wind menacingly and hide their true length, and untarnished beauty. As I ran, I was drawn ever higher by the thrill of the view that must come.

I found myself running faster so that I could experience more of the scenery. Maybe the fact that I spend too much time at sea level rowing a boat had something to do with it. I think I understood Tor’s joy and perhaps one of his secrets. Tor, what is your single favorite kind of training session? “Hills, long hills, I love to climb.” I reached the very top of one extraordinary climb and looked out across the city below and the North Sea beyond. The climbing left me out of breath and the view made me breathless. Perhaps this is part of the Kenyan’s secret too.

Secret #3: Train in a place where the land is brutal but beautiful. The terrain strengthens you heart and legs. The place strengthens your soul. You’ll need both to win.

Finally, the marathon

Tor ran for 12 years before he raced his first marathon. Conventional wisdom says: First marathon, run conservatively. Run to finish. Marathons are tough enough without worrying about pushing the envelope of one’s speed and risking total meltdown. Right, tell the Kenyans that. At age 42, Tor’s first marathon was 2:31:48. After 12 years of careful building, the marathon was a logical extension. He would get even faster. He joined the local track club and added careful doses of speed work on the track to an already effective training package. Two years and 6000 miles later, the same year he ran a PR 2:00.6 for 800 meters, and his track 5k speed peaked, he decided to attack the marathon again, in Berlin.

Berlin, 1984. The wall was still firmly in place. So was “Check-point Charlie.” The day before the race, Tor decided to experience East Berlin for himself. Wearing a new sweatshirt emblazoned with flags from the different nations that had controlled Berlin, he approached the checkpoint guard. The shirt selection was a major communist fashion faux-paux.

The guard bellowed “That is PROPAGANDA!”, and refused entry. Adorned with a less offending shirt, Tor returned and made it into East Berlin. The city painted in shades of gray wasn’t very tourist friendly. He couldn’t find a crumb to eat the entire day. Just what every runner wants, an all day fast the day before a marathon. By the time he got back to West Berlin, he was exhausted, starving, and contemplating a disastrous race only a few hours later. Instead, he set a personal record, breaking 2:28. This year, the 24 hour train ride to Belgium and 4 hours sleep didn’t seem to hurt his 10k too much either.

Secret # 4: “I have learned this much. Races are won in the weeks and months of training before. I don’t worry about pre-race routines.”

Additional conventional wisdom in masters athletic circles would tell us that Tor had managed to climb uphill on the slippery physiological slope of aging far longer than expected. Surely the fall would be rapid now. Instead, the peak looks more like a plateau. Four years after he first broke 2:28, at age 48, Tor managed to lower his marathon PR again, to 2:27:38, at the 1987 Berlin Marathon. (The car wreck the day before and the train ride to the starting line with minutes to spare are another story. “I don’t worry about pre-race routines”). The local man who couldn’t have his picture in the paper was now a successful international competitor. Then he finally got greedy.

The exception that proved the rule

Secret # 5: If the training program is working, don’t fix it! Appreciate the process and press on.

With his 50th birthday around the corner, Tor secretly set his sites on the 2:25 barrier for the marathon. The man who had been cautious and persistent, finally broke from his successful formula and gambled on a dramatic increase in mileage. Fifty to 80 mile weeks rapidly climbed to 120. For the first time, the enjoyment of the process faded. The times slowed. 1992 was a breaking point. “I felt worn out and uninspired.

The experiment with what was working was a mistake and it cost too much. My body and mind needed rest.” Rest came in the form of a three year break from the marathon and most other big races, along with a reduction in training. Then, in the Fall of last year, the joy of running, and the thrill of the race, returned. So Tor returned to Berlin.

Check point Charlie was gone. But, for the first time in three years the fight was back in the fighter. I see it in his eyes as he described the moment for me a year later. “After 3 years away from the marathon, I was conservative and chose a 2:35 as my goal time, I ran comfortably in 2:34:20, then jogged 3 miles to the hotel for my clothes and 3 miles back. There was a lot left in my legs and I realized I should have gone for 2:30.”

Perhaps he could have gone faster. As it was, the time was a world age group best for 1995. When put through the age adjustment grinder, it was easily a career best performance. Tor, why keep running so hard? “There is something within me, some energy that must escape. Running is my only release. I still train hard because I am still hungry to win”.

Finding Tor a Nickname

This story has a take-home message. That’s why I put it here on the MAPP. Peak performance takes persistence. It is true no matter how much natural talent you have. It is true if you start running at 15, 30, or 60. If we look closer at even the most gifted stars of track and field today, we find that even the talent-rich have to pay their dues. Our view is distorted because we only see the finished product in full bloom, and we forget the growth.

Michael Johnson broke the world record in the 200 meter this year. Ten years ago he was running 21.3 seconds and nobody new him outside of Waco, Texas. He cracked the 20 second barrier in 1990. The final 2 tenths to the world record took 6 years to earn. Englishman Jonathan Edwards broke the world record in the triple jump last year at age 30, surpassing the 60 foot barrier for the first time. At 20, his 47 foot best was not good enough to beat the best jumpers in Devon. Tor Aanensen reached his personal bests 14 years after he started running. His first World Championship took a quarter century.

Tor, what is the most important thing you would teach runners as a coach? “Tålmodighet.”
Tor started “late” as a runner. He had talent, but he was never a “great athlete” as a young man. So, like most of us, his talents were limited. Like all of us, his biological clock is ticking. But unlike most of us his persistence is unlimited, and he only pays attention to clocks when he is running.

Yes, there is physiological payoff for the persistence. Tor’s VO2 max probably peaked well before he reached his best running times. And, thanks to the slow, unavoidable downward creep of the maximum heart rate after age 25 or so, his VO2 max has no doubt declined, but probably only about 5 to 7%. Ok, we know the heart fades. Here is the part that we aren’t often told as late-blooming masters athletes. Even with persistent and intense training, other adaptations, like the lactate threshold and running economy, take years to peak. These improvements can outweigh the smaller decline in heart performance over a beginner’s first 5-10 years of running.

Have you been running a few years and assume your PR days are behind you? Maybe you need to think again. Need a role model? Hagar the Horrible, meet Tor the Patient. Or, as they say in Norwegian, Tor den Tålmodige.

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December 24, 2013

2 Responses

  1. ventsi - December 25, 2013

    Thank you very much, Ken!
    You made my day!
    :-)
    Merry Christmas to you and all masters athletes!

    Hope some Norwegian readers of your website will give updated info about Tor’s life now.

  2. Liz Palmer - December 25, 2013

    God Jul! (Merry Christmas!)

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