On Thursday June 9th, Oslo’s Bislett Stadium will host the world’s greatest track and field athletes on the fifth stop of the Samsung Diamond League tour. Usain Bolt will be this year’s marquee attraction. But last Sunday afternoon the legendary athletics and ice-skating arena, tucked neatly into the heart of the Norwegian capital – call it the Fenway Park or Wrigley Field of T & F – hosted the Holmenkollen Relay, the largest relay footrace in the world. If you ever wanted to experience the entirety of the Oslo running community in one place, this would be your event.
Begun in 1928, the Holmenkollen Relay boasts over 2200 teams, each consisting of 15 runners taking on distances ranging from 300 meters to two miles. The entire course from Bislett up to near the famed Holmenkollen Ski Jump and back covers less than 12 miles. But with so many teams, divisions, and categories, it takes hours and hours to run.
Jack Waitz and I had visited the small town of Lillestrom that morning to explore the unique and utterly charming track and field museum founded by Bjorn Bergh, former manager of the Minerva Sports Club. An absolutely rabid track fan, Bjorn began collecting track and field memoribilia in 1978. His museum now boasts the most comprehensive private collection of running artifacts in the world, and I will blog about it soon. We even shot a video with Jack serving as tour guide.
After a lovely visit with Bjorn, we drove back to Oslo, hoping to find parking near the stadium for the 2 p.m start. But with over 30,000 runners streaming in from all over Norway and Scandanavia, Jack was worried. Fortunately, we found a plum spot across Akersbakken Street from Jack’s brother-in-law Jan’s condo, and we began the short walk up to Bislett, stopping at a Deli de Luca – a 7-11 type convenience store – for some refreshment.
While waiting in line we ran into Vidar Sports Club chairman Oskar Petter Jensrun and his wife, Marianna, a one-time 4:18 1500 meter and 2:07 800m runner. Jack and Grete Waitz were life-long Vidar Club members, and in fact, it was through the Vidar club that the two met as teen agers. Today for the relay all the Vidar Club teams would be wearing black ribbons on their singlets in honor of Grete.
Like any major local road race, the Holmenkollen Relay is an extended runner family reunion awash in the bright colors of team uniforms. It also had the added element of giving people the chance to pay Jack their condolences for the loss of Grete.
“It’s better if we go to the second leg up the hill,” Jack tells me as we leave the bustling starting area above the track where the Vidar team is the three-time defending elite women’s division champions.
From elite athletes to the most unfit person in Oslo, the Holmenkollen Relay welcomes runners of all abilities. There are elite divisions, military, corporate, sports club, ad hoc, you put 15 people together, and you, too, can compete. The relay is staged by Vidar’s big rival Tjalve Sports Club, and is a massive money maker. I heard someone say the club made $200,000 alone on the late team entry fees. And based on the loose organization I witnessed, it can’t cost very much to put on. (With apologies to Tjalve officials if that ruffles any feathers.)
We meet up with Jan Anderson as we come up Fagerborgata, site of the second leg which follows the initial 1200 meter leg around and out the stadium.
“You don’t want to us your best runners in the first leg,” Jack explains “Since it’s around the track you can’t make up much more than 40 meters on the field over 1200 meters. So you save your best for the hilly sections in the middle.
Meet the Stars
As the elite women come whipping by, framed by the Fagerborg Church, the Vidar team in its red kit has secured the lead. Jack, Jan, Oskar and Marianna all chirp their encouragement as the relay is one of the bragging rights races of the year among the many sports clubs in Norway.
“Toni, come here,” Jack calls out as I shoot pictures for the blog. “I want to introduce you to Vebjorn Rodal, the 1996 Olympic 800 meter champion.”
With the relay, the Bislett Stadium, Grete’s statue out front, and now the beginning of what will become an afternoon full of introductions to past champions, one understands the esteem, regard, and legacy of the sport of running in Norway. I offer a hand to Rodal, who is with his son Eivan. He still looks like he could light up a two-lapper come June 9th at the Bislett Games. We discuss Kenyan David Rudisha’s remarkable 2010 campaign and new world record. Then, as we depart, I mention that his fellow Olympic 800 meter gold medalist, Joaquim Cruz (L.A. `84), is a friend of mine from back home in San Diego. He asks that I give Cruz his regards. Talk about a special club.
The top teams take well under one hour to complete the relay. So we walk back down the hill to the roundabout outside the stadium to await the elite women’s and men’s teams. Jack had planned on competing, himself. Back in 1969 he was a member of the Vidar elite men’s winning squad. But now as a member of the super veteran’s division he couldn’t round enough team mates to enter. Seems the guys no longer train for the short sprint and middle distances required for the relay. Instead they come to watch and lend support.
Waiting for the women to arrive, Jack introduces me to Fran Hansen, another former Olympic champion. Frank’s gold came in Montreal 1976 in rowing’s double sculls which he won with his brother Alf.
Here comes the lead vehicle fronting the elite women. And it’s Vidar with a clear advantage on the 14th or 15 legs. This will mark their fourth straight Holmenkollen Relay title. Their margin over rival and host Tjalve Club is a minute and a half.
Minutes later, however, it’s a Tjalve man charging down the hill, crossing the trolley tracks and winter-ruined road leading the elite men’s competition. Vidar didn’t qualify an elite men’s squad for 2011. Ten seconds behind the Tjalve runner storms the penultimate man from a team out of Bergen, a city far to the north of Oslo.
“A Swedish team from Malmo has dominated in recent years,” Jack informs me. “But there isn’t so much prize money here. So maybe they didn’t return.”
Now here’s the red of Vidar kit flying into the square leading the category two men’s race. And his is a wide margin, too. Victory secured!
Bislett, itself, was originally a rest stop for farmers bringing their goods to market from the countryside, and a resting place on their way home. Or so the story goes. Nobody knows for sure. But today the area is jammed with fans happy to take advantage of such an unusually warm spring day in May.
As the crowds applaud their team’s arrival, a single policeman stands in the middle of the road with his piercingly loud whistle terrorizing any and all who provokes his authoritarian ire. But nobody can quite figure out what, exactly, he wants people to stop doing. I assume, to the enjoyment of others, that ‘he just loves that whistle.’
Active Against Cancer
In the final few years of her now sadly completed life, Grete Waitz helped found Aktiv mot Kreft, Active against Cancer Foundation. Today, a team composed of deaf and blind runners guided by local women celebrities are running to raise funds for Team Aktiv. Then, as we walk into the stadium to congratulate the Vidar victors, we meet Anneline Sharon Gretland, a member of Team Aktiv who suffers from macular degeneration. You can honor Grete and her spirit with a donation in her memory, by visiting this link: www.mycharity.ie/charity/aktiv_against_cancer
Inside Bislett Stadium runners stream across the finish line on the same track which has been the site of more than 50 world records. Today the speed may be less, but the spirits soar just as high as teams regather to replay the legends of the day on the bright green infield grass. Winning teams pose for victory shots wearing Norwegian flag colored ribbons as emblems of their performance.
Team Vidar has captured three divisions, the women’s elite, the women’s veterans (35+), and category two men. One of their three junior boys teams finished just seven seconds down in second place. As we walk about Jack points out a fit young woman in pink top and red shorts from Vidar. Her tight blond hair is held in place by a red headband as she is being interviewed by a local reporter.
Caroline Bjerkedal Grovdal is a three-time European under-23 champion from 2009, winning the 5000, 10,000, and cross country. She ran the 7th of 15 legs today for Vidar’s elite women, a hilly 1790 meters near the famed Holmenkollen Ski Jump. She took the baton 16-seconds down, and handed it off 40-seconds in front, the kind of dominating uphill leg that brought Vidar its fourth straight women’s elite title.
Caroline turns 21 next month, and will compete in the European under-23 Championships later this summer in the Czech Replublic. Her 31:29 10k road PR is third best in Norwegian history, behind only Ingrid Kristiansen and Grete Waitz. I congratulate Caroline on her race, realizing that I may well see her again on the international circuit very soon.
Memories of Pre
As we walk across the infield, a tall, faintly recognizable man comes into view.
“It’s Knut Kvalheim,” says Jack.
Yes, of course, one my generation’s great Norwegian runners who ran for both Bill Bowerman and Bill Dellinger at the University of Oregon from 1970 to 1974. Knut’s claim to fame, he says, was “I beat Pre in his American record 5000.”
It was in Helsinki June 1974. Knut won that 5000 in 13:20.4. Steve Prefontaine took second in an American record 13:21.87.
“I said to Pre in 1971, ‘You shouldn’t lead races all the time. You need to go to Europe, stay in the back, and learn to kick.’ But Bowerman didn’t want him to go, and Pre didn’t push it.
“Everyone in America always spoke about how courageous Pre was. But ten years earlier here in Olso I watched Ron Clarke run his 27:39 world record for 10,000 meters, leading every step of the way, with every lap faster than the last!
“Actually, there was a Danish guy who he’d lapped several times. But when Clarke came up on him with about six laps to go, the Danish guy thought, ‘This is my moment’, and he led Ron for the next 200 meters before falling away. Afterwards, federation officials discussed whether it should be counted as a world record, because Clarke had been paced!”
Finishing his story, Knut pulled his head back into a mighty laugh at both the memory and the insanity of officialdom.
“Some things,” I piped in, “never change.”
With that, we wished Knut well, and started off once again for the exit, as I had a lot of packing to do for the following morning’s travel back to California.
Team Education USA
It seems you can’t swing a dead cat around here without running into someone. And there, bedecked in an Old Glory bandana, stood none other than Barry White (no, not that Barry White), this one being the U.S. Ambassador to Norway, who we had met at Grete’s memorial service earlier in the week. Ambassador White and his group were wearing red Team Education USA tee shirts.
We stopped to say hello, and to inquire about his team. Ambassador White and wife Eleanor live in Boston, actually Newton, Massachusetts, just off Heartbreak Hill on the famed Boston Marathon route. So he was right at home at a major running event.
“I haven’t run myself in 40 years, “ he informed us, “but this was too much fun to pass up.”
Team Education USA, one of his staff explains, is the U.S. Embassy’s initiative to encourage a larger student exchange between Norway and the U.S. Ambassador White then invited Jack to join him at the embassy for their June 23rd Independence Day celebration, which drew a quizzical look from me.
“Yes, I know,” he said. “June 23rd isn’t Independence Day. But when I said to the staff we have to have a party on July 4th, they said, ‘if you do, nobody will come.’ The entire country closes down for four weeks in July. So we have it on June 23rd instead.”
We snapped yet another series of photos. Jack said he’d see the ambassador on June 23rd, and with one more visit to the toilet – seems Jack has the bladder of a seven-months pregnant woman – we exited Bislettt Stadium on a glorious spring early evening, walked ten minutes back to the car, and made plans to join the Vidar Team victory party later that night at Dolly Dimples Restaurant in the Gruner Field neighborhood where Jack, himself, had grown up.