Amid jogging brides, bears, pink panthers and other exhausted runners from all corners of the world, a determined, silver-haired Norwegian by the name of Runar Brandt Gundersen crossed the New York City Marathon finish line on Sunday for the 33rd time, a distinction he alone holds among non-New Yorkers.
Gundersen, age 58, has run every year since 1978, donning a Norwegian flag above his bib number. Tall, lean and fit, he has been an athlete since he ran his first terrain race at 10 years old and has won district championships in both marathon and high jumping. In 1980 he earned an impressive 456th place, when he finished in two hours and 50 minutes. But for Gundersen it is not about time anymore. It’s all about taking part and completing the race.
That has not always been easy. One year he nearly broke off when just after the 25-mile marker, he felt a pull in his side and collapsed on the ground. He had torn a ligament in his leg and wasn’t sure if he could finish the race. He limped the last mile. He once ran with a fever and another year without any training at all, due to a bum Achilles heel. He doesn’t let himself even think about quitting. “The most important thing to train is your mind,” he says.
The annual trip from Norway to New York has become a ritual, and it costs its fair share. “If I calculated exactly how much I spend on this, I would probably have to stop,” he says with a smile. But the race is his only indulgence.
He arrives in New York on Friday. After picking up his number at the ING Marathon expo, he relaxes a bit in his hotel room and makes a point of participating in the International Friendship Run on Saturday morning, a short race for international marathoners that begins by the UN building and ends at Central Park’s West Drive. He always eats pasta the night before the race, and says he can still feel butterflies in his stomach every time.
After the weekend in New York, he takes a 10-day vacation to the US West Coast. He loves the freedom of getting in a rental car and hitting the open road. In 2004 he was contacted by distant relatives in Utah, who he now visits every year.
Gundersen lives on the edge of the forest in Drammen, west of Oslo, where he has set up his own weather station that updates his website with accurate temperature and wind measurements every 15 seconds. He bought the house, which friends say is a bit large for a single man, because of its ideal location: “I can put my skis on right on my front porch.”
He does not train as much now as he did in the 1980s and ’90s, but keeps himself busy when he’s not working as a senior adviser for state statistics bureau SSB (Statistics Norway). He loves to ski and tries to run at least three times a week.
The NYC marathon is the only one in which he still participates, and he doesn’t push himself to run the whole way. His technique is fairly straight-forward. “If I get tired I walk a little. Then I run a little. Then I walk some more.”
This year the race has had a social media dimension for Gundersen, who has been very active on the 2010 NYC Marathon Facebook page. He enjoys the sense of community there, and draws on his extensive marathon experience to advise new runners. He tells them where to stay, and how to get to the starting line on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Bridge, noting that he just wants others to do well.
Gundersen no longer has to go through the tedious process of applying for a spot in the marathon, and hoping to get picked in the lottery. The organizers set aside about a third of the slots each year for runners who need not apply, nor sponsor a cause. These are the professional athletes as well as runners who have completed the race more than 15 times.
“People often ask me how long I intend to keep going, but I tell them that I take it year by year,” he says. “I’ll keep running until I croak or my legs stop working.”