Not since 1996 has a European athlete won the men’s title at the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships, but after Norway’s Sondre Nordstad Moen’s massive breakthrough in 2017, perhaps that could be about to change.
The 28-year-old started 2017 with a marathon PB of 2:12:54, but he bettered that with 2:10:07 in Hannover in April and then won in Fukuoka at the beginning of December with a European record of 2:05:48. His marathon improvement, however, had been on the cards after he ran a 59:48 half marathon in October in Valencia, the scene of this spring’s IAAF event, as well as PBs for 3000m, 5000m, 10,000m and 10km.
“After my track season where I broke all my PBs and especially the half-marathon, in October I was confident that I could run about 2:06-7 depending on the conditions, the pacing, how the race went off,” said Moen, who finished one minute and 22 seconds ahead of 2012 Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich in Fukuoka.
Such transformations are usually the result of many years of development, of course, often as a result of a far-from-smooth journey. Moen puts his rapid progression down to being able to train full-time and spend more than 200 days at altitude in 2017.
Clocking 13:44.43 for 5000m as an U20 athlete showed his potential, but then after a few years of injury, he had to work full-time in a running shop for certain periods between 2014 and 2015 to support training trips to Kenya.
Knowing he is not built for speed, he made his marathon debut during this period with 2:12:54 and then at the Olympics clocked 2:14:17 for 19th place. But the long days at work meant he was unable to realise his potential.
“The body just burned out completely,” he said. “I was able to run 62 for a half and 28:25 for 10k, but it was not possible to recover.”
His Rio result meant he had the financial support to live as a full-time athlete under coach Renato Canova. He spent January to March in Kenya with a group that included two-time world marathon champion Abel Kirui and later in the year spent more time at altitude in Sestriere, Italy.
Dedication to the goal
Canova speaks of Moen living like a Kenyan during 2017. The athlete himself says that in Kenya or at home he spends three or four hours with friends on a Sunday but the rest of the time is focused on training. Moen, who was a promising cross-country skier as a teenager, believes that dedication is down to personality.
“Since I was young I would be playing in the snow for three hours,” he says. “When the weather was bad, I was still outside playing in the snow, but my mates didn’t want to suffer. I have always been happy in my own company.
“When I started focusing on running at the age of 17, I had to do all my training alone because my other teammates ran shorter distances, sprints, or were not really focused on getting really good results. I was used to training alone very quickly. I understood what I had to do to get the best results I could.”
Increased training at altitude has boosted his confidence when taking on the best in the world.
“I had the same mentality the first time [he went to Kenya] in 2009,” said Moen. “I already then knew that not all the Kenyans are top athletes. The problem is that if you stay just one or two months of the year at altitude, you will never adapt to the altitude.
“When you try to compete with the Africans, they have five percent on you because they are born and live at altitude, so it’s difficult to beat them in training. And if you are always far behind in training, it’s difficult to get the confidence that you can beat them in races. That changed completely the last one or two years.”
Moen is contributing to a purple patch for Norwegian running. Double European junior champion Jakob Ingebrigtsen is following in the footsteps of brothers Henrik, the 2012 European 1500m champion, and Filip, the world bronze medallist at the same distance. Karoline Bjerkeli Grovdal improved to 9:13.35 in the steeplechase last year and was seventh in the 5000m at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
“We had some good runners in the 1970s on the men’s side,” said Moen. “Ingrid Kristiansen and Grete Waitz (former world marathon record-holders) did very well in the 80s then we had the 800m runner Vebjorn Rodahl doing well in 1996 (Olympic gold).
“But people back then started thinking that you could replace the high mileage you need for long distance with more intensity on the track. I think the same happened in Great Britain and many European countries from the 90s. The results went down in Europe but in Africa they improved a lot because I think most of the ideas about training, especially Kenya, came from [Arthur] Lydiard and British training in the 80s. The way of life in Europe changed.
“But then in 2008 the Norwegian junior team at the European Cross did very well (Moen took silver, as did the team) and that was the change. With the amazing results of Henrik, I think that changed many athletes’ minds here in Norway and to me it was very motivating.
Also for Karsten Warholm (world 400m hurdles champion) and all the others, it was a huge step to see it’s possible to reach the top in athletics even if you have snow for five months of the year.”
Growing up with snow
Moen believes his background in cross-country skiing serves him well as a runner. “You don’t really need to run a lot of kilometres when you are 10, 13, 15 [years old] if you can do a lot of activity but not anaerobic intensity all the time,” he said. “I think cross-country [skiing] is a good way to build a base for what you want to do later.”
He now rarely cross-country skis, but says some of his training while at home in Norway needs to be done on a treadmill – up to 70% if he is at his family home further north rather than at his usual base of Oslo.
“People think it’s bad for running,” he admitted. “Okay you can’t replace the running outside but if you’re one or two months away from your next competition I think it’s okay to do most general mileage on the treadmill and if you want to do something specific you go to an indoor track or you travel close to the sea.”
World Half expectations
Since his record-breaking run in Fukuoka, Moen finished fifth at the Boclassic race in Bolzano and seventh at the IAAF Cross Country Permit meeting in San Giorgio su Legnano, both in Italy.
Moen’s next race will be the Napoli City Half Marathon on 4 February, and then he will turn his attention to returning to the city where he set his half-marathon PB when the IAAF World Half Marathon Championships Valencia 2018 takes place on March 24.
“I think it will be a really fast race,” he said. “If 15-20 are able to run sub-one-hour, it gives good possibilities to run a fast time.
“When I ran in Valencia in October, I ran completely alone for the last 10 kilometres and it was much more difficult that in the first 10 kilometres when I was just in the pack.”
But then, running alone has never been a problem for Moen.
Paul Halford for the IAAF