Interview: Siri Alfheim
By Alison Wade

With one lap to go in the 5,000-meter race at the 2002 NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championships, five runners remained in contention. The other four women had slightly stronger credentials, but Oklahoma State's Siri Alfheim pulled off a minor upset by sprinting to victory in a PR 16:12.28. A native of Norway, Alfheim did not take up running until she was 20 years old. Now, less than five years later, she has become one of Norway's - and the NCAA's - best runners. Alfheim had a strong cross country season in 2001, finishing second at the Big 12 Championships and winning the Midwest Regional. Hampered by the flu at the NCAA Championships, she finished a disappointing 93rd. A graduate student at Oklahoma State, Alfheim has been one of Oklahoma State's top runners since her arrival in January of 2001. She qualified for the 5,000m at the 2001 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, where she finished 19th in 16:35.35. We caught up with Alfheim on March 18th, nine days after her winning run.

Siri Alfheim trails the pack with several laps remaining in the 5,000m at the 2002 NCAA Indoor Championships.
(Photo: New York Road Runners)
Alfheim crosses the finish line in first.
(Photo: New York Road Runners)

Now that you've had some time to reflect on your NCAA 5,000 victory, how do you feel about the race and winning a national title?
It's the biggest thing I've ever done so far. I kind of like to run that way, because you never know how fast people are going to go out. I tried to stay in the back a little bit, to see what was going to happen.

You ran a very smart race. We didn't even see you because you were tucked in so well on the inside. There were a lot of different leaders but you just stayed tucked in behind the front pack.
I had a good spot so I just tried to stay there and keep on going, and figure out what was going to happen.

You surprised a lot of people with your win. Heading into the race, did you think you could win? Was that a goal?
No, that was not my goal. My goal was to finish as high up as I could. When I go out onto the track, my goal is always to do my best. I hoped to be All American. That was actually my goal. I didn't expect to win it at all. I was like, "Whoa. What did I just do?"

You looked pretty shocked when you crossed the finish line.
I was actually kind of shocked. It took a couple of minutes until I realized what I had done (laughs).

At what point during the race did you think you might win? Did your confidence build as the race progressed?
I just focused on the race, until [we had] 200 meters to go. When I went and nobody followed me, I kind of started to think, "Perhaps I'm going to win this." I just kept on going, but you never know if you can do it until you actually step over the finish line.

When will you start up your outdoor season and what's on the schedule?
[My first meet is] at the end of this month. I think I'm going to run two or three 1,500s before I run the 5k again. I'll run [my first 5,000] at Mt. Sac.

Are there other big meets you're targeting?
There is a meet at Stanford two weeks before Big 12s also.

Do you ever run the 10,000?
No... well actually I've run it a couple of times but not in the last few years.

Do you have a time goal for the 5,000?
I'd like to break 16. I'm also trying to qualify for the European Championships.

What's the qualifying time?
15:44. But my goal is to break 16 first and then go from there.

If you get the European Championships qualifying time, will you automatically go or will there be other people competing for those spots?
Yeah. You don't automatically go. I think they decide a week or two before the championships, so you don't know.

If you ran your indoor time, 16:12, outdoors, where would that rank you in Norway?
I think it would put me third or fourth place in Norway. It depends though because people are injured. But I'd say between third and fifth place.

We just read that you didn't start running until you were 21. Is that true?!
Yeah. I was 21, or it was just before I turned 21, I think. I did aerobics and I biked. We always had tests in school and I didn't practice or anything and I always did okay on them. So I was thinking, "Perhaps if I practice a little I can run even faster." So I was just curious, I wanted try it. In the beginning, when I first started to run, I ran okay. I think I ran 18:30 after four months of practice or something, and I was so happy. Then I was injured and got sick. The rest of the season I didn't improve very much.

Were you running for a school team?
No, we don't have that in Europe.

What kinds of competitions were these, who would you be running against?
In Norway it's more like you run for a club or you just kind of run for yourself.

And you ran track and cross country?
No, we don't have cross country at all, only track.

Before you went to Oklahoma State, what were your best times?
I had run 9:44 in the 3k, 17:08 for 5k and 4:32 in the 1,500.

And how did you end up at Oklahoma State?
I went to Sweden to run a track meet, I didn't run that well, I think I was third or fourth. After the race, the coach from Oklahoma walked over and asked me if I wanted to come over and run for her school. I was like, "Sure!" I really wanted to try to run a little bit more and it didn't work that well at home. It's very cold and it rains a lot, we don't have very good training conditions. So I thought, "Okay, I'm going to try to give it one more shot and see if I can improve my times." So I decided to come.

And when did you first come to the U.S.?
In January of 2001.

And did you already have a college degree from Norway?
Yes. I'm a graduate student.

What are you getting your degree in?
Adult and Occupational Education.

Do you know what you would like to do with that when you graduate?
I would like to work in the Human Resources department of a company.

Do you plan on remaining in the U.S. after graduation?
I would really like to but it's kind of hard now to get a visa. After September 11th a lot of international students are having problems with this. I don't really know but I'm going to try, because I would really like to stay here.

There has to be some culture shock involved, moving from Norway to Oklahoma. What did you find to be the most surprising?
The summer. When it started to get really hot here, in May and June, I was so worn out. It doesn't get that hot at home. It just got warmer and warmer and worse and worse, the humidity got really high...

What else? It's different to be a student here as well. The relationships between the professors and the students are much better than at home. You have more contact with the professors and you get evaluated throughout the whole semester, at home you just have one exam at the end of the semester.

And also the track program is different here. I'm not used to how you can just go down to the training room and get treatment, they have ice baths... You can lift weights, you can go to the swimming pool and everything's right around you. In Norway, you have to do more of that on your own. But that depends on where you're living in Norway, as well.

Despite not starting to run competitively until your twenties, you must have been pretty active growing up.
I really enjoyed hiking and riding my bike all over the place. I used to do bike trips with my friends.

But it was more of a fitness focus rather than competitive sports?
Yeah, I did aerobics and a little bit of swimming, but everything was just on a fitness level.

But you had no idea that you were such a talented athlete?
(Modestly) I don't know, I don't know. I think the coaches at Oklahoma did a really good job with me here.

Do you have any family members who are runners?
No, I don't, actually. But my father, I think if he had tried a little bit when he was young, he would have run really fast... I think he could have if he wanted to but the conditions were different when he was younger, nobody did that kind of stuff.

When you first got to Oklahoma State, what kind of training had you been doing and how did it change?
I'm running a lot more miles now than I did when I came, and the intervals that I do now are also much longer than what I was used to from home. I think that really helped to get me stronger.

What kind of mileage were you doing?
Maybe 55-60. But I never was very competitive because I always got something. I have been able to train through the whole season here without being sick or injured. At home in Norway, I got sick. The winters are pretty bad, we can have weeks where it's raining nearly the whole time. It's so wet when you're running, and if you're running two times a day and it's so wet, I get sick. So I guess that has changed. And I always used to practice on my own in Norway. I didn't have anybody to run with because there are not that many people who run.

Really? We got the impression that Norwegians are really active.
They are active, but not a lot of people run. More people are actually running in Oslo but I'm living in Bergen. There are a lot of guys running in Bergen, so I used to practice with the guys sometimes.

Can you tell us more about what your training is like now?
My mileage is between 65 and 80, it depends on whether or not there's a competition coming up. Eighty is a lot, I don't do many 80-mile weeks, it's more like 70. I do 2-3 workouts a week. We do 4-10 minute intervals (four minutes on, four minutes off, or ten minutes on, five minutes off), it depends whether it's a race week or not.

Do you do any other supplemental training?
I lift weights, and I normally go aqua jogging once a week. And I use the ice bath all the time (laughs).

Do you normally run twice a day?
Yeah, not every day though. It depends.

Are there certain people on your team that you train with more than others?
Yeah, I actually run a lot with Valentina (Medina), and I also run with Janine Brown and Alex Lindquist.

In looking at your team's roster, we were amazed at the number of countries that are represented.
I know. That's kind of fun too. You get to know a lot about different cultures and you get a lot of different perspectives. I think it's really interesting.

If you do remain in the U.S. after you've used up your eligibility, do you have a plan for where you'd train and with whom?
I'm actually going to take three more credit hours next semester and work a little bit and try to do road races. I'll see if I have what it takes to run with the 'big guys.' It depends where the meets are, but I'm going to try to do a lot of meets in this area.

And it shouldn't be hard to stay involved with your team.
Yeah, that's what I'm planning to do, practice with the team and then go try to do some road races.

Do you have any interests outside of running?
Yeah, I really like to hang out with friends. We often cook dinner and go to the movies... We go to coffee shops... We do a lot of stuff. When I'm not running I just try to hang out and have fun.

Are you careful about what you eat?
I don't know. I think if you asked [someone who knows me], I think they would say that I'm not. I'm actually better than I used to be. I actually think it's important, when you feel like you need a little bit of chocolate or you feel like you need a little bit of fat, that you have it. I think there's a reason [for the craving]. I actually have little bit of chocolate very often (laughs).

It feels like a bit of a cliche to ask, but is Grete Waitz a role model of yours and how influential is she in Norway?
She's really, really big in Norway. But she competed many years before I really started to run. Of course I remember her but I don't remember her very well... I think she was competing around the time I was born, and when I was little. But she's a great role model for all runners in Norway, as is Ingrid Kristiansen.

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