Karsten Warholm remembers two things about the moment everything changed – in the magic race, in his career and in his life.
This was just before the last hurdle and the crazy 30-meter to the finish of the 400-meter during the Olympics in Tokyo. He saw that rival Rai Benjamin suddenly closed on his left shoulder. Exhausted and out of oxygen, he began to see stars. And then, in an instant, Benjamin was gone, and Warholm crossed the finish line to win the gold medal for Norway, a rarity for a country far better known for winter sports, salmon and oil wealth.
Both Warholm and Benjamin broke the previous world record that day, and turned the rematch on Tuesday night into an event that cannot be missed by this week’s World Athletics Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore. Warholm shook off worries about a recent crack in the hoarding and burned into the final with Benjamin on Sunday, when both won their semi-final heats. Together, they give the 400-meter hurdles a growth it has not had since Edwin Moses cruised to 122 victories in a row during the 1980s.
Despite all his star status, Moses did not have a unique rival throughout his career as the 26-year-old Warholm does in Benjamin, who is 24. Warholm and Benjamin also finished one-two, and in the same order, at. last world championship. While they are friendly off the field, theirs is now a duel as intense as the Viking roar Warholm lets out as he hits his upper chest, just below the shoulders, before loading into the blocks to start each race. It is a rivalry the sport desperately needs.
“He trains in the United States; I train in Norway. He is Nike; I’m Puma, Warholm said in a recent interview from his home in Oslo. “He is fighting for his first gold medal. I’m trying to defend my territory. “
Now about that roar and breast pounding.
Warholm said that the ritual began with training in Oslo. Because the country is so small (about 5.4 million people) and tracks are something of an afterthought, well behind cross-country skiing, he has never had any competition. His coach and a few female quartermilers are the scope of his daily company on training.
This meant that he had to find a way to juice the adrenaline before a training heat. He tried the roar and breast pounding one day and enjoyed it.
He used to hit himself a little lower on the upper body. Then a coach informed him that it was a terrible idea to beat his heart just before a quarter mile sprint. He listened and lifted the point of contact, but continued to hammer. The sound of his fist hitting his flesh can echo through the lower bowl of a stadium.
“There’s a lot of power going into it,” Warholm said.
Roars and throbbing may not be enough for Warholm to overcome his last obstacle. In June, on his initial 400 meter hurdles for the season, Warholm pulled up with a hoarding injury after the first hurdle. Since then, he and his coach, Leif Alnes, have thought of little else than trying to be healthy for the World Cup rematch with Benjamin.
When Warholm went up in that race in Rabat, Morocco, Alnes was relieved that his valued student did not curl up on the ground, which often happens with a strong tear in the hoarding. That said, the 400-meter hurdles are basically a sprint, and the sprint is not 99 percent healthy enough. If Warholm is not at 100 percent, he will not ask.
“I always say, if you do not have the time to do it right right now, when do you want time,” Alnes said in a recent interview. “We must be wise. This is not a decision that can be based on emotion. “
Warholm played football and winter sports as a child growing up near the west coast of Norway, in the fjords, but he appeared as a track star in his mid-teens and never looked back. He was basically a tikamp. His two best competitions were 400 meters and 110 meters hurdles. Alnes, a long-time coach in the Norwegian Athletics Association, told him that combining these two competitions would be the fastest way to the Olympics.
He was right. Warholm qualified in the 400 meter hurdles for the Olympics in Rio 2016, where he failed to reach the final, but recorded the 10th fastest time in the semifinals. The following year, in London, he won his first world championship at just 21 years old. Track experts said it was a stroke of luck, since Warholm won with the slowest winning time in a world championship.
No one calls him a stroke of luck now.
Moses said that Warholm’s life and training regime in Norway, far from distractions and his competition, most likely help him.
“Rivals drive your knowledge and your training,” Moses said in an interview. “I knew how good a runner Harald Schmid was, and that when I came up in California, he had put in a whole day’s work and was done in West Germany.”
Warholm met Moses years ago, at a track meeting in Oslo, and Moses has long been an influence on Warholm’s career. Moses, who has a degree in physics and is considered Albert Einstein in the 400 meter hurdles, had been among the first competitors in the event that took only 13 steps between the hurdles.
Previously, 14 was the standard. Now almost all use 13, including Warholm, but at just under 6 feet-2 he is several centimeters shorter than many of the top competitors, which makes it more difficult for him.
On the way into Tokyo, the settlement with Benjamin seemed to be special. Benjamin had come within five hundredths of a second of the world record at the US Olympic trials at the end of June. The brand had stood for almost 29 years. Then Warholm broke it in July by eight hundredths. Both assumed winning the gold medal would require breaking it again.
Warholm likes to start fast, and stretches the gap between himself and the runner on the left side, at the same time as the gap between himself and the runner on the right disappears. Tokyo was no exception.
Within 100 meters he had passed Alison dos Santos, the Brazilian champion. For a moment Warholm thought he might be starting too fast. But there was no going back.
When he came around the last turn, he saw Benjamin closing in on his left shoulder. It all had to come down to the last hurdle. Warholm had a clean pass when he needed it most. Benjamin never missed a bit.
“I saw him, and then I saw him no more,” he said.
He pumped his arms and asked for goals. He looked up at the scoreboard, saw his time and grabbed his head. In high-tech spikes on one of the fastest courses ever built, he ran 45.94, three quarters of a second faster than his previous record, but only a quarter of a second ahead of Benjamin.
It was a rare gold medal in running for Norway and the country’s first since 1996, with perhaps more on the way now that people see what is possible.
“It’s like the stone being thrown into the water and the waves go very far out if it’s big enough,” Alnes said.
Four days later, his compatriot Jakob Ingebrigtsen won gold in the 1500 meters, and made the two men icons in their country on a par with the skiers.
Warholm spends his free time building ornate models of Legos. He has one of the Colosseum in Rome and another of Hogwarts, from Harry Potter, and London Bridge. It’s a release, he said, something to do in addition to running and looking at a screen. He loves building sports car models too. He has built a model Lamborghini, a Bugatti and a McLaren. He drives a Porsche Taycan, an electric sports car.
When he has a bad day, he picks up the phone and searches for a video of the race from last year’s Olympics. He has done this at least 15 times. It always works.
“It will always be my most important race,” he said. “Never again will I have the chance to win my first Olympic gold medal.”