Karsten Warholm remembers two things about the moment everything changed – in that magical race, in his career, and in his life.
It was just before the last hurdle and the insane 30m dash to the end of the 400m hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics. His opponent, Ray Benjamin, suddenly glanced over his left shoulder. He started seeing stars after being exhausted and out of oxygen. And then, in an instant, Benjamin was gone, and Warholm was crossing the finish line to win the gold for Norway, a rarity for a country famous for winter sports, salmon and oil wealth.
Warholm and Benjamin both broke the previous world record that day, turning Tuesday night’s rematch into an unmissable event at this week’s IAAF World Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. Warholm shrugged off his worries about a hamstring at last and moved to the finals alongside Benjamin on Sunday, when they both won semi-finals. Together, they give the 400-meter hurdles a stature that hasn’t been there since Edwin Moses’ 122-straight race victories in the 1980s.
For all his stardom, Moussa has never had a single competitor throughout his career as 26-year-old Warholm does to Benjamin, 24. recent world championships. While they are friendly off the track, their duel now is as vigorous as the Vikings roar Warholm hitting his upper chest, just below his shoulders, before loading into the blocks to start each race. It is a competition that the sport desperately needs.
“He trains in the United States; I train in Norway. He is Nike. I am 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 land.”
Now, about that roar and chest shock.
Warholm said the ritual began at the rehearsals in Oslo. Because the country is so small (approximately 5.4 million people) and the track is something of a belated thought, behind Nordic skiing, it had no competition. His coach and a few women who work quarter times are how successful his day-to-day coaching company is.
This meant that he had to find a way to squeeze the adrenaline before hot training. He tried the roars and chest beats one day and liked it.
He used to hit himself a little on his torso. Then, a coach told him that pounding his heart before a quarter-mile race was a horrible idea. He listened and raised the focal point but kept screaming. The sound of his fist in his flesh could reverberate across the lower bowl of the racetrack’s pitch.
“There’s a lot of power that goes into it,” Warholm said.
However, the roars and thrusts of the chest might not be enough for Warholm to overcome his last obstacle. In June, in his first 400-meter hurdles of the season, Warholm stopped with a hamstring injury after the first hurdle. Since then, he and his coach, Lev Alnes, have thought of nothing else than trying to stay healthy for the World Championship rematch with Benjamin.
When Warholm set out for that race in Rabat, Morocco, Allen was relieved that his outstanding pupil didn’t collapse to the ground, which often happens with a severe hamstring tear. However, the 400-meter hurdles are essentially a sprint, and in the sprint, 99 percent of healthy people aren’t enough. If Warholm wasn’t 100 percent, he wouldn’t run.
“I always say, if you don’t have the time to do it the right way right now, when will you have the time,” Alness said in a recent interview. “We have to be wise. This is not a decision that can be based on emotions.”
Warholm immersed himself in football and winter sports as a child growing up near the west coast of Norway, in the fjords, but emerged as a middle-aged arena star and never looked back. He was initially a decathlon. His two best events were the 400m and 110m hurdles. Alnes, a longtime coach with the Norwegian Track and Field Association, told him that combining these two events would be the fastest route to the Olympics.
He was right. Warholm qualified for the 400m hurdles for the 2016 Rio Olympics, failing to reach the final but setting the tenth fastest time in the semi-finals. The following year, in London, he won his first world championship at just 21 years old. Track experts said it was a fluke, with Warholm winning the slowest time at the world championships.
Nobody calls him by chance now.
Moses said Warholm’s training regimen in Norway, away from distractions and competition, likely helps him.
“Competitors push your knowledge and training,” Moses said in an interview. “I knew how good runner Harald Schmid was, and that by the time I got up in California, he’d had a full day on the job and had it finished in West Germany.”
Warholm met Moses years ago, at a circuit meet in Oslo, and Moses had a longstanding influence on Warholm’s career. Moses, who has a physics degree and counts as Albert Einstein of the 400-meter hurdles, was among the top competitors in the event with only 13 steps between the hurdles.
Previously, the number 14 was the norm. Now nearly everyone uses 13, including Warholm, though at under 6 feet 2, he’s several inches shorter than many of his top competitors, which makes it more difficult for him.
Heading to Tokyo, the confrontation with Benjamin was characteristic. Benjamin had come within five hundredths of a second off the world record at the US Olympic Trials in late June. The sign has been in existence for nearly 29 years. Then Warholm broke it in July by eight hundred. Both assumed that winning the gold medal would require breaking it again.
Warholm likes to start fast, extending the gap between himself and the runner on his left while blurring the gap between himself and the runner on his right. Tokyo was no exception.
Within 100 meters, he overtook Alison dos Santos, the Brazilian champion. For a moment, Warholm thought he might have started too quickly. But there was no turning back.
When he came around the final turn, he caught a glimpse of Benjamin closing in on his left shoulder. Everything was about to descend to the last hurdle. Warholm got a clean pass when he needed it most. Benjamin mistook his mark slightly.
He said, “I saw him, then I didn’t see him anymore.”
He pumped his arms and rushed to the end. He looked at the scoreboard and saw his time and nodded his head. In high-tech spurts on one of the fastest tracks 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 the running for Norway and a first since 1996, and more may come now as people see what’s possible.
“It’s like a boulder being thrown into the water and the waves get away a lot if they’re big enough,” Alnis said.
Four days later, fellow Norwegian Jacob Ingbrigtsen won the gold in the 1500m, turning the two men into icons in their country at the level of skaters.
Warholm spends his spare time building decorative LEGO models. He has one for the Colosseum in Rome and another for Hogwarts from Harry Potter and London Bridge. He said it was liberation, something to do besides running and looking at the screen. He likes to make model sports cars too. He built a Lamborghini, a Bugatti and a McLaren. He drives a Porsche Taycan, an electric sports car.
When he’s having a bad day, he takes out his phone and looks for a video of his race from last year’s Olympics. He’s done this at least 15 times. It always works.
“Forever, this will be the most important race for me,” he said. “I will never again have a chance to win my first Olympic gold.”