Karsten Warholm remembers two things about the moment everything changed – that magical race, his career and his life.
That was just before the final hurdle and the insane 30-meter dash to the finish of the 400-meter hurdles at the Tokyo Olympics. He spotted his rival Rai Benjamin suddenly approaching his left shoulder. Exhausted and without oxygen, he began to see stars. And then, in the blink of an eye, Benjamin was gone and Warholm crossed the finish line to win the gold medal for Norway, a rarity for a country much better known for winter sports, salmon and oil wealth.
Both Warholm and Benjamin broke the previous world record that day, making Tuesday night’s rematch an event not to be missed at this week’s IAAF World Championships at Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon, along with Benjamin into Sunday’s finals, when both won their semi-final heats. Together they give the 400m hurdles a status not seen since Edwin Moses claimed 122 consecutive victories in the race in the 1980s.
However, for all his fame, Moses has not had a single rival throughout his career, as 26-year-old Warholm does in Benjamin, who is 24 years old. Warholm and Benjamin also completed a one-two, in the same order as the last World Championship. While they’re friendly off the track, their duel is now as intense as the Viking’s roar Warholm lets out as he smacks his upper chest just below his shoulders before loading into the blocks to start each race. It’s a rivalry that the sport badly needs.
“He trains in the US; I train in Norway. He is Nike; I’m Puma,” Warholm said in a recent interview from his home in Oslo. “He’s fighting for his first gold medal. I’m trying to defend my territory.”
Now to that roar and chest pounding.
Warholm said the ritual began in training in Oslo. Because the country is so small (roughly 5.4 million people) and the trail is something of a sideline, well behind Nordic skiing, it has never had a competition. His trainer and a couple of quarterbacks are the extent of his daily companionship in training.
That meant he had to find a way to unload his adrenaline before a training run. One day he tried the roar and the pounding in his chest and liked it.
He used to hit his torso a little deeper. Then a trainer told him that pounding on his heart just before a quarter-mile sprint was a terrible idea. He listened and raised the point of contact but kept pounding. The sound of his fist slamming his flesh can echo through the lower bowl of an athletics stadium.
“There’s a lot of power in that,” Warholm said.
However, roars and chest thumps may not be enough for Warholm to overcome his latest obstacle. In June, in his first 400-meter hurdles of the season, Warholm retired after the first hurdle with a hamstring injury. Since then, he and his coach Leif Alnes have thought of little but being healthy for the World Cup second leg with Benjamin.
When Warholm stopped at this race in Rabat, Morocco, Alnes was relieved his cherished student didn’t fall to the ground, which often happens with a severe thigh tear. However, the 400-meter hurdles is basically a sprint, and in the sprint, 99 percent health is not enough. If Warholm isn’t at 100 percent, he won’t run.
“I always say if you don’t have time to get it right now, when will you have time,” Alnes said in a recent interview. “We must be wise. This is not a decision that can be based on emotions.”
Warholm dabbled in soccer and winter sports as a kid growing up in the fjords near Norway’s west coast, but he became an athletics star in his mid-teens and has never looked back. At first he was a decathlete. His two best disciplines were the 400 meters and the 110 meters hurdles. Alnes, a long-time coach at the Norwegian Athletics Federation, told him that combining these two events was the quickest route to the Olympics.
He was right. Warholm qualified in the 400-meter hurdles for the Rio 2016 Olympics, where he did not make the final but set the 10th fastest time in the semifinals. The following year, aged just 21, he won his first world championship in London. Track experts said it was a stroke of luck as Warholm won by having the slowest winning time at a World Championship.
Nobody calls it a coincidence now.
Moses said Warholm’s living and training schedule in Norway, away from distractions and his competition, would most likely help him.
“Rivals encourage your knowledge and education,” Moses said in an interview. “I knew what a good runner Harald Schmid was and that when I got up in California he had put a whole day’s work into it and was done in West Germany.”
Warholm met Moses years ago at a racetrack meeting in Oslo, and Moses had a long impact on Warholm’s career. The physicist Moses, who is considered the Albert Einstein of the 400-meter hurdles, was one of the first participants to manage just 13 steps between the hurdles.
14 used to be the default. Now nearly everyone uses 13, including Warholm, although at just under 6ft 2 he’s several inches shorter than many of his top competitors, making it harder for him.
On the way to Tokyo, the showdown with Benjamin turned out to be something special. At the US Olympic Trials at the end of June, Benjamin came within five hundredths of a second of the world record. The brand had stood for almost 29 years. Then, in July, Warholm broke by eight-hundredths. Both assumed that winning the gold medal would require breaking it again.
Warholm likes to start fast, increasing the distance between himself and the runner on his left while closing the gap between himself and the runner on his right. Tokyo was no exception.
Within 100 meters he had overtaken Alison dos Santos, the Brazilian champion. For a moment, Warholm thought he might have started too quickly. But there was no turning back.
As he rounded the last corner, he caught a glimpse of Benjamin approaching him on the left shoulder. It would all come down to the last hurdle. Warholm had a clean pass when he needed it most. Benjamin narrowly missed his target.
“I saw him and then I didn’t see him anymore,” he said.
He pumped his arms and sprinted to the finish. He glanced at the scoreboard, checked his time, and rubbed his head. In high-tech spikes on one of the fastest tracks ever built, he ran a 45.94, three quarters of a second faster than his previous record but just 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, and there may be more to come now that people are seeing what’s possible.
“It’s like a stone being thrown into the water and the waves go out really far if it’s big enough,” Alnes said.
Four days later, fellow Norwegian Jakob Ingebrigtsen won gold in the 1,500m, making the two men icons in their country at the level of its skiers.
Warholm spends his free time building elaborate models out of Legos. He has one from the Colosseum in Rome and another from Hogwarts, Harry Potter, and London Bridge. It’s a salvation, he said, something you can do besides walk and look at a screen. He also loves building model sports cars. He has built a Lamborghini model, a Bugatti and a McLaren. He drives a Porsche Taycan, an electric sports car.
When he’s having a bad day, he pulls out his phone and searches for a video of his race from last year’s Olympics. He’s done that at least 15 times. It always works.
“This will always be my most important race,” he said. “I will never have the chance to win my first Olympic gold medal again.”