Karsten Warholm and coach Leif Olav Alnes (© Karsten Warholm)
It’s a funny story, the way it happened. How my coach, Leif Olav Alnes, and I became this unique – and successful – team we are today. World champions, European record-holders.
I had reached the point where I really wanted, and needed, a new training environment. The person I asked for advice at the Norwegian federation told me: “there is only one man who can do this: Leif.” He wouldn’t even mention anyone else, so I thought “ok, I guess I need to take a look.”
I had met Leif a couple of times before when we were around at meets and he was coaching others. I had a very good first impression, but at the same time I didn’t really know him, so we met, sat down and talked. For me it was an instant perfect match.
Yes, he was old and talking about retiring, but I was very convinced he was the right match for me, so it was all about convincing him to take a chance on me. I tried to reason, “look, we don’t have to train together every day, I can just come by and get the sessions and whatever”, but then he turned around and said, “you know what? If we’re going to do this, let’s do this all-in.” Now we’re here and, as they say, the rest is history.
For me, considering how much time you spend in this sport, the coach-athlete relationship needs to go beyond just work. It needs to be like a friendship. If you invest 10 years of your life racking up all these training hours, you need to be friends.
Our relationship is like a typical boys’ friendship. We mock each other, we have a lot of fun together, and we share the same humour. It’s like we’re the same age mentally – whatever age that is, whether it’s five years or 50, that’s up to you to decide.
The great thing about our friendship is that both of us are benefitting from being around each other. I have a lot to learn from him, because he’s old and wise and at the same time I think it’s good for him being with me, someone who is younger. He can learn a couple of things from me as well. I recently gave him a smartphone, which he now uses, so he has gone through some changes as well. I hope and think that we are influencing each other in a very good way.
The crazy thing about Leif is he only sleeps three or four hours every night. That is not much. I probably sleep around nine or ten hours. And he thinks all the time. He thinks about how can we improve? How can we make things better? For me, that’s the biggest value he adds. How often do you find a nerd that is also socially gifted? Someone who can work so deep in track and field analysis, but at the same time is a great communicator. That’s his biggest gift.
We communicate in a very good way. He is always honest. We had this last session before going to the European Indoors in Glasgow. I was running quite well, and I was feeling okay, but he came over to me and he said, “Karsten, if you want to run 45.0, this is not good enough. I just want to tell you, because I think you can do better and we need to be sharper than this if you want to achieve our goals.”
For me, I really appreciate the honesty, because I know it’s coming from love. It’s not him trying to push me down, it’s him trying to lift me higher. Of course, he wouldn’t say that to me, if he knew that I was trying to do my best, but he knows that there is more potential. When I am not fulfilling my potential he can be very harsh about that.
Tough love is the perfect way to describe our relationship. I like it that way. Last year he told me I was too fat and I said “you are too fat as well” so both of us lost weight. He started eating a lot of vegetables and almost no meat, and I started to not eat as much candy and drink less beer – it worked out pretty well for both of us.
Looking back at the things we’ve achieved together, winning the world title in London in 2017 was a complete breakthrough for me. Of course, there were others, winning the Bislett Games for the first time and also I feel like I really broke a code when I ran the European Indoor Champs in Glasgow. That was a very good 400m for me. There are a lot of memories, but I think those various breakthroughs have probably been the most defining for me.
I remember, when I eventually convinced him to let me run at the European Indoor Championships, I wanted to announce it in a funny way that highlights the challenge it had been to convince him to let me run. I came up with the idea to take some photos of me forcing him to make the call. But Leif is very creative. He has seen all the movies, so he came with all of those ideas. He was the one bringing the water guns and all these props. Yes, he’s old and he doesn’t always understand what the youth likes and it’s funny because I get to be the one to tell him, “no, now you’re really on the wrong path”, but sometimes he’s really on to something! It’s probably the other way around in training.
I live by the words of Wall Street movie character Gordon Gekko. He says “greed is good”. Yes, of course you need to be happy and let the moment sink in when something great happens, but at the same time I’m very thoughtful about striving for more. I want to wake up and I want to be greedy again and have more.
Admittedly, my shoulders are a little lower now than they were last year. I felt like everybody was on my neck last year, always talking about Abderrahman Samba. I was a little tired hearing about it, but at the same time, it has pushed me to do even more. This year we have even more guys – Rai Benjamin, Kyron McMaster. It’s a blessing and a curse. Everybody wants to win, of course, but at the same time we help each other push to another level and for the event and for track and field it’s really good.
I look at the European record race in London and see this could be improved and that could be improved. And it doesn’t matter if it’s a PB or a bad race, whatever, I always analyse it, and I always try to find new ways to make it better. It’s the same with Leif. We analyse it, go back to the drawing board, and work harder. As athlete, as coach and as friends.
Photography: Odin Jaeger