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Norwegian marathon running legend Ingrid Kristiansen smashed through the barriers that women were believed to be unable to reach… Adrian Hill recalls her career

or decades women campaigned to be recognised as equals in terms of the events they were allocated at major athletics championships.

It sounds ludicrous but in the 1960s it

was believed, predominately by the male of the species, that women were incapable of running to a high level beyond 800m. Middle and long distance disciplines were deemed to be too much for their bodies to take. This patronising attitude was

disabused by the likes of Mary Decker and Grete Waitz in the 1970s and early 1980s. However, the woman who made everyone sit up and realise that, potentially, women could challenge their male counterparts at endurance running was Norwegian legend Ingrid Kristiansen. Born on the fringe of the Arctic Circle

in Trondheim, Kristiansen was brought up in a harsh environment where the bitter winters forced inhabitants to battle against the unremitting cold – a tenacity she brought to her running. She initially graduated from schoolgirl

track prodigy (she was selected for the 1971 European Championships 1500m as a 15-year-old and was knocked out in the heats) into a successful cross country skier, claiming the European Junior Championship in 1974 and winning eight Norwegian championships in the relay which, coming from the traditional powerhouse of the sport, was no mean feat. Good that she was, the best she achieved at a global level was 21st place in the 1978 World Championships. Kristiansen was very aware of the

“revolution” in women’s distance running that was going on at the time, as the Norwegian national hero of the time

was Waitz. She resolved to emulate her and was said to train up to 100 miles per week on a treadmill in her kitchen! Waitz had become the first woman to

break the magical 2:30 barrier for the Marathon in 1979 but inexplicably the following year’s Olympic Games had the longest event for women at a paltry 1500m. The case for inclusion was emphatic, though, and the first major championship women’s marathon was staged in Athens in 1982, where Kristiansen finished with a bronze medal. The door of opportunity was now ajar and the Norwegian kicked it down with vigour. The arrival of her son in 1983 failed to

disrupt her path to athletics immortality as she won the Houston Marathon just five months after the birth. The pollution of Los Angeles

contributed to her fourth-place finish in the inaugural women’s Olympic 26-mile race in 1984 but Kristiansen was soon to establish herself as the major force. She was the

first woman to run 5000m in under 15 minutes and in 1986 dragged that mark down to 14:37 – a record that stood for almost a decade. She set a new best of 30:13 for the 10,000m which was only overtaken by the dubious Chinese squad in 1993. Kristiansen’s domination was akin to that of Emil Zatopek in the equivalent men’s events over 30 years before. A year earlier she had smashed the

world best marathon time with a 2:21 in London, more than a minute and a half inside Joan Benoit’s previous mark. It

took her successors 13 years to beat that. The first women’s world 10,000m title

was annexed by Kristiansen in 1987 and there was no more appropriate winner as she had taken women’s distance running to another level. The only failure of her glittering

career was not claiming an Olympic gold but she was desperately unlucky to have to pull out of the 10,000m in Seoul 1988 when leading, due to a foot injury. She proved her indefatigable temperament by finishing sixth in the Boston Marathon only eight months after her daughter Marte was born, when she was 35 years-old. Kristiansen’s place in athletics lore is

enshrined by her position as the only man or woman to hold the big three distance world records (5,000m, 10,000m and the marathon) at the same time, a claim she held for seven years, between August 1986 and September 1993. Add to that wins in all the big city marathons,

The bitter winter forced inhabitants to battle against the unremitting cold – a tenacity she brought to her running

including two in Boston and four in London, and a claim for the greatest female distance athlete of all time is indisputable.

Her successor in establishing a new landmark for the women’s marathon has been Paula Radcliffe. British fans fervently hope that Radcliffe doesn’t also end up by failing to crown an astonishing career with the greatest prize of all – an Olympic gold medal.


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