50 Golden Moments: Kristiansen’s scintillating 10,000m in Stuttgart

Ingrid Kristiansen
European Athletics

Four years after the marathon was contested in a major event for the first time at the 1982 European Championships, the women’s 10,000m made its long-awaited championship debut at the Stuttgart 1986 European Athletics Championships.

And long distance running pioneer Ingrid Kristiansen made it a debut to remember. The event was still very much in its infancy in 1986 but Kristiansen’s winning time of 30:23.25 - set without any pacemakers and in near gun-to-tape fashion - would still be highly regarded on the global stage, let alone on the European stage, nearly 35 years later.

Kristiansen let the first lap in Stuttgart tick by at a sedate pace before taking the lead on the second lap. And by the third lap Kristiansen had cut loose from her pursuers altogether. She never looked back from this point on, producing what would be remembered as one of the greatest front running performances in championship history.

Already the world record-holder in the marathon with 2:21:06, Kristiansen set world records over 5000m (14:37.33) and 10,000m (30:13.74) in the weeks leading up to the European Championships in Stuttgart. Another world record didn’t look out of the question as she passed the 5000m checkpoint in 15:07.89 despite a slow opening lap of 78 seconds.

A capacity crowd inside the Neckarstadion rose to Kristiansen’s marvellous front running efforts by performing a Mexican wave in sync with Kristiansen’s metronomic and relentless pace. The Norwegian slipped off world record schedule ever so slightly in the closing stages, although her winning margin grew out to almost 200 metres. 

Kristiansen took the 28-strong field asunder over the course of the 25 laps, leaving some significant names trailing in her wake. The soon-to-be Olympic champion Olga Bondarenko from the Soviet Union was a distant runner-up in 30:57.21 with 1976 Olympic 1500m bronze medallist Ulrike Bruns from East Germany taking bronze in 31:19.76. Great Britain’s Liz McColgan, who succeeded Kristiansen as world champion in 1991, finished seventh in 31:49.46 and had the chastening experience of being lapped by the Norwegian.

But this said more about Kristiansen’s standard of running in 1985 and 1986, a level hitherto unseen by a female distance runner. Both her championship record (30:23.25) and her European record (30:13.74) lasted until the 2002 European Championships in Munich where Paula Radcliffe claimed ownership of both records in 30:01.09 with a front running performance straight out of the Kristiansen playbook.

Kristiansen’s world marathon record remained unbeaten for 13 years too. She was the first female marathon runner with credible ambitions of breaking the sub-2:20 barrier for the distance and she believed she could have further improved her world 10,000m record in the right conditions too.

Talking to Sports Illustrated at the end of 1986, Kristiansen said: “In the 10,000m, I think one second faster per lap is possible. Somebody can do 29:45. Me, OK, but others, too. Mary [Slaney], Zola [Budd]. Yes, I lapped everybody [when I set the record] by one or two laps, but that's because it was so new to them. When they catch up, the one lap will go away, and we'll be a group, like the men.”

The gap between Kristiansen and her rivals did begin to close as she predicted. After a troubled build-up, Kristiansen held on to win the inaugural world 10,000m title in Rome the following year. Many people dearly wished Kristiansen to follow suit at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul where the women’s 10,000m made its debut but her Olympic career ended with her crumpled on the ground after succumbing to a foot injury.