In 885 A.D. a long-haired Viking named King Harold Fairhair led a pack of horn-helmeted Norsemen in the battle of Hafrsfjord. Fairhair had vowed not to cut his hair until the battle had been won. To the surprise of his barber, Fairhair was victorious and all of Norway was at last unified.
On Sunday, less than two miles from the spot of Fairhair's heroic haircut, another battle will be fought as more than 700 athletes from 90 nations compete in the 76th annual World Cross Country Championships.This Sunday's warriors will be without the battle-axes and shields wielded by Fairhair's troops, and the only horned heads will be on the local cows grazing nearby.
Our only weapons will be the 3/4-inch spikes on the bottom of our track shoes. Three days of misting rain have turned parts of the hilly, 12,000-meter cross-country course into a mud-wrestler's paradise. The weather could be worse. Norway in March hosts many cross-country skiing contests, but few of the running variety. The North Sea and westerly winds give the host town of Stavanger, located in southwest Norway, a moderate year-round climate similar to Seattle.
We have spent the last four days getting over jet-lag and getting to know Stavanger. We've even found an ally for Sunday's battle. Jan Bang, the owner of a bookstore adjacent to our hotel, seemed enthused to see our USA sweatshirts. He explained that during World War II he had been imprisoned by the Germans for working as a courier for the local underground. At the concentration camp, he was forced to hide his meager daily rations so they would not be stolen by fellow prisoners. Yet every night he and the other prisoners would face the west and sing a Norwegian song of a free land called America.
In April 1945, Jan and 75 other prisoners were marched to a nearby field to be shot. As they neared certain death, they came across an American soldier who Jan described as "an angel from heaven with a rifle." His German captors fled and Jan was free.
We've also received a warm reception from the local media. A newspaper photographer found us strolling through town and took our pictures standing in front of a fountain. The picture appeared on the cover of today's newspaper - seven gawking Americans, with one cupping his hand as if drinking from the fountain water. The joke was on us, however, as the fountain turned out to be a birdbath.
Another American misadventure occurred when one of the junior runners, in search of a bargain, spotted a heavy Norwegian sweater in a shop window. The sweater was marked at $80, so it was rather expensive. The junior informed the shopkeeper that he wanted the sweater in the window. In broken English the employee explained that they were in a knitting shop and that $80 would only buy the yarn and the pattern for the sweater.
As Sunday approaches, the U.S. team becomes more and more focused. We know that in last year's championships the Kenyans took eight of the top nine spots, and the Ethiopians and French weren't far behind. With such stiff competition, many give the U.S. runners little chance to capture a team medal.
But there have been surprises on the fields of Stavanger before.
Just ask King Fairhair's barber.