*** many thanks to Andy Edwards for this race report ***
WARNING: First things first – there is a bit of strong language in this one…..
About Norseman (from the organizers):
Norseman has been running since 2003. It is a full Ironman distance race in Norway (around 2 hours’ drive East of Bergen) which is considered by most to be the hardest triathlon on the planet. The course runs point-to-point (or fjord to peak), starting at sea level, with a 4 meter drop off a ferry into the Hardangerfjord, crossing the starkly haunting Hardangervidda mountain plateau, finishing at the rocky peak of Gaustatoppen, at 1,850m above sea level and 220km away, Norseman is a long day’s journey through some of Norway’s most spectacular scenery. The total ascent is well over 5,000 meters (I read this, and then read a Strava report that said the bike leg alone was 5,764m of climbing, with another 1,737m of climbing on the run…. Lying Noggies……). The water is cold, clean, and comes lightly salted. The weather can be anything from brilliantly beautiful to blasting blizzard. If you’re really lucky, you may see porpoises, orcas (I hope to avoid these) or reindeer – or, more likely, baffled locals who think you are nuts, but will cheer you on anyway.
For safety reasons, Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlon is limited to 250 athletes. For the same reason, the number of athletes allowed to finish on top of the mountain is limited to 160.Those arriving in 161st position and back, or after the cut off time, complete their iron-distance at the mountain plateau below the peak. And all this for the prize of a t-shirt: Black for those who finish on top of the mountain; white for those who finish on the plateau below. All equally fabulous.
The male/female ratio is 85/15 and half the athletes are Norwegian. The other half represent some 40+ countries. Entry is gained through a lottery and the chances of getting a place are around 1 in 13. This decreases year on year as the race increases in popularity (10% entry increase each year).
What others said about Norseman:
Comments from people I know ranged from “holy shit, why would you want to do that” and “I hope you have an ice bath to train in” to “awesome, I have been trying to get a place on that for the past 5 years”. Those I know who had raced Norseman used words like “freezing, ridiculous, brutal, and hard-core” to describe each section, but also spoke fondly about the experience. The race reports I read all told the same stories of suffering, pain and elation on completion.
So why did I sign up?
Some might call this a midlife crisis. I would just say that with 40 looming (birthday was a couple of days before the race), I needed to prove to myself that I still had what it takes to tough out one of the hardest challenges on earth. Ultimately though, the answer is “cos why not?”!!
I signed up for Norseman immediately after being told it was the toughest Ironman in the World. I signed up because it seemed like a challenge too good to miss out on and with it being only 10 weeks after Ironman Texas, I would just need to get some hill work in to be in tip top shape for the race. How very fucking naïve….. And then I got a place……..
I took a few weeks off after Texas to recover. I had a bad stomach bug from the water ingested on the race and it took me a while to get back into the swing of things. A course of antibiotics and a decent(ish) diet got me back on track after around a month and I was soon training hard again. The 40-50 degree Dubai heat however made training outdoors very hard so most of my time was spent on the indoor trainer, treadmill (or Dubai Sports World) and the pool. I didn’t manage to get any cold water swims in, and probably didn’t do enough hill work, but I was in good shape by the time I hit my taper a few weeks before the race. I felt strong but very nervous arriving in Norway for the race.
This wasn’t going to be a race, so much it was going to be a survival exercise. With no real time or position expectations, I was determined to race a good race and enjoy the experience. I did however have my eyes on a black finisher T-shirt – I would have felt like I had let myself and my support team down if I was to come home without one!
Mike Bermingham, Diane Gordon and my wife Jo had kindly agreed to travel with me as my support crew (you must have your own team which provides support throughout the race) and we arrived in Eidfjord a few days before the race. I can’t thank you guys’ enough for this and intend to return the favor when you get a spot in the future Mike.
Swim: A cold (10 degrees) swim in the crystal clear waters of Hardangerfjord. Starting on a ferry which takes you to the start, there is a 4 meter jump out of the back, a regroup, and a swim all the way back towards a bonfire lit at T1 in Eidfjord. The water was a record low temperature this year and despite the organizers best efforts to find warmer waters the swim was cut short to for safety reasons. T1 had also been moved and meant a run of around 500-600m from the water to the bike.
Bike: A point-to-point ride over some big hills and rolling plateaus. LOTS of climbing and a mainly head wind for most of the course. I read one report where they had 30km/hr head winds for 140km of the race, coupled with rain and hail-stones….. Deep joy…..
Run: Relatively flat for the first 25km, followed by a steep incline from the foot of Gaustatoppen and culminating in a 3-points-of-contact scramble to the summit of the mountain.
The race plan:
In short, there wasn’t one. For the swim, I figured I would go hard to be out of the water quickly, try to stay in the high PZ2 to low PZ3 (210-220W) on the bike as much as possible in order that I had something left for the run. For nutrition I opted for Hammer Perpetuem, some base bars, and my support crew kept some bananas etc on hand in case I needed something a bit more “real”. I had no target time, but really wanted a black T-shirt position finish (based on previous years’ results, around 15h 30 would do it)……
Swim: A new HUUB Archimedes II. My old one had a few too many holes in it for my liking and I really didn’t want to have freezing cold water leaking in right through the swim! Oh, and HUUB neoprene hood and booties – I am not HUUB sponsored, I just love their gear. I was HUUB-tastic!
Bike: BMC TM01 TT with a Zipp 808/404 carbon clincher combo. I had seriously considered a road bike with clip on tri bars but went off the idea after reading about the potential head winds for most of the course. In terms of clothing I took everything. Tri-suit, arm warmers, jacket, waterproof, leggings, hat, gloves, the lot!
Run: Took everything for every eventuality. I even took three pairs of shoes – 3 pairs of running shoes and some hiking boots for the final stage just in case.
Pre-race in Eidfjord
We arrived at the hotel on the Wednesday, 4 days before the race. Over the next few days, we really just prepared for the race. Unlike most races, you have to put a lot of effort to planning. It being a point-to-point IM distance race makes driving the course an all-day job. We did however manage to do a little fun stuff, ate some great local food (including Rudolf Stew) and enjoyed some spectacular scenery.
The highlight had to be the pre-race swim on the Friday. It was cold, and the snow still on the mountains was at a record high for the time of year. This meant more ice water than normal was still feeding the Fjord and keeping it below the usual 13-15 degree range. The day before race day the temperature of the water dropped to 10.5 degrees and for the first time ever the organizers decided to shorten the swim leg. I’m a decent swimmer and even I was relieved. The practice swim was very uncomfortable. Jumping in took your breath away and whilst a wetsuit keeps the body relatively warm, the face and hands are far from it. It was like being punched in the face continually. I just hoped that after 10 minutes of so during the race, everything would go numb…
One thing we all noticed whilst there. EVERYONE looked VERY fit. Jo said “they all look the same – like Tour de France riders”. This really is a cyclists race – by that I mean it’s a race which suits someone who is light and strong (and not 88kg like me ). By race day, I was starting to doubt whether I had the beans to get into the top 160, but also figured that what I lack in ability on the bike, I make up for with a big pair of balls. I would give it my best shot!
Swim (plus 5-600m run): 30 minutes 56 seconds (Garmin shows 2348m in 28.59 for the swim)
After 5 minutes setting up in T1 with Mike, we (only the swimmers) boarded the ferry at Eidfjord which was conveniently right behind our hotel. 45 minutes or so later we were at the start point and were ushered to the back to jump into the water. It had been very quiet in the back of the ferry. Everyone had been preparing themselves mentally and physically for the race, warming themselves up as much as they could and preparing themselves for the pain which lay ahead.
All that changed in a moment as soon as we hit the water. “Holy fucking shit” stuttered its way through my chattering teeth. I’m not sure what the Norwegians were saying to themselves or each other, but I’m guessing it was the same sort of thing. It was fucking freezing….
We swam over to the kayak start line and after what felt like an age (probably around 5 minutes) to get everyone in the water, we were given the signal to start. The swim felt pretty good. The water was bit choppy, but as all you had to do was follow the shoreline, sighting was simple.
That is, it should have been simple but the thick layer of Vaseline I had smeared all over my face and neck for insulation had also covered my goggles. I didn’t let it bother me too much….
In a sick sort of way, I really enjoyed the swim and despite the slight head current finished in a decent time which had put me in 9th position overall including the pros. I would have preferred to have done the full distance in order to build a bigger advantage but understand why they shortened it. It would just have been nice to get a bigger gap between me and the cyclists before hitting the bike leg.
Bike: 6 hours 58 minutes
NP: 215 Watts (which seems quite low but you could only really free-wheel the steep downhills)
Transition seemed to go pretty well. I hadn’t quite lost all of the ability to use my hands as expected and with Mike’s assistance I was stripped naked, changed and off in short order.
The first section is around 8km at around a 2% incline, then its 30km of solid climbing at between 7% and 13%. Brutal – and not ideal when you still have such a long way to go.… I was being passed easily by some stronger cyclists and just hoped that I didn’t get passed by too many more once the elite racers were ahead. It was kind of cool riding through the tunnels on the main road, and through the smaller cycle route tunnels that paralleled them. The sheer drops of the side of the paths really gave you a sense of how far you had climbed in the early stages.
Support met me at the 20, 30 and 40km points on the way up. Great morale lifts after being left for dead by so many Norwegians on the way up!!
Most of the next 110km is a mixture of steep uphill, steep downhill and some flats. The course profile transfer (left) came in handy. I made some places back on the downhill and flatter sections, but not nearly as many as I lost on the inclines. It was fucking freezing and whilst my body was warm, like an idiot I had opted not to wear gloves or socks. After 15 minutes on the top section my fingers and toes were completely numb. It’s a good job I didn’t get a puncture up there as changing an inner tube would have been comedy gold to watch!
At the mid-point, I was feeling pretty good, but knew the second half would be tougher….
The next climbs really took their toll. I had been pushing over 300 watts for large parts of the ascents and my legs were getting tired. After the third long descent (this was steep, bumpy and dangerous, but you could get close to 80km/hr if you were brave) there is a sharp right to Immingfjel; the final climb. Brutal, just brutal. At around 12km, it is the second longest climb and is the steepest. Brutal.
The top of Immingfjel is 152km in, and then it’s downhill all the way to T2. Game on – I hammered the last 28km, taking at least 5 places back on the downhill section. All in all, a decent ride. If I had been told I would come in under 7 hours before the race, I would have been chuffed. As a comparison, I would say this ride would be similar to doing Hatta-Kalba and back a couple of times with an extra couple of T2-T1 repeats thrown in for good measure.
Run: 5 Hours 12 minutes
Into T2 and my support team was there waiting for me with everything laid out. Socks on, trainers on, cap on and off in just over a minute. They give you your position when leaving T2 and I was in 81st. Mid field for a black T-shirt – happy days!
My legs felt surprisingly good, and I wanted to make up some time just in case I struggled later on. I went out fairly easy on the first downhill section then eased in to just under 5min/km pace and felt really good. Piers Constable’s reminder that the race starts at 25km rang in my head and I resisted the temptation to push the pace any harder. I walked for a few seconds each I met the team every 2-3km, and had a glug of Perpetuem and water each time.
At around 14km in, I got pushed close to the verge by an on-coming car and turned over on my ankle, crushing the end off a bone in my foot (ouch!). Nightmare…. After a few minutes of hobbling/hopping and in a lot of pain, I managed to get running again. Thankfully, Mike had some pain killers which did the trick and helped me continue on with both feet.
At around the 20km point, you get your first view of Mount Gaustoppen. Seeing it, and knowing I was in reach of the top was quite an emotional experience. I was in around 64th by this point and had a short tearful moment with myself before manning up and cracking on again.
At 25 km you hit the foot of the Gaustoppen (AKA Zombie Hill) and start the 1700m+ climb to the top. The first 12km is a steep uphill road section which is just about joggable on some parts. Only one person ran up (the winner) and I honestly have no idea how he managed to. Everyone else “power walked” and jogged flatter sections. I had managed to average 4.55 until the 25km mark, but then slowed to 8min/km on the mountain which was still a lot quicker than most.
Who would have thought that being tall and gangly would pay off in triathlon?
I picked people off with ease on this section and managed to get up to around 46th by the time we reached the final checkpoint at the foot of the off-road section (37km in, and the point where you are either allowed to the top for a black T-shirt finish, or sent to an alternate finish point for a white one if you are not in the first 160 and within the time cutoff). After another tearful, bottom lip wobbling moment, I hit the checkpoint, grabbed by safety bag, changed by shoes (hiking shoes for the ankle support), and Mike and I headed to the top.
The final ascent is a 5.2km, very steep, rocky path and my ankle was trashed. Every time I stood on something loose, it gave way and I was in agony. I would have crawled up if I had to though, so I just had to man up and crack on; albeit primarily on one leg……
After over an hour of suffering, we hit the stone steps which take you the last 50m to the finish line. A quick hop up and a mandatory “ROAR” on the line and that’s it. 51st in a time of 12.47 - job done.
The organizers then sort you out with a blanket and some warm soup before you go inside to the café at the top to get changed and wait for the venicular to take you back down through the mountain. Mike had to walk down which he assures me was tougher than walking up!
I was chuffed with the run. Despite working very hard on the bike, holding sub 5 minute pace for the first 25km was easy; even with an injury. A good confidence builder for future races.
A beer, a couple of glasses of Champagne and bed for all of us after a very tough, very long, quite emotional day.
I can’t imagine ever doing a better race than this. The mystique, the scenery, the brutality, the emotion, the pain and the elation. The fact that everyone including the winner is racing for a t shirt. No medals, no prize money, no time expectations, no Kona slots; just the pride in earning and wearing a piece of clothing. Just brilliant. I look forward to going back again soon (as support) when Mike gets a place. I think I will give competing again a miss though – at least until I hit 50!
I learned a lot in the run up to and during Norseman:
1. You can train for any race, in any weather and conditions. It just takes discipline and trust in your program.
2. My cycling is not great on step hills (confirmed!)
3. Hammer Perpetuem is brilliant
4. I need an 11/32 rear cassette – the 11/28 I opted for didn’t cut it
5. Comfort is just as important as aerodynamics on a cold ride (I wore a warm top for the entire ride and felt great).
6. Time spent taking a piss on the side of the road is time well spent. Pissy wet feet in cold weather would have made for a very uncomfortable race…..
7. I am dumb enough to be able to suffer a lot of pain….. Quote from the doctor – “yeah, you probably shouldn’t have run on that”…..
8. Norseman lives up to the hype and should be on everyone’s “Bucket List” – just don’t leave it too long as it is getting more and more popular!
I would like to say again a huge public “thanks” to Mike Bermingham, Diane Gordon and my wife Jo for supporting me so incredibly well. You were awesome. As usual, a big thanks to Tony Hchaime for getting me prepared despite the 40 degree temperature and massive terrain differences! And last but by no means least, a huge thanks to my friends in TriDubai and Tribe for your support prior to and during the race. I was really blown away….. Keeping a low profile was a massive fail, but hopefully my very public journey to the top of Gaustoppen has inspired some of you to enter this epic race.
So what’s next?
Less focus on key events and more racing for fun (and perhaps some drinking!). Ironman distance training has sucked the life out of me for over a year so it’s back to the short(er) stuff for me (well, up to 70.3!). We have some great regional events coming up at the end of 2015 and early 2016 (DIT, Challenge, IM and some Race ME events), and it seems a shame to miss any of them.
That said, I have some unfinished business in Texas, and IM UK fits pretty well with the summer holidays – sod it; I’m going to do both in 16!
I love this stupid sport. It affects your work, your personal life, your sleep, diet, everything… You have to compromise in pretty much every other part of your life. But that feeling of excitement in the weeks before a big race, the buzz at the events, the “sizing up of the competition”, the adrenaline on race morning, and the elation when crossing the line – well they make up for the hours, days, weeks and months of pain and suffering.