Norseman Xtreme Triathlon – The bucket list.
I’ve done some pretty cool Iron-distance races in my 27 years. Norseman had a fair bit of living up to do with Bolton, Wales, Lanzarote, Roth and three lots of Kona. Maybe it’s a result of growing up in the mountains of north Wales, maybe it’s past 10 years a soldier, but for me it has always been the toughest races that have really appealed to me. Naturally the Norseman fitted quite well into that bracket.
I’d always knew Norseman was going to be a tough race to get into. This year nearly 4000 athletes entered the lottery for 250 places, so when I typed in my details last Autumn and pressed submit I wasn’t holding out much hope. However, low and behold, on the 13th of November, there was that much anticipated email…`Welcome to Eidfjord.’ I was in.
There are a few logistical problems with the Norseman. A split transition – the swim in the chilly waters of Eidfjord, the bike snaking south across the infamous Hardangervidda plateau with the run finishing on top of the famed Mount Gaustatoppen. The Norseman itself is so unlike any other Iron-Distance race I’ve ever done. Where branded Ironman or Challenge events are, dare I say it, seeming more and more commercial these days, Norseman is so different. Athletes must provide their own support from start to finish in this race, including car. There are no aid stations, no water stops, no one handing out sun cream or Vaseline in transition. Your support crew are required to leapfrog you the entire 180km (no supporting from the vehicle – they must be stopped and off the road), and the same for the run. You are allowed a support runner to provide you with nutrition (and morale support) from 25km to the finish, with it being compulsory for the final 5km.
Although I did not know anyone personally who had raced the Norseman, I was lucky enough to have relatives in Oslo who knew a few who had raced the fabled race, and who also had a friend who had tried and failed numerous times to enter the Norseman. Cue support team and support runner. I was also lucky enough to have won a beautiful Mercedes V-Class in Wiesbaden 70.3 for the QOM on the bike leg for two weeks. Cue perfect support vehicle.
After picking up the support vehicle from Hamburg the Monday of race week, I travelled across with Chief Support (the mother) to Oslo where after a night there we drove up towards Eidfjord taking in a route recce of the final 5km off road section up Gaustatoppen and the bike route along the way. I was very glad I had as the huge boulders, rocky steps, marshes, scree slopes and freezing wind chill was quite humbling and made me realise just how tough this race was going to be, and how I would have to prepare for every eventuality on race day.
We arrived in Eidfjord, registered and had a small dip in the 13 degrees waters of the fjord. There was something quite refreshing of no expo crawling with compression socks or top-trump t-shirts, or goody bag filled with copious amounts of leaflets advertising the latest nutrition fad or local race which inevitably don’t get read and will end up in the paper recycling. The water was chilly to say the least – I had purchased especially for the event a thermal wetsuit, swim balaclava and socks (exceptions to normal international triathlon rules) and they really came into their own here. The small part of my face and hands that were exposed felt like a jelly fish had latched itself onto them and stayed there. Not exactly pleasant but all adding to the reason why this race is dubbed as one of the toughest.
Race day dawned grey and of course raining. With racking done the day of the race, it was a 0200 start to get into transition, get lights and high visibility clothing checked (compulsory for the bike section) and board that infamous ferry which departed at 0400 sharp. I have never done a race with only 250 competitors and it wasn’t hard to find my space which had plenty of room to leave enough clothing to cycle across the Arctic. It was then on the boat to set sail down the fjord for 3.8km. This was where the pre-race nerves really kicked in. I found a space to sit and contemplate my fate for the next hour. Some athletes opted to dive in and out of the freezing jet of sea water provided so kindly by the organisers but I decided staying warm for as long as possible was a much better idea.
As the boat shuddered to a stop and the back opened out revealing the dark fjord and the twinkling lights of Eidfjord in the distance (3.8 km is a LONG way to swim when you see it in a straight line!), the excitement kicked in and I leapt off the back off the ferry like a lemming, forgetting to hold onto my goggles in the process. The swim started with a klaxon blast and we were off. It was a pleasant change from the normal fist-fights, swimming over each other and the battle for a space that occurs in normal Ironman racing, and I settled into a rhythm straight away, finding a perfect set of feet and even forgetting the cold.
I exited the water in 1.00.25 seconds (A 3-minute PB – thank-you feet! My swimming friend in question actually contacted me on strava a few days later to introduce himself and to say what a great time he’d had swimming with me!) and it was up to transition. Due to how cold athletes tend to be after the swim, supporters are allowed into transition to help their shivering friends get dressed, pull gloves and jackets on, and remind them what their name is.
After my longest transition in eight races (I’d gone for the ‘minimalist’ option apparently – jersey over the top of tri suit with jacket in the back pocket plus overshoes.) Most people opted for the full shebang of arm warmers, leg warmers, jackets and hats, a decision I would soon regret as I set off in the pouring rain up the first climb of the day. Soon the rain, wind chill and temperature drop as we climbed – 14 degrees to about 5 within 90 minutes - got the better of me and I changed into my jacket halfway UP the climb.
Next followed the most beautiful 112 miles I have ever had the pleasure of racing. 4500m of climbing over five major climbs rising from sea level to 1400m in the first climb. My support crew were on point leapfrogging every 40km or so to provide some much-needed layers and snacks. I have never left the need to keep leg warmers on during an iron-distance race which would give some indication of the conditions on the day. First time for everything! Coupled with a jersey, windproof, long-sleeved gabba jacket with long fingered gloves, it was safe to say the weather was interesting to say the least. The climbs were long but never too steep, with the descents fast and largely non-technical. It took all the man points I could muster to stay on my tri bars during the downhill sections as I topped 80km an hour across the windswept Hardangervidda.
I was genuinely sad to clamber off my bike (despite the torrential downpour) after 6hrs and 48 minutes. Not least because of how stunningly barren and beautiful the bike had been, but more because I knew what was coming. I had had a far from perfect build up to the race having been diagnosed with a stress fracture in my foot back in May meaning barely a few weeks of a walk/run programme before the race itself, I had concerns I was even going to last the run. Needless to say, off I set after being helped into my shoes by kind support crew, towards the misty top of Gaustatoppen, leaving transition in 47th place and meeting with my support crew every 4km or so for water and gels. The first 25km are pretty much flat road as they follow the shores of the lake up to a small town called Rjukan. Unclosed roads meant a few cars to contend with but it was hardly the M6 and the Norwegian locals are incredibly respectful of all these mad triathletes who have descended upon their small town.
From 25km the fun starts. A steep switch backed climb of 7 km to the 32km point where the first 160 athletes are permitted to continue to the top of Mount Gaustatoppen, sitting at just below 2000m (For those that do not make this cut off, they are still permitted to continue on to the white t-shirt finish, still at around 1500m above sea level and the full marathon distance). I opted to run with my support runner here which was allowed from 25km onwards who kept me topped up with coke and water and together we strode towards the finish. Having grown up in the mountains of north Wales I’d always thought that I would at least be able to jog/walk the switchbacks but I soon realised it was going to be a fast walk right up to the 32 km point. Having reached this point relatively pain free I knew that the black t-shirt was well within my grasp, all I had to do now was finish. The following 5km to the bottom of the climb was much flatter than the brutal switchbacks of Zombie Hill, and I managed to force the tired heavy legs to run once more. After reaching the bottom I knew all I had was 5km to go and I had finished. Unfortunately, having recce’d the final stretch some days previously I knew it was not quite as simple as that. Norseman rules state that competitors and their support must carry a back pack each containing food, clothing, money, a phone and water for the mountain top finish and these are checked before the competitors are allowed to continue. My support were on the ball and arrived at the 37km point before us, checking in the bags and continuing up the mountain to hopefully see the finish.
After smashing a caffeine gel and changing footwear to fell shoes, I got my second wind and took off towards the summit. I knew from my recce I was looking at around an hour for the final stint, and it was probably the strongest I’d felt all day, managing to over- take several competitors and their support in my quest for the Black T-shirt. The technical trails and boulder strewn paths put paid to any running and essentially it came down to whoever could walk the fastest up the hill. Reaching the final few hundred of metres of the summit, my legs were burning, back was on fire and it was all I could do to push my legs up those final stone steps to fall over the finish line. 6th female, 41st overall and the first British lady home. The best race I have ever had the pleasure of competing in and one I certainly will not be forgetting in a hurry.
Things unfortunately went downhill pretty quickly and from feeling on top of the World (or at least Norway) at the summit of Mount Gaustatoppen, I managed to make my way into the cosy café at the top where I proceeded to pass out and throw up everywhere. Not my finest moment. After a brief ‘lie down’ period, I was subsequently accompanied by two very nice doctors back down to the train that would take me back down the hill and to bed. Needless to say, there was not much of the post-race banquet eaten that evening, but possibly a good indication I had got things just about right on race day.
However, the following day I was nearly back to normal, and it was time to pull on that much anticipated black t-shirt and enjoy some well-earned post-race breakfast. A truly fantastic event that is put on entirely by volunteers for the sole reason of creating a tough, tough race for athletes who just want to push themselves to the absolute limit. No PRO athletes, no medal, no goody bag or back pack. But a black t-shirt and memories that will last a time.
Until next time Norseman…