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Tue 19th Feb 2019
Norseman: A race of contrasts
Posted by: Editor
Posted on: Wednesday 2nd September 2009

Tags  Norseman  |  Norseman Xtreme  |  Peter Cobb

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Last week we brought you Paul Jenkinson's Norseman Xtreme report, which we described as "one of the most inspiring reports we've seen for a long time." Well, we've got another one for you!

Peter Cobb gives not just his own personal race experience, but also delves in to the beauty and challange of Norseman, which has made it such an iconic event. If you've ever considered taking part, read this... and we think you'll soon be signing up.

Both before I took part and now as a two time finisher, I have wondered where Norseman sits within the triathlon world – there's a bit of a ‘marmite’ feel about it for me with some seeing it as a great challenge whilst others have doubted my sanity for entering not once but twice. I don't think there is any doubt that when it started, it was considered an esoteric outpost of long distance triathlon but that view is long past and Norseman has become an iconic event; coveted by an increasing number of triathletes and held in awe by a far greater number. The amazing thing is that this change has come about in just six years.

The question for me is why? Norseman is widely regarded as the most challenging ironman distance event around but in my own mind that is only a small part of the reason why I and so many others feel so drawn to it. When I first came across Norseman, in a small news article in 220 Triathlon in 2003 I was immediately captivated by the linear nature of the course (end-to-end rather than endless laps), and the mountain top finish. As I completed my first ironman distance event in 2005, I began to truly appreciate what I would have to achieve to reach the finish but also that this was somehow different to other long distance triathlon events. It would be more of a journey and this has turned out to be so very true, both mentally as well as physically. Then I saw the famous ferry jump photo for the first time and there was no going back, though frustratingly I first had to endure two years of being unable to enter due to lack of money.

In 2008, I finished on top of the mountain in 17:05, unspectacular but satisfied – a good swim and solid bike were followed by a very trying run where lack of fitness, exercise induced asthma and a hot and humid day led to me enduring a 7½ hour marathon.

This year I was far better prepared. I was some 8kg lighter, I had trained far more effectively and I had changed my asthma medication for the better. Arriving in Norway, I felt ready to put in a much stronger performance.

Peter just before race startArriving at the race start, it doesn't take long to spot differences with branded ironman events. There is no gaudy expo, no loudspeakers or DJ, in fact almost no obvious indication of a race apart from a few banners bearing the race logo and sponsors. At the race briefing they show the video from last year; the rain on the ferry, how the day brightened after such a dreary start and the sunshine at the mountaintop finish. There was a big focus on the swim, dramatic views of lone swimmers, set against the mountainous backdrop of an apparently mill-pond still fjord, this belying the reality of a super-strong current which added 15 minutes to even the strongest swimmers’ times and considerably more to the slowest, right up to the point where the last person exited the fjord in a little over three hours. Another head current was expected this year and the question for most was how much would we all be slowed? In a tough event for bike and run, even the swim was expected to be uphill work! To some extent, this has been true in previous years where cold water meant the race was moved further out into the fjord, reducing the current but leading to a longer bike leg.

If the video doesn't begin to make you realise that this event has its own individual slant, then the briefing certainly does. It starts with songs from a traditional violinist, is followed by a stand-up turn from the Hardanger National Park tourist officer and is finished by the race crew highlighting how excited the locals are about the nudity that is allowed in transition! At least the poor weather forecast of a week ago looks to be incorrect and the race crew are predicting another mountain top finish.

Race morning begins early, 2am for most to allow for breakfast before the transition area opens at 3am. After last year’s rain, this year is more relaxed, it is warm and the atmosphere is friendly and welcoming. Most of the British men are grouped together by number so it's easy to chat with both old friends and new acquaintances. Then onto the ferry which sets off soon after 4am and quickly reaches the swim start before seeming to turn the ferry equivalent of cartwheels to pass the time before the now famous jump from the car deck.

Swim exitI am expecting the swim to be similar to 2008 but actually it's completely different – in fact almost the whole race is completely different. Last year the water was drinkable, this year it's salty; this year there are incandescent yellow jellyfish and a chop on the water from the keen breeze that's sprung up. And most notably, the head current turns out to be much weaker than expected, the first swimmers exiting the water in a little over 50 minutes. Although much quicker this year myself, I find the swim more challenging and less enjoyable, swallowing plenty of water early on before finding a fast set of feet to help me to a decent finish in 63 minutes.

It is after T1 where any similarity to an M-Dot race ends. Overall, the bike course climbs 3,200m in its 112 miles which would give it a solid 8/10 on the UK sportif toughness scale in its own right. It is challenging from the start, with 1250m of ascent in the first 25 miles, which means that most people will take over two hours to reach the top of the first climb. The first half of this climb is the steepest on the course, following the old ‘tourist’ road which contours around the mountainside with spectacular cliff views, bridges and tunnels, which you have plenty of time to enjoy. Last year I was passed by a long procession of triathletes, this year it is a trickle as I am cycling so much better. The upper half of the climb is easier as we rise from the valley onto the plateau of the Hardanger national park. Last year it was dank and misty, this year it is bright and cheerful but we have a headwind. It almost seems perverse that that the weather could be so much nicer and yet at the same time racing conditions slower but that is part of the enigma of the race. By the time we reach T2, the faster swim conditions have been cancelled out by the tougher bike, making times to T2 for the last two years pretty much comparable.

It is on the plateau, surrounded by moorland scenery and with lakes everywhere, that the small size of the field really becomes evident. Faster speeds mean that we are strung out and I see very few other competitors. What I do see are the same cars and support teams preparing to cheer on their triathletes and keep them supplied with food and water. It is another of the paradoxes of the race that whilst there are no feed stations on the bike course, the presence of a support team means that you can actually get better service than in a more standard event. Many of those racing have their whole family supporting which also makes for an appreciative crowd in general as we are all on this 141 mile journey together.

After the undulating plateau we reach the half way point on the bike and the meat of the route; four climbs between 3km and 10km long with the final one, Immingfjell, being the longest and most difficult. Many are flagging now as the distance and wind start to take their toll, more and more are stopping rather than take on provisions whilst moving. I am pleased to climb Immingfjell easily, maintaining my consistent effort and overtaking people now rather than the other way round. Last year I barely made it up, somehow managing to keep the wheels turning at 3.5mph on the steepest section. It is at the top that I start to struggle, the ‘flat’ 10km plateau has no shelter and is directly into the wind. Everybody is hunched over their tri-bars, struggling to maintain a speed over 10mph. Despite my struggles, I maintain my place in the field before the big swoop off into the valley; three tight hairpins near the top, then pretty much straight downhill for 20 miles to T2. I am feeling a little tired but considerably fresher than 2008 and start to prepare mentally for the run; I am now roughly one hour up on my 2008 time.

T2 is a tranquil spot in the small village of Austbygde and I make a speedy change into run shoes, no need for my inhalers this year. After all the hills on the bike, the first 15 miles of the run are reasonably flat, firstly 10 miles alongside Tinnsjo lake, then 5 across pan flat fields. At the half marathon point you go round a bend and can see the finish line ahead for the first time, the radio mast at the top of Gausta some 1650m above. By this time I have just started to walk short sections as I can feel lactic building in my calves. I've not eaten solid food for some time so pick up some jelly babies from an impromptu feed station and although they make me feel a little sick, they do give me a burst of energy and I find myself running more easily again.

Then the Gausta sign appears and the route turns left to start climbing up the mountain. There is a feed station at the bottom, though non-Norwegians might question the accuracy of the term; bright green electrolyte solution, salted liquorice and salami are on offer – the latter looks appetising when you are craving salt but little is as guaranteed to make you feel ill after eating it as I found to my cost last year when it repeated on me for an hour after eating just one slice.

At this point my friend Dave from Ipswich Tri catches me and suggests we go up Zombie hill together, this being the rather appropriate name given by the race organisers to the first 7km of the mountain, which climbs some 800m up a series of switchbacks at a constant 10% gradient. Last year I wandered up the mountain alone in my own little world of discomfort so company sounds like a great idea. Although he has just caught me, it is soon clear that Dave is pretty tired and isn't going to haul me up but we are a good couple of minutes per mile faster than I was last year. We have great support on the way up from Dave's other half, Susannah, but it is still hard work and a relief to reach the 32.5km checkpoint where there is yet more salami that I keep well away from.

We are now somewhere in the region of 12 hours 30 minutes into the race and have just secured our black finisher T-shirts (Dave's third) for getting to this point in under 14:30. Outside this time, finishers are not allowed to the top of the mountain, instead running an undulating loop out and back to a large ski village where everybody stays after the race and gaining a white finishers shirt for completing the second hardest ironman distance race in the world, 1000m above sea level. With only 10km left, you could be forgiven for thinking the end was close but it took me about three hours last year so focus is still needed. Between 32.5 and 37.5km, the road climbs less steeply and there are even some flat and slightly downhill sections as the road curves around the mountainside to reach the ridge that the main path goes up to the summit. The mountain has been wearing a cotton wool hat since I first saw it but now it suddenly becomes more threatening; first the odd spot of rain, then the wind gets up and suddenly it's raining continuously and Dave and I are getting cold by the time we get to our support crew and don our wet weather kit. We are both on the Endurancelife trip which is supporting 18 athletes and they look after us superbly all weekend. As we are about to set off another from our party, Matt, arrives so we wait for him and go up the mountain as a three. The wait has kicked off my asthma but I don't realise until we are moving and it's too late to go back for my inhaler – there's nothing for it but to tough it out with support from Dave and Matt, wheezing my way up the last 600m of vertical ascent on the rocky path which is quite muddy from the rain. Last year there were stupendous views, this time we are in a damp, misty bubble, following painted marks on larger rocks. It takes a good hour and a half before the mist clears briefly and we see the summit not far ahead. One last push up the final steep section and we cross the line together in just under 15 hours. I am over two hours faster than 2008 and have rarely been as happy. A cup of special Norseman tomato soup awaits, along with a large blanket as it is pretty cold at this altitude. There are no views this year and soon it is time to descend using the funicular railway inside the mountain (a capacity of 40 people per hour is what most limits the number of entrants), before cheering on the white T-shirt finishers as it grows dark - with a celebratory beer in my hand of course.

Matt, Dave and Peter at the summit finish

The presentations the next day make me think again about the nature of the race. It is another paradox that you need to be a strong athlete to consider entering, which could give it a somewhat elitist feel, yet all finishers receive the same prize, which makes it a very egalitarian presentation: just a T-shirt for achieving the finish line, whether first or last. Everybody in the finisher photo has achieved the same result, we are all Norsemen and women. Then the race organisers, who did the crew race the previous weekend join us for one final photo as if we are a big family, which in a way we are.

Ultimately, the conclusion I have come to is that the ‘hardest’ tag is something of a side issue. You can't get away from that of course, it is a very tough event but this masks what makes Norseman such a success, so successful that the race was full within minutes of entries opening for the 2009 event. It is simply a great event, very well organised, and with a relaxed yet professional feel about it. It has been well designed, with probably the most famous start and finish in the world of long distance triathlon; scenery and terrain that is hard and sometimes stark, yet captivatingly beautiful and with an aura that is completely unique.

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