Norseman 2015

Norseman 2015

Norseman

Norseman is one of those races you hear about as a triathlete but rarely give much thought to. Icy fjords, breathtaking views, a legendary tough course which ends the marathon on top of a mountain, and lottery entry (probably no chance of ever getting in). A race for the clinically insane. So naturally, a lot of endurance athletes dream about it. Here’s the 2014 race video “Crying in the Rain”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zN7sgnUs6r0
Here are some “fun facts”:
  • It’s an “Irondistance” race, but not run by the Ironman corporation
  • No normal aid stations; each athlete is followed by their own support crew via car
  • 310 slots, selected through lottery (roughly 100 for non-Norwegian men)
  • 15 “elite” (mostly pro) participants selected by jury
  • No finisher medals (or even prize money for winners)
  • Black t-shirt: Only the first 160 athletes to the 32.5km mark of run finish on top of the mountain
  • White t-shirt: 161+ athletes complete the final 10km on a “flat” section.
The goal is to finish with a Black t-shirt.

Course

Point-to-Point:
  • Start in Eidfjord
  • Finish on Mt. Gaustatoppen
  • Pray there’s no headwind
  • Swim: 2.4mi (3.8km)
  • Jump off a ferry into a fjord (how cool is that?)
  • Water temperature typically 55-65deg (not bad in a wetsuit)
  • Bike: 112mi (180km)
  • ~11k ft of climbing (2-3x a “normal” Ironman course)
  • First 25mi climbs over 4,000ft
  • Run: 26.2mi (42.2km) run
  • First 16mi is “flat”
  • Next 6mi is “Zombie Hill”, a road of switchbacks climbing 3,000ft (avg 10% grade)
  • Final 3mi is the Gaustatoppen, a rocky trail climbing another 2,000ft (you don’t really “run” this part)
Norseman Profile
Norseman Profile

2015 Season

The original plan for this season was Ironman Lake Tahoe and qualifying for the 2016 Ironman World Championships.
I remember chatting with a few teammates about Norseman during a ride and deciding to give the lottery a go (thinking I’d never get in). In November, I got in. Shit, what now?

Things actually went to hell pretty quickly. Through the winter, I had major issues with muscle fatigue and the lack of that “killer instinct”. I felt like I had just finished a tough workout when I hopped on the bike for warmup. I didn’t get the adrenaline rush at the end of workouts. In short, after 2.5 years without more than 3 days in a row off, my body was telling me it was time for a break. I backed off then eased back into it, finally making some progress in the spring and summer. In hindsight, Norseman was a great race for this season; I was training for a completely different type of race (a lot of hills). Not having to compare myself with previous seasons made it possible to keep pushing mentally. I wouldn’t have made it through the year without the support, motivation, and inspiration of incredible Vo2 Multisport teammates and coach Ben.

Fitness was finally starting to look good when a major setback hit 8 weeks from race day: A 4hr ride and run up Mt. Si (3k ft of climbing over 3.5mi) was great until I was jogging down Si on tired legs. Ankle rolled. I took some time off of running but had multiple nagging foot/ankle issues until race day.

Pre-race

I flew into Oslo a week early where I met my parents (part of my support crew). We drove the course in reverse over 2 days (it poured rain during the drive of the bike course… which would not be fun on race day. But that’s Norseman for you).

It was really tough to find pre-race accommodations (side-note to future participants: hotels before/after the race block off rooms, so don’t look online. Just email the hotels asking for a room as soon as you get a slot). We stumbled onto the FlatEarth hostel in Øvre Eidfjord about 4mi away from the start. (side-note: the FlatEarth people were awesome; if you’re ever in the area, look them up for a great kayaking/rafting/hiking adventure).
The big news was the cold water. Remember the typically 55-65deg water? This year it was 50-52°F (10°C). Even in a wetsuit, that’s cold (like, your face/hands/feet go numb, but still a painful throbbing numb).

They announced the day before the race that the swim would be shortened to 1.2mi (half distance). Very disappointing for me, but at least it wasn’t cancelled.
I should also note that my “race beard” stayed on for this race. The extra drag was worth it on the bike when at 32°F, my face was nice and warm. Sorry Mom.
The one problem pre-race was the food. Delicious and everything, but Norway (and Europe in general), have you heard of Fiber? Seriously. (side-note: triathletes are generally not shy talking about bodily functions. I hope you’re not offended)

The support crew is a critical part of the race. They need to be one step ahead of you the whole way, anticipate your needs, then climb a mountain with you. It’s as hard as racing. I was really thankful to have family & friends coming out for the race; joining my parents in the support crew would be Max/Isaac (friends from college) and Ann/John (Sister/Fiancé). Max arrived in Eidfjord the day before the race and the final 3 were set for pickup in Geilo (halfway through the bike).
Panic the night before the race: our car had 5 seats and 6 support crew members. In Norway it is illegal to have more than the number of seatbelts. Race morning we got a message to Isaac to see if he could get a ride to the finish. Don’t worry though, the drama doesn’t end here.

Race Morning

Alarm goes off at 2:02am (2 years later, I still have this alarm set on my phone. Disabled of course), the only time it’s ever really dark in Norway at this time of year (also, that’s 5pm Seattle time). Coffee, water, toast, almond butter. Yum. Stomach still unfortunately a bit unhappy from the lack of fiber on this continent.
Max and I set up transition and it was the first race ever I didn’t need to wait in a line for a bathroom (it was inside the race hotel and even had wifi). I boarded the ferry at 4am (the sun is just coming up) and we were off!

The top deck of the ferry was abuzz with nervous athletes, but everyone was friendly, helping each other get on wetsuits, loaning body glide, etc. (side-note: one guy had never heard of body glide… ouch?!) To help athletes acclimate to the cold water, they had a fire hose to spray athletes with on the ferry deck. At 4:50am, I went for my hose-down then plunged into the icy fjord. It actually wasn’t that bad but there was a shock at first (the Roka is an incredibly warm wetsuit; my core never got cold). A few minutes of “warm up” “try to not freeze to death” and I was ready to go!

Water temperature was officially 51°F (10.5°C) the day before the race, but there were warm and cold patches in the water (hard to say where they measured). I’d guess it varied between 50° and 52°.

Swim: 26:43 (1st)

The cannon went off and we started in the typical “oh, a 10+ hour race? Let’s start in a dead sprint” triathlon fashion. It actually calmed down pretty quickly and after a few minutes I settled into the lead. Which was bad, because I had no idea where I was going.
The course on paper is a simple “L”. There’s one buoy with a light; swim to it, turn left, and swim into the finish.
In practice, you can’t see a buoy from a mile away and there are a bunch of lights on shore. So I found a light and swam to it. Turns out it was the wrong light (the target was actually a bonfire. I’m quite embarrassed that somehow I missed that fact in the briefing. I was paying attention, honest!); I swam way too far from shore and had to cut back in. Thank you kayaker for finally yelling at me and sorry to any athletes who followed. Maybe I was subconsciously trying to get my 2.4mi in. 🙂

Finally, with numb feet, I stumbled out of the water (the “beach” was actually really slippery stones). The crew was right there to haul me out and I started the awkward numb foot jog to T1. It felt like a mile, but was probably only 200-300 yards. The swim clock officially finished at the end of this run.
(Side note on booties: they were allowed but I was too stubborn to get a pair. I regret that)
First out of the swim, complete with shout out in the Slowtwitch race coverage

T1: 3:45 (21st)

In hindsight, Max and I should have practiced T1 a bit more. Max was trying to give things to me but I was not moving quickly. I was on the wrong side of my bike.
My brain (in addition to hands, face, and feet) was also pretty numb. To complicate things more, some guy was trying to interview me. I’m quoted in the race video saying “It wasn’t bad in the beginning”. I lied (maybe in a futile attempt to convince myself it wasn’t so bad).

Bike: 6:23:16 (33rd)  198W NP / 145bpm (Strava)

Time to climb! And get passed by all the pros. I was actually feeling good and had to keep backing off to stick to the race plan.
The first climb is really incredible, as we get to use a bike path that winds along the mountainside with stunning views (and we’re going slow enough you can sneak a few peaks at the scenery). Unfortunately, part of the bike path was taken out by a rock slide, so we were stuck in a tunnel for 2km.
I’ve gotten good at peeing on the bike while climbing. I now call it “celebrating your hydration” and celebrate I did. As a bonus, my right shoe got nice and warm and I finally got some feeling into my toes again.

It was 32deg (but sunny!) at the top of the first climb. I stayed warm climbing but got chilled on the flat/descent and finally put on my warm jersey (Castelli Gabba, it was perfect. This is a sponsorship-less plug, the jersey is just amazing) 30 minutes too late.
Flying down the first descent at 40mi/hr, I had to slam the brakes. Some sheep just chilling in the middle of the road. I yelled some profanities at them but didn’t know whether I should be angry or laugh.

The bike course (not me pictured)
The bike course (not me pictured)

I was quite happy to get to the climbs after Geilo because I really needed to celebrate my hydration again. When I saw my support car on the climb, I was surprised to see just the original 3 people; maybe the other 3 caught rides to the finish? More on that later.

For nearly the entire bike, I felt good and was really enjoying the day. On the final climb, I started to get a little fatigued and it was a rough 30 minutes. The top was the only place it rained (my support crew knew I was in good spirits when I joked “thank goodness it’s raining, it wouldn’t be Norseman without any rain”). At the top, it was an easy descent down to the finish, right? Actually, I’ve heard it called “the road to hell”; steep, terrible road conditions (I was almost thrown off my bike a few times which I think caused a lot of upper body pain Sunday), and unmarked hairpin turns. While the first part of the descent was rough, the bottom was recently paved and I was able to cruise into T2 at 30mph.

Nutrition started with a sandwich, then 2 clif bars, then a lot of GU (3/hr). Also 1-2 salt pills and 20-30oz of water per hour.

Support Car

Meanwhile, things were not going as well in the support car. Shortly after the first climb, a marshal deemed some of the driving as a bit overzealous… I’m all for safety around cyclists, but from the description of the incident from those in the car, I saw a lot sketchier driving from other support cars out there (like one that passed me, decided to pull off the road immediately, then was still sticking out into the road slowly pulling into the space when I passed again).
At any rate, I ended up with a 5 minute “penalty” (break) in T2.

Things went downhill from there; I imagine the timing much like an episode of Seinfeld. The car arrived in Geilo just ahead of schedule and no one could find Isaac, Ann, or John. They were missed by minutes. Apparently leaving 3 people stranded in the middle of a foreign country can cause a bit of tension.
Thankfully, I knew none of this and just kept on biking.
Isaac ended up as the photographer for an Australian guy. Unfortunately Ann/John weren’t so lucky and made a sign hitchhiking to a place that didn’t actually exist (it was the name of a turnoff to the Imingfjell plateau, just not well known). They did end up getting to the Imingfjell plateau and were able to join for the post-race celebrations.

T2: 7:04* (133rd)

I learned about my 5 minute penalty shortly after dismounting my bike. I was pretty calm about it (let’s be honest, I was just happy to be off of my ass after 6.5hrs in that saddle). First penalty box experience (I’m really getting the most out of this race)! There was nothing I could do about it, but I wanted to use the time productively. Though I wasn’t allowed to eat, I was allowed to drink, get my helmet off, shake off the legs, and let my HR go down.
In hindsight, I also should have worked my toes. Remember how peeing down my right left got feeling back into those toes? Well it works the opposite way when the wet shoe gets cold again. Yeah, gross, I know.
The volunteer gave me a countdown and I raced to my transition zone to thunderous applause (I’m really not kidding, the volunteers and other support crews all clapped when I got out…).

I exited T2 at 27th. It was then that top 20 became the goal.

Run: 4:26:59 (12th) 148bpm (Strava)

Coach Ben instructed that I was, under no circumstances, to run faster than an 8:00 pace the first mile. So naturally, I left T2 in a dead sprint. A third of a mile in, I was running 7:10 pace. I backed way off but still finished the mile in 7:48. Sorry coach.
I was quickly passed by 2 athletes (this was not going as planned), though one guy (#200, Gunnar) made a quick trip into the woods and came back out to run alongside me. We had a good chat running and I set pace for a while. Around 4mi in, he saw his dad along the course and took the lead (which was good, I needed to pee and thought it would be rude to do so with someone 2ft behind me). He surged ahead (while I emptied my bladder still running 7:40 pace. Is peeing while running a skill I can put on my resume?); I caught him again around the 13mi point. He found me on Strava afterwards.

My stomach wasn’t happy. Around 7mi in, I asked my support crew for toilet paper, just in case. I was downing GU Brew consistently and a GU every 30-60 minutes (whenever the stomach could accept it).
Somewhere around 11mi into the run, you come around a bend and the Gaustatoppen emerges, towering above you in the distance. That’s the downside to a clear day in Norseman: you can see just how far you still have to go.

Gaustatoppen emerges along the run course (not me pictured)
Gaustatoppen emerges along the run course (not me pictured)

My first 13.1mi was strong – 1:40 and split almost perfectly (running to HR, not pace). And then it started to get rough. Between stomach issues and fatigue, I was wearing down. But everything changes at Zombie Hill. I kept thinking “Just get to Zombie Hill” (because logically being in so much pain running on flats, everything will be sooo much better when you have to run straight up a mountain?). At the end of the flat section, I was in 26th.

Zombie Hill is steep, long, and unrelenting; most athletes walk all or part of it. So of course, I was determined to run it. And run it I did. My first 3 mile splits were almost dead even. I was feeling good enough to joke with spectators asking “Hey do you guys know where Zombie Hill is?”.
Unfortunately, around 20mi in, the wheels started to come off. Hip flexors tightened and my spirited run started to fade a bit (I was still passing people though). At the 32.5km (21mi) checkpoint (the cutoff for black/white t-shirt) there was an aid station. The exchange went something like “Do you want anything?” “What do you have, any GU?” “No, cookies and fudge” “Oh God no!”. (Note that it takes a significant amount of pain to make me turn down cookies and fudge)

There were those few moments where a leg pulled through a little slower, trying to get me to walk. Walking would be so easy. So painless. But it wouldn’t get me top 20. So I kept running. On the final stretch of road before the turnoff to the Gaustatoppen, I was in tears (a mix of pain and joy that I was almost there). The only problem? I was in 21st.

The Final Climb

I swapped running flats for trail shoes (very happy I did this, the trail was uneven and slippery) and Max handed me my pack. I said to him “I didn’t come here for 21st place” (technically, I didn’t go to Norway with any place in mind, but I thought it would sound motivational at the time). Max was pulling me towards 20th place, who we could see just under a minute in front; I struggled to hold his pace and would make little grunting noises to let him know I was falling back.

Spectators grew thicker as the run progressed. By the trail, they were everywhere, always chanting “Heia, Heia, Heia”.
Around a mile in, the climb kicks up. A little voice in the back of my head said “now or never” and I surged. It’s a feeling I missed most of the season, that adrenaline rush/killer instinct. It’s not that the pain goes away (there is a lot of pain), it just doesn’t matter as much. Finally, I passed an athlete (unfortunately I had lost Max somewhere, but he could take care of himself) and was in the top 20.
At this point, I looked only directly at my feet. Two reasons:

  1. The trail was nasty and I almost ate it multiple times.
  2. If I looked up and saw how far I still had to climb, I might have a panic attack

With a half mile to go (crossing a snow field), I managed to catch another athlete; elated, I looked up. Big mistake. The finish line was still towering above (with > 500ft of climbing to go). And then I looked back and saw a new face; someone was closing in fast.

I hit the final ascent to the top: a stone staircase. There’s no air. Lungs on fire, hip flexors crippled, I could barely lift my legs. But somehow, I was flying upwards. I would not be caught. “Heia, Heia, Heia”
And then I was at the top.
I smiled, yelled, and then collapsed.

Collapsed
Collapsed

Overall: 11:27:44 (19th, top American)

I felt like I pushed my limits the entire race and I’m happy with the result.
In my climb to the finish, I never saw the guy in 18th place (though he finished less than a minute in front).

It was cold up there. Thank goodness for the beard. And the soup.
It was cold up there. Thank goodness for the beard. And the soup.

Post-Race

Someone handed me soup and I found Max (well, he found me). I was supposed to eat the waffles too, but my stomach would have none of that.
Athletes can take the funicular (train inside the mountain) down, but I had to walk down a bunch of those big steps to get there. It was not a fast descent, Max almost had to carry me.

Back at the hotel, we finally found everyone and made our way to the buffet dinner. My stomach was better and much food was consumed. One of the Norseman crewmen recognized me and actually thanked me for smiling while running Zombie hill. Guess that doesn’t happen a lot (glad he saw me on the first part of it!).
After the race, Max, Isaac, and I took off for a 2 week jaunt around Europe (Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Netherlands, Belgium). It was a fantastic trip but left a little to be desired in the recovery department (we didn’t rest much).

Reflections

  • The race lived up to the legend. Epic course, incredible crew, and extremely friendly people (race affiliated and locals alike).
  • I’m so thankful for the opportunity to participate and experience Norseman. It’s a day I’ll never forget.
  • The only downside was the expense, which is the reason I will not be putting my name in the lottery again for 2016.
  • Not sure what next season will hold. Hopefully something local.
  • If I did it again…
    • I’d preview the descents more thoroughly. We tried, but it was pouring rain.
    • Post-race I’d head north for a recovery cruise to places like Lofoten

Special Thanks

Triathlon is not an individual sport; I could not have even gotten to the start line without the support of a lot of people. Here are a few, though there were many more along the way.

  • Mom & Dad – For helping plan all the logistics, driving, and supporting all the way
  • Max – For keeping the support car sane though the craziness and being my official support person.
  • Isaac, Ann, John – For coming all the way to Norway. Sorry for the car chaos, but glad I got to spend time with you after the race!
  • Coach Ben – For getting me through a tough season to a top 20 Norseman finish
  • Halvard – For all the advice before the race (he did it in 2013 when the funicular broke and they had to walk down. I might have elected to just lay down and die up there)
  • Vo2 teammates – For inspiration during the countless swims, bikes, and runs
  • Norseman Crew – For putting on an incredible race

 


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *