Why Norseman and why Norway as the race and destination of choice for your first long course, iron distance triathlon? A glance at the Norseman website is enough to answer the first question. It hints at a race that requires you to forget about fast bike and run splits and instead enjoy stunning scenery, deep fjords, endure brutal climbs and screaming descents and the satisfaction that you are competing in a truly unique event.
Norway has always been a favourite destination of mine, a feeling honed during countless trips during military days and many subsequent trips since. I could hardly think of better country to distract the pain of the body from the mind during the long race ahead.
The Norseman is rather different in that it is a ‘point to point’ race, rather than a circular and this throws up considerable logistical obstacles for both organisers and competitors. A support vehicle and support crew is mandatory for all competitors and reliance upon them from the competitor is immense. My support crew was in the form of Simon, a friend from Marine days who has since relocated to Norway and who was kindly putting the Harvey clan up for two weeks
The adventure started with a ferry trip from Newcastle with the wife, two children and car loaded to tipping point, including 2 bikes to counter any mechanical nightmares (St Ives). We then had a couple of restful days before Simon and I headed to the start point at Eidfjord for the race briefing the day before. The briefing is held in the local sports centre, which also doubles as an indoor campsite for many of the field (us included), and opens with a girl in traditional costume playing traditional Norwegian songs on fiddle, which sets the scene beautifully. An in depth safety brief is also charged with the news that the swim start has been moved due to low water temperatures and will mean an additional 20km added to the bike course! Following the brief, Simon and I set up camp in a ‘quiet’ corner of the hall and set about preparing all the gear and sorting out our race plan and feeding strategy. We then consumed huge amounts of pasta and mingled with other competitors as we strolled around the beautiful town of Eidfjord. It appeared that many of the field were going to opt for neoprene socks for the swim but I was finally dissuaded by a Norwegian chap who was doing his 5th Norseman (all of them) who hinted at their potential anchor like effect. All those familiar with my swimming technique will agree that I could well do without an anchor like effect.
Tried to get some sleep from 9pm and finally succeeded about 11.30pm, only to be woken by the alarm at 2am, this was going to be a long day. A hearty breakfast of porridge, croissants and tea was followed by the final equipment check before we made our way to the dock for the ferry departure. A farewell to Simon who had to drive and set up at T1, and it was on board for 3.15am for ‘marking up’ and a gentle chug out to the middle of the fjord. Swim start was scheduled for 4.45am and involves leaping off the car ramp at the front of the ferry before lining up behind the canoeists to wait for the ship’s horn to signal the start. A low level ‘chicken door’ option is available for those who want it but not sure if it was used on this occasion. Treading water, waiting for the start, knowing there is 400m of water below you is a surreal feeling when you are surrounded by towering mountains and the first hint of sunrise. The horn sounded and the usual mayhem ensued until the field strung out naturally (in front of me). Due to cold water it had been decided that we had to exit the water approximately midway for a welfare check, run around a large bonfire and then re enter for the 2nd half. This was ideal in that sighting for the first half was particularly easy due to the size of the fire. I can honestly say that I enjoyed the swim and I exited in 1hr 17 minutes, well up on my own predicted 1.30. Nonetheless, as usual, there was a distinct lack of bikes in T1 when I arrived and I was lying 168th out of 193 starters. Six minutes in T1 with time for a cup of coffee and carb drink and I was all set for 200km of bike. The bike section involves 5 large mountain climbs, all taking the competitor to over 1000m above sea level, so a good pacing and feeding strategy was key to leaving the legs in good shape for the run. The first climb up to Dyranut starts after the first (additional) 20k and is just a real slow grinder. However, the legs were feeling good and I was slowly starting to pull up places. Each climb was generally followed by adrenaline-fuelled descents and I was periodically being met by Simon, offering a tempting array of fine foods (flat coke, carb drinks, gels, bananas, nutra grain and wine gums) and the occasional ibuprofen to counter a nagging back pain. The final climb of the bike was the killer for most, Imingfell, where it was going to be easy to ruin the run legs. It was at this point that the weather had really started to deteriorate with thick fog and increasingly strong head winds making progress extremely slow. My bike speedo was not working and I had forgotten to put my Garmin on and with hindsight I am pleased at both, as the readings may have had a detrimental effect on morale. As it was, I was still pulling up places and feeling good, albeit a bit sick of gels and carb drink! The final 25km of the bike was a screamer with constant high speeds and good tarmac and I rolled into T2 at Austbygdde with a bike split of 8.21 and in 83rd place.
T2 was a bit swifter and I opted to remain in tri suit, long sleeve run top with MBH vest on show on top and run cap. The first 25km of the run are nice and flat as you follow a large lake and my pace was good, food was still staying down and a few more places came my way. As you follow the lake, the finish Gaustatoppen looms into view and makes quite a firm impression as you realise you are going to ascend it. At 25km the run enters the town of Rjukan and the road turns onto the charmingly named ‘Zombie Hill’. As I entered the base of the mountain I passed 3 competitors all walking and within 200m I realised why. At this stage, generally only the top handful of athletes can muster a run and try as I might it just seemed fruitless to try and not actually a great deal slower when walking. It was therefore just a case of head down, one foot in front of the other. I had covered the first 25km in a fairly respectable 2 hours and therefore had over 4 hours to get to the 32km black t shirt cut off, it was now time to try and start enjoying the rest of the day. Simon, my support was still appearing on a regular basis, but it was getting increasingly difficult to take sustenance on board even though I knew it was important. Tiredness was now definitely starting to catch up but the end was in sight and this was a good opportunity to pass a few words with fellow competitors and Simon’s words of encouragement were invaluable. I reached the 32km mark with about 3hours to spare but along with all others was informed that the mountain top finish was not going to happen for anyone due to severe weather at the summit. Instead, we were directed to a point a further 3km up the road at about 1200m before turning round, back down the road and following an undulating route back to the revised finish at the Gaustablikk Hotel. I finally crossed the line in 14 hours 29 minutes and 54 seconds, in 57th place overall, with a huge grin plastered over my face. The winning time was 11 hours and 25 minutes and the top three finishers were all within 5 minutes of each other.
The end of such an event is quite an overwhelming experience as you realise that the months of hard work and preparation and the sacrifices made by long suffering wives and children has finally been made worthwhile. Simon and I were scheduled to stay at the Gaustablikk Hotel post race and were duly expecting to attend the post race buffet and drinks session in the hotel. This plan unfortunately went pear shaped after a shower where I decided that a quick rest before dressing was in order. I duly woke up about 14 hours later, just in time for the t shirt presentation the following morning. This again, is a pleasant, low-key affair where all the names of successful black and white t-shirt finishers are announced as they then step forward for the final group photograph before departing their separate ways.
To summarize, I can honestly conclude that this race is one of the hardest but most satisfying experiences of my life. It carries the tag of being one of the hardest iron distance races in the world, which is something that will always be subject to debate. It does however, offer something a little different, and has an almost underground, small race feel to it where each competitor is made to feel equally as significant as the quickest and most talented athletes. As time goes on I am sure the race will receive greater exposure but hopefully, due to the nature of the course, the logistical problems for all and the undoubted integrity of the organisers it will always remain true to it’s roots.
I would strongly advise anyone looking for something a little bit different to the razzmatazz of m-dot to give this event some serious consideration. You won’t regret it!