The Norseman Xtreme Triathlon 2017: Paul Burton reports
We also spoke to the fastest British man on the day too, Paul Burton, who has but together his own ‘epic’. Well, an extreme race deserves an epic report! Grab yourself a coffee, settle down, enjoy… and perhaps be inspired too.
Norseman either is, or should be, on everyone’s bucket list. Why? It’s simply sensational; mad and brutal in equal measure. Whilst an Ironman in distance, it’s about as far removed as you can get from Ironman in terms of course and overall race experience.
A write-up of Norseman requires quite a preamble. For those short on time or triathlon afficianados that know all about the race, then you can cut out the first half and go straight to the part about our day. For everyone else, most likely just Mum and Uncle Geoff, here are the details…
You board a ferry at 4am from Eidfjord. It chugs out into the fjord, you jump off the back in the dark into icy cold water and at 5am begin the long journey to Gaustatoppen – the 1900m mountain top 226km away. You swim back to Eidfjord (mostly in the dark as the sunrises at 5:30am), then ride 180k southeast to another fjord, Tinnsja, via c.3,500m of climbing and crossing the Hardangervidda plateau. The climbing is done in five chunks. It all starts straight out of T1 with a monster 1200m climb coming out of Eidfjord, up through a stunning waterfall and white water rapid lined ravine. This is split into two parts – 12k at 7% (the same gradient as Mallorca’s signature 10km Sa Calobra for reference), including winding round a narrow old road in the side of the ravine, and through tunnels, then a short break before another 10k at 4% up to the plateau at 37k. There is then a respite, of sorts, as the plateau is a long, gradual descent to the 90k halfway mark at Geilo. I say ‘of sorts’ because it is a desolate, exposed moonscape and is guaranteed ‘interesting’ weather. If you’ve seen the film Heroes of Telemark or series The Saboteurs, this is where Norwegian special forces survived a winter during World War 2 when planning attacks on the Vemork power station in Rjukan, which was central to the Nazi’s atomic bomb plans. The second half of the bike is a series of four climbs and descents without a flat square inch. The first three are 3-4k long each, followed by the final nail in the coffin of a 7k climb at 7% up to Imingfjell. At least the final 30k is all downhill, winding down through another valley to T2 at a little skiing village called Austbygde.
THAT Run Course…
Despite the crazy bike course, it’s the run that Norseman is legendary for. The first 25k is flat around the fjord and along the valley towards Rjukan. At 20k you make a gradual left turn and the finish line comes into view. Gaustatoppen – the peak of Mount Gausta. The numbers tell the story well – a total of 1700m climbing over 17k. It starts with 10k at 10% gradient up ‘Zombie Hill’, a switchback tarmac road (steeper than Alpe d’Huez, FYI). Half way along Zombie Hill is the cutoff point where the first 160 athletes are allowed up to the top of the mountain for the Black T-shirt finish, and the final 90 head down to the White T-shirt finish at the Gaustablikk ski resort. There’s a small relief for about 2k at the end of Zombie Hill where it flattens out a bit before the final effort – through the gate and 5k off road on trail, rock and boulders at an average of 15% gradient to the radio mast at the top – where it’s pot luck whether you’ll have a clear view of Norway or be in the middle of a rain cloud!
Finally on the course, despite this being the height of summer, you’re guaranteed ‘weather’ of some sort. Packing for this race was simple. Find your winter cycling kit drawer and empty it ALL into your luggage.
So that’s the course. It’s worth a moment on the overall race experience. It’s organised by volunteers from the local triathlon club. As such it has that wonderful small, local race feel to it that I love at races such as Thames Turbo and the Swashbuckler in New Forest. The mantra for the race is ‘True, Basic and Unique’ and that covers it perfectly. There’s a real passion and honesty about everything related to this race. The course plays a major part of that, but even more so is the requirement for every athlete to have a support crew following them along the course by car and then foot. The Race Manual describes the provision of aid on the course beautifully: “Athletes will get a cup of hot soup at the finish line”. That’s it – good luck out there! Your crew provide kit changes, nutrition, laughs and shoulders to cry on. You will need them all. Whilst you are the one pushing the pedals, this is a monster team effort from 2am to 10pm and whilst there is a small chance you’ll end up never speaking to each other ever again, in all likelihood you will share tear-soaked hugs at the mountain top with lifelong memories to cherish. My crew of my girlfriend, Greta, great friend/coach James and his girlfriend Clio were amazing all day long and I simply could not have done it without them.
I’m no Ironman-brand basher by any means. Ironman has a great product – well organised, fantastic races in good locations for 2,500+ people in some cases, and importantly for me, very strong competition at the sharp end – but after a few years chasing Kona slots and fast times, where success or failure can come down to minutes or even seconds, Norseman was just the challenge I was looking for to spark up the imagination, get scared and remind myself exactly why I do this sport. I got lucky in the application process – whilst there were almost 4,000 applicants in the lottery for one of the 250 general entries, there’s also 20 slots (15 men and 5 women) given on merit for anyone with Ironman times under 9:15. I managed to sneak in as the 14th fastest male applicant and late in 2016 got the ‘see you in Eidfjord’ email.
I deliberately spent no time whatsoever researching other athletes or what the various time splits should be – other than knowing that it would likely take maybe two to three hours more than a ‘normal’ Ironman. I did the minimum required to understand the course profile so we could prepare for it, and headed out to Norway with the simple goals being to enjoy it, push myself and not be shit. I had no idea if not being shit would mean 10th or 50th – although with 160 Black T-shirts, getting one of those was the minimum even if it went very badly.
Finally – the race (sorry if you’re now on your second cuppa).
The ferry to the start was eerily calm. I was feeling nerves that I last felt before my first Kona in 2015 and my first Ironman in 2010. The fear of the unknown. 10 minutes before the start we all gathered down in the car bay, wetsuited up, acclimatised to the cold water under a cold hosepipe and waited for the back of the ferry to creak open. Those moments are, for me, electric. Finally it opens – no backing out now – and in you jump. Surprisingly the water was significantly warmer than the icy 12 degree water by the finish – maybe 15 or 16 degrees – and the swim was drama free. I got into a nice group of four somewhere in the top-20 and just enjoyed the view of the mountains over our right shoulders as the sky got lighter. After about 2k you spot a bonfire on the far side of the fjord which is the sighting line for the left-hand turn at about 3k. Around the buoy I tied up a bit and lost the group I was in and was then passed by seven or eight others, but with a long day ahead I didn’t bother trying to turn myself inside out to hold feet.
I came out of the water 30th overall in 1.01. I’m not sure what everyone else was doing in T1 as I managed to make up for this average swim to exit in 14th. Maybe they saw the weather forecast better than me and were putting on all their winter kit – we just put on a short-sleeved Gabba jacket, mandatory reflective vest and socks and got on our way.
With the first two hours being uphill, many fast guys don’t need much in the way of clothing to keep warm, but put more on if needed at the top at 37k. Thank God I did put the Gabba on, however, as the bike started with a light drizzle that just got heavier and heavier. The climb was both steep and stunning, despite the rain. I didn’t like getting passed by three or four guys early on, but an eye to my power meter told me to let them go as 250 watts was plenty and I knew I had to focus on getting that average down before the hills of the second half. The rain was teaming down at the top and I was soaked, so we sadly performed aerodynamic suicide by putting my heaviest winter coat on to attempt to stay warm on the gradual descent as the combination of low power and high speed can freeze the skinny ones amongst us. Due to the wet, the sail-like jacket and my desire to get my average power back down to normal Ironman levels, the descent wasn’t as fast as hoped, but we finally got dry roads towards the bottom and I’d kept it rubber-side down. Thankfully it was wet but not windy – at a fully exposed 1200m that plateau would be horrible in side and head winds. At halfway at Geilo I’d been riding for 3hr10, was lying in 17th and the reflective vest and big jacket were traded for a second (dry!) Gabba jacket – it was time for the hills.
The three warm up hills of 3-4k long were dispatched, along with occasional rainstorms, between 12 and 20 minutes each, all at a comfortable feeling 230-240 watts and supplemented by the occasional rave when my support in their disco-car went past. The final 7k climb to Imingfjell after five hours of riding was another matter however, and the suffering started in earnest. I managed to hang on to 240 watts to get the climb over and done with in 33 minutes, but it felt like a lot more, the emergency Gu Espresso Love gels were being popped like wine gums, and I lost three places. As an example of the spirit of Norseman, at one point the support crew of an athlete close behind me oiled my noisy dry chain for me while I was still riding the climb. That certainly wouldn’t happen at any other race! Thankfully the sketchy potholed and switchbacked start to the descent was dry before getting utterly soaked for good measure on the long, fast run into T2 – at least I used that free speed to finally get my ride normalised power under what I’d normally ride an Ironman at. Thankfully my support had remembered to get down there before me and my dry trainers were waiting after a long and wet 6hr17 bike. I started the run in 20th place – just a standard marathon to go, right?!
After big improvements in my running in 2016, this year my running has been punctuated by some niggles and inconsistency so I’ve not been running as well. So rather than think about the whole run, I just focused on getting to the bottom of the mountain at 25km. Whatever happened after that would be dealt with at the time! I wasn’t expecting to be running any faster than 5:00/km pace, but I surprisingly felt great and had a nice rhythm that was throwing 4:45s at me. Rather than reign it in, I went with it and hoped to reach my intermediate finish line at the foot of the mountain a little earlier. It was great to see the crew every 10 minutes or so for some more coke and water – I just wasn’t fancying any more gels at that stage – and when they weren’t there I was just soaking up (literally) the stunning mountain views around the fjord. With the fjord rounded by 16k we then headed West through the valley and I was still running well – even enjoying the drenching we got from torrential rain storm number 57 of the day, and had even made up a couple of places. Whilst not eating enough gels would have contributed, at the exact moment the mountain came into view at 20k a major wobble started. It really was rather intimidating. The final flat 5k were a bit rocky and my calorie-laden crew came into their own to help save things. In hindsight, with over nine hours on the clock I’d normally be finishing an Ironman at this stage, not preparing for the next three hours, so I won’t beat myself up about it!
The foot of the mountain was reached after 2:08 of running. Finally I’d get some welcome company, as James was ready to join me for the long ascent. When you turn into Zombie Hill the scale of the task ahead really hits home – the road was simply very long and very steep. I wanted to alternate three minutes running with one minute walking but in truth the running was painfully slow, most around us were walking and it just wasn’t sustainable. So that was tossed out the window after 10 minutes in favour of walking purposely and throwing in intermittent running to the count of 100 steps, or cramping adductors – whichever came first. Seeing that it wasn’t going to be a smashfest to the top, Greta stuck her running kit on and joined in the fun earlier than planned.
Somewhere in the first 5km of Zombie the women’s leader, Anne Nevin came hurtling past, soon followed by a fast walking second place Meredith Hill – who passed us but never really left our sight and was a great rabbit to chase. Anne aside, we seemed to be making ground as well as anyone around us and we started to have a riot – chatting, singing, joking, counting – and had made peace that a sustainable 8-9 minute kms was the order of the day for the next two hours. It was even, somehow, dry and we could see the mountain top throughout, inching closer into view. The black t-shirt cut off at 32km was met with high-fives and the famous Viking Thunder Clap from the amazing Team BOB. We even broke into some running on the flatter bit from 35 to 37km before meeting Clio and a crowd with our mandatory bags (warm clothes, money, torch etc) at the 37km gate. Two of the best decisions of the day were to change into trail shoes, and to have a bag of jelly babies close to hand. Whilst Zombie Hill was horrible, I loved every step of the final 5km hike. It’s pure insanity to finish a race of any length up something like that – trail, boulders, mud – you name it, at an average gradient of 15% and a final kilometre at nearly 20%. At times the path was obvious, and at others you just had to look through an expanse of grey rocks and spot the painted red ‘T’s or Norway flags. Maybe it was all the walking that preceded it, maybe it was the crew drip feeding me jelly babies or maybe it was just the relief of it nearly being over, but as the finish line got nearer I was getting stronger and for the first time all day I was ‘racing’ as another competitor (who had out-run his support crew) tagged on to us with 2km to go. My second wind saw him off and eventually the steps to the finish platform to Gaustatoppen came into view – including a 15 minute final kilometre, and I was going well!
Never has a finish line been so humble yet so glorious – the clouds had cleared and we could see all the way down the valley from where we’d come. Simply stunning. We’d done it – 12 hours 17 minutes since jumping off the ferry, 20th overall and 18th man. The run took 4:54, including 2:46 to walk/crawl/hike up the 17km mountain (just sneaking that section under 10:00 km pace!). One of the young Vikings, Lars Christian Vold, somehow managed to break 10 hours in winning the race. That’s simply a world class performance, and it’s no surprise that the half dozen or so Norwegian pros that prepare specifically for the demands of this race (and they are very specific!!) humble the rest of us.
We pushed ourselves. We REALLY enjoyed it. We came 20th and we got a Black T-shirt. Mission 100% accomplished.
Reflecting on the race there are two things that really strike me. Firstly the raw, pure beauty of Norway and the course – in particular the incredible ravine the first two hours of the bike winding up from Eidfjord to the Hardangervidda plateau, and the final hike up to and views from Gaustatoppen. Heart stopping stuff. Secondly racing with a support crew. It demands determination, honesty, humour and patience from all but it turns a selfish, individual sport into a true team endeavour. Our team was simply awesome.
It was truly a privilege to be one of the lucky 250 athletes. For anyone who is into long distance triathlon don’t think about it, just apply and if you get lucky you will not regret a moment of it.
It will be a guaranteed personal worst time – by some distance – but a personal best experience – by some distance.