What is Norseman
Isklar Norseman is the original extreme triathlon in Norway, famous for its brutal weather, inconceivable elevation gain, and the fact that competitors need to bring their own support crew to provide nutrition and assistance throughout the race (no aid stations). It’s an iron distance race: 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike and 26.2 mile run, but what makes it more insane is the fact that athletes ascend over 17,200 feet over the course with the final part, for the first 160 athletes to make the cutoff, a rugged and grueling scramble up a “trail” to Mount Gaustatoppen on already aching, fatigued legs.
It is hard. Very hard.
The race begins with athletes jumping four meters off of a car ferry at 5 AM into the dark, cold, glacier fed waters of the Hardangerford in Eidfjord Norway. After the swim, shivering athletes mount their bikes and are immediately welcomed with a beautiful but difficult bike course, with a quick climb to the top of the largest mountain plateau in Northern Europe, Hardangervidda. Once at the top, athletes are subjected to freezing rain and hail broken with intermittent periods of sunshine and rainbows. There is no way to be comfortable throughout the whole race, though the possibility of finishing at the top of Gaustatoppen pushes everyone onward.
Because the course is so difficult, especially the final 4.7 kilometers to the top of Gaustatoppen, only the first 160 athletes who reach the base at the 37.5 kilometer mark are allowed to enter the trail at Stavsro and only after a medical check to ensure they are probably capable of making the final push to the top. The others are forced to turn around and finish at the 32.5K check point near the Gaustablikk hotel. Those who finish at the top of the mountain are awarded with the coveted black t-shirt, with other finishers earning the white t-shirt.
For context on how ridiculous the race is, here is a video:
Getting a Slot
One of the most difficult tasks for anyone wishing to do Norseman is securing a slot. To obtain one, an athlete must apply to the annual lottery. Because of its iconic status, this past year (2018) nearly five thousand people applied for fewer than 250 general entry slots. With a portion of these reserved for Norwegians and women, it is a massive privilege and incredibly lucky for an American male to win a slot. Because of this, I intended to embrace the opportunity and wring every drop of experience from the adventure.
The lead up to the race
For me, the goal at Norseman was to enjoy the course to the best of my ability, get to the top of Gaustatoppen and earn the black t-shirt. Although in other triathlons my overarching intent is to compete, I had no expectations going into Norseman except to perform honorably and enjoy the day with my support crew. There were no place or time goals. My training cycle leading up to Norseman was not typical (or advisable) for an extreme iron distance triathlon. True to the Working Triathlete name, my recent training was very low-volume with an emphasis on efficiency and intensity. I did a series of sprint triathlons in the three months leading up to Norseman, with training peaking at 9-10 hours per week. This included a lot of track workouts (a steady diet of 800 repeats and tempo runs) and high intensity cycling sessions (sweetspot, FTP work, etc.). I wanted a break from the higher volume, singular focus of Ironman prep and to enjoy racing a bit more frequently. As such, due to a short-course focused training cycle, I had no plans of trying to compete at the front of the field in Norway. The last thing I wanted was to travel thousands of miles with my support crew and DNF due to an overly ambitious pace. I knew I would be able to perform, but I wanted to protect the finish and black t-shirt and not bonk, so I elected to approach the race with a conservative, stress-free perspective. This approach, at least for Norseman, was the best thing I could’ve done as the day proceeded wonderfully and there was no point at which I questioned whether I would finish. Additionally, due to the possibility that things can go awry with the on-course support (which they did, making for a great story upon which I’ll elaborate later), having the ability to go with the flow in the face of logistical adversity and not obsess about time was beneficial.
Arriving in Norway
I arrived with my support crew (wife and father in law) in Oslo the Sunday six days before the race. We spent a few days in Oslo enjoying local delicacies: reindeer, whale, pickled fish, venison, etc. and generally playing tourist. I tried to keep the front-end of the trip mostly about experiencing Norway rather than focusing obsessively on triathlon, but with race-day approaching and the magnitude of the task at hand becoming evident (I had little conception of how hilly and brutal the course was before seeing the terrain), it was difficult to divert attention from Norseman.
Heading to Eidfjord and realizing how naïve I was
On Wednesday we left Oslo and drove west to Eidfjord, making a small detour to check out the finish at Mt. Gaustatoppen. This turned out to be a great decision since I vastly underestimated the difficulty of the last 10 miles of the marathon and the entirety of the bike course.
It is impossible to adequately describe how absurd the final ten miles of the marathon are. After passing T2, we began driving towards Gaustatoppen, peering out of the windshield intently trying to catch our first glimpse of the mountain athletes climb at the end of the race. As someone who grew up in Pennsylvania among the Appalachian Mountains, I thought I understood hills and climbing. But when we came around a corner and the iconic tower at the top of Gaustatoppen came into view, my jaw dropped. At that moment I was genuinely terrified and questioned the feasibility of anyone completing the race. Certainly the entire concept of Norsemen is a joke, I thought. Nobody actually does the race. It’s smoke and mirrors—a deceiving ploy by Norway to get naïve people who think they are hardcore athletes to visit the country. The race reports and videos of past races are certainly propaganda. Right?
As we got closer and the ludicrous difficulty of the final miles became clear, I thought back to how horrible I felt at the end of Ironman Louisville a few months prior. At that finish, I was shaking and borderline incapable of walking back to our hotel. The pain all over my body was intolerable and the discomfort lasted until I fell asleep that night. For context (not to backdoor brag) I went 9:18 at Louisville, which is a good time for an age grouper. I thought of myself as a solid, competetive triathlete; however, in Norway, when we started driving up zombie hill at mile 16 of the marathon and I looked upon the switchbacks that incline at a 10% grade for 10 kilometers (after which point you are only at the BASE of Mt. Gaustatoppen), any ego I had deflated. This race is next-level difficult. If you don’t take it seriously, it will chew you up and spit you off a cliff.
If you are from the eastern US, you may have visited Mt. Mitchell in North Carolina which is the tallest mountain east of the Mississippi. Mt. Gaustatoppen is about as tall, but to ascend it, you start at essentially sea level and climb at a steeper angle. The top part of the mountain is desolate and exposed and the roads/trails leading to the top are nearly vertical at times. And you have to climb it towards the end of the hardest iron distance race in the world. TO BE CLEAR, whatever you are picturing in your mind right now is wrong. However difficult you assume the bike course and however grueling you envision the final ten miles of the marathon to be is a vast underestimation. I promise.
So alas, after checking out Gaustatoppen we continued to Eidfjord by way of the bike course. And my assessment of it was pretty much the same as that of Gaustatoppen. I did not know that climbs like that existed. Driving the hills was difficult in the car, let alone on a bike.
And all this is not even considering that you have to swim 2.4 miles in a freezing cold fjord first.
Nevertheless, just like as with all uniquely wired triathletes, as we hurled down the hills on our drive to Eidfjord, my astonishment morphed into excitement. Like the others who applied to do Norseman, I relished in the challenge. It was exactly the kind of race I and many others crave: one that gets you excited and a little bit nervous.
Eidfjord and the lead-up
When we entered Eidfjord I was taken aback by the sheer beauty of Hardangerford. Words do not do justice to the beauty of the water and monstrous mountains surrounding the town. You just have to see them in person. When we arrived at race registration and the swim exit, I immediately hopped out of the car and pulled on my wetsuit. Most of my anxiety leading up to the race (before driving the brutal bike/run courses) focused on the swim and dealing with the cold, so I wanted to know what to expect and to acclimate to the freezing water. I walked to the end of the docks, put my neoprene hoodie on and hopped in. The 55 degree water immediately seeped into my wetsuit and took my breath away, but all in all is was not unmanageable. After a few Tarzan strokes and brief headache, I started swimming along shore. The water felt incredible. After swimming about 100 yards from shore, I treaded water and gazed up at my surroundings in utter disbelief that I was floating comfortably in a glacier fed fjord in the middle of Norway just days away from participating in one of the most iconic and difficult tests of endurance on the planet. At that moment I couldn’t have been happier.
After the first practice swim, we drove 30 minutes to our lodging in Ulvik. We stayed at Hardanger Gjesthaus, which was a nice little place near the fjord. The town was small and a very good place to unwind and relax before Norseman. Over the next few days we hung out in Eidfjord and Ulvik, visitingt Viking graves, going to museums, and wandering about town. It was nice, but by Friday we felt like we did everything the area had to offer. After a few more practice swims and shakeout rides and runs, on Friday night I sat down with my wife and father in law to plan out the race. Before doing Norseman, it is essential to plan ahead and establish points on the course where you will meet your crew to exchange clothes and nutrition. After a beer to take the edge off, around 9 PM, I and my support felt confident in the plan. So we went to our respective rooms, shut the blackout blinds and tried to catch at least a couple hours of sleep.
I woke up at 1:15 AM raring to go; a bit shocked to have gotten any sleep at all. Upon waking, I chugged a 200 calorie bottle of Tailwind along with a strong cup of coffee and hopped in the shower to meditate on the day to come. I was calm and anxious to get on with the race. When you anticipate an event so far in advance, travel halfway across the world and attend various pre-race festivities, at a certain point you just want to start the damn thing. That’s where I was. No nerves. No stress. Just calm anticipation.
After the shower I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a banana and a croissant. We then loaded up the car and drove the 30 minutes from Ulvik to Eidfjord in the pitch dark. The air was cool but not cold – mid 50s—and when we arrived in town at 3 AM, the area was teeming with flashing head lamps and caffeinated bodies with foreign accents. I had a feeling it was going to be a good day.
After setting up transition in a light drizzle, I kissed my wife and boarded the ferry. There are two stories on the ferry, the first of which has a metal deck along with a massive hose that sadistically sprays seawater on everyone to facilitate acclimation to the cold. The second story is the cabin where passengers typically sit. I walked up top and took a seat next to another American from North Carolina. We talked about past races, goals and family, all of which alleviated some of the inevitable tension that begins to build as the race approaches. Looking around on the ride over, it was amazing the diversity of moods. Some people were joking around as if they were at the pub with their friends, some were visibly horrified and others were stoic. Most were quiet, but as 5 AM began to approach the nervous chit chat escalated. At 4:40 I pulled up my wetsuit and walked down to the first deck. Go time.
One of the most magnificent sites I've ever witnessed was when they lowered the side of the ferry exposing the stunning mountains and shimmering sky. The industrial, artificial environment on the vessel contrasted starkly with the awe-inspiring view of the natural landscape that poured in. It was so surreal and awe-inspiring that I literally forgot to breathe for about thirty seconds. I smiled, knowing that in a few short moments I was going to jump into the breathtaking environment and soak it all in – literally and figuratively.
And so it began. A bit before 5 AM everyone started jumping off the boat. I walked over to the edge, looked down and somewhat anticlimactically took the plunge into Hardangerfjord. The water was chilly as expected, but not bone-numbingly cold. It was probably in the upper 50s-low 60s depending on where you measured the temperature. Cold no doubt, but manageable with a wetsuit, neoprene cap and booties. After jumping in, we swam about 100 yards to the start and lined up behind the race crew on kayaks. It was amazing sculling and looking at the otherworldly beauty surrounding us; however, after a couple minutes the cold started to creep in and I was eager to hear the start gun. Fortunately, it wasn’t too long before it fired – right on time at 5 AM.
The race started like every other mass swim start, though it was a bit darker than usual and I was glad I wore my goggles with lighter lenses. There seemed to be very little shoving and vying for position over the first 200 meters. I think everyone doing the race acknowledged the difficulty of the long day ahead and the frantic initial sprint that often occurs at the start of most triathlon swims was tempered. No need to burn matches early.
The swim went smoothly. There would be stretches where the temperature was no doubt in the mid- 50s and stretches where it was warmer, but overall I was comfortable. I much prefer cooler water and weather than the heat, which can zap energy. I felt good throughout the entire swim, save for some sporadic calf cramping with 1000 yards to go. The massive bonfire as we approached Eidfjord was a welcome sight, though I actually smelled the smoke before I saw the flames. After rounding the final buoy and coming to shore, I was pleasantly surprised that I didn’t dizzily stagger out of the icy fjord or fall. I felt strong, but ready to be out of the water and get on the bike. The clock read 1:12.
I went through T2 slowly on purpose. I intended to transition smoothly and take my time in an effort to set a conservative tone for the race. I kept thinking about driving the course a few days earlier and how inconceivably brutal the climbs were. I did not want any chance of getting carried away and jeopardizing a black shirt finish, so I viewed every saved heart beat as an energy deposit for Gaustatoppen. I met my wife out of the water (you can have a member of your support crew assist you in T1), which was good considering my fingers were mostly frozen and largely useless from the swim. While shivering, we put on my bike jersey, reflective vest, socks, bike shoes, arm warmers (which took entirely too long to put on) and I dashed for the mounting line. After turning the bike lights on (a race requirement), I commenced the 112 mile journey.
The first 40K out of Eidfjord is a 4,000 foot climb to the top of the Hardangervidda mountain plateau. The climb is grueling as you ride past waterfalls, through tunnels and up steep “old roads” which are beautiful, narrow and closed to traffic. I was shocked at how hard EVERYONE was pedaling. I was putting out 250 watts, which is usually enough to drop people, but that wasn’t happening at the start of Norseman. These are hardcore racers. After a few miles, though, the reality of the day set in and people started to slow.
Apart from launching a bottle after hitting a pot hole in a tunnel, the climb went smoothly. As we ascended, the air got colder and colder, which initially felt good. When we got to the top of the plateau in Dyranut, however, the wind, light rain and mid-40 degree temps started to test us and I regretted leaving my GoreTex shell with my wife. I embraced it though. The shivering is part of Norseman.
One of the remarkable things about the race is how quickly the weather changes, switching from 60 and sunny to 45 degrees and rainy on a moment's notice, largely due to elevation changes. Fortunately for us, the worst weather never lasted for more than 30 minutes before sunshine and another relentless climb would signal the end of a shivering spell.
For me, the bike leg went to plan and was fairly uneventful. The throngs of spectators and support crews lining the course provided incredible motivation and the constant loop of “Heia Heia” cheers from Norwegians never got old. There was an endless cacophony of cow bells rung by fans and the dozens of sheep lining the course. I originally intended to conservatively hold 200 watts throughout the ride, but I found myself erring on the side of undershooting that, carrying on my slow and steady mind set. Surprisingly, the most difficult part of the race for me was negotiating the downhills. In almost every instance, the descents would commence after a few miles of cold weather and I would crest a hill shaking. I had difficulty holding the handle bars since my hands would freeze up (I have terrible circulation to the fingers) and would ride the brakes on most of the major declines for fear of shivering myself off the side of a cliff at 50 miles per hour. Even while riding conservatively, though, the speed on many of the downhills was tremendous—around 35-40 mph for miles at a time.
And so the race proceeded. I took in approximately 350 calories of Tailwind per hour and had my fair share of leisurely bathroom breaks. As the miles ticked off, I was able to enjoy the views and dwell on how lucky I was to be cycling through the Norwegian countryside. It was refreshing to do a race and not obsesses about maximizing performance and making it hurt (granted, even if you go easy, the course will make you hurt).
After numerous climbs, descents and pit stops to meet my wonderful support crew, I was halfway up the final and, arguably, most difficult climb (Mount Imingfjell). There, I met my support crew for what was supposed to be the final time before T2. I grabbed a bottle of nutrition and bid them farewell, knowing that once I reached the top of Imingfjell it would be a fast 25 miles to the transition by Lake Tinnsjo. However, once at the top of the mountain, the skies opened up and rain started to pour. It was at this point (mille 90 of the bike course) that I genuinely feared for my life. The final descent is steep and bumpy and with the rain and cold, I was suffering a bit. Most of my pain was from squeezing my brakes and hoping that I was applying enough pressure with my numb hands while going around the corners. Fortunately, I survived and the rest of the ride to T2 was flat and fast.
As I arrived in transition, the weather was sunny and the atmosphere was vibrant. I hopped off my bike and felt incredibly good; not only because I was sick of being on my bike, but because my legs felt fresh and springy. Thank God, I thought. To start the run on weary legs would mean hours of anguish and I felt bad for everyone who overbiked.
After racking my Quintana Roo and removing my helmet, I looked around for my support crew so that I could grab my shoes and nutrition for the run. I looked left, right, into the crowd, around the other bikes and didn’t see them anywhere. Hmmmmm, I thought, where are they?
After a few fruitless minutes of looking for them I started to worry. Were they in an accident? Did they get lost? Should I start running? I dialed their number on my cell phone but the call would not go through. Mild concern morphed into panic as dozens of athletes arrived and departed T2. After 10 minutes of standing there, I grew concerned about jeopardizing a black shirt finish and frantically began asking anyone if they had an extra pair of shoes. Nobody did. Then the phone rang. My wife said that they were 20 kilometers away and were driving fast to T2. Apparently they stopped one more time right before the final point you are allowed to give aid on the course because my tracker was saying I was going 3 kilometers an hour and they were worried something was wrong. When I passed them at that checkpoint, we missed eachother.
“OK, I’m going to start running. Just come find me on the course and go back to get my bike after that,” I said. So I left transition barefoot. I felt like I had no choice, and, heck, what a story it would be to run part of Norseman barefoot!
I managed to go three miles before my crew showed up and was quite the spectacle. Race volunteers, support crew and other fans all looked at me and confusingly pointed out that I was not wearing shoes. “Indeed I’m not, but they’re coming!” My adrenaline was pumping so strongly that I didn’t feel the road beneath my bare feet, but when I finally put on my shoes after running three miles without them, I noticed that the undersides of my toes felt raw. The next day I would look and see blisters on literally all 10 of them, but it’s a small price to pay for black shirt.
Once I grabbed my shoes from my overly apologetic wife, I felt recharged. I maintained an easy pace along the lake and started passing people while continuing to consume nutrition. I like to eat gels during the run and religiously continued to take in at least 200-300 calories per hour, including a bit of intermittent caffeine (GU Mocha FTW). The goal was to get to the base of Zombie Hill at the 16 mile mark feeling good and I was careful not to burn too many matches. Having done a single 13 mile “long run” in the prior three months, I did not want to press my luck. Although I believe the long run is overrated and that weekly volume matters more, it was a long time since my body felt what it was like to run for over two hours, so I focused on maintaining a good cadence and moving towards Gaustatoppen as efficiently as possible.
After a few miles, Mount Gaustatoppen finally loomed into view. There is a tall tower on the peak that shimmered in the distant fog and I laughed with other runners about how far away it looked. Although the task of ascending the mountain and reaching it on foot seemed crazy a few days before, the concept suddenly seemed manageable, if a bit time-consuming. Running next to other athletes with the same goal—GET TO THE TOP—was motivating and the prospect of trudging to the pinnacle did not seem absurd. As we entered the town of Rjukan, Norseman did not feel like a competitive race so much as a personal expedition during which you give support and feed off the support of others. Each time I’d pass someone we’d share a few encouraging words, knowing that each of us dreamed for months about how we'd feel as we approached Gaustatoppen. At that point, though, it didn’t matter how bad we hurt. Unless we passed out or lost a limb, we were going to make it—so help us God.
As I made the turn in Rjukan and came upon Zombie Hill, I realized that not a single person I could see up the switchbacks was running. The reality of Norseman is that most people run the first 16 miles of the marathon and speed walk (or, simply walk) the rest of the way. There is very little passing after the ascent begins since most everyone’s walking pace is typically not much slower than their running pace when the incline is 10%+. I was partially relieved that other Norseman competitors were not super humans capable of galloping up mountains and so started the climb in good spirits. At the beginning of Zombie hill, you can actually have someone from your support crew join you for the remainder of the race, so my wife hopped out of the SUV for a few mile long spurts on the way up. It was special partaking in the experience with her, especially since she sacrificed so much to help me get to the start line. And so I trudged on.
As we approached the top of Zombie hill, I knew the crescendo of the day was imminent. Rather than dwell on the mild pain that waved through my tired body, I focused on how much worse I could be feeling. Surprisingly, my legs felt fine and I did not feel the deep, acute quad pain that typically develops at the end of Ironman races. When you’re climbing an endless hill for miles on end, there is very little (relatively speaking) impact on the muscles, tendons, ligaments and joints. Sure, you have to ignite you muscles to overcome gravity and pull yourself up, but there is very little traumatic pounding. So when I reached the base of Mount Gaustatoppen for the medical check, I felt relatively fresh and borderline euphoric. I was well within the top 160 (around 100), so was in no danger of not snagging a black shirt. When I envisioned the moment in prior months, I expected to be heinous shape as we hit the trail and even had nightmares of race volunteers turning me away after the medical check, saying I was in no condition to complete the final climb to Gaustatoppen. To my joy, however, I reached the base and met up with my wife and father in law, grabbed my back pack and met the Norwegian gatekeepers on the trail.
“How do you feel?” a Norwegian man with an official looking jacket asked.
“Incredible,” I said. “I’ve waited for this moment for two years!”
The man, after verifying that I would not die halfway up the trail, smiled, put his hand on my shoulder and said the words I was waiting to hear “Go ahead to the top.”
Final Climb to the To the top
And so we started the final climb to the tower -- and dear god, what a climb it was. Because of the difficulty, all athletes are required carry a back pack with warm clothes and other supplies and must ascend the last 4.7 kilometers with their support crew. The terrain was absolutely grueling, but at times it still felt like a bona fide parade. The “heia heia” cheers continued as we passed dozens of Norwegians and and other spectators. Even on the final, desolate ascent, the support from others was incredible. The going was slow, as footing was treacherous and the risk of an ankle injury was high. As we ascended, the temperature dropped dramatically and the wind blew ferociously. I found myself shivering, so stopped a couple of times to add additional layers. I kept a conservative pace and made sure to stay close to my support crew, who actually did a remarkable job navigating the trail. Although we seemed to be moving glacially slow, the tower that taunted me for months slowly but surely inched closer. We could hear the loud cheers echoing down the mountain as athletes finished and I got goosebumps as we made the final push to the top. Thankfully, the treacherous stones turned to steps and I was able to run the last few hundred feet to the summit. I felt no pain as I hit the final step and put my hands up with a smile. Heia Heia, it’s finished!
The finish was teeming with race volunteers and athletes at various stages of exhaustion. Upon crossing the line, I received a warm blanket and indescribably delicious cup of famous Norseman soup. Nothing in my life ever tasted better. After some photos and a kiss from my wife, we went into the cafeteria and I ate (or more like inhaled) a waffle and hot dog. It was glorious.
Thankfully, there is a funicular that goes through the center of the mountain via a tunnel that transports athletes from the pinnacle to the base, so we did not have to climb down the way we came up. Instead, we stood in line for an hour or two waiting for our turn to board cable car/train-type vehicle for a ride down to the parking lot. It was enjoyable basking in the afterglow of the race finish, knowing that it was mission-accomplished. Much like the ferry ride to the swim start, athletes were in varying mental and physical states. Many were writhing, vomiting or casually passing out and the medical team did a great job responding to the more concerning cases. Most who weren’t in the midst of medical emergencies were smiling. Even if one does not go as fast as he/she had hoped at Norseman, it doesn’t really matter. This is one of the few races where finishing is the victory, whether the prize is a white or black shirt. Fortunately, mine was black.
Big thanks to all the Norseman volunteers, organizers and race crew. Truly truly it is an incredible race and you all did a great job ensuring everything went off without a hitch.