On Zombie Hill with Ole Gorm Berg. © Kristofer Larsen 2017
Eidfjord to Gaustatoppen, NOR ★ 2017.08.05
While this says “Part 2,” I’m writing this first because it seems people are more interested in this race. Part 1, on Challenge Iceland, is coming. That race was no less amazing and, in many ways, was actually the race I enjoyed even more. So stay tuned…
I know that I’ve never been more prepared for a race than I was for Norseman, and in terms of specific preparation, it might be the finest and most focused build I’ve had in my career. Except for when I lived in Penticton and spent most of my time training on the course where I was going to race, I don’t think I’ve ever tailored my training so precisely to the demands of a particular race.
This preparation showed up on race day with what I would say is one of the very best race performances in my career. I drained the tank to absolutely empty on that course. But that also comes with an emotional cost as well. Big races are followed inevitably by big letdowns. The post-race blues have hit quite hard, which is why I haven’t put proverbial pen to paper sooner.
Norseman was also a race that, as evidenced by what I wrote before the race, meant more to me than most races. It meant more, perhaps, than any race, if only by virtue of the fact that I had been dreaming of jumping off that ferry for over a decade. Inevitably, anything that is heavily idealized will fall short in certain areas. Dan Empfield has cautioned that it’s always a risk to meet your heroes, because you’ll find out that they are just people. Or, in this case, that you’ll find out that it’s just a race. But the race organizers have been receptive to my feedback here, and I’m optimistic that Norseman will be an even better race in the future.
The race aspect of Norseman is really the least meaningful part of the event as a whole though. Over time, my memories of the race will surely fade, but my memories of the experience will unquestionably not. And it’s the story of my experience that I’d like to share here, along with some tips I wish someone had written down for other n00bs heading to this race or one like it.
The Emotional Journey
Adidas ran an ad campaign that I saw in my old running store entitled “The Seven Stages of Marathon” based on the classic psychological progression for the seven stages of grief1. It’s incredibly clever, and I’ve found it applies equally well to triathlon. The stages are:
For me, race day always begins with ritual. Ritual is a hugely important part of how I prepare. Breakfast, getting dressed, what I wear, and more are all things that I have kept almost unchanged for a decade of professional racing. Part of this is that the more you keep things the same, the less likely you are to forget something important. But it’s also because it helps put me in the appropriate mental state to take on what is clearly an insane task. Until the gun goes off (or the horn blows or the cannon fires), my day is defined by ritual.
With Norseman, the expected shock is the cold water. But in truth, after spending a lot of time in cold water in the weeks before the race, I was unfazed by this. For me, the shock is – and always will be – the start. Norseman is a pretty mild start by comparison to most races, but the shock of beginning an ultra will never change. These are the first strokes of a day that will seem, at times, to stretch out forever.
Denial, Isolation, and Despair all come (at least) twice. Both on the bike and on the run. At Norseman, Despair really comes home to roost on the rocky trail to Gaustatoppen. This would be an extremely technical route – it’s a trail only in the loosest sense of the word – even when you aren’t physically and mentally exhausted. And when you are, it’s brutal, more mentally than physically, in a way that I cannot truly describe. Even now, it’s one of those things where my brain has largely muted my recollection because it’s clearly something the brain doesn’t want to remember.
Affirmation also comes repeatedly. It comes in the form of your support crew, with whom you will form an indelible bond throughout the day. This part of the race is really the most meaningful. Of all the images from the race, the ones where I am sharing the day with my crew are the ones that mean the most.
Renewal, of course, comes at the finish. And, especially here, at the truly amazing post-race buffet at the Gaustablikk Hotel. How much desert did I eat? All of it…
Norseman is a massively intense experience. Especially given that you share the day with your crew, you will experience years of emotion in a single day. I both cannot imagine having a spouse crew for you and also cannot imagine anything that would be more meaningful. I went into the race with a good crew of friends, and after the race, I think of them like family. Like a family, there were times that I hated them intensely, and where I found them massively frustrating, or incompetent, or simply wanted them to go away. (Being an ultra distance racer is a bit like being a tired, hungry teenager.) But I would not trade the experience I shared with them for anything. They did a phenomenal job – though we all learned a lot and would certainly do some things differently just in terms of highly-specific matters of execution, but I couldn’t have asked them for more. Without question, my day was defined and made possible by them. Thank you Halvard, Ole Gorm, Jon, and Michael. You were my rocks. Well, except Ole and Michael. You were my… insert-something-that-is-super-dependable-but-also-mobile… Toyota Hiluxes?
My transitions were slower than they needed to be. This was overwhelmingly attributed to a lack of experience with regards to clothing selection, which is almost impossible to get right if it’s your first time doing things. I lost 3:30 in transition that I would absolutely not lose if I raced again. While clothing is pretty personal, there are a few relatively obvious things that I’d do that I wish someone had written down somewhere, as it seems clear that this is the logical way to do things.
First off, absolutely the right top is a windproof longsleeve softshell. The Castelli Perfetto (formerly Gaba) jacket is far and away the most popular choice here above other equally good shells for one reason: you can get it in bright colors. A safety vest is required for the start of the bike because you ride through some tunnels, but if you have a bright jacket (yellow being the preferred choice), you can simply buy some 3M reflective tape and put some stripes on the front and back of your jacket. This totally eliminates the need to put on a vest, which both takes time and is rather cumbersome to race in. A long sleeve softshell will work for virtually all conditions – you can put a rain coat on over it if it’s really pouring. And it’s much, much, much more time efficient than: arm warmers, vest, reflective vest.
Second thing, the Old Road part of the course is pretty slow. It’s not super technical, but it’s narrow and winding and hard to go really fast. Put your gloves in your jersey pocket and pull them on during the early part of the bike course. Your hands will probably be a bit cold out of the swim (open and close your hands during the recovery part of the stroke coming into T1 to get the blood flowing again), but the Old Road is quite sheltered, and I think your hands will warm up, especially if your arms are warm and blood is flowing. If you really have issues, you can put gloves on in transition, but I find this is awkward at best, and I wish I had waited and put them on a bit later.
Thirdly, shoe covers. Lightweight, rubberized aero shoe covers are a great choice if you wear wool socks, which you should. They are more aero than shoes alone, protect your feet if the rain is not too bad, and also help keep your feet warm. But make sure to get a pair with zippers. I got a pair without, thinking that my hands would be too cold to work the zippers, but ultimately, it was way more cumbersome to put these on – and also take them off in T2 – than it should have been. Zippers would have saved me at least 30 seconds, maybe more when you factor in T2.
An aero helmet is great, because it keeps your head warm. For the same reason some people worry about them in hot weather, they are great for a race like this. I also recommend a helmet with a visor that attaches magnetically, and have a couple different visors, in varying shades, to swap on the fly with your crew. This is especially helpful in the rain where the lenses can get quite dirty.
I put knee warmers on at Dyranut, the top of the first climb, but I don’t know that it was worth it. They got wet pretty quickly, didn’t really fit well because you’re trying to put them on quickly, and I didn’t feel they added much in the way of warmth over my mylar blanket trick.
The mylar blanket trick continues to be worth it’s weight in gold.
- Buy a “space blanket.” A single space blanket will probably last you for at least five cold races. Maybe more.
- Cut three rectangles out of it. One for your chest and two for each quad. Put this under your race suit before the swim.
- Be happy and warm in a variety of really shitty weather conditions.
On the run, don’t wear too much. The valley from T2 to the base of Zombie Hill is really warm. And once you start climbing, you’ll probably generate a lot of heat. I wore my basic sleeved tri-kit (seen in the picture above) the entire run and nothing else. I took my running hat off in the valley, where it was too warm, but I would have liked it once I started climbing and the route got colder. Otherwise, the run is really pretty straightforward in terms of equipment.
I did ponder switching to trail shoes for the final 5km climb up Gaustatoppen. I should have done this given that I typically run in pretty light flats. I would have really appreciated better footing.
Overall, though coming from sunny Southern California to Norway, I was pretty pleased with my equipment selection. I could have been a bit faster with better choices, but there wasn’t much to go on. Hopefully this will help other folks tackling this race or any of the other XTri races in similar climates, which is most of them.
On race day:
- Wear thermal swim booties.
- Wear a thermal hood.
- Wear ear plugs.
- Bring some water and pour it in your wetsuit before you jump in.
And make sure you swim in some cold water before the race. Other than that, the swim is very straightforward. Swim fitness will help a lot. If you are fit, you’ll handle the cold better. Don’t shortchange your swimming just because it is – relatively – even less ostensibly important than in races where the bike and run aren’t so much longer.
Bike (Strava file here.)
It’s really hilly, though not as hilly as they say. It’s just a bit less than 3,000m of climbing, not 5,000m as you may read. But still, the more time you spend riding uphill in training, the happier you will be. Likewise, the more time you spend riding downhill, especially on technical descents, the happier you will be. There are some tricky descents. If you ride nothing else, ride these. Especially the descents from Imingfjell and from Vasstulan. If it’s raining, which it very well might be, you’ll be much happier going down these if you know what to expect.
I rode 1X in 54-11/32 and was happy. 1X continues to impress with its versatility.
A tri-bike is absolutely the right choice. As is a disc. There are very long sections of flat and slight-downhill that are really fast. A tri-bike with disc brakes is awesome, especially if it is raining, which it might be. The pavement is not bad, but especially given that it might rain, run wide tires. I ran 26mm Specialized Turbo Cottons at 80psi. They were fantastic.
Run (Strava file here.)
Until you do it, you have no concept of what it is like to run 10miles at 10% grade at the end of a long race. I ran a lot of hills in training for this. I could have run more.
I had initially planned to run the hills by HR, but the grade on Zombie Hill was steady enough that I decided to go by pace. I should have stuck to HR. My HR slipped from my Ironman-ideal of 150-155 to more like 140-145. I had the fitness to run faster up the hills. I bet I could have run 90 seconds to two minutes faster up Zombie Hill if I’d kept a closer eye on my HR. But running up that grade, it’s just so, so easy to slow down a little bit. I found myself slipping and then pushing the pace too often. I could have been more consistent. But it’s really hard to gauge that when you are used to running 6:30 miles and your are now running 10:30 miles. Or, in my case, when you are used to running 4:00/km and now you are running 6:30/km. My pace bounced too much from 6:15-6:20 (the right pace) to 6:40-6:45 (too slow and too low HR). This is one part of the race I could do better, but it’s also almost impossible to truly prepare until you have done it. But, without question, you cannot spend too much time running uphill in preparation for Norseman.
Overall, I was incredibly pleased with my own performance. I think that experience would net me, at most, between 5-7min on the day. I broke the old course record as a first timer with the fastest run of the day and one of the fastest bike rides and fastest runs in the history of the course. For all the details that I could have done more efficiently, I came in incredibly well prepared and incredibly fit, and I think that showed.
And my biggest takeaway from the whole experience was really a lesson regarding preparation. I like to train the way I did for this race. I had plenty of workouts that were, essentially, “ride up as many hills as possible,” and, “run up as many hills as possible.” This was a lot of fun. And while that certainly helped when preparing for a bike and run with a lot of hills, I also think it would work really well for a less hilly course. Fitness is fitness. In spite of the fact that I spent a lot of time running uphill, I ran the first (mostly flat) 25km of the run at 2:48 marathon pace.
The most rewarding part of Norseman was absolutely the training I did for it. I’ve logged a lot of miles in my career. And there was some obvious boredom that had started to set in. But training in this way reinvigorated me. It made me happy to be out there. And that’s the biggest takeaway from all of this. Love what you do. Getting ready for this race reminded me of that. And showed me a new way to do it.
And the end of the day, Norseman – and I think XTri more generally – is more the same than it is different. It is just a race. The biggest change can be in how you approach it. Have fun out there. Not just on race day. But in all the days beforehand. That’s what will make this most special.
1. The seven stages of grief, which also work pretty well for ultra-distance racing without any sort of changes, are:
- shock & denial
- pain & guilt
- anger & bargaining
- depression, reflection, & loneliness
- the upward turn
- reconstruction & working through
- acceptance & hope