Norseman 2019

Don’t think just jump.

These are the words the marshal shouts at me as I approach the edge of the ferry ready to plunge into the dark fjord waters below.

I’m the last person in the inaugural X-tri World Championships to take the leap. How on earth did I end up here?

Rewind to the previous November, I had decided I wasn’t going to enter anything until I had physically and mentally recovered from the previous few seasons only to receive the elusive ‘Welcome to the Norseman’ email. I’d tried to enter the ballot 5 years in a row but with odds of getting in seemingly on par with a lottery win, I had never had any success and didn’t think this year would be different. Admittedly on this year’s application I was able to tick to say I had gone sub 10:15 for an Ironman but I still hadn’t thought it would change the outcome.

Typically the year I really didn’t think I wanted it was the year I got in. I hesitated a bit but with the option of full cancellation insurance available, I accepted the offer and decided I’d worry about it nearer the time.

For the next 9 months, long term and boring injury issues had meant I had almost given up hope of doing this event but I just couldn’t let it go. If I didn’t do it now I may never get the chance again so just 2 weeks prior to the event I finally book my flights and decided to give it a go.

It’s only at this point I realised I would be racing in the X-tri World Championships.

I didn’t even know what this was but it transpired that there are now a series of ‘Xtreme’ triathlons (X-tri) around the world and all the 1st and 2nd place male and females had qualified for X-tri World Champs and somehow, as a result of my qualifying time, I’d also been put in that group. Given this group was essentially pro athletes I promptly emailed the organisers to ask if I could be moved into the ‘normal race’.

The reply essentially said ‘if you want to race, suck it up princess’.
So, I had a choice, don’t race at all or race with the elites and probably come last. Realising it was all down to ego and that is a terrible thing to be governed by, I chose the latter.

Cue two weeks of utter panic as I realised how much needed to be organised and how much kit would be required.

For those who don’t know, Norseman is loosely an Iron distance race but all with a twist. The 3.8km swim involves jumping 4m off the back of a ferry in the dark to swim across a fjord, the 180km bike climbs almost 12,000ft and the 42km ‘run’ finishes with a 6000ft mountain climb. All of this is often done in freezing conditions, rain and wind so unsurprisingly requires a huge amount of safety gear throughout, none of which I had! Thankfully Lydia Paniccia and Emma Gueterbock were on hand to provide all the neoprene and mountaineering equipment I could possibly need and before I knew it, we were on a flight to Oslo with a case full of everything required to survive a winter in the arctic.

Despite this I was still hopelessly underprepared. Everyone I met was unbelievably friendly but speaking with a few competitors there were talks of gear ratios and wheelsets needed to deal with the climbing. I didn’t and still don’t understand this but it became quite clear that when doing an event like this it is something I should have considered.

The other twist with this event is it is point to point and there is no support from the event organisers. You can have up to two official support crew who are your life support.

They use a slogan ‘you can’t do it alone’ and it’s so true. Makeshift transitions, food, water, equipment, first aid and whatever neoprene you may need has to come and may only come from the support crew and there was a long list of rules they had to adhere to.

We spent a few days before in the stunning area of Eidfjord which gave my husband Adam, my Dad and I an opportunity to get to grips with all the logistics.

The feeling pre-race was so different to doing a typical Ironman. The event is run entirely by volunteers and with only 300 competitors, everyone chatted to each other and very quickly it felt like a makeshift family.

But this family was on the move. The alarm was set for 1:30am and before long we were driving the 40minutes along the side of the pitch black fjord to set up transition and then board the ferry.

I didn’t really know what to feel most worried about so I felt oddly calm. Adam on the other hand seemed to be a bundle of nerves. He was taking the support crew duty very seriously and in his mind he didn’t want to let me down. I told him not to worry if things went wrong. Almost certainly they would. But I didn’t want him to worry if they did.

Having set up a temporary T1 and now around 3:30, it was time to board the ferry.

Climbing onto the car deck to see the wetsuit strewn bodies laying all around it started to seem real. This was what I’d seen on the videos. The eerie silence. Deep contemplation. Fear and trepidation. All contained in a damp and dark metal cabin.

As we started to move the ferry blew its horn. The next time we would hear that we’d be swimming.

At T-15 minutes until the jump the hoses were turned on. At one end huge showers of fresh fjord-water were pouring down to allow us to acclimatise to the conditions. Some years the water temperature has been only 9 degrees so this is essential.

This year it was between 13-16 degrees so positively balmy. That didn’t stop almost everyone wearing thermal hats, tops and boots. Hating any kind of layers when I swim, I decided to wear none of them, opting only for the mandatory wetsuit so I was relieved when I stood under the shower to find that it was refreshing but certainly not cold.

It was now time to jump.
The X-tri wave started 5 minutes ahead so one by one I saw everyone calmly jump into the water and disappear into the darkness. With the final bit of encouragement from the crew I took the leap, screamed like a girl and entered the water below.

Relief. I’d managed to get in. Now for the rest of the day.

The swim itself was a simple affair. Swim towards a giant bonfire in the distance and when you get there, turn left.
There was no wind and as the sun started to rise, with the water was like glass and the mist rolling over the tops of the majestic mountains, I felt like I was in a fairytale.

Getting out I was buzzing. With 57 minutes on the clock it was a good swim for me but I really wasn’t bothered by that. I found Adam who was supposed to help with transition. Typically this would involve giving hot drinks and blankets but instead I got him to take pictures. It was now almost 6am and the view was incredible. I got out of the swim as first female but lost about 3 places in T1. It didn’t matter. It wasn’t what this was about for me.

Kissing Adam goodbye I set off on the bike knowing I immediately had a 1500m, 32km climb ahead of me to start off. I’m not sure I’ve ever climbed for that long in one go and this was the part that scared me the most.

As the gradient started to ramp up we were essentially following a gushing waterfall. It was stunning but also a constant reminder of how much climbing we were doing and also had yet to do.
Within about 10 minutes I was out of gears. It turns out that would have been something worth looking at. It felt like I was being passed by everyone as they freely spun their legs while I forcefully ground out every pedal stroke.

My quads were burning and my back was already in agony. We entered a long and dark tunnel. There was no air and I couldn’t see the end. We had to have exposure lights for this reason. I’d bumped into Louise Minchin in the days before and she’d warned me that the tunnels were supposed to be horrible. She wasn’t wrong.

The demons set in as I started to question what on earth I was doing? How could I be a stupid to think I could do this? I can’t climb hills! Your body has been telling you all year you can’t do this, why didn’t you listen?

Every competitor who passed was unbelievably friendly and encouraging but as each disappeared up the hill ahead I questioned more and more what I was doing.

As we finally came out of the final tunnel I realised I had debris on my bike somewhere. I looked but couldn’t see anything but it felt and sounded like it was catching and slowing me down even more. Not wanting to stop incase I couldn’t get going again on the steep gradient, in a moment of stupidity I decided to reach under my front wheel to brush off any possible obstruction. This promptly dragged my fingers through my front fork, halted the bike and flipped me up in the air onto my back.

I initially thought I’d hurt my elbow but dusting myself down, it was only when went to sort my bike I realised two of my fingers on my right hand were disjointed and already very swollen.

Thankfully an American man helped get my bike going again and I got back going up the climb realising that changing gears and braking could now be a new challenge one handed.

This really wasn’t going well.

But then I remembered part of the slogan the Norseman were using this year.

‘This is not for you. This is for athletes with minds stronger than their bodies’.

I realised that while my body may feel like it can’t go on, now is the time to prove my mind is stronger. And so for every moment of pain I repeated ‘this is for minds stronger than bodies’. I lost track of the number of times I said it.

Finally, I got to the top of the climb. It was thick fog. We had been warned the weather could change in seconds and they weren’t wrong.

I saw my support crew for the first time who informed me we were all instructed to keep on all our mandatory high vis gear until further notice.

With the extra height and the mist it was probably only 5 or 6 degrees and I could see some athletes putting on extra layers. After 2 hours of climbing I was grateful to cool down so just swapped water bottles and continued on the way.

It was the correct decision as within an hour the mist burnt off to show off the most incredible mountain plateau. Crystal clear lakes, snowy peaks and rocky wilderness were intersected by a single winding road. It was spectacular. The aero-geeks would cringe but I just couldn’t keep my head down. There was too much beauty in the landscape and I didn’t want to miss out.

Prior to coming to the event so many people had said ‘just enjoy it’ and I had wanted to, but you never know if you can or or will. Here it was impossible not to.

With the sun now out I was well aware how warm it was getting and going to get so every 20-30 kilometres I’d see my support crew and get more water. This ‘leapfrogging’ with the support crew was to continue throughout which meant they got to see in real time how you were getting on. There were also other athlete’s support crews around you who started to become familiar and also offered support, fuel, music and banter through the day. It felt like a big team of you trying to get to the final destination.

The bike continued with mile after mile of barbaric mountain passes and stunning vistas. It was unbelievably tough but I also kept reminding myself it was the Norseman, it was MEANT to be tough.
After a massive fist pump at the top of the final climb, the descent was amazing. Almost 30km following a white water river meant I reached T2 (which had been set up by my wonderful support) on a total high. I genuinely couldn’t believe how hard but how incredible the last 180km had been.

The first 25k is rolling along the edge of another fjord. Starting the run I was running on adrenaline but I could already feel how much the bike has sapped my legs.

The sun by this point was beating down as temperatures neared 30 degrees and I chuckled at the thought of all the neoprene sat unused in the car. I’ve raced in far hotter, but always fully supported. Unbeknown to me, my team were running out of water as I kept asking for more and more liquid every time I saw them.

With the remote nature of the event, shops are few and far between so it turned out there was panic behind the scenes after I’d destroyed 15 litres of liquids on the bike alone.

Thankfully some locals came to the rescue and normal service was resumed and by this stage all the support crews were helping each other and other athletes all around them.

Around 20km as I started to flag, the final mountain, Gaustoppen, came in to view. It rose above everything like a towering giant waiting for our imminent arrival. Having read that no one runs up it I actually couldn’t wait to get the bottom of the climb.

Finally I hit the 25km mark and Adam joined me. The next 7km, known as Zombie Hill, climbs around 800m across a series of steep switchbacks. Cars aren’t allowed to stop so your support are allowed to run/walk with you.

I was already tiring so conversation was reduced to 2-3 word bursts but it was so nice to have someone with me. We occasionally jogged for 30 seconds but such was the gradient of the climb, we decided it was better to power walk at a constant pace and judging by all the other teams around us, it seemed to be the general technique employed.

Finally to great applause we hit the 32km mark. If you make time and race position (top 160) cut-offs at this point you get to continue up the mountain and get the elusive ‘black T-shirt’. Thankfully we were were in the top 40 so got the thumbs up to continue.

In my mind the next 5km were going to be flat as they only climbed 300m!! It turns out that was not flat but we did manage to jog some of it as we reached our final checkpoint.

At 37km we met my dad who handed us our pre-packed rucksacks full of an essential list of mountaineering kit. The extra weight on my back certainly wasn’t appreciated but with the summit now in sight I knew now was the time dig deep.

This was now a rocky scramble, climbing 1000m in just 5km. The moving rocks and scree certainly didn’t help and every time I lost focus it was so easy to lose footing. On some of the big rocks it took a couple of attempts with my battle weary quads struggling to lift my weight.

Ad was brilliant, gently reminding me to concentrate and keep drinking water while all the while listening to me chunter ‘this is for minds stronger than bodies’.

It seemed so far for so long but finally the steps to the finish were upon us. I raised my arms, I cried a little and I hugged Adam, part in celebration and part in disbelief. I couldn’t believe how unbelievably tough but how absolutely incredible the whole day had been.
There was no big finish line party, fireworks or a loudspeaker. Just a blanket, a cup of soup and a summit view of 1/6 of Norway. It was quite simply the perfect ending.

The next day I collected the prestigious black T-shirt. I’d come 9th female in the X-tri world champs, so much better than I’d expected, but in the end it didn’t matter. This was about the experience.
It was a challenge above all challenges and just wholeheartedly reminded me why I got into this sport in the first place. It was raw, it was gritty and it wasn’t about beating anyone other than my own self-invented demons.

But the event gave more than I expected. My support crew, although exhausted, genuinely enjoyed rather than endured the experience. They, and all the other support crews felt like they were part of it, because they really were. It genuinely was a shared experience and I couldn’t have done it without them.

The final Norseman slogan was ‘Creating a life event not a sports event’. This was certainly true.

I’m not sure if I can go back for that fact it was such a perfect day but it will be an event that my support crew and I will remember and cherish forever.

Kelly Stokes