In 2019 having just returned from racing at the Ironman World Championships in Kona I began to think what I do next. Then I saw the breakfast TV presenter Louise Minchin being questioned about a race she had just completed called the Norseman in Norway and it sparked my interest. It slightly terrified me because it is known for being one of the toughest Ironman’s in the World because of the total elevation, freezing cold Fjord swim and the potentially horrific weather conditions you could experience during the race.
Getting a place to race the Norseman is not that easy as there are only 300 places allocated each year and they get over 5000 applications from all over the World. I had heard that people had applied year after year and never been successful. So, when I put my name in the lottery, I really didn’t expect to get a place. They allocate the places in a live draw and the day of the draw I couldn’t watch because I was with a client. I only knew that I had a place because my friend Jane Eccleston from Manchester triathlon club had been watching the live draw and she sent me a message. My first reaction was S**T I bloody hate the cold, what have I done! Those people who know me well know that I feel the cold more than most. When I told my friends they mostly laughed and told me that I was a bit crazy to consider a race that I clearly wasn’t suited to.
However, the race is 2019 had been the complete opposite to previous years because the water temperature was a balmy 19 degrees and the weather on the course was hot. So, I convinced myself that with global warming 2020 would be the same and I accepted the place. I also felt slightly guilty for putting my name in the lottery if I wasn’t going to accept my place when others had been trying unsuccessfully for years. I needed to pull on my big girl pants and face my fears.
Then the pandemic happened, and the race was delayed for two years. Phew.
I knew I couldn’t escape it forever though and started to prepare myself the best I could. I wasn’t worried about the elevation on the course because hilly courses suited me. I had after all done IMUK twice, IM Wales once and the toughest long distance duathlon championships in Switzerland all of which are hilly courses and faired pretty well. The thing that terrified me the most was the cold-water swim and the jump off the ferry which is how the swim starts. A cold-water swim is bad enough if you are a good swimmer but if like me swimming it’s your weakest sport, and you know you are going to be in the water for a long time it becomes even more terrifying.
I did my best to do some cold-water swimming in the early months of the year and invested in a thermal wetsuit. However, by the time the race was round the corner the water temperatures in the UK were up to 19 degrees. I kept convincing myself it would be fine, and we would be lucky enough to get another year like 2019. I practiced the jump off the ferry by jumping off the wall at Salford quays several times.
The Norseman is a point-to-point race, so you need a support crew because there are no feed stations along the course and they have to pick your stuff up as you move from one stage of the course to the next. You are allowed a maximum of two people in your support team. In fact, I would say that is essential to have two people because you need one person to drive the car and then its compulsory to have someone run the last bit of the course with you if you go up the mountain finish. There are two finishes in the Norseman. The first 160 athletes to reach the 32.5km point on the marathon within 14 and a half hours get to finish up a mountain and get a black t-shirt and the athletes after that do a different finish and are awarded a white t-shirt. The reason for it only being the first 160 athletes is due safety reasons as the mountain is at an elevation of 1880 metres and they need to be able to get everyone off the mountain if the weather conditions become dangerous. Of course, everyone wants the black t-shirt.
My support team were my husband Andy and my very good friend Elizabeth.
The race was on the Saturday and Elizabeth, and I arrived on the Monday before. We flew to Oslo which is at the opposite end of the course as I wanted to drive the bike course in reverse and see the mountain finish and the notorious Zombie Hill which is the last 7.5km of the run before the 32.5km cut-off point and is a 10% climb.
We arrived in Eidjford on the Tuesday evening which is where the race starts and for the next three days, I got into the fjord every day to try and acclimatise. There is always a bit of secrecy around the water temperature and the race organisers are never keen to tell you what it is. However, a lot of this is because it can change daily and so it is almost pointless knowing what it is leading up to the race. The temperature changes for several factors, one Eidjford is a dock for large cruise liners and if one has recently arrived it can lower the temperature because it churns up the water, another reason is there is a hydro station nearby and if they decide to operate this can also lower the water temperature. All they ever tell you is to expect it to be COLD. I had bought a thermometer with me and the three days before the race the temperature varied between 13 and 14.2 degrees. I probably only stayed in the water for a maximum of 40 minutes and on my acclimatisation swims, I was happy with how I had coped. I was excited for the race to start. Little did I realise what an utterly brutal day it was going to be. In the days leading up to the race the weather wasn’t exactly great but there had been almost no wind and the fjord had been like a mill pond. There had been some light rain and the air temperature had been between 10 and 18 degrees.
The race starts at 5am and we had to rack our bikes between 2:45am and 3:45am and be on the ferry that was going to take us to the start of the swim by 4am. Our accommodation was about 30-40 minutes away, so we were up at 2am!
As we drove to the start it was already raining and it was windier than it had been in the days preceding the race. The air temperature was 5 degrees. I tried to stay calm and thought to myself well at least it will be warmer in the water. Surely that was good.
After I racked my bike, I said goodbye to my support crew and boarded the ferry. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the jump off the back of the ferry was no higher than the wall at Salford quays.
On the ferry there was very little chatter, and the nerves were tangible. Finally, we arrived at the start of the swim, and we were told that we needed to start moving towards the back of the ferry and start jumping into the water. The swim to the start is about 200m from the ferry jump so although I didn’t want to get in too early and risk getting cold, I also didn’t want to get in too late and risk the race starting before I got to the start line. I settled on getting in at about 4:50 am and made the jump. Thankful that I had done a few practice jumps off the wall at Salford quays as it didn’t faze me at all.
I knew it would be cold when I jumped in but the acclimatisation swims in the previous days had shown me that I had quickly adapted. We had been told that where we jumped into the water at the beginning of the swim would be warmer than it would be at the end of the swim. After about 5 minutes I felt ok and at this point I felt fairly calm.
The Claxton blew and off we went. In some ways this is a very straightforward swim as we were only going in one direction and just needed to keep the shoreline which was on our right-hand side about 25metres away. There are no buoys lining the course and you cannot see the end of the swim until you are at least halfway through because of the way the coastline bends round. The first part of the swim felt like it was going ok, and I just had to keep reminding myself that it was going to feel like it was going on forever when you swim at my speed. However, as I started to see the only buoy that marks the turn point where we would start to swim along the harbour towards the beach where we would get out the water suddenly started to get a real swell and I started to feel that it was taking a lot more effort to move forwards. I was also really fed up now and just wanted to be out of the water and I had started to feel really cold. I had to give myself a good talking to. I was so close to the end of the swim I couldn’t give up now. The beach end couldn’t come soon enough but it was finally there, and I pulled myself out. Andy was on the beach waiting for me and I staggered towards him.
It then all started to go horribly wrong. I had decided not to wear my trisuit underneath my wetsuit because I knew it could be really cold at the top of the mountain climbs on the bike and I thought it would be more sensible to put on dry clothes. There is no changing tent and nudity is acceptable in the Norseman. This is Norway after all. As I started to remove my wetsuit, I got this incredible pain in the right hand side of my face and my jaw completely locked making it impossible to talk. I also started to feel painfully cold and wasn’t capable of dressing myself. Luckily you are allowed to have one of your support team in T1 to help you because they know athletes will be cold and could potentially be in the state I was. I was so cold and in so much pain in my face I didn’t think that I would even get out of T1. My husband was desperately trying to get me dressed in the hope that I would warm up. God bless him though he was pretty useless. Let’s just say he has had more practice of undressing me that dressing me! I could hear Elizabeth who wasn’t allowed to come in frustratingly barking orders at him from the side. Elizabeth having worked as a lady’s maid in her twenties would have been far better. Still freezing cold with the pain still in my face but finally dressed I literally hobbled out of T1 like an old lady. I later found out that the water temperature was 11 degrees, and the air temperature was 5 degrees. Numerous athletes were pulled out of the swim and although I thought that my swim was ridiculously slow, l definitely was not the slowest and even the few athletes that I knew who were also taking part who were good swimmers seemed to have quite slow swims.
The first 10km of the bike course is flat and then it climbs continuously for 30km. It was still raining as I left T1 but it was bearable and I was starting to warm up and the pain in my face had started to subside. Then I reached the plateau at the top of the mountain, and it was like hell on earth. The air temperature was 2 degrees but because of the wind the feel like temperature was minus 4 degrees and now it was absolutely chucking it down with rain and the wind had now picked up to 35mph. My hands and feet started to freeze, and my body temperature was rapidly falling. I was shaking so much on the bike I knew I was wobbling all over the road. This was a real low point in the race for me I just didn’t think I could carry on. My support crew were desperately trying to find more clothes for me to put on but even they were struggling to do up zips because their hands were just so cold in the little time, they stepped out of the car to help me. Twice I told my support crew that I couldn’t go on but each time they said I just said the words but then continued cycling. I was probably a bit delirious at this point. I kept saying to myself I just need to get off this mountain and it will be warmer at the bottom but as many of you will know going downhill when you are cold on a bike is actually very scary and does nothing to help warm you up. I pushed on fighting back tears and eventually did make it to Gelio which is the halfway of the bike course and the weather did improve.
The next 90km went without too much drama and I just tapped away at the last 4 climbs. The top of the last climb it plateaus for about 10km and we had a 30mph side wind that was a bit hairy at times, but I had experienced side winds like this at Kona and held my nerve. At last, I got to the fun part of the course which is a 30km section all downhill.
T2 appeared and I felt a massive relief because I knew at this point, I would finish the Norseman even it was on my hand and knees. As you leave T2 they tell you what position you are in the race. At this point I was in 171 position. My aim was always to try and get a black t shirt before I started the race but at this point, I was just overjoyed to think I might finish, and I didn’t care what colour the t-shirt was. My legs felt pretty good as I left T2 but I was physically and emotionally drained and my shoulders and neck were in a lot of pain. Probably due to tensing up on the bike from the cold. Usually, I am a strong runner, and this is where I would continue to overtake people, but I just didn’t have it in me that day and for the first time in my life the marathon at the end of an Ironman became a run/walk affair. The first 25km of the run is flat and it was a nice 17 degrees. I overtook a few people, and a few people overtook me so when I arrived at the bottom of Zombie hill I was pretty much in the same position as when I left T2. From the bottom of Zombie hill one of your support crew is allowed to join you. As previously mentioned, Zombie hill is a 7.5km ascent averaging 10%. I knew I didn’t have it in me to run up at this point but decided the best tactic was to power walk and this resulted in me passing 4 athletes who were clearing struggling more than me. I knew I was too far behind to get to the 32.5km cut off point within the 160 athletes allowed to go up the mountain but I did at least make it well within the 14 and half hour cut off. I arrived in 167th position. Ok not what I had hoped for but there is no age or gender differentiation in this race which makes competing as a 54-year-old female tough.
When I reached the cut-off point, I was greeted by the race director, and we have a brief chat about how brutal the conditions had been that day and then l took the left turn to the white finish. You go for about 2-3km and then you reach a ski hotel where they have set up a loop that you have to do 10 times to finish. Fortunately, they give you a card that they stamp 10 times, so you don’t have to count. Both my support crew joined me at this stage, and we walked jogged and laughed those final 10 laps. The atmosphere was amazing with lots of the volunteers clapping and cheering you on. You were made to feel that you had achieved something outstanding even if you were not one of the 160 black t-shirt finishers.
I would like to say a massive thanks to my support crew without whom this race is not possible. They had to put up with me having a couple of tantrums and also had to witness me in some very distressing states which cant have been easy. I have asked Elizabeth to write a report from her perspective as support crew to give you another insight into the race This might help any of you if ever asked to support an athlete whether you are up for the challenge.
What have I learnt from this experience? Firstly, I have confirmed what I already knew I am really really bad in the cold. Most importantly though I have learnt that in the face of adversity and extreme conditions I am not a quitter and although this race will go down as one of the worst experiences in my life it is also something I should be immensely proud of.
Finally I thank all of you if you did manage to get to the end.