Allan Hovda has won Norseman twice and there are likely more wins in the future for this young father who commutes via helicopter to his oil rig control tower job. He is hungry for more Norseman titles and super passionate about other tough long course races like The Triple Arctic and Swissman. We sat down with this Norwegian to hear about his life, training, fondness for his country and much more.
ST: Thank you for your time Allan.
Allan: You are very welcome. I must say it is an honor being interviewed by ST. I have been reading the site and forum up and down ever since 2008 when I first got my eyes up for triathlon.
ST: Will you have a little time off now or are you already getting ready for another adventure?
Allan: There is no time to take a break right now. 4 weeks after Norseman I did the test-race of the magnificent full distance triathlon in Lofoten of The Triple Arctic, and in the beginning of October I will do Ironman Barcelona. Both my body and mind are feeling the wear of the long season that started with Ironman South Africa in March, and thus I am looking forward to my long season break after Barcelona.
ST: The way I understand it, the 2009 Norseman race was your first serious triathlon.
Allan: It all started when I signed up for Norseman 2009. I was a recreational kickboxer back then with no serious endurance background. And of course I could not swim freestyle either. I did a sprint triathlon a couple of months before Norseman and had to do some breaststroke during the swim and threw up right after the finish line due to all the water I swallowed. The result was nothing to brag about, finishing under the second half of the result list. Still, I loved it! Compared to short distance triathlon, Norseman was a bit more up my alley and I finished at 14:00:08. It was 3 hours behind the race winner, but that did not matter at all. I truly felt like a winner and had pushed my own boundaries to a level I had never imagined. I did not just run up a mountain, I had to move it. Seriously, if I could make it in triathlon, everyone else can do it as well. Passion is the key.
ST: Since that day you finished 3rd in 2013, and won in 2014 and 2015.
Allan: Correct. It has been a journey I could not imagine when I sat in front of my computer signing up for Norseman 2009. Triathlon became my lifestyle since then and it has given me so many unique experiences, taken me to so many different places in the world, and given me the opportunity to meet so many great and interesting people. Norseman is a triathlon like no other and all 4 times I have done it have been really special to me. The first time I finished, the second time I was on the podium, and the third time I won it. This year was probably the best one because I won it with a much better and more competitive field. My performance in 2014 when I won with a 17 minutes margin would most likely have given me only a third place this year if I had not raised the bar with my competitors. To put it in perspective, Tim DeBoom won Norseman 2011 with a 4:19 marathon time. I had a nearly identical run time in 2013 finishing third, but this year I finished the run with a 3:43 time. It was a really fun day where my competitors and I got the best out of each other.
ST: How cold was that water?
Allan: The swim was the not-so-fun part of the day. It was 10.5 degrees Celcius when we started, but even a couple of degrees colder when we got close to shore. I tested the water two times before the competition and the first time I got into the water I thought “no, this not going to happen.” Then I noticed a local guy from Eidfjord jumping in the water for a swim with nothing else than his swim shorts. He swam around for what must have been at least 10 minutes, making it look like it was above 20 degrees. I guess your body can adapt to a lot of strange things.
ST: But I assume you would consider the decision to shorten the swim a good call?
Allan: Not all the fast swimmers were happy with the decision, but the problem is not those who can swim 3.8km in one hour or less. We are less time in the cold water and do generate more heat than the ones who use 2 hours or more. From a safety perspective it was the only possible decision.
ST: I noticed in this year’s race video that athletes got hosed with cold water before they jump into the fjord. Is that normal for the race?
Allan: Correct me if I am wrong, but I think this was the first time they had a hose to give us a fair chance to prepare the body for the cold water in order to avoid a cold shock. Personally I did not use the opportunity since I really dislike freezing and with 66kg on a 180cm tall body, I do not have a great body mass and therefore freeze very easily. That could have cost me dearly since I actually got a bit of a cold shock early on the swim which forced me to slow down in order to get my hyperventilation under control. Lesson learned! By the way, the Norseman organization has become quite a specialist in regards to cold water swimming and has a lot of knowledge on the field which they have shared on their website.
ST: What did you wear during the swim?
Allan: I used the HUUB Archimedes 2 4:4, which is a great wetsuit. The good flexibility around the shoulder and arms however comes with a cost, and that is that the suit is not the warmest. Therefore I used a Specialized sleeveless base layer jersey underneath, together with arm warmers. That actually worked a lot better than it sounds. I also used HUUB neoprene socks and swim cap. A couple of days before the competition I also bought a long neoprene swim cap at a surf shop to cover the neck, which I used under the ordinary neoprene swim cap. That also worked a lot better than it sounds. All in all, you might say I was covered well during the swim. In the process of preparing for this year's unusually cold Norseman I got some ideas for new products that would make swimming in cold water more pleasant. Hopefully HUUB will use the ideas so we can see some new products for this purpose next spring.
ST: Did you feel good on the bike?
Allan: My power output was higher than ever, averaging 295 watts from Eidfjord to Dyranut. Still Henrik Oftedal made me and my competitors looking like we were on a Sunday ride, increasing his lead substantially after each kilometer. That did not change my game plan to ride hard, but not too hard. My plan worked out pretty well and I was able to break away from Lars Petter and Graeme 40km before T2, arriving there in third position and feeling quite strong.
ST: Many folks wonder if a road bike makes more sense than a triathlon bike on that course. What did you ride and how was it set up?
Allan: I rode my Specialized Shiv S-Works with Zipp 808 front and rear, as always. There have been a lot of discussions and opinions about triathlon or road bike at Norseman. While I respect other opinions, I am not in doubt that a triathlon bike is a lot faster for Norseman. I have tested my Shiv against a road bike in a wind tunnel and ended up with a theoretical loss of 18 minutes over a 180km flat course. Norseman is hilly, but not that hilly. The downhills are mostly of the non-technical kind where triathlon bikes offer a great advantage. I also question those who say you cannot climb with a tri bike. A road bike feels better when you are climbing, but does it go faster with the same wattage? I think not so much.
ST: What power meter do you use?
Allan: I use the Polar Kéo Power pedals. Early on they had some compatibility issues with the 17mm thick S-Works crank, but with new and shorter bolts on the pedals it has been working great.
ST: This year Rasmus Henning was part of your support crew. Was that extra motivation or pressure?
Allan: I meet Rasmus Henning at Playitas in 2012 when I bought his book and kindly asked if I possibly could join him on a run or a ride. The next day I was riding with Rasmus, Dirk Bockel, and an enjoyable Spanish cyclist. When we stopped for a coffee after a couple of hours I asked Dirk discreetly who the Spanish guy was. Dirk responded “Don’t you know who that is? It is Oscar Freire, the 3-time World Champion.” By then I had been riding with him all day and asking him questions like “are you a pro cyclist?” and other similar questions. He did not say anything to reveal my obvious lack of knowledge but I remember he smiled a lot. Ever since that ride I had some contact with Rasmus and joined his Team TriNordic in 2013. It was great to have Rasmus on my support crew and he was running with me all the way from Zombiehill to Gaustadtoppen. I get unusually “chatty” when I run, and he was both great company and a great tactical advisor. Running up the last 4.7km in the mountain he made sure that everyone, including the regular tourists that have never heard about Norseman, knew that I was the race leader and some cheering would be appreciated. I got a lot of cheers.
ST: As the 2-time defending champion, do you now have to return in 2016?
Allan: Winning two times in a row sounds good, but three times sound better. [laughs] I will never quit when I am on top because I enjoy the experience of Norseman so much. Next year will be my fifth Norseman which means a green jersey if I finish, and I definitely want that jersey.
ST: You have done plenty of other races including the Ironman World Championships and 70.3 Worlds, including 2014 where you finished 7th in M25-29 in Kona. Did the race there go for you as you wanted?
Allan: My performance in Hawaii last year was decent, but I am usually not happy with decent. I made some errors in the preparations, which I think were the main reason I did not make it to my AG podium. Spending three weeks on Hawaii before the race sounds good and it truly was, but it also meant I had to do a fair bit of training in very hot and humid conditions. That did not go very well and combined with problems sleeping in the heat, it made me a bit off when it came to the race day.
ST: How well do you deal with heat in general?
Allan: I have a body very well made for the heat with my low body mass compared to the height. Acclimatization is still very important and that can be a challenge for me and everyone else who lives in colder conditions and travels to races in hot conditions. I have done my share of suffering in the heat especially in warm races in the spring and late fall.
ST: The 70.3 Worlds were held in Austria this year on a course that should have suited you, but I guess you were busy with Norseman and the Arctic Triple Challenge. Any regrets?
Allan: 70.3 Worlds would be great, and I generally find the 70.3 distance to be good fun and with a limited need for recovery afterwards. Both my heart and talent is nevertheless for the long distance, and especially those in wild and magnificent conditions. The Norseman is unique in all its raw beauty. Lofoten Triathlon, the triathlon in The Arctic Triple is held in one of the world’s most beautiful places, just picture search Lofoten and you will see, and gave me one of the toughest, wildest and most memorable experiences so far. I would not be without any of those two.
ST: Swissman is another race you have done. Talk about that race.
Allan: Swissman is another of those unique races held in a landscape that takes your breath away. I did it in 2013 and loved both the competition and the area surrounding it. Ascona, were the race starts, is actually very close to Como in Italy where Jenny and I got married in 2011. The place is therefore very special to us. Jenny wants us to do Swissman again next year so I hope I can get it to fit into my race schedule. The insanely hard bike leg destroyed me in 2013, and I barely could hold my position to finish ahead of the female race winner Emma Pooley. I definitely need my revenge on Swissman and the bike course best described as heaven and hell.
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Allan: I must use this opportunity to give a huge thanks to Jenny who is my wife, my sports director, and my biggest supporter. She uses all her hard-earned vacation days from her job as a lawyer to travel to races with me. Two months before Norseman we had a son, Jonas, and she took all the "night shifts" the week before the race and was still performing flawlessly as chief of the support team. Needless to say, she was more tired after the race day than me, giving it all so Team Hovda could perform its best. For that I am eternally grateful.
I will also use this opportunity to encourage all the Slowtwitch readers to travel to Norway and do a triathlon. Ironman 70.3 Haugesund, Norseman, and Lofoten Triathlon are my top recommendations, but there are many other very nice races of various distances.
While I am at it I can mention that my blog triallan.com is the most read Norwegian triathlon blog, where I share my adventures, training, and equipment tips. It is in Norwegian but sometimes the pictures are great and Google translate does a decent job. You are very welcome to check it out.
ST: I thought you are not happy with decent?
Allan: Perfection is something I think a lot of triathletes seek (even if we know there is no such thing as a perfect race), but as with many aspects of life I have to settle for decent.
ST: Well, good luck in Barcelona and enjoy the break period after.
Allan: Thank you very much! I have a time goal of 8:26 [Norwegian IM Record] and coming to the competition directly after 2 weeks working night shift at the oil rig, I need all the luck I can get if I am going to reach my goal. I guess you are going to Kona in the not too long future, so I wish you a nice stay over there.
ST: Thank you.