Jenny Gowans from New Zealand won the 2008 Norseman Extreme Triathlon and was kind enough to send us her race report of that unique event.
"I had heard nothing but good things about Norseman and I was looking for a break from racing fast on the Ironman M-dot circuit. Norseman offered the perfect solution – a race that would be an adventure and one I would need to treat with even more respect than a conventional Ironman. So I signed up for Norseman 2008 and I was not disappointed.
Not only is the course very difficult – over 3000m of climb on the bike and 1800m in the last 17km of the run – but the weather conditions change the race from year to year so you can never know exactly what you will face come race day. However, the fear this instilled in me made me commit to training like never before and this resulted in me having a very good day.
Norseman is a point-to-point race that takes you on a spectacular journey through dramatic Norwegian countryside. Every competitor needs their own support team and car and, with weather conditions constantly changing, the car needs to be full of numerous race wear options and plenty of nutrition. One of the best aspects of Norseman is this support crew requirement. The Norseman team makes it very clear at the briefing that the support crews are as important as the athletes and you soon appreciate this once you start racing. My support crew was faultless and proved that organisational and motivational skills are more important than knowledge of the intricacies of triathlon racing.
The race begins in the dark at 3:45am when you board a car ferry along with 200 other wetsuit-clad athletes. This is the most surreal part of the day as you wave farewell to your support crew and settle into the bowels of the ferry for the hour-long ride straight up the centre of the fjord. Just as it seems to be getting a little lighter, you are called to the top deck and given a 10-minute warning to the start.
For me this was the most frightening part of the day. It wasn’t the 4-metre jump from the back of the car ramp that I was dreading but the temperature of the water. But with five minutes to go I jumped in and was pleasantly surprised: the water was beautiful – 17 degrees this year – and comfortable with a wetsuit and neoprene hat.
The ferry horn sent us on our way and soon I was swimming with clear water in front and only two others in sight. We had been warned the current was against us this year so I headed for the shore and stayed close the whole way. The swim is the best experience I have had in any triathlon race. The water is dark but clear, slightly salty and every time you breathe you catch sight of mist hovering over the water and steep mountain sides plunging down to the side of the fjord. There are no buoys or markers - you just swim in a straight line up the fjord towards the twinkling lights of Eidfjord before making a left-hand turn around a rowing boat that takes a bit of finding.
I exited the water 9th overall and 1st woman by around 20 minutes. I knew I had had a great swim although due to the current my time was over 20 minutes slower than expected at 1 hour 18 minutes. This was my sort of race - with tough swimming conditions the swim seemed to mean something more than the usual warm up for the bike and run.
The bike course allows you a few kilometres to warm up before you head on to an old tourist road for the first 25km climb at 8% that will bring you out at the 40km mark. This was my first support crew stop and I needed to layer up with a winter jacket and knee warmers.
From here the course takes you across the stunning Hardanger plateau before you descend into Geilo to hit the halfway point on the bike. This stretch really cost me time – it should be fast and we were lucky this year with a slight tailwind – but there was driving rain for most of the way and I was getting desperately cold. As I had feared, it was the weather conditions that threatened my race rather than the extreme course.
Over this section I watched the support car for number 21 coming up past me and stopping for a time check – I knew this was the support car for the second woman on the road. After 70km I stopped seeing them and I assumed this meant I had stretched my lead. Now I know they no longer needed to pass me because she was eating massive chunks out of my lead.
From Geilo it all started to look better. The sun came out and we headed on to three climbs in quick succession all between 3-5km long and 7-9%. Normally I am in my element on the hills but although I was able to ride strong, I could no longer feel my feet or hands. At the top of the middle climb I sat down at the side of the road while my selfless support crew massaged my feet and changed my socks and toe warmers. Although this made me feel better it was not a good sight to see number 21, Heidi Harviken, fly over the top of the hill at high speed in full aero set-up.
Back on my bike and a little warmer I knew I couldn’t match her speed on the flats or descents so I settled into riding well on the hills and trying not to lose too much time on the descents.
At 135km you start the last climb, Imingfell. This stretches on for nearly 10km at 9%. This climb is a classic and switches back on itself just like any good climb should. I was starting to warm up now and climbed well to come back to within three minutes of Heidi. The top of the climb levels out across a beautiful plateau for 10km with plenty of wild flowers, houses with roofs covered in grass and mountain lakes. Spirits rise along this part of the course as all you have left is a 30km descent into T2.
But I rode badly for the last 30km – I was more tired than I realised and when I hit the flatter final 10km I realised the cold had taken a real toll on me and I had very little left to give on the bike. I rolled into T2 over eight mins down on Heidi and very glad to see the back of my bike.
I knew I needed to regroup in T2 to get my race back on track but my longer-than-usual transition meant I went out onto the run over 15 mins down. The run was beautiful and as the route quietly undulated around the side of a lake I quickly got into my running stride. Time checks were being made by the number 21 support crew but they were also being made by my main support man Johnny and we knew we were catching her.
The run is mainly flat for 25km before you hit Zombie Hill and Gaustatoppen mountain for the last 17.2km. With Heidi coming into sight I decided to run hard on the flat to try and put as much time as I could between us before the mountain where I had no idea how I would fare. At 14km I passed her and willed myself to keep the pace up. Later the race organiser, Haarek, would tell me that he thinks the smart way to race is to do exactly the opposite, although on this day I don’t think I would have won if Heidi had me in her sights on the mountain.
At 18km you see the Gaustatoppen mountain in front of you and you realise that 1880m is a very high race finish. The stretch from 18km to 25km passed without event and I just focused on hanging in to the start of Zombie Hill.
Funnily enough I felt like the race was over at Zombie Hill and all I had to do was walk my way up 7km of switchbacks and then the mountain. This allowed me a lot of time to eat, drink and reflect back on the amazing journey so far with my support crew. We were all in great spirits and I was getting messages that my boyfriend, Richard, was also having a dream race and even running parts of the hill.
The support from other crews and the Norseman team on this hill was phenomenal and I soon found myself at the 32km mark and being directed towards a mountain top finish. From 32km to 37km the road really levels out and on any normal day you wouldn’t question running this road. This is the one part of my performance I really regret – I walked this section. I walked it fast, but I walked and I really wish I had run.
At 37km I put my backpack on and Jonny and I headed off the road and on to the mountain. I have never had any natural talent for walking or mountain climbing so I knew I wouldn’t be making any time on this section. I was content to walk my way up and savour one of the best views you will ever see.
People were applauding me as the first woman on the mountain but I suddenly realised that I had no idea how close Heidi was. A quarter of the way up the mountain we were greeted by another member of my support crew, Toby, and I asked him to wait there and see how much time I had on Heidi. After too short a time the call came through to Jonny that she was not far behind – I really had relaxed too much.
So I had to leave Jonny to struggle up the mountain with his very heavy backpack full of celebratory beers and make haste to the top. Halfway up I realised most of my food was also in his backpack and I deliriously asked a stranger for some sugar. The chocolate produced gave me the final energy I needed to reach the mountain top. I got to relax over the last 10 minutes when I could see that I was going to be the first woman at the top of Gaustatoppen.
Crossing the finish line after just over 14 hours was pure elation. To win was a dream and it was even more special at 1880m. Tomato soup has never tasted so good and sharing it with Richard (the first non-Norwegian at the top) and our support crew of Jonny, Toby and Piers was priceless, as was the two hours it took us all to walk down from the mountain.
The prize for reaching the mountain top is a black finisher’s t-shirt. Those who don’t make the top complete the distance on a lower road and receive a white t-shirt. All the t-shirts are presented the following morning and there are no special prizes for the winners because at Norseman all finishers are winners.
The sheer enormity and challenge of the Norseman race is what made me train and race smart and it is a race I will never forget. Finally I have found a race sticker that I am proud to stick to my bike box.
If you are looking for a race that is run across spectacular scenery and by a race crew that organise the race for the right reason – a love of the sport – then you must do Norseman."
If my report hasn’t convinced you then have a look at the video at http://www.youtube.com/user/nxtri