The Marionettist of Norseman is Busy

Dag Oliver is maybe best known for his passionate work as the GM of the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon in Norway, but he is a man of many talents. He is an excellent photographer, works with the ITU and like many other parents during the COVID-19 pandemic, he is currently adapting to his role as an unskilled teacher. But Norseman, while postponed until 2021, is also keeping him busy, and on Friday, October 9th at 2pm EST the Norseman SOLO movie will be unveiled.

We chatted with Dag Oliver about how COVID-19 impacted him, the race and those closest to him, and his thoughts on moving forward.

Slowtwitch: Well hello Dag.

Dag Oliver: Hello Herbert.

ST: With Norseman not happening this year, what has kept you busy?

Dag: Interestingly enough, with Norseman not happening, I've been busier than ever with of all things, Norseman. I guess we'll get back to why.

That said, even if the workdays have been hectic, the total absence of travel has made it possible to do more of what I really enjoy. Hanging with the kids and getting a steady training regime back in place.

ST: What does steady training mean for you?

Dag: The steady part has been something like this. On the mornings my wife deliver the kids to school and kindergarten, I get out early on my bike, ride up along one of the ski slopes at Oslo Winter Park, stop for a quick swim in one of the lakes up in the forest and return home for another day at my home office.

ST: What is the situation with COVID-19 in Norway and how has it impacted you?

Dag: Like many other countries in the world, Norway closed down mid-March. And just in time, it looks like in retrospect. The number of COVID-related hospitalizations and fatalities has been minimal. Working from home has been widespread. Luckily there were never any curfews or similar in effect. So with social distancing and a ban on larger events and gatherings, Norway has had full control over the spread of COVID. Right now, infection numbers are rising, but it seems our health authorities are in control.

For myself and my family, 7 weeks of closed kindergartens meant that my wife and myself worked 50% each and spent opposite days working as unskilled preschool teachers.

ST: How are you faring as an unskilled preschool teacher both in skill and patience?

Dag: Luckily, the months the kids were at home coincided with an enjoyable spring. Time was spent outside, and we created a local mini cohort with a couple of kids in the immediate neighborhood. Fingers crossed, we don't close down again now with autumn storms and dark winter days coming up.

ST: What are the regulations for events in Norway as we speak?

Dag: Right now, events up to 200 people are allowed on a national level. But there are local stricter guidelines in various places based on local spread threat.

ST: Have you had friends or neighbors who either got sick or have financial difficulties because of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dag: It seems that our whole network of neighbors, friends, and family has steered clear of COVID as of now. We have, of course, not seen a lot to our kids' grandparents lately.

In times like this I'm happy to live in Norway. Since March, the Norwegian welfare system has been on overdrive, making sure that very few have had financial difficulties due to the pandemic. There was also put into place solutions to support businesses, cultural events, and sports events affected.

ST: Some folks have reported that while the whole situation is difficult, they have found some positive in all of this. Is that true for you too?

Dag: I have noticed a couple of things. I have been a remote worker for close to a decade. Suddenly asking for a web meeting is no longer frowned upon, and you can expect people at the other end to have both a mike and a camera, and even know how it works.

The second thing I really enjoyed was being pushed to innovate and delivering the innovations ready-packaged in the shortest possible time.

ST: Let us talk about Norseman. When did you make the decision to postpone the race and how hard was it to announce it?

Dag: We started working on various scenarios in early March. Three scenarios were presented for our board on April 15th. We had communication plans ready for all three. When the board decided to postpone for one year, we basically just had to select the right communication package and inform our team, athletes, sponsors, and other stakeholders. Worth noting is that we did let ourselves inspire from how the team at Challenge Roth shared the news about their race.

ST: What was the feedback once it became public?

Dag: Positive all across the board. I think most of our athletes, to a certain extent, felt relief that there was a decision made, and they had one less thing to worry about. Even the feedback from athletes disappointed with our decision came to us on a positive note.

ST: Allan Hovda did the event solo, on his own as a training session. What did you think when he first approached you?

Dag: We said no. But then I started thinking, knowing that a mini Norseman project (later called SOLO) could solve a couple of things for us. One was filling a hole in our film archive. On a typical race day, we don't really have time to get the drone shots we always set out to get. This was an opportunity to get those. I also realized that this could get us a real Norseman 2020 film, instead of the "best of all previous years" film we had on the drawing table.

So Allan and I grabbed a socially distanced coffee next to the new Munch Museum in Oslo and hammered out a plan for a day of swimming, biking, and running through the Norseman course, SOLO.

ST: Once Allan was on course that day, how strange was it for you to see just one, and what was your role that day?

Dag: During the SOLO day, Robby MacBeath, who was filming, and I jokingly concluded that this was the best Norseman ever. We could enjoy what we usually don't have time for. Getting the shots we wanted. Get far enough ahead of Allan to enjoy a sip of coffee on the plateau while preparing cameras and drone. Best of all, the first finisher was the last, and we had dinner at a decent time and be in bed by 10 pm rather than 3am.

By the end of the day, having only one athlete on the course did not feel strange at all. After five months of social distancing, it seemed almost natural. And I must admit that even if it is a long shift for the production and safety team, we all somewhat relaxed throughout the day.

I was there primarily to coordinate and to be Robby's designated driver. But I did have my cameras with me, managing a shot or two.

ST: That SOLO effort happened about a week before the race day. What did you do on the actual event day and what was going through your head?

Dag: The Norseman Board had been very explicit, that with no 2020 race, no activities should be planned for the race week along our racecourse. For me, this meant that for the first time in 12 years, I could prioritize my real family over my Norseman family. So we packed the car and took off for a weekend at some friends cabin just south of Oslo. Almost forgetting that we had thousands of athletes worldwide participating in the race week Norseman Festival of Climbing either on Zwift or in the real world.

ST: Did you keep catching yourself checking your phone for updates?

Dag: Nope. I sat down with my Mac in the evening just to check the status of the Festival of Climbing.

ST: What is going on in preparation for 2021?

Dag: Normally, we would be ramping up for the draw for next years race about now. But alas, over 98% of the 2020 athletes moved their slots to 2021. So we will have no draw.

We are just starting to activate the key recourses in our volunteer team. If allowed, we will get together for a planning weekend somewhere in the mountains late fall. We do not expect the COVID issues to have entirely disappeared by next summer, so we will put a lot of effort into having at least two sets of plans. One plan for Norseman as usual, and one for Norseman where COVID is still a significant factor.

ST: It is generally the view that races might survive one year of postponement, but very few could handle two such years. What are your thoughts on this topic?

Dag: I've been pondering on this a lot lately. The question is, what would kill the event. Money, logistics, loss of interest? I think it's easy to think of money as the killer. Still, for us, where the vibe of the event is very dependent on Norseman being a melting-pot for forging friendships among athletes and support crews from all over the world, international travel may be what kills us in the end. Or, that may just make us stronger. The harder it is to make it here, the greater the feeling of victory and conquest can be when crossing our finish line.

As event organizers, we all need to do these mental exercises considering different scenarios for the future. The world will not be back to normal come summer 2021. That may or may not affect us. But as we keep telling our athletes when they embark upon the Norseman journey. Prepare for the worst, and hope for the best.

ST: In your view how different will racing be next year? Not just for Norseman, but in general.

Dag: I expect that mass participation events will take on a very different format if allowed to run. Avoiding spectators, extending starts, smaller groups, massive focus on social distancing.

I think we will see many athletes turning to sports where the focus is more on the experience than the results. Where you can stay fit and active without continuously having to worry about social distancing and facemasks.

Virtual racing is here to stay. Not necessarily just on a trainer connected to a gaming platform, but the ability to test yourself against others irrespective of place.

Travel may be a turn off for many. This may result in participation demographics being more regional or national.

ST: On a more personal note, what has kept you busy?

Dag: Hehe, you know, not organizing Norseman has been crazy busy. Norseman is a train running. When it's not there, we've had to come up with other stuff to keep our network engaged.

A preview of the Norseman SOLO film is here:

Norseman Solo. - Coming soon. from Robby MacBeath on Vimeo.

Image 1 © Kai-Otto Melau
Images 2, 4, 5, 6 © Dag Oliver
Image 3 © José Luis Hourcade