extreme (ik-stri:m,)adj.

Extending far beyond the norm: 
Of the greatest severity;

This article was originally published by Lisa Irlam through Open Water Magazine, Issue 3.

It’s billed as the hardest triathlon in the world — Norseman Xtreme Triathlon, not sure I quite understood that when I got the place. I haven’t done a triathlon for 6 years and was just keeping the 3 sports ticking over. I entered on a whim and didn’t think I would get in, after all it’s a ballot to get in with around 3000 people entering for the 250 places.

It all starts with a 4m jump from a ferry into an icy fjord In Norway, followed by a 180k bike over 5 mountains and the highest plateau in Europe, then a marathon run including a 7.5k mountain at a 10% gradient commonly known as Zombie Hill. The twist is that the first 160 people get to finish even higher, right at the top of Mount Gausttoppen in a barren moonscape and get the honour of a black T shirt. The rest finish on a flatter course and get a white T shirt. Uniquely competitors also need to bring their own support crew to follow them through the race and there are no aid stations. At the full Ironman distance with 5000m of climbing it is seriously tough.

Training went really well with the help of a fab new Colnago Extreme C bike and I knew I had pushed my body as far as I could when I came down with shingles a month before the race. With the help of Ray from SwimCanaryWharf my swimming had improved, I was beating my husband up the mountains on the bike (that had never ever happened before) and my running was relatively fast and strong. I was the fittest I had ever been, bring it on.

Arriving in Norway we were amazed by the scenery, the journey involved a ferry crossing of the fjord, little was I to know that I would be jumping off that same ferry in 2 days time. That was one thing I was genuinely terrified of, I heard there was a chicken door at a lower level so was banking on that.

We had a couple of days to register, drive some of the route, buy the souvenirs and generally get pretty scared.

Race day starts early, but that was ok as it was impossible to sleep that night, nerves coupled with a massive storm put paid to that. The hotel put on breakfast at 2am and was thronging with competitors, support and crew. Then it was down to T1 just outside the hotel to eye up the ferry and check in the bike (we needed lights for the several tunnels on the course and these were useful in the pitch black pre dawn drizzle). Way too quickly it was time to board- good news was the water was a barmy 15 degrees, it’s been known to be less than 10 degrees and is often shortened for safety. Big problem though, there was no chicken door at water level this year, it would have to be the big 4m jump off the car deck or no race! Thanks Norseman.

Entering the ferry was like nothing else. All the athletes (yes they all looked a lot more athletic than me) were sat down each side of the car deck staring into space. As we set off some started meditating, others strutted around with earphones on psyching themselves up, photographers walked up and down trying to find atmospheric shots. The ferry sailed out 2.4 miles into the fjord then at 5 am the huge mouth of the car deck opened up to a tentative cheer and it was game on.

I hung to the back but amazingly didn’t feel too bad, but I did see some very scared faces. I was strangely calm and walked to the front, held my nose and goggles and walked off into the abyss. Oh my, upon resurfacing I realized it was really rough and dark. There was a strong wind blowing us back and waves all around. I couldn’t see where the kayaks were positioned for the start, they were nowhere in sight. I saw someone swimming back to the ferry with no goggles- how he would have got back on I had no idea. It was intimidating with the cold water, rough swells and noisy shouting. Eventually I found the kayaks and the ferry horn sounded to start the race.

I never thought I could do anything like this, it was the most terrifying thing I had ever done in lots of ways, but the most amazing. Despite the chaos and turmoil of the jump once I got into my swimming the stroke rhythm soothed me and I became one with the dark water.

As a fairly strong swimmer I was ok, as luck would have it I breathe to the right and avoided getting slapped in the face by the waves too often. Having said that, it was the toughest swim I have ever done though and could imagine the weaker swimmers being tossed around like flotsam. At last I smelt the bonfire that had been built at the start and made it to the cruise ship jetty where the support were waiting. I exited the water in 1:15 well in the top half of the field as it was a good 10 minutes longer than your typical IM swim.

Husband Jim was support for the day of course and was waiting to help get me on my way. No change tent here, it’s strip down in full view of everyone. If you are going to do it, make sure you are very friendly with your support team! Lights and reflective jacket on and was off. No rain now, that was good.

As expected I was passed by a lot of competitors to the bottom of the first climb, but they looked the business in aero helmets and super expensive tri bikes, I had a long way to go so wasn’t worried. Too soon the first climb from sea level to 1250m and the Hardangervidda plateau started. The course diverted off the main road up the old tourist path with spectacular scenery, massive cliffs and dodgy tunnels with candles for lighting. I made sure to eat and held my position, it was going well. As we rose higher though Norway started to test us, the wind started, a massive head wind appeared and gusty side winds threatened to blow me right off the road. The climb itself was fine, I had done much worse in training, it’s the elements that make this race so extreme.

Arriving at the top of the climb in Dyranut 35k into the bike, Jim met me to refuel only to be greeted by a snivelling wreck. “I’m not sure I can do this”, “the wind is too strong, sob”. He told me everyone looked really bad and just slow down if you need to, you are about 120th (he lied). Eventually I pulled myself together enough to get back on the bike and set off over the top of the plateau. The wind seemed to ease a little and I perked up. The countryside is just incredible, it’s so inhospitable, bleak and completely barren, rocks, lichen, lakes, rocks, lichen, lakes for miles. By then there were ominous storm clouds gathering all around and it was only a matter of time before the heavens opened.

A strong head wind and torrential rain are not a good combination and the next 30k were pretty bleak. This part of the course was supposed to be fast and flat or slightly downhill. What a Norwegian calls flat and what us English call flat are poles apart. It all seemed uphill to me. Jim stopped and doled out food every 10k, partly because I didn’t want to be alone out there too long. Eventually I reached the halfway point at Geilo and Jim welcomed me with a cafe mocha. I was downing gels like no tomorrow but everything else had started to taste of pepper or chilli, weird.

At halfway the fun starts, 4 mountains in the space of 60k. The first 2 were fine at about 7% gradient, the sun had even managed to break out and it had at last stopped raining. All hopes of a black T shirt had gone out the window and it was now a question of survival. I made it up the 3rd mountain ok but then there was a long plateau right into the headwind. That was a tough part and probably the lowest bit of the race. The tears started again and as I crested each small rise the road stretched on upwards. Norway decided to liven things up once more with thick fog and rain. The lights and reflective jacket made another appearance and the descent to the valley below was pretty scary.

Eventually I made it and now just had the hardest climb up to Imingfjell to go, it’s a 10% gradient for 7 k and wasn’t pretty, well the mountain was but I wasn’t. It’s not like climbing in the Alps where the hairpins ease off and give you a little time to take a breath, these are steeper than the straights so even if I took a break I would not have been able to get back on the bike without falling over. At the top Jim was worried as I had eaten all my gels (including all the ones set aside for the run) and I couldn’t stomach anything else. He begged one from another team and that revived me a tad.

The top of Imingfjell is another bleak plateau and although only 10k was supposed to be flat- it wasn’t. The fog was back along with the headwind and it was a very long 10k in my granny ring. After a lifetime and lots of talking to myself I thought there was no way I would make the 12 hour cut off time at T2. The last 30k was downhill but on the worst roads of the course, no potholes like back home but humps and bumps you could get some serious air over and some rough sections of gravel. A couple of men past me and another competitor’s car. The cars have the athletes numbers on the back and I knew this particular cyclist had not overtaken me, just that the car was speeding to T2. Everyone else may have but I was not going to let this one get by. I gunned it now to T2 thinking my day was over with a smile on my face. Norway had thrown all it’s weather at me but I would finish the hardest bike of my life.

T2 was in an idyllic spot by a lake but I was confused to see Jim waiting with my running stuff. “Have I made the cut off? I thought I missed it.” It turned out the race was 10 minutes late starting so I had made it with 7
minutes to spare. Oh no, how on earth can I run a marathon now? The swim from hell, the bike from hell, I wonder what the run is like? After a very public change of clothes and a mental note to invest in better cycle shorts next time, I headed out onto the road.

The first 25k of the marathon are flat (in the Norwegian sense of the word) around the lake. Running was incredibly painful as my legs were completely shot so it was a question of run 200m, walk 200m. Jim found a supermarket and stocked up on melon, blueberries and coke, about all I could contemplate. Well he did buy everything in the shop but I couldn’t eat anything else.

Slowly the kilometers peeled off, I overtook the men who had come past on the way to T2 who couldn’t run at all. After 20k Mount Gausttoppen 1880m comes into view, oh my words, there is no way I could get to the top of that. I somehow make it to the bottom of Zombie Hill and turn up the steep incline.

If you have ever cycled L’Alpe D’Huez you may have some idea of the gradient of Zombie Hill and it is relentless. The first couple of k were ok, I found a new purpose and picked off another 3 athletes closely followed by a trio of begging sheep. After 5k the legs were starting to lose it, my back was cramping and I tried to walk backwards but that didn’t help. I couldn’t stop, I knew if I did I wouldn’t start again. Incredibly I made it to 32.5k well before the 17hour cut off. Mount Gausttoppen loomed closer but I knew it wasn’t for me, I wasn’t good enough for the top but that was fine, I was going to conquer the race and get a t shirt.

After passing that checkpoint you can take as long as you like to finish the remaining 10k, which was good because my legs were now completely ruined and I was unable to straighten my left knee. There was absolutely no chance of running even a step.

That was the longest 10k of my life, it was now going dark so the head torch came out (and attracted all the bugs!). Again it was supposed to be a flat 10k, no way was it flat. Luckily we were booked into the hotel at the finish so Jim drove along and checked in then walked with me the last 6k along a 2 lap, lantern lit, out and back course. It was spooky seeing other competitors walking towards us but spirits were high, locals were out at the bottom of their gardens with bonfires and the organisers were supporting all the way. Just after 11:30pm we turned the corner and saw the finish, no tears now, just relief it was over. I knew that white T shirt had been thoroughly earned and would cherish it forever.

Jim took a minute taking the obligatory finishing picture and managed to lose the car keys (!) eventually he found them and we hobbled to the hotel where I finally collapsed on the bed in tears for the last time!

Norway certainly threw everything it had to offer at us and I didn’t think I would ever make the finish but the body is stronger than you think. I’m a Norseman and can do anything!

I’m not coming back to race it again though.

This story is from Issue 3 of Open Water Magazine, a magazine specializing in open water swimming and being active outdoors, the magazine is a quarterly publication that can be downloaded as a PDF from the website www.openwatermagazine.com

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Vince Sesto’s story.