Norseman Race Report by Aimée Sarah Middleton

The backstory

For the last couple of years, my coach Mike Bermingham has been telling me all about this crazy race he has wanted to do in Norway that he had a place for. “You jump off the back of a ferry into freezing water and you need a support crew to follow you around…” “Sounds nuts!” I said. “Rather you than me!”

Fast forward a few months; I entered the “Norseman Holiday Quest” – if you logged 4921 meters of climbing in your training, your name went into a ballot for one male and one female place. It was just a fun little challenge to keep me ticking over. There was no official ballot this year because places had rolled over due to Covid. And then on 25 January, whilst watching the broadcast of the name announcements, sure enough my name flashed up…oops. Well, if the universe wanted me to do it, who was I to argue? 

Norseman is famous for being one of the most difficult full distance triathlons. You start by jumping 4m from a car ferry into a cold fjord, swimming 3.8km to your bike, cycling 180km with 5 climbs that add up to more than 3000m of climbing, steep descents, exposed, cold and windy sections with the possibility of going through 4 seasons during the bike leg, before finishing with a 42.2km run that in the final 17km ascends almost 2000m. The first hill you hit is called Zombie Hill…says it all really. Unlike other races, there is no support provided by the race organisers; you must take your own support crew to keep you fed, watered, safe and warm. Should you reach the ‘cut off’ at 32.5km in a position higher than 160, you continue up the mountain to be awarded a ‘Black T-shirt’. The final 5km towards the finish on Gaustatoppen requires each athlete to be accompanied by a support crew member, and both must carry a backpack with warm clothes, a head torch, water and food.

Preparations began, and I found myself in Eidfjord on 4th August with my support crew, Kim Jameson, Nienke Gelderloos and Hjalmar Mulder, ready to race on 6th August. Unfortunately, my coach Mike had an accident 2 weeks before the race that meant he would not be able to race. I won’t share details here, but I can only imagine how devastating that was given he had been wanting to do this race for 8 years and had been support crew for others twice. I only mention it because despite his disappointment, Mike didn’t pause for one MOMENT his support for me, and for that I am so grateful and in awe of his ability to be completely selfless and just an awesome coach and human.

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Race start 

Race morning I woke up at 2am and looked out of the window just in time to see the arrival of the car ferry I would be jumping off the back of. Raining sideways and pitch black. Yikes. 

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After a small breakfast and beginning my hydration, I set up my transition area with the usual things, plus some possibilities for extra clothing (I knew it was going to be cold, but I didn’t really want to layer up until later on in the race), mandatory hi vis vest and lights, and enough water and nutrition to keep me going until I’d see my support crew again about 2 hours into the race. Once everything was done, I got into my BlueSeventy thermal wetsuit, socks and thermal skull cap, and got onto the ferry.

The ferry journey was actually pretty calm. Everyone is chatting and you can feel the excitement for the day ahead. A very nervous swimmer, as I peered out into the darkness, someone reminded me to ‘be confident in the water’, and I thought, that’s a really simple but great thing to focus and quiet your mind. I remember in Ironman someone saying something random that calmed me in a similar way – I really recommend chatting to your fellow athletes before the start as someone might just say the thing you needed to hear!

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The plan was to go through the hoses and get water into my suit to get accustomed to the temperature, and then try to get into the water as soon as I could. I stood at the edge of the ferry watching everyone jump in and just said to myself, ‘don’t think; just do’, and, holding tightly onto my goggles I leapt in to the icy darkness…

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After I had jumped, I stopped and turned to face the ferry just to take it all in as people were jumping off the back of the boat and as I smiled I thought, this is crazy. But I couldn’t help but smile. I can’t say it wasn’t chilly, but it wasn’t horrendous. Water temp at the starting point was 15 degrees C. There were some cold patches along the way, and the water temp at the swim exit measured 13.3 degrees C. A 200m towards the start line kayaks, a short pause to gather my thoughts, and the klaxon went.

I am a nervous and slow swimmer. My biggest worry was being left behind and panicking. I did my best to get close to people’s feet, which really helps me to stay calm. We kept the shoreline to the right of us and continued on toward Eidfjord. Things got tough. About halfway through the swim I could really feel the swim conditions changing. It was starting to get rough. Every time we passed an inlet, we’d get sucked into the side. And every now and again we’d start getting bobbed up and down – I’m not experienced enough as an open water swimmer to know why. Passing boats? Currents? I don’t know to be honest. If I righted myself to get my bearings, I’d get incredibly dizzy, and the feeling of going back into horizontal position felt awful. I had to just keep going but I was starting to panic and lose confidence and lose the flow. In most triathlons, there are buoys to aim for so you can see the progress you are making and you just go one buoy to the next. This race there is one buoy and it is about 3.5km into the swim where you turn left and make your way to the swim exit. And it took forever to get there. Counting to 20 over and over held my nerve and I finally finished with a depressingly slow time of around 1:29:14 – 15 mins slower than my worst case scenario. I’d also managed to swim more than 4000m – 200m longer than I should have done. But finally, I was done, and I needed to put that swim behind me.

My support crew member Nienke was straight on the case helping me out of my wetsuit and getting me ready. I was still a bit stricken so I wanted to talk and get some reassurance, but she was rightfully keeping me focussed, keeping my head in the game, and getting me sorted and back in the moment. I did notice that there were a lot of bikes left in transition, so I did think that maybe it wasn’t just me that had struggled in the swim, and it turned out I had been right. A few athletes had to be pulled out of the water and a few did not make the 2hr 20 cutoff. There were a few cases of hypothermia. The temperature at T1 was 11.1 degrees. It was cold, windy, and rainy. But I was ready to put myself to the test!

Bike section

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Strategy wise, the plan was to hit the hills harder and take it easy on the downhills and tail wind sections, making use of my tri bars I’d attached to my bike. I’d used Best Bike Split and input data to get a rough idea of how long the course would take me and to look at a race strategy, as well as plan in my nutrition stops which would be based on time. I’m not a hugely experienced triathlete and even less experienced cyclist, so cycling this amount of elevation in these unfamiliar weather conditions was going to be a lot of guesswork. Using BBS helped me to prepare as best as I could and be realistic about my goals. I cross referenced this with the recommended support stops given by Norseman and my nutrition needs to come up with my support crew plan.

There were a few other stops in between I’d asked them to stop at just to make sure I was ok but I didn’t want to have to stop unless it was really necessary. I had done a LOT of preparation and work with the support crew to try and keep the stops to a minimum. But I had done ZERO preparation for cold weather cycling having only really every cycled in the heat of Dubai. I had no idea how the weather was going to affect me, or if my gear was any good, and I just had to hope and convince myself that my Northern Bri’ish blood would see me through…!

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Nutrition-wise for the bike, I went with multi hour bottles of Hammer Nutrition’s Perpetuem (a 2 hour and then a 5 hour bottle), plain water, and Hammer Nutrition Extreme Endurance electrolyte tablets to be taken roughly once an hour. I wanted to keep calories, hydration and electrolytes separate to help me keep a better track of it, and I think this was a good strategy. Extra snacks along the way would include jelly sweets, mini snickers, pretzels and PB sandwiches – I really didn’t know how the cold was going to affect me when it came to eating and also comfort eating…!

The first 7km are flat which gives you a warm up into the first climb which is around 32km long and climbs around 1200m, where you go through dark tunnels and follow the old roads up towards the place where support begins. Then comes the mountain plateau. There are four more climbs to come of around 6.5km, 5.8km, 10.2km, and 15.5km, before you hit the 150km mark where support has to stop and you have a long, winding downhill into T2.

The start of the bike was wet and wild, but I didn’t notice it too much. I’d decided to wear my tri suit for the swim although I know some people got changed into their tri suits or cycling kits at T1. I added sleeves, cycling gloves, and neoprene overshoes. I didn’t put anything else on as I knew that climbing would heat me up a lot, and being slightly on the colder side would make me work that little bit harder. I had borrowed a fully enclosed Lazer aero helmet which would keep my head warm and dry, and it worked a treat. 

The climb through the tunnels and the old road was incredibly fun. I’d passed through this part the day before and you ascend through waterfalls and very enclosed and steep drops, though the weather and clouds prevented us from seeing any of that. Riding next to the white water of the Bjoreio and the Voringfossen waterfall though was very special.

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The first check stop, Garen, flew by, and I waved my support crew on. The next stop, Dyranut, was the start of the plateau, and this is where the weather took a turn for the worse. Here it is flat, exposed, cold, and windy. Temperatures had dropped to 2 degrees but with the wind, the actual feel was -4 degrees. I spent around 4 minutes at this support stop, the longest one, where it was incredibly difficult to put on my Castelli Perfetto jacket and Pearl Izumi Lobster Gloves due to both mine and my support crew’s hands being frozen.

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There was a vicious crosswind and I got very cold. I had lost the feeling in my hands and feet, although this didn’t bother me too much. It did hinder my gearing as for my left hand I couldn’t keep my fingers straight and strong enough to press the gears; I had to bring my full hand around to change gear. Electronic gears would have been helpful at this point. The cross winds frightened me the most, and I was too afraid to get down onto my tribars for fear of losing control of my bike. It took a lot of concentration. I couldn’t wait to get off that plateau.

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When we finally started to descend, I was hurriedly trying to catch up on my nutrition and hydration. I had been concentrating so much on not getting blown off my bike, and my hands had been too numb to take my bottles or electrolytes, and I needed to catch up, so I focused on that. Riding through Geilo was the halfway point and again the scenery was beautiful and I started to smile again and I could feel my hands again and I knew it wasn’t long before I saw my support crew Kim and Nienke again at Kikut, just before I started climb number 2. Here I deposited my warm jacket and gloves and took electrolytes. Kim tried to feed me a snickers, but it was so frozen it almost broke my teeth! 

The next three climbs and descents came and went and I was really enjoying myself. The scenery was amazing, the support crews were out in full swing, and my fellow athletes were doing an incredible job too. I kept seeing familiar support crews of athletes who were close and we began cheering each other on. Everyone is working together and gets to share in this special day, which is just as exhausting for the support crew as it is for the athletes. 

The final climb is pretty brutal. The steepest of the lot at around 8%, and just long enough to make you wonder where the hell the end is. I was slightly below my power target, but I was still having a blast, and I was just so excited to reach the top and see my support crew one final time. They met me with my gilet (which I knew I’d need for the cold descent) and more chocolatey snacks, and as I crested this final hill and saw the beautiful valleys all around me, I felt very emotional. From this 150km point until the 180km point at T2, I did not stop smiling for a moment. I was absolutely in my element. My support crew had done a fantastic job, we had worked together as a team, there had been no major incidents, I could feel my hands and feet, my nutrition was back on track, my bike time was well on track, the views around me were something else, and I was almost getting to my favourite point in the race: THE RUN!

I hit T2 so happy and excited to start the final leg and I couldn’t wait to get to Zombie Hill. At this point, I didn’t know my position in the race. I knew that the tracker was off, and I had been feeling that I had blown it because of my terrible swim. The fact that neither Kim nor Nienke had mentioned my position made me fear the worst, and I hadn’t asked because I wanted to enjoy myself as much as I could. I was finally brave enough to ask Nienke my position. 140 she said. ‘So don’t be shit in the run, and I should be alright!’ I thought. But as I left transition, someone was holding up a sign that by some miracle said, ‘YOU ARE IN POSITION 105!’ I couldn’t believe it. I was well on track for a black T shirt, despite my terrible swim. I just needed to hold on now. And not be shit.

NB I didn’t know this at the time, but I was in position number 154 out of the swim. A relatively quick transition there (6:24) moved me up to 128. I finished the bike at 108th with a time of 6:58:16 and came out of T2 in 105th position. Transitions and planning your support stops to be efficient matters!

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The Run

My favourite section: the run. Here, my support crew changed; Kim continued to drive but now Hjalmar took over from Nienke to support me on the run. The aim was to try and hold around 5-5:10 pace. There would be no need for stops, although I did need a small pee stop en route 😉 (no bikes were peed on in the making of this race). My aim was to take on 2 gels per hour, keep sipping water, and my treat at the bottom of Zombie Hill was going to be COKE!

There is a lovely flat 25km section before hitting the base of Zombie Hill, along the beautiful Lake TinnsjØ. You then climb at around 10% gradient for 7.5km to reach the cutoff point. If you reach the cutoff at 32.5km in the top 160, you can continue towards the top of the mountain, Gaustatoppen, to complete the marathon and earn a black T-shirt. From position 161 onwards, you turn left and complete your marathon in a slightly different route and earn a white T-shirt. My goal was to get a black T-shirt, and based on previous white/black cut offs from previous races, I thought I needed to reach the top of Z hill within 12 and a half hours. I also wanted to run some sections of Zombie Hill, just to try.

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By this point, the weather had really improved and it was quite warm (relatively!) at around 19-20 degrees. The run was lovely. I passed by a few athletes and the camaraderie was prolific. Athletes chatted as we ran next to each other, we discussed how the race had gone, we made friends with each other’s support crews…it was just a wonderful supportive atmosphere. You catch sight of the mountain looming ahead of you at around 20km, and for me it put a great smile on my face; I was so excited to reach it, and we were going to be so lucky with the weather if it held – the sky was more or less clear, meaning that we would have great visibility at the top!

I reached the bottom of Zombie Hill in position 83, and here my support crew Hjalmar was allowed to run with me if he wanted to. And he was raring to go! We mixed running and walking; up to the first corner, a km here, 500m there, until I reached the cutoff at 32.5km. Those 7.5km had taken me 1:10 and we had climbed around 600m. I was in position 79. I had made it! I was going for the black!

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A bit of a chill and chat with my support crew and some other crew members I had gotten chatting to, and we were off at a power walk. The road continued to rise up. Hjalmar wanted to keep running with me, and so Kim took both of our backpacks plus a change of shoes for me on the shuttle bus to the 37.5km point where the mountain starts, to meet us there. If I had been wearing my long distance Asics Cumulus trainers, I probably wouldn’t have changed, but I was wearing my Nike Vaporflys with very little grip, and the last section on the mountain is a scramble. Knowing I’d be tired, I didn’t want to take a risk of a fall. 

It started to get chilly, but my legs still had a bit to give, so we set off at an easy jog to keep warm more than anything else. At the entrance to the mountain, I relaxed a bit as the crew took our backpacks to check them. Both athlete and support must have warm trousers and tops, waterproof tops and trousers, hat, gloves, water, food, phone, money, and a headtorch. I used my Osprey 6L backpack and switched to my Asics Fujitrabuco Sky. I threw on my Montane Minimus running jacket, covered my ears and head with a buff, and put my running mittens on. Off we went!

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By this point, it didn’t really matter how I got to the top as long as I got there and got my t-shirt which had always been the main goal. However, many of the runners I had overtaken earlier in the run were now passing me with ease and I couldn’t understand how they had the power and energy! I had lapsed a lot on my nutrition intake because pushing this section had never been in my plan, and having run a lot of the previous section I was now tired and also getting cold. This part of the race is the part I have reflected on most and think if I was trying to be more competitive, I should have layered up more, run less on the way up so that I could have power walked the last section. I also relaxed so much, having photos taken with my crew, chatting away and just generally enjoying myself. Did I make the right decision? Only the days after my race, when I saw how many places I lost (I finished in 92nd place from 79 at the cut off) I had some regrets, but was position really important? Well no, but my competitive nature had something to say about that. With a bit more thought and planning, I could have done better, but I might not have enjoyed this climb with my support crew quite as much. The views were really spectacular as we looked around us. We had been so lucky with the weather for this part of the course.

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The scramble up to the top took a very very very long time. This is a super steep and little bit technical section. The finish point just seemed to never get closer. I got very cold, and had to layer up more. Eventually, we started the final few steps towards the finish line and it was like I had new legs; this huge balloon of happiness started to grow in my chest as I crossed the carpet and realised I had done it, I was a Norseman, I had earned the Black T Shirt with a finish time of 14:31:03!

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Race Reflection

Now a few days after the race I’ve had time to reflect on the training over the last 9 months. I can really appreciate now how well my training had prepared me for the race, both physically and mentally. My coach had included long sessions at the end of big weeks so I was prepared to ride and run long sessions exhausted and grumpy. I had calculated and practiced my nutrition strategy in advance. I had practiced running and cycling uphill with intervals and outdoor training as best as I could. The only thing I hadn’t really been able to prepare was open water swimming, cold water swimming, and cycling in cold weather to check my kit and to develop resilience in this area. 

I am enormously humbled by the people who were kind enough to support me. From just the small things like listening to me whinge or offering encouragement (my Mad4Tri crewmates!), helping me sort out the logistics of travel, lending me kit, giving kit recommendations or helping me with my purchases, helping sort out race day insurance (thanks David @ Sported!) cycling with me, being my support car during midnight bike rides (thanks Harri!) sending me messages with lots of advice (thanks Andy & Kieran!), giving me nutrition advice (thanks Steve Born @ Hammer Nutrition!), to being an incredibly patient and invested support crew. Nienke, Hjalmar & Kim you were just amazing and I can’t thank you enough. I am so happy I got to share the experience with some truly awesome people. My future husband Arda, you never complained for a moment about the fact that I was a zombie on most weekends and we barely got to see each other because I was either sleeping or too tired to do anything. You have been so understanding and encouraging. You reminded me that I’m a ‘tough bitch’ whenever I had doubts. And my coach Mike, there are no words to express my gratitude to you for always believing in me and giving me the advice, encouragement or kick up the arse I needed whenever I needed it. I have learned so much from you and still you have so much to give.

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Posted on 16th Aug 2022