Norseman Xtreme Triathlon 2012

Our own Lisbeth Olsen Kenyon challenged the world’s toughest iron-distance tri in her native country of Norway, coming in 3rd woman overall behind German pro Anette Finger and Norwegian Charlotte Knudsen. The top three, along with Norwegian power-biker Cesilie Skollerud Hegna, beat the existing course record. This is a race that has to be experienced, as a competitor or crew member, to be believed. It is one of a kind. The terrain and starkly beautiful scenery are unforgettable. Watch the vid full screen – it’s in 720p.

Lis’ race report:

“I want to create a completely different race, make it a journey through the most beautiful nature of Norway, let the experience be more important than the finish time, and let the participants share their experience with family and friends as their own support. Let the race end at the top of a mountain, that way it will be the hardest ironman-distance on earth.”
Paal Hårek Stranheim (Hårek), Norseman creator, 2001

Last year, Norseman moved the swim start further in the fjord because of cold water temps which made the bike portion 20km longer. No one complained, no one asked them to cancel the swim. Norseman has been on my bucket list for some time but that sealed it for me. There is nothing luxurious about this one; you show up responsible for yourself and prepared to possibly race through 4 weather seasons in one day. There is no warming tent after the swim nor changing tents. No smørgåsbord nor porta-johns lined up along the course. The mentality is old school style. You get 16,400 feet of climbing with 6,200 feet in the last 10 miles with breathless sights along the way unique to the terrain in that part of Norway. This is where you realize: trolls do live.

Living in a flat state (Rhode island), I should have made an effort to seek out similar terrain in my training but the time equation couldn’t be solved for me. Looking at my log, I trained an average of 13 hours per week for the past 6 month; anything more would impact family and work – for a hobby. That doesn’t seem like much but the sessions I did required this old body more time to recover. Given these limiters, Coach Al focused heavily on functional strength, mobility and movement skills. In fact, I started my training by taking 2 weeks off from running to concentrate on building my glute strength and resetting some basic movement errors that would cause injury if I didn’t correct it. I actually had to re-learn how to walk up the stairs correctly, avoiding using stabilizers even in simple movements. It would be an experiment to see if I could get up the mountains without the specific hill training but equipped with new found glute and core usability. Coach Al reflects on my prep in detail in his video blog here .

Arriving Norway I got sick with a cold and jet lag was particularly bad associated with some pre-travel stress. My mom spoiled me with all the tricks in her book and I started Dr. Barry Sears’ high dose fish oil and anti inflammatory supplement (maqui berry). I took the week off from training. With 3 days to go I felt good again. While traveling the bike course backwards on Friday on our way to the race with Per Gunnar, daughter Gina and my crew (husband Todd, son Lars, brother Tom Erik), I realized this race is way bigger than me. I changed some pacing strategies on the spot to be more conservative. I was seriously concerned about the descents. This, in my opinion, is a race you have to do a couple of times to learn how to prepare and pace optimally. We used this drive to plan nutrition logistics; the support car has to park all 4 wheels off the narrow roads or the athlete gets penalized. The first 40k (25 miles) has limited spots for parking off road plus athletes go in and out of tunnels and on and off the old road which is too narrow for cars. By the time we reached Eidfjord, we had a detailed plan.

A quick practice swim in the fjord was up next, something I had been dreading: Per Gunnar and I take the plunge from the dock to mimic the jump off the ferry. I quickly aim for the swim finish to get the heck out – it feels like ice to me; my face is numb. PG who has crewed and raced before makes me swim out to show me it gets warmer further out. And like a true Norwegian, he tells me being cold is all in your head. The pep talk is powerful. The Norseman swim is no longer an issue. I can sleep at night.

Race morning Sunday: breakfast buffet at the hotel opens at 2am; a zombie like atmosphere there. Bike check-in 3:15am. Ferry departure 4am. EARLY! I have seen videos of the ferry ride – it is exactly like that. Faces staring nowhere. Silence. I decide to skip the neoprene cap and swim socks that Blue Seventy had sent me as the water temp seems bearable (they will come in handy during the fall bay swims in New England prepping for Kona) – I opt for Vaseline instead. Thick layers on hands, feet and face. 4:50am time for The Jump. Wetsuits and yellow caps walking slowly toward the edge. Another Brick in the Wall lyrics are stuck in my head. I have the same feeling when I was a kid and had climbed the 10 meter dive board with the realization it was a bad idea but couldn’t be gracefully reversed. Jump into the dark 400 meter-deep fjord; it is surprisingly comfortable. An eery feeling that I have been there before. Line up and then the ferry horn starts the race. I swim alone and take it easier than normal. It is magical to see the steep mountain walls next to me. I have done 100s of triathlons but feel like a beginner today. The hour feels short and soon I enter the ice cold waters near the end. Todd waits in T1 with a thermos of warm water that he pours into my wetsuit upon exit – a surfing trick. However, my transition takes eternities. I have no feelings in my hands and can not get anything on! Lars is standing on the side yelling this is the slowest transition in history! Thanks, son. But it was. Maybe I should have poured that water on my hands instead. Swim time 1:01.

Reflective vests and lights are mandatory the first part because the old road had seen a rock avalanche so we had to go through a long tunnel reserved for cars at that spot. I am stopped at the entry to this tunnel and told I could not go on. I quickly explain my vest is indeed reflective, only fashionably white instead of yellow. The gentleman quickly pushes me on my way. There is no way to forget the vest, we are reminded throughout. There is also no way they will let you pass through without it – safety at Norseman is top notch.

It is hard to focus during the first 35k – incredible terrain, I am dizzy looking down the steep walls. I am also surprised at how hard some of these climbs are. I have never been on an ascent this long. I see my crew in Vøringsfoss and then at the top in Dyranut. I am made aware I am third woman – first one is German pro Finger and second is hammer-girl (Cesilie – named by my crew as she is pounding everyone on the bike). Over Hardangervidda we have 50k of good winds and good roads. I see my crew often; I lose my water bottle at one point and ask my crew to drive back to retrieve it. Hardangervidda is a national park and you cannot litter. This stretch is above the tree line and very desolate. It reminded us of Kona in that it is a large open area vulnerable to elements of weather and winds. Long sticks line the roads so that the snow plows can see where the road is during winter.

The 3 smaller mountain passes go well, 3k, 4k and 3k of climbing at 6-10%; I bike within myself and am patient. But I am an old lady on the descents. In retrospect, if I can redo one thing it would be to practice downhills and switchbacks. I lose a lot of time during the downs but I am safe. I am not taking any risks – the rains started on the 2nd descent. The bottom of the climbs are warm; roll down arm/leg warmers and zipper down – It is cold on the tops; roll up arm/leg warmers and zipper up. And so it goes. 4th and last mountain – up Immingfjell – this climb breaks me. It’s a 6k very steep climb that takes forever. I keep looking for a smaller gear even though I know it isn’t there. The climb is followed by 10k of slightly up before you hit the last 30k descent. I am stick a fork in me done by the time I hit the last down. Then the torrential rain and hail start – all during the last hour of down. The roads are bumpy, my arms are tired, my hands are gripping way too hard, the speed is scary – I try to relax my shoulders some and pump my brakes so they don’t overheat. My teeth are shattering uncontrollably. But my mood is good – the bike is almost done, no flats nor crashes. I am happy to be there. Crew waiting in T2 with a lawn chair. How to get back up. Bike time 6:35 which is 1:36 slower that my fastest Ironman bike.

Run – first 25k is flat. Stomach feeling not so good; in and out of the woods a few times before working it out. And then I lose all appetite. Crew is offering all kinds of different foods to try to motivate me, including meatballs. I turn to water and banana. I am not too concerned about bonking. I do Hawaii on 200 cal per hour plus nutrition on the bike has gone as planned. This flat stretch is slower than normal for me. I knew it would be when I stepped off the bike. Lars tells me there will be a fast former college runner passing me soon but that I am gaining on 2nd. Soon Knudsen passes me, light on her feet, and I am in 4th. At 20k you see Gaustatoppen and you feel insignificant. Finally, Zombie Hill starts at 25k – I am starting to feel better and I find myself in 3rd place. I am elated that long time friends Jane, Nils, and Anne with significant other Pål are following me; by foot, by car, they are everywhere. Motivation is high. The winner from past years, Susanne Buckenlei is there yelling to not slow down now. Lars and Todd run the whole 17km uphill with me; Tom Erik is in charge of the car and nutrition handoff to the crew. Appetite is still stagnant, small bites of banana and diluted Powerbar Perform. Walking is almost as fast as running but I find a rhythm that allows me to run 80% of it. 9km of Zombie Hill is extremely steep then another 6km less steep, and then you get to the entrance of the rocky finish climb. Medical looked at me and let me pass without question. Normally at this point in Hawaii I am in survival mode and leaning slightly to the left. Here I am feeling stronger and stronger. Mental note to not stop my planking routine.

Finally we get to the mountain entrance – I am thinking this will be easy as the rocks don’t allow for much running. Oh so wrong I am. Backpacks are already checked in so no delay. We are 11:41 into the race – to break 13 hours we need to cover the last 4.7km of rocks in 1:19. I look up and say that’s impossible. Tom Erik tells me we will do it. He has hiked Gaustatoppen carrying his skis many times. If he has any doubts, he is hiding it well. Todd gets up front and chooses the line. Rocks are painted with a red T to show the path. Tom Erik is behind me and now his mountaineering instincts wake up – he whips us up the mountain barking out instructions – don’t get sloppy now, focus on footing, balance, balance. He reinforces when the tempo is good, tells Todd to up tempo if we catch up, feeds me a bite banana every 10 minutes, makes me increase the tempo when rocks are flatter. Lars is hanging in there in the back. It never ends. Rocks are everywhere. Just rocks, wobbly gray wet rocks as far as the eye can see in all directions. We are on all fours climbing some of them. Now I get why people in the videos are holding their quads. Every time I look up, the radio tower is still far away. It is so much steeper in real life than the videos show and it is way less smooth than I expected. This was the hardest part of the day for me because we are now chasing the clock. What I really wanted was a sit down coffee break. All of a sudden the tower appears big and we are there. Again, a familiar feeling that I have been there before. We make it in 12:46. Maybe the hardest one hour and five minutes I have done, mentally. You feel like you are on top of the world up there – on a clear day you can see 1/6th of Norway’s area. Run time 5:00 which is 1:50 slower than my last Boston marathon. This race is epic!

I need to mention the winner Henrik Oftedal’s performance; 5:15 bike – 10:23 total time. Simply nuts. I challenge any world class iron athlete to beat that one.

Thanks to my super fabulous support crew who I obviously couldn’t have done this without and who had to hike back down the rocks while I took the mountain elevator and train. This one I will never forget.

Big thanks to my sponsors FuelBelt, Kestrel, Coach Al, Pursuit Athletic Performance, Powerbar, Speedfil, Zoot Sports, ZoneDiet, Blue Seventy, Bont Shoes, ISM.