Thursday, August 14, 2014

Norseman...the gritty details

In preparing for Norseman, I relied heavily on blogs and race reports from years past that offered tidbits on what to expect, how to prepare, and how to gear up.  Some of the more comprehensive race "reports" - the ones that are long and detailed, not the ones you write for your mother - were the best sources of information.  I also really appreciated some direct input from a number of Norseman finishers, who were so helpful and forthcoming about preparing for the race (in particular, Ann and her "Norsemanifesto".  So awesome!!).

Hence, this post is about paying it forward.  It goes into detail about what worked, what didn't work and what I would do differently...more of a play by play compared to my highlights reel that I previously posted.

Every race is unique.  Even if you have raced the same race, year after year, the day itself is guaranteed to be different each time.  So much goes into getting to the start line...and hopefully a finish line.  You aim only to control what you can control, and accept what you cannot.  I write here solely about the controllable factors - nutrition, gear, training, mental preparation - and not at all about the, competition.

(Editorial note...if you are not planning to race Norseman, this is a lot of detail you may simply not be interested in.)

My biggest takeway from the day was that specificity and experience matter.  On this race course, in these conditions.  Though I aimed to replicate the course in my training, without having actually trained (or previously raced) on the Norseman course, I was disadvantaged.

Driving the course and pre-hiking Gaustatoppen was smart and worthwhile.  It was the least I could do to gain some specificity before race day.  If you are doing the race for the first time...get to Norway in advance and experience first hand what you are going to see on race day.  I am pretty damned happy my first view of Gaustatoppen looming over me was not 10 hours into my race!


You do not survive Norseman without your support.  Don't misjudge this.  Your team (be it one or more persons) is participating in the race every bit as much as you are.  Communicate with them, be clear about what your expectations, and be prepared for anything.  With good planning and a bit of luck, they will not choose to leave you out there to fend for yourself!  (Particularly after seeing you all shrivelled and naked in transition.  Sexy, this race is not.)

Emotions fly high on race day.  Everyone is a little sleep deprived, overinvested and eager.  Be prepared to let things slide (even if they do forget to deliver you a gel precisely 15 minutes into the run, damn you!) and be flexible.  Consider having two people on support...a nice buffer between you and your spouse / best friend forever who is so very excited to help you.  Furthermore, if your well meaning spouse / BFF has never done a tri before and/or has no idea how to change a flat, it is probably best to have some additional support.  Likewise, the person you choose as mountain escort should fully understand the physical demand that Zombie Hill and Gaustatoppen requires, and understand that when the going gets tough that you will need them to keep you in the game.  Trust me, if your support goes soft and offers the way out to a DNF when you are being pummelled by the inevitable (choose one: cold/wind/rain/brutal weather/fatigue) will take it!

(That being said, as an athlete, I was truly not appreciative of mass support teams bogging up the road with multiple vehicles and trapping me on the trail up Gaustatoppen behind six people.  Be mindful of your footprint and how you are impacting other athletes.)

You've invested long hours of training and god knows how much to travel to Norway, the land of the $6 bottled water.  Don't start skimping when you get there, and stop converting NOK into your home currency.  Save the sticker shock for the moment you open your credit card bill, and by all means, rent a car big enough for all of your crap.  Repeat a car big enough for all of your crap!  Because you WILL have a LOT of crap.  Get the car organized and tidy, so your support team does not have to sit on top of your smelly wetsuit for hours on end and can actually find the water bottles you are yelling for.

Things that seem obvious may not be so on race day, so think about your plan in advance.  Make a list.  It may seem silly, but will make total sense on race day.  For instance, put something on your car on race day so that you can differentiate it from all of the other black Scoda wagons (a Canadian flag did nicely in my case).  Have your support wear clothing that stands out.  Get gear bags or bins to sort your stuff (blue for "bike", red for "run"!)  Accept that you will not be sustainable for one day and buy individual servings of drink mix so your support team needs not measure sticky little scoopy cups into bottles.  Little things. Think it through!


Did I mention how much crap you will have?  Let me highlight that.  Running races are put on a pair of shoes.  Triathlon is more complex than that, particularly over longer distances.  But Norseman is in a league of its own when it comes to gear.  Kid yourself not...this is no tri, it is an adventure race.

So much stuff to pack!

I chose to ride my Cervelo P5 Six with mechanical shifting, standard crank (53/39) and 11/28 cassette.  Bear in mind that I am five foot five and weigh about 115 pounds...not exactly a lot to drag up those hills.  I can totally see how a compact crank would be beneficial here, provided you can keep the desired power for the flat sections.

Gratuitous P5 fjord photo.
I am usually pretty comfortable on my P5 but found that I was fighting it on this course - there is quite a bit of side wind, and there is also traffic to contend with on the road.  The final descent is also pretty rough - technical and steep, with some rough pavement.  Based on this, I think there would have been a lot of benefit to having a road bike with tri bars.  I would have much preferred to be on my R5 on that sketchy last section, but there is definitely some give and take with the aero advantage of my P5 on the windier / flatter sections.  So in my mind, the decision to ride a tri bike here is not a the research, go with what you are comfortable with.  (Or, be like Tim DeBoom and ride a hybrid!)  

I rode Shimano DuraAce C50 clinchers with Conti 4000S II tires (23mm) and latex tubes, and felt they were a perfect choice.  The C35 would have been equivalently good, shaving off some climbing weight but offering less aerodynamic advantage in the wind.  I have been riding the C50 for a few years, and bucked the trend to put on carbon wheels.  Quite simply...braking capability is a good thing.  The life-screeching-before-your-eyes experience of hauling down a hill in the rain on carbon wheels is not something I voluntarily put myself into (been there, done that...goodbye carbon wheels).  As for 23mm vs 25mm tires and the rolling resistance debate, beggars cannot be choosers - I am just happy that 700cc wheels and 23mm tires actually fit onto my tiny little size 48 Cervelo!  

I went with the Specialized Evade as my helmet, not necessarily due to aerodynamics but for comfort.  This it not a true TT bike course, and comfort factors heavily.  My aerohelmet is heavy and uncomfortable, and as such, my preference was the Evade.  However, a comfortable aerohelmet would be an appropriate choice as well.

Due to the remoteness of the race, my bike tech kit was beefed up from what I would usually travel with.  In the support car, I carried an extra tire in addition to spares, extra CO2, a floor pump, extra chain, extra brake pads and miscellaneous stuff like electrical tape, zap straps, teflon tape, etc.  Jeremy (my mechanical guru slash support team) also had with him a pretty robust toolkit, including a torque wrench and a chain break.  My crew also carried with them several litres of bottled water, wet wipes and sponges, extra chamois cream and sunscreen.


On the bike, I wore my trusty old (read: smelly) Specialized tri-vent shoes with Pearl Izumi thermal toe covers, with Solestar inserts and Icebreaker wool socks. In retrospect, my road shoes (Pearl Izumi PRO Leader II) would have probably been warmer and just as comfortable.  The road is rough in places (both sections of chip seal as well as some rough road), so the carbon sole was perfect.

My Pearl Izumi E:Motion Tri N1 were awesome for the first 37.5k of the run.  I just started racing in these shoes this year, and am really impressed by them.  They feel light and quick, are comfortable and the built in elastic laces make them easy to slip into.  The elastic laces also manage swollen, sore feet really well, stretching with your feet but never feeling too loose or tight.  There is absolutely no reason to be in a light racing shoe for the first 37.5k provided you are an efficient runner - the pavement is in great shape, and your tired legs will appreciate having a lightweight shoe on.

At the 37.5k checkpoint, I opted to switch into Pearl Izumi E:Motion Trail N1.  These shoes are as responsive as a road shoe, but offered a bit more traction and feel on the trail leading up to Mt. Gaustatoppen.  It was also just really refreshing to put a clean pair of socks and new shoes on!


I chose not to dress "tri" for this race and opted out of the traditional lycra tri suit, feeling that it was not a particularly good choice for any leg of the race.  It's a long day and I chose instead to wear very specific, technical gear for each section of the race.  Given how wet we got, the opportunity to change into dry, comfortable gear was very much welcomed!    

Here is a run down of what clothing I chose, and why.

Orca RS1 Predator wetsuit
Double silicon cap, earplugs
Blue-tint Aqua Sphere Kaiman goggles
Ratty old training swimsuit

Wetsuit choice is just a personal one - I like how the Orca fits and feels in the water.  I chose not to layer up with a neoprene cap or booties, again a personal call based on the stated 16 degree water temp and my training swims the days before the race.  The water was brisk, but certainly not worth the discomfort of either booties or a neoprene cap.  It was a good choice and I was totally comfortable for the swim.  Besides...Canadian girls are like polar bears, right?  ;)

I chose blue tint googles to trick myself into believing I was in a lovely Caribbean sea.  Not entirely effective, but I did really like the brightening effect of the goggles.  Someone tipped me off to this after swimming Alcatraz in clear tint.  Blue is just so much better!

No booties required.
Icebreaker 150 base layer
lululemon sports bra
Pearl Izumi PRO In-R-Cool Shorts and PRO jersey
Pearl Izumi arm sleeves
Pearl Izumi PRO Pittards gel glove
Pearl Izumi Elite Barrier vest
Vesti friends reflective bike vest

Dressed as a roadie!  This is my tried and true Vancouver, all-weather training "uniform".  The wool base layer works magnificently whether hot or cool, and the choice of a high quality chamois and appropriate bike kit for the long 7 hour ride was a good one.  Wearing good bike shorts compared to terrible tri shorts made a huge difference.  As a relatively small person, I find it challenging to find gear that fits well, and made it a priority to have bike gear that was fitted and not flapping in the wind.  As we were required to wear a bike vest and anything off the shelf totally hung from me, the proprietor of the bike vest company was so kind as to send me a small sample size.  Given how long we were eventually required to wear the reflective gear, it turned out to be a good decision to get something of good quality.

When the weather went south, I swapped my vest and fingerless gloves for the very awesome and water protective Pearl Izumi WXB jacket and PRO softshell gloves.  Fresh gloves made it possible to hang onto the wet aerobars and keep my hands warm on the treacherous descent.

Pearl Izumi PRO tech top
lululemon sports bra, speed shorts
Headsweats visor

What can I say?  I dressed like I was going for a run.  Lightweight and comfortable.  The lulu shorts are ideal insofar that they have several pockets and I could pre-load with gels so I did not have to worry about grabbing nutrition out of T2.

I had arm warmers and warmer layers available to me lest the weather dictate otherwise.  As it was humid and warm, I did not need these and was able to go light, fast and comfortable on the run.

Arc'teryx Aerios 7 pack with water bladder
Arc'teryx Cita wind jacket
lululemon speed shorts...pair #2
Icebreaker short sleeve run top
Icebreaker wool long sleeve technical layers, gloves, hat
Petzl headlamp

As Dan was my only mountain support, we kept things minimal and light.  Arc'teryx gear is, quite simply, the most amazing, weatherproof, lightweight mountaineering stuff out there (and made in Vancouver!!) so we chose it for its functionality.  The daypack was perfect - it fit a 1.5L water bladder, as well as extra clothing and some nutrition.  I packed all of my extra clothing in a ziplock bag to keep it dry and ready for it was humid and damp, this turned out to be a great choice.

I did not use my wind jacket or the long clothing layers until I had actually finished, as I found the wool run top and my run shorts to be sufficient.  However, other athletes were ascending in thick layers including jackets, pants and even down vests / jackets.  It seemed overkill for the day we had...but warmer layers could be a worthwhile precaution if you are susceptible to cold.

At the top, I did regret that I did not have my down jacket with me as it was very windy and cold after the finish.  We had left our Arc'teryx Cerium LT jackets at home...I wished I had mine!


Nutrition plans vary wildly between athletes, so I will be brief as my plan may not be relevant to yours.  In short, I failed miserably on nutrition and needed to absolutely be more diligent in eating and drinking according to my plan.  My failure was more related to execution rather than the products I used.

On the bike, it was my intention to carry 60 to 90 minutes of nutrition and top up from support as required.  I had two bottle cages - one downtube and one behind my seat, carrying bottles of EFS drink. Although the EFS carries a pretty solid dose of electrolyte, I found myself getting dehydrated, with salt residue on my bike shorts, and started supplementing with one Saltstick tablet every 30 minutes.

On the bike, I aimed to eat every 15 minutes and drink a minimum of one bottle of EFS per hour.  Wind and course conditions (and then pure stubbornness) mixed up my plan quite a bit, and the solid food I had intended to consume on the first half of the bike just was not going down the way it did in training.  I used a combination of GU Gels (salted caramel and vanilla-orange roctane; aiming to balance out the caffeine intake), EFS liquid shot (carried in a flask on the run), Prima nutrition bars, PowerBar smoothie bars and chocolate rice crisp bars (of the grocery store variety).  I also ended up eating some of Dan's honey stinger gels, some watermelon supplied on the run course and flat cola on the run.

Coming from a failed nutrition plan, my only recommendation would be to go with what you know...and barring that, have alternatives.  I found that the bars I ate in training, while effective once I could choke them down, were just not going down very well.  

My other recommendation would be to eat and drink early, even before you need it.  There were several sections later in the course that were so challenging due to the elements that I was too terrified or occupied to eat and drink.  I estimate that I failed to eat anything during the final hour of the ride.


Leave your expectations and your ten pieces of Ironman finisher gear at home.  You don't just punch the ticket to a finish here, and quite frankly no one here cares about your fourteen iron finisher medals at home.  I can guarantee the Norwegians racing this for the second, third, sixth time on their home turf really are tougher than you.  

There is a lot to be said for being confident and believing in yourself, but this race is simply different.  To master it requires not just experience at triathlon, but experience on the course itself.  Be open minded, and be mentally prepared to deal with those ups and downs...for longer than you have probably ever dealt with them before.

Respect the locals, respect the location.  Pick up your garbage, thank the volunteers, don't be a jerk tourist and appreciate every quirky and awesome little detail of this race.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Hēia! Norseman 2014

Racing Norseman was a powerful experience, and is a day that I struggle to find the words to capture.  The distance, the terrain, the weather – spectacular, daunting, primal, impossibly possible.  Like the scenery we experienced in Norway, it is challenging to find superlatives that adequately capture the experience.

The media you have undoubtedly seen - the videos and photos - do the race justice.  Norseman, quite simply, is spectacular in every imaginable sense.  Scenery so perfect that it could be computer generated, unfathomably difficult in its abrupt climate changes and elevation gain, and precise in its organization.  The race organizers have painstakingly created an elusive and exclusive event.  It is not just the lore of the event that captures attention.  This is a top-notch race – all logistics magnificently handled, incredible volunteers, and the Norwegian locals are welcoming and friendly.  I am absolutely in love with these pure, grassroots events, similar to Alcatraz, where the entire focus is on athlete experience.   

Even more extraordinary is that the race is not a solo effort - your team is as much vital to the day as your own efforts.  Without them, you simply cannot get through the day.  Your crew provides all your aid and nutrition, and in my case, a voice of reason.  I am not sure if Jeremy and Dan fully understood the wild ride they were in for...but by the end of a long Saturday, we were indelibly a team.  

My rugged support team...the race entirely impossible without them!
Swimming in the dark

Looming against the dark fjord, bright lights of the car deck ablaze, the infamous ferry is even more ominous in person than it appears in photos.  Almost without exception, the athletes boarded at 4am in nervous silence.  Stay warm, stay calm, soak it in.   

Start captured by sports photographer Delly Carr 
It took about 40 minutes to reach the “start line” in the fjord – being a line of kayaks in the water. I approached the edge of the car deck tentatively, where they were allowing about 20-30 athletes off at a time. Not a fan of heights, my “jump” was more of an awkward bobble…hurling myself awkwardly from a seated position on the ferry deck into the dark water below.

With water temps hovering around 15 to 16 degrees, the water in the fjord was temperate enough to allow me to swim as I would usually at home in English Bay – double cap, earplugs, no booties or neoprene cap. Nonetheless, the shock of the cold water and fear involuntarily invoked panic. It was a scene to behold – swimming in a dark fjord, the ominous deck of the ferry glowing behind me - and yet it was incredibly tranquil and otherworldly. So unreal.

The swim course itself is pretty challenging – no buoys, no markers, just an L shaped swim along the shore back into Eidfjord. You truly do get dropped off in the middle of a fjord. There is but one turn, at a small boat about 3k into the swim, impossible to see from the start line. 

Although I am usually a very nervous swimmer, I managed to compose myself during the 400m swim to the “start line”, and found the swim start to be very tame in comparison to the thrashing 1000+ person events I have previously experienced. Despite some cold sections of water and the foreboding darkness of the steep rock face reaching above me, swimming in the fjord was trance-like. There were few swimmers around me, no panic, no stress – it was luxurious, and I took it easy. Swimming in a fjord is, after all, a life experience to savour.

Go time

Whereas the swim was the calm, the bike unleashed a storm.  Stripped down, redressed and kitted up, Jeremy had me out of T1 efficiently and I was on my way up the mountain.  The first 35k of the bike course is simply incredible, traveling from the base of the fjord to the Hardangervidda plateau nearly 1,200m above.  The course traverses narrow bike paths, candle-lit tunnels and steep inclines before reaching the first opportunity for aid at Dyranut.  In a word:  primal. 

The start of the bike course...

...compared to the barren, but spectacular Hardangervidda
I reached Dyranut in just under 2 hours (yes, two hours of climbing).  I quickly ditched my reflective vest, replacing it with a wind vest and arm warmers for the traverse across the Hardangervidda plateau.  In vast contrast to the breathtaking climb, the plateau itself is windswept and rather bleak.  Head- and crosswinds cropped up, and the cat and mouse with several of the other women began.  I felt strong during this section, and found my cycling legs around 60k of the course.  The omnipresent cheering (Hēia! Hēia!) spurned me forward - I felt amazing, confident and buoyant (and was even in fourth place at this point).

At Norseman, however, comfort is fleeting.  It was more humid than I had anticipated, and halfway through the course (near Geilo, and before the start of the heavy climbing) I felt tired, dehydrated and hungry.  The gels I was consuming were insufficient, and the amount of fluid I was drinking was inadequate.  Too late to save my climbing legs, I started taking salt tabs and solid nutrition.  Whereas normally I feel strong on the bike, I struggled to find my legs and my spirit soon followed.  I carried on stubbornly, with the trademark Jasper Blake optimism that perhaps the next moment, or the next one, would offer some reprieve.    

At the halfway point at Geilo, the Norseman bike course goes ballistic.  Climb after relentless climb, with no reprieve on the downhill due to sidewind, traffic and rough roads.  I consider myself a “climber”, and yet during the last major climb at Imingfell, I honestly felt that picking my bike up and walking would have been faster.  Jeremy and Dan were doing their best at leapfrogging me to provide support, both of the nutritional and the emotional varieties, but the slippery slide had begun.  At the top of Imingfell, I was completely spent.  Almost 6 hours in, and we were being instructed to put on reflective vests and turn on our bike lights…a giant black cloud loomed ahead. 

What should have been the start of a fast ride across the plateau and descent into the last section of the course became a hellish battle against the elements.  Battered by heavy wind, I kept turning my crank…edging slowly along the plateau.  12 kph on a flat.  And it only got worse.  Torrential rain started, visibility was limited to a few feet.  Soaked through, tearful and no longer able to feel my fingers or toes, I pulled over and let my support team layer me up with a rain coat and new gloves.  I was physically exhausted, nearly hypothermic and incomprehensible…leading into the most technical section of the course.  Featuring hairpin turns in heavy rain, with extremely limited visibility, the descent was harrowing.  I was terrified, spent and had lost all confidence in my bike handling skills.  I pulled over, and asked to quit.

The heavy fog captured by photographer Delly Carr
My team knew in advance that it was entirely possible the day would come to this - the point at which my emotional and physical investment would overwhelm me, and I would be unable to rationalize through it.  Jeremy and Dan, despite seeing me shivering in the cold and terrified, urged me on.  Ride slow.  Take it easy.  Just get through this section.  To be honest, I thought they were crazy.

And yet, their candy-on-a-string strategy somewhat worked.  I limped into T2.  Too cold to care, too scared to take my hands off my bars to eat or drink.  It had been over an hour since my last drink or gel, 3000 meters of elevation gain, and over seven hours in the saddle.  (Seven freaking HOURS.  My last Ironman ride was a 5:14!!!)  I simply got to a point where, despite being cognizant of the root cause of the problem, was simply unwilling to do anything about it.  Full bonk, in all its splendour.

Zombie slayer

Getting to Norseman was a dream and a journey and an investment.  To have nine months of sweat and dream culminate in a wild, frustratingly slow 7+ hour bike ride, in the most terrifying conditions possible, was maddening.  I had worked myself into a deep funk...a cruel by-product of failed nutrition combined with a technically difficult course.  But this, I reasoned, this was exactly why I wanted to race Norseman.  Because it's freaking Norseman!  This is no free ride!  It is not supposed to be easy!  Suck it up and check your expectations at the door, Richele.

Changing into dry clothes and runners in T2, I forced a mindset change.  Thank you, Coach!  I was in control of the outcome. Nothing ahead of me - be it hills full of Zombies or a bloody typhoon - could be worse than what I had endured.  Forget winning, or podiums, or seeded was now about surviving, getting to the top, and getting that damned black t-shirt.

I composed myself, and I ran.  Light steps, calm, easy, move forward.  In the first hour, on what any other day would be a lovely rolling lakeside run, I stubbornly kept my head down, forced back 6 gels, cola, water and ran my heart out.  It was not fast, it was not particularly graceful, but it was full of determination.  Every problem had a solution and, surprisingly, the more I moved forward, the easier it became.

Miraculously, buoyed by sugar and caffeine, I came alive on the aptly named Zombie Hill.  It became a game of repetitive execution and stubborness:  forty running steps, walk fast, repeat, over a brutal 12k of steep, paved incline.  Dan, knowing full well my limited mental capabilities, joined me, and we ascended without speaking.  We even managed to pass a dozen other athletes.  It was much too little, too late, but every painful step was one step closer to the top - that was all that mattered.  My determination to finish transcended the staggering pain in my legs, the fatigue, the urge to stop moving.

The elevation profile of the "marathon"
The mountain checkpoint at 37.5k presented to me not only the best watermelon of my life, but one of the most incredible opportunities...the summit of Gaustatoppen.  I passed the checkpoint with flying colors, swapped out into my Pearl Izumi trail runners (fresh shoes...oh, the bliss!) and happily moved up the rocky mountain trail.  The pictures and accounts of the day recount high winds, fog and cold, but to be honest, I do not recall feeling any of it.  I was wearing just run shorts, a short-sleeved wool t-shirt and my backpack, and felt no chill at all.  It's pretty incredible what determination does to the way you feel.

The ghostly summit - Delly Carr

Step after step over cobbly, rocky and steep terrain, Dan and I made our way to the summit in less time than we had tourist hiked it the week before.  Fourteen hours, seven minutes after jumping into a fjord at 5am that day...I was the proud owner of the very simple, but very sought after black t-shirt signifying the Norseman finish.  Best finishers shirt of my life!

The black tee.  Thank goodness it fits!

I am most certainly capable of racing faster here – it was definitely not a day I would characterize as being “full potential”.  But, as anyone who has experienced the race will attest, this course has a very fine way of diminishing you – simply finishing is a lofty goal in and of itself.  It is beyond humbling when survive becomes your goal within 3 hours of the start.  Am I being melodramatic?  As the pictures of the day and my support team can attest…not in the least.   

My biggest takeaway?  Norseman is a race that rewards experience and specificity – not just racing experience, but experience on the race course and in the brutal conditions that the Norwegian landscape delivers.  I vastly underestimated this.  To do well here, it is not enough to be fit and have raced the distance before.  You absolutely need experience on this race course and in these conditions.  There is simply no other race like it, and in retrospect, I vastly underestimated exactly how much this specificity would matter on race day.   As it was impossible for me to spend any meaningful amount of time on the course in advance, my principal weapons on race day were determination and a certain measure of naivety. 

Last Saturday, I found layers of myself that I knew not existed.  Certainly, I entered the race knowing that grit and stubbornness would factor heavily, but there was also fear, anguish and triumph in volumes more than I ever expected.  It was an incredible, soul-seeking, defining experience...arguably the toughest physical and mental challenge I have ever faced.


Congratulations to every other athlete who braved the day, and the support teams that made it possible for you.  The amount of bravery, heart and dogged determination out there was simply awesome.  

Huge thanks to the Norseman organizers for giving me the opportunity to race here, and for putting on an incredible race.

And, most of all, huge thanks to my entire support team...Jeremy, Dan, Jasper, my family and my training partners.  This simply was not possible without you.