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.


  1. Wow. That is good! Congrats to the finish and congrats for finding the suitable words.

  2. Thank you for writing such a beautiful account of the day. Amazing

  3. Great article, thank you for sharing. Congratulations on finishing the Norseman.

  4. Well done and congrats! Brilliant article.

  5. Congratulations on your completion and thanks for the great report!

  6. Congrats on finishing, your story is a motivation to get there one Time

  7. Wow what an accomplishment! Your report was very persuasive and inspiring, along with your determination to finish. Kudos to you for doing something that most of us only fantasize about!

  8. Sounds amazing. Loved the article. Tried to enter this year but didn't have any luck :(

    You should look into the Israman race in Eilat Israel. You'll like it.

  9. Amazing ! Subs to the blog !
    Will try the lotery this year !



  10. really nicely written and inspiring article - thanks!