Charles Breen was one of the lucky 250 who won the lottery to compete at the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon, one of the world’s toughest and most iconic long-distance races. By the evening of 6 August 2016, he numbered among the few and brave who finished it. With a 10% dropout race, this year’s edition was one of the toughest. Here’s how his race went, in his own words.
So exactly how does one write a race report? Yes it was hard, yes I loved and hated it simultaneously, yes I want to do it again, yes I should have trained better (regularly at least – sorry Justin) and yes you all really rock (that last bit may not be entirely true but I was told it would increase the chance of you reading until the end and this might be a bit lengthy).
So the Norseman is in Norway. For all the Americans in the group that is a bit to the right of Canada on the Big Map [;p]. Norway is famous for heavy water, silver, ammunition, fish, and people with axes and long hair that like boats, as well as Thor, Odin, Loki and the gang. It is also gorgeous in the Xtreme. Whoever does this race PLEASE make sure you spend more time there than I did, as there is so much to soak in. And on top of that it is Scandinavia, you know, the place where all your teenage wet dreams went to live and… Seriously, even the ugly people are attractive. I kind of hate Norway to be honest; in that way you “hate” the captain of the football team when you are 14 (damn you Tim Wotton, she was mine).
Anyway I digress so let’s get back to Norway. I have had the fortune to travel reasonably widely in this world so far but this place is truly and wonderfully straight out of Tolkien. And don’t get all Peter Jackson on me, I mean full on, no holds barred Tolkien. I spent four days waiting for the landscape to start talking to me from the many faces peeking from the crumbled cliff sides. Four days waiting for a troll to pop around the corner and smash up a few things, chew on a few sheep, and grumble off into the fog. Granted it may have been jet lag but just check out the photos and understand they aren’t even worth ten percent of what’s actually there. Don’t think me all urban boy gone pastoral though, Norway is bleak, it’s frigid, it’s unforgiving and if you don’t do exactly as it suggests you will most likely die unpleasantly. Unlike my ex however, I very much want to see Norway again.
Justin Granger is a fantastic coach; he laid out monthly plans adjusting them to my weekly schedule. I read each one diligently, the gradient of the treadmill, the cadence on the bike, the rest time between sets in the pool, the LSDs, the TT work, the Bricks. Mainly that is all I did though from my “sitting is the new smoking” chair in work. The bits I was able to complete were gold and I genuinely recommend Justin’s plans to everyone in this group.
I only wish my work was less unpredictable so that I may have done them more justice. There were points in the race where I was able to roll back mentally to those sessions and have confidence that I could sit on that cadence for hours if needed when going uphill then get out of the saddle for a little burst before settling the heart back down again. For that I am grateful.
The trip and preparation
This part is more a little bit of advice. If you get into the race IMMEDIATELY book a room at the hotel next to the start and the hotel next to the finish. Under no circumstances wait 6 months before doing so. This is what I did and that added a lot more time in the car and thus a lot less time sleeping and prepping for the race. Both the start and the finish are in small isolated locations so if you don’t book early you will regret it. Oh and when I said “I did” it was actually Jorn who booked everything after offering to do so as I still hadn’t got around to it (cheers mate).
My crew/support team
Jørn Ivar Andersen – known to many as Bruce. He is a local Norwegian gent and legend with what now should be a Gold MaccaX membership. Well prepared and positive in attitude he saved the day a few times (more about that later)
My brother and father – my two main cheerleaders in life (and smiling shakers of head when I’ve screwed up) they have provided much comic relief through my years of competing at basketball, at karate, at windsurfing, as we well as my recent attempts to hold on to my youth with triathlon.
Race Day (yes we finally got here)
Set-up – the race brief is on the Friday but bike check in is done on race day morning at 3am. There is some awesome swag in the swag bag (it’s what happens when profit isn’t the motivator) and then the shop is full of branded goods (take a credit card or two). Even the support team gets some solid stuff, like a thermos and mugs to keep them warm and caffeine-up, as well as a great T-shirt.
Race day Check-In (a.k.a. Jorn saves the day part one)
3am: As you roll into the transition area with your single support member (wearing the support t-shirt) they check you for the usual numbers, helmet etc. They also check your bike for lights as you will go through tunnels lit only by candles!!! Super cool but scary as hell at first. So get the brightest lights you can and make sure your glasses are photochromic. Then they check your hi-viz top at which point the not-at-all-flexible woman on the check-in tells me that mine isn’t good enough as it has a black panel on the back that is too big…. I’m 6’4” and with that top on look like a Christmas tree but oh no that’s not enough, I need to look like a lighthouse (on reflection (pun intended) it makes sense and considering the conditions that day even more so. She did her job well).
So the day is almost over before it starts, as the computer had said no. Luckily for me Jorn had recently robbed a local builders merchant and had the appropriate dawn creating vestment so we were back on (legend).
[Side-note: while doing the race I noticed a lot of people who had hi-viz jackets that were the equivalent of pencil torch from the 1980s so I guess the trick is don’t go through the queue I did.]
4am: The ferry leaves and makes its way in the dark along the fjord to the start point. If you need the toilet then get on the ferry first. There was still a line as we were getting ready to jump a 4:40am. It is a small group of people compared to most races and you really get a good idea of how people are feeling when you are all rammed into a tiny space on a ferry. Fear, excitement, fear, anticipation, fear, readiness, and lots more fear. And that was just from looking at my own reflection in the windows.
4:45am: Been hosed down with ice-cold fjord water to help us get ready for the leap into the black. The ice-bucket challenge has nothing on that f-f-f-feeling. Nothing like a stiff breeze to help too. Then the front lifted and we were on. The jump from the ferry is not so bad (remember to hold on to your goggles) and the water was not so cold as it was up to about 12 degrees I was told. I had a thermal gimp hat and boots on as well as the wetsuit so no issues (will skip the boots next time as they filled with water and came half off almost immediately – not helpful). We paddled over to the start line and waited for the gun. 260 or so people ready for a mission, a full day of bleak and cold. A more lively, jovial, and friendly bunch of madmen and women you will be hard pressed to find.
The wind just picked up coming left to right and bringing chop with it.
5am: And we’re off. 260 people hugging the coastline (to our right) for a 3.8km swim should space out pretty quickly right? None of that Ironman pugilism and must-win-the-first-100m-of-the-swim bull, right? Wrong! That last bit was true but as the wind and waves increased we were banging off of each other for the full 3.8km (most likely did far further than that distance too). The chop pushed you all over the place so sighting every second or third stroke became necessary.
It was the hardest swim I have done and seemed endless. I should be able to be done in 1hr, on that day I was expecting 1hr10. In reality I bounced my way off of people and rocks to a seemingly slow 1hr20. Later learning that the quickest exited around the 1hr mark and used to be a professional swimmer made be feel a bit less useless. But who cares, I’m actually doing the Norseman. Oh yeah!
A bit of banter with Jorn, chuck on a cycling top and the lighthouse gear as well as some cycling full length weather resistant leggings (another Jorn save as I didn’t have such items and boy did I end up needing them), and ready to hit the mountains.
At 93kg 3,000m of climbing is never going to be an easy day out but for the first 35km of climbing it was brilliant. The wind was coming up the valley from the fjord as we snaked along what were more like goat-paths than actual roads. The going was slow for most of us so there was lots of encouragement shouted to each other, and when you looked back across the valley lots of jaw dropping at the sheer beauty of the cliffs and waterfalls on the far side. If I’d had my iPhone with me I would have paused for a few pics for sure (wasn’t going to win the race so might as well get some memories to share) but alas not allowed.
And then the fog came. As we crested the first climb we hit cold fog and the wind that had been behind was now coming in from the left hand side. Thankfully my team was waiting at the 30km mark (we had initially agreed to the 60km mark as I could cover that without needing to refuel). Quickly I changed into my thermal cycling top and gloves throwing the hi-viz on top for good measure. Up ahead lay a very exposed landscape but with 4 degree C temps, a cross wind, and very low visibility it was paramount to stay as warm as possible and to be seen from as far away as possible (it’s a single road linking towns so had many trucks coming the other way as well as the support cars for the other 259 competitors driving by us and jockeying for the limited parking spaces roadside from which to assist their athlete).
Nobody said it was going to be easy. It is cold, windy, and there is very low visibility but at least it is not… noooo! Rain, not a bit of drizzle either, freezing cold, heavy rain slicing in on that wind. At least I brought my waterproof shoe covers. I bet they are nice and warm in the back of the car 30km or so up the road from me right now. Feet? What feet? Legs? What legs? Balls? Well you get the picture. The adrenaline spikes that came each time a truck roared out of the fog punching you with a wave of air and spray as it passed keeps your mind off of your frozen extremities. Then come the downhills. Did I mention I am 93kg? This was extremely good fun. Rain and visibility be damned 60kmh plus with little effort here I come. Also around this time the fog lifted and we were left with rain and wind only. Again you have to have seen this place to believe it exists.
- Slog uphill for kilometer after kilometer warming up as the wind chill from travelling at speed went away and warmth spread to my legs and arms as my heart rate went up from the effort.
- Crank along the relative flats at the top for a while, looking in front at the little yellow flecks miles ahead through the rain. Leaning into the side wind and hoping I am doing a good sail impression.
- Grab the brakes and whip down curvy roads at crazy speeds, ripping through the outskirts of a small town before hitting the next hill.
- Sometimes stopping for a chat with my team and some much-needed food (maple waffles – thanks Jorn) and on one occasion for a change into some drier clothing once the rain had finally stopped and I had about 40km to go.
Around the 150km mark your team must go on a different route so prior to that we had the last of my pit stops on my final climb. 1.5km to the top I was told, 5km was more like it, thanks Jorn ;p
But, and this is indicative of the whole race, as I crawled up the final two switchbacks with nothing but scrub and rocks either side a cow-bell rang out from a chalet on the peak about 50m above me. Then another, and another, and then my name being shouted “Heya, Heya, Charles, Heya, Heya”. Looking up half a dozen people came out onto the front of the building shouting encouragement. This support kept the cold away and it happened at different times in different places and from everyone we passed.
Unlike many an Ironman or Challenge race there are many, many kilometers where you are on your own entirely, sometimes feeling you are the only person out there in the whole race. So these little pockets of support are massive.
Finally the last downhill that takes you to T2. It is roughly 30km long but the first 10km is the worst part of the race. The road is barely that and covered in potholes and cracks. This is where the early leader of the race crashed a number of hours before I got there. It is all about braking which is bloody hard when you are cold and tired, but imperative. It finally opens up to the 20km blast into T2 which is such a nice open run on super smooth roads after navigating the earlier bits.
If I get to go again I will likely take a road bike, there is no need for a TT on that course. I barely got into the aero position so something lighter and more maneuverable would have been more fun to ride. And fun is key.
T2: 10hrs 30mins in.
A small field, a change of clothes, a bit of chocolate from a nice lady who was getting ready to run as well. It is down by a lake, and with the wind having dropped and the rain having stopped looked like a nice time to get going for a long but slow jog up one mountain and hopefully two. It was a very casual affair with lots of smiles and that feeling of “yeah I am off the bike!”
The first 4km was good. It was a shuffle but a decent speed somewhere just over the 10kmph mark, which had been my goal. The road was quiet, the day was far brighter than before, and there was only 38km to go. Then my nemesis arrived: cramping in both quads and your groin simultaneously is not something I would recommend, as there is no way to stretch all of it out. So I did the next best thing and lent against a tree so I could scream expletives. I genuinely thought my day was done at that point but figured I could walk the next 1km until I met my team and then from there would assess things.
Jorn suggested that I walk the uphills and run the rest. A simple plan but one that paid off. It was another 20km until I would reach Zombie Hill so that was the focus. It’s really demoralizing when your heart, lungs, and brain all say run and your legs feel fine but then you cramp. I managed to run some parts of the next 20km but it had settled more into a hike and chatting with the support teams of some other guys who were suffering much like I was. I wasn’t going to let them or my support team down by giving up.
15km to 20km was the killer though. Well and truly hit the wall. I have been hammered at New Year and have still been able to walk straighter than that.
This is where my brother came to the rescue. He loves his junk food so when I staggered to meet them at the 20km mark it was Coke, Chocolate, and Crisps I craved. The 3Cs of recovery. A few minutes after finishing off that banquet and I was off at a steady plod to the never-ending Zombie Hill.
ZH – is 7km of steep switch-backs that can be run by some people but is walked by most. Jorn joined me on this part and kept my spirits from flagging. It was a 90 minute slog with stunning views of the valley below and the top of the mountain for the black t-shirt finishers (shrouded in a cloud mainly though). Some people passed us but at that point it didn’t matter as the black was out of reach for this year’s attempt. Instead it was a matter of sticking with it to the top to the 32.5km checkpoint. High-fives and on to the finish.
Looping the loop in the dark
The organizers of the Norseman only let the first 140 people to the top of the mountain for obvious safety reasons. But for them, and rightly so, anyone who can finish the race is to be celebrated. So from the 32.5km checkpoint those of us after the White Finishers T-Shirt plod another 4km along an undulating road which although far from flat is a piece of cake compared to what came before. At the end of this is a ski-resort where you cover 10 more laps of the grounds to complete the marathon. Tents, food, and lots of people cheering you on lap after lap.
My brother and father as well as Jorn covered most of these with me, having a laugh together as night got deeper. It had been a very long day for all of us and it was great having them there at the end for each of those steps. Some of the organizers were there walking with us in the dark, congratulating us on finishing a race that had seen record numbers of DNFs and the second worst conditions in the race’s history.
And then it was done!
A bowl of hot stew, a very tired support team, a drive to our hotel, and for me a hot shower to point out all my chafed bits. Back in bed a little under 24hours since I had woken up to do this race and I was ready to sleep. The others were already there.
The after-party and reflections
In the morning we had a massive feed and made our way back up ZH by car to the race finish area. Meeting all those people I had chatted with on the bike and run and seeing them in their finishers T-shirts was brilliant and of course sod’s law the sun was shining and the day was warm. I thanked the organizers who were there and then took one last look at the mountain I have yet to climb before getting in the car and heading back to Oslo and then the UK.
A massive “thank you” to Jorn for all of his help before and during the race. from driving, to waffles, to extra and vital kit. Without him as well as my brother and father things would have likely gone very differently and not in a good way.
And for those of you still here thanks for reading to the end you actually do rock! Good luck with your training this week – don’t worry about the speed just enjoy it.
Until next time Norseman… coz if you didn’t get black you have to go back (or something like that).