The 2013 Norseman was a tough year for competitors. A choppy swim, ferocious headwinds on the bike, driving rain and fog made it a tough day. Lightening also struck the spire of Gaustoppen, disabling the internal cable car normally used to transport athletes down, meaning black tshirt winners had to descend the mountain after their finish.
Jessica Kelley our US competition winner recalls her long day at Norseman 2013 and finishing the toughest triathlon in the world.
"On August 3, 2013 I did the Norseman triathlon (http://www.nxtri.com/). The race is point-to-point, starting with a 2.4 mile swim in Hardangerfjord, then a 112 mile bike with ~10,000 ft of elevation gain, and finally a marathon with ~3250 to 5900 ft of elevation gain, depending on where you finish the race. There are no aid stations in this race – you must provide your own support crew, and I was lucky enough to have my husband, my mom, and my father in-law as crew.
As mentioned above, Norseman has two finishing options: all racers run 15 miles of rolling hills to the base of Mt Gaustatoppen, where you then slog up Zombie Hill, with an average grade of 10% over 7km. The first 160 racers who make it to the top of Zombie Hill get to continue on to the top of Mt Gaustatoppen and earn a black finisher’s shirt (5900 ft of elevation gain in the marathon alone). The rest of the racers climb Zombie Hill but then run the final 10k on rolling hills just below the peak of Gaustatoppen, thus earning a white finisher’s shirt (3250 ft of elevation gain for the marathon). The website says that both black and white shirt finishers are “equally fabulous.”
The race typically attracts 85% men and 15% women, yet gender is not taken into account when admitting the top 160 up the mountain. The race director poetically writes: “The limitations we adhere to at Norseman are all based on safety. This means that on race day we do not differ between men and women. The sun sets at the same time for both. We know that at times this may be perceived as unfair, but this is extreme triathlon.”
Of course I had my eyes on the black shirt, and before the race I kind of smirked at the idea that a white shirt was “fabulous.” As it turned out, I earned a white t-shirt. Had you asked me before the race if I would be disappointed with a white shirt, the answer would have been Yes. And as I type this after the race, there is a twinge of regret that I missed the cut-off to finish on top of Mt Gaustatoppen. But I am also immensely proud of finishing at all. This is not a race to be underestimated, and I worked damn hard to earn that white shirt and become an official Norseman finisher.
The day started with a 4 am ferry ride into the middle of the fjord, where we would then jump into the dark waters and start the swim. The ferry ride was awesome and seemed almost surreal. I have never been so excited to start a race. I landed an entry into this race (and a new Helix wetsuit and a bunch other goodies) thanks to a contest sponsored by blueseventy, and understandably, they wanted to grab a few photos of me and the UK contest winner, including a shot of us with our “race faces.” Our instructions were: don’t smile, look serious and confident. Unfortunately I totally blew the shot because I just couldn’t stop smiling. Reason # 3,718 I will never be a model.
I had been preparing for frigid waters and had done several cold swims in Puget Sound to acclimate, so of course on race day the water temps were in the low 60s (warm)! The water was choppier than I expected, with some swells. The crowd was also a bit rough. As mentioned before, Norseman participants are predominantly male, and all I have to say is: Boys, it’s a long day and this is a big fjord with plenty of room for all of us. Do you really need to punch me in the back 10 minutes into the swim?
I had a good swim – I swam comfortably and not particularly fast (1:14:01) but I think the chop and swell kept swim times slow, as this was good enough for 8th woman and 78th overall. I was thrilled. The day was off to a great start!
I blazed through T1 in just under 1:18, thanks to the help of my awesome support crew chief, Tom Kelley. This was 7th fastest T1 time for the women, and put me in 7th place woman and around 55th place overall heading out of T1. Go Team Kelley!
I hopped on the bike, ready to have a great day. The bike is my jam and I had been riding some hard terrain in prep for race day. Norseman uses these really cool remote-control droid cameras to film people as they race, and one of the cameras followed me as I headed out of T1, which was fun but also a little creepy.
The first 40k of the bike course is all uphill, climbing approximately 5000 ft to a town called Dyranut. During the first 20k, the course follows parts of the “old road.” The old road is beautiful, winding through tunnels and cutting through steep rock walls. It is also closed to cars and therefore the only section of the course where your crew can not reach you. I was about 10k into the bike, cruising along the old road, when I heard a loud bang from my rear wheel. WTH? I stopped and discovered that my rear bottle cage had sheared off and was now tangled in my rear wheel.
I took a deep breath and realized that the first thing I needed to do was get to a place where I had cell coverage so I could call Tom and ask for a wheel swap. Already, other riders were starting to blaze past me and I was losing spots quickly. I quickly grabbed the remnants of my bottle cage, including two full bottles and a flat kit, and started pedaling one-handed towards the point where the course finally rejoined the main road. I could tell something was wrong with my rear wheel as I couldn’t shift properly and my PowerTap hub wasn’t reading, but at least I was rolling!
I continued up the old road, climbing awkwardly and slowly with my hands full of the cage and its contents (I didn’t want to ditch everything because I wasn’t sure how long it would be until I saw Tom again. I didn’t want to have a broken wheel, PLUS no fluids or flat kit.) Finally I reached the main road, where I had cell reception, and stopped once again to call Tom. The main road is narrow and was clogged with support vehicles, so it took some time to coordinate a meeting spot, but we finally found each other and he swapped my wheel and reattached the rear derailleur cable. The new wheel wasn’t shifting smoothly, but I decided to call it good enough (in hindsight, I wished we’d taken the time to do it right). I was anxious to get back on my bike – dealing with the mechanical had already cost me over 30 minutes and countless spots in my overall placement. Watching all those racers stream past me as we stood on the side on the road fixing my bike was frustrating, to say the least.
I started riding again and had a little chat with myself about staying focused and not letting this affect my day. But the truth of the matter is that it had rattled me, and was more than a little demoralizing. I had gone from 50something overall to 140something.
The rest of the bike was a brutal slog. Conditions were extremely tough, even by Norseman standards. Normally there is a tailwind on the plateau after the first climb, but that day there were literal gale force headwinds and/or crosswinds for most of the day, combined with dense fog, driving rain, and of course, the hills. I tried in vain to make up my lost spots on the bike, but I also had to be careful not to overdo it since I knew the marathon was going to be its own special hell.
Overall the bike took me 8:36:23 (this includes dealing with the mechanical). This is the longest it has ever taken me to ride that distance. This was the hardest ride I have ever done, period.
As you leave T2, they hold up a sign showing your ranking. 164. Oh jeez. I was going to have to do some work. I started off running and was pleased to see I could hold 8:45 min/mile. According to plan I was running 9 min/walking 1 min to keep my IT band happy, so my overall pace was about 9:30 min/mile. But it was still exciting to run that “fast” after such a tough ride. The run was agonizing. I would pass a couple people (162nd!) then get passed (164th…sigh). At one point I was in 161st place. But by the time I hit the bottom of Zombie Hill, I had been passed more often than not, and my overall placement was in the high 160s. I was also feeling dazed and sluggish and had been reduced to a death march.
I had been struggling with nutrition throughout the day and this is where it really caught up with me. I’ve dealt with GI issues in previous races that usually lead to a Tour de Porta Potties, so this year I worked hard during training to find the right nutrition plan to prevent this problem. And the good news is that during Norseman there were no, um, “urgent stops.” Unfortunately, during Norseman I experienced something that I had yet to experience in training or racing (or ever! :) - I simply couldn’t take in food or drink. I knew that I was eating and drinking far too little but I just couldn’t get it down the hatch. Something to work on in the future.
Anyway, towards the end of the marathon I was bonking. In addition, I think I was struggling with a lot of disappointment. The day had started out really well, and then the mechanical changed the tone entirely. Although I had no control over the mechanical, I did have control over how I reacted to it. I tried to stay positive, but the truth is that it had a big effect on my morale. Another something to work on in the future.
By the time we reached Zombie Hill, it was clear that a black shirt was not in the cards. I hiked up Zombie Hill with my mom and Tom, which was a cool ending to the day. Upon reaching the top of Zombie, we were sent off to finish the marathon with 10k of rolling hills.
Finally, finally, it was time to cross the finish line. I got cheered through the last 1k by a group of drunken cyclists from the United Bakeries team, high-fiving me and shouting my name as I ran the gauntlet. That may have been as awesome as finishing at the top. My final time was 16:34:56. I ran across the line with Tom, and he picked up Rowan so she could be a part of it too. It was important to me that she have some inkling of what her mama was doing all day, not to mention why I’ve been gone so much over the past few months. After we ran across the line, Rowan looked at me and said “Can we do it again?!” No. No we cannot.
All in all, this was a tough race on a lot of levels – but the days when nothing goes as planned are the days you learn the most. Sure, it’s awesome when everything is perfect and you execute a race flawlessly. But I also think there’s great value in having it all go to shit, and you find yourself struggling to stay on track and just finish the damn thing. That’s when you learn what you’re made of and what you need to do to become a better athlete, which will ultimately make you that much stronger for your next race. (Oh god, did I just say next race?)"