"Although I didn't feel 'bad' , rarely was there a time where I felt 'comfortable'. The frigid cold, unrelenting 10+% grade climbs, cramps, mild GI issues, frustrations with being mediocre at my strongest event and battling the emotional ripples this realization caused. Resiliency, determination, self realization, trust, and acceptance sum up aspects of this race and it was the toughest singular athletic quest I've ever done." Patrick Ellison
For the die hard triathletes, Norseman Xtreme Triathlon represents the #1 race on the bucket list. This is probably because, if you haven't heard, it's the most bad ass triathlon in the world. Before Patrick was selected to be one of the 9, U.S competitors, I'd only guessed at the true value of earning a black T-Shirt. That's right! The BLACK T-SHIRT, given to the first 160 athletes to reach the cut off point. The cut off point sits atop a monstrous system of switchbacks called Zombie hill. You can probably guess why, considering the grade is above 8%...starting from 25K, it's a freaking HIKE. The tough and driven athletes who make the Black T-Shirt list have already survived 2.4 miles (only 1900m this year due to <50 degree water temps) in the Fjord, suffered for almost 6.5 to 7 hours on the bike, climbing over 10,000ft and FINALLY ran their hearts out for 32K to secure a position to be among the best.
This journey started quite awhile back when Patrick notified me he would apply for the Norseman lottery, where they only allocate a small number of positions to U.S athletes. Before I forget, I'd like to note that 47 countries were represented by 249 athletes, with only 36 being women. Don't judge them for being sexist either, they often don't fill all of the female slots. So anyway, Patrick calls me and notifies me "it's on, I'm racing Norseman".
A very unique aspect of this race, is that each athlete must have a support crew or crew member through the duration of the event. This means Patrick was also soliciting me to be a Uber-Sherpa for one of the most challenging races I've ever heard of. It's takes place in a brutal, unforgiving and frigid environment he will have a hard time recreating while training in San Antonio, TX. My thought after our phone conversation was "holy shit he actually made it in". I also, remembered Patrick Finished St. George IM (on its last year) and savage man 70.3, which are/were some of the toughest events in the U.S.
Most people fly into Oslo or Bergen. Oslo is about a 5 hour drive to Eidfjord and Bergen is about 2.5 hours. Why drive from Oslo? Because you get to drive a LOT of the bike course and the views are absolutely stunning!! You'll also need to rent a larg-ish vehicle. I recommend a wagon, small SUV or small van *** the roads are very narrow so be mindful!. Also, if you have the means to do so, a two person support crew is ideal. Luckily Patrick's good friend Chad was able to join us, providing some welcomed companionship during our travels. We spent about 13 hours in a car, constantly shifting supplies, food and keeping each other awake. We crammed 3 years of bonding into one very long car ride....epic.
Depending on where you're staying, plan to wake up around between 1:30 and 2:30 am. We were about 30 minutes north with a STUNNING view. We stayed at hotel Ullensvang since everything in Eidfjord was booked. TOTALLY worth the price and drive. We couldn't have been in a fancier place! We also had access to some grocery stores too, so it's not 100% vital to stock up before you get there. So the overall idea is...you and your athlete will have a VERY long day. Even after ONLY providing support all day, I was smashed when I was allowed to join Patrick for the last 18k or so. I was astonished he climbed up a freaking mountain!!! Check the elevation chart below....the very end is the mountain top finish.
Finally, you'll need to make hotel accommodations in Eidfjord for the start of the race and then stay in Rjuken for the finish. Most people stayed at the top of Zombie hill, which was coordinated by the race directors and where the awards ceremony was held. It was also full so we had to stay 15 min away....in Rjuken.
Race Morning etc...
1:50 am, only 4 hours after I managed to fall asleep...time to get the car packed for the day! Having 3 people, a bike box and all of our luggage meant a 100% packed car. Luckily we had some friends to help shuttle us down to the race site. Armed with 20lbs of food (mainly junk food) and all of our gear we set out on a road narrow enough for 1.5 cars...
- T1 and SWIM - 1 Crew member is allowed to help their athlete during T1 set-up. Make sure you have your yellow reflective vest, GPS unit and head/taillights. They will NOT let you enter until you can provide all of those items and YES they are very strict about this. T1 was open from about 2:30 to 3:45....but It was early and I'm sure my times are a bit fudged. The crew member allowed in T1 should be very involved in the set-up because they will likely be dressing the freezing and incoherent athlete after the frigid swim. Plan for accidental nudity, bring some towels and accept that your athlete will shiver A LOT as their cold blood returns back to their core (it's normal). The Ferry leaves around 4 am and these Norwegian's are very prompt! Patrick was all set with his XTERRA Wetsuit, booties and neoprene head cover...we could only hope he'd find some comfort within the last 60 minutes, because it was about to be ON! The ferry pumped Fjord water into it's cargo bay so athletes could splash it in their face, preventing certain shock! From the shore we could see the ferry, hear the cannon and knew they were off! Now....there aren't any buoys to follow...just a wall of kayaks and a viking like fire on the shore...pretty awesome.
Plan for 6-8 Hours of Saddle Time
Patrick said the shivering and cold lasted until the first 18k on the bike so make sure you dress warm. The good thing (i suppose) is you'll be climbing at a slow rate for about the first 90 min to 120 min, allowing the primary muscles to generate some heat. The athlete cannot receive any support for the first 20k. Also, If you're not too strong in the cold, you'd better put on every warm article possible, you can shed them later to your support crew. Patrick had a solid set-up with a few pairs of gloves, a pair for each variation of cold and wind. Also, I don't care how strong of a cyclist you are....come to this race with a compact crank and a 11-28 cassette. The climb up Imingfjell is very steep and if you'll notice...it's the 5th and 2nd longest climb. With 250 athletes on the course, you've also got to be very aware of your surroundings...since that means 250+ support vehicles blazing around. Also, keep in mind there will be some Italians driving...and they are aggressive! Any illegal activity the support crew gets caught up in will be a time penalty for their athlete, so be careful out there.
After seeing Patrick handle the emotional battle of the bike course, we had no idea how we would feel or fair on the run. Needless to say, after the steep, grinding effort up that last climb...he was emotionally challenged to a entirely different level then he had ever experienced. The last 20k is a non-support zone since it's a very technical descent, so we headed to T2 to set-up for his arrival. He actually made up 3 or 4 minutes on the descent, putting him in 153rd position heading onto the run course...only 3 positions behind is good friend Simon, another American who Patrick works with.
This is how the run breaks down. It's a 25K run to Zombie hill, where you'll be pretty much power hiking. The goal here is knock out that 25k as fast as possible, holding your position until the hill. At 25K one of your crew members can join you for the last, long ascent up the mountain...to the tallest point in Norway.
Within the first 2 or 3 miles, after working out some cramps and a well needed bathroom break, Patrick looked GREAT. I was worried some GI issues would take him out but I think as a team we planned and executed very well. After, passing a few people and also being passed by a couple of dudes, Patrick hit 25K around 153 position...holding strong. At that point, him and I spend the next 4 hours working our way to the top of a mountain. This power hike took HUGE mental focus by Patrick as each big step threatened to lock up any part of his deteriorating body. We used some mantra's, some good old fashioned mind tricks and a high tempo strut until we hit 37K....the black shirt cut off. Believe it or not, we had a bunch of power stepping vultures behind us who also wanted their Black T. Everyone after the 160 person cut-off had to finish with a white shirt and was not allowed to summit Gaustatoppen (they took a different route)...a barren rock wasteland in the clouds.
It was emotional to say the least but as any triathlete knows, the journey is long and full of unforeseen events. The absolute drive within each of us needs to be measured from time to time, requiring great sacrifice and let's face it.....this is an expensive trip. This sport isn't cheap on any level but nothing worth having comes at a small price. I can honestly say that I've never experienced such a challenging event! My hats off to anyone who can push through such extreme circumstances and finish, let alone earn the black t-shirt. It was a privilege to coach Patrick to and through Noresman. I had to ask a lot from him and he'll be the first to say he sacrificed a lot along the way. Many women had their hearts broken when he had 5+ hour rides to accomplish...rather then spending quality time doing what normal people do. Norway is an amazing place to visit and the Norseman crew truly put their heart and soul into this race...it was truly World Class on every single level. Oh and if you're going as support crew, remember you have to walk back down the 90-120 min ascent up the mountain....It wasn't as bad though. Plus, the number of older folks and younger children doing this kinda brings it to another level....this is their weekend "family time". Norwegians are freaking tough!
"This effort and success are not mine alone. They are the direct result of a coach that designed a 9 month program of diabolical training evolutions. A guy who was there at a moments notice and even stood by my side to the very end. Always pushing me to journey on in the bitter cold, wind, rain, and sleet in spite a body and mind that wanted to quit. Onward to the highest point in Norway, a mother of a climb to finish atop Gaustatoppen. Thanks Nick you're one in a million." Patrick Ellison