(Un résumé de la course en français se trouve ici sur le site de Trimes)
My whole 2016 season has been shaped around this AA race. The preparation started at the beginning of November, when the list of selected athletes was announced. I must have read the race manual at least a dozen times to make sure I was ready come race day with every technical, physical and logistic aspects of this mythical race. That leaves plenty of time (9 months) to have recurring dreams about one of the most renowned and most coveted finish lines in the world of triathlon. The summit of the G.A.U.S.T.A.T.O.P.P.E.N.
Norseman means support team. You don’t race on your own like in a regular triathlon. Nobody will get DQed for outside assistance here. In fact this is compulsory, as the only 2 aid stations are at K25 and K32.5 of the run, some 8 hours + into the race. The team that follows us throughout the day is there to feed us, dress/undress us, calm our nerves, shout at us, encourage us, etc. This is one of the key aspects that makes this race so special. Then of course you have the course (unique and magical nordic landscape, cold fjords, 5 ‘cols’ on the bike for a total elevation of 3360m, and last but not least possibly the hardest run of any iron event with the 12K of Zombie Hill averaging 10% followed by 5K of fell ‘running’ (scrambling really) to reach the finish line, at an altitude of 1883m). Add to this a rather hostile and unpredictable weather, and that gives you a never ending yet unforgettable day out !
This year it was my turn, thanks to an elite spot (15 of those are allocated by the organisation; otherwise you have to go through a lottery to be part of the 250 ‘lucky ones’ – out of 3000+ applicants). The week started with a missed flight followed by a delayed/lost bike which didn’t turn up until the day before the race (I’ll be forever grateful to my dad and my brother for driving all the way to Bergen airport then back to pick up the bike as, despite pleading my case on the phone for hours, British Airways couldn’t guarantee it to be delivered in time for the race, some 72 hours after we landed in Oslo ! Needless to say a complain has been sent.). Exactly what I needed. However we came here for a black t-shirt and nothing would stop us, not even yet another incompetent airline company.
With a water temperature of 13ºC we were rather lucky this year (last year it was 9ºC and the swim was shortened in half). In fact this is the only time of the day when I didn’t feel cold. Swimming in the fjord ! After a 2am wake up call, we drove down the mountain from our chalet to reach T1 before 3:45. The ferry leaves Eidfjord at 4am and doesn’t wait for no one ! Some extra stress was added at about 3:30 when I realised my brakes were rubbing and I couldn’t manage to get them right…Brakes on a TT bike are not something you want to fiddle about at the last minute, and indeed I didn’t, it was too late and I had a boat to catch. On the ferry it’s one hour ride to take us to the famous ‘jump’ into the fjord. With 3 toilets on boards for 250 desperate triathletes, queueing for the loos will keep us occupied for the whole trip. Soon enough it is time for ‘THE jump’, and despite knowing what to expect from watching previous years’ videos about a thousand times, it is still quite impressive. It’s not even that high…but once you’ve jumped, there is no way back. However, having swam the previous day fully kitted with my thermal hat and socks, I am a lot less worried about the cold and rather eager to get going.
I put myself on the front line, no trouble here, it is very wide and no one fights for position. Everyone seems to know that there is quite a long day ahead ! What I didn’t expect was, believe it or not, to find myself leading the race one kilometer into the swim. No strong swimmers here ! The water isn’t that cold but the current is against us and it is quite bumpy. After a while I found myself in a group of 4 swimming in single file, having to bridge a few gaps and never feeling really comfortable. Still after almost exactly one hour on the dot I emerged out of the fjord in the lead pack. Totally unheard of ! Problem is I’d been feeling cramps in my calves and abductors for the last kilometer or so, meaning standing up was rather laborious to say the least, with the ensuing T1 a real comedy act. We’ve decided beforehand to change entirely into proper cycling gear in order to try to stay warm and comfortable as long as possible…but I couldn’t do anything on my own. Thank God for Silvia ! She has to do everything. We put the bib inside out, I find myself stark naked twice (luckily we’re in Scandinavia here, no one would notice), neither the socks nor the arm warmers want to get in…Kinda like a Monty Python sketch. Finally, after 5 long minutes I managed to mount my bike, my swim mates having left transition some 2 to 3 minutes before. 52nd time in T1, well done.
On the bike I feel instantly great, the muscles well woken up after that cold water immersion. 10K of flat then it’s 1200m of elevation for the next 25K. A few pitch black tunnels (lights on the bike are compulsory), some bits at 8-9% but overall it’s quite rolling, the kind of col I really enjoy. So much so that I find myself not following my own precautionary principles, and riding at a rather (too) strong pace as a result (it has to say that I do not use a power meter – never have). Unbelievably I catch the guys ahead of me and find myself in the lead at the top of the first climb ! Even though I didn’t know it at the time, this is -once again- a first ! Not for long however, as my support team stops me a few minutes later to cover me. Rain jacket, overshoes, the whole shebang. Indeed we are now on the plateau, the wind is relentless, the rain has started, it’s 5ºC, foggy and I can’t see anything ! 60K of mostly descending false flats (exactly what I hate) to follow in these conditions, it’s gonna be a long drag and plenty of time to regret my choice of cassette (13-27)…A 12 tooth cog would have been much appreciated…To my relief here comes the 2nd col, then the 3rd, then the 4th. I (re) pass the winner of the past 2 years’ editions, Allan Hovda, who seems to struggle in the climbs, and find myself at the top of the 4th col with the futur winner (Lars Petter Stormo) in my sights. Unfortunately this would be the last I’d see of him, as this is also where I started to pay for my earlier over zealous efforts. The last col, the hardest, is hell (at least I can ‘appreciate’ my 27 cog !). The cold rain which has now doubled is killing me and the last 25K of the cycle leg (all descent) will be rather painful. 2 guys caught me just before transition (including the legend that is Vabrousek) and I entered T2 in 6th, frozen and all cramped up. Once again, and despite Silvia’s best efforts, I will take forever to get changed (5 minutes + !), and leave T2 on my own with no one in sight. 88th time in T2, no comment.
At least now I am dry (might as well !) and running in my fresh Kiwami Spider LD Aero tri suit. Besides we are now in the valley and the rain has stopped ! Happy days ! However (there is always a ‘but’) my right foot makes me suffer, a nerve inflammation underneath 2 of my toes which has been bugging me on and off for almost a year, and I can’t land and push properly…We start with 25K of flat and for the first hour I settle for what should have been a fairly easy pace at 14 kph. However, you guessed it, easy it ain’t, and I even find myself going through a real rough patch between K18 and K24, a 6 K hole (sic) dangerously resembling a hypoglycaemic state. Un coup de bambou as we say. Somehow I seem to find some energy back just in time for K25 where my brother Fabien is waiting to accompany me until the finish line. This is very good news as there is not one inch of flat left now that we’re at the bottom of the dreaded Zombie Hill. All I can say is that the hill is as terrifying as it sounds, reminding me of a certain Alpe d’Huez in both its length and average percentage, and as we’re faced with what can only be described (at this point of the game) as a wall, I quickly decide not to look any further than my brother’s feet any more. We’re running, not fast, but at least we’re running. My foot is more and more painful, but apart from that I am not done yet. Fabien’s presence changes everything and I even enjoy myself ! All my support team is there cheering at almost every hairpin, my parents, my girlfriend, my sister in law, my niece, uncle Joe, auntie Jean…the vibes is strong ! Deep inside I know that my race is already won.
We are now in 4th position, and closing on 3rd. Finally we’re at the end of the road at K37.5, and attacking the final climb, a scramble in the rocks. The summit is somewhere up in the clouds, invisible, and will remain so until the very end. We run (Fabien especially) a bit, we walk a lot. I really do appreciate the moment and take it all in. There are tourists everywhere, most of them cheering in Norwegian (“heia, heia”,the local “allez, allez”). By this point I am somehow assuming that we will finish rather comfortably and we even take time for a few congratulatory pics…until I hear some cheering not far behind me, glance back and see not one but two concurrents just below, way too close for comfort. To make things worse, they are running (I’m not) ! All that because of Silvia who helped one of them with some fuel while he was agonising in Zombie Hill…
The summit should not be far, really, but we can’t see it. My brother ups the pace, I complain, mutter a few expletives but we’re pushing nonetheless and deliverance happens. The summit of the G.A.U.S.T.A.T.O.P.P.E.N. is here ! Never a finish line has been so blessed. I am overjoyed and fall into my brother’s arms. The 5th and 6th arrive within the next minute. Quite a tight finish after nearly 11 hours of racing ! The world famous tomato soup served to every finisher tastes like heaven. I dreamt about that soup ! Pure, ultimate happiness !
The first 3 finishers are all Norwegian. The winner arrived 34 minutes before me, beating the course record from 2012 belonging to Henrik Oftedal, who finished 2nd today. Both athletes, as well as the 3rd placed, Lars Christian Vold, were doing this race for the 4th or 5th time. This is obviously a big help, especially for the final off road section where knowing your line can save you minutes. Maybe I can aim for the win in 2020 (sic) ? Improving my transitions could help as well (I lost 8 minutes in total to Vold for example, 7 to Stormo and 5 to Offedal !) (re sic). In any case this was a unique experience, epic, unforgettable, to be compared with other mythical races like Embrunman or Alpe d’Huez LD. Triathlon in all its glory !