The Norseman NXTRI 2016 Extreme Triathlon: adventure of a lifetime

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Basia Vanderveen, flanked by husband Tim and children, basks in the glory and relief of completing the Norseman extreme triathlon in August. Photo: courtesy of Basia Vanderveen

by Basia Vanderveen

Author Basia Vanderveen took part in an Ironman extreme triathlon in August 2016 in Eidfjord, Norway, consisting of a 3.8 km fjord swim followed by a 180-km bicycle race through the mountains and a 42.2 km marathon run. Here is her first-hand account.”

Swimming 3.8 km in a fjord with orcas?

It was 5 a.m. and looking from the ferry into the fjord, the water looked black and ominous. I jumped in, swam forward and paused to look around. What a view! I could see the outline of the monstrous mountains we would be climbing later. At that moment, they looked stunning. I wanted to high-five someone, anyone. After the start, I watched the fast group take off and I swam, too far from the shore a friendly kayaker told me repeatedly. I was grateful for her company. Staying too far centre added 30 minutes to my lonely swim. I had worried about orcas, but luckily I did not see any. It was a hard swim in big waves. I felt seasick. The last and toughest stretch was directly into the waves. I managed to finish with 30 minutes to spare. If you miss a cut-off time in an Ironman distance triathlon, you don’t get to keep going.

After a quick exit, I was onto the bike in this first transition zone at the bottom of the intimidating fjord mountains.

Climbing for 10 hours in the saddle over 180 km and 3,500 m of elevation gain

The first test of a climb out of the fjord, with its 1,200 metres of elevation, was steep, long and warm in dark tunnels. I was full of doubt after seeing these mountains up close for the first time. I had never attempted anything like this before. Only after this initial test did I start to feel mild confidence.

On the plateau, the rain and cold hit hard. Hypothermia had me in shivers, questioning my safety. I was feeling sleepy and had to be careful not to be blown sideways by the strong wind and passing vans and buses. There was no shoulder and no safety barrier. I stopped to wait for help, but my crew had gone ahead. I couldn’t reach my back pocket to take out my phone. It was pouring rain and I was cold, but I rode on and sang carols to keep my spirits up. Relief came when I saw the car, my husband Tim, our kids, and our Norwegian friend Steinar who gave me tea, ski gloves (!) and a hat. I held my arms out while Tim put another jacket on me.

There were four big climbs ahead, and by the third, I was drained, but my legs didn’t hurt, or perhaps I didn’t feel them, and the weather improved. Mount Immingfjell was a best-for-last beast, but what goes up must come down.

I flew joyfully into the second transition zone with 10 minutes to spare, just enough time to put on running shoes and use the loo before the run.

Beware of Zombie hill or the sunset, a 42.2 km marathon run/hike

I started the run feeling fantastic. The weather was perfect, the scenery beautiful, and I was done cycling up insane hills. But, after only a few kilometers, my stomach was not fit. I decided to keep moving until told to stop. I saw the race director pull over. He looked at me, and to my surprise he informed me that at that pace, I might make the 32.5 km cut-off. I was elated! I still needed to make it up “zombie hill” and felt greatly discouraged when I saw it, but Steinar came to my rescue as my pacer. He even tried to amuse himself by aiming to beat the cut-off time by 20 minutes, just for fun. We could run on the flatter parts, he said. What flatter parts, I wondered! I won’t say what flashed through my mind. After 16 hours on the road, my back was killing me and I was unable to eat. But I was very grateful for his enthusiasm, and sipping coke helped.

We powered up 800 metres of elevation over seven kilometers as the sun descended; icing on my Norseman cake. Other racers finished, had their meals and drove down past us, cheering. I wanted to lean on my friend, to curl up on the ground and go to sleep. Then I saw the 30 km mark and felt revived and happy. From the 32.5 km station, a four-kilometer hike led to the finish where we did the final laps together with the kids, which was a lot of fun.

We made it! The Norwegian crew stood around a fire cheering late into the night: Heia! Heia! Tusen takk.

Basia Vanderveen is an athlete, coach and consultant active in the Glebe community.

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