We were about half of a mile into a 1.2 mile swim across the fjord in 56 degree water when my legs began to shake and shiver. This was swim number seven of the day with two more after it. We were just a little under 7 hours into the race and I was beginning to tire a bit. I had lost Dan’s draft so I resorted to sighting since I couldn’t see his shoes or bubble trail anymore. As I looked up, through the rain, the power station we were swimming to didn’t look any closer. “Damnit. we’re not even halfway there yet and I’m shivering,” I thought. Just about that time, Dan stops, turns around, looks at me and says…
Wait a second. I’m getting ahead of myself. First off, I know it’s been three weeks since this race. I must apologize at my slack-assedness. However, it’s been, work, train, eat, spend time with the family and somewhere in there squeeze in some time to sleep. I know, I know. Waaaah. You have no place for whiners.
Second, in order to even begin to talk about the “impossible” race, as dubbed by the locals that live along the fjord we raced, I have to give you the backstory of how I got pulled into this race to give you some context. Here comes a flashback…
It’s September of 2014 and I’m sitting at my computer, drinking my early morning coffee and intently watching the computer monitor. Dan and Bjorn were racing as a two-man team at the OtillO Swimrun World Championship. No, I didn’t make a typo, there isn’t a space in “swimrun”.
Only having been around for a little over 10 years, OtillO began like many other hard-as-hell races: a drunken bet. As I understand it, a couple of guys sitting around decided to challenge each other to swim from one island to another, then run across that island and then swim to the next. All-in-all, they would swim some 6ish miles and over 40 miles of running. OtillO (Swedish for “island to island”) was born.
Today, the folks who are racing to be competitive, don’t waste time to take their shoes off to swim, put on their wetsuit, swim, then take the wetsuit off, put shoes back on, etc. This transitioning process just takes too long. Even if you were really fast at transitions, due to the duration of the race, it would add up. For example, if it took you 2 minutes to take off your shoes and put your wetsuit on, then another 2 minutes to take the suit off and put your shoes on, that’s 4 minutes per island. Now multiply that times 26 islands. Yep, you’d have over an hour wasted. Sooooo, to be competitive, not only do you have to swim and run your butt off, but you have to swim with your shoes on and run in your wetsuit. Keep THAT in mind throughout this report.
Anyhow, I watched the live coverage of Dan and Bjorn racing. It was a blast to watch my buddies running and swimming in what CNN called “One of the world’s toughest endurance challenges”. They did awesome. A couple of weeks after the race, Dan asked if I wanted to do it with him in 2015, since Bjorn wanted the two of them to do the Rockman, a shorter but just as hard swimrun race. After mulling it over for a few days, I agreed.
Fast forward to June of this year, while I was racing a tough first-half of the XTERRA season, Dan found out that Bjorn hurt his knee pretty badly. This took him out of the Rockman race and left Dan without a partner. He turned to me and asked if I’d take it on. Reluctantly, and although very un-prepared, I agreed.
Sooooo.. Back to the race. I’m gonna warn you. This is a loooong post, but it has LOTS of pictures. Not all of them are of Dan or me, but I included them to give you an insight into the race.
Heading into the race, one always checks out the course map, so to help give you additional context, this race goes something like this (you’ll have to click on the image to be able to read the map):
The race consisted of us swimming and running. A total of 9 swims (it was 10 but a dead moose caused a course alteration, more about that later) and 10 runs. The total swimming amount was a little over 3.5 miles, with the longest being around 1800 meters (a little over a mile). Total running would top out at about 22 miles. The tough part was the rocky, technical terrain with LOTS of uphill running, around 8000 feet of it.
Our day started with a ferry ride out into the fjord to the start of the race. The air was cold, somewhere in the low 60s and the fjord water temp was reported at being around 52 degrees. The race started in the fjord with a 900 meter swim.
Dan and I were the second team into the water. We swam to the start line and treaded water while waiting for the other 59 teams to jump in and line up. While waiting for everyone to get lined up, we began to shiver from the cold water. With a sound of the horn and the Rockman himself towering over us on the cliff above, we were off.
I’m sure you’ve heard me talk before about the washing machine start of the triathlons. This one was very similar, but since you can use any type of aids you want (as long as you carry them with you for the entire race), most racers swam with hand paddles and swim buoys. This added to the washing machine factor with folks smacking me with paddles and even knocking one of mine off at one point. I lost track of Dan, which is not a good thing since the rules state you cannot be more than 10 meters apart when in the water (or be disqualified).
As we exited the water, we regrouped and started to scurry up the hillside, still dizzy, disoriented and shivering from the cold water. When I say scurry, it was truly hand-over-hand, up a rocky, steep hillside (see below).
Dan and I quickly picked off teams as we climbed up the hill and hopped from boulder to boulder through the tall grassy, hillside. After climbing up 750 feet of elevation, we had our first off-course excursion as we approached our second swim. Even though there were several, clearly marked arrows, a group of us went up the right side of the lake (see arrow) instead of the left side. We followed the trail and a small bridge instead of looking at the arrows and the subsequent tape hanging from the trees directing us on trail-less terrain. We quickly regrouped and back tracked.
After three short swims and two short runs in-between, we started the long, arduous climbing of 1500 or so additional feet. By the time we got to the first checkpoint, Preikestolhytta, we were in 5th place. This checkpoint was at a parking lot at the base of Preikestolen, or more commonly referred to as “Pulpit Rock”. This rock formation is a popular tourist spot and would be our second checkpoint. The climb up to Pulpit Rock was a pretty tough climb, even though there were stones stacked to form “steps” in places. Imagine “running” 1500 feet on this:
By the time we reached near the top, the steps gave way to large areas of flat rock that we negotiated to the cliffs edge. This “danger zone” had a few wooden walkways and safety cables, but for the most part was narrow and straight down. A misstep or stumble here could literally cost you your life with over a 1500 foot drop. Here’s a couple of pics of Ulrika Eriksson taken by Peter Oom. Can you spot Ulrika in both photos? Gives you some perspective on the size of this hunk o’ rock, huh?
As you can see here from one of Peter Oom’s selfies, there were some BEAUTIFUL views from up there.
We checked in at Preikestolen (Pulpit Rock) (see above), gaining a spot and moving up to 4th. Here’s a view of the Pupit Rock from the fjord below (where we started the climb).
We descended back down the flat rock in a hurry, trying to put as much distance as we could between us and the other racers, while trying to catch the folks in front of us.
Since the trek up to Preikestolen was an out-and-back, we had a hard time picking up the trail at the intersection below. We stood there for a couple of seconds, checking our map and making sure we were going in the right direction. It was only 20-30 seconds, but it seemed like an eternity.
We picked up the trail and hauled arse. As we descended, we had planned to drink water from one of the many streams (designated by the blue water drops on the map (see below). We were informed at the race briefing the night prior that we could drink from any of the streams or lakes, with an exception, of course, of the lake containing the dead moose. We came across one of the streams and took out our fancy-smancy foldable cups. I had a hard time finding which pocket I put it in and then couldn’t get the thing to fill with water. It took WAY too long to deal with.
We were trucking along at a pretty good clip when all of sudden, we lost the markers. After all, there didn’t seem to be too many other options. As we were running around a lake, we realized something wasn’t right. We checked out the map and figured we’d missed a turn somewhere. We started backtracking until we picked it back up. Apparently, a large boulder made us miss a marker to the right of us. We hopped down off of the boulder and tried to make up time (lost about 10 minutes).
The terrain opened up to a 45 to 50 degree, slanted, slick rock and it took a second to register how we were going to get across. In order to make the crossing, we had to hold onto chains bolted into the rock and attempt to find something to put our foot on. There were several places where all you had was 1 or 2 inches of flat area that you could place your foot. There were no safety nets, no guard rails, or anything between you and a 1500 foot drop (see topographical map below). Just you, your grip on the chains and the placement of your foot. I yelled out to Dan, about 15 feet ahead of me, “This is flippin awesome! And no one is ever going to believe it!”
My second chance to get water was another stream. This time, I didn’t even bother with the cup. Instead, I straddled the stream on my hands and just slammed my entire face into the water and began to suck in very large gulps. Much more efficient.
Photo credit: Matti Rapila Andersson
After my awesome face slamming drinking experience, we descended down to Brattli (checkpoint 3), ran through a farm and lost the markings for a second. We had caught up to another confused team, but the four of us picked up the lost scent of the trail and made our way down another very technical, rocky descent to the docks. We checked in still at 4th place.
With the Rockman once again watching over us, we took off on the second longest swim (1600 meters), dubbed the Hillside Swim.
This being a little over a mile of swimming, it was a chance for the legs to rest a bit. The only problem is, it was short lived. A little over half way, the cold set in and we began to shiver. Even though we weren’t using our legs much, the muscles were still firing with all of the shivering. Due to the rocky terrain, there were numerous points that stuck out into the water, inhibiting our ability to see the exit. Not having a target truly sucked and only made the swim seem much longer than it was. Around every point, I was hoping to see it, only to be let down. Finally, after the last point, I could see a tiny shack. It was a beautiful sight. We had to use a large cargo strap to climb out of the water due to the slick rock. Once out, we immediately had to start another rocky climb uphill.
With a name like “Seaside Sprint”, you would conjure up ideas in your head of a flat, fast, non-technical trail to run on. Hah! This couldn’t be farther from the truth. It was apparent that these race directors had a sick sense of humor and it would show up throughout the race. This section was one of the more technical section with tons of sharp, jagged boulders. Many times you had to figure out where to jump down off a boulder and pick a line to the next one. You couldn’t at any time carry any sort of an appreciable pace. Just the kind of humor I like.
Coming out of the Seaside Sprint at Songesand (checkpoint 4), we meet up with Bjorn as he snapped some shots of us exiting the trail and grabbing food.
I have been training predominately in my older Inov-8 X-Talon shoes, but have been training more and more with the Inov-8 Trailroc 245 shoes. Not quite as an aggressive thread, but as you can see, they’re gobbling up the terrain (and water):
At Songesand (checkpoint 4), we checked in at 5th place. Apparently someone had passed us during our off course excursion. The next section of running, was about 7 kilometers (4.4 miles), with the bulk of it being a gradual uphill run (about 650 feet elevation gain). As we made our way up the road, Bjorn got some good shots of us running and passing team 222.
The race director had made it abundantly clear that we shouldn’t miss the right hand turn off of this road as it would certainly be a bad move. In our hyper-sensitivity about going off course at this point, we spotted a faded piece of tape. We stopped running, gazing at it for a second while peering up the narrow gravel road it marked. We could see another piece of tape up the trail a ways. Since it looked like the same coloring (albeit faded) and striping as the tape used in OtillO, we decided to take it. Bad move.
It led us up and around houses, through a gate (following tape the entire way) and right back to the same road. It was a short excursion, but long enough that when we look up the road we see team 222 (the team we had passed earlier) on the road now in front of us. We managed to catch them again. We noticed they were eating, and in English with an Finnish accent, they said jokingly, “Don’t you know it’s against the rules to run during your lunch break?”
We made our way up the hill and found the OBVIOUS sign marking the turn off of the road and onto the farmer’s driveway. There was no way you could miss it. As we ran up the driveway, we encountered many sheep. One was sitting up on the hill talking to me. It went something like this:
It was a great conversation. We went back and forth about 10 or so times, all while Dan was shaking his head. Well, at least I am sure he was thinking I was crazy at this point.
We came upon a barn with a Rockman symbol painted on a rock pointing us into a pasture. We took a right off of the pavement and went around the barn. To our surprise, the barn hid the fact that the farmer’s house was right behind it. When we came around the barn, the farmer and his family were all standing out on the deck cheering us on and waving a large Norway flag, as we split his herd of sheep in half scattering in all directions. It was AWESOME.
Photo credit: Matti Rapila Andersson
Another steep, technical descent down to the fjord and we make it a group of girls at the docks making sure we had our safety buoy. The spectator ferry had pulled up in the distance and we could see Bjorn on deck. Here’s a pic from the ferry. Yes, we had to run down those rocks.
As we jumped into the fjord, the girls began singing a song in unison to send us off. What a great experience. I’d like to tell you what it was, but I have no idea. It was in Norwegian.
So here’s where my marathon of a blog post began.
We started in a pretty good clip with rain just beginning as we took off. We were about half of a mile into a 1.2 mile swim across the fjord in 56 degree water when my legs began to shake and shiver. This was swim number seven of the day with two more after it. We were just a little under 7 hours into the race and I was beginning to tire a bit. I had lost Dan’s draft so I resorted to sighting since I couldn’t see his shoes or bubble trail anymore. As I looked up, through the rain, the huge, white power station we were swimming to didn’t look any closer. “Damnit. we’re not even halfway there yet and I’m shivering,” I thought. Just about that time, Dan stops, turns around, looks at me and says, “I need you to lay it down like you’re in a race. That’s the 4th place team over there, we can catch them.”
I slammed my face into the water and began swimming harder. It was harder in effort, but it sure didn’t seem any faster. There were actually two teams in the water. The 4th place team (team 203) and the team we had passed on the paved road (team 222). The latter of the two were the best swimmers out of our three teams and they made it out ahead of us. We managed to make it out ahead of team 203. We checked in at Florli still in 4th place.
Ahead of us were the famous 4444 steps to get to the top of the mountain. The tallest wooden staircase in the world, it would take us from sea level to 2500 feet in 1 mile. On the staircase, we passed team 222. It was a tough-as-hell climb with the stairs getting VERY steep in spots. I stumbled twice, falling forward onto the stairs but we never stopped. If you look carefully at the picture below of me and Dan climbing the stairs, you’ll see swimmers still crossing the fjord below (click on the image to make it larger).
In the picture above, we’re near the top and you can see team 203 right on our tail. We knew we were better swimmers, so we hoped we could gap them again with two swims remaining. Reaching the first of those two swims was a shocker. The water was 46 degrees and snow lined the banks. Thankfully it was a short swim.
I was dying of thirst after the 2500 foot climb up the stairs, so I took the liberty of drinking while I was swimming. It was weird doing it as there are lots of lakes in other races where you wouldn’t even think about attempting it. We got out on the rocks and ran along the lake’s edge. Just out of novelty, I grabbed a handful of snow and threw it in my mouth.
We checked in at Klubbatjorna (checkpoint 6) just before getting into the last swim. We hit the water at the same time as team 203, swam across together and got out at the same time.
We ran with them along the long swaths of open, barren rock, uphill and over a fence outlining the lake. We made our way to a gravel road uphill climb. At this point, they began to pull away from us.
Once we hit trail again, turning off of the gravel road, we looked back at the hill we had just descended. We didn’t see a soul in sight. Looking forward, we couldn’t see team 203. With no one behind us, it gave us a little bit of relief and we knew all we had to do was descend the 1500 feet or so to the finish to maintain our position. We ran through the mixed terrain and rock as quick as we could, making several creek crossings in the process.
Once we hit the big, steep, descent back down to the finish line, we spotted Bjorn in the distance. He had made the climb up to get in a workout of his own and to get some cool shots of us.
In the above picture, you can see the top of the power plant down by the water. As you can see, we still had a ways to go. As we approached the end of the trees and an area where it leveled off just a bit, we heard something behind us in the steep, steep switchbacks. What the heck? There’s another team hot on our tail. RIGHT BEHIND US.
Dan and I took off down the opening (see below), almost completely out of control. Notice the white building just above the trees (on the right). That’s the power plant that we still had to descend to, fast as hell, with another team right on our butts.
There was no way we were giving up another spot. We continued this fast pace through the field onto a gravel road and all through the village, around houses.
When we got to the end, the race director had another surprise for us (remember, they have a sense of humor). Before we could go across the finish line, we had to, once again jump into the fjord for a short 15 meter swim to the dock.
We finished in 4th place men, just a little over 8.5 hours. To prove that every second counts, the 5th place team finished 33 seconds behind us. Out of 8.5 hours, it came down to 33 seconds!
We enjoyed us some waffles, hard-earned Rockman beer and a short stint in the wood-fired hot tub.
Norway is an absolutely beautiful country and everyone is very friendly. All the volunteers and race staff did an outstanding job on this race.
Location: Stavanger, Norway
Date: July 11, 2015
Distances: 9 swims, 10 runs, 3.75 miles of swimming, 22 miles of running, 8000 feet of elevation gain
Result: 4th men’s
Products used: GU Roctane and GU Brew, Inov-8 Trailroc 245 shoes, First Endurance Multi-V.
I’ll close with a few more pictures, as if you hadn’t gotten enough already. They’re not race related, but when you’re in such a gorgeous country, with so many cool things to see, the pictures HAVE to be shared. <big grin>
So, if you’re still paying attention, what’s next on my race calendar? This tiny race: