The Norseman Xtreme Triathlon tests the world’s toughest athletes on Norway’s punishing terrain

Photo: © Kai-Otto Melau / nxtri.com
The grueling race begins with a jump into Hardangerfjord.

Molly Jones
The Norwegian American

On August 5, 250 athletes—called daring by some and crazy by others—will take the plunge off a ferry into the frigid Hardangerfjord at 5:00 in the morning as they put their endurance to the test in the Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlon.

This race, held annually in Norway since 2003, has been deemed the “ultimate triathlon on the planet.” Participants swim, bike, and run a total of 226 kilometers (140.4 miles)—equivalent to an Ironman race.

But who would take this sport, which is already extremely physically demanding, and set it in the mountainous, unpredictable Norwegian nature? The answer is long-distance triathlete Paal Hårek Stranheim.

“I want to create a completely different race, make it a journey through the most beautiful nature of Norway, let the experience be more important than the finish time, and let the participants share their experience with family and friends, who will form their support. Let the race end on top of a mountain, to make it the toughest full-distance triathlon on Planet Earth,” he thought.

While a mere 21 athletes completed in the first race, the interest has grown rapidly over the last 14 years. The interest was record breaking this year, in fact, with 3,650 applicants for the coveted 250 spots.

Photo: © Jose Luis / nxtri.com
An athlete crosses the Iming Mountain plateau.

“When we started Norseman, we could never have imagined thousands of adventure-loving athletes would jump at the chance to take the plunge into a freezing fjord, cross the vast plateaus and scale Gaustatoppen to cross the sky-high finish line,” wrote the triathlon organizers on their website. “This is what makes you great! Your willingness to take on and conquer one of the toughest triathlons in the world to stand tall and proud at the finish line 1800 meters above Norway.”

The journey these athletes take is truly unimaginable. After jumping into the fjord, which has been between 55 and 60 degrees Fahrenheit in recent years, the athletes complete a 3.8-kilometer swim to the town of Eidfjord. In the past, the swim has at times needed to be shortened due to extra-low water temperatures, and as a result of the race a “Cold Water Research Project” has been conducted by Jonny Hisdal and Jørgen Melau to study the effects of long-distance swimming in cold water.

The athletes then transition to their bikes and cycle the 180km up Måbødalen, across the Hardangervidda mountain plateau to Geilo, across Dagalifjell to Uvdal, over Imingfjell to Tessungdalen, ending in Austbygde by Lake Tinnsjøen.

In the final stage of the race, the participants run 42.2km. As they race to Rjukan, the first 25km are fairly flat, followed by an intense climb up the remaining 17.2km to the top of Mount Gaustatoppen, finishing 1,850 meters above sea level with a total ascent of 5,335 meters.

Photo: © Agurtxane Concellon / nxtri.com
Only the first 160 finishers make it to the finish line at Gaustatoppen, but those who do experience pure joy.

For safety reasons, only the fastest 160 athletes are allowed to finish at the top of the mountain, however—and first they must pass a health safety check to ensure they are able to continue. As a reward for making it to the top, these finishers receive black shirts. They are then brought back down the mountain via the funicular railway inside Gaustatoppen.

Those who did not make the cutoff complete the distance at Gaustablikk, the mountain plateau below the peak, and receive a white shirt.

As the race does not provide its own support, each athlete must have a personal support crew to follow along in a car, providing all food and drink and following them up the mountain at the end.

While many triathletes come to Norway for the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon from other countries, the locals tend to take the number-one spot. In fact, all of the winners since 2013—men and women—have been Norwegians. Last year, Norway’s Lars Petter Stormo set a new record of 10:22:37. The women’s record of 12:17:04 was set in 2012 by Annett Finger of Germany.

In August, another batch of triathletes will be racing across Norway—some just hoping to make the cutoffs and others competing for these top spots. Either way, each finisher can be sure that they have earned the title of “Norseman.”

This article originally appeared in the July 14, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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