Continued from Norseman 2018 (part 1) – Preparation & Pre-Race
At 2 o’clock sharp, Blur filled the room with Song 2, an impeccable and energized wake. Breakfast was already prepared and everything worked as planned until we got in the car on the way to Eidfjord. We arrived and parked next to the supermarket, just across the road from the event hotel. On the other side, next to the dock, was the transition, with a clock in countdown for the race – no pressure 🙂 we carried on with bike check-in and placing the equipment bags.
After nature calls and last preparations at the hotel, the entrance on the ferry was surprisingly quiet and I said goodbye with a very portuguese “até já”.
Inside, the atmosphere was different, a great silence and faces a bit more closed, with many pros in their pre-race rituals. Upstairs, everyone was already seated, but it was definitely too hot for me. I ended up moving, alternating between that cabin and the deck, sitting for a few minutes on the floor to feel the cold but not so long that it felt chilly. I helped to close a couple of suits and put mine on at about 4:40. Outside, one could see the ferry maneuvering and the day breaking. It was glorious.
To get used to the temperature, I got showered with the boat hose with water pulled from the fjord, which I let into the suit. Felt good.
At this point the first jumps for the water began and, as I had planned, I approached with the last third of athletes and jumped without hesitation with a feeling of this is it. I dreamed for years with this moment! Endless turbo sessions seeing it and imagining what it would feel like. Despite the minimal temperature shock, I took a few seconds to absorb the adrenaline rush and started swimming the approximately 100 meters until the start, where we were expected by the canoes. The few minutes until everyone arrived were used to look around, delighted with the magnificent scenery and adjust as much as possible to the water temperature.
Starter horn, click on the Garmin, and onward we go. Despite some contact, there was a lot of respect among athletes and consideration for everyone’s space. And so we passed among the canoes, who lifted their oars well in the air while they were shaken by that shoal of yellow caps.
After 7 minutes, already at target pace, I took a blow to the head that left me dizzy and seeing flashes. The knock I’d “taken” had been nothing more than swimming headfirst against a submerged rock about 8 meters from the shore. The kayaks assist with the navigation on the outside and I, too diligently following briefing, followed the margin. All right… except not.
After putting my goggles back on, mostly filled with water, I noticed that the contact lens of my left eye twisted and floating, and at that moment the alarm rang and adrenaline took over. After a few seconds to fix the goggles and conform to the idea that the visibility was going to be minimal and single-eyed for the rest of the race, I got my hands back in the water.
I was trying to figure out my position, there were 3 or 4 swimmers behind me and a dozen of them over to the left, about 20 meters, in a shoal next to the kayak. After about 30 minutes, I began to navigate myself towards the fire (yes, it’s a very Viking thing!), which, at an announced 4 meters high, would have been about 2 millimeters as seen by me at that time… on the special occasions I raised my head enough to see it. I felt a bit cornered a few minutes later, when I stopped seeing the fire for some time… so long I doubted it was still lit! I felt at that moment that any idea of black t-shirt was gone. Even the white one, I realized, was far from given, this race was not just a matter of pushing. It was about reacting to the rebounds… or going home.
I finally got into a good pace about 400 meters from the corner buoy, which leads us to a 90 degree turn to the left and to the finish immediately after the ferry dock. At one point, a red-bearded swimmer (like me, but Nordic!) swam near me and we went on shoulder to shoulder for quite some time. Then we made the approach to the buoy and began to pull the last 750m, with shoulders already feeling some weight.
All in all, poor navigation, I ended up doing 4100 meters instead of the 3800 and closed at 1h 26m with 2:06 min / 100m… even so, the result was clearly better than the display.
As I took the last 150m to kick like a madman and successfully avoid gelatin legs at the end of the 1st segment, still felt quite a relief to come out of the water.
Transition very focused, with the help of Andreia, that I found between the water and the bike park. I was less cold than I thought and, through a few monosyllables, we collaborated to equip the bike and the rider.
Right out of the transition and during the first 10 min I felt heavy legs, and I was thinking that it had been a risky bet to lift my foot in terms of training in the previous 7 days… the possible trade-off between not hurting the knee further and to have good rhythm.
The road was cool and still with a very rolling gradient when the first passages outside the tunnels began, taking the old road by a mirror of water (Eidfjordvatnet), a scenery of such beauty one has to be there to believe.
We then proceeded to the 2 km of the tunnel of Måbø, where the different conditions of temperature, humidity and sound placed us in a mining setting – somewhat pleasant and protective – and I went by 2 riders while swinging my headlight by the tunnel walls.
At the exit of the tunnel, at very steep part and with a gear change while in great effort – as one should not do – the chain jumped and lodged between the cassette and the spokes. I had to dismount to put it in place, all while applying a generous layer of dark oil to my the fingers. The story goes that is the main reason cycling shorts are black. Come on, João.
A few times during the race, it flashed in my head what would I be writing in the end, what story would I tell: a DNF? A white t-shirt? The longed-for black? At this stage it was a very hard white. This time with a great admiration – through experience – for those who jump to the water in a race like this. Each one with its difficulties, fears, hazards, weaknesses, strengths, motivations and goals. Each one with an own story. And so, even being quite competitive, I settled into the rhythm thinking of doing the best race my body would allow, keeping close enough to redline but without taking unnecessary risks nor taking a stride larger than my leg. Building a tremendous respect for the remaining teams – athletes and crews – and especially the staff and volunteers of the race: more than 150 fantastic human beings who receive a smile from us in exchange for a level of dedication that matches that of national pride.
I was controlling the effort, not by the legs – which began shouting early – but by the cardio and I kept it around 155 BPM, until passing by Voringfoss and, soon after, by the Liseth entrance, which felt remotely like “home”. The climb continued and I passed one or the other competitor, finding nothing at 22k – beginning of allowed support – because of the jam caused by the 2 km tunnel, and consequent alternating passage of cars in only one of the lanes that kept Andreia. I kept going up, more briskly and always without looking at the altimetry, and approached the 2 hours I had planned for the 40km/1200m accumulated ascent to Dyranut. I made a quick stop to change the sport bottles and put on the Gabba, because very fast 55km to Geilo and its inhospitable postcard landscapes were next on the menu. Descents allowed me to do what my physique is more suited for: high cadence, big ring and small cog. Arrived in Geilo with 3 and a half hours, took a new stop to exchange sports bottles, gels and bars.
The first climb was a scorcher: leaving winds and realfeel aside for a bit, the temperature on the bike varied between 14 and 28ºC.
Halfway through the 2nd of the 3 central climbs, a little bird asked me if I wanted to know my rank… “you have to go get another 10… you’re currently #173. I sweared. I felt I was doing well but knowing to be so close to the barrier meant I was going to be sucked into the vertigo of giving everything I had… and had not. It meant I had to go into cool head mode and gauging effort while mentally counting those 10. And so I did. In the following climbs, I limited HR to 140-145, already in effort management and to save energy for Imingfjell, the last climb.
In this one, I switched to 135-140 and I let one or two positions go. I had the notion that I would get them back soon judging by the body language of my fellow riders as they completed the switchbacks between different levels of the climb that, at this time of the race, seemed truly endless.
About 5 minutes later, at the plateau, I got my place back while recovering from the climb a felt a boost of confidence. I was racing.
3100 vertical meters behind and about 30 km remained, mostly down and flat, where I planned to drop the hammer should I find the legs. The start of the run would be an unknown, it could literally be everything, but was determined to close and at least make a good impression on the bike.
Downhill began blessed by chilly rain in thick drips, as we entered a dangerous descent and I felt at that moment that the grippy 25mm tires I brought were going to be crucial.
As soon as I saw hesitation from other riders about the rain, slope and tarmac condition I threw myself in to give it everything. Brakes alive but always on the limit, parabolics drawn the best I knew at each elbow and eyes on the cars ahead both ways.
I smiled inside and out, had managed the effort well until the moment and now had a real time trial to put my last chips on the bike.
A slight, continuous descent, rolling, which really suits my characteristics. I felt 100% focused, “in the zone”, a state only briefly interrupted 2 or 3 times due to the queues of support cars that did not always facilitate overtaking.
The wind made itself heard and felt and, depending on the position of the helmet, caused a huge flap of the race number. As I passed other riders, the speed difference was significant, and although I never looked back, I felt they were rapidly losing contact which boosted morale. I smiled again, felt like I was carrying another pair of legs with me, and when I decided to breathe and account for time, I had just done 29 km in 35 minutes – while recovering another 10 positions in the process.
I entered Austbygde, curved right and got my hands back on the brake hoods as the time trial had ended. Almost entering transition 2, I saw a familiar silhouette walking on the curb and shouted, “run Andreia!!!” … seconds later, I braked hard for the dismount line and ran through the grass toward the wooden boxes.
I got rid of the bike clothes and helmet while she was already my side and, with great economy of words (what a patience, Andreia!) I asked for the help I needed and I still got some sunscreen while tying my shoes.
Run started without further delay, still feeling pumped by the end of the bike, and more I got when I was shown the “155” sheet on the way out of the transition – I learned later I was actually 152. After a hard swim, taking off at 210th and recovering 58 positions on the bike, I’d just pulled off one of my best rides ever.
I asked for support every 4 km (it ended up being 3) and took my chance, venturing to enter with 5:00/km in the first 3 km to see how I felt the legs. Almost everything in this segment would be an unknown: besides the very low training volume, the last time (and only!) I ran more than 25 km was in Ironman Barcelona, almost 2 years ago).
At the first overtaking – two runners I saw right from the start of the transition some 200 meters ahead – I thought about how to approach, whether to stay with them or carry on. I went for option b) and, from then on, I always overtook without changing the rhythm. I felt this was the moment of make or break and I was gaining positions slowly but surely.
It is generally good to run with others in sight, it helps to have a reference and an immediate goal. The support teams who parked in front of me and ran out of the cars to take pictures of their athletes made me aware that I kept company 20 or 30 seconds following. A decision I made at the beginning and I managed to keep: never, ever, look back.
The heat helped me get past the 7 km barrier – the distance in which the knee showed up in recent months – as, fortunately, I had my head elsewhere. What I imagined, with the merciless heat under a lively sun, was that the rest of the field should be feeling it harder than I did, being from a generally hot and sunny climate. I overtook about 4 or 5 runners at this stage, some walking, others standing on the grass. The sun was really strong and not even the sponges, floating in a barrel placed by the organization at the side of the road, were able to provide a decent cool down. These were my game-face minutes, this is not Sparta, this is Alentejo (my hometown in southern Portugal) the minutes of “I’d like to have it this way until the end”. Only it was not. The blessed heat lasted less than 10 km and we entered the race phase more prone to mental games and making time pass, always keeping focused in the best possible running technique. It was at this stage that I knew that my knee would let me finish, and I remember smiling for some strides.
From 20 km, the rhythm gradually and deliberately fell to about 6:30/km as the time approached to see our Adamastor, that in this part of the world goes by the name Gaustatoppen.
During the whole run I was passed by two athletes, and both at the same time. One with a clearly superior rhythm, which I was able to keep in sight for about 15 minutes but always increasing distance and another, Neil Samuelssen, who was going faster but looking more elaborate in his effort. Neil was running some 400 meters in high gear, would pass me and then was walking for about 2 minutes, enough for me to pass him again, just enough to repeat the cycle, something we did 5 or 6 times.
From the start of the race, my internal soundtrack when I needed to focus was mostly my current rank calculations: according to the initial indication I received, at this time I was doing: “147, 147, 147, 147″…
The moment I started to feel like a rubber band stretching, almost losing contact with Neil, was when cramps appeared in the left shin and calf, as a result of my focused effort to force the bio-mechanics more favorable to alleviate the knee pain. I was trying to ignore the alarms playing in my head when I was passed by Andreia on the car and she saw me wearing a different effort mask. Despite her incentives I felt the cracks before the crumbling and could not see how I was going to be able to climb 10% for 7,5 km until the cut-off in that condition. And, at the same time, a deep anguish to have gotten so far within the first 160… only to feel the bird getting away from my hand.
I thought of mantras, the girls saying “Come on daddy!”, in my Father who would give everything to be there. I felt emotional, I mustered strength. Do not give up, at this time of the race everyone is suffering, no one is laughing at no one.
Several parts started buzzing around body sites that, even with some experience, were still new to me. A strong cramp inside the leg, from the knee to the groin. I remembered what I felt when I broke and had to stretch on the ground at 30 km during Ironman Barcelona. But I also remembered Macca:
I had the advantage of having my lungs sitting on the couch, but my legs screamed for both of them and I’ve yet to meet such as thing as average pain. Barely holding on and pushing through.
I crossed the bridge to Zombie Hill without slowing down at the check (I later learned that they did not see my number well), sent down a banana and then a couple of minutes came that, without changing almost anything, changed everything…
I looked up to Zombie Hill’s first ramp and saw about five groups of athletes and support crews. Andreia, as we agreed, had left for the 32,5 km to leave the car and perhaps come down a bit. The first thing I noticed was that they all had company. The second was that … they were walking!
Everyone around me was walking, i.e. they were as busted as me to run the next 7,5km at a constant 10% gradient, an activity that at this stage of the race is reserved for semi-gods.
Walking! Did I tell you they were all walking?
It took a few minutes to internalize this concept, nothing is obvious at that time of the race, but I realized during the climb that not only is it exponentially harder to run and, consequently, the possibility of hitting the wall hard, as the difference in speed between running and walking is minimal.
I started to walk the way I could in order to avoid cramps, and shortly afterwards I was literally adopted by Neil’s crew, to whom I owe a big thank you, and whose walking support was an outstanding entertainer with a bluetooth speaker in the backpack included! Some words and mutual cheering, always with swift breathing, and the famous hairpins passed by without relevant changes to the rankings.
At a certain point, near 31 km, we saw Andreia in the distance and shortly afterwards we increased the group. A few minutes later we saw a large and noisy group cheering at the last corner before the cut-off when one of the funniest moments of the race ensued as they started playing nothing less than the mythical Eye of the Tiger, jabs included!
Then came a truly magic moment. It was only short from unimaginable while leaving the fjord water, but I had just made the mountain cut-off.
Passing the 32,5 km gate is a sense of relief and confirmation that we are on the way to the ambitious black t-shirt. Despite this, it ain’t over till it’s over and I have constantly reminded myself and support that black is only at the top.
After 5 km of climbing in easy terrain, the passage to the final stage of the mountain at 37,5 km is marked by the last time cut-off and checkpoint of equipment and physical condition to continue.
It was one of the moments when I adjusted clothing, placing a baselayer, jacket and hydration vest with the obligatory flashlight, thermal blanket, gloves and mobile phone. A first accessible section of trail with some rocks gave way to trail with rocks and then rocks with rocks, some with sharp edges vs. tarmac running shoes… a long and deep tissue plantar massage. Balanced with fresher and fresher air to take in that felt like a treat to tired lungs.
The mountain had plenty of people and the screams of encouragement were full and constant … Heija! Heija! Heija! Heija! Heija!
Hikers up and down the mountain, other support crews, volunteers, everyone had a friendly face, offering congratulations and recognition for the effort. In other circumstances it would be an Olympic lap. It was easy to get carried away in the euphoria of the end but no, we were not there yet as long as one could twist a foot or a knee, and in that kind of terrain no shoulders, even with the best goodwill, would be able to assist in completing.
At some points we were dealing with stone and rock climbing, many of them completely bound to the mountain and others offering deceiving support. We kept gaining ground, both horizontally and vertically, and more and more areas were appearing with piles of rocks, some with the Norwegian flag.
And yes, besides rocks there was a stone stairway… in the last 200 meters! And, who knew: the desire to finish was great but, at the same time, becoming aware that was going to end carved a bittersweet, almost nostalgic flavor to the last steps.
Kept going while soaking it in and some moments later irreversibility won, there was nothing to do but cross the finish line and spirit turned to an immense joy in the last meters. I took out the Portuguese flag, climbed the last step and, with arms in the air and a shout of victory, VAAMOOOOOOS!!! (portuguese for COME ON!!!) closed the race with a golden key, stopping the Garmin after 15 hours and 14 minutes.
Andreia came in some seconds later and we held each other for some moments, feeling top of the world… WE DID IT!!
There was an enormous sensation of conquest, that everything went as it had to be. It did not seem like a dream, it seemed such a real and great moment, one of the best I’ve ever experienced. I thought of my parents, kids, family, the friends who followed the race so far away, while I allowed myself to go around the finish area and absorb the scenery.
As promised, they served a wonderful broth with two or three cubes of bacon, which tasted wonderfully and made me feel a bit warmer.
When looking down, one gets an idea of the greatness of the race: a series of lakes looked like puddles, and yet they were themselves more than 1000 meters high.
I turned on the cell phone and, as it beeped with notifications, the first call went to Teresa and Francisca as I promised them. After managing expectations last time we talked, they could not believe when I told them that daddy had finished at the top of the mountain.
A few more messages and photos, and still decompressing and feeling the cold that settles in the body after stopping a great effort, we entered the shelter to drink a coffee that, once again, tasted like life.
Cold quickly became freeze, time to get off the mountain with the very appreciated help of a funicular train where athletes have a guaranteed ticket.
n the access tunnel it was quite cold and as the capacity is very limited I ended up taking out the thermal blanket. For about 45 minutes we waited for our turn while we talked with a nice French family and his finisher, Rémi.
The train began its descent inside the rock and, a few minutes later, a second train, still in a tunnel but this time horizontal, took us to the exit of the mountain. Then we got a shuttle to the 32,5 km where the car had been parked, proceeded to Rujkan, took a quick shower and landed on one of the heaviest and happiest sleeps of the last few months!
The Norwegians are definitely fond of the race: the next day, massive respect from everyone! During breakfast, a family who saw the tattoo I still had on the arm came to know how it had went and congratulate, so did the owner of the hotel, people we met in restaurants, petrol stations, everywhere!
After breakfast, we went to Gaustabliik, to the official hotel of the arrival near the 32,5 km point, for collecting the t-shirts and to take the group photo.
It was really great to review many of the faces met during the days, figure out what came to be their race story and share that ambiance of conquest, satisfaction and camaraderie.
The remainder of the day was spent returning to Oslo and recovering the over 8000 cal left behind on the previous day. I had never ordered a coffee with a dish of salmon mid-afternoon on a gas station 🙂
For posterity I encarved a fantastic experience, a great race and a huge learning.
A very kind and heartfelt word to the organization and volunteers, and a wish they keep the race as it is: True. Basic. Unique.
I welcome the idea of coming back in the future, possibly in the role of support. Who’s in?