This is my English race report after the Swissman Xtreme Triatlon which I wrote as the Norseman ambassador and published on www.nxtri.com.
At 05 AM on a beautiful summer day I was sculling both excited and nervously on the start line with 52 other triathletes. We were right next to Brissago Islands in the picturesque Lake Maggiore approximately 3,8 km from the beach in Ascona, and with the sound of a Swiss cowbell the inaugural Swissman Xtreme Triathlon was officially started. Extreme triathlon you say? There was nothing with the start that reminded me of an extreme triathlon. I have done the Norseman and the water is much colder, the fjord is darker and the mountains far steeper.
Lake Maggiore and the beautiful and charming little city of Ascona were not suited to strike fear in triathletes, which have done some tough triathlons before. I have decent swimming skills to come from a non-swimming background, but I have never been able to keep up with the best, and this swim was no exception. Quickly after the start I ended up swimming all alone and could see the “leading star”, the boat with a guiding light, was drifting slowly away from me. I could feel the sand under my feet in Ascona just short of one hour after the cowbell rang and was happy to be spot on my ambitious schedule.
Photo: Sampo Lenzi
On the bike I put up some solid but controlled efforts and passed Ascona’s neighbour city, Lucarno a short while afterwards. The first 43 km of the bike course is reasonably flat, and I was feeling great as I hammered in aero position as one of the few riding a TT-bike. The temperature was about 17 degrees and I was riding with the first pack behind Markus “El Toro” Stierlie. As we arrived in Biasca the sky’s opened up and the rain started pouring down in dimensions we rarely see even in Norway, and I was soaking wet after a couple of minutes. Then the long climb up to St. Gottardo started and I was still feeling good and passed Airolo at 79 km as third contender. But it is after that point the race really starts and Swissman earnes its first capitals in Xtreme. The climb gets steeper and the energy draining cobblestone section begins, and I felt the power gradually disappeared from my legs as one after another of my competitors overtook me. Like Dr.Jekyll, the unbelievably beautiful Swiss Alps have another personality, and as you are struggling to hold on to the bars of your bike as it bounces up and down on the cobblestone you discover the Alps Mr.Hyde. My pace was barely 12 km/h and the temperature around 4 – 5 degrees, which in a combined with wind and rain made my slow uphill ride chilly. My legs and arms was smashed as I finally arrived at St.Gottardo and I thanked the God I normally not have faith in that I was at the top and had passed the cobblestones without any flat tires or other technical problems. Another of the Alps darker sides is that they are never-ending, or at least they feel that way, and to make the challenge of the bike course complete the Alp-passes comes three in a row. You cross the mighty Furka at staggering 2419 height meters, and as I passed it in the low and wet cloud cover I took a quick look at my bike computer and had to laugh in a tragicomical way. On a flat 180 km course I arrive at T2 in 4 h and 40 min, and now I had been cycling in more than 5 hours and had not even passed 120 km off the course. The last proper climb up to Grimsel is not steep with 4 % average incline, but it is 10 km long and after over 5 hours of hard riding it is sure challenging enough. The last 41 km was basically just a long downhill which I was flying down with the sun in my face and happy to soon be done with the magnificent but unforgiving bike course.
Photo: Jenny Hovda
Running is usually my best discipline, and if I have done my preparations right I am able to start and finish off with a good pace. After 500 meters on the course before the tarmac tilts upwards, and as I got to the first little uphill my lungs were revolting. I had difficult inhaling the air and was coughing slime, but the thing that hurt me the most was that I had to stop running and start walking. After the hard bike leg I did not expect to feel great on the run, but “Smokers Lungs” was still far less then I was hoping for. On the bike I had stopped in Airolo to put on a wind vest, and at St.Gottardo to put a rain jacket on before I changed to wool socks and long legs at Grimsel, but it was too little and too late. The cold weather and temperature variations combined with the hard effort had given me an acute issue with my lungs. To be truthful I just wanted to turn 180 degrees and go back to T2, but giving up was not an option. It never is. I was on 6th place, and even if I originally had the podium as my goal I figured out that a 6th place is definitely worth fighting for. I expected that the run would mostly be fairly flat, but except the 5 km flat section along the eye-pleasing Lake Breinz the run course went either up or down, which was tough but also quite entertaining. My supporter Jens was riding next to me the whole «flat» section of the run with his city-bike with a large basket, filled with water, cola and gels. A personal rolling food cart is my definition of luxury in long distance running! At Grindelwald my main supporter and wife Jenny had prepared my arrival perfectly. My backpack was checked and cleared, and Jens was ready to run with me up the 8 km and 1109 height meters last long climb. It was steep, but I had to run as much as I could to hold my newly acquired 5th position. It is on this very last leg of the race that the mental strength is more crucial than anything else. Walk when you must and run when you can. Just run to the next sign, next turn, and next cottage. The view on the way up was truly breathtaking, but I did not care. Put one foot in front of another was my only focus. There were water fountains for cows along the path and I put my whole head in them to cool down in the heat. The terrain flats a bit out after Alpigen, the halfway point, and it was a relief to finally get a glimpse of the grand Hotel Bellevue on Kleine Scheidegg. I had to make a sprint finish to secure my 5th place in front of female winner Emma Pooley and crossed the finish line 12 hours and 38 minutes after we started in Lake Maggiore. The feeling after finishing such a challenging adventure is difficult, if not impossible to describe. On one side I was completely worn out and every muscle in my body begs me to never do something similar again, but the sense of achievement and relief of finally being done exceeds the pain by far. Physically you have hit rock bottom but mentally you are flying. The unique feeling can only be achieved by exposing your body of tremendous physical pressure, and prevail. It is that feeling that makes us coming back for more.
Photo: Sampo Lenzi
The series of Xtreme triathlon stands out compared to normal Ironman-distances and the beautiful but raw and brutal nature adds another dimension to the challenge. As a Norseman ambassador I am happy to truthfully be able to say that Swissman is the hardest triathlon I have ever done, and that it stands nothing short of the great Norseman. I went in to the competition very well prepared and even if I finally got to the finish line, I do not feel like I won the fight. I surrendered to the Swiss Alps and collapsed under its pressure, and I cannot let that result stand. If the Swissman organization let me, I will come back next year and get a rematch. In the meanwhile I will try to give Marcus Stierlie some real competition in Norseman 3. August. See you all in Eidfjord!