I visited the Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlete Camp with Red Bull, where I interviewed their athlete, three times car rally world champion Andreas Mikkelsen. Read the article on Red Bull or below.
When three-time rallying world champ Andreas Mikkelsen decided to race his first elite triathlon, he picked the toughest one on earth. Reliving the pain, he breaks down his epic Norseman challenge.
Andreas Mikkelsen was always destined for greatness. After knee injuries brought a promising skiing career to an end, the Norwegian turned his hand to motor racing at 16 years old, and has been competing on the rallying world stage ever since, winning three World Championships to date. And now he's got another incredible racing achievement under his belt – but one that didn't require an engine.
The 29-year-old and his co-driver and navigator, Anders Jaeger, have always dreamed of racing in a full triathlon event. So, naturally, they signed up for the toughest triathlon in the world: Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlon. Held in their native Norway, it requires athletes to swim 3.8km, cycle 180km, run 42.2km and ascend more than 5235m of Norway’s exquisite landscape. From jumping off a ferry at 5am into a freezing fjord, to a leg-sappingly steep mountain climb, called Zombie Hill, it's hours of never-ending pain.
It's the kind of race where you’ll find yourself alone on your bike in the middle of a big mountain plateau or looking marooned in a wasteland, only suited for reindeer and rocks. Often, it’s just you and your sheer determination to make it to the finish line and claim the world’s most coveted black tee on the summit of a mountain – a mountain so high that you can see one sixth of Norway's mainland. And, you won't be surprised to know, it's seen many an experienced triathlete fail.
With no experience in open water, and very little experience on the bike, even an elite sportsman like Andreas had his work cut out. Here, the Red Bull athlete breaks down exactly what it takes to race in the world’s ultimate triathlon...
I cycled any chance I got
My full-time job is rallying, so we – Anders and I – can’t train like the proper triathletes. Fitting in the really long elite triathlon training sessions was difficult, because we have to use as little energy as possible, as our main focus is rallying.
To counteract our lack of triathlon training time, we prioritised cycling as we needed to get the milage in on the bike. We also practised the entire Norseman cycle route before the summer, but even then we couldn’t fit in enough training! So I took my bike on my summer vacation in Ibiza, to get some miles in before the start of the race.
My rally training counted for zero
To be a competitive rally driver, you have to be in good shape. The training isn’t as extreme as Norseman, or even regular triathlon training, and usually requires hard workouts between 5-25 minutes, be it running or strength training, whatever it takes for you to be fit and maintain concentration during really warm and very long days. More often than not, you’re sitting in a car that’s between sixty and seventy degrees for long periods. It’s tough and requires a lot of focus, but training is done in small doses.
Triathlon training is the opposite of this. More often than not, it requires long periods of time in the saddle, pool or on your feet and there is no one temperature to worry about. Unfortunately, time was not a luxury we were afforded, as our schedule didn’t allow it. But, along with the cycle route, we were able to squeeze in the first 25km of the run and we swam in the fjord – it was freezing in the springtime, I’d never swam in such cold water before, it was a little bit of a shock!
It really was sink or swim
My training for rally driving has never involved swimming. I’ve come a long way since my first ever open-water swimming lesson, which was only two months before the race! My initial thoughts after my debut open-water session was that it was much harder than I expected. I was having trouble with the breathing and swallowed a little water. We were advised to get an expert in to give us some open-water swimming tips, to improve our efficiency and performance in the water.
Subsequently, we enlisted the help of fellow Red Bull athlete Kristian Blummenfelt, bronze winner of the Triathlon World Cup, ranked number 3 in the World Triathlon Series 2017, and somebody who swims between 4000m and 6000m every day. Kristian gave us some great tips on how to use less energy in the water and swim faster, such as a steeper hand entry into the water.
"It was so steep, I was in so much pain, I was exhausted. My legs had no energy. To run up the hill was unthinkable."
Kristian was a great instructor. Anders was always faster than me during the training sessions but, on race day, I was first out of the water which surprised me!
My support crew were key
My support crew were two of my friends; one had raced in Norseman previously and his past experience was really important to our success, and my other friend was a very serious guy.
We had a lot of meetings before Norseman to go through the athlete guide and cover every potential problem. They joined me on lots of my training sessions before the summer, during which those who had already raced Norseman gave us lots of tips, good ideas and told us what to expect.
I had no real expectations – just to finish
I was not feeling nervous before the race, as I knew I had done the training and was just racing to have a really good time.
I thought, 'Okay, if I don’t get the black tee, what’s the worst that will happen?' Nothing. I am just racing Norseman for myself, whereas in rallying, if I don’t perform, then I let down a lot of people and manufacturers.
Having said that, I was a little nervous about opening too hard on the swim, which I managed to do anyway! When we were on the ferry, I was really looking forward to starting Norseman. It was fun.
My swim was surprisingly strong
This year, Norseman experienced unusually warm weather. In past events, the fjord’s water temperature has been around 13 degrees, but, this year, it was 18 degrees. So we knew the water was warmer and it was going to be okay. Before we jumped off the ferry, we said goodbye to each other. Everyone is dressed exactly the same and we all resemble seals in the water, so it’s impossible to see and even recognise each other during a swim, particularly at dawn. It just felt nice to get going.
Cycling had its ups and downs
During the 180km cycle I was pushing hard on the downhill, as it was so much more exciting. No-one passed me on the downhill! I conserved energy on the uphill and that’s where a few athletes passed me.
Only would I later realise that I had started way too hard on the swim. Just before halfway on the cycling, my legs started to cramp. I eventually managed to overcome the cramps by eating well, drinking a lot and getting enough salt throughout the entire event. My support crew did a really great job in preparing everything for me.
My cramps were still giving me a little trouble and I struggled a bit during the run, but thankfully it did get much better over time.
Zombie Hill lived up to its name
After cycling 180km, I had to run 25km – it's pretty much flat terrain, but I was struggling with a lot of lower-back pain as my body was not used to sitting in the aero position on the bike for such a long period of time.
By the time I reached Zombie Hill, an 8km section of switchbacks that mark the start of the 1650m ascent to the top of Gaustatoppen, where you can claim the black tee shirt, my muscles were finished. My back still ached a lot.
I expected it would be an easy walk up to the top of Gaustatoppen. I have no trouble running 20/30km, however, after swimming and cycling so much, it was a very, very different experience. Walking was really tough. It was so steep, I was in so much pain, I was exhausted. My legs simply had no energy. To run up the hill was unthinkable.
On race day, nothing really worked! I was really exhausted and never thought: 'This is going really well!' But I did it – I made it to the top.
I finished 90th out of 238 triathletes
I made it across the line in 14hrs and 5 minutes. I am really pleased with the result. Despite being very tired, I was well within the cut-off time for the black tee, which you get for finishing on top of Gaustatoppen. Next time I will start the swim much calmer, so I have more energy towards the end.
Everything up to the last 5km was great, but those final 5km were tough. I was feeling pain in my ankles, knees and lower back, but luckily I had my crew with me and they really helped me on.
It was encouraging to have so many spectators cheering you on, while my crew had a car with a big music player so, while running, I was able to listen to my playlists.
Right now, I’m feeling very happy and feel like I have done my first and last Norseman, although give me a week and I might be telling you differently!
Competing in Norseman will make me become a better rally driver
I have been competing in sport my entire life and love it. I know that I’m fit enough to be a really good rally driver, but Norseman gave me a new motivation to be even better.
Norseman pushed me to train more, and pushed me to search for my mental and physical limits. I need other goals along with rallying that will drive me to train harder and become better and, this year, it was Norseman.
You have to be very focused while rallying, but I don’t think being a rally driver helped me that much in Norseman. What I’m actually really hoping for, is that racing Norseman will help me become a better rally driver and take our performance as a team to the next level.