Norway -- Country #9
July 5, 2015
Ironman 70.3 Haugesund
My adopted mother-in-law, Rita Tweed, is of Norwegian descent as was her husband, Tom. He passed away before visiting his ancestry home. Rita’s younger brother and brother-in-law both visited Norway but didn’t invite her to join them. Chris suggested we get a trip planned and invite Rita to come along. She took a second before accepting our invitation. I checked the Norwegian race schedule and built a vacation around Ironman 70.3 Haugesund. For eight days we engaged ourselves into a self-directed speed emergence program to learn more about Norwegian geography, culture, and history.
Haugesund reminded me of Seattle. The city is located near the North Sea with marine access by the Karmsundet strait. Seattle is near the Pacific Ocean with marine access via Puget Sound. While Haugesund sits at 59+ degrees latitude, Seattle is only at 47+ degrees latitude, the weather and lighting conditions were similar. Daylight came early and darkness came late in both cities during June and July. When living in Seattle we experienced anything from grey skies, fog, rain, and sunshine all in the same day. We got all that in Haugesund as the race started under cloudy conditions with temps in the low 60’s F.
One thing Haugesund didn’t share with Seattle was the population and traffic density. About 1,700 triathletes showed up for the race in a town of 36,000 for the whole metropolitan area. We flew into Oslo, the capital of Norway, and drove halfway across the country and spent our first night in Geilo. The next day we drove to the west coast city of Bergen, the second largest city in Norway. We spent three nights experiencing the city and did two different “Norway in a Nutshell” sight-seeing tours where we traveled by train, bus, and boats. Highly recommended. We sailed through fjords, peered over water falls, and experienced some of Mother Natures’ most spectacular creations on the planet. All while eating some of the blandest food prepared for consumption.
We drove south of out Bergen early Saturday morning with a cloudless blue sky and boarded a ferry halfway to Haugesund and arrived by mid-morning. Two triathletes from Denmark helped translate pre-race presentation materials with me for last minute updates. At check-in received race numbers, transition bags, and picked up a bike barrowed for the race. A beautiful gold Quintana Roo (QR) bike finely tuned up by the bike shop crew on site. Tone Bendiksen, the Co-Race Director (RD) helped make arrangements for my use. Prepped it with personal pedals brought from the US and made slight seat and stem adjustments. Sorted out bike gear for the swim-to-bike transition bag or simply the T-1 transition bag and filled up the bike-to-run (T-2) bag with running gear. Stuffed both bags in the newly acquired IM 70.3 Haugesund swag backpack and flung it over my shoulders. Jumped on the barrowed bike and headed towards the race lake 1 ½ miles away from the host race hotel. The street map was vague and people provided minimal directions like, “It’s over that way,” or “Not too far.” Not enough detail to find the transition on my own.
Being directionally challenged in a foreign country, I looked for another cyclist with race bags headed out of town. Numerous commuters on bikes passed without bags. Ten minutes passed before a rider with a race bag headed out to the transition area. He was from Sweden and said the most direct route was confusing but to follow him. He took a couple of wrong turns on the way even though he did the race the last couple of years. We talked the whole way out to the transition. With this lead out rider, the two Danes, and Tone, I realized the camaraderie of the world triathlon community was amazing. They share bikes with strangers from half-way around the world, they share racing instructions with people who don’t understand the local language, and others let an over-packed triathlete draft behind him while asking for race tips.
After racking the bike and hanging transition bags I started walking back towards the city center of Haugesund. Realizing the trip was going to be a longer walk than what I wanted to do a day before the race and not sure of how to back track towards town, asked a young couple headed out of a parking lot if they were headed in the same direction. They were and offered up a ride. The couple lived in town. Neither were racing this year. He raced in previous years but didn’t train for this year’s race. Still he wanted to be a part of the action. The sport of triathloning creates that feeling amongst members of the tri community. People want to be a part of celebration of tri life whether competing, putting on the race, volunteering, sponsoring, spectating, or involved in some other aspect.
Race day check in came easy. Walked out to the hotel parking lot, stepped onto a bus, and ate a Clif Bar during the 10 minute ride to the transition area beside the swim start. The transition area sat atop a soccer field, or futbol pitch with separate male and female transition areas, not only for changing clothes but also racking bikes and warming up.
The set-up allotted more than the usual amount of space on the racks for bikes. The field was artificial turf with loose fake dirt like material underneath. This was the softest and smoothest surface ever to do a run warm up on for a race. And though the race officials closed the transition area to the race bags at 7:30, they allowed competitors to hang out in the rest of the area. These unique arrangements allowed a secured area to relax, get psyched up, and warmed up for the race. Another unique experience in the transition area was the relatively high percentage of competitors wearing blue jeans for warm-ups. All the spandex and poly blends only came out during the actual race. If organizations rated transition areas like hotels, then the one in Haugesund would receive a top 5 Star Rating.
The spectator area allowed a great view of the easy to navigate though unusual swim course layout. The same spot overlooked the transition area on the futbol pitch so this allowed a full view of early race action to the family. Skelsvatnet Lake served as the swim course site. We swam in potentially the most unique swim course of any triathlon in the world, an upside down block letter capital “U”.
We stood in three feet of water covered in six inches of mud at the bottom of the lake. My feet disappeared under the mud up to my ankles waiting for the in-water start. We started in waves based on age divisions. Space was limited widthwise so anyone not in the water was relegated towards the small beach area. If you were not first off at the start, you swam in a tight bunch until the mini inverted “V” of swimmers formed around the big inverted “U” course. We swam 400 meters straight into the lake on the outside of the “U” before starting a wide 200 meter arcing turn to the right for a full 180 degrees. We returned towards the beach but before reaching the shoreline we turned right again on another 180 degree wide arc and back out on the inside “U” of the course. At the 1500 meter mark we turned left for a much tighter 180 degree turn and swam straight for 400 meters to the shoreline and exited the lake. We ran on a short carpeted path over a small rise and down into the futbol pitch. The swim course was tight and strangely shaped but worked well for the race. Easily spotted buoys marked the course every 100 meters. The race directors also outlined the entire course with roping so anytime a swimmer got to close to crossing over into a potential swim line of an on-coming competitor, the rope alerted them not to go there. We enjoyed great water clarity with at least five meters of visibility once clear of the muddy start.
Each swim wave started with the sound from a blow of a genuine Viking Horn. Nothing canned about that. I heard the sound at the start of the race and my first reaction was, “I gotta get me one of those things!”
The starter took the bull horn and put the pointy end at the far edge of his mouth and blew into it with tight vibrating lips to create the right sound. Imagine the sound played over and over at any Minnesota Vikings National Football League game. Experiencing aspects of the heritage culture at races in other countries was one of the most memorable, unique, and coolest things about racing around the world. That and being there with family so they can learn with you, kept me wanting to continue to enjoy racing around the rest of the world.
The transition was seamless for the competitors. The key decision on the bike leg was to ride with or without warmer raingear for the cloudy weather with threatening rained. We grabbed our bikes and made for the mount line. Once on our bikes we followed a narrow cement path out towards the streets and highways. Spectators lined the path only inches from our bikes. Everyone offered up cheers and high fives to all the competitors as we pedaled up the incline from the slight depression the futbol pitch laid in.
From an aerial view the 90 kilometer bike course looked like a lopsided dumbbell. The starting point was on the handle in the middle of a dumbbell. We headed north into the Norwegian countryside on a highway. At the five mile mark we began a counter clockwise loop of 30 miles. On the first loop we were always moving up and down and side to side. I liked the tightness of the course on the turns and its short climbs. On hilly courses there always seemed to be leap-frogging triathletes with two distinct groupings of either quick descenders or climbers. The cyclist were strong and quick. They outpaced me from the start and they never faded towards the end of the pack. The stratification of speed for the racers played out true in Norway on the bike leg.
The rain came early in the form of misty fog to misty drizzle. A Scandinavian made long sleeve under layer covered with a tri top provided a warm and dry ride though I dropped a place during the transition due to the additional time of required to put on extra gear. The rain reminded of a trip to Eugene for a track meet against the University of Oregon Ducks. Rain fell continuously during practice the day before the meet. IU teammate Jim Welte, an 800 Meter runner, observed we never got wet, same for the rain during the bike leg in Haugesund.
During the bike few people talked during the race. Primarily because on the bike competitors were breathing hard on the hills with everyone well-spaced. The race number bibs included first names of the competitors in tall letters and a small 4-color nationality flag representing their home country. We could have played a derivative of the License Plate Bingo Game using triathlete countries on the game squares instead of American states while racing on the roads in Norway. With the name we could recognize who we passed or who passed us throughout the race. Also provided reading opportunities and a mental opportunity to map out Europe by countries represented at Haugesund.
On the climb back into town I came up on a fellow American; easy to spot with the red, white, and blue flag on his bib. Learned during our brief conversation he is an Army officer from Ohio and based in Italy. This was his first triathlon and he loved it. After the race we met again. He already signed up for his next triathlon and encouraged to compete in more.
Completing the first bike loop we circled back onto the center handle of a dumbbell and rode a nine mile stretch of bi-directional shared roadway for all the competitors. Bright orange cones separated the common road between the two loops to prevent opposite riding competitors from head on crashes.
Crowd support was out in full force. On this shared stretch of road coming back into town, I noticed a couple accompanied with their Border Collie dog as we crossed the 60 kilometer mark cheering and clanging bells for the riders. The spot also marked only 5 kilometers into the bike leg. They had been spectating for over an hour and without taking a break rooting on the competitors. I remembered spotting them early at the start. Not too many Border Collies would sit idle watching moving objects. They like to be key players in the chase. Glad I wasn’t riding in an old fashion wool bike jersey.
We continued out of town along the dumbbell handle until we reached the southern loop of 10 miles. All the volunteers were great. Never saw a single bottle dropped during bottle exchanges at any of the three aid stations. Our biggest single climb of the bike came at 50 mile mark and extended two miles. We gained and lost a total of 2,500 feet over the 56 mile course. Almost the same elevation change as the Mont Tremblant course a year earlier. But what a difference in courses. In Haugesund, all the roads were shutdown from traffic. Pack drafting didn’t materialize either from the proper racers’ ethics, official enforcement, or the nature of the undulating course. After the last climb we rode the final four miles back to the transition area.
The race directors bought in one of the Ironman organization’s race announcer, Paul Kaye, a South African who lived in Germany and Japan, and did announcing all over the world. He brought some familiarity at the race as he announced the inaugural Ironman Barcelona the previous October. His style is all about the racers, sponsors, and race officials. His voice was filled with excitement, upbeat and well informed of the participants. During a transition he called out I was one of the few Americans in the race.
As the run leg started the sun popped out with the intensity of any mid-summer sun in the Midwest. I ran with what I biked in, long sleeves with a tri top over that. Great when cool and rainy; however, I immediately regretted my decision. I quickly overheated on the run.
We ran from the transition area at the Sports Center by a city park on the north edge of downtown then dropped on to the main road by the Karmsundet Strait. We ran three miles due south and did a 180 turn back towards the city center and the finish line. We did two loops.
The finish chute was set in city center right on the waterfront as a side shot from the main run course. The finish line location required competitors to run by it four times. It felt either like a tease or a test of willpower on each pass. On the plus side, the tight course showcased the competitors to the crowd almost the whole run. While the competitors spoke infrequently the spectators were non-relenting in their cheers of encouragement. My youngest daughter grew annoyed as the Norwegian home crowd yelled “Hei ho’s!” That sound I will never forget for its uniqueness.
The RD’s threw in some music too to boost our energy. And maybe the dedicated Red Bull aid stations at the far end of the course helped us along too.
The course was great. People in Haugesund were friendly. Everyone associated with the city wanted to help put on a great race for all the competitors and their family and friends. Everyone one seemed to possess a unique ability to speak English with us based on strictly on sight. Only once all week someone talked to me in Norwegian first before quickly switching over to flawless English. The race was voted the second best Ironman 70.3 in the world according to one poll. The Ironman 70.3 Haugesund race should be on any triathlete's bucket list for a destination race.
The evening after the race we ate outside by the water about 200 meters down from the race finish. The fog became so thick we could not see the 10+ story floating oil rig headed out to the North Sea moving 1 mph no more than 100 meters from our table. Let’s all hope the Norwegians choose to keep their tourist industry going at full throttle as one of the best vacation destinations in the world after all the oil run outs. People like, Rita Tweed, my mother-in-law, and her off-spring would be able to visit their spectacular roots for generations.
Triathletes should race in other countries to learn more about the different beliefs, culture, food, and history in the world. For some countries, you can explore your roots are those of spouses or some of the people who inspired you in life. All in effort to understand our collective world’s heritage and with using races as a vehicle to experience it first hand is a simply way to make the adventure fun too.
Results: 127th overall. 2nd in age group.