Swedeman July 20th 2019 – Race Report
I never set out to enter Swedeman. It wasn’t a race that was on my radar whatsoever. In fact, as many of you already know, I was generally against entering any type of long distance race due to the commitment involved and because it meant putting all your eggs in one basket for a season. I loudly maintained that viewpoint until about late September last year when I watched a video of the 2018 Norseman race. The swim looked really cool, especially the start where the athletes jump four meters off the back of a passenger ferry into a pitch black fjord. I continued to watch the video; the cycling through stunningly beautiful countryside, the epic run finish at the top of the mountain, it all looked pretty cool to be fair. All of a sudden I was down the Norseman rabbit hole, watching previous races and reading more and more about it. Epic was a suitable description alright. After a couple of days’ video watching and mulling it over, it was decided; I was going to enter Norseman!
If you’re not aware, some five thousand names go into the Norseman ballot every year with 250 being picked to race and another 50 being invited via the race director or special entry. Some of the names in the ballot are from people who entered in previous years; if you don’t get picked and then enter in subsequent years, your name goes in once for every year you have applied. So if you have entered for three years in a row without being picked, you get three entries. That meant my chances of getting a spot were slim to none. With this in mind, I decided I needed an alternative plan. The options were to do an Ironman or look at another similar race to Norseman. Norseman is part of the Xtri World Series, so there were other races in the series that I could have a look at as backup and Swedeman looked like the obvious second choice.
For those of you who don’t know, the Xtri races are roughly Iron distance triathlons, but over tougher terrain. Norseman has a cold fjord swim, a 180km bike leg with 3500m of elevation and a marathon where the last 10km is 1400m up a mountain. Similarly, Swedeman has a cold lake swim that finishes at the foot of Sweden’s largest waterfall, Tännforsen; a 205km bike (to make up for the fact that there’s ‘only’ 2000m of elevation) and a very hilly (2000m+) marathon over all types of terrain with a similar 1400m mountain finish to Norseman. I got confirmation that I had an entry and started to prepare.
Just to warn you as Conal did not, reading this report will take about as long as it takes to actually complete Swedeman. Back in November, Conal asked me to support him for this race and it didn’t take long for me to agree. I was lured in by a beautiful supporter’s t-shirt, a nearby restaurant, Fäviken, that we had seen on TV and fallen in love with and Sweden’s largest mountain bike park all in the race village!
I made the decision early on that I was going to enjoy the training and lead up to the event. I had seen too many people burn out either leading up to or after racing and I was determined that I wouldn’t end up hating training by the end of it. My approach was pretty similar to how I’d imagine you’d approach an IM, but because I was still in the early stages of back to running, I swapped running for a lot of hiking and hill walking in the early months of the year.
We headed over to Åre the Wednesday before the race. It’s a really pretty ski resort and we got ourselves a chalet in the grounds of the hotel that was to act as race HQ for the week, so we were close to all the pre-race action. As the week progressed, my energy started to build and by the morning of the race I was bouncing around, ready to go. I’d managed to stay relaxed for the whole week and I determined that I was going to enjoy myself and smile my way around the whole thing.
I’d been on a single hike in the last five years. I began to worry I wouldn’t be strong enough to hike at Conal’s pace for the race, so I suggested we did a training hike together. Off we went to Crone Woods and pointed our trail shoes in the direction of Djouce. The boy can power hike – it didn’t take long for me to realise that Conal was a bloody fast hiker. I could hold his pace on the technical sections and the descents, but I could only just about kept up on the smooth uphill sections. My only saving grace was going to be that I’d be joining him at the end of a long day. I’d signed up, I had to make it work no matter how much I suffered on the day!
Every Xtri race is self-supported on the bike and you need a support runner for the mountain parts of the run at a minimum. I knew Ben would be a great strategist for a race like this, so I asked him early on to be my main support for the race. Ailish and Arron were of course coming too so we had a team of four to look after everything. Because the location of the race meant we could get rain snow or sun, and possibly all three in the same day, we needed to consider every possible scenario on the bike and for the run, so on top of the mandatory kit, we ended up bringing about 9 different transition bags.
It was only when we started to go through each bag in the days leading up to the race that I realised the enormity of the event and for the first time I felt a pang of pressure. We went through each bag, item by item. We photographed the contents to form an itinerary so that we could quickly find any item if we needed to. We discussed the best place for each item and what scenarios we might need different bits and pieces. I spent a few hours packing the car, memorizing where everything was, what order we needed to do things, how the car would be re-packed as the day progressed and different bags would might be needed. This was far and away the most nervous I have ever been for any triathlon…and I wasn’t even doing the race. We registered on Thursday evening where I was heartbroken to discover the supporter’s t-shirts, a key reason for me agreeing to come to Sweden, had gone missing in the post. Despite the 25-degree forecast I received the alternative to the supporter’s t-shirt; a woolly hat. My first cock up was confidently telling the team that the briefing was at 4pm the day before the race. We arrived at 3:55pm and caught the last 5 minutes. They never say anything important at those briefings anyway, right?
4am on the morning of the race, we were picked up at HQ for the bus journey to the swim start (the other three were due to head off to T1 to set up the bike). There were two busloads of athletes, many of them already in their wetsuits, neoprene caps and booties. From reading the ace forum, I knew that a lot of people were not looking forward to the water temps. I felt lucky that I was well used to swimming in 12 degree water, as a lot of these guys were pretty scared at the prospect of the 13 degrees we were heading into.
As you’d expect, the bus journey was quiet with people getting to know each other and gently chatting about their training for the race, wondering what to expect from the day ahead. As far as I knew, I was the only person there who hadn’t done a long distance race before. Everyone was experienced in doing IMs at least and many had done Xtri events before.
We drove from Åre to Norrland, which was on the opposite side of the lake to Tännforsen, the journey taking about 45 minutes. We drove through mile after mile of green forest and suddenly, the bus just stopped at the side of the road – no signposts, fences or any indication that we had arrived at the swim start. There was a small gap in the trees at the side of the road and we were directed down through it. In a clearing about 100 meters down we met some of the organisers, along with the bag drop truck (how did they get that there?) .
We walked further down through the woods then all of a sudden, we ended up between two flags on a small beach at the side of the lake. There was no one around except the athletes and the three members of the race committee we’d seen earlier. It was 4.45 am local time, which meant it was 3.45am Dublin time. It had been bright since we got up and it was all pretty disorienting.
Which is why it took me a good few seconds to realise there was a reindeer walking around in front of us, just as we were all lined up between the flags to start the race. Kind of strange, but then I realised it had a lead on and was attached to a nice smiling woman – so obviously it was meant to be there.
That’s me, arms folded, trying to figure out why a reindeer was about to start the race. Photo: Kai-Otto Melau
We got a quick overview of the swim course from Stuart, one of the race directors – pointing out the location of the buoys we had to swim around – and then a little speech from the lady with the reindeer about the preservation of flora and fauna in Jämtland and her life growing up there. A little random to say the least, and I was still unsure if I was taking it all in correctly. However, it was really nice and chilled – very Swedish actually – and she got a big round of applause while the reindeer took a big whizz on the ground we were about to run over to get into the lake.
All of a sudden, Stuart shouted “Five-Four-Three-Two-One – GO!” and we were off without a word of warning. I was kind of hoping the reindeer was going to let out a roar to start us off, but didn’t have time to think much about it as I headed into the lake. All I knew was I was in love with this race already.
200m run before we started to swim. Photo: Kai-Otto Melau
I ran into the lake as fast as I could. 150, 200 metres and we were all still only up to our knees. I was pretty sure I had a good start, I could only see a handful of people ahead of me when I sighted and a few of those weren’t heading for the first buoy. I just kept doing what I was doing and getting myself to relax as much as possible. As I got going I noticed a beautiful sunrise to my right every time I breathed. It was just the most spectacular morning with the sun coming up over the still lake and it was impossible not to feel grateful for being here and racing in these surroundings.
I reckoned I was top 20 from what I could see – not used to that at all but it relaxed me even more and I was able to just focus on keeping my stroke as long as possible. Once I turned the last buoy, I was facing the massive Tännforsen waterfall and knew I was almost there. I picked a line and accelerated, with the legs kicking a bit more to get the blood into them. I could see the coloured dots of the crowd on the bank getting closer and I just kept sighting and kicking till I got right to the bank. A few precarious steps over the many rocks at the exit and I was out. My watch said 1:04:30, which couldn’t have been better for me.
Tännforsen. You can just about see the swim exit to the left of the picture with the lead swimmer heading for it behind the kayak – taken from the Swedeman video by Steve Ashworth and Matt Green
Ben was there with my runners and reckoned I was about 12th out of the water. Way beyond my expectations but I’ll take it!! I put the runners on as quickly as I could and began the 400m climb up the path to T1, passing Ailish and Arron with a thumbs up on the way. The hill is tough – the Dunmore East swim exit has nothing on it – so I made sure to take it easy and keep the heart rate low so that I’d be relaxed getting on the bike. We got up to T1 eventually, and Ben led me to the bike and gear. After I had gone off on the bus that morning, Ben had gone to T1 to set everything up. It’s lot of pressure to heap onto the support crew to have everything ready and to do all of the thinking for the athlete, but he had everything sorted and ready for me. I was feeling great after the swim and it was a nice morning, if a bit chilly, so I just took my short sleeve jersey with a gilet in the back pocket and headed off on the bike.
After dropping Conal off to get the bus it was straight back to the house to pack the bike and to pick up Arron and Ailish before heading to T1. We arrived at Tännforsen and I was straight to work setting up transition. It felt so strange to set up someone else’s transition, it’s something I put a lot of effort into for my own races and the idea of someone else doing it on my behalf does not sit well with me! I was so caught up in making sure transition was perfect that I hadn’t taken in my surroundings. It was stunning, a cold, still, quintessentially evergreen Swedish forest. There was an air of tension and excitement as the other supporters set up their athlete’s transitions. There was also bloody mosquitos everywhere – WHAM – bitten straight in the eye. I knew straight away that wasn’t good, but I’d deal with it after Conal was on the bike. We headed down to the waterfall where Ailish and Arron were waiting. I cannot describe how amazing the next half an hour was watching the sun rise, watching the lead swimmers come around the corner all while sitting on the rocks at the foot of Sweden’s largest waterfall. It was one of those majestic moments where everyone felt the need to whisper. The hairs on the back of my neck were standing up. I spotted Conal’s stroke as he approached the lake’s edge. He was in great form, detailing the swim and something about Reindeer piss as we ran up to the bike. He turned to look at me “what happened your eye?”. “Nothing, don’t worry. Your bike is just here”.
The bike was going to be long, but I was ready for it and had done some big cycles in preparation so I felt this was my best chance of putting myself in a good position for the
run, which I knew would be the hardest leg for me. The course is 205km long with constantly rolling hills. My biggest concern was making sure I didn’t push too hard at any stage. Tanja and I had worked to get the power numbers right for the bike. Stay within those and don’t go over 300watts for anything more than a short while and I’d save the required energy for the run.
The other factor was working out the nutrition stops and what the quickest way of changing bottles over would be. As the race is self-supported, it’s mandatory to have a support car all the way around the bike route in case of emergencies, and to make sure I got the required nutrition throughout the course. During the previous months, we spent fair bit of time figuring out the quickest way to do the feeds and more importantly, what to take on at every stop. The plan for the bike was to stop three times and take on two bottles at a time – one emptied into my torpedo and one in the cage. That meant three stops and hopefully a total of six bottles for the bike. Ben, with his usual forensic attention to detail, created a Google map with every relevant point of the race on it so that we’d all know exactly where we needed to be, from the swim right through to the end. It’s actually worth having a look at for anyone considering a race like this: https://www.google.com/maps/d/viewer?mid=14mIQraiq9KoEjZz2MaePJUE4AyKL6PGL&hl =en&usp=sharing
Ben had a nutrition list for every stop we’d planned.
We had a stop planned every 60km – hopefully under a minute every time and no other plans to stop. Pee’s were going to be done on the move in true IM style so I was prepared for wet socks for a couple of times during the race. What I hadn’t prepared for was the amount of pee’s I’d need. Number one (pardon the pun) was at about 40km. Right: find a downhill section where you don’t have to pedal and go fast enough down the hill where it’ll hopefully just whoosh out behind you and not into the socks. No such luck, and squelchy socks it was for the next 10km. At least I’d have another couple of hours before the next one, and I could just put the foot down until then. Nope! Another 20km and just before I was due to meet the others for the first stop I needed to go again. I couldn’t face the wet socks again, so I decided to stop on the side of the road. I’ll only lose 30 seconds or so, I thought. Three minutes later and I was still nourishing the flora of Jämtland with seemingly no end in sight. Back on the bike eventually, and I met the team a few minutes down the road for the first food stop which went off without a hitch.
I felt really comfortable and everything was going to plan. My numbers were way within the ranges and I was able to get decent speed up the hills and was flying down the other sides.
First food stop. Photo: Arron Fox
After T1 we were quickly into the car and following the race. The road was busy with racers and support cars and driving required a lot of concentration. We passed Conal, gave him a cheer and confirmed we would meet him at the 60km as per our pre planned map. We pulled in and applied cream to my bitten eye which had really started to swell and irritate me. I have a history of bad reactions to insect bites and deep down I thought I wasn’t going to be able to run with Conal. I would be disappointed if it had come to that, but we had discussed the risk and both Ailish and Arron were ready to run if needs be. The food stops went to plan. Conal was focused but in good humour. Between stops we would overtake Conal taking a moment to talk to him, see if he needed anything at the next stop and just encourage him generally. Conal’s only request was that we checked in with him more and to make sure we got lots of photos and videos of him. Insert eye rolling emoji here. As the day went on my eye bite thankfully subsided. The race tracker was almost useless as it just showed Conal’s location on the route which was not overlaid on a map. After the 2nd stop Ailish took over the driving duties allowing me to better compare the tracker and my previously prepared map to figure out where he was and when we were likely to see him next. I think we all expected the bike section to drag out however it flew. We were constantly busy preparing the next feed, figuring out where Conal was, finding a safe place for the feed etc.
The hours went by, and the next two stops had no issues, I just kept the head down. One more pee at the side of the road and two into the shoes. The plan had been to keep steady until km 120 and then to push it a bit more.. At this point, I was back on the main road and heading for home now. I passed 180km at 5:25. I would be delighted with that as an IM bike time and I had had to hold back a good bit on it to cater for the extra distance and the climbing on the run to come. Feeling pretty good, I kept the head down and powered as fast as I could toward T2.
The last 20km of the bike are a long steady climb and I knew I’d need to manage myself to stay within my numbers, but I was able to keep it going as I got closer to the finish. The last kilometre on the bike, however, was really tough with a series of switchbacks and the steepest gradient of the whole bike leg up to T2 where the team were waiting. On top of that, the sun had come out in full force so I was feeling absolutely shattered when I got off my bike, just from that last small section.
We passed Conal for the last time, stopping to cheer him through the 15km to go mark before heading to T2. We parked up and headed over to transition which was nothing more than a cordoned off corner of a gravel car park, no racks, so signs, just a few cones and some tape. I went to work doing what I do best, transition set up. I carefully selected everything Conal might need and laid it out in two distinct lines. The outer line, closest to where Conal would enter, contained the items he would definitely need. The inner line contained optional items, changes of clothes, extra layers, hats, gloves, sunglasses etc. The parallel lines of gear were arranged in order starting from his feet working up to his head. This piece of work is exactly why he asked me to be his support I thought. “Here he comes shouts Ailish!”
I was of the bike in just under 6:30, which was pretty much what I’d hoped for assuming everything went well. The guys reckoned I was in 24th position, which I was delighted with, considering how much I had managed my energy on the bike. As soon as I had clocked on with a race official, I handed my damp bike shoes to Ben with a slight grin to myself and he gave me my runners to put on. But the calm, relaxed Conal had left the vicinity as I recovered from the bike and I just piled through the T2 setup Ben had carefully laid out for me (in the order that he thought I might need). Everything went flying as I grabbed for random items and discarded important things like nutrition and sun cream. I put my runners on without putting my compression socks on first – off they came again as I looked for someone to blame for my stupidity. It took me a while to get everything together and the whole team were helping me out while I just messed around in a bit of a heap and was generally narky towards them all. Finally I got the backpack on and headed off on the run.
Into transition, I took the bike and laid it carefully in the ditch with his sweaty helmet and shoes which seemed very wet for some reason. Meanwhile Conal was making his way through transition like a hurricane. He put on his shoes before his beloved compression socks “F*** sake Ben. My compression socks”. I thought about pointing out that they were right between his normal socks and his shoes so that they wouldn’t be missed. However, I thought better of it and retrieved the compression socks from the far side of my inner line where Conal had flung them seconds earlier. He continued to bulldoze his way through my neatly arranged lines, neglecting half of the stuff I had laid out. This was not in the plan. We never intended to rush transition, it was to be a place for composure, a time to make sure he had everything he would need for the next long leg. An extra minute in transition could save hours of discomfort and lost time on the run. As Conal f’d and blinded his way out of transition I ran after him to try and restore some sense of zen. We dropped to a walk, checked he had everything, changed the conversation to a light chat about the bike. I told him how much we had enjoyed our few hours in the car and in the space of 5 mins he seemed to have decompressed. He sent me back to transition carrying an apology message for the team. This will not be forgotten in the race report I laughed to myself.
Sometime in early January of this year, it was suggested to me that I should watch SAS – Who Dares Wins. This is a show where contestants are put through a simulation of the 9 day long selection stage for the British Special Forces. The tasks are brutal, the supervisors as tough as hell. I was completely hooked as they dealt with how to overcome any physical challenge using mental strength. There was a lot of shouting and men crying while being shouted at – perfect preparation! The main leader in the show is Ant Middleton, ex-SBS and tough as nails. As I worked my way through all five series, Ant started to infiltrate my training consciousness . As I ran up and down the mountains of Wicklow I imagined him shouting at me telling me I wasn’t cut out for this and to VW (Voluntary Withdrawal in SAS speak) and go home. It made total sense that Ant went up in the car window to keep an eye on us during the race.
Ant staring at us from the back window of the car. Would you mess with this guy?
Ben joined me for the first km to make sure I was ok and to have a chat and take my mind off things while I found my pace. I started to feel a little better and sent him back to the others, with an apology for being narky to everyone in T2.
The first section of the course was 18km long and involved climbing 8km up Lilliskutan – which is basically the side of the main mountain – and then down the other side along the ridge to Fröå, where I was to meet the team. Ben was also going to join me from this point. I had planned to use my hiking training to get me up to the top quickly and then have a reasonably straightforward 10km trail run down into Fröå.
I knew the run was going to be really hard but while studying the elevations of the course, I had figured the first climb would be very much the handier of the two. How wrong I was.
It was a tough first 2km, but after that the course went properly uphill. It was so steep all the time, no let ups. Because my run training had started so late, I knew I would have to rely on the hiking for much of the course. I also knew that most other people would too, so I figured I would be at an advantage as I’m a pretty quick hiker and was able to get myself up climbs in Wicklow with decent speed. Not a chance of that here though. It would be an 11% average gradient over the next 6km to the first summit point at 1100 m. This definitely wasn’t the Wicklow Way we were dealing with and here I was, really suffering within the first 5km of the run. I kept moving forward, but my legs were screaming at me all the time, I was roasting hot and carrying a backpack with two litres of fluid in it along with all my mandatory survival kit. I was being passed by a good few guys, some of them going at a strong pace but I had no choice but to let them go.
I eventually got to the 5km point and up above the tree line. As I saw what was ahead of me, all the earlier feelings of gratitude I had felt during the swim and bike left my body and I was praying to Ant to come and carry me off the mountain. All I could see was a sheer mountain with steep rocks and a line of racers moving slowly across them. No sign of the summit yet, just the knowledge that it wasn’t getting any easier any time soon. However, I was moving and managing to keep a steady pace and wasn’t being passed any more.
As I moved further out of the forest I felt a bit better. It was much cooler and there was air to breathe in. I started to move more steadily and eventually caught up with a few people who I’d seen head out before me on the run. Excellent! I wasn’t the only one suffering and the people ahead weren’t moving that much faster. I started to feel more positive and could feel myself getting stronger and closer to the top. After that, I’d have 23km of downhill to negotiate before I go to T2A and the start of the next mountain climb. It would be easy after this, right?
I started to close in on some of the guys ahead of me till I had caught up with a small group who were moving together. I joined up with them and there were some chats to take our minds off the hills. One guy was Chris from the UK who had passed me on the bike about halfway through the race, and who I had seen head out of T2. He told me that he had been here the year before and was back for more. He had an impressive CV of crazy races he’d completed over the years, Celtman and Norseman included. I was enjoying the chats and making progress and all of a sudden we were crossing some snow fields near the top of the first climb. Finally! I was still only 7km into the run. Right – get ready to move now and make up some of the lost time down the hill.
As we walked across the top, I looked down the other side and realised I was not going to be descending that mountain at any speed. It was about 2km of really steep drop and we all had to go really slowly. I was glad to have the group with me and I just followed Chris down for a while as he seemed to know what he was doing. We hit more snow fields which were really hard to get across and I was sliding all over the place, even in my sturdy trail shoes. All I could do was take it really easy until the ground levelled out, which it did at around 10km. I checked my watch; 1:44 to get this far! I left the group I was with and started to move forward on my own feeling better and better.
As I thought about the race in the preceding months, I had envisaged this downhill section being decent trail where I could get my speed up and make progress on through to T2A at Huså. The reality was that there was no trail, and I was on the side of a mountain with only little red ribbons to guide me down. The ground had levelled out a bit so I was able to at least jog down , but it was still really soft and I was running over heather and mud. After a while I hit my first marsh. I decided to run straight over it and got to the other side pretty easily, albeit with muddy shoes. The next few km were hard going with a mix of soft heathery ground, bushes, and marshes, but I was moving steadily and making progress finally. I started to overtake a few people with a few faster guys going past me still. I fell a couple of times and went knee deep in a few big bogs, but I was feeling as good as could be expected.
At about the 14km mark, I hit some trail and knew I was on the way down to Fröå. I was finally able to break out into a proper run and started to motor down the path to meet the guys. It felt good to be finally moving properly and even though I was staying at around 6min/km, I knew it was fast enough. If I could do this wherever possible over the next while, I’d be fine.
After Conal headed off on the run we had some time to get ourselves organised. Conal had 18km to cover but we only had to drive 5km to meet him. Arron rode Conal’s bike back down the switch backs to the house where we offloaded the bike bags and I re organised the car and laid out everything the girls would need to take to the finish. To save space Conal had worn his warm clothes to the start and that bag was dropped to T1 for us to collect and bring to the finish line. Uh oh. We never picked up Conal’s warm clothes from T1. Ailish quickly arranged an alternative bag and we headed off. I wasn’t worried, he won’t have a care in the world once he crosses that finish line! Back in the car and up to Fröå to meet Conal and the location that I would join him from.
Running into Fröå. Photo – Ailish Markey
I wasn’t going to hang around at Fröå. I saw other athletes taking it easy, getting some food down, but I had arrived at the 18km point in 2:48 which was about 20 minutes down on where I wanted to be so I wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible. However the quick running had moved a few things around inside me and I needed to find a loo. Off I go to find the nearest toilet, which of course is in the restaurant at the top of the hill. I get changed there while the guys fill my backpack with more nutrition. Ben is to run with me from here to the end of the race, and I’m really glad of the company as I know that it’ll keep my mind off the pain.
We have about 12km to cover before we hit Huså, which is where the cut-off point and kit check was for the mountain section. Like Norseman or any of the Xtri races, you need to make it to the bottom of the mountain by a certain time, or in a certain position, to be allowed to go up the hill. If you don’t make it, you instead have to complete the marathon on a flat 10km section around the bottom of the mountain. Honestly, not making it up the mountain never entered my mind at any stage, I knew I had enough to at least get to the bottom, whatever happened after that. I could take as long as I needed once I had been allowed on the mountain.
Ben and I left Fröå together and walked for the first while as the route went uphill. All good so far, after about 4km of this, we would cross the road where the cars drove to Huså and where the girls had planned to meet us. Once the trail levelled out, I was able to get running again and we got to the crossing point pretty quickly, the girls almost missing us as we ran across the road and back into the forest. The trail was really technical, but the ground was hard and we were able to move across it reasonably well. Ben checked in with a 5:30/km pace and that was what I’d been hoping to keep on the level and downhill sections. It didn’t last long. Eventually, after the second road crossing (and another quick cheer from the girls) we left the trail completely and we were wading through bogs and marshes, and negotiating our way around thick bushes. It was absolutely crazy and I hadn’t accounted for it at all. We came to a halt on many occasions as we tried to figure out how to get around some significant bogs, not being successful most of the time.
The first few kilometres were awesome. We chatted, trucking through the hard forest trail at a decent clip. I felt lethargic from being in the hot car all day, probably eating too much left- over pizza and too much chocolate. The fast running gave me some energy and I felt great. Then the path flattened and dampened. The forest air was humid and heavy. The terrain was ridiculous. We were supposed to me making good ground here, we were supposed to be running. Instead we were climbing on logs, leaping over bogs reaching for branches to swing from to avoid waist deep mud. A quick look at the watch 15min/km. Jesus this was going to be a long evening. The hot humid air took its toll as I gobbled down my 1millionth fly. We eventually emerged from the forest, strangely enough, into someone’s garden. The owner was busy mowing his lawn. Totally surreal. Anyway, on to T2A.
It was around this point that I realised this race wasn’t about time or position at all. I knew I had dropped back quite a few places but I wasn’t worried. Despite the agony of it all, I was having a total blast. This was an adventure like no other and all that mattered now was that I was enjoying myself. I also noticed that any time the ground sloped upwards, I was walking. I just didn’t have the energy to run on even the slightest of inclines. Grand, it wasn’t going to add a huge amount onto my time, we were at about 25km and moving forward. However, I noticed when we finally hit the road to Huså that I was really tired. Like, I was properly yawning and feeling sleepy! I figured that I needed to up the nutrition so I started to take a few gels and Ben kept at me to keep sipping my carb mix. He also very kindly offered me some of his Cliff bar every five minutes or so: “‘Cliff bar?’ ‘No thanks, Ben.’” Clomp clomp clomp x 5 mins. “‘Cliff bar?’ ‘No thanks, Ben.’” Good on him, he kept this up all the way to the finish of the race.
We got a little bit more running done down the road to Huså but it was hard to string a decent kilometre of running together. Finally, we saw the signs for the left turn into Huså and the final check before the real mountain section began. I was at 4:40 on the watch. That meant it had taken almost two hours to get 12km from Fröå to Huså and a total of 4:40 to run 32km. And I still had the mountain to come.
There was a mandatory two minute kit check where everyone has their backpack checked to ensure they have the requisite gear for getting up the mountain (jacket, leggings, head torch, first aid kit, phone, 2x base layers, nutrition, water). After that, it was a straight walk up a ski slope to kick off the last section of the race.
To be honest, I was delighted that I wouldn’t have to run any more, but I didn’t really have my speed hiking legs either, so I just went at a comfortable pace and chatted as we walked up the ski slope. After a while it levelled out and we walked through some really pretty woods just enjoying ourselves and talking away. In the back of my mind I was recalling the first climb, which was about 5km of climbing whereas I knew this was going to be twice that. Pretty soon it turned steep and we started to properly climb through the forests. It was very tough, but unlike the first one I was ready for it and talking with Ben kept my mind occupied. After about 40 minutes, we broke the tree line and as before, we could see the line of racers ahead of us with the summit of the mountain in the distance behind them. It was miles away! It felt like it was going to take forever to get up there but it helped that it was much cooler by now, it being around 6pm.
T2A went fine. I looked after my own nutrition and the girls looked after Conal’s as he headed to the bathroom. I could see he still had lots of liquid in his bag which meant he hadn’t been taking his nutrition. We could be in trouble here I thought. I made a mental note to make sure he had food on his mind the whole time and threw a few extra Cliff Bars in my pocket for Conal. On wards and most definitely upwards. We knew the run was over, now we hike.
It was one foot after the other over the steep heathery and rocky ground – trying to make headway as fast as possible, but often having to pull ourselves up over sections and walk through streams to stay on the course. As we got higher and higher the snow fields became more numerous and all the heather disappeared, till we were just faced with pure rock and snow. I checked my watch – we had come five 5km in just over an hour. That meant another 4km to the summit and then the final 1km downhill to the finish line. As I kept going, I was trying to think of the best words to describe the climb for when I wrote this report: ‘relentless’, ‘unforgiving’, ‘challenging’ – but then I remembered talking to Chris about it during the first climb. “The mountain at the end is a twat” he said in his thick northern accent. That was it; the mountain was a twat and I was on it, slowly heading for the top.
Trekking across one of the many snow fields. Photo – Ben Malone
We could see the terrain was getting tougher and tougher. At the top in the distance there was what looked like a lump of rock sitting on top of the hill maybe two hundred meters in height, surrounded by snow fields. “There’s no way we have to go up there”, I said to Ben, “they’ll just get us to walk around it” but we could see that people were crossing the snow fields and heading right for it. I suppose I should have known better considering what I’d been through so far. “‘Cliff bar?’ ‘No thanks, Ben.’” Clomp clomp clomp x 5 mins., etc etc.
Soon afterwards, we saw a photographer perched down low taking photos of us.. We stopped for a quick chat and he told us that we had 3km and 45 minutes to go before we got to the summit, so with another 15 minutes and a further 1km to get to the finish line. I mean, how can it take us 45 minutes to go 3km?! He was right; it did.
Ben and I heading towards the summit before stopping for a chat with the photographer. Photo: Kai-Otto Melau
We kept moving towards the lump of rock. We crossed over the first really big snow field and that’s where the real fun started. When we got to the other side, we basically had to boulder up the rocks for about fifty meters laughing to ourselves at the insanity of it all. After that, it was just craziness all the way to the top; snow fields, proper climbing with hands and feet, and constantly trying to find the red ribbons to keep us on track.
Getting closer. Photo – Ben Malone
No one in the race was moving quickly but we managed to pass a couple more people as we finally got to the ‘lump’. I knew that we were close to the top now – a few hundred metres probably, but a lot of it hand over foot stuff by the look of it. As we started to climb, we realised that it actually levelled out and that the last section to the summit was going to be straightforward enough. We were almost there!
At this point I quietly started to get emotional and teared up a couple of times as I thought about what I’d gone through – not just today, but in the months of training leading up to it. Bloody hell, if I was welling up here, what was I going to be like at the finish line! I never get emotional over races. Luckily Ben didn’t notice and we ploughed our way to the summit. We were at the top! Ben was being brilliant, doing a lot of filming and taking photos as we allowed ourselves some time to take it all in. The views were incredible and none of the photos here really do it justice. While this was going on I quietly teared up again. Uh oh, I’m in real danger of becoming a blubbering mess by the time this is over.
The first part of the hike was slow, but we did not stop. One foot in front of the other. I was conscious to stay behind Conal, not wanting to set the pace or to create the hiking equivalent of the ‘half wheeling’ effect. We were passed by a few, Conal introduced me to Chris whom he had ran with earlier. We chatted for a while before Chris and his support crew moved ahead. We eventually broke the tree line, the incline got steeper, but the scenery just got better and better. I always knew this would be tough but I had absolutely zero expectations that it would be as technical as it was. Once we hit the technical parts Conal sent me to the front, he just wanted someone to follow at this stage. Again, we did not stop moving. On more than one occasion we climbed proper, small vertical faces of about 3 or 4 meters, nothing big by any means but each taking a few minutes in which we made no horizontal head way. I kept at Conal to keep eating, conscious of the nutrition that he had neglected at the beginning of the run. We contemplated stopping to put on some extra layers but decided to hold off, “Sure I have my hoody at the finish. The girls better not forget my finish bag” “they won’t” I falsely assured him as I laughed to myself knowing full well the bag was still in the back of a van back at the waterfall. The next couple of hours were some of the best I have had since taking up Triathlon. The scenery was amazing, we could see for miles and miles. It was an amazing feeling to be part of this journey and to be so close to the finish. I was so grateful that we had the wherewithal to enjoy it and take it in. It was a pretty special final hour to the race. I think Conal might have even cried a bit.
We were on the final kilometre, and it was all downhill. It was, however, down the other side of the lump so there was no moving quickly on it. We had to carefully negotiate our way through the rocks for three or four hundred metres. I could see why Kai-Otto had said it would take 15 minutes to get to the finish from the top. At this point, Ben took it upon himself to race off ahead ( trying to steal the limelight, I think), and I tried to follow him a much as I could, but I was happy enough taking my time. That was until I heard footsteps behind me and I realised there was a Norwegian team bearing down on us trying to overtake us. That wasn’t going to happen. At this stage, I had no idea what position I was in, but I thought it was around fiftieth with all the people that had gone by me, and I wasn’t about to let anyone else get past me. “The cavalry are coming Ben” I shouted ahead to him and all of a sudden my energy returned to me and I started to move down the mountain.
The Norwegian cavalry closing in on us towards the finish Photo -Ailish Markey
Eventually we could hear the cheers at the finish line, and in the distance I could see an Irish flag being waved. We were close now; all we needed to do was stay on our feet and we’d be done. We ran past Ailish and Arron – who, unsurprisingly, were the flag wavers – around some rocks and back up a small hill to the finish line, which, in polar opposite to Ironman races, was just a few flags and a smiling man waiting to shake my hand to say, “Welcome to the finish line!”. Very Swedish again.
Having my surge of energy at the end meant I felt pretty good, and the competitive kick meant that I forgot about the emotions and I crossed the line beaming from ear to ear to meet the others. No collapsing to the ground, no feeling like death, and no blubbing! It was over, and I felt amazing. 14:53 total time. The marathon alone took exactly seven hours. 35th finisher too, so better than expected. Result all round!
It was a total honour to be part of this event and I enjoyed every second of it. It was a big team effort and although I was the official support member Ailish and Arron were every bit as involved and the logistics would have entered a whole new realm of complicated if I was by myself. Sweden was a brilliant place to visit and I can’t imagine how we would have seen the area otherwise. A truly memorable week. The only downside was that Conal pinky promised that he would jump off the 5m high board at the lake by our cabin once he had finished the race. He chickened out (video available on request). As mentioned in the opening paragraph the Norseman Ferry jump is only 4m. Let’s hope he can handle that if he plans on doing that race!
The very low key finish line. Photo- Arron Fox
Right, sorry, I know that was ridiculously long. I felt the need to put as much of what I could remember down, in case I decide to go back and do it again. Would something like this interest you? If so, here are a few things I learned from the experience:
- Set out to make the whole thing as enjoyable as possible.
- You need to train a lot, but probably not as much as you think. Having a coach will help you determine the right amount and will keep you sane.
- Leave nothing to chance. Think about every aspect of what you need to achieve, and figure out how you’re going to do it. Practice as much of it as you can.
- You get to train in nature a lot more for races like this. It’s an amazing experience to run over mountains on your own at six in the morning. Take it all in, all of the time.
- Rest is more important than training (once you are training consistently anyway). Don’t be afraid to rest if you’re feeling wrecked, but remember that some sessions are designed to be done under fatigue.
- Eat what you want. You’ll be training hard enough to allow yourself a pizza or a burger a couple of times a week if that’s what you feel like. But remember that the better you eat, the better you train. You need to right foods to give you the requisite energy, so don’t be on the burgers seven nights a week.
- Also, if you want a beer, have a beer. The training is restrictive enough that you need to allow yourself to enjoy life a little outside of the training bubble. Just don’t have so many beers that you can’t train the next day.
- It’s just a race. Don’t make it bigger in your head than it needs to be. It’ll make it easier if you are able to approach it with confidence. Respect the magnitude of what will be achieved, but remember it’s perfectly manageable if you prepare properly.
- Don’t stop on the feeds. The fast guys took bottles and food on the move. Not a huge amount in it, but I’ll do this next time. Your socks will be wet anyway.
- Don’t let your support crew be in charge of getting you to the race briefing. They’ll just let you down.
As I mentioned above, training and preparation is made easy by having a coach. They’ll stop you from doing too much and they’ll make sure that you build properly for each stage of the process. I’m very lucky to have Tanja Slater as a coach. Most coaches do all of the above, but Tanja gives so much more. There’s a constant feedback loop (in my case, a lot of being told to run more slowly and to back off when I wanted to add in more sessions, panicking that I wasn’t doing enough), loads of attention to detail and clear communication on top of the planning. It makes everything really easy and most importantly, enjoyable.
Also, a massive thanks to Ben, Ailish and Arron who did most of the work but got none of the glory. Ben especially spent a huge amount of time preparing for the race, and making sure that nothing was left to chance and it made a huge difference on the day, even if I did just plough through all his great work at T2. Arron looked after all the food and nutrition for both me and the team and manged to film loads of the race from the car.
In addition to being driver during the race and making sure I had everything at every stage, Ailish put up with almost nine months of me trying to fit my training in around work and home life and supported me without complaint through the whole thing. I’m very much aware of how lucky I am to have her. The whole thing even inspired her to take up triathlon herself during the whole process, so hopefully I’ll be able to reciprocate at some stage in the future.