The Norseman Xtreme Tri is epically hard. That’s what makes it so awesome.
On paper, Hardanger region in Norway looks like the worst place imaginable for a triathlon. For starters, the waters of Eidfjord are cold—some years, as low as 50 degrees Fahrenheit. The shoreline immediately gives way to mountains. The weather is unpredictable, but usually contains at least one element of cold, wet, or windy conditions—sometimes, all three. It looks miserable.
Unless you’re a Norseman competitor.
Scandinavia’s Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlon has become widely regarded as the world’s toughest race —and also one of the most coveted. Since 2003, when 21 individuals were bold enough (or dumb enough, depending on who you ask) to jump into the frigid waters of Eidfjord for the inaugural event, Norseman has exploded in popularity. What used to be a handful of crazies in Scandinavia is now so popular, more than 3,500 people from 80 countries enter the lottery each year in hopes of snagging one of 250 spots on the starting line. Ask triathletes to name their bucket-list races, and Norseman consistently makes the cut.
On paper, it doesn’t make sense. Then again, Norseman doesn’t need to make sense. The absurdity of the race is perhaps its biggest appeal. To understand why Norseman is so popular is to understand what makes it so unique.
The water is cold—really cold.
Pack your booties and neoprene swim caps—you’ll need them. Where most races cancel or shorten the swim for cold water, Norseman forges ahead full blast. It’s such a unique circumstance, researchers study Norseman competitors to learn about the effects of swimming in such cold waters.
You’ve got no choice but to jump in.
There’s no tiptoeing into the water at this race. To start the event, you’ll take a ferry for 2.4 miles, then jump off and swim to shore. The 4-meter jump off the boat is one of the most unique race starts in triathlon—only two other races, Escape from Alcatraz and Escape the Cape, utilize a ferry start.
The hills are alive with the sound of suffering.
There isn’t much opportunity to ease into the bike course—once you leave T1, you go up (and up, and up). The first 25 miles climbs more than 3,000 feet, with some grades as steep as 29 percent. Even after getting to the highest point, the climbing doesn’t stop as the course rolls up and over Hardangervidda, the largest mountain plateau in Northern Europe. In all, the bike course covers more than 10,000 feet of elevation gain.
And it doesn’t stop.
Once athletes exit T2 on the run, the marathon is mercifully flat—until it isn’t. At mile 15, you’ll meet Gaustatoppen, a rocky, relentless 4,600 foot climb to the sky-high finish line. The ascent is so dangerous, athletes are required to scale the mountain with a partner carrying a backpack of warm clothes, food, drink, and a mobile phone.
If you want flat Coke, you best bring your own.
The race doesn’t provide aid stations to athletes. Rather, Norseman was designed to be a shared experience with family and friends. Each athlete is required to arrange for a personal support car, staffed by a team to provide the athlete with food, drink, and clothing changes along the way.
Strangers are BFFs.
Nothing bonds people faster than shared suffering. Because of the small field and unique challenge, Norseman competitors are more likely to cheer each other on than they are to chase each other down. “You develop a bond with other athletes out on the course that I have not experienced in my 10 Ironmans,” says Maggie Rusch, who raced Norseman in 2014. “I still keep in touch with several people I met in Norway.”
You want the race T-shirt.
Specifically, you want the black race T-shirt. On the run course, a checkpoint is in place for entering the Gaustatoppen climb, and only the first 160 athletes are allowed through. The ones who make it to the top get a black finisher t-shirt. The rest are diverted to a different run course, where they can still complete the full iron distance (with only 3,000 feet of climbing) for a white T-shirt.
It’s a celebration of tri-sanity.
Norseman wasn’t originally designed as a bucket-list item. In a 2017 interview, Norseman founder Harek Stranheim said the race was deliberately created as a fringe event for triathletes to test their own personal limits: “I was always ending up last among the Norwegian triathletes. I simply wanted to recruit more lantern rouges into the sport.”