The news comes, of course, not from the Norwegians, themselves—I have only ever spoken to the Norwegians once or twice—but rather as these things always come: through their Youtubes and Instagrams and coaches and rumors. And also logic. Doesn’t everyone have a cold the week before a world championship? So it would seem. Or COVID.
The Norwegians are set to make their Ironman World Championship debut—cold or no cold—on May 7. It is highly anticipated, feverishly anticipated, anxiously anticipated. And by “Norwegians” we, of course, mean two athletes who train primarily in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain, but who have taken on a largely mythic Nordic status. And by “highly anticipated” we, of course, mean among the small but dedicated circles made up of the kinds of people who anticipate triathlons, who watch triathlon Youtubes. But maybe that is the most intense kind of famous: The kind where a few people spend a lot of time tracking Norwegian sneezes and lactate numbers. No one wants to know movie stars’ lactate numbers.
When I need to get ahold of the Norwegians, I email blast everyone in their radius. Sometimes they respond directly. Maybe they’re bored that day, or maybe it’s simply a rest day and they have nothing better to do than talk to me. Maybe they just like talking about triathlon.
Norwegian Kristian Blummenfelt tells me he can talk at 19:00. He doesn’t tell me what time zone. I text people who might know what time zone the Norwegians are in. They do; whether through hearsay or Instagram geotags is unclear.
Norwegian Blummenfelt is funny on the phone. Norwegian Gustav Iden might be funnier, but that opinion’s based solely on Youtube videos and press conferences, so it could just be his best material. They might be less funny in Norwegian.
Norwegian Blummenfelt tells me everyone’s been talking about how slow he runs and how easy his workouts are, but really he just lives at the top of a hill. He tells me if you train via lactate testing, then it’s nice when your lactate is high and you get to slow down; it’s less nice when it’s low and you need to go faster.
He says after Ironman Cozumel he was testing out how quickly he would recover, and he went to go for a bike ride the next day but only got as far as putting on his cycling clothes. The way he says it is funnier. He says he believes he can win all the things this year, and he has a system, and it’s just a matter of testing and fine-tuning the system, but then again we won’t know if he’s right, he says, until he does it. The Norwegians have a plan, but you aren’t a Norwegian without knowing that plans don’t always work out. No one believed their plan at first, anyway, but they tested and tested and tested—iterated would be the word, if they were the type of Norwegians who used terms like “iterate”—and now, well, don’t you believe now?
Norwegian Blummenfelt got a flat at 70.3 Worlds and Norwegian Iden won easily. What would it have been like if the plan had gone to plan?
This was before, though. Before the Norwegians caught a cold.
The Norwegians have been training hard. (Isn’t everyone?) They’ve been at elevation. I know this because of their Youtube videos. In addition to training, the Norwegians have been putting out videos, hype videos, shit-stirring trash-talking tongue-in-cheek videos. Triathlon Youtube being a genre from which one can glean as much as one chooses to imagine, I have, of course, drawn many conclusions about the Norwegians. They’re having fun; they’re running many many circles around a track in the snow—which, if nothing else, looks really very cool; they’re not stupid; they know the Norwegian hype, might as well lean into it, might as well play the game. They might actually think it’s all a game. Norwegian Iden posts that he heard St. George has hills so he ran 27km continuously uphill. I don’t know whether he’s kidding or not; probably he’s kidding, but probably he also did it. They pose with lifeguard equipment on Instagram, saying they won’t be able to save everyone in St. George. Norwegian Iden premieres his new mustache. I do not like it. I am not alone; non-scientific polling suggests fans are mixed on the Norwegian facial hair.
There was a time when they didn’t have a professional videographer or fans. They had only the cell phone videos of Millennials everywhere. The earliest well-known home video of the Norwegians is of Norwegian Iden trying to fix his road bike in a small rundown Airbnb in Nice as the rain pours outside. He’s trying to make it faster or more aero or something. He looks like he’s making it up, which isn’t to say he isn’t making it up better than those who pretend they aren’t making it up. He went on to win that race. If you watch the video after knowing that, knowing that he won, you can see it. If you watched it before, you can’t.
That was back when the only people who knew about the Norwegians were Norwegian, when the small circle of those who could recite their lactate numbers was two: coaches Arild Tveiten and Olav Aleksander Bu. OK, three, add in Mikal Iden—yes, Norwegian Iden’s brother, turned manager, turned coach, turned mechanic and training partner and photographer and whatever other things a Norwegian requires. Back then, though, they had a plan. They were going to create a Norwegian champion. Fire and ice and data, data, data. They were going to be the Earl Woods, the Richard Williams of triathlon in Norway. All they needed was a batch of young Norwegians to turn into champions. The Norwegians signed onto the plan.
It worked. In case you didn’t know, the plan worked exactly how it was supposed to work. Norwegian Blummenfelt became an Olympic champion. Norwegian Iden became a two-time 70.3 world champion. Now everyone knows about the Norwegians. I hear there are more Norwegians, younger Norwegians, coming.
Do you know what Norwegian Iden’s wheels on his bike said when he won his second world title? They said: Winning is a choice.
Do you know what his new bike says now? It says: From Bergen.
Now the Norwegian way of training is everywhere that people care about a way of training. In the New York Times, in the Olympics, in articles dissecting, and blogs and forums debating if it’s periodized or pyramidic, if the Norwegians test their fecal matter, their blood, their sweat. Do they go easy easy or hard hard or some combo or just on the line? Wasn’t there that speedskater too who wrote a whole thesis on his training methods? Oh, he was from Sweden? Details.
And through this all, the Norwegians look like they’re still having fun. I think. They look like they’re on a lark, at a training camp, but a camp that never ends, and they’re just out there making memories and stopping at gas stations and egging each other on and posting pictures of inside jokes about aerobars that are too tall. They look like they’re having real fun? Not just the kind of pretend fun people usually have on social media. But maybe I’m projecting. It’s easy to project onto the Norwegians.
Maybe this is the kind of champion you become when you’re from Norway, when no one cares what you do outside of your workouts. As long as you hit your lactate numbers, have all the fun you want. Maybe this is what happens when no one media trained you to not post videos eating pizza sitting on a track. (“If you are a world champion, like me, then you eat whatever you want.”) Or maybe it’s actually genius media training. I read that kids in Norway aren’t allowed to compete for medals until after the age of 13, that it’s about participation first. But kids aren’t stupid; they know who’s fastest. The Norwegians definitely know.
Or else I’m wrong, projecting, filling in sketches with details imagined and exaggerated. Maybe the Norwegians aren’t really as direct and straightforward, as self-effacing and down-to-earth as they seem in English. Maybe something gets lost in translation or in the game of telephone triathletes play, relaying details passed on and on and on. I hear the Norwegians are ready to step into the limelight. I hear they’ve come a long way from Bergen. I hear they’re quietly confident, ready to go, no, they’re too ready, they’re overly confident, they’ve lost the fire, did you see that one video, did you hear the workouts they do, did you look at their Strava. I heard they do 7×10-minutes at threshold with 1 minute rest. OK, I made that up, but it sounds right, right?
I hear the Norwegians had a cold, but they’re really very nearly better now. They’re at 90% already, they’ll be 100% by race day, don’t worry, I hear. They have a plan. Winning is a choice.
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