From fjords to mountaintops: catching up with Norseman's RD
 > report filed October 4, 2004 by Jens Richter,

Triathlon Informer partner Jens Richter of Germany’s great triathlon website had the good fortune to travel to Norway this summer to take in the spectacle of the HP NORSEMAN iron-distance triathlon, billed as the world’s hardest endurance race. He sat down for a chat with race director Paal Haarek Stranheim, who’s crafted an intriguing and unique test of endurance through the fjords and mountains of his country. Curious to learn more? Read on and then visit the race website.

JENS RICHTER, for TRI2B and Triathlon Informer:
After last year’s test run the World’s Hardest Ironman Distance Race seems to have taken off. Many of Norway’s best athletes from the endurance sport scene joined HP NORSEMAN this year. The lineup included big names such as the bike pros Rune Hoydahl, Steffen Kjaergard, and Oyvind Lillehagen, X-country skiers and the country’s best Ironmen. Norway apparently has been waiting for a spectacular summer multisport event. How do you explain the great response to HP NORSEMAN?

PAAL HAAREK STRANHEIM: We got very good coverage in national broadcasting the first year of the race. So HP NORSEMAN was recognized as not only the world’s hardest Ironman, but also as the ultimate test of stamina, regardless of sport. And it was also recognised as an extraordinarily beautiful travel through the country. Internet coverage, great photos and the word of mouth gave us a good response for the second edition of the race.

TI: NORSEMAN also got some Olympic-distance specialists to the starting line—the national champion Eyvind Kartveit, last year looking for new challenge in the second triathlon division in Germany, picked NORSEMAN for his debut on the long course. Is the Norwegian triathlon lacking attraction?

HS: Triathlon is a very small sport in Norway. It only attracts a very small group of recreational athletes. At the same time, it is recognised as an extraordinarily hard sport. This was the situation before HP NORSEMAN. Now we see the sport attract athletes from various disciplines, and media give triathlon proper coverage for the first time. You will see a triathlon fever rising in Norway two years from now.

TI: For European multisport athletes, Norway is kind of a white spot in worldwide triathlon. Nevertheless, after last year’s spectacular race with 21 Vikings competing, NORSEMAN got considerable coverage worldwide and thus attracted athletes from 12 countries. What is the capacity of the race, where do you want to go?

HS: The lift with Gaustabanen down from the mountain is the future limitation of this race. We will only issue 200 start numbers next year, and hope to grow to 300 the year after. But this will never become a big race in terms of the number of competitors. But we plan for the race to become big already next year, in terms of media coverage, elite athletes and organization professionalism.

TI: As the organizer and race director you originally prepared to race yourself for the second time this year. But the growing NORSEMAN forces you to either follow the action from an official car or hand race direction over to a professional team. What would you prefer, what is the plan, and what does NORSEMAN require in the future?

HS: Unfortunately I had to decide to withdraw only three hours before race start this year. We had a few issues to solve, because of our limited experience. I was terribly disappointed, of course. So we ran a separate Crew Race on August 28—three people entering the water at 4:30 in the morning. I pushed it to the limit to beat my “nephew” Fredrik, but he beat me again. Now I will have to do our family Christmas party in a nightgown—that's Fredrik’s price!

The only person on earth I'd trust to do the race director job next year (except myself) is my wife. She might do it and I will race. We will decide this together the night before the race starts. My wife is cold-blooded and fearless. This is a high-risk event and a big responsibility. The race director should work with the race setup on a daily basis throughout the whole year.

We have warned our sponsors and partners that we plan for a five-times-scale-up of resources, necessary to present a fully professional race next year. This year my wife and I, the web designer and the person responsible for media did 99 percent of the race organization. My children are not going to approve of the same approach for next year!

TI: The route from Hardangerfjord up to the Hardangervidda, passing Norway’s winter sports center, Geilo, on the way to picturesque Numedalen, then up the steep road to tundra-like Imingfjell and down to Telemark’s "fertile" farmlands, finally the marathon up this desert pile-of-rocks called Gaustatoppen—this event is full of extreme contrasts and certainly produces the most spectacular pictures of all Ironman-distance races worldwide. Can it be done by anyone? How would you tell people to prepare for 2005's edition?

HS: Before this year’s race we said that anyone in pretty good shape, with a strong heart and the motivation to do the race, can do it. But I saw the race from another angle this year, as part of the organization and not as a competitor. In the steep hills from Rjukan I had the vision of a long chain of zombies walking up the mountain with reduced consciousness. The last man was at the top of the mountain at half past two in the morning, after 21 hours. Next year we will have much more aggressive cutoff times and the last man will have to cross the finish line after 18 hours, 30 minutes. Those who appear to not make the cut-off will be allowed to complete the full iron distance at the mountain plateau at an altitude of 1,000 meters. These people will actually do the Second Hardest Ironman race on earth, and that is nothing to be ashamed of.

Only very fit people will make it to the top and become real Norsemen. A normal iron-distance is like a walk in the park—HP NORSEMAN is rough.