70.3 Haugesund Race Report – James Birkmanis (M30-34)



So here we are, my best mate Jarod and I, milling around with a few hundred other blokes waiting for the countdown to start the IronMan 70.3 Haugesund in southwest Norway. Is it really morning still? My watch says 7.59am but it’s been daylight for 7 hours already. The mist rolls through and the air temp drops to around 14 degrees. What on earth were we thinking when we signed up for a triathlon in an arctic country??? Well, turns out it was a bloody great idea!

The day started pretty well, with nice clear skies and about 18 degrees showing on the iPhone when I woke up at 4am. The lovely folks at the Clarion Collection Hotel Amanda, right at the finishing straight on the river, put on an early breakfast for us athletes (I decide to pass on the pickled herring) and the pre-race jitters that I feel before every race start to settle in. I go into autopilot mode and get everything ready for the day ahead, but given we’ve dropped off our bikes and run bags during bike check-in the day before there’s not too much to do.

The bus takes us the 2kms up the road to transition at 6.30am and we’re some of the first on the scene. I am once again taken aback by the setup of the transition area, which takes up two artificial hockey fields. The fake grass is so spongey under-foot and there’s no chance of mud or prickles, I can see more than a dozen port-a-loos around me (even pink ones dedicated for the ladies), there are track pumps provided at both ends of each row and I have enough room to swing a cat around my bike despite the 1,600-odd competitors…how good is this! Definitely the best transition set up I’ve seen.

A check over the bike, the usual set up to my liking and all is well. The commentator tells us that this race got the second highest athlete satisfaction score of all Ironman 70.3s last year and I’m starting to think that feels about right. The sun is up, although that’s pretty much permanent at this time of year, there’s not a breath of wind and the official water temp comes in at 17.4 degrees. Thank you Odin!

The swim is held in a lake that was still covered in ice only a few months ago and they were worried that we’d be dealing with sub-12 degree water. But none of that today. A quick trip to one of those plentiful port-a-loos (why don’t they have this at every event???), swim gear on, drop the gear bag off and we corral ourselves into our waves. With no water warm-ups allowed due to the relatively confined starting area we all try our best to wave our arms around to get the blood flowing without smacking each other in the face. It isn’t particularly successful and this is quickly ensued by much goggle reorientation.

For the first (and possibly last) time I’m lined up right behind the female pros. They have all the men from 20 through to 44 in one wave at 8.05am, a second men’s wave for the remainder and then follow that up with one female wave at around 9am. We’re told the idea is to get the blokes off on their own to have their argey-bargey race and then let the girls have their own race without having to fear getting drowned as they’re overtaken. It works for me as I feel like a pro myself standing so near the very start of the race, which is most definitely the last time of this day that I feel anything like a pro…I’m looking for a sub-5.

Jarod and I position ourselves right at the front and centre of the wave, on the presumption that us Aussies will surely smoke the Scandinavians in the water. Their water is frozen half the year after all! We look out over the still lake as the pros set off and disturb the geese, with our own Brad Kahlefeld taking to the double-upside-down-U-shaped course (one outer lap followed by one inner lap) with reckless abandon.

Then comes the mist, and with it a very sharp temperature drop right before our start. I pat Jarod on the back for good luck and before you know it, the war horn goes off (yep!) and things get real hectic real quick. I have never been amongst such an intense start to a swim, with arms, legs and god knows what else seemingly everywhere at once. I’m swum over, grabbed and dragged, kicked about and spat out the side of the pack before I know what hit me. It appears that Scandinavians aren’t such bad swimmers after all…for about 5oo metres anyway. I get into my rhythm and start passing flagging athletes that let the start-line excitement get the better of them. I end up 12th out of the water in my age group in 31m 23s, a minute or two slower than expected, but looking at all the bikes still in transition I feel pretty darn good about it and tell myself it was just the fresh water (less floatation…it’s a thing, right?) that slowed me down…

As I run up the shute and over the small hill to transition I look up and for the first time notice the crowd. “Heya heya heya!!!” (“Go go go!!!”) they all yell, which immediately reminds me of the song He-ya and I sing “shake it like a polaroid picture” to myself for the rest of the race. I get changed in the tent through that brilliant transition (T1 = 3m 05s) and I run to my bike. As I get there I notice someone’s race number on the ground…wait, not just anyone’s race number…that’s Jarod’s! So I pick it up, put it between my teeth and shoot off to catch him before he’s penalised. Fortunately he rides a Cervelo so he’s not as fast as he thinks he is and I make up my one-minute swim deficit in a few kilometres and hand over the number. He thanks me but clearly underappreciates my efforts as I pass him and wave goodbye.

The ride course turns out to be absolutely magic, not only the best tri course I’ve done but one of the best rides I’ve done full stop. The mist has started to lift a little and the temperature is back in the high teens, which I find perfect. There’s barely a breath of wind and I manage a reasonably steady pace of 37kmh while taking in the breathtaking views of fjords and mountains, combined with the atmosphere on the course. Each village seems to have set up a supporters area nearby each aid station, which are every 20km or so. There’s just about nowhere on the course you don’t hear a cow bell (but to be fair I think there were actual cows around, too). The course is a figure of 8, with the top loop about 70km and the bottom loop giving the remaining 20km after a quick trip through town. It’s a rolling course but with a nice climb at the 80km mark to remind you that you’re human, about 850m elevation change over the course all up.

My ride is going super well and I’m not passed too often. I end up on my own for a few kms and start to wonder if I’ve taken a wrong turn, but then I manage to catch up to the tail-end pro women at around the half way point (super stoked with that!) and find some traffic. So do some officials and a few blue cards are shown to some cheeky blokes following each other a bit too closely. As I come back through town at the end of the first loop, though, some rain hits. With it comes a little bit of breeze that slows me down a touch but I push through, foggy sunnies and all, and finish my ride as the rain eases in 2h 35m 16s (dropping to 33rd in category overall). Two minutes faster than Busso! Heya!

Rack the bike, back through that great transition, into the tent for a change of footwear and I’m out the other side on foot (T2 = 3m 38s, I really need to work on those transition times). The legs feel reasonable and all that’s left is two laps of an undulating run course through town. I’ve made good time so far and I’m starting to get pretty confident of that sub 5. If I thought the atmosphere of the bike course was good, this is outstanding! Pretty much the entire course is lined with people cheering and carrying on. Our hotel staff are even out the front cheering as each of the patrons toddle past while concentrating on the cobblestone section of the main drag. The layout of the course means you pass the finish shute four times back and forth before being able to run down it, but that just gives me something to count down to.

At the 8km mark my tummy starts to give me a few grumbles. Uhoh, I’ve been here before. The dreaded sloshy-stomach. I decide that I’ll try my luck in another one of those port-a-loos and start disrobing as I approach, careful not break the “no nudity” rule. Something the Europeans have trouble with maybe? I jump inside for a quick 1m 30s T3 and…success! Disaster averted, I’ve shed some ‘race weight’ and I feel on top of the world. They even had some hand sanitiser for me.

The rest of the run was painful, as expected, but due to the atmosphere it is truly an enjoyable course. Unfortunately I get carried away a little too often with the fantastic crowd and lose some concentration on the task at hand. I don’t post my best run time but am very happy with a 1h 38m 16s (including that T3) as it gave me a 4h 51m 38s, 36th in my division and first Aussie over the line (Brad K pulled out during the bike leg). A PB! Killed that sub-5.

The recovery area was on the unique side, with a BBQ being served up and as much alcohol-free beer as you want. Could I find any Gatorade/Endura or similar? Nope. Beer it is, I guess, and it’s not as bad as I expect. In fact it goes down a treat and I help myself to a second accompanied by a burger as I go back to the finish line to wait for Jarod. For the first time I notice the sun is shining and it is finally a stunning day. Jarod unfortunately had a little bit of trouble during the run and doesn’t post a brilliant time, ending a great race on a bit of a low, and I have to help him back to the hotel to get some fluids into him and sleep it off. After I grab my bike I head back to the finish line and cheer on the incoming athletes. When I’ve had enough burgers I head back to the hotel’s terrace overlooking the main drag leading to the finish line and cheer on those heroes bringing up the rear, accomplishing something way outside of their comfort zone that they didn’t think they could ever do.

One lady has a mad sprint (perhaps a waddle) to the finish as the commentator counts down to the cut-off time (I think she juuuust made it), but that’s not the end. The last two competitors on course are a woman battling cancer and her husband. She and her now husband actually got engaged on this very course only last year and promised each other they would race this year. She’s quite obviously struggling with each step but is encouraged by her husband alongside her, the swelling crowd, and now Susie Cheetham, the 2nd place female, who rides out on course to encourage the pair along to the finish. The couple have raced the whole way side by side and, even though the cut off time passed some time ago, nobody cares. Everyone’s staying until they’ve crossed the line.

The pair finally make it to the finish line, clearly completely exhausted and overwhelmed by the support of the whole town, and the last words go to the commentator: “This is the first, and last, time I will say this at an Ironman 70.3 event. You are an Ironman.” It got pretty emotional. I can certainly see why athlete satisfaction is so high for this race.

Finally Jarod comes good and is ready for a proper beer. The mist settles back in over the river and we get to the task of trying to stay awake until the bottom of a pint. Not a bad day in the office at all.

70.3 Haugesund Race Report – James Birkmanis (M30-34)

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