Rockman is a swimrun. It’s a very popular sport in scandinavia. We call it here a nordic duathlon. Compared to a normal duathlon, cycling is replaced by swimming and there are much more transitions, up to 20 or even more. The running is normally on trails (or just out in nowhere) and the sum of the swimming sections reaches up to 20% of the total running. And – this is very important – all is done in a team of two. If one fails, the team is out. The gap between the team members normally shouldn’t get bigger than 10m in the water and 20m on the trails. Most of the teams are using a flexible leash to control this distance but also to egalise the difference in speed between the team mates in the water and uphill on the trails.
At Rockman we understood why it’s more safe to race as a team of 2. But first a few lines about how we dropped into this race. Jacob (my danish team mate) and I had planned to do 3 swim runs in 2015. But both of us had an awful first half year and almost no preparation. Business time replaced training time, then there was this flu and in the end both got hurt. After postponing almost all of my races and our first swim run in Sweden in May, we agreed to race at least Rockman – just to have fun together. (At this point you should keep the word FUN in your mind).
On the website was written: „This is the challenge against what locals say is impossible, the battle against one of the most dramatic natures the world has to offer. This is the adventure that will force you to cross crystal clear ice cold fjords, climb longer stairs than you ever thought existed and master rocky mountain plateaus. Your weapons of choice are your team mate, your wetsuit, your running shoes and your body and mind.“
It was a bit like booking holidays last minute. We knew where we were going to. But we didn’t had time to prepare. We didn’t swim together, we didn’t race together under pressure and we didn’t study and train the challenges of this race in depth. Except the steps. I was trying to boost me up short before the race with some HIIT-training and some endurance trainings. One week before the race at least my swim was good again and I was back at a good pace in full swim run gear (e.g. 3 times 1.92km in 30 minutes with 2.4km of running in between).
Full gear means:
- a 150g merino layer on upper body to give warm and provide a more stable temperature under the neoprene (merino gives you warm, even when it’s wet)
- a very flexible and leg-shortened neoprene to swim AND run
- a pair of compression socks to give warm, compensate temperature, avoid cramps
- a „non-soaking“ trail running shoes to keep on in the water while swimming
- a pair of medium to large sized swim paddles to push in the water
- a neoprene cap to keep head and brain warm in the water (in the cold, you can loose 25% or more of your energy via your head)
- a pull buoy for better buoyancy to compensate the missing upstream from your legs (put it in the side when running and between the legs when swimming)
- and a backpack filled with gels, electrolytes and a 2L bladder for hydration
- a safety whistle, a compression BAND
- a compass and some space for the map
Arrived in Stavanger we checked-in and then had some pasta and the race briefing: „You will go up (and down) 8 times the height of the Eiffeltower“. After that we were preparing our material in the room, had a glass of good Ripasso and some sleep. It was the one of sleep you normally get in a hotel bed a few hours before the race – Beep – Booting the system, gear on in the morning, some breakfast and then off to reach the ferry before 6am. With us in the ferry: a hundred of highly motivated athletes, most of them from Norway and Sweden.
And after a 1 hour ride we reached one of the most beautiful Fjords in Norway: Lysefjorden.
It’s the place where the legend of Rockman begins: „The Rockman racers will follow the path of the Rockman legend that, according to the local myth, brought the Kjerag bolt from the foot of Preikestolen to the Kjerag crack. The course changes as the parts of the myth reveals.“
The first swim was a water start in the fjord followed by a 900m swim along the coast. I remember the eyes of the competitors when they jumped out from the ferry in the fresh water of fjord. We expected temperatures around 15°C. It was colder. But the best was, we didn’t knew at this time that these temperatures were definitely on the warmer side than what came during the day.
The first shock of the day was transition number one. Our run started with a solid climb vertically up and then a bit flatter to the mountains. The incline on the first 900m was about 240m! Then swim, run, swim, run and a longer swim followed by a longer 4’000m uphill run to Preikestolen.
The reward was a breathtaking view, staying 604m above the fjord on a rock in the middle of a vertical wall. Amazing. But only a few minutes time. We had to go on.
Trying to safe some energy on the uphill section, we were heading now to the downhill part to push harder. The last few kilometers up here were on solid ground and it was what we expected now to better up our pace when pushing down to the next swim. Ha, ha. Bettering up became an illusion. After a few hundred meters I had my first flat out and bend my knee badly. Be strong warrior i thought and we kept on pushing forward. It was soon clear that this trail wasn’t our favorite one. Not today. We were badly trained to race it. And at this point we didn’t knew that it will become tougher. Much tougher. Already after almost 3 to 4 hours we had to decide to go more careful to avoid injuries on these small trains in the forest, through mud and water, over roots and rocks. Finally about 3’000m later we touched a lake to have a swim. It was short, fast and refreshing. I thought like there could be more of these swims … another illusion.
Back to the trails again, which led us up to a diagonal crossing on steep and flat rocks. On the top we had to cross flat rocks dropping out on the right side about at least 400m down. Adventure-like not secured. Two tough, swimrun-experienced girls were struggling here as one of them was in fear of the heights. They did not finish. And again, at this point we thought something like, the worst lies behind us. Wishful thinking, it just started to become tough. The last about 1’000m to the lake dropped by 320m in vertical! These steep up and downs along the fjord where very difficult. Most of them on rocky or wet ground. Did somebody say that the incline would be 2’500m? We forgot the downhills. We had to cross this 200m high almost vertical belt between the water and the hills on and on. Several times that day. Later on, the rocks got wet by the rain. Which didn’t make it easier at all for our normal trail shoes.
Down to the fjord again a 1’600m swim was lying ahead. And from now on the water became the challenge. We were swimming about 1’600m along the the fjord in really cold water. On the left side the melt water from the mountains cooled down the fjord to 11°C. The good thing was, that the water lost most of it’s salty taste. But there was this current coming from the front, comparable to headwind on the bike. We were getting weaker and weaker in the water. On two third of the way we passed an other team. One of the competitors was sitting in the water totally stiff and cooled down, waiting for a boat. These are the pictures you have to skip and continue to push forward: Core, long arms, glide, catch, pull and on and on and on. Out of the water I was thinking about giving up. There was no food or warm drink and our bodies were shaking the cold off that was already deep inside. My legs were stiff.
Maybe they should have named the following run the „Pinocchio Walk“ or something like that, but for sure not seaside sprint. Jacob was screaming like a monkey to heat up his body and to keep away the bad demons. At this point of time they were really close and and whispering something like: “You don’t have to do that. Stop it.” His tiny small neoprene wasn’t warm enough. It looked a bit like those suits you get as a child for your first communion and years later it becomes automatically your confirmation suit. In some way this day became Jacobs confirmation 😉
Finally we found some more food, filled up our bladders and ran into a much moderate and solid road up again 250m. As you do in ultra running: run, fast walk, run, fast walk. And then – yes you’re right – again through these fields of rocks down to the road for the last long swim. F….. We’ve checked our watches and saw that we had 50 minutes to swim the 1’700m in front of us to be there before the cut-off. A girl (we really appreciated that there were almost only girls at the checkpoints) said that there is a current and that we should take the big white house (Florli Station) as an orientation point. The current got much stronger after passing the middle of the fjord. And the white house didn’t get nearer.
At a certain point I didn’t felt my feet and toes. Jacob was pushing like a fool to compensate the cold. Then I checked my watch and i was shocked: We were already 40 minutes in the water! And still not there. In my key trainings I was almost two times faster than now. And we still had this house so far away. And my Suunto Ambit was saying that we only had 8 minutes left till cut-off and I pushed hard forward. The body was cold, the arms heavy and weak, the paddles became a pain. Stroke by stroke. Everything was easier before. „You are within the time“ said the race director when I touched the chrome ladder of Florli Station at 16:29. Cut-off time was 16.30. Good news for our minds, but not for our shaking bodies. In the first minutes we were not able to drink from a cup our bodies where out of control. Shakin’ Stevens would have lost this battle for sure.
At this point we were racing for 8 hours and things became physically difficult at this moment. Somebody was asking: “You’re not going on now, do you?”. The answer was: “For sure we go on to finish this race.” And there was time as the ferry left at 8:30. For both of us this was now just walking home the finish. It’s something I can do in any condition, for hours. Mentally we’ve finished at this point.
But if you think that the hardest piece of work was lying behind us, i can tell you it wasn’t. There were 4’444 steps, a brutal incline, 2 swims in the windy and snowy upper mountains and a solid 6km run ahead. I simulated the Florli Steps several times in Switzerland and was prepared for that: 4’444 steps, 704m of incline and 1’700m to go.
I wasn’t in fear of these steps but new that pacing was key. When we were up there in the middle of all these steps it felt like we did already half of them. But a small piece of metal was telling us that we had just reached 1’500. It was only a third. I don’t have to tell you that this happened again with 3’000 steps before we finally reached the top. Lucky. But only for a very short moment.
At this stage swimming in a lake in the middle of snow fields was like a bad joke of a mean person. The people at the checkpoint were clothed with winter gear and told us something like: „It’s not that cold. Maybe like the Fjiord, about 12°C“. According to my watch the water was around 6°C. At least we had the chance to rehydrate while swimming. The trail to the second swim was leading us across snow fields and wet rocks. We were so fucked up out there nowhere.
And after another 250m in the ice cold water, some coke and a bit of warm coffee. Then off through a strong and cold wind down a comfortable gravel Great running.
But only for about 2 kilometers as the road ended too soon again in trails across mud, water and rocks. Followed again by a steep end, this time a bit more comfortable in a wood. The last 1’500m went 350m down to the finish line. We didn’t open our neoprene till we had some food in our hands and a nice shower.
One more down. Literally. I’ve never done a race less prepared. But we had great fun in a beautiful and stunning surrounding.
Thank you Jacob for joining me on this one. There will be others in Norway and Schottland for revenge.
Here is the movie, release in november 2015.
And thank you Willy for cheering us and being there. It’s always great to meet people having the same spirit. I met Smoking Willy at the North Pole Marathon in 2013.