See how the WRC's Andreas Mikkelsen got on at the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon
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After knee injuries brought a promising skiing career to an end, a 16-year-old Andreas Mikkelsen chose to turn his hand to motor racing and he's been competing in world rallying ever since. He has three rally wins to his name, and finished third in the WRC every year from 2014 to 2016. And now he has another racing achievement under his belt.
Along with his co-driver Anders Jaegere, the 29-year-old signed up for the toughest triathlon in the world: the Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlon. Taking place in their native Norway, it requires athletes to swim 3.8km, cycle 180km, run 42.2km and ascend more than 5,235m of Norwegian countryside. From jumping off a ferry at 5am into a freezing fjord, to a leg-sapping mountain climb, it's hours of never-ending pain.
With no experience of swimming in open water, and very little experience on a bike, even an elite sportsman like Andreas had his work cut out. Here Mikkelsen breaks down exactly what it took to race in the world’s ultimate triathlon.
Finding the time to train was a huge issue
"My full-time job is rallying, so we – Anders and I – can’t train like the proper triathletes. Fitting in the really long training sessions was difficult, because we have to use as little energy as possible.
"To counteract our lack of training time, we prioritised cycling because we needed to get the milage in on the bike. We also practiced the entire Norseman cycle route before the summer, but even then we couldn’t fit in enough training!
"So I took my bike on my summer vacation in Ibiza, to get some miles in before the start of the race."
Rally training counted for nothing
"To be a competitive rally driver, you have to be in good shape. The training isn’t as extreme as it is for the Norseman, or even regular triathlon training. It usually requires hard workouts of between five to 25 minutes of running or strength training, or whatever it takes for you to be fit and maintain concentration during really warm and very long days.
"Triathlon training is the opposite of this. It requires long periods of time in the saddle, in the pool or on your feet, and there is no one temperature to worry about.
"Unfortunately, time wasn't a luxury we were afforded because of our schedule. But, along with the cycle route, we were able to squeeze in the first 25km of the run, and we swam in the fjord. It was freezing in the spring-time; I’d never swum in such cold water before, so it was a little bit of a shock!"
Open-water swimming was a shock to the system
"My training for rally driving has never involved swimming but I’ve come a long way since my first open-water swimming lesson, which was only two months before the race.
"My initial thoughts after my debut open-water session was that it was much harder than I expected. I was having trouble with the breathing and swallowed a little water. We were advised to get an expert in to give us some open-water swimming tips, just to improve our efficiency and performance in the water.
"We enlisted the help of fellow Kristian Blummenfelt – a bronze medalist at the Triathlon World Cup, ranked number three in the World Triathlon Series 2017, and somebody who swims between 4,000m and 6,000m every day. Kristian gave us some great tips on how to use less energy in the water and swim faster, such as a steeper hand entry into the water.
"Anders was always faster than me during the training sessions but on race day I was first out of the water, which surprised me!"
Mikkelsen is indebted to his support crew
"My support crew were two of my friends; one had raced the Norseman previously and his past experience was really important to our success. My other friend was a very serious guy.
"We had a lot of meetings before the event to go through the athlete guide and cover every potential problem. They joined me on lots of my training sessions before the summer, during which they gave us lots of tips, and told us what to expect."
Being at the start line was a buzz
"I wasn't feeling nervous before the race, as I knew I had done the training and was just racing to have a really good time.
"I thought, 'Okay, if I don’t get the black T-shirt, what’s the worst that will happen?' Nothing. I'm just racing Norseman for myself; in rallying, if I don’t perform, then I let down a lot of people and manufacturers.
"Having said that, I was a little nervous about opening too hard on the swim, which I managed to do anyway. When we were on the ferry, I was really looking forward to starting Norseman. It was fun."
The swim could have been worse
"This year, Norseman experienced unusually warm weather. In past events, the fjord’s water temperature has been around 13 degrees, but, this year, it was 18 degrees. So we knew the water was warmer and it was going to be OK.
"Before we jumped off the ferry, we said goodbye to each other. Everyone was dressed exactly the same and we all resembled seals in the water, so it was impossible to see or even recognise each other during a swim, particularly at dawn. It just felt nice to get going."
Cycling had its ups and downs
"During the 180km cycle I pushed hard on the downhill, as it was so much more exciting. No one passed me on the downhill. I conserved energy on the uphill and that’s where a few athletes passed me.
"Only later did I realise that I had started way too hard on the swim. Just before halfway on the cycling, my legs started to cramp. I managed to overcome them by eating well, drinking lots, and getting enough salt throughout the entire event. My support crew did a really great job in preparing everything for me.
"My cramps were still giving me a little trouble and I struggled a bit during the run, but thankfully it did get much better over time."
Zombie Hill lived up to its name
"After cycling 180km, I had to run 25km. It's pretty much flat terrain. But I was struggling with a lot of lower-back pain because my body was not used to sitting in the aero position on the bike for such a long period of time.
"By the time I reached Zombie Hill, an 8km section of switchbacks that mark the start of the 1650m ascent to the top of Gaustatoppen, where you can claim the black T-shirt, my muscles were finished. My back still ached a lot.
"I expected it would be an easy walk to the top of Gaustatoppen. I have no trouble running 20 to 30km, however, after swimming and cycling so much, it was a very different experience. Walking was really tough. It was so steep, I was in so much pain, I was exhausted. My legs simply had no energy. To run up the hill was unthinkable.
"On race day, nothing really worked. I was really exhausted and never thought: 'This is going really well.' But I did it – I made it to the top."
What a result
"I made it across the line in 14 hours and five minutes. I'm really pleased with the result. Despite being very tired, I was well within the cut-off time for the black T-shirt, which you get for finishing. Next time, I'll start the swim much more calmly, so I have more energy towards the end.
"Everything up to the last 5km was great, but those final 5km were tough. I was feeling pain in my ankles, knees and lower back, but luckily I had my crew with me and they really helped me."
"It was encouraging to have so many spectators cheering, while my crew had a car with a big music player, so, while running, I was able to listen to my playlists.
"Right now, I’m very happy and feel like I've done my first and last Norseman. But give me a week and I might be telling you differently!"
Pushing even harder
"I've been competing in sport my entire life and I love it. I know that I’m fit enough to be a really good rally driver, but Norseman gave me fresh motivation to be even better.
"Norseman pushed me to train more, and pushed me to search for my mental and physical limits. I need other goals along with rallying that will drive me to train harder and become better and, this year, it was Norseman.
"You have to be very focused while rallying, but I don’t think being a rally driver helped me that much in Norseman. What I’m actually hoping for is that racing the Norseman will help me become a better rally driver and take our performance as a team to the next level."