“Norseman is like going back to the roots of triathlon,” Tim DeBoom (2 times Ironman world champion) said after winning the race in 2011. “Events like this are why triathlon is so big today. The fact that events like Norseman still exists gives me hope for the sport.”
As one of, if not the, toughest Ironman distance events in the world, it is unsurprising the popularity of the Norseman continues to grow. This sentence may not make sense, but then many long distance triathlon competitors are looking for the next step beyond Ironman as these branded races become more common – and arguably even ‘mainstream’.
This next step is often attempting races with a famed reputation for being tough; “Ironman plus” if you like. It’s what made the Ironman popular in the first place; people start with a sprint or Olympic race and with that natural human inclination to test themselves quickly look beyond the shorter distances to what has been viewed as the pinnacle challenge in the sport.
The brilliance of Ironman branding (how many corporate brands do you see tattooed on people aside Ironman and Harley Davidson?) makes newcomers to triathlon often immediately start dreaming of an Ironman race, as others fully decked out in Ironman kit share their stories and hold that coveted position in the tri local club of having been there and done it. With the continued growth in the number of races worldwide (Ironman Wales, Sweden, Melbourne amongst others added recently) and Lance Armstrong’s fascinating participation, the media coverage increases further developing a wider public appreciation and cementing Ironman’s pedestal position in the sport.
As this rise continues, the next stage of popularity in endurance sport will happen. Ironman finishers will look for the next big thing, the next challenge to make them stand out amongst the sporting population. ‘You’ve done an Ironman? Well, I’ve done Ultraman, Norseman or some other tougher event just to maintain that edge (always implicitly meant of course as opposed to outright bragging!).’ It’s human nature.
Where this may not work is with races under the Ironman brand, Ironman Utah for example struggled to attract competitors as arguably the toughest race on the circuit and has since converted to a 70.3. What this may point to is a mentality of ‘why do a tough Ironman when an easy one will do and the same “you’re an Ironman” anointment will be made?’ It might be the case that Ironman will set up an “Ironman plus” series of races to cater for those who want that extra challenge. In the meantime other races will continue to benefit from the rising tide of endurance competition, driven predominantly by the WTC (owners of the Ironman brand).
However, there is an argument that the quest for ever tougher challenges can miss the point. What is more impressive: slogging around for hours on some crazy long niche race, or nailing a shorter distance event with a quality performance? You may have completed an Ironman, but have you achieved close to your potential, focused on every little detail and committed a significant history of build to achieve a performance of quality not just completion. Personally, I find those who have really nailed a race, worked for years to put in a personal best performance more impressive than those who go out for completion and then quickly move on to something else just to “tick” the box.
Regardless of this, the fact remains, endurance racing is growing in popularity. One of the races that is benefiting from this rising tide, coupled with the race’s own organisational strengths and burgeoning reputation is the magical Norseman. Set in Norway’s stunning landscape, with a start in a freezing fjord and a finish atop a mountain, this race is a true beast, deserving of the moniker of being one of the world’s toughest ironman distance races. The proof of this popularity is in the lottery entering system and the recent change to stage an extra race on the Saturday to cater for the demand.
This might be the template for the next phase of tougher distance racing. Find an iconic venue (Norway), a hook that sets it above an Ironman race (start in a fjord, finish on top of a mountain), brand it well (Norseman) and develop a track record of successful races to create the word of mouth buzz.
The future looks long and tough!
Richard Hoad is a sub-10 Ironman and the co-author of Ultimate Triathlon: A complete training guide for long-distance triathletes. His next book, The World’s Toughest Endurance Challenges, will be released in November.