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Last year when we were talking about where to go for vacation, my wife Lezi nominated Iceland. I had been thinking more about a relaxing beach vacation or the like, so said, “eh, maybe if there’s an interesting race of some sort there.” I have watched the Norseman videos for years and have always wondered how I’d fare in something like that. Knowing how slim lottery chances are for that race and that there was no tri in Iceland, I figured my beach vacation was pretty safe.
Three weeks later, Slowtwitch.com published an article about the new Iceland Extreme Tri. It had been 9 years since I completed my only 140.6: Ironman Florida in 2009 (generally regarded as one of the easier courses.) I felt like I was really going out on a limb to accept the challenge, but a deal is a deal. I signed the waivers, charged my credit card and immediately began wondering how in the world I was going to approach this and whether I had just bitten off more than I could chew.
They say training for a long course is about the journey, not the destination. It has been quite a journey to get back into shape for a challenge like ISLXTRI.
Fortunately, some mutual friends connected me with Coach Jeff Bennett, who has completed Norseman, Kona, Leadville and is even a champion burro racer. We clicked and I didn’t have to worry about my training plan again (as Joe Friel says, “train like a horse, think like a bee.”)
Winter in Dallas is very similar to summer in Iceland, so I used our especially wet winter to get my clothing and gear dialed in. Swam in Lake Murray and Grapevine Lake on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve and New Years. Went on many really cold, dark, wet, sometimes miserable long rides and runs. In total I ran 600 miles, biked 2300 miles and swam 87,000 yards. I wore out a Garmin watch, a Wahoo heart rate monitor, a tail light, a set of brake pads, a pair of running shoes. Besides my laps around Northshore Trail, Flower Mound and Denton County, Texas, my travels had me working out in all kinds of combinations of heat, cold, wind, ice, rain and humidity in Orlando, Florida; Eatontown, New Jersey; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Norman, Oklahoma; Ardmore, Oklahoma; Medicine Park, Oklahoma; Huntsville, Alabama; and Santa Barbara, California. I rode in the Arbuckle Mountains, Wichita Mountains and Palo Pinto Mountains. This is the stuff that doesn’t really show up on social media, but sets long-course training apart and gets you the necessary experience mentally and physically to establish a new normal.
The biggest hurdle in training came just prior to Easter when I wrecked my training bike over a concrete seam I didn’t spot. I was scraped up and my right hand was unusually sore, but I finished the 30 miles home in a cold rain. When I got home and pulled my gloves off, I had a new bump on the backside of my hand. My wife, backed by the wisdom of the internet, convinced me to go to the urgent care. There they seemed fairly impressed and informed me that I had a separated spiral fracture in my third metacarpal. After I was splinted up, I was warned against doing anything that could result in a fall, which could sever nerves in that condition. They were not impressed that I had finished my training ride.
Fortunately, the following Monday Dr. Mezera at the Texas Hand Center saw me. She said it was possible that I could still race. She screwed me back together Tuesday. As soon as the incision had sealed up, I was in a cast and sweating out Zwift miles aboard my new Wahoo KICKR Core. Running was too risky and I obviously couldn’t swim, so it was a couple weeks of stationary biking on the aerobars. A few minutes after my cast was cut off, Dr. Kimberly Mezera had me doing my first round of physical therapy with Kathy Van Leeuwen on my now zombie-like (in appearance, function and smell) hand. After two months working with Kathy, and a month before race day, my hand was good to go. The next weekend I rode the DFW Tour de Cure for diabetes to get comfortable riding in the real world again.
The next month was full of swimming, biking and running in the Texas heat. Dad had volunteered to run the second half of the marathon with me, so we met up in Medicine Park, Oklahoma for a weekend of walking up and running down Mt. Scott, the closest approximation we had to the race course within three hours drive.
Finally it was time to pack for Iceland. Mad Duck Cyclery did a final tuneup and put on some new Michelin race tires. I had never raced internationally or flown with my bike before and there wouldn’t be many options for support in Iceland. I had a four-page checklist of all the gear, food, spares and tools I could possibly need. After we landed and got our rental Subaru Forester, the rental guy said it would be impossible to fit all of our baggage. It took some time, but we eventually found a way.
After a few days exploring Reykjavik, we headed off to meet up with Mom and Dad on the Snæfellsnes Peninsula. Got the bike built up and did a sunset checkout ride at 10:00pm. It was such a scenic place to ride that it was tempting to continue on to see what was around each next turn, but I stuck with my prescribed distance. The next morning I did a brief run and met the aggressive arctic tern birds. They dive at the heads of intruders to defend their nesting areas.
Dad joined me and the rest of the field for the Thursday Social Swim to get a feel for the swim course. Seasonal Lion’s Mane Jellyfish had shown up on the original saltwater lagoon swim course. Those critters live only in arctic waters and grow up to 6 feet in diameter with 125 foot long tentacles. There doesn’t seem to be enough cases of people swimming into them to know how bad it would be, but the one otherwise hardy local open water swimmer said he wouldn’t swim in that water with those things in there. A medical evac would still be 45 minutes away if someone had an allergic reaction, so the race director had wisely relocated the swim to a small freshwater lake a few days prior. The water was still a cold 54 degrees F, but at least one could swallow it. Dad and I donned our neoprene and waded in alongside a Reykjavik local who subtly putting us Texans in our place: The Icelander was only wearing board shorts and goggles! I paddled around just enough to get over the initial cold shock and confirm there weren’t any surprises waiting in the water. Did I mention that I’ve never lived north of Knoxville, Tennessee and have historically considered any water less than 75F degrees to be cold? Grapevine Lake was 83F on my last swim before I left for Iceland.
Friday I packaged up my gear and food into start line, T1, bike support, T2, and run support bags. Here things got tricky. The plan was to campout in the RV with Mom and Dad near the start line/T1. Lezi would come over with the boys in the morning in the Subaru, which was my designated support car. I needed to make sure the RV had had everything for the start and T1, and that the Subaru had everything else.
I got a few hours of sleep in the RV and then rolled out of bed at 2:45am to get ready for the 4:00am start. I usually prefer to be an early bird into T1 for a stress-free setup, but figured with no travel time padding necessary, a little extra sleep would be helpful and that there wasn’t really much to setup in T1: I was just throwing my roller carry-on bag with race gear in it next to my bike. Dad helped me get the latex-tubed bike tires up to spec pressure with my travel pump while I ate a granola bar for breakfast. That took a lot longer than I had figured on. It was already 3:20 by the time I threw down my stuff in T1! The race director was already herding folks to the swim start. Dang. I didn’t have any of my booties, gloves, wetsuit, hood or goggles on yet. I had also failed to bring my race swim cap (what a noob mistake!) Dad helped me squeeze into all that stuff and ran around in a best effort to find another swim cap. While he was gone, I had a random person help zip me up. Eventually, with the race director’s approval, we slapped some numbers on my hood and called it good. The lake was shallow enough to stand in most of the way and there were only 52 people to keep an eye on, so the swim cap wasn’t as big a deal as usual. Still, I would’ve rather not started the long day all stressed out.
Along the shore we could see two buoys that made a line out to what looked like 800 meters. We were assured there were actually four out there: Swim to the left of them and take right turns at the third and fourth and head back to the start flags. Going on faith then...
The opening ceremony went a long ways towards getting me refocused. They had a drummer lead everyone in the Viking Thunderclap. Then a bagpiper played as the countdown began. By then I felt like slaying something. I think the water could’ve been 35F and we all still would’ve charged in.
I took it easy and putted along fine in the back 1/3rd of the pack as best as I could tell. I accidentally delivered a hard headkick to someone (apologies to whoever that was). A quick check that he was still conscious and swimming, then we all continued on (they say the swim start is when triathlon is a full-contact sport.) At around 1500m, the lake got shallow enough that again walking became more efficient. This turned out to be a nice opportunity to find those mystery buoys and set sights. Back to swimming for a few hundred more yards. Then I felt an unusual icy trickle of water leaking down my back. Weird - never had a leak with this suit. It was just a little discomfort, so whatever. Shortly thereafter, I realized my suit had started flapping around. Dang. It had come unzipped somehow. Lucky for me, this spot was shallow enough to just stand up again. I did and wrestled with the zipper on my back. The kayak lifeguards watched me writhe around and were probably wondering if I somehow found one of those jellyfish in the lake. Got my suit zipped up, glanced around and verified I wasn’t yet last, gave a thumbs-up to the kayaker and got back to business. It was a long haul from the fourth buoy back to the start. On the way back I found someone to draft off to save some energy. We seemed to take the scenic route, but beggars can’t be choosers and I doubt I would’ve steered any straighter course on my own. I finished the swim in an hour and sixteen minutes (2:14 min/100 m).
Back onshore it was a lengthy jog up a gravel sheep path to T1 where I found my wife and my three and five year-old boys in the transition area. Since this was a minimalistic Xtri featuring a scenic open-air changing area, I was hoping they weren’t pointing out all the “naked booty butts” like they had been at the Blue Lagoon changing room a few days earlier.
I am not the most talented swimmer, biker or runner, but I can usually change shoes as fast as the best of them. My transitions in this race were... not like that. The best thing about this T1 was getting naked on a rock with a beautiful ocean view. The rest was trying to find and put on leg warmers, arm warmers, gloves, change shorts, put on a jersey, put on a helmet, turn on the race joy app on my phone, make sure the phone was connected to a battery pack, and turn on bike lights all while trying to block out my kids kicking around rocks and yelling, “hurry Daddy, all those people are leaving you behind! You’re going to lose!”
18 minutes later(!) As I started out to the road, I noticed my taillight was off. I could’ve sworn I had already turned it on, but I was cold and stressed, so I guessed not and turned it on. I was about to mount my bike when a race official yelled at me that my taillight was out. Sure enough, it was. I turned it on again, got a thumbs up from the official and motored off. Fortunately I had brought a spare set of lights and would swap it out at the first pitstop 30 km in. The race director had warned against using USB rechargeable lights. This one had worked for six months in all sorts of conditions without issue and I had made sure it was charged, but in the end I should’ve taken his advice and gone with the old-school AA style. Another lesson learned the hard way.
Right out of T1 there was a short and steep climb over a scenic ocean point then a sporty snaking descent along an ocean cliff. I was careful to take it easy up the climb and get settled in. Turned out there was enough crosswind on the decent to get my old V-style 55mm depth wheel oscillating as I approached 45 mph. Didn’t want to be remembered as “that idiot that crashed his bike off a cliff into the ocean,” so I backed off a bit as I wondered if those $3000 firecrests would’ve really performed as advertised just then.
As I passed through Ólafsvík, where T2 would be after a lap around the peninsula, I saw Mom and a handful of other supporters out cheering us onwards. A tailwind was pushing us along so we looked good for the tiny crowd.
Just after the next town, Riff, came the arctic teen nesting ground. Someone later said it reminded them of a Hitchcock movie seen with a smattering of bloody car-struck birds and many more diving at us head-on. I had a helmet with face shield, so I wasn’t worried. In the event of a bird strike, the main thing would be to not swerve and wreck the bike. Fortunately, no bird decided to take our game of chicken all the way and I continued on into the National Park without incident.
I made my first pitstop with my wife, Dad and the boys. I was still pretty stressed out from the rough start, the descent and the birds. When I barked for a new taillight, I was snappier than I should’ve been. My wife was ready to take off my warmers and gloves per my original written plan, but it was actually pretty cool, breezy and rainy. I felt just right in the single layer of gore and nanoflex I had on. A written plan only goes so far in an event like this. I just swapped a bottle of e-fuel and continued on to Arnarstapi.
As we rounded the peninsula, the wind picked up and our direction switched so our tailwind became a headwind, then a crosswind. There were a few quick but steep climbs that were just challenging enough to be at the top end of fun rather than grinding. Took them as easy as I could and enjoyed the descents.
After that stretch I had enough relaxed bike time in that I was much happier coming into the second pitstop outside Arnarstapi. I had envisioned this to be a rolling drive-through single bottle change, but I needed a pee break. As I rolled in, I found my three-year old bawling because of some combination of being upset that he didn’t hand me a bottle and tripping putting on a coat. I held him while I pee’d then had he and my five-year-old check my tires before taking off (we love motorsports in our family.) By the end of the stop everyone was back to happy as best I could tell.
Good thing, because the next stretch was some of the wildest road biking I’ve ever done. The cross winds coming down the mountain and between the gaps were huge and uneven. It took constant vigilance and some firm steering inputs to keep the track straight and rubber side down. The road is only two lanes, with no shoulder and lacking guard rails in many spots you’d think they could use one. Vehicle traffic was light that early in the morning, but there were 52 support cars leapfrogging their athlete on the course, and two or three were consistently over enthusiastic. I did not want to swerve in front of one of them at the wrong moment.
I was tanked up with three bottles to carry me up to three hours to the next stop at the base of the highway 56 pass across the peninsula. Eventually the winds settled down, riders and support cars spaced out and the terrain flattened out to make for a non-eventful bike along the south side of the peninsula. I maintained a steady speed and heart rate and admired the scenery for the next two hours. Every fifteen minutes the RaceJoy app would break the silence and announce my average pace and estimated bike finish. I was happy to hear it holding constant.
The next pit stop had been planned for the beginning of the highway 56. After almost three hours, I still hadn’t seen the Subaru go by. I was beginning to get a little concerned since I had just about used up my three bottles of e-fuel. If they didn’t show, my backup plan was to take one of the e-gels I had aboard and pickup some water from either a store or a stream (whichever came first.) Finally, about five minutes out from the pitstop, the Subaru passed me and then we met up at the stop. I picked up one new bottle and a honey stinger waffle for the next four miles of getting over the hill that goes over the peninsula.
As soon as I started up route 56, things turned Viking-tough. There was a significant headwind up the pass to deter any misguided thought of getting out of the saddle on that long climb. It also began raining. I chugged my way to the top, where I met up with my support team and picked up three new bottles - enough to get me to the bike finish.
The way down was wet and very windy. From talking to other athletes, I think everyone’s experience here varied, depending on when exactly they did it. In my case, the crosswinds were so bad that the rain drops were going across my visor from one side to the other. It was a long, steep decent on a slippery road with sweeping turns. On a dry day with less wind, it would have been a lot of fun. At this particular time, I found it to be harrowing. It made the Arnarstapi stretch seem like just an appetizer. I was glad I had aluminum brake tracks. I would’ve been even happier to have disc brakes and some 28mm tires at that moment, but I kept the rubber side down and managed to cap speeds to around 30 mph.
Turning west back to Olafsvik for the last 30 miles, I once again had a tailwind and enjoyed the last of an iron-distance bike leg as much as anyone could. Some fun-sized hills and descents, amazing views. Passing through Grundarfjörður, where the “Happy” festival was going on, someone dressed up as a troll, complete with hood and staff, cheered me on. Where else can you get that?
I rolled into Ólafsvík for T2 after six hours and three minutes (18.5 mph avg). By that point, I’m always happy to be going to do anything besides biking. T2 didn’t go much faster than T1. After a wet and windy bike, I was thinking the run over the mountain was going to be freezing cold at the top. I changed shoes and put on some long pants, a light hooded shirt, my mandatory goggles (for blowing sand), gloves, a hat, camelback and tied a jacket around my waist. The first mile of the run was up a small hill on a residential street. I could hear my crew back at T2 cheering me on. Then it was off the pavement and onto the rocky dirt of F570 (what we’d call a fire road). It immediately went up. And up. And UP. I stuck to Coach Jeff’s plan to walk the steep uphills and save energy for flats and downs. Even just walking a 20 min/mile, it was so steep that my heart rate was well into my aerobic zone. I was also getting really hot. There was no wind for a while, and it had gotten humid after the rain. I started stripping clothes. After a while, I even resorted to taking my shirt off for a few miles. There were not really any notable flats or downs for the first seven miles. The cloud ceiling was only about 1200 feet, so I couldn’t see more than about a hundred feet down the road on miles 6-9. The rod would flatten out and I’d think I had created the peak, then another 30% grade would appear out of the mist. As far as I could see (not very), I was only only thing up there besides rocks and dirt. It was a dreamy sort of feeling. Finally, the road did start descending.
I wanted to make up all the time I could on the way down. I rolled along at a 7:00-8:00 min/mile pace without even trying. It was such a steep decent that it was more about foot placement and not turning an ankle than it was about leg muscle. Once I broke out under the cloud layer, the view out over the peaks and ocean was awesome. Finally I made the turnoff into the trail towards the construction lot where I’d meet Dad and we’d turn around to climb back over the mountain. There was a surprise waiting on that trail though: a bog with about 4” deep water in spots. There wasn’t any way over it or around it, so through I went. Turns out that those zero-dark thirty runs at home where I accidentally trampled into creeks were good preparation too.
Dad joined in at the turnaround. He had way too many clothes on at the outset too. I had him strip off his excess stuff and just tie it around his waist. I warned him this was a half-marathon like no other. He confirmed he was good to go. We calculated that we had plenty of time to spare without thinking about cutoffs and began slogging back through the bog. Dad was keeping up a brisk pace on the outset of F570 - so much so that I was working to keep up with him. I warned him that we had four miles of steep climb and pointed out a particularly steep section of road off in the distance. “Wait, that’s not our road, is it?” he asked. “There’s only one road out here” I replied.
It rained off and on throughout our walk-run. It was great to have Dad’s company; we admired the views together and snapped some pictures. The race director drive by doing a medical sweep and asked if we were ok. We were putting along at that moment, but were ready to start doing jumping jacks if necessary to stay on the course and finish this race. As planned, we got back to running on the way down. Dad dealt with some leg cramps about three miles from the finish and gritted it out like a champ.
The rain picked up as we approached the finish. I was glad: I didn’t want my finish line picture to make it look like it had been a lovely sunny day. It looked like the challenging environment I had come here for.
At the finish were a few race personnel and my family. Getting to enjoy the moment hugging them was pretty awesome - what else do you need? There was a lot that could have gone wrong in those fourteen hours and eight minutes that hadn’t, and I felt really thankful to have gotten to the start line and finish in one piece with the support of my family, coach and hand specialists.
Post-race we got to enjoy some homemade soup donated from a local restaurant and was presented with a hand-knitted wool blanket. Both were really unique Icelandic race touches.
In sum, I’m glad that I took the leap into the xtri world. It had been a long time since I had wondered if I could even complete a race. Preparing and executing this race definitely got me in the best shape of my life, broadened my horizons and gave me great experiences. Isn’t that what triathlon should be all about?
ABOUT ERIC: I’m a 37 year old father of two young boys in Flower Mound, Texas. We normally enjoy mountain biking together, but my oldest just completed his first kid’s triathlon. I started my endurance training when I was eight, doing 4:00am rides on my 16” bike alongside my Dad as he trained for the New York City Marathon.