Lysefjord, 7:30. The rock anthem “Thunderstorm” by AC/DC stops, and the first pairs jump in the water of Fantahåla. The cliffs around dominate the landscape and the clouds overhead add to the intensity of the moment. One more check with Rupert, we are ready to jump. Are we ready to race together? Time will tell!
Rewind a bit, back to Ötillö several years ago, at a time when no swimrun wetsuit existed and everybody was trying to figure it out. That’s when we met, each racing with another buddy, but we had some good time and kept in touch. However, life is such that we never physically met again. That is until two days ago at the airport en route to Stavanger in Norway. Few weeks before Rupert asked me if I fancied racing the Rockman swimrun. I had done the very first edition, a wild race on invitation only, longer and more adventurous than the current version. I loved it then, and I was eager to try the “new” course now organised by Thor Hesselberg. Bear in mind we haven’t trained once together, so this jump was going to be a baptism of sort of our team.
The Rockman starts with a 940m swim
The Rockman starts with a 940m swim off a (small) jump from the ferry, which will keep our dry clothes all day long and will bring us back in the evening. The water was surprisingly nice, not cold and no jelly fish in sight. We used a tether and rapidly found our rhythm, a steady pace suitable for both of us. Rupert had never been pulled by a rope in swimming and I could feel few hiccups happening, but nothing too bad. We exited the water to attack a steep climb, one of the many in this race. The path takes us from Lysefjord to Revsvatnet lake, the start of the traditional route to Preikestolen (also known as Pulpit Rock). It’s one (the only ?) flat part of the race and we discover a new Norwegian word, “Myr”, or swamp. Get stuck up to your knee in this deep and you learn fast to avoid them … Rapidly we reach Revsvatnet and it’s time to attack the cimb up to Preikestolen, the world famous cliff with a drop of 604 straight above the sea. It was not mission impossible, but a tough climb. Unfortunately, the clouds obstructed the stunning view, but not the enthusiasm of the aid station crew. It’s amazing the dedication of these wonderful people without whom the race would simply not happen.
After few photos we head back down (either that or you jump of the cliff 😉 ) to follow the red T markings of The Norwegian Trekking Association paths. It meanders between rocks, wet slippery roots, more rocks, some mud, more rocks (did I mention there are rocks on the course?) and some small cliffs where fortunately chains are in place to help your balance. We were a little short in food, but never in water: all the streams, and there are many, are clean and drinkable. Time to time we edged the fjord and were greeted by spectacular views as the weather had improved. Few more banters with a sympathetic Irish duo, some chat with an American pair, more discussions with Norwegian and French teams, all this making the time go by rapidly. After a short swim and more scrambling with finally dived down to the fjord. A little hesitation to find the correct route leading to a small regrouping with a couple of teams before rushing down to the second big aid station at Brattli. There, to the delight of Rupert, pancakes were served. I’m not sure how many he had in this race, but it must be some kind of record!
We spot few seals, stop to invite them to join us
Good aid stations are dangerous: you only want to stay! However, we finally jump in the water for the second long swim, 1600m along the shores. Ready, steady, jump, emerge and shout simultaneously as if rehearsed “ooooh!!”. It was a bit fresher than anticipated. Off we go, and the reason for the cooler temperature becomes obvious: cascades falls on along the route, bringing a lot of fresh colder water from the mountain. The best way to fight cold is to exercise, so we put our heart into it. I make sure we aim straight and seeing teams way out of the shore comfort us in our choices. We spot few seals, stop to invite them to join us but with no success, few jelly fish for whom we didn’t stop, and nice star fishes. The water is pristine and the scenery helps taking your mind of this longer swim. We emerge to find a rope to help climb a slippery slope. I wanted to film Rupert exiting the water, but he shots off, feeling cold.
When I re-join him he is eating pancakes … Again a great aid station from which we have to pull ourselves away. The “sprint” section is waiting for us. Time to rush? Nope. It’s a chaos of enormous slippery boulders with sharp edges. Not a place to loose footing, so we take it steady and safely, Rupert leading the way. In spite of the complete absence of training as a team, we have rapidly found our routine, Rupert leading on land and we swapped for the swim sections. It is not by a long way the first time I race with a person without training with them, and I always find that providing the person is experienced we always find a way to collaborate efficiently as a unit. So don’t be shy, you can race without training together.
For the fjord crossing we get an inflatable buoy
We finally reach the little harbour of Songsang and the only road section of the race. I normally dislike roads on swimrun courses, but for once it was a relief from the constant attention-sapping slippery rocks. We regroup with two teams and the banter, jokes and Kai and Annelin dancing uphill (!) make time goes by rapidly. After few waffles (no pancakes this time!) it’s already time to climb down for the fjord crossing from Kåsaklubben. The single track is again a mixture of moss, roots and rocks. We felt good at this point, running faster and we both have a fall, nothing serious but a firm reminder that we need to pay attention to the terrain. For the fjord crossing we get an inflatable buoy, a feature becoming more common in many races.
One more selfie with Charlotte who showed us the direction to follow and we dive in. The wind blows from the right, lifting some short waves, but not was much current as predicted. Swimming along the shore is pleasant; you can visually assess your progress. Crossing the 1700m of the fjord is more challenging mentally, with very little to measure your progress. It’s time to switch to mental routine, tough it up and go one stroke at a time, one sighting at a time. Slowly, but surely, the other side of the fjord approaches and we finally reach the ladder to climb on the dock at Flørli, when a cramp seize my leg. Oops, maybe just the consequences of staying in the same position for too long. A hot drink welcomes us and we take generous amount of it.
Just 3944 more steps to go …
Time for the piece de résistance of the course: the infamous 4444 steps. It’s the longest wooden stairway in the world, climbing straight up along an old water pipe driving water from the Ternevass dam down to the hydro-electric power plant. It is now maintained by the Norwegian Trekking Association, going from sea level to 740m with some sections being really steep, some toward the end in particular more level. Rupert is cold and shoots up the stairs. I struggle to follow his rhythm, and calls for a break “to take pictures” (the best ever excuse when you need a break 😉 ). Eventually he announces that he has reached step number … 500 ! just 3944 to go … I have done once this climb and I knew what to expect, but I detected a slight sigh of exclamation in Rupert’s voice…
We carry on steadily, trying to find the right tempo, not too fast but not too easy either. 1000 passes unnoticed, 2000 is noticed, 3000 ignored (maybe there is something about odd number on these stairs?). Eventually 4000 is reached in the clouds and the finally the long awaited 4444 is reached. Well, it’s not quite the end but close enough. A welcome aid station is organised at the start of the next swim but we are told that the last swims have been cancelled. It’s a wise decision as the visibility is less than 20m. This doesn’t perturb our appetite and we enjoy the only official doping aid station …
The path gets steeper and we finally see Flørli
We pair up with three then two other teams to follow a gravel route around the dam and the adjacent lakes, before turning left in the wilderness toward the finish. We were running strongly at this point with renewed energy when suddenly my left leg cramps, followed 10 minutes later by the right one. Time to manage the issue, change de gait and relax the muscles. It sort of works and we meander in yet another beautiful landscape, happy to know we are on our way home. The path gets steeper and we finally see Flørli. We know we will finish, which is something one should never take for granted in this kind of race. Crossing the finish is nice as all competitors hang around. They are not really just waiting for us: the food is there and they can’t leave until the ferry goes. But it creates a very nice atmosphere. Few words are exchanged between Rupert and I, no need for them, we know what an adventure we have lived together and words cannot fully describe it. I’m proud to have a second numbered Rockman belt, and I will cherish this one as much as the first one. Thinking about it, I may need a third one !
Thank you volunteers
It is hard to describe the amazing work done by the volunteers. This race is not a boring urban race on roads and streets where all the food for the aid stations are just dropped off a car. For many aid stations, helpers have to trek some distance, carrying everything. At Preikestolen for instance they had to carry the flags, food etc on their back, using the same tough path we used, and stayed there for some time in a miserable weather. Still they were smiling and laughing, as supportive as possible. So to all the volunteers of this race, a massive thank you, you are fantastic !
Photo credit @Rockman & Francois-Xavier Li