The early years
At the turn of the millennium, triathlon in Norway was on its death bed. In 2000, only 9 Norwegians had completed a long-distance triathlon. In July 2001, Paal Hårek Stranheim and Bent Olav Olsen found themselves debating what could be done to rekindle the sport.
Bent wanted to start this wonderful club for triathletes only, and went on to found Oslofjord Triatlon, now Norway’s largest triathlon club. Hårek wanted to organize a unique competition. Later that day, Hårek outlined his ideas in an e-mail. Bent was less than keen, as he [quote] “would never be fit enough to do such a race”. Here’s how Hårek described his idea:
“I want to create a completely different race, make it a journey through the most beautiful nature of Norway, let the experience be more important than the finish time, and let the participants share their experience with family and friends, who will form their support. Let the race end on top of a mountain, to make it the hardest Ironman race on earth. Since Norway has almost no active triathletes, we need to create a race that first attracts German triathletes, who can let the Norwegians discover that they are missing out on a great opportunity to have fun.”
From there on it was back to the maps to chart a race course. Gaustatoppen is one of the most spectacular mountains in Norway, quite accessible, and an obvious destination. It is also not too far from the fjords in West Norway, connected by the mountain plateau Hardangervidda. The Hardangerfjord, with the little village Eidfjord, seemed the best option. Further north in Norway, the water is too cold for a long swim.
19 July 2003, after two years of planning, 21 men stood at the gunwhale, ready to jump ship into the Hardangerfjord and embark on their journey. The organizing committee now consisted of Hårek, Hege Hansane, Guy Huste and Fredrik Mandt. Guy Huste developed the event’s graphics, logo, layout and website. Fredrik Mandt was handyman and test pilot, even measuring the 5k distance up the mountain path with a 10 meter length of rope. Hege Hansane (then Hårek’s wife) was in charge of contact with participants and book keeping. Also, on race day, to her big surprise, she found herself in charge of race direction, as Hårek, Guy and Fredrik were all racing. Hege was supported by her and Hårek’s kids, Rebekka and William, and Hårek’s sister.
To the organizers’ delight, as many as 21 competitors turned up for the race. The starting field was a wonderful group of people; half of them new to triathlon. The water was warm, the weather friendly, and Christian Houge-Thiis won in 12 hours 48 minutes. National broadcasting followed Fredrik and Hårek, and their five minute report, posted on YouTube, provides a representative impression of the first year of competition. The 19 competitors who reached the mountain peak were presented with black t-shirts at the ceremony on the following day, with Gaustatoppen as a stunning backdrop.
The local communities of Eidfjord and Rjukan gave the event a warm welcome. The beauty of the scenery was matched by the wonderful people the organizers met at the start and end of the course. People like Rolf Yngvar Jenssen and Andres Setre made it obvious to the organizers that they had picked the right route. To complete the magic: when the 220km race course was formally measured with equipment from the Norwegian Road Runners and endurance sports association, the original bike and run legs turned out to be a mere 44 meters and 30 meters short, respectively.
During the first years of the event, generous financial support was provided by HP (Hewlett Packard), without which there would be no Norseman today.
After the first year’s success, other sponsors joined and more people came to help with the organization. Triathletes from around the world started to convene in Eidfjord every early August, just as Håred had envisioned. And the rest, as they say, is history. For more about the people behind Norseman, see Crew.