It is moments like that right at the start of a race that anxious thoughts tumble noisily through my head, my hands start sweating, I chatter nervously and begin to question my life choices. What on earth was I doing? On this occasion the answer was, really testing my physical and mental limits
I was attempting to complete an extreme triathlon, starting with a 3.8-kilometre swim from the car ferry to the shore, followed immediately by a gruelling bike ride of 180 kilometres, including five long hills which climbed up steep switch-backs into the mountains. After that, I would have no time to rest, I would have to get straight of my bike, and try and run a marathon.
It is called extreme for a few reasons, it is in an extreme environment, the weather can be brutal, and there is no official support on the course, no aid stations at all, no one to hand out food or water. Whether I made it, would be up to me and my support team my husband David and my Dad, accompanied by my 14-year-old daughter, Scarlett. Theirs was an onerous task, to constantly leap-frog me on the course and be ready to second guessing what I might need.
Just before 5am, the race Marshall standing beside dressed in an orange fluorescent jacket shouted over and over again; “Don’t think just jump, don’t think just jump!”, obeying his orders, I took a last deep breath and with both hands firmly pressed on my goggles plunged into the water four metres below, and surfaced gasping.
Six years ago, I couldn’t run 3.8 kilometres let alone swim it. I went to the gym a couple of times a week but only in a half-hearted attempt to try and keep fit. Growing up, I had been different, I had loved sport, particularly swimming. I was obsessed by it, and would, if I could spend hours lapping up and down any pool available. I loved to train and I Ioved to race. But, to my shame, aged 15, I gave it up from one day to the next after I looked in the mirror, and concerned about my body image decided that I didn’t like my muscly shoulders, and I stopped swimming just like that.
My thirty-year break from competitive sport ended abruptly in the Velodrome in Manchester when I took part in a BBC Breakfast presenters Christmas challenge. As I shot over the finishing line guaranteeing myself and team-mate Charlie Stayt first place, the flash of adrenaline which I had long forgotten, shook me up, it was like a eureka moment, I knew with absolute clarity, I had to take up sport again.
From that moment to jumping into the fjord has been a roller-coaster of an adventure. First, I bought my first road bike without a clue how to ride it falling off it half a dozen times before I mastered it. Then, a few months later, egged on by a friend, I signed up for a triathlon without actually being sure which sport came first swimming, cycling or running. In the first race I entered I had a panic attack in the swim because I couldn’t see my hands in the murky river, I wasted 5 minutes trying to work to rack my bike after the cycle ride, and then got such a painful stitch in the 5 kilometre run that every time I escaped from the view of my family slowed to a hobbling walk, eventually crossing the finishing line in floods of tears.
Returning to regular sport seemed hard at first, but three decades after hanging up my swim-suit I slowly began to realise I still loved training and I still loved racing, and almost more than both of those, I love to really challenge myself, set ridiculous goals and see if I could achieve them.
Louise interviewed by Helen Webster on sports, Norseman, worries and expectations.
That’s why I found myself swimming aged 50, with 250 other hardy souls towards a brightly burning bonfire on a Norwegian beach with an epic day ahead. The camaraderie as we lined up between kayaks before the start calmed me down, but as soon as the ferry’s horn blasted, it got serious, and we were off in a frenzy of kicking feet and sharp elbows. After the initial battle, swimming beneath the cloud topped mountains was a joy, with every breath I caught a glimpse of the breath-taking views and as I made my way steadily to the shore, I reached a Zen like calm, it was going to be a good day.
That was until I started the first climb on my bike, which picked its way beside a raging river up vertiginous mountain passes, through terrifying pitch-dark narrow tunnels. It was endless and I was desperate to see my family at the first 20km stop, but to my dismay they weren’t there, so I had to carry on getting dangerously cold in the descending fog wrapping itself around me. To my relief eventually, they found me, and my confidence returned as I pedalled on hour after hour feeling small and insignificant in the ancient glacial landscape.
The last hill was the biggest test of endurance, it was six miles long with no rest from the increasingly steep gradient. David told me he saw grown men crying at the top, but, by then I had worked out a strategy, I didn’t intimidate myself by looking up, I looked around taking in the stunning scenery, and just kept on pedalling.
When I got off my bike eight-hours and forty-five minutes later, I cried with the relief and set off on the marathon feeling remarkably OK. That was until I was about 6 miles in, with 20 still to go, and the temperature rocketed to over 30 degrees. I was struggling, in pain, and not coherent enough to judge whether I was well enough to carry on. Again, my support team found me doused me with water, gave me sugary drink, words of encouragement and sent me on my way.
For safety reasons, Norseman has two finishing lines, one for the 160 fastest atheletes right at the top of the towering mountain, Gaustatoppen, and the other underneath it. I knew from my position on the appropriately named Zombie Hill I wouldn’t be the owner of a prestigious black t-shirt for those who end on the summit, but that didn’t diminish the huge sense of elation and achievement as with one last burst of energy, I skipped over the white finish line after 16 hours and 46 minutes.
After that tough but exhilarating day, I am still trying to explain why I chose such an epic challenge. There are so many reasons, but fundamentally I think it is because life if for living, for getting out there into our beautiful world, being part of it, and when you challenge yourself, put the effort in, stick with it when it is hard, you can achieve your impossible and hopefully encourage others to do the same.
Dare to Tri: My Journey from the BBC Breakfast Sofa to GB Team Triathlete, by Louise Minchin, is published by Bloomsbury Sport. Minchin was raising money for Mind
BBC Breakfast´s Louise Minchin took on Norseman this weekend. This is her story.