How to Extreme Iron Distance Triathlon

Words and Images by Richard Thompson

With most of the northern hemisphere thawing out, thousands of triathletes are ready to soak up some Vitamin D, train outdoors without the base layers and enjoy preparing for their goal race of the season! 

However, for the select few, the turn of summer means keeping that wind vest on, doubling down on the arm and leg warmers because it is time for business - extreme business.  Like bookends of the horror section of a library, Celtman Triathlon (Scotland) in June and Norseman (Norway) in August are the world’s most extreme iron-distance triathlons.

Both races will see you swim in water temperatures that rarely see the north side of 55F, and if you don't freeze, you will be riding 112 miles on your bike that consists of over 12000f of climbing - dealing with near-freezing air temps, rain, and high altitude. If you still have the will to press on, you put your shoes on and get through the marathon which also comprises some 3000f+ of elevation gain over such difficult terrain.  

There is a reason why the first thing you read on the Norseman website is, “This is not for you. Nothing personal. It isn’t.”  

If you are intrigued, keep reading.  In the hope to shed some light on what it takes to extreme iron-distance triathlon, here are a few of my thoughts - hopefully, they are of some value!

Why do extreme events like this appeal to you? 

Ever since my first triathlon (a sprint race in which the overweight 18yo version of me came dead last), I have been on a journey to see how much my body can improve in training and how much it can endure in racing. A lot of us eventually find Iron-distance racing all over the world, in the hope that we get to experience the annual procession to Kona in any given October.

After winning my age group in Kona, I wanted to see what else was possible. While I can see the allure of staying with the iron-distance racing year upon year to see how fast you can go, or to finally have that perfect race - but the risk to go stale (as was the case for myself) is high. I moved to these extreme formats of the sport and it was like a breath of fresh air.  

You are a child again or at the very least an adult about to do something that you have never done before - not sure whether it is possible to complete, yet alone race.    

I have grown up throughout my adult life knowing I wanted to do something that tested my resolve, that was different from the norm and may be considered impossible by others. Importantly, that by preparing and going through with your ambitions, you inspire people to achieve their own impossible goals - there is massive value in that. So now I am in the unique position to race these extreme events with the opportunity to see how fast I can go. Sadist for sure, but I wouldn’t want it any other way.  

So if you are a little tired of the iron-norm and want to do something incredibly unique within the sport of triathlon - this is definitely for you.

How do you begin to prepare for races like Celtman / Norseman? 

If only it was just about your training! 

So first port of call is to engage a knowledgeable coach who is experienced in extreme/stage triathlons. You will want the coach to obviously be able to provide a custom program specifically for the race you are doing (taking into account the difficulty of the course, the terrain, the weather), understand your current strengths and weaknesses all while understanding your life and goals.

Second, both races (as with Ultraman) require a support car to follow you. This is a massive part of the preparation - as not only do you have to decide (and convince) to be in the car following you, but you need to decide what roles each person has. For Ultraman (for example), I have 4 very close guys who I call the ‘G.O.A.T Squad’. We have the driver (Nick Rinaudo) who has the best combination of separation anxiety and road rage, next to him in the passenger seat is the tactician (Nick Quinn) who is in charge of calculating my power and HR for riding and running, making decisions as to how hard (or easy) I need to push relative to the part of the course we are on, what the competition is doing and what the overall objective is for the day. Behind him is Nutrition/Hydration (Steve Wehlow) who documents every gram of carbohydrate I consume from the start of day 1 to the end of day 3 (he is an accountant by trade, so you know there is a fancy, fancy Excel spreadsheet on hand). Finally, there is the fourth seat (Andrew Perry) who is in charge of bottle distribution and keeping everyone (including myself) in good spirits.    It is a massive team effort.

Thirdly, nutrition is a massive player when it comes to overall performance. I find people are so caught up with their training data and program, and yet they give little regard to what they are consuming outside of the sport. I suggest finding a qualified nutritionist who is experienced in this area of extreme endurance so that your caloric consumption is paired with your training and the macros (carbs, fats, proteins) fluctuate depending on the session you have just done and what you have to do tomorrow and the next day etc. I use TinLaneCo and have found this to be a massive performance enhancer in an area that most people neglect.  

Finally, you need to look at all the aspects that will impact your ability to train for such an extreme endurance event - consistency is king so looking at the 1%ers to allow that consistency to occur is critical. Things like sleep and body maintenance (massage, pilates etc) become such a priority.  

Richard Thompson Cervelo Triathlete
Richard Thompson's Cervélo P5

What are the top three things to remember for race day? 

1. Stay in the moment

It is easy to say, but sometimes very hard to do! With a race that is so long and demanding, we sometimes start lamenting what happened at some point in the race earlier or start worrying about how much of the race is left - you are doing yourself a massive disservice. Stay in the moment, in this very moment, because ultimately that is all we can do. We can’t change what has already happened and we can only address the future once it is in the present.  So for an extreme race like Norseman or Celtman, don’t think about what is ahead of you, just focus on the current 10m in the water, this mile on the bike or this 500y of the run. Before you know it you will be at the finish line having had the race of your life! 

2. Listen to your team

It is rare for us triathletes to have a support car following us in a race. While we are almost all type A personalities wanting to be in control of everything, throughout these extreme races, you need to delegate as much as you can to your team and trust in their advice. As the race goes on, your ability to remain cognisant drops significantly so it makes sense that you follow team orders from the people who have perfectly normally operating brains following you in the car.  Easier said than done - but an important rule if you want to have a great race.

3. Have fun

You have trained the house down, sacrificed a hell of a lot of time, energy and resources to be part of these extreme races - so enjoy the entire experience, relish everything this race provides you. It won't all go to plan, and that is ok, Part of the allure to these sort of events is the feeling like you are pioneering the area, doing something so much out of your comfort zone in a part of the world that is so pristine and magnificent. So don’t forget to look around, soak up the view, have fun and be grateful you have this opportunity to do something that only a handful of people have done on this planet.

Whether it is Celtman, Norseman, Ultraman or any other extreme-utlra endurance versions of triathlon - I wholeheartedly encourage you to lean in and try it out.  It is worth it.


Live your potential,

Richard Thompson

Richard Thompson is a husband, father of 3 boys and a professional ultra-endurance triathlete. He is the 2018 Ultraman Triathlon World Champion and current Ultraman World Record Holder. Richard is a head coach at T:Zero Multisport and will either be on his P5 getting aero or getting lost in the Sunshine Coast hinterland on his S5.