Clouds shroud mountain tops and the wind blows so hard that small rocks fly around you. One kilometre of distance running takes over an hour to complete and the water from high mountain lakes is cold and stings your face as you gasp for breath. On.On.On. The only way is forward, sometimes the terrain becomes so steep that on all fours is the only way to progress. Our journey is glacial but momentum is key. For we are following the path of ancient folklore and the legend of Rockman.
This is Rockman Swimrun. An iconic race in its eighth year, set around Norway’s Lysefjord (which is a sunken high sided valley filled with water), traversing through the surrounding mountain ranges and high lakes. The race has the most vertical ascent of any in the world, at 2600m. And while subjective, the battered and bruised souls who cross the finish line will say there is nothing harder*. It is also indescribably beautiful. You are a mere speck in a gigantic rocky landscape where the mountains tower above you and the Fjord seems huge.
Main photo credit: Escobedoheart.
Mother Nature Roars
After a calm few days, the wind was building in a crescendo which would reach full force in the afternoon. The organising team were stoic in their approach, dancing on a knife edge of whether conditions that were acceptable for swimrun. Gossip spread around the 5am ferry from Stavanger to the race start, would the race or swims be cancelled? Even the most seasoned athletes admitted some nerves before jumping off the front of the ferry for a short 400m swim to the shoreline.
One last breath and we were in the water, arms rotating furiously and palatable relief at starting our journey. Conditions despite the forecast were calm as we completed a relatively short and sheltered swim which would take us to the shore.
Much of the race centres around Lysefjord. Photo credit: Escobedoheart.
The 4444 steps, all athletes must take up Florli early on is a much anticipated part of the race. The wooden stairs follow the course of a retired pipeline that poured gravity-fed water to the hydroelectric power station below, it is a steep climb that seemed to disappear into the clouds above. Months before, those who live in flatter lands are on stair climbers in a desperate bid to be ready for their circa 800m of stair climbing. And yet the stairs are consistent and with a measured pace we ascend. After some time, a fellow participant gets off the stairs on a small platform to look at the view and remarks on the train of ants which are on their pilgrimage up. The stairs are individually numbered but the time passes quickly. As we reach the 1000 step mark, the fear factor is gone.
The 4444 stairs at Florli.
Mother Nature Erupts Into A Rage
At the top of the stairs, the wind that is forecast batters us. A full frontal attack. We dive into the first mountain lake, swim and plough through waves, keen to reach the other side. And climb again, higher and higher in the mountains. The third high swim is too rough and is cancelled. A brief respite as we descend back towards Lysefjord enjoying a slightly brighter day. Once again we see ants below, this time making the long 1.7km crossing from south to north directly crossing the Fjord. It looks a long way. Nerves build again.
We are told to aim for a white cottage which is a dot against the giant landscape and jump in. The sense of being in a group evaporates completely and it is me and my partner, alone in a vast expanse of water. The waves get bigger and we are hurled around in the water, doggedly continuing. Staying calm. The wind and current blows us about 100m south of where we should have exited and a final effort is required to get to the sanctuary of land. The transition area resembles a nightclub at closing time. Athletes stumble around dizzy from the roll of the waves and struggling to find their footing on the rocky shore.
The 1.7km crossing. Photo credit: Escobedoheart.
I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes Unto The Hills
The race course evolves into mountain terrain, white specs pepper the cliffs above us – apparently deposits from the last glacier to come through. The terrain for the remaining 25km or so of the race is barely runnable and turns into a fast or slow hike through boulder fields and switchbacks. We are either climbing or descending and the 2600m of ascent takes a toll as tired legs are willed on by strong minds.
The views are simply jaw-dropping. With each climb, a new panorama opens up below us. The slow nature of our running which at this point had become a walk allows us to take in this natural environment around us. It is a privilege to be here. In a place of such unspoilt beauty. Towering vertical cliffs rear above us on swim legs as waterfalls cascade into the fjord. There are mountains everywhere, small edible blueberries carpet the forest floor and we drink from ice cold streams. The sense of time, all but evaporates.
Much of the terrain is highly technical. Photo credit: Escobedoheart.
Discovering The True Joy Of Pulpit Rock
Pulpit rock is one of the most famous natural landmarks in Norway, a table shaped rock which juts out far out into the Fjord. The race route is an out and back, 1km up and 1km down. It is of course stunning, but the number of visitors detract from it feeling like the rest of the rugged Rockman course and mark a stark contrast to the rest of our day.
The true joy of Pulpit Rock is revealed as we receive a high-five from a fellow swimrunner. What follows are high fives, fist bumps and encouragement shouted out in many different languages. It is an incredible feeling of camaraderie and bond between the other athletes. Our turn comes as we descend, yelling encouragement back. It is a genuine and warm feeling of human connection and was a special moment, rarely experienced in races.
The Journey Home
Each year of the Rockman race has a new chapter, as a story book winds its way towards a conclusion. This year was titled ‘The Journey Home’. And for the last hour we wound our way towards the finish line, making short two swims before a twisting trail run to the finish at Preikestolen Base Camp. Our journey was complete as we finished a truly challenging course through mountains, lakes and Fjord.
Rockman is swimrun at its most wild, raw and adventurous. It is you and your partner against the elements. It is not for the faint hearted. And while it might be the ‘World’s Toughest Swimrun Race’ it is also set in a beautiful, serene and awe-inspiring natural glacial landscape formed many life times ago and will outlast us all. And that is a humbling thought.
Rockman Swimrun is set to return on the 17th August 2024.
Editors note: The ‘toughest’ or ‘hardest’ swimrun is highly subjective. And a strong case could be be made that any of the following races are more difficult: One Water Race, Swimrun Côte Vermeille, Swimrun Gorges Du Verdon and ÖTILLÖ, The Swimrun World Championship.