Omar Paredes takes pride as first Filipino to finish 'brutal' Norseman Xtreme triathlon
Omar Paredes and his wife Laarni pose with the Norseman black shirt that was awarded to the extreme triathlon's top 160 finishers.  Rhoel V Fernandez

OMAR Paredes has seven full Ironman triathlons under his belt. But even these tough conquests did not fully prepare him for one of the world’s toughest races.

The 37-year old triathlon coach and swimming instructor holds the unique distinction of being the first Filipino to finish the Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlon that was has held last August 6 in Norway.

Battling the cold climate of the Arctic Circle, rainy weather, a rugged and mostly uphill terrain, it took Paredes, a consistent podium finisher in his age group, 16 hours to cover the entire 226km total distance of the fjord to peak race. In contrast, he finishes full Ironmans in around 11 hours.

“Napaka-brutal,” he said in describing the experience during an event held at the Museum Café in Makati City hosted by Herbalife Nutrition, one of his sponsors.

Paredes, who is based in Los Banos, Laguna, said only 250 athletes are chosen via lottery every year. In fact, it was his wife and accomplished triathlete Laarni who originally submitted her name for consideration last year since the Norseman is part of her bucket list, while entering her husband as an afterthought. In an ironic turn of events, he got selected.

Upon learning he was part of Norseman a day before his 37th birthday last November 8, 2015, Paredes wasted no time and immediately began training by climbing and biking the steep hills near his Los Banos home and later in Quezon and Rizal. Coming from a tropical country, he considered the swimming leg and extremely different weather conditions as the biggest challenges.

The couple arrived in Norway two weeks before the race and quickly found out it was not enough time to acclimatize.

The first part of the race was a 3.8km swim in waters that were 12 degrees cold. As soon as he plunged four meters from the ferry into the Hardangerfjord, Paredes discovered that his borrowed wetsuit was a bit loose in some parts, allowing water that was way colder than he was used to seep inside his suit and began taking a toll to his core temperature.

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 “Buhay ka! Buhay ka! Lord tulungan mo po ako!” he kept reminding himself during the freezing ordeal, motivated to carry on by thoughts of his family, supporters and his students. It took him one hour and 15 minutes to reach the shore.

After the first transition, he pressed on to a 180 km bike ride that would pass through five mountains along the Hardangervidda plateau with more than 3,000 meters elevation gain. Adding to the conditions was rain that caused the downhill ride to be unbearably cold. Paredes said he had to stop several times due to severe leg pain and he had to bring his sugar levels up with the aid of nutrition.

“Akala ko malakas ako mag-bike, nag-ensayo ako ng maayos pero parang hindi pa rin enough yung training.  Pagdating sa 70-140km, umulan so imagine mo bundok na puro downhill. So malamig na panahon, tapos ulan, plus yung hangin pag downhill ka. Namaga yung mukha and nag-manhid yung mata ko,” he recalled.   

He saw six people crash their bikes along the course, which along with hypothermia and ankle sprains are among the major causes of DNFs (Did Not Finish).  

Finishing the race was already difficult, but Paredes still pushed to finish within the Top 160 finishers so he could qualify for the prestigious Norseman black shirt.

In the run phase, Paredes said he kept on praying during the marathon-distance effort. He said his prayers were answered in the form of ‘Billy,’ a Greek triathlete who was aiming for his third black shirt.

“Willing siya na sumabay ako sa pace niya and we pushed each other. Nagpapasalamat ako kay Billy kasi kung wala siya naglakad na lang ako,” he said.

 It was a good thing too as Paredes found out he was 151st when they reached a point called Zombie Hill that featured a steady climb for the next 7km afterwards and with the marshals announcing there was a group of seven coming fast.

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This was the ‘moment of truth’ for Paredes when decided to go all out, passing several runners, including a struggling Billy whom he ‘pulled’ up the hill. He found out in the last 32km that he was part of the blackshirts. At the 37km mark, he was told he had one hour to cross the finish line.

Paredes, now accompanied by his wife, said visibility was down to five meters and they got lost on the trail while they hiked on a ‘mountain of rocks’ in cycling shorts instead of thermal pants and running shoes.

Looking at the Philippine flag on his tri-suit, Paredes pushed on, saying, “Hindi lang ako ito e!”

When they finally reached the rocky peak of Gaustatoppen, 1850m above sea level, Paredes took out a small flag he was carrying and waved it when he crossed the finish line, 16 hours after he started the race.  

The race took more than a physical toll on Paredes, who would suddenly turn emotional during the media event at the Museum Café in Makati City. Laarni said her husband was like that while sharing his experiences.

“It was a life-changing experience for us… we’ve raced Ironman distances before [pero] doon lang siya (sa Norseman) nahirapan. It’s not just the weather. It’s everything put together,” she said

“Sobrang daming hugot. Nagamit ko iyun!” he added smiling.

Paredes gave a few pointers for others planning to tackle Norseman.

 “Kailangan nilang bantayan yung temperature so they have to wear appropriate clothing for different conditions; focus on uphill training; nutrition is critical since hindi mabasa ng katawan ko kung enough yung kain ko since malamig mas mabilis ko maubos yung calories; train hard and respect the distance; will, kailangan buo ka at ready mong i-race yun kasi this is not an ordinary race,” he said.     

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He also gave credit to his wife for supporting him during the race.

“Sobrang thank you ako sa kanya. Siya yung nagbalik sa akin sa triathlon. Maganda yung teamwork namin nung race,” said Paredes, sharing how his wife would know when to remind him when to eat, told him what to look out for and gave him warnings of the terrain ahead.

“Nag-click kami kasi naiintindihan niya ginagawa ko,” he added. “[It’s] not just a race. (but) a journey.”

Follow the writer on Twitter: @rhoelfernandez