Norseman: the short & sweet version of a long & cruel course
In my thirteen and a half hours on the course, I learned the hard way that Norseman is a cruel, cruel beast that can chew you up and spit you out if your day doesn’t go any less than perfect. There is no other course like it: from the 20,000ft+ of climbing across the bike and the run to the grueling climbs to Dyranut, to Geilo, to Imingfjell that sap the energy from your legs, all the way to the infamous Zombie Hill that’s only a precursor to the final death blow that is Gaustatoppen.
Going into the race, I would not go as far as to say I underestimated this course – because I certainly put in the work required on similar terrain with my training in North Carolina – but I learned that there is no way to completely prepare oneself for the challenge that is Norseman without actually going there and competing — not physically, not emotionally. In my pre-race notes to Hillary, I wrote that I expected a “long, long day with lots of troubleshooting involved” and while my predictions could not have been more appropriate, it was even harder than imagined.
From racing the course sight-unseen, dealing with exhaustion and sleep deprivation to the point of literally falling asleep on the bike at one point, a somewhat poorly-planned and frenetic day with the support crew and major stomach troubles on a completely porta-potty-less course, my ability to roll with the punches and troubleshoot was the saving grace of the day.
As I’ve mentioned, this race is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced — or likely will experience for quite some time. Notably, this was one of the most electric and competitive races I have ever participated in: a hard-fought battle with countless passes and repasses among the women’s top five, a story that so far has been absent in articles published about this year’s race. While I have a longer story to tell, and likely will get around to it in the coming days, I wanted to share some highlights while the aching legs of never-ending Imingfjell, the pains of attempting to run Zombie and the glassy-eyed, noodle-legged scramble up Gaustatoppen are still fresh in my memory.
To start such an epic day, it only seemed appropriate that we leapt from a ferry into darkness. For me, the nervous energy as the ferry steamed to the start and the realization of the long day ahead were actually more terrifying than the jump itself. The water was clear and crisp and the swim a little bit lonely; it was hard to stay focused on the task at hand and not pause for a longer look at the serene snow-capped mountains drifting past with each breath.
On the bike, I struggled to find my legs early on, was passed and dropped as low as fifth or sixth place. As we started the series of five climbs, the most brutal and never-ending being Imingfjell, I started to feel myself come around, repass and work my way up to second. With each climb, I was more and more thankful about my switch to riding my new Blue Triad in the weeks leading up to Norseman. I love this bike and the Di2 was a godsend for the amount of time I was climbing, shifting gears and trying to do work on this epic bike course. Despite only a few weeks of us together, the Blue performed brilliantly and I see a really good future between the two of us :)
Despite my rally on the series of hills and extending my lead of some of the girls behind me, the eventual winner Line Foss passed me shortly before the last and most brutal of the climbs, Imingfjell, never to be seen again as I cursed each switchback and each false peak on the crazy climb.
About halfway through the bike I ran out of my sports drink mix—forced to a much diluted version due to poor planning on my part. As my support crew, mixing and handing off the bottles, my parents were horrified but I did my best to shrug it off and let them know that the mostly-water was more than fine. I told you, "troubleshooting" was the theme of the day.
We rode across an open plain into a headwind as it started to pour, gusts pushing my Blue across the road, headwinds pushing me back as I tried to avoid getting blown into the support cars that raced by, trying to catch up to their athletes. Here's a sample of the headwind we were facing - I know, right? The course elevation profile had promised nothing but downhill after the 2,000ft ascent of Imingfjell (tucked in nicely from miles 85-95, some of the roughest in Ironman) and the climbs and headwind seemed like a cruel fate to face after I had given the previous climb all of the energy reserves I had in anticipation of the final descent.
Even crueler, perhaps, my jet lag and sheer exhaustion caught up to me when we finally did start to make the twisting descent back to T2 — one that would be terrifying in crystal clear weather, not to mention in gusty, raining, even hailing conditions. At one point I fell asleep in the aerobars, an arm slipped off the pads, I caught myself. I would spend the next 20 miles of the course pinching myself, squinting my eyes and trying to sing to keep myself from falling asleep again.
I survived the terrifying return to T2, only to find my support crew noticeably absent; I would spend six horrifying minutes pacing T2 wrapped in a blanket, hollow eyes, wondering whether my race was ruined as my support crew found themselves stuck in the backed-up traffic.
Six or seven miles into the run, jogging along and trying to get the stomach to settle, I passed my parents during one of my short walk breaks to refuel, telling them, dejected, “I’m just trying to finish. I don’t think I can chase the podium without the risk of throwing away a finish on Gaustatoppen.” Last year’s collapse in Kona loomed heavily on my mind and I had no idea what this cocktail of narcolepsy on the bike and a total stomach shut-down really meant as the hours waned on. There was also an, um, "incident" in a ditch/behind a bush thanks to a donated hankie from my dad, my stomach started to settle some and I started picking off both men and closing on the women ahead.
I summited Zombie Hill, finding my legs again as I passed the girl in third, walking, and continued my charge forward after hearing that my 9-minute deficit behind second was steadily dropping with each mile. I was determined to get up Zombie as quickly as possible, mostly to put an end to the torture of the 10% incline and the resulting pain in my lower back. It was impossible to run without being reduced to a complete shuffle so I alternated running and walking: twenty steps each, sometimes ten and then on the steepest portions, humbled myself with my best attempts a power-walking. I befriended a crew of four jogging the last “flat” part of the course after zombie and made my final pass of the day. I was in second now but still running—well, hiking—scared.
The base to Gaustatoppen felt like a mini finish and I breathed easily as the medical crew gave me the okay to continue. From there, it was just one foot ahead of the other to get up the rocky face. I kept telling myself to take it easy after a few close calls with tipsy rocks, threatening a rolled or even broken ankle with only weeks to go to Kona. Well over an hour into the hike, the dense fog, paired with the maddening feedback from hikers descending from the top (first it was “only 15 minutes to go”, then five minutes later, it was 30; there didn’t seem to be a consensus on how far we had left to go) only intensified the feelings that this was a summit-less mountain.
The cheering got closer, then we were crawling hands and knees up the crumbling scree, starting mini-avalanches and sliding back down a bit at times, until finally the rocks gave way to stairs, then, finally, the finish line. I crossed with minimal fanfare, staggered a few steps to the right and then curled in the fetal position against the rocky ledge in the blistering cold wind as a race official draped a blanked over my shell-shocked body. Norseman took everything I had; a complete going-to-the-well experience.
At the end of the day, I was spent. There was little celebration. The whole way up the mountain, my dad just kept repeating, “you had a phenomenal race, Maggie. Just phenomenal.” But at the end of the day, I was so exhausted, so overwhelmed by pain, so happy to just be still and not moving, that I just sat there in the little hut at the top of the mountain, depleted and numb and ready to go get myself off of Gaustatoppen and into bed.
While I did not execute on my original race plan — that was thrown out very early on — I learned that a race is not truly over until the finish line. That you can be nearly ten minutes down, in fourth place and on the verge of settling to “just finish”, only to claw your way back up to second.
I’m proud of the day I had in order to excel on such a brutal course and amazed at the experience, but this lesson—the one of perseverance in the face of adversity—is the thing I’ll treasure most from this experience and something I’ll always have in my back pocket for future races: that deep down, this resilience, this ability to bounce back regardless of the punishing circumstances, is something that no one can ever take or ever challenge.
“Men as fit as you, when your everyday strength is gone, can draw on a mysterious reservoir of power far greater. Then it is that you can reach for the stars. That is the way champions are made.” – George Yeoman Pocock