Maggie Rusch

Professional Triathlete

Norseman Swim

Ferrying to Nowhere Racing an Ironman already makes for a long day but it becomes even longer with Norseman. For starters, the elevation and off-road hiking tack on an extra 2-4 hours alone as you have to make your way up and over and to the top of mountains. But there’s also the 4am ferry departure to allow the ferry to cruise out to the middle of the fjord for an insane 5am start.

I was up later than I hoped, prepping the support car, putting on our stickers and making sure my parents were comfortable with the new set of tasks I had asked them to tackle as my support crew. Restless and running on no more than 2-3 hours of semi-solid sleep, the alarm went off at 3:15 and we rolled down to transition.

The actual checking in took longer than expected as we waited in line and volunteers double-checked that we all we had lights and reflective gear for the first series of tunnels leading up to Dyranut. By the time I racked, most athletes were getting ready to get on the ferry and there were zero bike pumps I could find to borrow. Someone yelled at me to get on board and so I did, no clue about my tire inflation—gone un-pumped for over a week, I cringed thinking at how low they most likely were but there was nothing to do about it.

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We lined up to climb on the ferry, waving to spectators as we boarded, more like we were being sent off on ship across the Atlantic rather than heading out to do a race. The whistle blew and the ferry steamed out into the dark. You could head upstairs into the warmer and cozier ferry seating but lemming that I am, I stayed in the hull with the majority of the other participants, soaking up the shivers, nervousness and hollow eyes of the athletes around me, anticipating the rough day that waited ahead.

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The minutes ticked by and there were cameras everywhere, occasionally snapping you out of your daze when your eye accidentally caught their lens, before looking away and trying to act normal—whatever that means at 4:30am on a ferry in the middle of a Norwegian fjord as you’re about to embark on one of the toughest endurance races in the world.

 

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The Leap

The engines shut off and the barrier lifts. Race directors herd you to the edge of the hull as we wait, crowded, trying to see into the dark and find the lights of Eidfjord somewhere in the pitch black we’re about to swim toward. The first athletes leap in and you edge up to platform. It’s cold, windy and it’s hard to tell exactly how far the leap down is—and whether there’s any unsuspecting athlete waiting down there. A space clears, a deep breath, a jump out.

Not to disillusion you, but the leap is someone anticlimactic. Maybe it’s just because I’m a fan of the high dive or have been cliff diving in Jamaica but it was not as intense as they make it out to be. :) We swam the few hundred yards out to an imaginary starting line between kayakers lined up in the fjord and waited for the starting signal as the sun began to rise.

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Swimming in a Dark Fjord

Normally the washing machine of swim starts terrifies me; it’s violent and unsettling and seems like a massive waste of energy. This was GLORIOUS. Hillary had warned me that the Europeans aren’t exactly known for being great swimmers so between that and the smaller number of participants, this was actually a very pleasant swim, as far as swimming 2.4-miles can be.  It was relatively warm, for Norseman standards. I opted to skip booties or any special caps and was comfortable—minus some numb toes in the last few minutes of the swim and coming out of the water.

Very early, I jumped onto the feet of a pack and settled into a comfortably uncomfortable pace, both working hard but also enjoying the direction and draft of the 2-3 athletes ahead of me. Had I been solo, with my sighting skills, getting back to the speck of a town through the dark would have been hopeless.

For about the first half of the swim I was enjoying the train, occasionally upping the effort when I dropped off the back and then easing back into the steady rhythm of the group. Somewhere around the halfway point, and I don’t really know what prompted it, I looked up slightly and realized my feet were nowhere to be found. Maybe 50-feet ahead the group had broken up and so I put a serious effort into closing that gap. Nothing worked, however. I was left to swim all on my lonesome and actually start sighting again.

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The best part was that we were told to hug the shoreline (“slightly less current than the middle of the fjord”) so with each breath to the right, I could see the road into town, the occasional cluster of spectators and comfort that I had an escape from the imaginary monsters lurking at the bottom of the fjord.

We reached the boat that we were told was the turning point to cut back toward the finish. I misjudged this a bit and so ended up swimming more than I should have but finished strong, catching up to an earlier group that either took a better line or had faded across the back half of the swim and ran up out of the swim finish.

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This was the first time I've ever had a "support crew" in transition, which was interesting. Not sure how much help my dad provided in there with me but good motivational support! He helped me pull on my cycling gear, turn on the required front and rear lights for the tunnels as well as the mandatory reflective vest before I headed on my way!

Time: 1:03:27

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