Wednesday, August 10, 2016

Norseman 2016 Race Report

It Gets Into Your Soul
Shopping in the expo on Thursday before the race, I noticed a woman agonizing over whether to buy a jacket emblazoned with the Norseman logo. "I'm afraid I'll jinx it," she said to her husband. I couldn't help jumping in. "Buy the jacket. It doesn't say Finisher on it. You won't jinx anything." She laughed and replied, "We deserve the jacket just for having the balls to show up here!"

My new friend Basia and I started talking, and I revealed that it was my second time racing here. She joked that I must be crazy. As I tried to explain myself, another woman standing nearby spoke up quietly, "I was here in 2014 also, as support. After that day, I knew I had to do the race. It takes over your mind - it gets into your soul."

What an accurate description of what happens here at Norseman. I came back this year with the goal of earning a black T-shirt. But I also came back hoping to achieve something else. In 2014, my eyes were opened to an international community of athletes who boldly chase their dreams across the world, who have a true, deep love for the sport of triathlon, who are not content to stay safely at home, doing the usual. Being around that kind of energy makes you want to go out and really live your life.

My eyes fill with tears as I type this. To quote Basia at Sunday's T-shirt ceremony, "I'm so emotional, I feel like I just had a baby." It's almost bewildering how powerful the experience is.

After watching a 10-day forecast that showed beautiful weather for race day, in typical Norwegian fashion, the night before the race, a cold front began to blow in. As Dad and I set up my bike in the transition area, I noticed noisy waves lapping against the dock. I've never seen the fjord in anything but serene, calm conditions. My stomach flipped over a little, but I brushed it off.

The swim course looking much calmer the day before the race.
The 2.4 mile ferry ride was fun - I sat with 4 new friends and we exchanged stories of previous races and laughed about how we looked forward to eating junk food and drinking Coke on the bike. At about 4:45 am, we walked downstairs in time to be sprayed with cold sea water to ready our bodies for the shock of the cold water (57 degrees). We watched the mouth of the ferry dramatically open, and then jumped off into the unusually choppy water.

Ten minutes later, the horn went off. As we had been directed at the pre-race meeting, I swam along the shoreline; there is a tide against you on this swim, and swimming against the shoreline helps to minimize its effect. When you see the twinkling lights of Eidfjord, you know you'll soon make the right turn towards town, then you swim around one buoy and take a left turn to cut across towards Swim Out. I was swimming with a small group of 3 or 4, and as we made the turn towards the town, the choppy water became more turbulent. The tide was pushing from one direction and the wind came from the other, creating swells and chop that I knew would be against my face on my breathing side after I swam around the buoy.

...if I could ever make it to the buoy. I felt like I would never reach it. I lost contact with the group I was swimming with. I struggled against the water to pull myself towards town. I started to feel tightness in my back that I haven't felt since I was a baby swimmer years ago in Boerne Lake. When I finally turned at the buoy, the water overwhelmed me. I stopped every few strokes just to get my bearings. I swallowed water and choked on seaweed. I knew I was in the water longer than my predicted 1:10 swim.

When I finally reached Swim Out, a crew member offered his hand to help me stand up. As I stood, an enormous cramp shot through my calf, and I dropped back into the water, surprised. He asked me if I was ok, but my leg kept cramping and I couldn't stand up. As I just laid there, helpless, he asked if I needed medical assistance. That got me moving and I made an effort to grab his hand and move towards the shore.

Dad tried to calm me in T1, but when I saw my swim time (1:32), my heart sank. I felt the black T-shirt goal slipping away. Emily, my coach, has been telling me all week to stop thinking about the black shirt and to focus on the process instead. So I focused on the process of getting dressed for the bike. It worked. After a swift T1, I rode out onto the course.

T1: Notice that most of the bikes are gone already.
Rule #1: Have swim amnesia. Once you're done with the swim, remove it from your mind and focus on the task at hand. The task was to ride smart and save energy for the hills in the second part of the course. As I rode up the first 25-mile climb out of Eidfjord, I took note of how my body was feeling. My arms, back, and sides were sore from the swim. My legs felt like they were struggling to turn over the pedals. The wind whipped around me - the rain that would pelt us for the entire bike ride hadn't started yet, but the temperature wouldn't go above 47 degrees all day.

After 7 miles of being seriously freaked out about how hard this bike ride was, I rode around a corner into a break from the wind. In the quiet of that stretch, I could hear my front brake rubbing loudly against my wheel. SERIOUSLY!? I tried to adjust it, but ended up just opening the brake caliper as a temporary fix. Immediately I felt relief, and started laughing. As a rule, I take a moment to check the brakes every time I leave T1. Not today - what a rookie mistake.

The climb out of Eidfjord was lonely. I didn't know my placement in the race, but I knew it wasn't as good as I would have liked. Nevertheless, I remained focused on process, riding within myself, eating and drinking small amounts every few minutes, and enjoying the ENORMOUS TAILWIND that would follow us all day. This year, both the male and female winners set new course records for a reason. The blasting wind was literally pushing us down the bike course.

As I reached the top of the first climb to Dyranut, it began to rain. I'd made plans to meet up with my support at a particular location, and as I rode along I noticed other cyclists pulled over getting dressed for the cold of the day. I was in arm warmers, leg warmers, and my tri kit at this point, but I wasn't feeling cold yet. Once I met up with Mom and Dad and put on Trent's amazing Castelli Gabba jacket and my new Castelli Diluvio neoprene gloves, I was toasty warm as I hit the plateau. This clothing saved my day. I learned later that more than a few people DNFed due to hypothermia on the bike. Although my feet soon became numb, my hands and core were warm, and I felt unstoppable.

Windy, cold plateau.
On the plateau, I was happy to settle into my aerobars and stretch out my back, which was still sore from the swim. But as the ride progressed, discomfort in my lower back became pain, and by the time I approached the halfway point, I was asking for Motrin. I took at least 12 Motrin over the course of the day, and when we ran out of that, I started taking Mom's Excedrin. I took the pills at the top of each of 5 climbs and hoped that the pain in my back would subside, but it just wouldn't. I stood to stretch my back, rode in my aerobars uphill when I could - I did whatever I could do to ease the pain without getting off my bike, but nothing worked.

Climb, climb, climb.
At some point, my shifting went bad and my chain was squeaking loudly in protest with every pedal stroke. I thought, "I wonder what will break first, my chain or my back?" I went through some dark moments - I had a near miss with a car that was impatient to pass on the narrow road, and I started hoping a car would hit me so that I could have an excuse to stop riding.

I stayed as focused as possible on the process and was surprised and happy to see that I was hitting the right power and heart rate numbers on both the climbs and the flats. I'm a much stronger cyclist than I was two years ago, and that is really fun to see. As I approached the top of the final climb, I heard someone else's support tell his athlete, "You are number 168." WHAT?! I may still be in this? That was all I needed to push the final 20 miles downhill to T2. I had practiced this entire descent a few days earlier, and knowing where the turns and bumps were really paid off. I had a strong final hour on the bike, which, aided by the tailwind, resulted in a bike split that was 37 minutes faster than in 2014. I even passed several people on my way into town. (Bike split: 8:15)

After the fastest T2 that I could manage, I hurried out onto the run course and looked excitedly at the crew member who would show me my position in the race. As I ran by on frozen stump feet, my heart sank: the paper read 201. I must have misunderstood what the man at the top of Imingfjell was saying, or he was lying to his athlete to keep him moving.

T2: Dad tried to protect me from view as I was changing, but Mom took the photo from the other side. Haha
This is where experience worked against me. I had been in a similar position starting the run in 2014, and even though I picked off a ton of runners that year, experience told me that I wouldn't be able to pass 41 people to get to the mile 20 cutoff in time for a black shirt. Hope had kept me racing the last 20 miles of the bike, but now that was gone. I was still determined to run as fast as I could, but because of the pain in my back, this wasn't particularly fast. First, I bargained with myself that I could walk up hills, but I had to run the rest of the time. That deteriorated into "run 30 steps, walk 10," which is what I did until I hit Zombie Hill at mile 15. My parents were amazing all day, but during this run, their support was everything to me, and every time I saw them parked a little way up the road, I was able to run a few more steps.

The run course became sunny and beautiful as the day went on!
Finally, we arrived at Zombie Hill. I said to Dad, "Who looks forward to Zombie Hill so that they can walk?" He replied enthusiastically, "We do!!" Mom drove the car up the hill and Dad and I started our 4-mile trek up the 10% grade hill. It may be strange to hear that that was my favorite part of the run course - walking up that hill at a 12:00-18:00/mile average felt almost soothing to my back, and Dad's positive chatter helped me forget the pain.

Even though I felt like I was moving at a snail's pace, I passed a bunch of people and we moved into position 188 by the cutoff at just about 14 hours. The time was well within the 14:30 limit, but of course the placement was not good enough to go up the mountain. I was really happy to have arrived at the cutoff a few places and minutes higher than last time.

As we made the left turn towards the white T-shirt finish line, I tried to muster the enthusiasm to at least beat my overall time from the previous year. We could do it if we ran. But I couldn't. We started running the downhills and walking the uphills, but that deteriorated again into just walking as fast as we could. I was annoyed to notice that I was doing the thing that you always see on Ironman videos of people when they're exhausted: leaning over sideways as I was running. At about mile 22, an innocent little cattle guard became an almost insurmountable obstacle, as my back threatened to lock up when I tried to walk across it.

This year's white T-shirt finish was a small loop that you had to do 10 times; you earned a punch on a card each time you passed a checkpoint. So we walked/jogged/shuffled 10 times past the finish line before we actually got to cross it - Dad and I were both cramping and exhausted when we finally crossed the line together at 15:50:26.

Dad completed the last 10 miles of the run with me - of course he should cross the finish line too.
I immediately fell into Mom's arms and started crying like a little baby. Then Dad and I were both offered a cup of the traditional, delicious finish line soup. A crew member snapped a couple of quick photos, and then we walked over to our little cabin that was located right there on the run course. It was about 9 pm. We'd hear the cheers for people finishing until after midnight.

T-Shirt Ceremony
The next day, I was sort of dreading how I'd feel when I saw everyone walking around in their black T-shirts. Instead, as I walked in to get my second white shirt, the first person I saw was Basia and her family. "I finished at midnight! It was amazing!" she exclaimed, and gestured that we should take a picture. This was what I needed to remind me what this race is all about. The black shirt would have been icing on a beautiful cake. This white shirt represents breaking through limits, perseverance, determination, and doing your best under extreme conditions. I'm proud to wear it.

My new friend Basia at the T-shirt ceremony.
Found this while looking for pics of the race on Instagram. If this doesn't inspire you, I don't know what will.
Claim to fame: Norseman used my photo on Instagram!

I'm so grateful that I was given the opportunity to race Norseman a second time. Not many people get to do that, and I know how lucky I am! If I lived closer, I know I'd want to be one of those people who gets the green 5X-finisher T-shirt, or the pink 10X-finisher T-shirt. There is simply nothing like the ridiculous challenge of this race.

Two 10x Finishers! 
Once again, I walk away from Norseman with new friends who inspire me. Basia, who never stopped smiling and celebrating. Jenna, who achieved an ironman PR (who does that?!) and won the white shirt race. Crew member Bent, who provided relentless positivity all day, starting with spraying us with a hose on the ferry, to directing traffic on the bike course, to cheering and running with us up to the finish line at the end of the day. The spirit of this event will stay with me for years.

I want to say an enormous thank you to everyone for your encouragement, cheers and support. Thank you to my awesome teammates on the Big Sexy Racing team for inspiring me every day and to our sponsors who helped get me through the day at Norseman: blueseventy, Newton, Cobb Cycling! Thank you to Matt, Greg, and everyone at Bicycle Heaven for helping me pack up my bike to get it safely to Norway, and for teaching me effectively how to put it back together again. Thank you to Trent who always knows exactly what to say, and to my amazing friends who believe in me so much! Thank you to Halvard Berg for all the advice - in particular, the jacket and gloves on the bike saved my day. At his request, I'm throwing out the call as well - let's get more American women to sign up and race this race of a lifetime! Thank you to the leadership and crew of the Norseman Xtreme Triathlon for dreaming up and providing an incredible event that just gets better year after year. Thank you to my coach, Emily, for the guidance in this process; I'm looking forward to what comes next. And of course, thank you to Mom and Dad, my incredible crew, who made every part of this happen. My heart is full! Thank you for reading.

My amazing crew.