Normann Stadler: “You have to love what you do.”
Please enjoy Chapter 16 from the book 17 Hours to Glory: Extraordinary Stories from the Heart of Triathlon by Mathias Mueller with Timothy Carlson. From the moment the starting gun is fired on Kona’s sandy beach at the Ironman® World Championship, triathletes have 17 hours to cross the finish line. It’s a feat marking the ultimate achievement in the sport. 17 Hours to Glory is one of only a few books to commemorate this dramatic quest. Seventeen compelling chapters tell stories that allow readers to experience the competition first hand, revealing tremendous athleticism, unbelievable capacity for suffering, and true strength of character.
Normann Stadler was blessed with prodigious physical gifts that led him to become the most formidable cyclist in Ironman Hawaii history. But the ultimate fuel behind his drive for success was the powerful emotions that either propelled him to ecstatic triumph or left the operatic, charismatic man called the Normannator wallowing in misunderstood dramas. No matter. In victory or defeat, Normann Stadler was the man to watch.
He was born on February 25, 1973, in Döllersberg, a town of 700 near Wertheim, Germany. The second of three sons of Gertrud and Friedrich Stadler, he broke the family mold. While his older brother Frank always sat at a desk in front of a book, it was tough to get Normann to come back into the house at the end of each day.
In 1984, when he was 11 years old, his father started a track-andfield team affiliated with the Döllersberg Football Club. Normann was one of the first youngsters to join the squad, which was coached .ance training.
Success came quickly. Stadler inherited his father’s ambition and .ning. If he wasn’t training for track and field, he was zipping around on his bike. Recovery apparently wasn’t necessary for him. When he was given his first racing bike at 13, he rode all over the countryside. Soon his father noticed that his son showed enormous endurance on his new ride.
Belying his later reputation as a supercyclist who could not run, Stadler finished 16th out of 100 as a young teenager in the national junior cross-country championship. During this time he posted a promising 1:58 in the 800 meters.
Two years later the Stadlers read a notice in the newspaper about a training camp for German triathletes in Würzburg. Father and son were curious, so they set off to see for themselves what this new sport and its players were all about. “The athletes wore cool clothing and their high-tech race bikes really got me excited,” remembered Stadler. He began some sporadic swim training but focused primarily on the bike.
Stadler took on the 1988 German junior Olympic-distance .ken collarbone suffered just six weeks before. The evening before the race, he and his father were chatting with some of the athletes. “Normann is going to win the race,” said Friedrich. Embarrassed, the 15-year-old kicked his dad in his shin, but in vain. What was said was said. Although Stadler’s bike lacked aero bars and he was teased by other athletes for his outdated equipment, he made good on his father’s boast and captured the German junior championship by a wide margin. “From that day forward I knew this was my sport,” Stadler recalled. Confidence rising, he won the German triathlon championship series as well as the duathlon, which replaced the swim with an additional run leg.
At age 20 Stadler was asked to join the German army’s national triathlon team along with established stars such as Thomas Hellriegel and Ralf Eggert. But when he encountered national .mented East German system, Stadler revolted. “I had had a lot of success training with my father, Friedrich, a former national-class rower,” said Stadler. “But when I first went to training camp at Lanzarote, Grosse had us doing 45 kilometers a week swimming, and I hurt my shoulder. Grosse had us bike over 450 kilometers a week at high altitude, and I developed an infection in my inner ear, and it destroyed my balance; I could not even walk. But Stefan told me, ‘Don’t be a sissy! We have to do more work to get ready for the European championships.’ I quit and had to drive my car 1,000 kilometers back home in that condition. My father wanted to kill him. But I said, ‘Don’t bother.’”
Stadler remained in the army, obligated only to do a once-a-month boot camp, and under his father’s regimen had continued success. By 1994, at 21, he made another jump, winning the ITU World Duathlon Championship in Tasmania and defeating a star-studded field that included Powerman Zofingen champion Urs Dellsperger of Switzerland.
He increased his training volume and tried to improve his swim, his least favorite discipline. But just when he thought he was making progress and began to dream about the coming Olympics, the ITU changed the rules for Olympic-distance events. It was decided that drafting on the bike would be allowed.
Stadler felt that change robbed him of his greatest weapon. How was he supposed to build a lead on the bike if other athletes could get away with doing half as much work in his slipstream? He decided to leave the national team, quit Olympic-distance races, and try his luck at iron-distance events, in which drafting was prohibited.
Though Stadler saw his future in longer events, it took time to prepare his body. In 1997 he could manage only 7th at the Powerman World Duathlon Championship at Zofingen. In his first Ironman in Switzerland, he failed to finish. In 1998 he started strong in his second try at Zurich, managing a decent swim and a great ride for the first half of the bike. But near the end of the 112-mile course, he grew weaker and weaker. He described the marathon as a “nightmare.” While the contenders battled for victory, he ducked into the portable toilets several times and also vomited by the side of the road. “I just wanted to sit down and never get up,” he said.
Despite his suffering, he placed 4th, one spot off the podium. But that result didn’t meet his high standards. “I wanted to win,” said Stadler. With that bitter Swiss experience, it was clear to him that he had to work relentlessly on his fitness in order make a living at Ironman races. Even so, he was far from optimally prepared for his first start in Hawaii 18 months later.
When he stepped out of the plane in Kona in October 1999, he felt as though he could barely breathe in the tropical humidity. “It was so hot that I couldn’t imagine doing any sports there, much less competing in an Ironman,” he said with a smile. The initial shock was soon forgotten. He liked the island and the Hawaiian lifestyle. He loved to sit in the Lava Java café and watch the activity along Ali’i Drive. He likened this gathering of the world’s best triathletes to a family reunion. And he was a little in awe of the big names of the sport.
He was able to keep up with the early leaders at Kona in 1999, riding with a hall-of-fame lineup that included Peter Reid, Tim DeBoom, Olivier Bernhard, Thomas Hellriegel, and that year’s winner, Luc van Lierde. Stadler’s 4:40:59 was the fourth-fastest bike split, just 2 minutes 21 seconds off Hellriegel’s best of the day mark. In the end the heat and pace took their toll, and Stadler fell back with a 3:08:20 marathon, one place behind fellow German .pionship, his 15th place left him temporarily satisfied. At the same time, he recognized that he had a way to go physically and mentally before he was ready to win. “You need patience to be successful in this sport,” he explained.
His trials continued, especially in races in his homeland. For three years in a row he failed to finish Ironman Europe in Roth, his nation’s biggest event. Once he collided with a spectator while on his bike; another time he suffered hypothermia in the cold rain and quit. On yet another occasion he was kicked in the stomach during the swim and briefly lost consciousness. His Ironman races seemed to be cursed, and it took a lot to maintain faith in himself and in his abilities. “I knew I had been training well; it had to come together at some point,” he insisted.
His perseverance began to pay off in early 2000. That year he arrived seven weeks early for Ironman Australia and stayed with his brother Frank, who had been living down under for several years.
The uninterrupted training in predictably pleasant weather, much of it in Australia’s Blue Mountains, left him strong, fast, and ready for a breakthrough. On a sunny day in Forster-Tuncurry, his 49:33 swim put him in the lead from the start. His race-best bike increased his lead to 8 minutes, and he hung on with a 2:58:30 run for a breakthrough first Ironman win in 8:30:37.
That victory gave him the push he needed. “It was huge,” he said. From then on he knew that he could play with the big dogs. But if he needed a small dose of humility, he could look to women’s winner Lori Bowden’s performance. Bowden’s 4:51:40 bike, admittedly earned in the helpful vicinity of fast age-group men, was just 9:16 slower than Stadler’s solo mark. And Bowden’s record-setting 8:55:08 finish was just 24:31 slower than that of the German, well below the average Ironman margin of 52 minutes of men over women.
He went on to take a fine 3rd place in Hawaii that same year, which gave him far more credibility than his Australia victory. In Kona he posted a race-best 4:35:14 bike—3 minutes faster than Hellriegel, 4 minutes better than race winner Reid, and 5 minutes ahead of runner-up DeBoom. His 2:56:00 run was another breakthrough that propelled him to a personal-best 8:26:44 finish on a wickedly windy day, just 5:44 behind the winner. Best of all, he got to spend a long time in the lead of the most important Ironman on earth; Reid was not able to pass him until mile 10, and DeBoom went by at mile 11.
“It was an unbelievable feeling,” said Stadler. “I was best European, the best German, ahead of Lothar Leder and Thomas Hellriegel, a place on podium. It was big!” Stadler, the 26-year-old interloper, had leapfrogged over the established hierarchy with his daring breakaway on the bike and run and nearly fulfilled a prediction of victory by his training partner, friend, and Ironman mentor, Jürgen Zäck.
“Normann will win,” had predicted Zäck, who had been kept out of his favorite race by a collarbone injury suffered just two weeks before. While eventual winner Reid and runner-up DeBoom ran Stadler down midway through the run, it was not at all like Stadler’s collapse in the Energy Lab in 1999, which had left him an anonymous 15th overall, and merely the 5th German. Reid greeted Stadler at the victory banquet by saying, “Every year there is someone new here. Welcome to the club.” By “the club,” Reid meant a short list of elite competitors who could realistically contend for the win at Kona.
The pure joy was hard for Stadler to describe, but it lasted only a short time before the German media and his Ironman-crazy countrymen bored in with questions. “Some said to me, ‘What is wrong with you? Were you taking “medicine” in San Diego?’” referring to Stadler’s pre-Hawaii training base. “They laughed, but the implication was that I had used drugs.” No matter that he had tested clean and always had. No matter that the real answer was far more boring: Stadler had worked harder, trained smarter, was ready to jump to the next level, and was simply better on that day. Stadler had toppled the established order, and that made him a target.
In 2001 he was once again victorious in Australia and put in another good performance in Hawaii, taking 4th. But once again, despite his new nickname, the Normannator, which compared Stadler to the all-powerful cyborg played by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the Terminator movies, he got another dose of humility.
With talk that sensational Ironman Hawaii rookie, former professional cyclist Steve Larsen, was capable of riding 4:15, Stadler was skeptical and said at the pre-race press conference: “If he gets by us . . .” Zäck scoffed at predictions that Larsen could overcome a 10-minute deficit after the swim by the turnaround at Hawi. “There is a lot of talking in the media, but it’s wishful thinking,” said Zäck. “They want an American to be the dominator on the bike and get a 10-minute lead. It’s not going to happen.”
Cut to the day of truth. “I had a very bad moment,” said Stadler. “I thought I had no legs. I was riding at 35 kilometers per hour into those big winds, and Larsen passed me like he was riding a motorcycle.” After the race six-time champion Mark Allen said this edition had the most DNFs of top contenders ever, including Reid, Van Lierde, Spencer Smith, and Zäck. Chris McCormack, on a scouting mission for his Ironman Hawaii debut the following year, said, “Steve Larsen had a lot to do with it, the pressure he applied to everyone’s pre-race game plan.”
Larsen wanted to shake up the old paradigm that strong runners sat in on the bike and waited. Mission accomplished. His 4:33:32 bike split on the worst day of winds in Kona history was 11:47 faster than that of next-best Stadler.
In 2002 Stadler started the year training with T-Mobile’s Tour de France cycling team, then ran hard preparing for Ironman New Zealand. His abrupt increase in early-season training mileage and intensity led to iliotibial problems. Although he recovered in time to start at Kona, he accepted the suggestion from one of his sponsors for a last-minute equipment swap that changed the fit of his bike. Suffering severe knee pain, he ended up walking half the marathon.
“It was unbelievably hot, and my skin was burning in the scorching heat,” he said, recalling those bleak hours. Nonetheless, he didn’t want to give up—not in Hawaii. In the end he reached the finish in 100th place in just under 10 hours. “There are so many triathletes who have to give their all just to finish this race,” he said. “I didn’t want to simply give up because things weren’t going well.”
In 2003 he posted the fastest bike again (4:33:40) but faded with a 3:02:50 marathon during which Reid, Rutger Beke, and Cameron Brown all passed him as he took another 4th place. Victory in Hawaii remained maddeningly elusive.
The 2004 campaign began with a significant setback. Two days before Ironman Germany in Frankfurt, Stadler’s second-mostimportant race of the year, he caught a stomach flu. At first he thought he was just nervous, but on race day it became clear it was much more than that. He started losing strength during the swim in Langener Waldsee and soon could barely move his arms. He threw up in the lake, swam feebly back to shore, and abandoned the race.
“I had no more desire to do triathlons and wanted to give it all up,” he recalled. Once again he had invested six months of his life in intense training only to fail. During this difficult period his father advised him not to do anything rash. After all, he had put in a lot of good training leading up to the race and had not used up significant energy on the bike and run.
Normann followed the advice. Two weeks after the disaster in Frankfurt, he lined up at the start of Ironman Switzerland, emerged from the swim in the middle of a five-man pack with all the top contenders, rode to a 4-minute lead with the fastest bike split of 4:31:07, and held on to 2nd place with a 2:56:03 marathon. With a new personal-best Ironman time of 8:21:24, he finished second just 5 minutes behind local hero and perennial winner Olivier Bernhard. Stadler’s self-confidence returned, even more so over the following eight weeks in San Diego, where he set new best times on all of his favorite training loops. “I knew that if nothing unexpected happened, I would throw down a good race in Hawaii,” he said.
In the week leading up to Ironman Hawaii he was feeling more relaxed than ever. When he awoke the morning of the event after a rare good night’s sleep, he told himself he would win that day.
After the swim he trailed up-and-coming German Faris Al-Sultan by 4 minutes and three-time Kona champion Reid by just a minute. When Stadler got on his bike he mashed the pedals like never before. Soon he had passed the front of the group. But instead of resting briefly and sizing up his competitors, he hammered on.
While three-time champion Reid was caught in a communal torpor on the Queen K with heavy cofavorite Tim DeBoom, both biking a scandalously slow 5:01-plus, Stadler flew to a race-best 4:37:48, 9:30 better than the second-best split of amateur Kai Hundertmarck, 10:53 better than second-best pro Torbjørn Sindballe, and a shocking 23:40 better than Reid and DeBoom.
Stadler’s post-bike margin over Sindballe (10:32), Al-Sultan (14:53), DeBoom (21:51), and Reid (21:58) meant the 33-year-old could virtually coast to a win on the run. While his competitors speculated that Stadler had gone too hard on the bike and would fall apart in the marathon, Stadler rightly calculated that “in order to catch me, Peter Reid would have to run faster than anyone ever had at an Ironman.” He was right. Reid did run a very fast 2 hours 46 minutes, but Stadler reached the finish with a comfortable 10-minute lead.
Over the final mile, Stadler was trying to figure out how he wanted to approach the finish line. He straightened his jersey and adjusted his visor so that his sponsors’ names would be clearly visible. “But in the final meters,” he said, “I couldn’t compose myself any longer.” He ran along Ali’i Drive celebrating and high-fiving the enthusiastic spectators, raised his arms, crossed the finish line, and started weeping for joy and relief. He had finally—finally!—done what he had worked so hard to accomplish and what he had dreamed of doing for so long.
With tears in his eyes, he called his parents from the finish. “I won,” he said simply to his mother in Germany, where it was the middle of the night. The news shocked his father, who could only manage to blurt out to his son, “Make sure you get some sleep.” “My father may not express his feelings very well,” said Normann, “but I know that there is no one who is more proud of me than he is.”
“They said a biker couldn’t win Hawaii, but I did it,” said Stadler, who had taken the title of überbiker with fastest bike splits in 2000 (3rd overall), 2003 (4th overall), and 2004 (1st).
While Stadler’s 4:37:58 split was far from Thomas Hellriegel’s
4:24:50 course record set while gaining 2nd overall in rare, perfect weather conditions in 1996, the nasty, persistent cross- and headwinds in 2004 left experts in admiration. “If Normann had biked this hard in 2003 [during rare mild conditions], he would have broken Thomas Hellriegel’s course record,” said none other than Paula Newby-Fraser, Ironman Hawaii eight-time champion and holder of the women’s bike-course record of 4:48:30.
As wonderful as his 2004 triumph was, the period following Hawaii would be terrible. Nina Kraft from Braunschweig, Germany, who won the women’s race and seemed to make the German domination of the Ironman World Championship complete, tested positive for doping. It was a tragedy for the sport and inevitably cast an unwelcome shadow on Stadler’s victory.
But it was only the beginning of a rough patch for Stadler. Following the 2004 Athlete of the Year voting in Germany, one of the major newspapers, the Frankfurter Allgemeine, published an article asserting that Stadler had a problem being ranked 9th, behind three-time Paralympics winner and 5th-ranked Wojtek Czyz. Motivated by that article, the Bild newspaper piled on. It featured the Hawaii winner multiple times on the cover and ran a smear campaign against Stadler for his remarks about a beloved physically challenged athlete. Even Chancellor Gerhard Schröder spoke out against him, claiming that Stadler’s statement was unworthy of a true sportsman.
Stadler felt misunderstood and hurt. He insisted that both editors had misquoted him, and they eventually apologized. Nevertheless, in a telephone conversation with Czyz, he excused himself for having expressed himself poorly. With that it was water under the bridge for the two athletes. But Stadler continued to be criticized publicly and received nasty e-mails and even death threats. His victory in Hawaii, the biggest triumph of his life, seemed to have been almost forgotten in the court of public opinion.
Stadler threw himself into his only refuge, his training. He knew that only athletic accomplishments would make positive headlines again. In July 2005 he won Ironman Germany in Frankfurt. The victory was a liberation, his first on German soil after years of problems.
Subsequently he traveled to Hawaii as one of the favorites. Being a defending champion at Ironman Hawaii is not easy. There was enormous pressure, the media continually surrounded him, and a 20-minute press conference quickly turned into an hour. “I wasted a lot of time,” he said. “I was exhausted.”
Things started poorly on the swim, and when he got to the bike he had a significant deficit to fellow competitors Al-Sultan, Reid, and Brown; he expended a lot of energy trying to catch up. On the climb toward the turnaround in Hawi, he had worked his way up to third when he noticed that his front tire was slowly losing air. A flat tire!
He pulled over to change the tire but couldn’t get it off the rim. Normally athletes leave a 6-inch section of the tire free of glue near the valve stem so that they can apply some leverage between tire and rim and pull the tire off. But Stadler had not glued the tires himself; he had asked a bike shop do it for him. Instead of getting upset with himself for leaving such an important detail to someone else, he shook his head and exclaimed, “How much glue did they use?” He ignored the cameras and microphones, which were catching it all.
He lost several minutes waiting for a new front wheel from the neutral service car. About 20 athletes had passed by the time he got back on his bike, and he had to start the game of catch-up anew. Blood had pooled in his legs during the wait, so he found it difficult to get back into his rhythm. Nevertheless, 15 miles later he had charged back to the front.
But the ghost of flat tires was haunting him that day: the replacement was now also losing air. Adding to his mounting anxiety, Stadler was stung by a bee. At that moment he realized that his training over the entire year had been for naught. Even if he were able to ride back up to the front after another wheel change, he knew he wouldn’t have strength left for a competitive marathon. He rolled to a stop and, with operatic frustration, heaved his high-tech bike into the lava fields—all recorded by the NBC cameras.
Those pictures, which made their way around the world, didn’t help his image. What the 2005 media coverage didn’t include was Stadler’s sportsmanship afterward when, despite his frustration and disappointment, he went to the finish line to congratulate his fellow German and the new champion, Faris Al-Sultan.
After his latest disappointment, Stadler didn’t hide. Dancing around the issues and making excuses was not his style. He spoke openly in interviews. “I know that I’ve made mistakes,” he offered, “but I’ve learned from them, and they won’t happen again.”
In 2006 he was back to training 35 hours each week, and in July he lined up at the start of Ironman Germany in Frankfurt. This time the defending champion swam a new personal best of 51 minutes. It took him only a few minutes to bike to the lead. But riding too fast on some curves during heavy rain, he fell twice, bruising a few ribs. Still, he picked himself up and finished with an amazingly quick 4 hours 22 minutes, the fastest bike split.
Because of the bruised ribs and the resulting difficulty breathing, the run didn’t go well. But he didn’t give up. “My family and lots of friends had come to the race. That’s why I wanted to get to the finish no matter what,” he explained. It took him 3 hours 38 minutes to cover the 26.2 miles, and he finished 11th overall with a time of 8 hours 56 minutes.
Even though his result wasn’t impressive, the race convinced Stadler that his fitness was on track. Again he traveled to San Diego six weeks before Hawaii, and every day of training seemed to go perfectly.
He arrived in Kailua-Kona with a lot of self-confidence and thought those last negative experiences were behind him. But recently retired three-time Hawaii champion Reid gave a pre-race interview in which he said Stadler would not win again on the island that year or any other. Was this lingering sour grapes after Stadler had outridden the defending champion by 23 minutes at Kona in 2004? Whatever the motive, the comment became perfect motivational fuel for Stadler.
He came out of the unusually strong Pacific swells only 20 seconds behind the other favorites, a shock for his competitors, who knew they needed to bank some time against the strong cyclist during the swim. They hadn’t ridden out of town when he stormed toward the front, looking for an opening.
Before they got out of Kona, fellow supercyclist Chris Lieto turned to Stadler and asked, “Are you going to wait a little bit, or are you going to start now?” “No, I start now,” said Stadler, who then proceeded to kick his Kuota rocket ship into hyperdrive and leave everyone well behind.
He knew it would be difficult to ride all 112 miles alone. But tactically he didn’t have a choice. “I knew that if I was suffering, the other guys would be suffering that much more,” he explained, looking back.
Unlike his competitors in 2004, the field was highly attuned to Stadler’s powers of the break and lost ground grudgingly at first. “My bike computer wasn’t working, so I had no idea how fast I was going,” said Stadler. “I just pushed and pushed harder. Heading up from Kawaihae to Hawi, I heard 2 minutes 30 seconds. By Hawi it was 4 minutes, and 6 minutes with 45 miles to go.”
At this point Chris McCormack made a key decision. “I kept saying to myself, ‘You’re the best runner here, mate. Do you roll the dice and go with this move? Or do you do what Mark Allen used to do and sit in with that bunch and wait for the run?’” He decided to bide his time.
Alarmed by Stadler, the pack didn’t have the fire to resist but turned in some fast times on the Queen K’s 112 miles, with matching 4:29s for McCormack, Al-Sultan, Marino Vanhoenacker, Brown, and Luke Bell. Lieto, who chased Stadler the hardest, was worn out after his 4:25 bike, while Belgium’s Beke fought off a shocking bad patch early in the bike to finish with a 4:33:33 that would have been brilliant on a customarily tougher day but left him 10th starting the run.
Two years after he had shattered the old shibboleth that no one could win Ironman Hawaii on the bike, a year after his day had gone to hell with two flats and a bee sting, Stadler roared back with a vengeance. On a cool, windless, rainy day that turned the usually fearsome Queen Ka’ahumanu Highway into Stadler’s own private autobahn, the man from Mannheim arrived in the run transition with a record-smashing 4:18:23 ride.
Stadler’s margin starting the run was 10 minutes and change—10 minutes closer than his runaway margin of 2004—and almost immediately talented chasers such as Lieto, Brown, Bell, Eneko Llanos, and even defending champion Al-Sultan turned into pretenders.
While everyone else was disheartened and essentially out of it, one man was still in the game. Two men were running hard and were using the tiny corner of consciousness left in their brains to calculate the bottom line.
“My legs were hurting, but I was able to run 6:25 miles at 2:47 marathon pace, and they all can’t run faster,” recalled Stadler. “Especially after a fast bike.”
McCormack, the excitable Aussie who had spent four years of big predictions followed by frustrating performances at Kona, clicked off the numbers as he dropped off his bike and hit the run. Ten minutes! thought McCormack. That’s 20 seconds a mile if Normann runs the 2:57 he’s historically run at Kona. But after 9 miles running 6-minute miles on Ali’i, McCormack had taken nothing out of Stadler’s lead. “I thought, Man, this guy’s on a mission,” said “Macca.” “I hope he blows up!”
Slowly but surely, the pressure increased. “I hate that uphill from mile 11 through 16 heading out on the Queen K to the Energy Lab,” said Stadler, whose dwindling margin was troubling. Entering the long and testing out-and-back at the Natural Energy Lab Road at mile 16 of the run, Stadler had a margin of 6 minutes 20 seconds. After the long slog uphill back from the turnaround to the 6.7-mile home stretch, Stadler’s edge was just 4 minutes 10 seconds.
Stadler’s lead was eroding like a sand castle at high tide. It would require cool, calculating aplomb for the German with titanic emotions to fend off the twin devils of McCormack’s charge and his own nerves.
Stadler simply told himself, “‘OK. Let’s dig deep.’ For the first time I was really fighting to finish fast. And if it came to a sprint, I’d be ready. Before triathlon I was a middle-distance track runner.” It was here that Stadler recalled Reid’s dismissive prediction that he would never win Kona again.
A mile down the road, Macca had chopped the lead to 3:20. By the start of the long incline at mile 24 of the run, the margin was down to 1:45. “More than anything else I was focusing on staying loose,” Stadler recounted. “I also had saved something for the last miles of the race.”
As he had two years earlier, Stadler experienced the final yards on Ali’i Drive and each step up the finishing ramp as if in a whirlwind. After 8 hours 11 minutes 56 seconds, all of the pressure was lifted when he raised his fist in victory and let out a yell of liberation toward the heavens. Everything was that much more beautiful than it had been when he’d won the first time, he explained. A single victory was one thing, but to follow it up with another was harder and more satisfying.
Once again, caught up in his emotional breakthrough, Stadler made a mistake. When a native Hawaiian tried to present Stadler with the traditional Hawaiian maile lei victory wreath, Stadler threw it to the ground as if to say, “Take that!” The next day Stadler had to meet with a glum roomful of native Hawaiians to apologize profusely for his inadvertent insult to their traditions. Then, at a post-awards party thrown by Triathlete magazine, Stadler and runner-up McCormack got into a shouting match about perceived insults.
Just before the party McCormack saw an online interview on the Triathlete web site in which Stadler was quoted as saying, “You know Macca drafted. He was always in the pack. We all know he was cheating.”
McCormack approached Stadler and said, “Normann, can I chat to you for a minute?”
Stadler said, “What is your problem?”
McCormack said, “Mate, you’re saying some things about me. What’s the go? If you got something to say, say it to my face.”
“I never said anything.”
McCormack showed Stadler the interview on a BlackBerry.
Stadler said, “The race was yesterday.”
McCormack said, “I didn’t have a problem with you yesterday. You beat me, man. You were incredible. But I have a problem with you now. Look, if I’m just a useless joke, then who did you beat, mate? You just beat up on a bunch of nobodies. I’ve raced you my whole career. I’ve kicked your ass more than you’ve ever beaten me. Come on, man! Give me that respect.”
After the dustups, Stadler made peace with everyone. Macca said, “In 25 years’ time, when we are talking about the fiftieth anniversary of Ironman, they will talk about Normann Stadler as one of the greatest ever. He broke that myth that no one could win Hawaii on the bike. He was the first to do it, and he is a beautiful, beautiful bike rider. And more, I love and respect his ego. I think that’s why we clash. If you don’t have an ego, you don’t have any business out there. And I respect that he is a competitor and a winner.”
Normann Stadler was proud—proud of himself and of his accomplishments. He showed what he was made of and need never prove himself again. But he still wanted to race for a few more years and to win as many events as he could.
In addition, he hoped that his success in the sport of triathlon would help to popularize it. He wanted to put a team together, as has always been done in cycling but had never really been done in triathlon. He also planned to draw from his Ironman career experiences to improve his future life. Goal-setting, perseverance, dealing with highs and lows, positive thinking—all of those things would be helpful in daily life. And someday, when he would no longer earn his living as a triathlete, he wanted to start a family. His own words would be the perfect guiding principle: “You have to love what you do.”
In 2007 part of that dream came true as Stadler signed on with Dresdner-Kleinwort investment bank to head a super triathlon team that included stars Timo Bracht, Marino Vanhoenacker, and Mathias Hecht. Food poisoning ruined his 2007 defense at Hawaii. But after Commerzbank replaced Dresdner-Kleinwort in 2008, Stadler returned and led Kona until halfway on the run before fading with illness to an honorable 12th place.
In June 2009 Stadler found his greatest joy with the birth of his first child, which took the sting out of another frustrating DNF at Kona in October and may have signaled a tempering of the fire within. “My son is much bigger in my life than sport,” he said. “Now I have more responsibilities for my boy. After hard training, you come home and he smiles and all the pain goes away.”
Thank you for reading this chapter from the book 17 Hours to Glory: Extraordinary Stories from the Heart of Triathlon by Mathias Mueller with Timothy Carlson. From the moment the starting gun is fired on Kona’s sandy beach at the Ironman® World Championship, triathletes have 17 hours to cross the finish line. It’s a feat marking the ultimate achievement in the sport. 17 Hours to Glory is one of only a few books to commemorate this dramatic quest. Seventeen compelling chapters tell stories that allow readers to experience the competition first hand, revealing tremendous athleticism, unbelievable capacity for suffering, and true strength of character.