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Heart of a Champion: Ashley Norton’s Mission to Make IRONMAN History

She battles daily pain that most people will never experience. Now she’s training for the 140.6 mile race of a lifetime.

Ashley Norton will be the first person to participate in the IRONMAN with both MS and a pacemaker
Credit-Ashley Norton/Joker Mag

Ashley Norton weighed over 300 pounds at the age of 17.

Today, and 160 pounds less, she’s embarking on a journey to become the first woman with multiple sclerosis (MS) and a pacemaker to complete an IRONMAN race.

And until recently, she wasn’t even a runner.

“I’ve always been the underdog.”

A childhood trip to the grocery store began as a day that started off like any other. But suddenly, and with no prior warning signs, Norton fell to the ground “like a noodle”, where her heart rate dropped to just 15 beats per minute.

This was the beginning of an upbringing filled with hospital visits. Specifically, this included heart procedures, including the pacemaker which she has now received twice in her lifetime.

“Back then, 20-plus years ago was like a no-no,” says Norton about receiving her first pacemaker. “Because technology wasn’t as advanced as it is now.”

Within two years of giving birth to her daughter, Norton was diagnosed with MS. The symptoms were there leading up to her official diagnosis, but now, this was a reality for the new mother.

Yet again, she was spending weeks in the hospital while her day-to-day life revolved around getting through a number of medical complications; occasionally being unable to move, unbearable heat on her body, and finding lesions on her brain unfortunately were her new reality.

So, how does someone dealing with all these physical ailments – where it often feels like knives are being shoved into her feet, along with cognitive issues stemming from MS – decide to pursue one of the world’s toughest athletic events?

Norton credits it to the grace of God.

Ashley’s coach is a former IRONMAN competitor as well and did so while battling MS. But Norton is also entering the race as someone with a heart condition, which is a medical duo never before seen in the history of this grueling three-part race.

When her first pacemaker caused her to pass out, driving the need for a new one, Norton saw it as a sign of something better to come. Soon after, an ad for IRONMAN flashed across her television screen.

“I am a believer in the Lord. Something came inside of me and said, ‘I made your body able and I want you to do this in the name of me. I want you to show people that just because man has given you this disability, I can do anything.'”

Within seven days of leaving the hospital with a patch on her heart and a sling on her arm, Norton had her focus fully set on doing the IRONMAN. By the seventh day post-hospital, she was back to working as a personal trainer, which furthered her love for a life of fitness.

A quote from Ashley Norton that reads: "Nobody held my hand. I didn't have a group, I didn't have a personal trainer, and I did it myself."

She got her first taste of what IRONMAN is like watching the race in Maple Valley, Washington. From the moment Norton arrived, she was starstruck.

“I got this feeling inside of me that was undeniable.”

In October, Norton will be racing in the 140.6-mile IRONMAN Kona race, in Hawaii. Beforehand, she’ll partake in “warmup” half-races in Salem, Oregon, and Maple Valley, totaling 70.3 miles each.

But Kona is especially one of the most sought-after IRONMAN races, no easy feat on its own to just get into. But exactly how Norton is making Kona happen is truly remarkable. By the time the event takes place in October, her training will have lasted a mere 13 months.

“People try their whole lifetime [for Kona] and they never ever make it because it’s a qualifying event,” Norton said.

What Norton is in the process of doing is almost unheard of.

Many days, she wakes up with the most horrific pain describable. Yet despite this, she’s found ways to turn her pain into power, coming up with unique training methods to prepare herself for the grind of race day.

She wears a cooling vest and a special scarf to lessen the intensity of the MS’ side effect of intense feelings of heat.

Putting her name in the record books presents its own set of challenges.

Norton’s training routine has also had to be adapted compared to the typical IRONMAN entrant. Nutritionally, Norton must be aware of what she puts into her body. It’s a daily battle.

In the race itself, she’ll be riding a recumbent (three-wheel) bike, which differs from the bulk of her competition.

She did her best to ride on a standard two-wheeled bicycle, but multiple falls and injuries from doing so threw that idea out the window. For Norton, that was not a failure but rather an adaption to still be her best.

Thankfully, she is not alone. Norton pointed out that there are IRONMAN competitors with all types of disabilities – people who are blind and amputees have completed the race, showing the power of IRONMAN to cater to athletes no matter their physical circumstances.

And it’s for exactly that reason that Norton has decided to race. To inspire others like her who might think finishing a race of this nature is not possible.

“I don’t care about all the hoopla and glory and everything,” she said. “That’s great. But for me, it’s for the people that are in wheelchairs that people think they can’t do it.”

A desire to bring hope to others is not new at all to Norton. She currently runs a non-profit called the Grace Global Foundation. It is a 501(c)(3) organization that serves all the needs, funding, and education, awareness for MS.

Through her participation in IRONMAN, she is aiming to use the foundation as a vehicle to connect other athletes with similar stories of overcoming the odds to future run, bike, and swim races.

Her goal is also to bring more attention to the frequency of MS, which affects nearly one million people in the United States.

“The number one goal right now [of the foundation] is to make sure that the people that are sick get the help they need, and they can come to us and they won’t be rejected.”

Fittingly, her foundation’s tagline reads “One little lady on a big mission.”

Norton’s care about helping those just like her, and in turn, doing her part to make them feel as comfortable as possible in an otherwise impossible situation, stems from her upbringing of fighting for herself.

Not only does she know what it feels like to go through MS, but she’s a living example of someone who’s had to count on what she’s earned.

“Nobody held my hand. I didn’t have a group, I didn’t have a personal trainer, and I did it myself,” Norton said. “I don’t have to see barriers. I’m hardwired differently and God made me differently.”

Ashley’s story could have gone a totally different route. Both mentally and physically, she’s been through hell and has constantly been at the judgment of others.

“But this judgment has driven me to take this [IRONMAN] to another level and now, I’m doing it for others.”

***

Special thank you to Ashley Norton for sharing her inspiring journey with Joker Mag. For more information on Ashley and her foundation, please visit IronHeartWoman.com. You can also donate to the Global Grace Foundation at her GoFundMe page.

For additional MS resources, consider visiting the Resources and Support page at the National MS Society website.

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Written By

Muhlenberg College alum based in New York City. Bylines at Joker Mag, Elite Sports NY, and The Apple.

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