Imagine jumping off a ferry at 5am into a freezing, cold lake at 10 degrees for a 3.8-kilometre swim. Once you get to the shore, you hop onto a bicycle for a 180-kilometre cycle on the hilly terrains of the Nordic mountains. Then, you run 42.2 kilometres with a steep incline halfway to the finish line.
This is the Zalaris Norseman Xtreme Triathlon held in Norway, in which William Nanjero, the CEO of Sol Generation, a music production group affiliated with Sauti Sol, is preparing to compete in.
Nanjero will be the first Kenyan to attempt to complete this world’s toughest long-distance triathlon.
Grammys of triathlon
“This is not for you,” reads the tagline on the Norseman homepage, a fair warning for those who dare to test their sportsmanship and mental endurance.
“Norseman is the Grammys of triathlon. Either you qualify for it through a system called the X-Points or through a lottery system millions of people apply but only a few are picked out,” he tells BDLife.
The intensity of the race starts at sea level, with a four-metre drop off a ferry into the Hardangerfjord (a mass of water between two cliffs). The water is cold, clean, and comes lightly salted. On a bicycle, athletes cross the wild Hardangervidda mountain plateau. The finish line stands at the rocky peak of Gaustatoppen, at 1,850m above sea level and 220km away.
Norseman is a long day’s journey through some of Norway’s most spectacular scenery. The total ascent is 5,000 metres. The weather can be anything from brilliantly beautiful to blasting blizzards, sometimes all in one day.
“I will have to acclimatise to the Norwegian weather conditions. The closest I can get to that is by training in various locations such as running in Iten and up Mt Kenya. Swim in the freezing waters of Tigoni. The good thing is that Kenya is generally a high-altitude area. What I need to be very deliberate about is the weather,” he says.
He says hypothermia is a major worry but this is not his first triathlon.
Nanjero is a seasoned athlete and has represented Kenya in several triathlons including the Ironman series and two World Championships. He is also the captain of the Kenyan triathlon team.
A triathlon comprises three disciplines: swimming, cycling and running, all in one event. He explains that there are two variants of triathlons which are the sprint triathlon and the long-distance triathlon.
“We had two athletes represent Kenya at the Commonwealth Games and the All Africa games for the sprint triathlon. Unfortunately, we do not have many triathletes, so I happen to be the only one who competes in the long-distance triathlons.”
Nanjero’s lean physique is in perfect shape. His body has been through total body conditioning for several years to deliver the power that the sport demands.
“I started swimming when I was five years old. It was a talent that came to me naturally. I found my flow and happiness in the water. Swimming careers unfortunately tend to end between the ages of 16 to 21. I transitioned into triathlons because I did not want to stop being active,” he says.
The countdown begins for Nanjero almost a year before the Norseman race set for August 3, 2024. Everything he does now is focused on ensuring he crosses that finish line.
For a race that demands a lot physically, he says only 30 percent of the challenge relies on an athlete’s physical capability, which can be achieved through training and dieting. The other 70 percent tests their mental capacity to keep their motivation up through 226 kilometres of pushing their body to get to the finish line.
“Your mind will come up with several excuses as to why you should not do it. You will constantly be battling with your mind. What helps is that I am truly self-aware. I know how to shut down when my mind plays games with me. You have to learn to train your mind to stay alert and switch off the voices in your head. They will always be there during training and on the day of the race,” he says.
“I reward myself with small tokens like a bar of chocolate whenever I achieve something. You have to appreciate the work you are doing and not wait for affirmation from others.”
Research is a major contributor to his diet and training. Some of his discoveries forced him to forgo some types of food such as meat.
“There was a season when I was always tired and moody. I did my nutrition research and discovered that our bodies work so hard to break down meat. I switched meat for plant proteins. My recovery after workout was faster and I was more energetic in the morning.”
Enemy and friend
In long-distance triathlons, time is your greatest enemy and friend. The margins between every leg of the race are so small that you have to recover fast and move on to the next one.
He says an athlete is responsible for planning their rest times, their support team and any other logistics. Even the gear that he wears plays a big role in getting him to the end of the race, especially for the wetsuit which needs to have thermal layers so that he does not freeze. The socks, gloves, neckband and three-piece suit are all being designed by a Kenyan female entrepreneur named Ali from FiveStars Africa.
“I train 13 to 18 hours per week which includes sports-specific training for swimming, cycling and running. Strength training is also important because you have to condition your muscles to endure the battering the body is going to go through. I also do yoga because I find it difficult to stretch and is also a great way to calm my mind,” he says.
As thrilling as it sounds, the sport has left Nanjero with a few broken bones and numerous scars such as the dent in the middle of his clean shaved head to the graze on his leg.
“I was hit by a lorry while cycling in Limuru when I was training for Ironman Maryland. I had to postpone that race and another in France. I was traumatised to the point that wearing running shoes became hard. I don't want to think about such problems when I am training. I would prefer to think about how I will better myself.”
The brutality of the race is seen in the number of dropouts before the race. “Some do not make it even to the starting line because the training regime is so harsh so you can get injured or hit by a truck, in my case,” he jokes.
Surprisingly, Nanjero is not interested in winning the race but his actions will inspire others to do things they never thought they could.
“I want to show people outside the sporting community that whatever you set your mind to, you can do it but there is a process and formula of how to do it.”
One of his unspoken talents is playing the cello. When he is not busy running Sol Generation, he is playing the classical string instrument that he picked up five years ago. He opened for Grammy award-winning cellist Yo-Yo Ma at Cellobration earlier this year at the Kenya Conservatoire of Music in an orchestra with about 40 cellos.
"People who listen to classical music rarely listen to pop music and vice versa. However, I realised that there is an opportunity for classical instrumentalists to be crossover artists by playing their instruments but for pop music. That curiosity is what got me into it. I imagine having someone like Nyashinki playing with a 56-person orchestra,” he says.
“The Kenyan music industry is in its infancy stages. It took my directors (Sauti Sol) over 20 years to become who they were. They used to print out flyers and stand outside Alliance to give them out so people could come to their show," he says.
"With their talent, it should not have been so hard for them to succeed. So with Sol Generation, they wanted to make an environment that can identify talent, develop it and put them on a world stage. Now we are running a programme called Press Play for young girls who played at SolFest. We are preparing them to be global stars. Sadly, we do not have all the money in the world to develop all the talent in Kenya,” said Nanjero.
He advises young people to not put pressure on themselves to be the best in everything but to just be the top players in a field that they are passionate about.