Two South Africans were among the world’s bravest few sports people to compete in and finish the epic and gruelling Norseman Xtreme Triathlon in Norway this weekend. It’s the most extreme triathlon on the face of the earth…
Each year, passionate athletes enter the lottery to compete. But only a few (263 this year) are lucky enough to have their names picked out of the hat. This year two of those were South Africans Kieran Ballard-Tremeer (who now lives in Dubai) and James Bayhack. It was the sixth year running that he had entered the Norseman lottery.
It wasn’t great timing for either of them. Kieran had suffered a year of illness and injury. (She fell down some stairs just six weeks before the race.) And James, at 46, had finally broken his triathlon addiction, and hadn’t been training for a while so he felt unfit and overweight.
But since the chance of ever having your name pulled out of the Norseman hat is so tiny, and the privilege to enter the race so huge, both knew they couldn’t turn the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity down, and the lottery results were well in advance to give them enough time to train.
And yesterday, against all odds, they each finished the 18-hour race… and got the T-shirt! Literally! “The great prize for all of this? A T-shirt!” laughs Kieran.
To put it in perspective, there are many types of triathlons – normal ones that last an hour or so, Half-Ironman and full Ironman Triathlons which many people aim to do once in their lifetime… and then there’s Norseman which “takes it to a whole new level because of the weather and elevation – a massive, massive difference”, says Kieran. The bike course alone has 3,800m elevation over 190km!
The first 160 athletes to get to 32.5km on the run are allowed to continue to the top of the mountain to finish (a medical check at 37km must be passed and athletes carry a survival backpack with mandatory gear in case of weather changes). Those after the cut-off who make 32.5km (which is at top of Zombie Hill) before the 17.5hr cutoff are allowed to continue their run but on a different route into Gaustadblikk.
Unlike the Iron Man which has aid support stations, the Norseman is not a supported race so it’s up to the athletes to have their own support team who drive along the course bringing them all their food, drinks and some TLC to make sure they stay hydrated and nourished to endure the long hard race.
Kieran was fortunate to have her sister Leonie over from the UK and a good friend Brett from Dubai.
James had a special couple – Simon and his wife Helena (who happens to be from Sweden) – who flew over to support him. They had met when James first got into triathlons at the age of 38 and completed two Ironman events together.
Through eight years of friendship the couple has followed James’ amazing journey to Norseman, and “when he finally got into Norseman, we just had to come and be here,” Simon told SAPeople.
“We were very honoured to be his official supporters. It was a truly amazing experience, and almost as exhausting as actually doing an Ironman myself!” The support team – who have to provide nutrition and plan and strategise, also have to support their “struggling buddy” through tense and stressful moments – can make or break an athlete’s race.
During the race there are cut offs along the course that you have to make it to in order to carry on. One is Zombie Hill – a 7km zig zag uphill with a 10% incline.
“We had to fight to get him to both cuts,” says Simon, “and that feeling of elation at the top of Zombie Hill when we made it was so amazing… a very special moment which I’m sure we’ll treasure for the rest of our lives.”
It was Simon and Helena who had first introduced James to Ironman.
“I started watching some of the race videos on Youtube, obsessing about it and thought: wow, this is the most incredible hardcore breath-taking triathlon I had ever seen.” It went onto his bucket-list, but after six years of applying he had become a little sedentary and not been training for a while when he finally hit the jackpot.
Thanks to a coach who sent an online weekly workout programme, which James followed religiously, he made his six-year dream come true.
Right now James is still in recovery and says “it hasn’t sunk in properly”. The area he says is “absolutely beautiful” and he’d love to return as a tourist.
Fortunately all the cold-weather gear he spent so much money on hasn’t been used… because this season the notoriously cold Norseman event (which often has snow) was blessed with hot weather, up to 29 degrees.
However the water was still ice-cold. “Don’t think, just jump,” an official can be heard shouting as the swimmers began their race, jumping off a ferry, in the early dark hours of morning.
“It was amazing swimming in the Eidfjord,” Kieran told SAPeople, “but very cold water.” The athletes checked in their bikes at 02h45, and were on the ferry at 04h00 for a 05h00 start. It has to begin early because it’s such a long race.
“The scenery is so spectacular. but it’s a brutal race for climbing the mountains, unlike anything I’ve ever done before.” (And Kieran is one of three swimmers who swam 85km around the Dubai Emirate coastline to raise awareness against single-use plastic.)
Injured and unable to do the run, Kieran “did the math” and managed to power walk it.
She says “the race was incredible but you really have to dig deep from a mental point of view to push yourself to finish. And going on an uphill when you’re absolutely shattered is mind numbing.”
But thanks to the support of volunteers and the incredible feeling of being surrounded by “these people who have very driven mindsets to finish the race”, she completed and enjoyed the “great party at the end”. And now can call herself a Norseman!
The winner this year made it in just under 10 hours! The last person to finish (who made the cut offs) completed it in just over 20 hours. This year was also the first ever World Championships of Nxitri so the winners of all the extreme triathlons in the world (Celtman, Swedeman, last year’s Norseman etc.) over the past year had an entry for that.
For the South African athletes and their supporters, an incredibly special moment was having the SA anthem played at the end, which typically you only hear for professional athletes.
“We could’ve played anything, but I thought it was nice to represent South Africa…
“When you’re just an enthusiast and you do an event like the Norseman, and then hear your country’s anthem while you’ve got your flag, it’s awesome,” says James
WATCH Isklar Norseman 2019 – Race Recap
That was one amazing, thrilling and challenging day! Thank you to all support, athletes and crew for going all in. From Eidfjord to Gausta you were smoking hot! And if yiu are not yet in bed, you should go outside to the white finish line to cheer the final finishers (and real heroes) across.
Posted by Isklar Norseman Xtreme Triathlon on Saturday, August 3, 2019
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