Four months after the event it has taken substantially longer to write up this race report than it took me to recover from it, and that was a while! Here is a brief summary of the day..
On Saturday 18th June I raced The Celtman Extreme triathlon. The race is held in Torridon which is wild, rugged and beautiful but also infamous for pretty hostile weather even in summer. Celtman is the same distance as any full distance/Ironman race but the natural elements make this more of an adventure challenge than a race. This year the weather was the worst in 10 years and justified the event’s “extreme” billing..
The alarm went off at 3am although I didn’t need it , I’d been awake for hours, in fact pretty much since I went to bed. Luckily we had managed to get some highly prized accommodation (a Yurt!) in the small village Shieldaig where we needed to start from so we had a short walk in the pre-dawn to collect my GPS tracker and dibber then headed to the T1 area to rack my bike. Once done I got into my wetsuit and climbed aboard one of the coaches to take us to the start. It was already very windy and during the bus journey you could sense that the weather was adding to everyone’s nerves. “Control the controllables and the weather is not one of them” I kept telling myself in a vain attempt to relax…
The start area has a mystical feel to it in the half light of dawn with bagpipes and drums playing and pots of burning oil dotted around keeping the athletes warm and keeping the midges away. Down by the water there was a huge Celtman symbol burning where we had a competitor photo taken before being lead into the water just as the sun was poking its head above the hills – it’s a pretty cool way to start a triathlon even if it is at 5am! As soon as the hooter went all my nervous drained away, I relaxed and focussed on a gentle start just as I would do in training. Despite all the pre race hype about freezing water the water temperature felt fine (those early swims at Wardie paying off) although to be fair I was wearing enough neoprene to go deep sea diving – gloves, socks and a balaclava! I was soon very glad I was as I quickly started swimming through masses of the fabled Celtman jellyfish. At one point there were so many that it felt like I was swimming through a kids ball pit. The waves were pretty big and in the half light of dawn sighting was a challenge so I just aimed for the first then second big island we had to swim to. Seals popped up here and there and at one point I rolled to breathe and saw a Sea Eagle above me (a pair nest on Shieldaig island) – I hoped he’d had his breakfast…
Despite the conditions I had a really good swim completing the 3.4km in 58 mins, helped along by an incoming tide, a following wind and, by luck more than skill I suspect, having taken a more direct line than many others (I swam 200m less than some other people).
Brother Ken was waiting for me at T1 and buoyed by bagging a swim time 10 mins faster than planned I determined to have a good feed before setting off on the bike.
Porridged up I headed off on the bike ahead of schedule. Celtman is different to other triathlons in that it is largely self supporting with every athlete needing to have a support car and, for the last leg of the run, a support runner. This makes the event something of a military exercise to plan. My brother, Ken was doing both and was in for a long day as well.
We had broken the 202km bike route into 30km stages with Ken meeting me at pre agreed RV points to hand over drink bottles and food. I had a pre- tested nutrition plan to ensure that calories in were in excess of calories out and if I wasn’t eating or drinking enough Ken was on my case to make sure I was.
I mentioned it was windy. By this time it was blowing 30mph and gusting 40mph which made the bike (a) amazing when it was behind you (b) very tough heading into it and (c) pretty hairy when it was a cross wind – not a day for deep section wheels! Unfortunately the hardest part of the ride was the last 40km which was straight into the wind, which after 160km was mentally challenging. At times I was down to my last couple of gears and still only doing 15 kph despite pushing 220 watts. I have never been so glad to get off a bike although I was pleased with my progress – 7 hrs 6 mins for the 202km (averaging 28kmph) which was only 6 mins less than my target. So far so good..
After more porridge and a 10 min transition I was off on leg 1 of the run which is a hilly trail run of about 17 km. One of the great things about this event is the people you meet. Despite not being a glamourous and commercial event like Ironman, Celtman has a rather iconic status in the extreme tri world drawing people from all over the globe and you make friends quick when you are suffering together! During the race I met and had great chats with a Norwegian, a Pole, a Mexican and a Texan (sounds like the beginning of a joke!) who had all made huge effort to get to this remote, wet and windy corner of Scotland. My organisational efforts paled by comparison.
Buoyed on by great craic with other athletes the first leg of the run went as well as I could have hoped and although it was by no means fast I entered arrived at the foot of Beinn Eighe (T2A) in just over 2 hours , half an hour before the cut off for the “High Route” and thereby securing the coveted “Blue T-Shirt”. This had been my target and as a result summoning the motivation to start the 2nd and last run leg of 20+ km was difficult. The organisers had announced that the High Route was closed due to 70 mph winds on the ridge (thank God!) and therefore all athletes would finish on the “Low Route” (which is still not low but avoids the peaks) which is the same distance. By this time I was starting to get stomach cramps from 7 hours on a TT bike eating all kinds of stuff and the next 4 ish hours became more of a mental challenge than a physical one. The hill section was very wet, very cold and seemingly never ending. Thankfully I had Ken with me to offer some “carrot and stick” support in the way only a brother can! The hill eventually joins a tarmac road for the last few k’s to the finish at Torridon village hall and tantalised by the sight of the finish I managed a shuffle over the line in a total time of 13 hours 45 minutes, 52nd place and 4th SuperVet. In keeping with the ethos of the race there were no fireworks, no hordes of cheering fans, just a round of applause and “well dones” and a beer thrust into your hand. But that mattered not a jot – after 6 months of training the sense of relief and achievement was huge. The family feel that Celtman has creates a shared experience between athletes that is unlike larger events and it was nice to share the after race “afterglow” with others particularly with clubmates, Roy and Joe who had been on that journey with me.
So in summary, this race has such a mystical feel about it, such a friendly atmosphere. It is physically and mentally tough. Did I enjoy it? Oh yes. My overall opinion of the race? Absolutely epic and totally unique. Will I be entering the ballot for next year?…