Celtman - extreme Scottish Triathlon

It's only Sunday night but the start of the Celtman already seems like a lifetime away.  I've drank champagne, relived the race through photos and eaten way more bacon rolls and pakora than would normally feature in the life of a so-called 'athlete'.

The horrendous weather in Glasgow on Friday morning led to last minute panic-packing every bit of outdoor kit I own into my transition bags (I hadn't realised I own 4 pairs of cycling gloves and 3 pairs of running gloves -they all went in).  I was terrified of the cold in the swim so had loads of clothes for that too, including a last minute purchase of a neoprene hat, which makes me look utterly ridiculous. With so much stuff, I'm surprised the car made it up the road at all really.

I registered at lunchtime in Torridon community hall and collected the best race number ever.  Only 9 wannabe Celtwomen on the list!  We pitched the tent, went to the race briefing (room full of scary and scared looking people) then we had the rest of the afternoon to relax.  Having been mainly running, biking, swimming, eating, sleeping and washing endless amounts of kit for the last year, I haven't had much experience of just lying down, looking at the scenery.  It was beautiful. 

Thanks to the great rest on Friday afternoon, getting up at 2am didn't really seem so bad.  It was slightly surreal to be racking my bike in Shieldaig in the daylight at 3am.  And everyone was wearing midgie hats, like some sort of weird space suit.  Buses took us round to the start of the swim where, with a Celtman logo blazing, we hung around in our wetsuits feeling scared and excited.  I got interviewed by Dougie Vipond for the adventure show. I'd forgotten I was wearing the silly hat or I'd have hidden behind someone else. Hope they don't show it!

With only a few minutes to go before the start, we had some bad news and some good news. 

'The water out there is a bit colder than we 'd really like it to be'

(no mention of actual temperature)

'So we're going to shorten the swim and you don't have to swim round the island'

woohoo, shorter swim, they're shortening the bit I hate, can't do and am afraid of.  Then I realised that, in the swim across the loch, the island section was a tiny part of it. Great. A marginally shorter swim, in freezing water.  I found out later that meant 10C, pretty cold then.

And noone even mentioned the jelly fish.

We waded into the water with the sound of bagpipes and suddenly the race had started.  I stayed with the pack for about all of 2minutes then had my goggles kicked off my face and everyone else was gone.  The next hour and a quarter lasted a long, long time.  I tried to focus on the positives - there was a beautiful sunrise, it was a flat calm and I seemed to be doing better than normal and swimming in the right direction.  Then, at about half way through, I realised just how cold I was.  I started shivering violently and, between dodging the jellyfish, I fought the urge to call for a rescue boat- purely on the basis that I'd only get colder as they tried to fish me out and I might as well keep going.   

Finally, I could see Shieldaig in the distance and make up some figures on the pier.  I knew that Neil must be one of them, he would make it ok, I just needed to keep swimming.  Every now and then I'd try some breaststroke, with my head out the water, just to see if it was any warmer.  It wasn't and I just got colder and colder.  With only about 300m to go to the shore, I started to become disorientated.  I looked up at one point to find myself pointing entirely the wrong direction, with a kayaker nipping round to head me off.

Less than a minute later, exactly the same thing happened and, this time, the kayaker gave me instructions to focus on the kayak and just keep following him into shore.  What a lifesaver.  Very quickly, I was being hauled up onto the jetty and a marshall was unzipping my wetsuit. Thank goodness they were letting support crew into the transition as I couldn't move or speak, never mind dress myself.  I just remember sitting shivering violently while Neil rammed shoes onto my feet- no easy job when I couldn't feel my feet or ankles.

It turns out that almost everyone lurched out of the swim looking hypothermic and transition times of 4 to 15 minutes certainly testified to that.  Getting on my bike was way harder than I anticipated. Neil took a photo of me and straight after I wobbled right into him. 

I felt completely disconnected from my bike and the first downhill with tight bends completely terrified me.  An italian girl (no doubt suffering much worse than I was with the cold) veered about wildly in front of me and I saw a man in a ditch.  He said he was fine and seemed to be smiling but I couldn't work out if he'd fallen off or just dropped a water bottle because of cold hands.  Two minutes later I had my own emergency stop as my 2am breakfast made a reappearance. I don't think my stomach liked all the salty water I'd swallowed in the swim.

After about an hour, things started to calm down and feel less like a living nightmare.  I like riding my bike and the roads there are great. I had a mini meltdown about half way through the bike, at which point Neil said he would stop for me every hour, to give me more food and water, but, more importantly, the belief I could do it. 

The Celtman has two options for the run - a 'mountain' route and a lower level route round Liatach, which is still rocky and hilly but not as high.  I had very quickly decided during the bike that I wouldn't make the cut-off to be allowed to attempt the mountain stage. I could see my average speed falling as time went on.  I was knackered and hurting. 

At Braemore junction, Neil met me with more sweets, pretzles and water and told me I could still make the cut-off. He'd done the sums and I was on track.  Suddenly, things were different.  I rode as hard as I could for the next hour and overtook several other competitors.  Luckily, it was mainly downhill and I convinced myself the previous suffering was down to it being entirely uphill.  I told myself I felt strong.

Sadly, that feeling of being amazing never lasts and there was an uphill coming. And rain and stomach cramps and all sorts of pains in my legs.  The only things making it better were all the support crews cheering me on.  I was so happy to see a car parked up ahead and Iona jump out to put a jacket on me, having guessed that the headwind and rain were making me miserable.

The end of the bike section saw me moaning in pain, desperate to sit down. I knew I wasn't going to make the cut-off so was looking forward to transition.  At T2 I was treated like a film star- Helen feeding me cake, Iona spraying me with midgie repellant, Neil putting my backpack on me and the marshalls cheering me on. 

But no sit down. 
What?  Right then, I didn't even want to make the cut-off.

'You can still make it' I heard Neil say.  Yeah right, 21km in 2hr after 125mile bike ride and THAT swim.  Except, Neil told me, it was only 17 or 18km.  Suddenly it was seeming just about possibly possible- something worth trying for. 

The bike to run transition is always a pitiful thing. The fact that the run started with a long hill and we had to carry a backpack with waterproofs, first aid kit, compass, food and water, meant I shuffled even more pathetically.  On fresh legs, I'd have run that hill. As it was, I walked but surprised myself by feeling strong.  Being off the bike rejuvenated me and from the top of the hill I could see Beinn Eigh. T2a was in sight.  1hr to get there and I RAN!

Neil drove all the way round to the Torridon road in record time and jumped out the car to meet me coming out of the Coulin pass. I was flying!  I don't think I run that fast normally, never mind 11hr into a race. Just 17min left and Neil said it was a 15min run along the road.   I could see several other competitors ahead, giving it everything to meet that cut-off.  Running up the hill, I didn't know whether we'd made it but, with so many people cheering me on, I ran to the checkpoint.  And we'd made it. 

Lying on the grass, having pulled out all the stops to get this far, the thought of a 6hr hill run ahead was slightly terrifying.

I could see from the other competitors that they felt the same. What had we let ourselves in for?

Luckily, I had Neil with me for this stage - I really couldn't have done it alone.  Up two very wild and intimidating Munros, drenched in cloud, as darkness is approaching.  It was never going to be easy.  But this was why I'd been inspired to enter the Celtman.  I'm a mountain person and I was comfortable there, inspired to push harder.  I was the last competitor to make the cut-off stage yet we overtook 25 teams out on the hill.  It seems the mountains make me stronger and that stage was my favourite.  As we were going up to the final summit, we could see other teams coming down. Everyone was smiling!  Right on the summit, we met Wendy and Cameron, it was great to see some other tri club folk!

It was after 10pm when we got back to the road.  Nearly there, just another 7km along the road to the finish line.  I tried to run, aching, knowing that the more of it I ran the quicker it would be over.

We managed some running. Neil was carrying both backpacks by this stage (the rules are that you carry your own pack on the mountain but don't need to on the road).  I was so grateful but even he was feeling tired by this stage. Any other day of the year I would think a 7hr run was quite a lot.  Add a 2am start, a 160mile drive and a day spent trying to read my mind, cater to my every need and whim and convince me I could do it.  He had a right to be a exhausted but he never once complained, just kept running ahead to open gates. 

It was just after 11pm when I finally finished. The hall was full of happy, tired people, tucking into their pasta and sharing their stories. White tshirt, blue tshirt or support crew, we'd all come a long way and we were proud.  Glasgow Tri Club did themselves proud -all five of us sporting blue tshirts on Sunday morning, with Seb and Paul finishing joint 6th (in not much more than 12hr, phenomenal!).  I was pleased to see that all the women finished too.  We may be few in number but we were tough! And Rosemary put in an amazing performance to come second.  Dan was just 10min behind me the whole way round and it must have been hard to miss the cut-off by only a few minutes. Still, I don't think Liatach was exactly an 'easy option' and I am sure he will be wearing his finisher's tshirt with pride too.

Unlike people suggest, I don't think I'll be going back for another ironman but if anyone wants a support runner for next year the mountain stage is pretty amazing...

Team Glasgow Tri Club


FionaOutdoors said…
What an absolutely amazing achievement. Utterly awesome. And a great write up too.
trio said…
Wow! Not much more to be said.
Dave Flanagan said…
Outstanding effort and a great read too. Well done!
Cracking effort. Top job to keep your head with changing information on pace, cut-off times and get the job done. I am suitably humbled by everyone's efforts
Julbags said…
Brilliant! Watching the lead swimmers struggle to get out of the water to the transition really showed how cold the swim was. Our athlete (Rob, No 53) really suffered with the cold swim and wobbled off on the bike too. It took him a while to get it together but he finished strong and had a good run over the mountain (ripping my legs off in the process as I was support). Much respect for doing the mountain as it was getting dark, that descent was quite tricky and getting to the finish. Great race report.

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