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Celtman 2023 – a tale of relentlessly pushing your limits!

My journey to the Celtman started back in April 2018 when my arm was twisted into heading up to Torridon, a small village in the Northwest Highlands of Scotland to ride a section of the NC500 that includes the infamous Bealach na Ba.

During my stay at the Torridon Youth Hostel, I struck up a conversation with a group of triathletes. I could easily identify them as such, having witnessed their swim in the chilly waters of a sea loch while I enjoyed a pint in Shieldaig.

When they told me they were gearing up for a ride, I imagined they would mention tackling the Bealach na Ba. I was surprised to hear that they actually planned to venture north of Torridon for a challenging 200km loop ride as part of their preparation for the Celtman. What’s more, the following day, they had a run/walk session on the run course scheduled.

Their excitement was palpable as they discussed their course recon. The magnitude of the challenge was staggering: a 3.4km swim across a cold and jellyfish-infested sea loch, followed by a grueling 125-mile bike ride, and then a marathon that consisted of 75% off-road terrain, scaling two Munro peaks, all while necessitating a support runner for safety. Their commitment was truly awe-inspiring!

The allure of the Celtman had an immediate grip on me, and the idea of returning one day to take on the challenge became impossible to ignore.

Credit: Steve Ashworth

In November of last year, I took a leap of faith and entered the ballot for this year’s race. Realistically, with the event being massively oversubscribed and only 250 slots available, I didn’t hold much hope of securing a spot. Initially, I found myself on a reserve list after the initial ballot, which wasn’t exactly the news I’d hoped for. However, a few weeks later, I received an unexpected update – I had secured a place!

Now, the true journey began. At that point, my physical condition was far from ideal. Running was a struggle, with me barely managing a 5k, and swimming? Well, I hadn’t ventured beyond a few laps in a pool in a long while – let alone tackled the daunting prospect of a 3.4km open sea swim!

At least I should be able to handle the ride…and training on that front seemed to be going well. Until, exactly 13 weeks before race day, on a mountain biking trip to Utah, I broke my sternum. 

My Celtman journey looked like it might be over before it began.

Fast forward to June 17th when the alarm jolted me awake at 2am. We took the 45-minute drive from Applecross to Sheildaig, where I attempted to fuel up with a couple of small pots of porridge, eagerly loading up on carbs as early as possible in the day.

Upon our arrival in Sheildaig, it was a battle against the midges, but thankfully, my trusty midge net was on hand. I queued up to acquire my timing chip and GPS tracker, then proceeded to rack my bike. At 4am, we boarded the buses that would transport us to the swim start.

Once on the bus, the reality set in – we were on our own! Our support crews had to remain in Sheildaig. The journey was filled with nervous conversations with fellow athletes who were about to tackle this monumental challenge alongside me. By 4:40am, we had reached the swim start, and as we stepped off the bus, the thunderous drums and stirring bagpipes of Clann AnDrumma greeted us, creating an atmosphere reminiscent of scenes from “Braveheart.” It was absolutely exhilarating!

At 5am, with the bagpipes and drums still echoing in the background, I plunged headfirst into the serene waters of Loch Shieldaig. Thankfully, the water was calm, with barely a ripple in sight. I opted to hang back a bit at the start, seeking clear water to avoid the chaos of getting kicked or swum over.

Credit: Steve Ashworth

The setting for the swim was nothing short of breathtaking, with Munros towering in the distance and crystal-clear waters. This sea loch boasted significant depth, reaching down to 119 meters (to put this in perspective, Big Ben stands at 96 meters tall), and you could feel the water’s temperature shift a few degrees as you crossed these deeper spots.

Credit: Steve Ashworth

And then there were the jellyfish. The waters are brimming with them. I encountered three varieties:

1. Moon jellyfish – these were a mesmerising sight in the water, their sting is quite mild, so they were more of a fascination than a bother. I swam past hundreds, if not thousands of them.

2. Compass jellyfish – larger than the Moon variety and possessing a less pleasant sting, though I thankfully didn’t encounter too many of these and managed to avoid their stings.

3. Barrel jellyfish – are imposing especially when inches from your face. I swam into a few of them and because of their size they disrupt your rhythm and momentum in the water for a brief but intense moment. Thankfully their stings are relatively mild.

Despite a few unexpected encounters and taking a less-than-direct route, I surprised myself and my support crew by completing the swim in 80 minutes, ahead of my 90-minute goal. While I wasn’t among the speediest swimmers (the first person finished in 45 minutes), I was absolutely elated. My support crew guided me to my racked bike, helped me shed my wetsuit, and provided much-needed nutrition to keep me going.

It’s essential I mention my support crew before I continue. I honestly couldn’t have done any of the event without them. Sam Watson is head of all things technical at Cycleshack Eastbourne,and a man who has done a few long distance cycle events himself (including the 2023 Pan Celtic Race). Sam took it upon himself to make sure my bike was running flawlessly which was a mental burden I was happy to lose. He also did an enormous amount of driving over the course of our time in Scotland for which I’m incredibly grateful.

Then there’s my brother-in-law, Nick, who infused the team with a vibrant Australian spirit. His remarkable running feats, including impressive performances at the Beachy Head and New York marathons in recent years, underscore his prowess as a runner.

The countless hours we’ve shared running along coastal paths and through forest trails have forged a profound connection. This bond enables him to intuitively sense the level of motivation or nutritional support I need. Undoubtedly, having such a dependable and supportive crew made an immeasurable impact on my Celtman experience.

With my riding gear donned and a couple of gels consumed, I left the transition and began the climb out of Sheildaig to join the main road heading north toward Torridon, which would take me onto the main loop of the bike course. Nick and Sam were diligently following the bike course in the support vehicles, we had a few predetermined locations for me to replenish my supplies and refuel.

The initial 40 miles seemed to pass in a blur; I was feeling fantastic, even overtaking a few fellow athletes. However, in my excitement I hadn’t been paying proper attention to refuelling and I soon found myself in a challenging situation around the 50-mile mark. The relentless hills were starting to take their toll, and the stretches without inclines meant battling a headwind. I vividly recall one descent with a 3% gradient where I freewheeled, and my bike nearly came to a halt.

Thankfully, I began to rectify the energy deficit by steadily consuming a combination of sausage rolls, gels, carbohydrate drinks and pork scratchings! By the 90-mile mark, my spirits gradually lifted. My primary challenge then shifted to maintaining my position on the tri bars, as my limited time on the bike in the three months leading up to the race was becoming evident. 

Upon reaching T2, I eagerly changed into my run gear, signaling the moment Sam could put his feet up, and Nick now had to guide me through the run. The run course, even before reaching the Munros, was a stunning spectacle – crossing streams, winding through ancient woodlands, conquering steep hills, and tracing the contours of picturesque lochs. This was already harder than I had anticipated it being from the elevation profile on the map and it made the South Downs Way feel positively sedate!

Then, as fate would have it, my official race came to an end at the second run checkpoint, T2b, 10 miles into the 26 – I had missed the cut off by a mere 10 minutes. This, coupled with the closure of the run course due to a lightning strike on the mountain, spelled an unexpected conclusion to my race. I did manage to run another couple of miles down the road, heading towards where I would have entered the low course, while Nick hurried off to secure us a ride back to Torridon. Fortunately, luck was on our side as we both managed to flag down rides.

Despite being officially tagged as a Did Not Finish (DNF), with the perspective of time since the race, I can genuinely say I’m pleased with my performance and the experience as a whole.

The Celtman was an absolute rollercoaster ride, with the ever-present view of those majestic Munros on the horizon linking the three disciplines. It was an insane swim, encountering jellyfish in a breathtaking setting. Unforgiving climbs and head winds really shaped a  125-mile bike course that humbled me. The run featured treacherous trails that seemed to have a mind of their own, guiding us through landscapes straight out of a fairytale. The Celtman triathlon is like embarking on a wild adventure. It relentlessly pushes your limits and invites you to delve deep into your own soul.

The ballot for Celtman 2024 has just opened and as I recount this journey and sense the anticipation building…maybe, just maybe, it’s time to roll the dice once more! 

There is an official film for this years race that will launch in November – here’s a link to a little taster of the film, and a link to a reel we put together

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