A Stunning and Brutal Celtman 2022
For those who are new to extreme triathlons, Celtman is a brutal challenge that kicks off with a 3.5km cold water sea loch swim, going into a 200km ride, and finishing off with a marathon run up the ‘mountain route’ for those who get to T2A in 11 hours, or the ‘lower route’). Celtman is more of an adventure than a triathlon. The course is stunning, but the conditions are extreme – and they can change really, really quickly. Hot, cold, wet, windy, currents, waves, jellyfish, boulders, rivers, head winds – you name it, the Celtman has it! Celtman is also more of an orienteering event, and definitely not what you’re typically used comparing to even rough Ironmans like Wales, Exmoor and Bolton. You need to have your support team follow you around in a car, which adds to the adventure and brings in all sorts of additional logistics and, yes, opportunities for things to go wrong!
My pace went from 1.32 for the first km, to 1.54 for the second km, to 2.08 for the third even though (pre-cramps, see later…) it felt like I was swimming at the same effort level for much of the swim. This was all down to the impact of the current, waves and winds that we encountered along the way, not to mention the jellyfish. I started getting leg cramps in the last km, so largely had to stop kicking. I put this down to cold and not enough blood getting to the legs. Sighting was also a bit of a laugh: you’re told that you swim around the edge of a nearby island and then start to sight a white house in the distance. Spoiler alert: there is more than one island; there are many houses, and they’re all white!
Did I mention jellyfish? Before starting I thought sure there will be some jellyfish – no biggie. Swim behind someone and you‘ll mostly be fine. The reality was that after 2kms (with very mild jelly fish sightings so far) we swam into literally hundreds of them. We swam over, under, through, sometimes around, many, many jellyfish.
Getting out of the water was difficult; you come up an old jetty which has all sorts of obstacles under the surface. With leg cramps now kicking in through-out my legs, I kept on falling over and flaying about. Not a great confidence builder before starting a 200km bike ride. As a result, we slowed T1 down. Arm warmers and leg warmers, wind proof/ water proof jacket, water proof gloves and head band were all very much welcomed and stayed on for the whole bike ride, but took an age to get on. I also forgot my timing wrist band so had to run back from the exit of transition to my number 10 spot to collect. This explains a 17 minute transition time even with assistance from my other half, Faye, and a camper van chair to sit on, both of which were allowed and very much welcomed.
Take aways – recce the route and exit before (possibly in a kayak); practice lots with neoprene gloves, boots and vest. Ignore the jellyfish and swim normally. Sort T1 out.
The first part of the bike course up to the main circular route was quite congested with bikes and cars on single lane tracks, and passing places along the way. I didn’t go hard but used it to warm up and try sort out the heart rate, which was creeping up. From there (turning left and heading back towards the coastline) was really nice with a tail wind making it faster than potentially it should have been. The route along the coastline is undulating but beautiful, lots of wind and potentially rain, but mostly with you rather than against you. After the coastline section you turn right and go inland, with the longest climbing of the day. The scenery is absolutely beautiful. This is followed by is some super quick downs and flats to the town of Garve, by the end of which you’re 150/160kms into the ride and my average speed was about 28kms per hour. Even though cross winds were sending bikers all over the road and needed some good bike handling skills generally, I was feeling good. Food and hydration stops had gone well and the day is progressing according to plan (more or less)…
Then (turning back along the circular route) came a ridiculous slog into a 40 mile per hour south westerly headwind, which had been building all day. I knew it was coming but probably wasn’t prepared for what lay ahead. I still had 40 kms to go and it must be said this headwind absolutely killed my biking. Battling along at 15/18 kms an hour, watching average speed and power drop with no end in sight. My neck was now knackered, bumpy Scottish roads and general stability on the bike being heavily tested by cross winds, so I couldn’t hold my tri position effectively. I still had my cycling jacket on – needed as rain (and hail!) was pelting me like crazy – but this inflated to slow me down more. With certain gusts, just holding the bike upright was quite a challenge.
I finally break the back of this nightmare and start descending to T2; I should be doing 40/50 kms an hour heading down the hill but the headwind is still pinning me down. I end up in T2 after 7 hours 48 minutes on the bike, feeling hollowed out but delighted to be off the bike!
Take aways – maybe go a little harder in the beginning; there is no avoiding that I need to become a more powerful cyclist, who can hold the tri position for a bit longer. Having a few practice goes on the final 40 kms, as well as some of the other parts of the course, would have been great. Take lots of kit!
I set off on the initial 17/18 km (no one quite knew) run to T2A with about 1 hour and 50 odd minutes to beat the cut off for the blue T shirt and entry into the ‘mountain route’. The run started well going nicely at under 6 minutes a km. Still in the hunt for the blue T shirt. We then turn off the road and straight into a muddy hill climb and into the Scottish thicket, where it was pretty impossible to tell where to go let alone find somewhere to put your feet. Wet, muddy and limited-to-no path, generally going up! This goes on for about 3/4 kms, at which point I think I start to understand what the race is about. It’s not there to be cracked on your first go – certainly not in my case – you’re meant to muck up your first go, and potentially your second and third, so that you keep coming back for more. Other competitors that I pass have lost it. An Italian waiving his hands in frustration; people limping all over the place; others generally rethinking triathlon as a hobby. We’re all going to miss the cut off for the blue T shirt that we secretly (or not so secretly) thought we’d make. And the funny thing is the hard part of the run – the ‘mountain route’ or the ‘lower route’ hasn’t even started…
After dropping down into the glen and some delightful running in the surrounding farmlands it’s back up onto the road to re-join my old friend – the 40 mile an hour headwind – for some more kite flying with my waterproof running jacket. (I later discovered that in the glen some of us (including me!) hadn’t taken an earlier right turn and have quite brilliantly added another 1.5kms onto the ‘17’ km run). The top road eventually becomes T2a and I’ve missed the blue T shirt cut off by 20 minutes. We were told that the ‘mountain route’ had been closed, which came as absolutely no surprise, as no one in their right mind would go up a mountain in that wind, hail and rain let alone some knackered triathletes who’d been at it from 3am in the morning and just spent the better part of 8 hours on a bicycle.
No worries, I’m joined by my support runner, Charlie, on the ‘lower route’ and I’m no longer worried about how quickly we get home, it’s just about finishing and enjoying the occasion. The lower route turns out (like many things on the Celtman) to be bonkers! Basically a rocky hiking path which isn’t easy to run across, certainly not when you’re being battered by wind and rain, which has now properly set in again. What follows is a 3.30 hour hike and occasional shuffle with waterproofs, gloves and thermals. The mountain rescue team are lying in their survival bags at certain check points along the way to make sure that you haven’t frozen / lost all your blood / wondered off into the wilderness. You finally drop down to the coast and join some tarmac. Some more walking / shuffling and you land up in Torridon and cross the finishing line!
Take aways – don’t make assumptions, the first part of the run is hard, especially considering the conditions. Don’t run an extra 1.5kms. Finish the bike in under 7 hours 30 minutes.
Conclusions – proper hard event but super fun, I would encourage anyone to do it. It’s different and hopefully will make me a better triathlete for having done it. Of course, I’m now wondering whether to go back for that blue T shirt!!