Race Report by Barry Middleton

Celtman Extreme Ironman 2013

This all started on a regular Friday night pissed on wine.

An Ironman in Torridon, in a mountain environment, not far from home, all the ingredients I was looking for. For those not familiar with ironman, it’s traditionally a 2.4mile sea swim, 111mile bike ride then a marathon. Celtman was the same, but 130mile bike ride round undulating NW Highland coast roads, then a marathon off road in the hills, all preceded by a long swim in a cold sea loch. Yes, I had drunk the bottle of red and it was time to enter, one cold November Friday night.

I trained like a robot, partly out of fear, twice a day most days, sometimes three times a day throughout the never ending winter. I stopped winter climbing to dedicate everything to getting fit and avoiding accidents. I did the 24hr Strathpuffer bike race solo in the January and that gave me confidence in my bike & mental fitness. But what a winter to train through, terrible weather, but it may have set me up perfectly for what was to come. I got burned out a month before, all the training alone wasn't easy.

I got married in secret at Loch Morlich (followed by a swim of course and not in response to being burned out), then had a glorious honeymoon doing Munros. I changed my routine and so arrived feeling strong, yet nervous. It was 8 months of intensity culminating in this one day.

My day (night?) started at 3am in my tent in Shieldaig on the coast after a few hours sleep. A small bite to eat, put bike in transition, sign in, kiss Polly goodbye and get on a bus at 4am to get to the swim start, a seaweed beach on the lovely Applecross peninsula. Red sky in the morning - shepherds warning. The atmosphere was tense, embellished by viking style torches and a Celtman symbol lit by fire. Impressive surroundings to begin but not many people were smiling. The weather for the day was terrible with full on wind and heavy rain later. We entered the sea 5 minutes before race start and swam out to the start line. The water was cold, but Loch Morlich had prepared me for that.

The gun went off and then 170 odd swimmers thrashed through the water, quite different to swimming alone.  It was like water ‘kung fu’, but soon we were dispersed across the sea. We had to swim past 2 islands to reach the pier at Shieldaig. The first island was reached fairly easily despite swimming through a lot of jelly fish, my arms going through a few of them and it was like swimming in an alien movie.

THEN the swim turned into the beast. The winds buffeted the open sea, the tides picked up and all of a sudden you couldn't see anybody, no swimmers, no safety kayaks or boats. Every time I came up for air, I was battered by a wave of salty sea water. If I closed my mouth it went down my nose instead. I vomited a number of times bobbing around upright. Obviously it was hard to get into a good rhythm, and it became very intense for a while. Where was everyone else, am I lost? I saw one friend I recognised and wanted to give her a hug. The second island took forever to reach but I could see a few more heads between the white horses of the waves. Once there, I knew it wasn't so far to the pier, I shouted to a kayaker to find out where the finish was, and then dug in to get ashore. What was meant to take just over an hour had taken 1h 36min. I was in shock at the brutality of the swim and stressed out for being behind schedule by some way, not feeling like I had done myself justice in the swim. Maybe I should have trained in Loch Morlich when it was more violent. I heard later that 16 people were apparently pulled from the sea and that the swim was about 4k.

Polly met me on the pier and shepherded me to the bike transition. It was then I started shivering uncontrollably, and was such good entertainment that the adventure show came over, they even helped me dress and (hopefully) stopped filming when I announced I was taking my trunks off. I got changed for the bike, wrapping up well, took on some food and got going, uphill right from the start.

The cycle starts with a small hill out of Shieldaig, winds round to Torridon, down past Loch Maree to Gairloch, Poolewe, Gruinard Bay, Dundonnell, Destitution Road, Braemore Junction, Garve, Achnasheen then finally Achnashellach for the run transition. A really beautiful course winding round some amazing mountain country. Fisherfield and An Teallach regularly in sight. I was frustrated about the swim and decided to kick my own ass as hard as I could to make up time. I had the 40mph winds to help kick my ass for good measure.

The night before, Polly put a Celtman car sticker on my windscreen against my superstition, and I was determined not to take it off at the end if I didn't finish.

My bike legs were great with no cold cramping and every time I passed a cyclist, another came into view giving me confidence, many on time trial bikes. I must have passed at least 40 cyclists by the end, grinding the pedals on a rare wind behind me, getting to a 50mph swoop on the long descent into Poolewe. The cross winds were so bad I didn't even want to wipe my nose for fear of losing control of the handlebars. I knew the worst was yet to come, but I decided to give it full gas as best as I could until the real headwind kicked in.

The destitution road justified its name, even the local eagles stayed in bed that morning. Roads that are normally a good ride were brutal with the winds. Every rider I passed looked co-cooned in their own world. I reached Garve in rejuvenated spirits, tiring a little bit then the right turn and straight into the fury of the wind proper. The final 30 miles should have been a "breeze", nice long flat roads, where I was expecting to do up to 30 mph but I was thrashing the pedals and only getting a demoralising 8mph on the flat for long sections that threaded the horizon between low cloud and tarmac. Then the cloud lowered and the rain fell like ropes. This was Dante's 7th level of hell and the clock was ticking.

I arrived at the run transition soaked, cold but feeling ok and looking forward to just running now. The weather was so bad I was not surprised the mountain rescue had closed Beine Eighe for the race, changing it to the lower course after the first ten folk went over, no easy option running round the back of Liatach though.

I had it down as a harder run than going over the mountain. I put my ruck sac on, and started off gingerly. You never know what legs are waiting for you, especially after all that biking in the wind for 130 miles. Before Torridon, I had to run there, over the Coulin Pass for about 11 miles to the road, beginning with a 5k climb to the highpoint. Red Bull were sponsoring this section but I would have settled for a cup of tea. The climb went well with a few overtakes and a pit stop for a number 2 lifted my spirits. All considered, I had a good run to the Torridon road, no cramp, no pain or fatigue and the rain and wind kept me from heating up too much. I even stopped for a 5 minute chat to just talk to someone at a checkpoint and eat some ginger cake. I met Ali, my old friend and mandatory buddy runner for the mountain section a few miles from the road, a high 5 and we ran together. It was great to have a pal to talk to, chat about the Tour de France, just general stuff. He kindly reminded me of how well I was doing, something I didn't want to believe until I was done.

We reached the Torridon road past a beautiful loch and headed into the wild wind and rain of the glen along a few miles of tarmac before turning off up and round Liatach, a truly magnificent mountain, round the north facing side, not often seen by many, mostly ice climbers in search of desert island routes. I bumped into ‘Heavy’, a mountain rescue veteran who gave me a mouthful of tomato soup. It was a pretty savage run mostly hop/skip/jump on bog with short sections of rocky path. The mist was right down and visibility was 50m making us check the map against our GPS position. Rivers were in spate, stepping stones under water. Mud, bog, rock, wind, river and rain. A big wooly hat over my head in July? The same hat I wore all night on the Strathpuffer in January. Shadows of Torridon Corries appeared then vanished. A lochan became the endless ocean. The landscape resembled a drowned version of the moon. But despite this I was still running, able to jump and run over hard terrain, some short steep inclines with no leg issues, which was a real boost at this point.

Eventually we reached the path that takes you to Beinn Alligin, its horns were hidden but it became great fun running over a better path, good biking single track and the pace went up, the pulse went up, lets get this over with. Running through beautiful woods we reached the road, only 5k to the end, which was quite undulating. Strangely enough, I could see the end and knowing this maybe my mind and body started to feel tired. We passed another team running fast down a hill then finally one last hill up to the finish.

I had taken around 15h 15 in 70th place or so. For months I had visualised feeling relief at the training and event ending, no more fear of failure. All I tasted was an odd cocktail of intense alertness poured over an empty mind.

The village hall was awash with competitors and friends. As with most highland events, there is a military kitchen with well drilled old ladies serving great food and tea so we settled down for a bite to eat and enjoy the band on the stage. I didn't dream that part. Back to our campsite at Shieldaig, someone had kindly saved our tent from flight, and now Polly and I walked along a calm Sheildaig pier for a pint. The sea was flat calm, the wind was gone, no evidence anywhere of the war that had unfolded here earlier apart from a few people walking John Wayne with style. A beautiful west coast sunset unfolded the irony that was served again by a beautiful sunny Sunday morning.

Finally, the real purpose of writing this down is not about me. We are all capable of so much more than we think. I dare you to enter an event that sounds impossible, out of reach, even pissed one Friday night. There is a saying I steal now from a Scottish Mountaineering Guru; who himself stole it from Goethe and I have this on a card on my fridge.

"Whatever you dream you can do, do it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it, begin it now