My Grandma lived in the remote Scottish highlands near Ullapool for 30 years. I can remember visiting her as a child, running around a wood nearby pretending to be a Celtic warrior, keeping the marauding midges at bay and battling my brothers Robbie and Jack.
She was known locally as the ‘Wild Lady of Lochbroom’ and roamed up and down the hills hacking at bracken with her machete.
She passed away three months ago and we buried her in the church at the bottom of the loch, a lone bagpiper (a young lad from the lochside who used to visit my grandma for chocolate biscuits after school) played us out as I bore the coffin alongside my brothers and family. Afterwards, I knew I needed to do something special to say goodbye to my Grandma Wild.
I’d heard about Celtman after finishing Ironman UK last year. Afterwards I was looking for a different challenge to push myself and found Celtman. With Celtman being in the highlands of Scotland, almost home turf for me, it really appealed to me.
(Image: Steve Carter)
It’s a long-distance triathlon with a 3.8km sea loch swim (average water temp is 10-13 degrees), a 202km bike leg which passes by my Grandma’s house, and then a 42km mountain marathon across the Coulin pass and Ben Eighe.
Having liked the Celtman page on Facebook back in September 2014 I still received updates, I saw one saying that someone had got injured and was offering their place as well as two nights accommodation to the highest bidder. They’d raised money for the Nepal Earthquake and didn’t want to see their fundraising go to waste. The problem: it was May 24th and Celtman was on the 27th June, giving me around a month to prepare.
Most people would generally advise around six months of training for an Ironman and around seven to eight months for something like Celtman. One month was a different ball game.
As I sat there looking at Ebay wondering whether this was totally insane I thought about my Grandma Wild and I knew that she’d believe I could do it. With that thought I knew that it was the perfect way to say goodbye to Gran and I lodged the highest bid, winning my place at Celtman… in one month.
(Image: Steve Carter)
With one month to go there was pretty much no way that I could properly physically prepare for the race, most tapers start two weeks out and the benefit of endurance training is that it takes time to build up. The way I was going to get through this race was with mental preparation. Now that’s not to say that I didn’t madly start training, but that I felt preparing mentally would be the key to success.
I was averaging around five or six swims a week, outdoor without a wetsuit so felt I would be comfortable on the swim. In the last six months I’d not cycled more than 14km (7km to and from work) or run much further. So I felt this needed to be my focus. I immediately put in some 100km bike rides on the first Saturday and Sunday, repeating this the following weekend and adding some 20km runs in as well.
I felt that quality was key and that a few long distance rides/runs would be more beneficial than lots of short ones. One big problem was that I live in London so there aren’t any mountains to run up or big hills to train on (not like in Scotland!) so I couldn’t really do anything to properly train for trail running. The key thing that got me through the training rides and jumping up to those distances immediately was the mental preparation.
As soon as I’d signed up I decided not to let any negative thoughts into my mind. With one month to go there was absolutely zero benefit from any doubts. If someone I told looked at me with fear, or looked at me like I was an idiot for signing up, I just pretended that they we’re 100% behind me. If I felt tired or low, or that I’d bitten off more than I could chew, then I immediately banished that thought and focused only on thoughts and emotions that were positive.
I visualised every single part of the race in minute detail, swimming across the loch, mounting the bike and racing down the long sweeping coastal curves of the Scottish roads, running across the mountains, past the trees and through the midges.
I kept fantasising about crossing the finishing line, emerging as a Celtman! Then with two weeks to go, things got really bad. I was out on a 22km run and an old knee injury resurfaced (runners knee bla bla bla, it’s from bad technique), I ended up limping home and knew that it was bad. It proceeded to get worse over the next day and I had to stop running altogether, cycling wasn’t much less painful either.
Think positive I thought, everyone else will be tapering for Celtman you might as well start now. So with two weeks training and a dodgy knee I put my feet up and started my taper. Over the next two weeks I could feel the stress building, not just about the race but about the logistics and the equipment.
Then with three days to go I developed a stress ulcer in my mouth that was incredibly painful. With positivity in mind I decided to call him ‘Eric’ and pretended that it was fate that he’d come to rescue me on race day by taking all the pain away from my legs and focusing it in my mouth (it was the best I could come up with!).
On the Thursday 25th I got the train up to meet my Mum who would be my Head Coach and support driver, my friend Sam Rupar from university was going to be my support runner (you have to have one for the second section of the marathon). Sam’s an avalanche detector in the Cairngorms and knows the mountains like the back of his hand. So with my Mum, Sam and Eric, we arrived in Torridon ready for Celtman.
As the race is self-supported I’d agreed to meet Sam and my Mum after 50km, 100km and 150km of the bike leg, I had room for three bottles on the bike and reckoned I’d average two hours for each 50km. One bottle every 40mins and a banana, gel or High5 bar every 30mins.
The run has aid stations on the first leg but we needed to carry food and water for the mountain section which was where I’d meet Sam. With our strategy ready and bags packed (I must have backed and repacked them about three times), we went to sleep on Friday ready for the 3.30am alarm on Saturday morning.
At 3.30am on race day the alarm does off, up and awake like a bolt, I started vaselining up my joints, putting on my tri-suit and wetsuit while my Mum fed me a bagel.
Sam grabbed my bike and we headed down to the swim start. The swim finishes at Shieldaig, a beautiful remote village on the coast, where we racked the bike. I said goodbye to my Mum and Sam and boarded the bus to our remote swim start 30 minutes across the opposite side of the loch.
As I sat on the bus in my wetsuit in the darkness with all the other competitors around me, some people chatting loudly to ward off nerves, others in deep solemn silence and some people totally chilled, I felt a huge sense of pride. I’d made it this far and there was no way I was letting my Grandma down. The next part was a moment that I will never ever forget and one of the most incredible moments of my life.
As the bus arrived at the swim start, we all poured out on the grass. Before us lay a huge open bay, surrounded by mountains with the huge sea loch spreading out across the horizon. Large fire torches and flaming pyres lit our way down to the beach in the darkness where Celtic bagpipers and drummers dressed in kilts beat their drums into a frenzy, calling us onwards.
Group shot before the start of the Celtman
They lit a huge Celtic symbol and as it burned against the sky, fellow competitors sat in quiet contemplation of what was about the come, the sun rose and cast us all in a deep orange glow. I stood in silence and thought of my Grandma, a moment that I will never forget.
I then nipped off for a quick wee (weeing with a tri-suit on while getting bitten by thousands of midges wasn’t quite as memorable!), chatted to some fellow competitors, stretched and even bumped into a guy who I hadn’t seen for seven years.
We joked about how meeting at Celtman was about as random as it could get, we then all made our way down to the sea. 200 competitors wading out into the sea loch, feeling the cold waters on my skin and swimming out to the kayaks as we waited for the horn that would start the race. It was fantastic.
The horn blared and off I sped, the “washing machine” as always, wasn’t fun, a few kicks here and there, until eventually I settled into my pace, middle of the bunch. I felt strong on the swim, focusing on my breathing, 1,2,3 breath and enjoyed the freedom of swimming in the sea. I held a steady pace and settled into my rhythm. Until now I hadn’t seen any jellyfish, which I’d been warned about. All good!
As I swam across the central channel, the sun broke between the clouds and swathed us all in a beautiful bright light, looking up and seeing the faces alongside me, swimming across that sea loch at 5am with the sunlight pouring through was fantastic.
Jellyfish at the Celtman
As we rounded the final island to the last 500m stretch, I noticed the first jellyfish, big and blue about a metre below me, I swam past and saw before me hundreds and hundreds of them, all around me and in front, only one thing for it I thought, straight through the middle. It felt like some bizarre computer game, swerving through the jellyfish, bobbing and weaving and breathing while there was none in front of me.
Until, bang I head-butted one, straight in the face, a huge gelatinous head-butt, man vs primordial ocean goo, 1-0 to the jellyfish! I swam on and was hauled out of the water by the support crews and hurried up to my bike, checked the watch 1.06 hours, not bad I thought given the cold (13 degrees). Sam and my Mum rubbed me down, quickly changed my clothes over and sent me off on the bike.
The first 150km of the bike pretty much went 100% to plan. I felt strong, enjoyed the scenery and chatted to fellow competitors. The bike leg swept on through Kinlochewe, Gairloch, Dundonnel, Loch Broom, Aulteguish and down into Torridon, I wasn’t looking forward to a stretch called The Desolation Road and with a total vertical climb of 1,900 metres there were a few big hills.
I fuelled exactly to plan and made our first 50km stop off exactly on two hours, right on time. I made the next 100km 8mins ahead and the third one at 150km, 22mins ahead of schedule. I was starting to feel confident and growing into the race, with the high route cut-off and fabled blue t-shirt in sight I felt like I would make it. How wrong I was.
One word – headwind. As I took the last bottles on board and set off for the final 50km I felt fantastic, after about 25km I was ready for T2 in Athnaschallach forest. It just wouldn’t come, as I rounded a large corner I cycled straight into a headwind, the headwind to end all headwinds, slowing my pass right down, pedaling hard down hill it felt like I was barely moving.
With only 25km to go and very tired legs this was the last thing I needed, I practically slowed to a crawl, someone later told me that on the same stretch last year he averaged 21 mph, in that headwind I was averaging 7mph… downhill! I tried to joke with other cyclists about the wind but it wasn’t working, I was absolutely shattered, what was I thinking, one month to train, of course I wasn’t ready, of course I hadn’t done enough training.
T2 just wouldn’t appear, I kept thinking it must be round that corner, or the next one but it wasn’t I could feel the cut-off time for the Blue course evaporating and knew I wouldn’t make it, it would have to be the White course for me. I could barely go on, legs aching, back bent into the wind, trundling along at 7mph, out of water. I thought of my Grandma and knew that there was absolutely no way that I was going to finish the day as anything other than a Celtman!
Pedal, pedal, pedal! There it was, T2, get me off that bike, at 8:15 hours I was disappointed as I knew I wouldn’t make the 11hr cut off for the Blue but all things considered I was still feeling very positive, just finishing was my real aim and I reminded myself of that.
As I pulled into the transition I was greeted by my Mum smiling, Sam in full-blown change-over mode and was humbled by their commitment and energy (they’d been up since 3.30am as well!) seeing them hurriedly getting me ready was all the inspiration I needed, even my dog Marlin had come down to wish me good luck!
Off I traipsed, I’d be seeing Sam in 18km at T2A, and set off up the hill. This section was a 18km mountain trail, a very steep part immediately brought us out onto the tops of the mountains, unbelievably beautiful!
I felt like I was in Lord of the Rings. I wasn’t, I was in Scotland and it’s better! This was the part I was looking forward to, a marathon across one of the most incredible places on earth. I chatted with others, stopped to refuel at the aid stations and was feeling fantastic as a couple of painkillers had knocked the pain of my knee on its head.
I caught up with my Canadian friend Allen and his cousin Stale from Norway (It was the first time they’d met, not a bad intro, “Hi I’m your cousin, lets run a mountain marathon”) and we soaked in the landscape, pure unadulterated nature in your face. I loved it.
As I ran on through the Celtic wild, past streams, through the forest and onwards to T2A before the mountain pass, I thought of my Gran and of how the landscape and wilds reminded me of her. I didn’t feel tired at all and felt a primal surge within, head down, I spurred myself on, don’t focus on the pain your legs, focus on the path ahead! I ran into T2A, 2.21 hours to meet Sam and my Mum.
Meeting Sam for the final section was fantastic, having someone alongside you when you’re at your limit, when you’re tired and fatigued was incredible. Now we had around 24km to run, over a mountain, total climb in excess of 1,000m, easy I thought.
With Sam about 15m in front of me we set off, we climbed higher and higher, passing competitors to the top of the ridge, the scenery was incredible, bleak monstrous mountains loomed out of the rock like huge desolate peaks, I felt very humbled running through there and it was Sam’s cries of “come on Cally boy” which kept me going.
Reaching the limit
After nearly 14.30 hours of constant racing across extreme terrain I was reaching my limit. I can’t really describe what happened next but I felt as if I’d regressed to a primal state, mind whirring but barely recognising what was going on around me, one step, another step and the wild rushed around on both sides, I felt like Sam’s voice ahead of me was calling me home and I ploughed on telling him not to slow down but to drag me to the finish line. Which he did, he dragged me to the ninth fastest split of that section, at 3:05hrs.
We now had about 2km to go, the last stretch on tarmac, and I ran alongside Sam, he didn’t let the pace drop and knew that this wasn’t just about finishing but it was about finishing strong. I felt an incredible kinship with him at that moment, I’d not seen him in two years and he’d taken time out of his life to be my support runner, no hesitation, no expectations or doubts, just an “Aye Cally, sounds cracking!” I will be grateful forever.
We crested the final hill and I could see my Mum’s face at the finish line, a huge beaming smile and I could feel her pride filling me with joy, I could see my Grandma reflected in her and knew how happy it would make her if I crossed the line.
I thought about all the emotions I might feel if I made it, would I cry? Would I collapse? Would I be happy? Would I feel triumphant? As I crossed the line I felt only sheer and utter joy, a huge smile crossed my face and I was enveloped by an overwhelmingly sense of relief.
I’d done it, I was a Celtman in 15:07hrs. As I hugged my Mum and shared a beer with Sam I knew I’d made my Grandma proud. When I put my Celtman t-shirt on the following morning at the race ceremony and put it on for the first time I welled up with emotion and knew that I had said goodbye to her, but part of me would always be a Celtman and that part was 100% my Grandma Wild.
Did you race the Celtman? Let us know in the comments below!