Swimming in cold jellyfish infested water for 3.4km, cycling 202km with large sections into strong headwinds and running a marathon through tough technical muddy terrain… What’s not to love!?
That is part of the challenge the competitors at the Celtman Xtreme Triathlon face. They also will have the opportunity to experience some of the finest scenery in Great Britain, support from a local community, and an amazing atmosphere.
This was my second race in the AllXtri series (originally made up of 3 races, the iconic Norseman, Swissman and Celtman) having completed Swissman 2 years previously, and was my first triathlon in 2 years. I had applied previously but due to the race being oversubscribed it is down to a lottery as to who gets in, so I was delighted that on my 3rd attempt in the lottery I was successful.
I typically put in place a 24 to 30 week training plan for my long distance triathlons, and this was no different for Celtman, other than the fact that I had a 75km ultramarathon in the month prior to the race, so I had to tweak the training to accommodate a larger run volume.
The swim was predominantly in the pool and consisted of three sessions a week on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, each one working on Technique, Endurance or Speed respectively. As the race got closer my local open water swimming venue opened and I was able to get there once a week for a swim in the wetsuit. I had also hoped that this would double as cold water training, however, after week one of open water swimming we had a week of warm weather and the water temperature jumped from 14 degrees to 18 degrees. I was the only person there disappointed that it had got warmer!
In order to try and acclimatise for the cold water I made use of a plunge pool at my gym, and stayed in there for long periods, taking a cold shower before and after each swim session, and steadily increasing the duration.
The final element of training for the swim was that I knew that Celtman was a deep water start, so I practiced these in the pool, treading water and then starting, rather than pushing off from the end wall.
Unlike a traditional Ironman Triathlon with a 180km long bike the Celtman course is 202km long and has over 2,000m of elevation. Coupled with this extra distance, the final 50km typically have a strong head wind, so I was expecting to take about an hour longer on the bike course, than I would on a harder Ironman bike course. Therefore, my bike training involved slightly higher volume. On a Tuesday and Thursday I did indoor sessions, including some big gear low cadence work to build strength for the hills, and then a long bike ride on the Saturday.
After my ultramarathon I had a couple of weeks’ rest from running, so did back to back long days on the bike for two weekends, which made a huge difference to my cycling, and comfort on the bike.
I had climbed the mountains on the run route previously and knew the course well, so was happy with the technical nature of the route and what was in store. Coupled with my training for a mountainous ultra marathon I knew my legs were in good shape. Coming from a running background the run is always my strongest discipline in triathlon.
The run training had consisted of a speed session, an easy recovery run, a long run, an uphill treadmill session and transition runs after Tuesday and Saturday cycles, so I had plenty of running in my training to cope with the course.
The day before the race I visited the swim location and went for a swim to test the water and get rid of any pre-race nerves. The water wasn’t as cold as I had expected, so the cold water sessions in training had paid off. I also did a short run with my brother, who along with my wife, were my support crew. I was feeling fresh and ready to go.
Race morning arrived and the alarm went off horribly early. I got up and made my breakfast in my room, before getting the wetsuit on and wandering out to the car still bleary eyed. My support crew were great, checking everything was in order, both experienced at supporting at such events and knowing their roles on the day.
We arrived in Sheildaig and I said my good byes and got on to one of the coaches that take competitors to the swim start on the other side of the Loch. I sat next to a chap I had gone to primary school with and not seen for many years. A funny coincidence, and not the last of the day, as whilst waiting to enter the water I met another Doug Stewart and we chatted briefly, listening to the band that were playing bagpipes to motivate us.
These events are always so much more friendly and supportive than a competitive Ironman type race.
I entered the water towards the back of the field, deliberately trying to limit my time in the water before the swim start. It felt a lot colder than the previous day, but I put that down to the fact that it was still dawn and I had been a bit colder going into the water. A quick swim to the start line and then a minute or two of treading water before we were off.
I quickly got into my rhythm and focussed on staying relaxed and breathing on every third stroke. I saw the odd jelly fish, but didn’t really have too many incidents. I kept focussed on other competitors as well as sighting the route, but found it difficult to draft anyone as the swell seemed to interrupt swimming lines, so I focussed on my own stroke and technique. After around 2.5km my right hand started to go numb. When my stroke was above the water I would open and close my fist quickly before it re-entered the water to try and get the blood flowing, but it didn’t seem to help.
All of a sudden I could clearly see the village and the exit point of the swim, and I pushed on, keen to try and warm up as much as possible.
I emerged and was told by my brother as we made our way up the slipway to Transition 1 that I had taken around 1 hour and 5 minutes, bang on what I had hoped for. I saw other competitors shaking from the cold, but other than my numb hand I was feeling okay. With the help of my brother I started to change into my cycle gear – his ‘delicate’ touch of getting my wetsuit off – pulling extremely hard on the legs, resulted in a slight cramp in my calves. I didn’t panic, as had previously experienced this at Swissman as well.
I was soon on the bike and keen to warm up. A few competitors came flying past me on the early stages of the bike course, before we settled in to our natural positions. I had briefed the support crew where to meet me, and although there were a couple of slight confusions early on, we were soon in our swing of things. After around 93km there was a significant climb, and I began to gain places. Being a lighter rider the hills are better for me than full out power, and on the next climb, the longest of the race, I was able to gain a few more positions.
My fuelling strategy was working well, and I was feeling good.
At 160km I turned into the headwind, and knew there were over 40km still to go. The wind was brutal, and with this section of the course being the flattest I was not in my element. I lost a few positions, and at the final agreed meeting point with my support crew I came to a complete stop, for the first time in the entire cycle. I had a rant, clearly the wind was getting to me, but they told me to shut up and that the cycle was nearly over. They were of course correct, and I was soon in Transition 2. I had again hit my planned bike split bang on. I had hoped to be up on schedule, but the head wind had eaten into my earlier advantage. No problem, the run was next and I couldn’t wait to get off the bike and be running.
I headed out of T2 and had a 5km climb to start off. I was running and passing other competitors walking, which was a huge confidence boost. I gained several positions, and then on the long descent overtook a few more, some complimenting me on my speed.
My strategy was to run hard to T2A, pick up my support runner and then I knew I had to hike the climb up the mountain, where I would fully refuel and be ready for the next runnable section of the course.
However, when I arrived in T2A I was informed that the high-level route was closed due to the weather conditions, so every competitor was doing the low level route. I was disappointed as the mountain was the most technical section, and the area I would have been strongest, but I understood the decision.
This meant a lot more runnable section coming up and less time to rest from my exertion over the first part of the run. For this latter part of the run I also required my support runner, so my brother and I set off together through the rain and mist. We caught and passed a couple of runners, and were making good progress through the boggy trail. My legs were feeling okay, but I was slowing down slightly, likely because of the harder effort earlier on and not getting the opportunity to eat on the hike up the mountain as I had anticipated.
However, we were soon on the descent down towards the village of Torridon, and we saw the finishing arch, along with a small crowd of spectators who were braving the elements to cheer on competitors. I finished 28th out of around 250 starters, and had gained around 15 places on the run. Not a bad performance given that I had run an ultramarathon the previous month and done no triathlons the previous year!
If you are doing the race here are my 5 key points to build into your training plan:
The video I made is available here:
If you would like more advice or training plans on the race please get in touch.