After the 2016 event and the surprise of finishing in 2nd place at Celtman, I decided that if I prepared more and with the experience of the race, I might be able to go one step higher, or at least a better performance. I put a plan in place and increased my swimming and running and made Celtman the big focus of the year. In training things were looking good, having faster run & swim times and holding onto a similar level of cycling fitness.
As the event approached I was constantly weather watching and it seemed like the fantastic weather we had last year would elude us as the rest of the country was basking in sunshine the North West corner of Scotland was stuck under a low pressure area with frequent rain and high winds. It was a shame, but I am never scared or put off by the weather and since everyone is in the same boat, I was ready for whatever happened.
The start of Celtman is exciting and gets the nerves jingling, with a 2:45am wake-up, racking the bike at 3:30am and then a 20 minute coach trip to the remote swim start. At the swim start everyone huddles together with the Celtman logo lit in flames behind us before everyone piles into the icy cold water ready to swim back to Sheildaig and T1 kicking off at 5am.
Having last weeks swim start nightmare at the Porthcawl traithlon, I was at least ready and prepared this week. I didn’t spend too long in the 12 degree water before the start, but it was long enough to get my body and breathing ready. The swim is definitely the weakest of the 3 for me, but having worked hard and spent countless hours in the pool I was hoping to match last years swim time. With a bit of wind chop and a tide against us, an equal time would have been an improvement in performance terms.
The water was cold and at times I regretted not wearing neoprene booties, something I did last year, but my body core and everywhere else was perfect. With low cloud all around us, sighting was difficult but you could just about make out the islands which you swim to the left of. The biggest problem I had were my goggles, which were leaking slightly and I had to stop many times to let the water out. I exited the water and the stones underneath made it hard to get out, which cemented my thoughts that booties are a must. Clicking the lap button on the water to see 1:00; gutted. 5 minutes slower than last year, although position wise I was higher, around 45th.
T1 was relatively quick and smooth and I was out on the bike and set for a long, windy day. The first section to Torridon was tough because the winds were swirling with gusty crosswinds, but the open valley of Glen Torridon was better with less feeling of the wind, which basically means TAILWIND! Whoop. I was passing plenty of other racers and not pushing too hard, so felt happy and confident.
Reaching Kinlochewe is a good marker, turning left here you end the narrow singletrack and start the route North around the stunning scenery. After 60km you pass through Gairloch which is where I saw Onno one of my support crew for the first time, he passed over some drink and gels and gave me an update, “Your in 8th and Chris is leading, 10 minutes ahead”. This was good and it felt like it was within what I could reel back. Chris is something of a Celtman veteran, having taken part in all 5 Celtman events and finished 2nd twice. He was going to be a tough cookie to beat. From Gairloch there are quite a few hills and I was making good progress and was up to 2nd before long, although Chris was holding his advantage and seemed to be riding strong.
Just over halfway and well into the way back south we hit one of the 3 junctions on the 202km route and the section I remember being a bit of a drag last year. This year it was faster and less of a drag, but the wind was starting to become a problem with really gusty crosswinds that would snatch the front wheel and blow you across the road. I was having to ride in the middle of the lane to give myself space to adjust. I held 2nd until around the 150km marker when a really strong rider came motoring past. He looked like a “tester” and not a runner, so I told myself that I could pull time back on the run (it turns out I was wrong mind, he blitzed the run!)
After 160km the route turns right and compared to last year I was around 5 minute behind the time, but given the weather I was happy with that. From here to the finish it is a constant, exposed ride in a South Westerly direction. People had talked about head winds being an issue, but given last year we had very little wind, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was hell. Absolute hell on earth. The road is essentially flat and my speed was between 15 and 20kph, and at times even lower. The wind was 45mph and constant and the KMs were kicking by so slowly. I was pushing as hard as I dared and not going anywhere. The wind sucks, but it sucks for small riders like myself even more as weight or FTP mean jack poo and is all about absolute power, which I don’t have. This 40km section took a massive 25 minutes longer and by the time I reached T2 I was back to 4th.
Transition was quick and smooth and I was back into 3rd and glad to be off the bike. I think every triathlete, especially the long distance guys will be a little worried about how the first steps will feel and I was happy and running OK. Early splits were positive, a little quicker of last years time. Reaching the top of the first hill I was feeling OK and although the Norwegian I had passed in T2 was not far behind, I felt able to keep pushing.
The downhill that followed was muddy, but straight forward and splits were still decent. The Norwegian runner had passed me again, but I had him within sight until about 10km in and then things seems to come off the rails. I was slowing quite a bit and started to think negatively with no one in sight ahead, I was looking behind all the time, which is never a good sign. Reaching the road, after 17km we were running into a block headwind and pace slowed to almost a walking pace. Eventually I came into T2A and heard the good news that the mountain was shut, which was absolutely the right thing to do. Sending people up to almost 1000m where the wind was apparently gusting at 80mph would have been dangerous, with mountain kit or not.
The low level route was similar distance and higher % off-road with only the first and last sections on tarmac. You pick up your support runner at T2A, so Onno was running with me from here to the finish. The first 2km on the road he was ahead of me and blocking the wind, which was a big help then once off-road I was in front and setting the pace. It was a slow pace; very slow. Mentally and physically I was suffering. Mentally because I was going backwards and also trying to work out what the hell I did wrong and physically my legs were wreaked, with the rocky path being a challenge. As the gradient increased we were walking and I struggled to pick the pace back up even when it should have been possible. I was passed into 5th and not able to keep up their pace. The bagpipes were playing on the highest point and I hoped it would be the start of a run down to the finish, but that was not to be. From there it was a horrible, rocky, swampy track that was hard to follow in places and hard to get any kind of rhythm. I was asking all the marshals and mountain rescue guys how far it is to the finish, but none of them knew. My mind was broken and my body was in bits. I was passed into 6th and then 7th and all I wanted to do was finish.
I told myself to snap out of it and if I wanted to be at the finish so much, the quickest way is to run faster. The track started to smooth out a little and I had a bit of a second wind and was running well again, similar to how I felt last year. I made it back to 6th and then came right up behind 5th, but he looked back, saw me and took off like a scalded cat. Soon after we hit the final road section to the finish and I dug deep, trying to pull time back on the hill, but he distanced me and I was not able to keep it up. The final 5km or so were hard work, with Onno checking that 7th wasn’t going to catch me. The finish line was a big relief, but I was in no mood to celebrate, finishing in 6th place and a long way behind the people ahead. I was broken and feeling like crap.
My mind keeping mulling over what went wrong and how things could be different. Ultimately I think the weather and specifically the wind combined with a relatively flat course just don’t suit me and I think I might have had to put too much in at the late part of the bike and while I could have gone easier earlier on, I was feeling good and strong at the 160km marker, but in truth I will never know.
I have to take my hat off and say a massive thank you to Onno & Karin who came over from Italy to support me. Karin finished 2nd herself in 2015 and they were the dream team that I had last year when I finished 2nd. What they don’t know about Celtman isn’t worth knowing!
Although I am still disapointed, as a good friend has said, “the fitness you have is still in the bank”, so hopefully future events will deliver a better performance. The next major events for me are L’Etape du Tour and then Alpe d’Huez triathlon a few weeks after and I am looking forward to both. At least with those I have no hope or desire to win!