Celtman! 2023 by Duncan Kinnear

Celtman! 2023 by Duncan Kinnear

Gale force winds, horizontal rain, freezing cold water, jellyfish and midges (small bitey insects) - these are the challenges that you normally expect at Celtman - an ‘Extreme’ triathlon set in the northwest highlands of Scotland. I don’t think anyone was expecting heat and lightning storms to be the biggest challenges!

The race is part of the XTri world tour and has been running for just over 10 years. It is set in Torridon - a remote and rugged part of Scotland with beautiful scenery and limited infrastructure. The race is restricted to around 200 participants due to this, and I was lucky to grab a spot last year after completing the shorter ‘Solo Point Five’ distance. Celtman consists of a 3.4km sea swim, a 200km hilly bike route, and a mountain marathon that traverses 2 munros (Scottish mountains >3,000 feet) and a technical ridge and rocky scree descent. Kat and I have done a few hikes in the area before, including a 2-day mission following most of the run course. I remember seeing some guys running the route while we did that hike - they were training for the event. I think that was probably when the seed was planted…

I arrived in Scotland 2 weeks before the race during an unprecedented spell of sunshine and dry weather. No way this could last till race day. Despite some east coast ‘Haar’ (sea fog) in St.Andrews where I acclimatised to ~11 degree water and Scottish roads, the high pressure systems continued to hold. We travelled up to the Torridon area on the Wednesday of race week and enjoyed glorious sunshine, with temperatures up to 25 degrees. When the sun only sets at 10pm those evenings can feel pretty toasty! Even the midges thought it was too hot and seemed to be dwindling in numbers. The forecast for race day was for some cloud cover, light winds and possibly some afternoon rain - pretty ideal, and with some Aussie summer training behind me I thought I was probably fairly well-placed to deal with the heat.

We had found some accommodation in Kinlochewe which was also next to T2, so quite good for race day. Kat and I drove the whole bike course on the Thursday, and on Friday we drove down to Torridon for the race briefing and registration. I did a couple of swims at Shieldaig where the swim takes place and realised the water temperature had risen a bit after all the sunny weather - I decided I wouldn’t need to wear gloves, booties or a thermal vest, which I had been in training. I reckon the water was around 14 degrees by then. This would make T1 easier and I feel faster without them anyway. The race attracts a lot of international participants and there was a great buzz around the village. A few Ironman tattoos on show but with so much uncertainty on the course most people are just excited to complete the course and enjoy the experience - the only question is whether you can get the blue or white t-shirt - blue is awarded only to those who make the time cut-off to traverse the mountain section – they close this off for safety reasons. After this you do the ‘low’ course (lower elevation but equally as challenging) and receive a white t-shirt.

A person sitting at a picnic table by a body of water

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Checking out the swim exit point

Training had gone well - Steve had kept me on a steady build after Busso in December and I was feeling good with no major niggles. I knew this would be a tricky bike course with the extra distance and over 2,000m of vert, but I was feeling confident about my running after spending lots of Saturdays on the trails. Nothing in Perth can quite prepare you for Scottish mountains but the dry weather would probably be to my advantage. My biggest concern was how my stomach would hold up at this distance after the issues I had at Busso (that race report is still TBC!), but I had been working on a good nutrition plan in training involving a lot more liquid nutrition and really upping my electrolytes. The Busso 100 had gone really well so I was hoping I could carry this across to the longer distance.

Race Day

Much pasta-eating later, I tried to get to bed at around 730 on Friday, with the sun still shining bright. I did manage a few hours sleep and got up at 0230 to force down some porridge and coffee. My sister and Kat drove me down to Shieldaig (30 mins) to pick up my timing chip and rack my bike. There was a bit of a traffic jam in the village (think Postman Pat with a tractor blocking the road sorta thing) and I ended up being one of the last to pick up my chip and had to run down the street to make sure I didn’t miss the bus to the swim start. Minor panic but needn’t have worried. The midges were out in force but my focus was on the race completely and they didn’t bother me too much. Onto the buses we got and drove 30 mins out to the swim start. We were greeted by a huge burning Celtman logo and a wild bagpipe band in a field of sheep shit to get us all gee’d up - this was pure Scotland and the adrenaline was pumping! 

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Ready to roll

‘Clann An Drumma’ getting us gee’d up!

The swim is a one-way course with no buoys, just stay left of 2 islands and aim for the white house on the hill back in Shieldaig. We couldn’t have had better conditions - absolutely flat calm and mild. A deep water start and I quickly made my way to the front of the pack and settled in. As we approached the first island I had found the feet of 2 others and decided to stick with them as we were hitting a decent pace. I could see one more splash ahead of us which turned out to the be the lead swimmer. The sun was rising over the mountains as we swam and it was pretty magical - I was genuinely loving it and had to remind myself this was happening.


I made a slightly bad navigational decision, deciding to veer left of some rocks at the 2nd island whereas the 2 I was swimming with went through a gap, but ended up only 20 seconds or so back as we approached Shieldaig with more fire and bagpipes greeting us. 4th out of the water and Kat met me on the ramp and jogged into T2 which is just the main street in the village. I always worry about punctures on these events so decided to wear a bike jersey over my tri-suit to be able to carry a few more things. Took me a while to get this on but otherwise a smooth transition and I was off.

Out of the water in 4th – face not too numb!

The bike course is a big loop that takes in some of the North Coast 500 (a tourist driving route), but you are required to have your own support vehicle as there are no aid stations. I had recruited Kat and most of my family to support from a campervan, so I spent some time before the race studying the map and coming up with a plan - they would stop for me at predetermined spots along the course and do bottle handovers or any other aid required. I carried 3 bottles at the start so knew I would be fairly self-sufficient until around 90k (barring a mechanical). The first 30k back to Kinlochewe is unsupported as it is single-track road. We had a slight headwind here but otherwise all good, the first riders came past me at about 50k, including last year’s winner Ross - a former professional cyclist. I thought to myself that would probably be the last I saw of him! He was flying.

We had a tailwind towards Gairloch and this was fast and fairly flat, then the course turns north and becomes quite lumpy with some more variable road conditions - you have to keep your eyes open for potholes though the roads were generally pretty good. The roads are not closed either so there was a bit of traffic around, but mainly just support vehicles which we would bunny hop all day. Being towards the front of the race was good as we didn’t have to mix with too many others.

A person riding a bicycle on a road

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Cruising in the tailwind

It’s a beautiful course and you have to take time to soak in the scenery - white sand beaches and turquoise waters and mountains behind. This also helps pass the time! I was feeling pretty good but had maybe gone slightly too hard over the first half of the course. There are some fast descents but nothing too technical. A few riders passed me from time to time but I wasn’t losing too much time and just stuck to my own pace - it’s a true time trial with not many opportunities for drafting even if you wanted to.

Lonely roads but plenty of nice scenery to keep you occupied...

The biggest climb comes at around 120k and I had probably underestimated the heat slightly - it was pretty hot and I could have done with an additional support stop to get more water on but knew I’d need to hold out until 135k for this. The climb isn’t that steep but quite long and by this point the legs were starting to hurt - the support along the course was awesome though, loads of cow bells! After this a fast descent and we rejoined the main road and turned right into a headwind and a slight uphill drag. I was really suffering now and the power dropped right off - there were a few laybys and unfortunately the support crew had chosen the one at the end of the loch rather than the start which I had planned for, so by the time I finally saw the van at around 138k I was cursing a bit and didn’t say much more than ‘need water’ to Kat (apologies!). I actually pulled over at this point and gratefully received water and another bottle of nutrition. A group of around 4 riders passed me here and I thought this would be a good chance to try and hang on but the power wasn’t there so I let them go but managed to hold on to one guy at the back for a little while.

I had recovered from the thirst and energy levels were ok, but my power over the last 50k had certainly dropped as a result of earlier efforts. Smtly Kat had thought another extra stop would be worthwhile so I grabbed another water bottle here and was good to the end from there. We had a tailwind for the last 40k (this is usually a headwind!), so that was a relief and I just cruised it in from there to get ready to run. Over 6 hours on the bike had taken its toll and I was looking forward to getting off. There were definitely some dark moments during the ride, I remember thinking to myself at one point that this isn’t for me – why would you put yourself through that for fun?? But its all worth it once you get to run a bit… I reckon I was probably down to about 15th by this point. 6:23 bike split which was about as good as I had expected so I was pretty happy.

A person riding a bicycle on a road

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Suffering a bit by this point!

Kat met me in T2 and slapped some sunscreen on while I drank a bottle of electrolytes and threw my backpack on. There is a fairly hefty mandatory kit list for the mountain section which you don’t need to carry on the first part but I decided just to carry it all from the start to make things easier for support (and myself mentally). It didn’t bother me too much as I had trained with it.

The first part of the run is 18k of mixed trails including some slow thick heath and a decent climb. It was hot and sticky and I struggled to bring my core temperature down, so just kept the effort levels under control and drank lots. Legs were feeling ok but not amazing, but stomach was all good. I started overtaking people on the downhill and really found my stride, I could see more people appearing in the distance and this really drove me forward. By the time I got to ‘T2A’ - the start of the mountain section - I was back up to around 6th or 7th place. People were obviously suffering in the heat. Kat met me here to join as support runner, and we got our kit checked then started the brutal climb up to the ridge. This is where I was entering the unknown.

The climb goes up around 850m over 3km, and you are basically hiking. We started strong and overtook a couple more runners, but I started feeling quite dizzy towards the top – two steps forward and one back at some points - the sun was intense and the wind had dropped right off. Kat kept me right and paced us up to the ridge and the first summit where we were greeted by a bagpiper and some rain. This was well received and it cooled down really quickly.I felt good as we started making our way along the ridge. The rain didn’t last long but it had clouded over and when I heard thunder I realised that it wasn’t just rain. All of a sudden lightning became a real risk. They had mentioned it in the briefing but didn’t explain what the actual lightning policy was…it is not something they had had to deal with before. Needless to say, this was not a good place to be!

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Slogging as the clouds gather

Kat and I about to summit the ridge – the loch in the background was part of the first run section.

It was slow going along the ridge - no defined path and lots of rock-hopping - we were mainly walking. We actually saw a lightning bolt and things got pretty hairy for a while - we had no choice but to continue on and there wasn’t anywhere to hide with a sheer drop either side of us. I wasn’t too keen on getting fried so I forgot about any fatigue in the legs and was hyper-focused on getting off that ridge!

Kat hurrying along the ridge

We made it to the top of the scree slope where mountain rescue informed us we would just go straight down instead of completing the short out-and-back to the second summit. Although slightly disappointed not to complete the official full course, I was quite happy to get out of the danger zone. We learned later that my brother had been waiting on that section for about 3 hours for us to arrive…oops.

The scree slope was slow going again with steep ledges and loose rocks - a few teams overtook us but at this point it was hard to tell who our direct competitors were as some had made it to the second summit before it closed. Down we went and eventually the path reappeared and the going got easier. Once past the lochan, with awesome views back to the mountain and the ‘Triple Buttress’, the path got easier (but still technical) and it was downhill all the way back to ‘T2B’. We started passing people going the opposite direction on the ‘low’ route. Later we would learn that we were lucky to even make it to the ridge, others had been turned back off the mountain after the big climb, and more still had been sent on to the low course early after they closed the mountain completely.

Feeling slightly cooked but relieved to be off the mountain

I was feeling really good by now all things considered - the mountain was tough but the elevation, scrambling and descending had broken things up so I could take on lots of nutrition and the lightning risk had really kept me switched on. The last 8 or 9k is slightly downhill back on the road. My sister joined us here but Kat dropped off as I managed to set a decent pace. I knew there were a couple of runners I could catch before the end so really dug in with whatever my legs had left. Turns out this last section got me into the top 10, so I was happy I put in a dig! Over the finish line at Torridon and 2 beers thrust into my hands - happy days! Celtman complete.

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In need of rehydration!

The lightning had caused havoc with the course and there ended up being around 5 different variations on the run course, so direct time comparisons are difficult. The top 4 were clear though - they had all done the full course. Ross had run away with it over 40 minutes ahead of 2nd with 11:30 overall. In the 2nd category I had come 4th at just over 13 hours, so essentially 8th overall. There wasn’t much between us so a few more kms on the road and I probably could have run myself into the top 5. I was happy though - it had been a solid performance and I felt strong throughout. Kat had done an amazing job on support logistics and running. Most of the top guys had recruited specialist hill runners as their support, so not bad for a couple of sandgropers!

An awesome event, and everyone was happy just to complete the course - no fighting over placings here. The locals really get behind the event and it has a great community feel to it. Now some time to unwind and decide what is next..

Post t-shirt ceremony the next day