Admittedly, it wasn’t as painful as watching 12 England games, and I didn’t end up halfway around the world. It also wasn’t quite like being at work, though I did manage the odd cake-stop.
I signed up to the race way back in autumn 2011, still reeling from the disappointment of having not made the trip to Norway for the Norseman ironman due to injury and moving hundreds of miles north to a little village in rural Perthshire. So, when I found out that that famous ironman event would, in 2012, have a cousin up the road in western Scotland I had to sling my name into the hat.
On November 1st 2011 I completed my first training session: 25 minutes of swimming. Water temperature: 25 degrees. Seven months and 22 days later I dipped my toe into the waters of Loch Shieldaig. It was 5am and the water was “chillier than we’d hoped” said the organisers, which meant a 3.2km swim rather than 3.8km. That was the good news. My foot received the bad news. Water temperature: a reported 10 degrees.
I think it was about 25 minutes in (the length of that very first training session) that I started to move out of my comfort zone and began to shiver. My booties began to fill with water too, acting like two soggy balloons at the end of my feet. Still, there is always comfort in doing something with others around you – the other 128 competitors would be cold; they would be tiring; and they would be battling with the hundreds of jellyfish that also now shared our space.
Just how cold the water was in the deeper parts of the loch hadn’t been divulged. But it was writ large on the faces of many as I stood shaking in transition.
I’d actually had a good swim – 54 minutes. That, combined with the shorter distance, had its repercussions however. As I hobbled to my bike (helped up and out by a kindly marshal) I realized that there was no sign of Sarah. Was she on the bank? Was she fetching me some soup? No. She was in the car – asleep.
Sarah’s alarm had gone off at 1.30am that morning too – as it had on the countless early mornings in the months before as we dragged ourselves out of bed to go swimming (albeit warm, the 20m pool in Perth doesn’t appeal when there are 2-3km to swim). The swim was Sarah’s one chance of getting another good hour or so of kip before the long day ahead as she and the rest of my support team – Eva, Chris and Alex – followed me round on the bike and paced me through the run.
“Oh my God, how are you here already?” came the screech as she rushed in and began to help me. I couldn’t speak. My teeth chattered and my breathing became quicker. I was slightly delirious; so cold that I had to focus on calming down and warming up, rather than worry about the ‘show’ I was providing for onlookers (or not, given just how cold every part of my body was) as Sarah stripped my wet shorts and pulled on my cycle gear. Nakedness in transition is acceptable in this kind of triathlon.
Fifteen minutes was the time I spent in transition one – not quite the slowest, but not far off. Still, we’d spoken before how important it was to get me warm first. It worked. I rode off, eating up the first 20 miles or so, including a couple of climbs I hadn’t much fancied when we’d driven down the day before. I don’t recall much of the first 20 miles as we wove our way through Torridon and out to Kinlochewe amongst a stream of support vehicles itching to get ahead of their riders and set up stall somewhere along the way.
This is where events like Celtman differ from the more clinical ironman races.
There are no feed stations along the way – instead you have support teams following their riders around the Scottish hills, pulling in where they can to offer food, drink and the odd hug. A personal tuckshop if you will. Mine had banana cake, flapjacks, biscuits, gels, sports beans, sandwiches and chipolatas (yes, I know, but they work). While I might not have been anywhere near the top of the athletes taking part, my support team were right up there. Their stops were timed to German perfection, their encouragement always inspiring and their fare always on hand. There is no doubt in my mind that the bike would have gone a lot worse without the four of them. In spite of painful feet and some cramps I stepped off the bike in a little over seven and three quarter hours – inside my aspirational target of eight hours. All in all, I was about an hour ahead of where I thought I’d be on a very good day. It was the first time I dared to think I might make the mountain stage within the 12 hours allowed.
But befriending time on a race like this is risky. Yes, I had three hours to run 18km, but there was a climb ahead and who knows how my legs would feel. Once again it was over to my support team – this time Alex – who ran and marched us past four or five other competitors along the forest trail. Had I been on my own I would have set off too fast, died on the first hill and hobbled along. As it was, I turned into the crucial checkpoint in two hours – a full hour ahead of the cut-off and feeling good. It was exactly 4pm.
After 5pm (12 hours of racing), no more runners would be allowed up the mountain; instead they would be directed along a lower – but nonetheless grueling – route. It was for safety reasons as, with 15km of up, across and down on rocky paths and skree slopes to do, fading light would have been an issue. As it turned out it was an issue for those of us who made the checkpoint.
At the bottom of the mountain – Beinn Eighe – I felt elated that I had made the cut and would, all being well, be donning a blue t-shirt at the presentation the next day. Two good friends already have a black Norseman t-shirt hanging in their wardrobe so I was relieved I, too, had made it. Many of us outside the elite group saw this as our ‘finish line’. How wrong we were. Little did I know that I had almost a third of the race to go. As I climbed I began to tire. Sarah, as my support, was doing everything in her power to keep me positive and hydrated. Hers was a careful balancing act – motivating without patronising. My team had already remarked how calm I’d been so far as they stood in shock as other competitors barked orders at partners, parents and friends (my mother always told me to remember my please and thank yous). However, on the climb to the first trig point I hit my first real low. Halfway up I dared looked skywards, and saw tiny specks of hunched bodies traipsing across the ridge above me. This race wasn’t over by a long way.
My mind wandered. Sarah made sure I drank and ate, but I wanted Coca Cola, fish and chips and a seat, not tepid water, digestive biscuits and more hills. Still we climbed. And climbed. And climbed.
Some two hours later we reached the first checkpoint – 3000feet up and in the clouds. And there we stayed for another two hours as we crossed narrow ridges, stumbled along rocky paths, all the while not daring to look down. This was about as far from my comfort zone as I’d ever come in a race – it was what all the hours of training had been for. I’d spent long days on the bike, early mornings in the pool and lunchtimes in the forest running up hills. I’d bagged a few munros (hills over 3000ft) along the way, but I hadn’t been prepared for this. This is what would make this achievement different. This is what would make people sit up and think: “Yes, I’ll sponsor him to do that.”
Indeed, this was about more than me completing an ironman-distance race. This was about raising funds to help a small charity make a difference. It sounds clichéd, but I wanted to do something that earned people’s sponsorship – something out of my comfort zone. I’d been inspired by those who had done Blenheim a fortnight before, some of whom had never cycled, while others had rarely swum and many had never completed a triathlon. The distances might not be comparable but the achievements certainly are. That is reflected in the funds raised so far. And there will be more to come as friends delight, no doubt, in my pain and tales of our final descent and others take up their own challenges.
We’d passed the skree descent just 15 minutes earlier on our way to the final checkpoint (another at 3000 feet). It resembled a death slide, but one which you had to approach standing up, and which moved underfoot. “Be careful,” we were told. Was there any ever doubt?
Sarah leapt down like a mountain goat, confident in her legs, her balance and at ease with the heights. I was less mountain goat, more Bruce Forsyth. But, surprisingly, I enjoyed it – not as much as Brucie does when Tess swings her leg high into his arms of a Saturday night on Strictly Come Dancing, but with Sarah there to encourage I began to relax at least. For a while.
As we came out of the clouds I began to realize how long we had been up there, wandering around among other tired legs, conjuring the energy to thank marshals who sat patiently waiting for us. The first runners had reached the last checkpoint up high after 10 hours – we were now 15 or so hours in. But there were still smiles. My abiding memory was of one marshall, invisible atop a pile of rocks, banging his dinner bowl in the distance to entice runners up to his checkpoint. Without him, we could still be wandering around up there now. I am thankful we are not.
Because we finished. Long as it was, and defeated as I almost was, Sarah marched us into the last two hours and down the slopes. There was no resting, no stopping – but she did allow a little moaning. And a jaffa cake or two. She had the watch and was fully aware that night was drawing in more quickly than either of us had anticipated.
Three relieved faces greeted us at the bottom in the growing darkness. It was 10.40pm and Sarah and I had been walking for over six and a half hours. The finish line was just 7km away. We’d walk it – surely. This was not a PB (personal best) course, and I had achieved the blue t-shirt, so why run? “Because you can,” came the response from Sarah. I looked at Alex, Eva and Chris in the hope I’d find some support for my plight, yet each one just shrugged as if to say: why not?
And so we ran. Slowly, but steadily, we ran in darkness. First 3, then 4, 5, 6km and then finally 7km . Or rather 247.2km.