Been there (sort of), done that, and got the (BLUE) T-Shirt

Join wor’ member, Madders, for a canny wee jaunt around the Scottish Highlands, as he takes on the mighty Celtman, learns that T-shirt colours really do matter, and goes interactive. 

Ian and his blue t-shirt

Ian Maddison

The story so far:

 Way back in 2015, Madders took part in Wasdale X (“the hardest iron distance triathlon in the world”). As was customary in those distant days, he followed this up by writing a race report for the website of his ‘other’ club, Ryton Tri. Typically, this report had very little to do with the Wasdale X, but was really nothing more than a vehicle for pouring scorn and derision on various other Ryton Tri members (according to him). As the vast bulk of the article consisted of remarks about people that the majority of DVRC members had never heard of,  when the article was subsequently placed on the DVRC site, this led to accusations of elitism and non-inclusivity. As a result of this, Madders has since been in literary exile – despite having done Ironman races in each of the intervening years, both of which contained many noteworthy incidents.

This year, however, Madders not only competed in Celtman on 16 June, the iconic extreme Scottish triathlon, but also discovered state of the art technology with which to make his articles interactive. Now, all the reader has to do is answer a few simple questions, and they will be presented with an article totally devoid of jokes/insults aimed at people they know nothing about.

So, answer away. Please tick one box in each case:

Question1:

I am a member of:

  • A – Ryton Tri Club
  • B – Derwent Valley Running Club
  • C – Both
  • D – Neither

Question 2:

I know Madders as:

  • A – One of Ryton Tri’s longest serving members, their treasurer, and second most experienced Ironman competitor
  • B – Someone in DVRC who’s been around forever, since the old Kirsty Wade days, but now trains with “the other lot” so we hardly ever see him.
  • C – Someone who turns up at triathlons, in Ryton kit, doesn’t do particularly well, and then pretends he’s better than he is by writing fictitious race reports,
  • D – Someone in DVRC who isn’t a particularly good runner, and likes to tell everyone that he’s actually a triathlete, and that his swimming and biking are considerably better than his running.
  • E – Who the f@@@ are we talking about here?

 Question 3:

Whilst my primary reason for reading this article is to learn more about the iconic extreme Scottish triathlon known as Celtman, I would also like to see scorn and derision primarily directed towards:

  • A – Eric Blakie
  • B – Eric Blakie and Diane Chaney
  • C – Eric Blakie, Diane Chaney, Philip Addyman, Hedley Fletcher and Bob Hogg
  • D – Eric Blakie and Colin Phillipson
  • E – Colin Phillipson, Andy Fowler, Iain Ralphson and Tony Robson
  • F – Claire Knox

Having answered these questions, technology will now do its work and you will shortly be reading a fully customised article. Although please note that for the interactivity to work your device must have the latest version of Clikbollox 25.3. If you do not have this it can be downloaded via the following link:

www.maddersmakesthisstuffupashegoesalong.com

1. Iconic Extreme Scottish Triathlons

So about the Celtman – this is an “extreme” iron-distance triathlon based in North-West Scotland. Like other races in the Xtri series, most notably the famous Norseman, by which it was originally inspired, it operates a two tier finisher system, which is defined jointly by the route to be taken, and the colour of the finisher t-shirt awarded. Essentially there is a point known as T2A, which is, depending upon which section of the race manual you are looking at, 17km or 19km or 20km into the run (This uncertainty was actually queried at the race briefing. The organisers’ response was: “If you feel a need to know the exact distances of any part of the course, then you probably shouldn’t be doing Xtri events”. I see.) If you manage to reach T2A within 11 hours of the race start, then you are required to “take the high road”. This means that you follow the mountain route, which famously covers two Munros, and then, assuming you manage to finish, you are awarded the iconic blue t-shirt. If you miss the 11 hour cut–off but arrive within 13 hours, then you “take the low road”. This involves completing the run via a lower level route (which is still very hilly and classed as a fell-run) and then being awarded the slightly less iconic white t-shirt. Arriving at T2A after 13 hours means, sadly, game over, and no t-shirt. As is well documented, white t-shirts tend not to go with my highlights, so if I ever were to take part in this race then it would be very much on a “blue t-shirt or bust” basis. The rules also clearly state that in the event of the mountain route being closed because of severe weather conditions (which can happen in North-West Scotland, apparently), then all competitors will follow the lower route, and t-shirts will still be awarded by reference to arrival time at T2A. The race had been held 6 times prior to 2018, and last year this clause became relevant for the first time as the mountain route was closed due to extreme bad weather. So, obviously, having not happened in any of the previous five years, it clearly wasn’t going to happen two years in a row…………………….

Having suffered my way through Wasdale X in 2015, and Tri X in 2016, and on each occasion stating quite categorically that I would never do an extreme tri ever again, it was perhaps a strange decision to enter Celtman. It was, though, a decision for which I totally blame fellow Ryton Tri member, Gareth Huxley. Around a year ago, Gareth announced that he was planning to have a go at Celtman, and asked if I fancied doing the same. My response was quick and decisive:

“No”

“Why not?”

“Because I was rubbish in Lakesman, and if I run like that in Celtman I won’t make the cut-off”.

End of discussion. But as time wore on, I began to think that perhaps what I needed to sort my running out was a high profile iconic race which included a cut-off that I would never be certain of hitting. There was no hurry at this point, as race entries are decided by a ballot, which doesn’t open until later in the year. But herein lies the first obstacle to doing Celtman: the race is very popular and oversubscribed, and the chances of getting in are actually quite slim. Gareth himself had a cunning plan in this respect. Were he to, as expected, fail to get in through the ballot, then he was hopeful that his achievement of second place in Tri X in 2016 may swing him a place in the “manager’s choice” category. I, however, had slightly less confidence in my own placing of 77th in the same event having the same impact. But I decided to enter the ballot nonetheless.

The ballot took place in November, and sods law duly applied itself – Gareth got in and I didn’t. Never mind. I didn’t expect to get in anyway, and I’m probably not really capable of getting a blue t-shirt, so I shall just find myself another, non-extreme, race.

Then three weeks later, I received an email from Celtman – I was in after all. I’d got in on the second ballot (which I didn’t know existed). Apparently they’d had a second ballot for all those places allocated in the first ballot to people who had subsequently failed to pay for the slot (just who are these people?). So the game was afoot after all.

The next little obstacle to taking part in Celtman, is that it is almost entirely “self supported”. That is, the organisers provide very little in the way of support, and you need a support crew and vehicle throughout the event. Within the support crew, there needs to be a support runner, who will, for safety reasons, accompany you for either the mountain section or the low-level alternative during the run. Gareth had an immediate willing and able volunteer to be support runner in long time training partner and Bob Graham Round survivor, Joe Horne. For myself, step forward “son-in-law” Stuart Neish.

Stuart is a lifelong devotee of and participant in a multitude of outdoor pursuits and endurance sports – cycling, mountain climbing, kayaking, orienteering. You name it basically but, curiously, not running. It’s pointless, apparently. However, about a year ago, he had a go at running, and decided that he quite liked it. In fact he liked it so much that he almost immediately signed up to do the Devil of the Highlands Ultra this year. This was good news for me as it firstly made Christmas shopping easier (What sweeter present can we bring – than an Allendale Challenge entry!) and secondly, the Celtman support runner was recruited. Add in daughter Laura, and ‘er indoors Louise/Bridget, and the team was complete.

2. Kilts and Bagpipes

In the week leading up to the race, all eyes were on the weather. Gareth had been up there on a bike tour some weeks before, and experienced the most glorious weather ever. One week out, and the weather took a turn for the worse, but there was a steady improvement towards race day. The weather was ok the day before the race, when we arrived. Then at the briefing they were able to give us the most up to date and accurate forecast possible. The day would be quite mild. Not much sunshine, but very little rain – a few short light showers in the morning – negligible wind, and good visibility high up. Couldn’t be better, really.

The Celtman swim takes place in Loch Shieldaig. This is open to the Atlantic, and was specially chosen for the event because of its very low temperatures and very large population of jellyfish. One thing there is no shortage of in this part of Scotland is Lochs. The vast majority of them are cut off from the sea, and so aren’t excessively cold and have fresh water and no jellyfish. Any one of these could have been chosen for the swim, but then the race would have had fewer claims to be “extreme”, so Shieldaig it is unfortunately. The race starts at 5 am, and T1 is in the small village of Shieldaig by the loch. The only way that you are allowed to travel to the start is by designated race buses from Shieldaig – spectators and support crews aren’t allowed to go there. You need to be on the bus by 4 am, so considering you need to travel to Shieldaig, set your bike and gear up (can’t do this the night before – T1 doesn’t exist then) collect your GPS tracker and, inevitably, stand in the toilet queue before this, makes for a very early start (1.30 in my case. A bit later for Gareth, as team Huxley were staying in the camper van in Shieldaig, whilst we were staying in a chalet in Kinlochewe, about 17 miles away, and also the location of T2).

Once you’ve got over the horror of the early commencement, the start of the race is really quite brilliant. The bus takes you to a remote beach on the other side of the loch, making the swim a point to point (no boooooeys, just landmarks and islands to navigate by). There is a pipe and drum band there playing some stirring Celtic tunes, and a row of torches along the beach. Then they set fire to a big effigy of the Celtman symbol, and it’s time to spoil it all by going into the water. I had no idea what to expect as regards how cold the water would be (I survived Wast Water with just a normal wetsuit, but don’t know what the actual temperature was) but I had followed the pre race advice, and acquired a “Heatseeker” vest, along with neoprene booties, gloves and hat. Gareth had gone one step further than the hat, and had acquired a neoprene balaclava, going for the “Agent X” (ie, Russ Abbot) look. Later on, I wished I had done the same.

Thankfully, they didn’t keep us hanging around long in the water before the start, and we were away. The water didn’t really strike me as being all that cold with my thermal gear on, but what did give me a surprise was how salty it was. This was also presumably a factor in the discomfort I suffered later on as a result of chafing. I have been given some serious abuse recently by Col Gardener, Swinny, et al regarding the condition of some of my bikes. All I can say is that it’s a good job they haven’t seen my wetsuit. It’s getting a bit long in the tooth now and has developed a tendency to rip the back of my neck to shreds. However, this turned out to be quite mild compared to the damage inflicted on the front of my neck by the (horrible) thermal hat I had bought especially for the event. As I said above, Gareth had the right idea. I would far rather have looked like Russ About for a short while early in the race, than look like the victim of a failed decapitation attempt for a week and a half afterwards.

About a third of the way through the swim, I looked down and saw the jellyfish. Huge numbers of them – the Celtman jellyfish legends are, I can confirm, certainly not exaggerated. They were everywhere, beneath me, right in front of my face, and I was unwittingly swatting several of them with each stroke. Presumably I was also nutting quite a few with the horrible hat, and giving some a good kick with the neoprene boots.

I emerged from the water in a time of 53:30, thus achieving the first target of the day. After 16 years, and numerous 61’s, 62’s, and 63’s, I had finally beaten the hour in an Ironman swim. Yes, I am aware that the course is some 400m shorter than a standard Ironman, but I don’t care. As far as I’m concerned, it counts. And anyway, I don’t actually know, or want to know what the correct distance really is – as I’m a “proper” Xtri competitor now.

Ian after swim in Celtman

Emerging from the Loch – hotly pursued by Laura

Many people were struggling to get warmed up after the swim – they were having hot drinks, wrapping themselves in blankets, having warm water poured on them, etc – but I felt ok. I knew the first part of the course was a steep climb out of the village, and that this was followed by a series of steep climbs and descents all along the first stretch to Torridon. So I climbed onto the bike in short sleeves and relied on these climbs to warm me up, which they duly did. The weather was actually quite pleasant, for 6 am, at this point.

3. Haggis and Neeps

The first 17 mile stretch of the bike route heads east through Torridon (where the finish is) then through the Torridon valley (which you run through later) and then on to Kinlochewe. Here you turn left and join the big loop. This loop is over 100 miles, bringing the total bike distance to some 25km more than a standard Ironman at 205km. (or 203 km, or 208 km, or perhaps 803km, I, of course don’t know or care because………etc). Once onto the loop you head north and, totally unexpected, there was a tailwind. I’d agreed to meet the support crew in Gairloch (~60k in) and made good time to there. Just before I reached there, however, it started to rain.

The choice of a second feed stop was less obvious on the map, so we agreed on “the top of the big climb” wherever that was. (about 90k in but hard to tell). After Gairloch, the road starts to undulate a lot more, and becomes a series of climbs and descents along the Northern coastline. The rain also became progressively heavier, till eventually it was lashing down. Not long before reaching the support crew, I heard encouraging shouts of “Gan on Madders, you’re smashing it” and, for the first time, the Huxmobile passed me, with Joe leaning out of the window.

Quite soon after this, Gareth himself caught me up on a climb. My speedo showed 55m. On the rare occasions that I beat Gareth out of a swim, he tends to pass me on the first mile of the bike, so I was a bit surprised.

“Where’ve you been?”

“Had a really bad swim, then couldn’t get warm. Feeling better now though”

He passed me with ease, and disappeared out of sight.

After the next pitstop, conditions became really grim. The rain didn’t ease, and as the route swung to the south, the wind became a headwind and got stronger and stronger. I spent a miserable period which included an awful lot of flat stretches of road straight into the headwind, during which I was pushing as hard as I could, but unable to get my speed into double figures and making very little progress. I was keeping a close eye on the watch and the speedo, concerned with only one thing – whether or not the blue t-shirt was still in reach.

Along a particularly grim, and also very busy stretch of road, I passed a big lay-by on the right. Just as I rode past I spotted the Huxmobile waiting to pull out. Joe and Sarah waved and flashed the lights, so I waved back. A few minutes later, as expected, they drove past me, this time with Joe leaning out of the window saying:

“Your lot were in that lay-by!”

“Hiding were they?”

“I’ll give them a ring and tell them they’ve missed you”

“Ta”

A bit later, Stuart’s van passed me and we exchanged waves. A bit further along, a sign indicated that there was a parking area 1/4 mile ahead, so I assumed they’d be there and was correct (It wasn’t easy to see a long way ahead due to the combination of the rain and the headwind). Apparently I’d passed the earlier lay-by sooner than they had expected. At this point I was soaking wet and freezing cold. Other riders, including Gareth, all seemed to be wearing waterproof thermal jackets, and some a lot more. I, however, was still in short sleeves. Lou was not happy about this and told me to at least put my jacket on. Her argument was strengthened when I tried to eat a gel, but found that my hands were frozen solid, and so I had to get the crew to open it for me. (I definitely recommend the Irn Bru flavoured gels – they taste so much better than the haggis ones) I explained that as I’d come this far and been so wet and so cold for so long, I didn’t think I’d get any benefit from putting the jacket on, so would prefer to struggle on in the short sleeves. She wasn’t having this, and told me in no uncertain terms that I was to put the jacket on. And so, for the first time in 32 years, I disobeyed orders, and rode off as I was.

This unpleasant stretch of road continued for a while until it reached a distinct high point. After this it started to descend gently, and despite the wind and rain I at last managed to reach and maintain a decent pace. This descent went on for about 10 miles which I managed to cover quickly enough to swing the needle on my mental blue t-shirt o’meter back to “achievable – just”

Sooner than I expected I reached the right turn to head west back towards Kinlochewe. This section started with a long gentle uphill drag. As I was riding up here I heard more loud vocal encouragement from behind: “you’re having the ride of your life Madders, you’re pushing the top 20”. Joe then pulled alongside me, on a bike. This of course totally confused me until Joe explained. The bike was Gareth’s. Gareth was in the campervan, out of the race. The hypothermia which had planted its seeds in the loch, had revisited him with a vengeance on the rain soaked windy sections of the bike, and he’d been unable to warm up and eventually pulled out. This was a great shame, and also strangely familiar, in that it was similar to the fate that befell the Big E in Wasdale 3 years earlier. (Presumably there is a curse which afflicts any Ryton Tri member who takes on the same extreme triathlon as me in bad weather) Joe had been using Gareth’s bike to ride back down to the junction and inform the marshal of Gareth’s DNF. We shortly reached the campervan together and Joe peeled off whilst I carried on.

Myself and the crew had planned that I would make one more stop. This proved not to be easy. Twice along this stretch I came around corners and spotted the crew too late to stop, without losing hard earned momentum, and so waved and shouted at them to try again further on. Finally they found a spot at the end of a long uphill drag. I saw them here in plenty of time and stopped. We agreed that this would be the last stop, and that I would see them at T2.

Soon after this, I reached what I knew to be the final roundabout, at which there was a sign bearing the very welcome statement: “Kinlochewe 10”. There was a good thing and a bad thing about this final stretch. The bad thing was that it had been resurfaced and covered in loose chippings two days earlier. The good thing was that whilst I was riding along it, the rain stopped. Once the rain had stopped, things brightened up very quickly, and by the time I reached Kinlochewe you could actually see right along the Torridon valley, and the mountain tops which I was by now surely destined to climb.

4. Tossing the caber

I arrived in T2 with a bit of confusion, caused initially by the marshal telling me to dismount in one place, and a big sign indicating another. At this point, Lou stepped forward to take my bike from me. This is of course not allowed in most races, so I hesitated until it was confirmed to be within the rules, and then let her take it. (I’m still hoping that eventually she might remember where she put it)

Unlike other races, Xtri events allow support crews to accompany you in T2. This was a great relief, as my hands were still totally inoperative. Changing gear on the TT bike had become challenging, but putting on running shoes would have been totally impossible. Fortunately Laura was able to do this (better than I normally would actually) and I was away, along with Stuart. Being accompanied by the support runner is only compulsory after T2A. For the section before that it is optional. Stuart chose to run the whole distance, firstly because he thought it may have been beneficial to pace me along this crucial stretch, and secondly because his own ultra was on the horizon.

When I left T2, the total time elapsed since the start of the race was 8hrs 15min. That left 2hrs 45min to cover the 17/19/20 km stretch to T2A. Surely even a rubbish runner like me couldn’t possibly cock this one up now?

The early part of this section is quite pleasant. You run along a nice path parallel to the Torridon Valley road, heading west. At some point you cross the road to the south side, and then run into some woods. Then you hit a climb. And it’s a very big steep climb up which it is impossible to run (for me anyway). I was not expecting this but I should have been, as it’s clearly marked in the race manual. It’s actually a 250m climb, which is a lot when you’re trying to hit a deadline, but it’s on the same profile chart as the Munros, so it just looks like a small blip. There’s no path at this point, you’re just climbing up a hillside following pieces of tape. Near the top, you join a very steep road, and continue over a pass (“Carn Dhomhnuill Mhic a’Ghobba” apparently. Aka “The Coulin Pass”). After the pass, the descent back down to the valley floor is mostly on the road – good news for those like me who have no technical descending skills – and so some of the lost time climbing could be pulled back. At the bottom of the descent there is yet another loch. You run along the side of this for a couple of miles, then you hit the valley road again. You turn left onto this, then it’s two miles along the tarmac to T2A.

As we approached the road, looking north, you could see that the clag was starting to cover the mountain tops again. As we ran along the road, it started to rain. Then it got heavier and heavier. During the short(?!?!?) time it took me to run those two miles, the weather changed from dry, bright and clear, to torrential rain and zero visibility. By the time I reached T2A it was lashing down, and you couldn’t even see the path leading to the mountain, never mind the mountain itself. However, I didn’t care. I’d reached T2A with half an hour to spare and the blue t-shirt was in the bag. If I had to spend all night picking my way across the mountain with no visibility, then so be it.

I ran into T2A, then headed off to the right towards the gazebo where the checkpoint marshal was. Just as I was turning right, Lou broke forward from the large crowd of spectators gathered. She was virtually in tears and shouted out: “They’ve closed the mountain, you’re not allowed up, you’ve got to do the low route.”

Lou and Laura had been waiting at T2A for quite a while, during which time the weather had got progressively worse. Eventually there had been a flurry of walkie-talkie activity amongst the marshals, and one of them had then come over and spoken to the crowd of spectators/support crews/support runners. Torridon Mountain Rescue had just declared the mountain “closed” and no more runners would be allowed onto it. Just as he’d finished speaking, I ran around the corner. I therefore achieved the distinction of becoming the first runner to arrive at T2A, and not be allowed to go up the mountain. Lou was worried that I may have taken no notice if the marshals had tried to tell me this (as if!), and decided that she had better tell me herself. (Of course, I always listen to Lou)

I had mixed feelings about this. I had been looking forward to going up the mountain, as it’s part of what Celtman is about. On the other hand the only thing that really mattered was getting the blue t-shirt, which I’d done. I was also exhausted and the weather was horrible, and I could now look forward to finishing this awful race some 3(ish) hours earlier than I was expecting to. In the short term, having run as hard as I could for 11miles (as per my Garmin) I had been looking forward to the initial huge climb giving me a break from running. If you follow the low route, the first thing you have to do is go back onto the valley road, and follow it for another two miles. In fact I thought (wrongly as it turned out) that I would now have to run continuously for the rest of the marathon distance.

I learned the next day that 41 runners had been allowed up the mountain, putting me in 42nd place at T2A (out of 189). Joe had been over optimistic saying that I was pushing the top 20 but, considering that a few runners had inevitably passed me on the first section, I was probably not far off the top 30 (Can’t tell exactly because of the way the results are set out).

5. Where’s your waterproof troosers?

Anyway, I had no say in the matter, so Stuart and I got kit-checked and headed off along the valley road. The rain was so bad at this point that I actually put my waterproof jacket on. (This didn’t do the back of my neck any favours)

My fears about not getting a “climb break” from running proved to be unfounded. After the 2 miles along the valley road you turn right, at a point known as “T2B”, and then have to go up a great big climb. This climb seemed to go on and on and on, but was obviously still a baby compared to the high route. Once the top of this climb was reached, the low route becomes what would be on most days a very nice running route. You meander across open moorland following a river for quite a few miles, then you drop through some woods. Finally you reach a road which skirts around Loch Torridon for the final few undulating miles back to Torridon village. The route then meets up with the end of the high route for the final half-mile uphill sprint (ha ha ha) to the finish line at the village hall. As a final unexpected twist, the low route turned out to be a wee bit short – my Garmin said 22.5 miles – but of course I don’t know that. In fact I didn’t actually look at the Garmin because I wasn’t wearing it.

I crossed the line in a total time of 13:53:38. My 42nd place at T2A had slipped to 68th by the finish, indicating that some 26 runners had passed me during the second part of the run. (obviously I hadn’t passed anybody, as I had effectively started the section in the lead of the “blue – low” category) This was not at all surprising and was indicative firstly of how out of step my running and biking are now, and secondly of how I really had hammered myself to get to T2A. The other interesting (?) thing about the results is that in total 102 people got the blue t-shirt. So for all I arrived at T2A with “only” 30 minutes to spare, a lot more people got there in that final half hour than got there before me. (and they were, apparently, totally rigid in the application of the cut-offs) This suggests that the majority of people in the race adopt the same strategy as me – ie, pace themselves to get the blue t-shirt. (except that they’re probably better at pacing than me – or have more confidence in their running ability than I do).

Ian and his support team for Celtman

The crew at the finish – it’s still raining

Anyway, that’s all irrelevant really. I’m actually even less bothered about my finishing time than I am about the course distances. You find whilst doing Celtman that apart from the podium chasers, nobody really cares about finishing times and rankings. All anybody cares about is the colour of the t-shirt.

Ian and his blue t-shirt

How blue is this t-shirt?

Still to come:

 Don’t miss 2019’s race report, in which Madders nails both the mighty Norseman and the almost as mighty Swissman, and gets some black t-shirts. He then extends his interactivity ruse to Blaydon Harriers, Tyne Bridge Harriers, Sun City Tri, Muckle Tri and Derwent Valley Trail Runners, and simultaneously insults and falls out with everyone he knows in the multisport community.

An Deireadh

Ian Maddison

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