I was pleasantly surprised when my good friend Kenny Short asked me to support him in the Celtman , an Iron distance extreme triathlon and part of the Xtreme race series which now includes the Norseman and Swissman . My surprise was not because I haven’t supported him before but because the Celtman requires a support runner to accompany the racer over 16 miles of mountain running. I’ve not exactly been training much this year , mainly due to a double shoulder operation and tendinitis in my knee. This has made it all but impossible to stay fit. And let’s be honest when it comes to racing Kenny can leave most in his dust!! Ricky Lightfoot would be a more fitting companion for him and right now hes so fit that lately I have struggled to keep up with him even on his “easy” runs. But he was happy that after 2.4 miles of Sea swimming , 120 miles of torturous road biking around Torridon and 10+ miles of running over the Coulin pass I wouldn’t be holding him back any. So one weekend in late June we headed off to Torridon.
We arrived on the Thursday night after a long but very beautiful drive the length of Scotland. Upon arrival at our Hotel we met one of the race support crew. Rhoda from Innerleithen who presently between jobs was taking a little time out and had decided to cycle from her home in the Scottish Borders all the way to Torridon for the event , nice one ! We checked in and met the organisers who are mainly based in the Scottish Borders and Edinburgh. Kenny was on good terms and we joined everyone for dinner later that night. I had already met Paul , pony tailed endurance warrior and the easy going main man of Durty events when I had joined Kenny and the Border triathlon club for a hilly night run up the 3 Brethren. The rest of the group was just as charming and I was happily entertained by their stories of past events.
The swim Exit .. Brrrrrr….. 10degrees if your lucky
The next day after breakfast we headed to registration, did the necessary and headed out to recce the course . A short drive took us to Shieldaig where the swimmers would exit the water and transition to the bike . I popped down to the water’s edge and took a temperature reading ,10 degrees !! Now that’s gonna be a cold one. just then Sean MacFarlane arrived , he’s an outstanding athlete and had taken second place the year before. I have previously written of his exploits here and here .. a top fella and always full of positivity for his races , he’s there to race hard but he also very much loves what he does and he has a glint in his eye he talks of his challenges and every time I’m impressed. Kenny and I headed off from the transition to follow the first part of the 120 mile bike section. It climbed steeply out of the bay and headed inland over for the most part winding and undulating roads through staggeringly beautiful if occasionally harsh countryside.
Gruinard Island , Beautiful yet deadly !
I have kayaked this area many times , the rivers are short , steep boulder strewn torrents when full , a testing area even for expert kayakers. Most will give a scary fight for your life before spitting you out into the sea . The famous Little Gruinard river throws you right out in front of the infamous Anthrax island , you will be amazed just how close that Anthrax testing was to the mainland.
After agreeing on a manageable support plan for the bike stage we headed to the finish of the Coulin pass and start of the mountain run stage . This is where I would be expected to join Kenny and accompany him over Bhein Eighe . A serious mountain stage with a steep ascent to the ridge and summits then an even steeper descent to a half way lochan before a fast run out to the finish. There was a cut off time for this stage and it would favour only the fastest competitors for safety. A plan was drawn and times were agreed . I looked at the mountain and secretly hoped Kenny’s legs were trashed when he arrived at my stage .. well a man can hope
It was now time for the scheduled pre-race briefing, so off we headed to the Torridon centre. We arrived to a hall full of very fit people ! Triathletes have a more muscular build than ultra runners and more often than not are a lot more methodical in their training and diet . It shows . although I like the fact that ultra runners are the dark horses of the fitness world . A rag-tag bunch capable of running for 20 hours at a time yet most wouldn’t even get a second glance in the gym with their skinny legs and the occasional pot belly , compared to the ripped triathlete with quads of steel making all the girls weak at the knees The briefing was funny and light-hearted yet thorough in its need to impress the seriousness of the races nature. Some times these briefings are a little overboard to keep everyone in line. Lets be honest, these types of races may be physically tough but they are ultimately fun races, not an expedition into uncharted danger , everyone is an adult after all and everything takes place in a relatively safe and risk controlled environment so there really is no need to go overboard. Soon we headed back to the hotel for food and a good nights sleep ..
here’s the big fish now !
The alarm went off at 3am , we were to be at the bike transition for 4am , Kenny would then be bussed to the start line out of sight at the other side of the bay. The weather was clear but a growing wind had stirred over night making for a choppy sea. I waited at the transition with my Binoculars watching for the swimmers to round the bay. Sure enough the sight of the safety kayakers guided me to the little yellow swim caps struggling to be seen over the chop. Slowly more and more heads appeared round the bend .. Finally the first of the swimmers reached the exit wobbling their way up the causeway. Gradually more and more swimmers wobbled their way up , they were now coming out thick and fast.
My eyes strained to find Kenny amongst the swarm of black wetsuits exiting the water in the morning gloom ,suddenly he was there, I sprung into action and waited or him to exit the causeway .. we ran to his bike and I helped him exit his wetsuit .. His hands and feet were freezing !! He is a tough as nails competitor so a few cold fingers wouldn’t discourage him but it made stripping off awkward. I got involved like no man ever should and I tried not to pull at anything I shouldn’t soon I was helping him into his bike gear and he was off . That steep climb out the bay will soon warm him up I thought.
leaving Transition 1
I headed off to find a support point 30 miles away as agreed .. Not on a climb , not heading down a hill and not on the run out of a hill were my tactics for a support stop . I was trying to keep it easy on Kenny . He arrived at the first stop in good spirits and I handed him his bottle refills .. I slowly moved from stop to stop becoming part of what was to become the Celtman convoy . At about 100 miles in a few ibuprofen were required and Kenny was off on his last push before his run … I sped off to the run transition and prepared for his arrival .
Head down …. only 120 miles .. lets do it !!
In he came smiling and so glad to be off the bike. A brief rest and refuel before he headed over the Coulin pass , the first of the run stages , 12 miles of low level trail through beautiful scenery although no time to hang around as the cut off still had to be made if we were to run the high level route on the mountain . He was making good time though so I knew he would push on over the pass in good time.
Coulin Pass ..
I loaded the kit and bike , then headed to the mountain staging point , parked up in the rough , good job I drive a landy. It was howling with wind and lashing down with rain. A stout storm had blown in from the coast and was threatening the race. The top competitors had made it before the worst of the storm and were enduring some harsh conditions up top. As a mountaineer with a fair winter experience I’ve been out in some heavy weather , but I was trained, well practiced and geared up for it . Racers on the other hand are trying to move fast and have the minimal of gear, this shrinks the safety zone quite considerably. I’ve no doubt that there were plenty people in the race who would have taken it in their stride , but I’ll also say there were far more who would have been very uncomfortable up on that mountain top. So it was no surprise to me that long before the cut off time and I’m sure taking the racers experience as a whole. And most probably under mountain rescue team advisement the organisers made the decision to close the high level route for safety reasons. At this point all racers were told to follow the lower level route so as to avoid the exposure of the ridge in this the worst of weather.. Do not confuse “lower level” with “low level” as at around 2000 feet and in that weather it was still to be a tough mountain run through some fantastic scenery including passing the famous triple buttress. Additionally it was about to add a few extra miles to the already LONG day Kenny was having. I waited patiently for Kenny exiting the Coulin pass. The weather was filthy and demoralising but bang on plan he arrived at the final checkpoint and having worked very hard to make the cut off he arrived with plenty time to spare. I knew he desperately wanted to run the summit route so sadly I relayed the news , he stared up through the driving rain at the storm clouds now hiding the top Half of the mountain and although disappointed , he knew he couldn’t argue . In the wind and rain we set off on the final 15 miles .
The triple Buttresses of Beinne Eighe
Slowly we climbed up the tight rock strewn path leading to the col below the summit ridge, there are many highs and lows that you will encounter in a long endurance race and I could tell by the relatively slow pace and Kenny’s somber tone of voice that he was battling through a low. I kept chatting and joking , trying to lift the mood but ultimately it’s the individual who has to pick himself up in the end. Slowly we were gaining ground on a group of four runners who were sticking together for safety in the horrendous weather. We picked up our pace to climb a little faster and pass them . This seemed to be the lift Kenny needed and suddenly he was off , bouncing up the hill like we were just out the car on a training run, here we go I thought. We could see another pair of runners not far ahead, let’s have them said Kenny smiling. The terrain was tough , technical and right up our street … We leapt and bound, floated over rocks and streams and it wasn’t long before we had left several groups of runners behind, we had run through some fantastic mountain scenery over a very challenging technical track and neither of us were feeling short-changed by the route change .
working hard in the windy , wet and wild !!
Soon we were dropping height and had hit the beginnings of a rough descent path. The pace upped again and I checked my watch , over 10 miles were behind us and I was now struggling to keep up with Kenny , my watch read sub 7 minute miles …best pace for me and amazing that Kenny was now dragging me down the mountain behind him after over 140 miles and 14 hours of excersion. Eventually we slid out the exit from the descent path onto a small B-road and my legs suddenly were jelly , I had given it everything I had and more on that mountain and there was still a few more miles of hilly road running left … I ran behind Kenny but he’s one fast road machine so I was just holding him back , I looked back to see two of the runners we had left on the hill gaining on us, I told Kenny to kick on without me , after all I had done my part , he said no but I didn’t want him to lose a place in this , the last couple of miles , so I told him to plug it or I wouldn’t be happy … Off he went , finishing in what was probably a 6 minute mile , bloody machine !! we had picked up several places on the run and he finished in an amazing 28th place overall . And I think 11th for age … Given the strength of that field , top athletes from all around the globe and awesome home-grown talent that was a brilliant result. The man is a rock !
Team Hawick !