The Celtman Xtreme Triathlon is an international competition of triathlon that takes place on a slightly greater distance than an Ironman (3.8 km swim in jellyfish infested Atlantic waters of 110C, 202 km hilly bike, 42 km of running up 2 munros ).It is held annually in June in Achnasheen Wester Ross in the foot of the Torridon Hills in Scotland . Ranked in the extreme category because it offers exceptional difficulties, it accepts different rules from other triathlon on distance Ironman and a reduced number of competitors. Created in 2012 , it is the second event created in the category ” Xtreme Triathlon ” (Xtri) with the Norseman in Norway established in 2003 and founder of the extreme triathlons.
All was calm and a bit surreal in the days preceding the briefing which was held the night before the event. I was in my own head and had unconsciously created an impenetrable space between myself and my exterior over the previous months in build up to this one day. All the logistics, tapering, nutrition, bike mechanics and equipment was organised in Germanic fashion. The panic was over, the test of the preparation had to prove to be enough as I surrendered to time unfolding over the next few days. I had no appetite, I had no space in my mind for anything else, all my energy was focused on executing the plan set out to achieve this goal.
All went smoothly, my support team arrived and their Scottish bantering made me relax even more. It was time for briefing. My bubble was being pierced by the nerves of the 165 athletes and all their support which was palpable and so contagious I had to leave the room for some fresh air. Emaciated bodies and chiselled cheeks were worn by the well tapered vibrating bodies in the humid and warm room. Some support looking lost, others frantic, and all concerned as they tip-toed around the crammed bodies of loaded springs.
After a bit of fresh air and greeting my super run support Gregor, we were asked to come in for briefing. I was hoping the briefing wouldn’t be as dramatic as that of Norseman triathlon in 2014 as I was trying to keep the level of fused nerves and excitement to a simmer.
The experience in fact was altogether different to Norseman in 2014. Celtman offered an equally exhilarating journey and experience to Norseman but was incredibly unique from the minute the ballot results were announced.
The short film of the previous years event day was showing. The room drops dead quiet and the support are now drawn into the same wave of emotions the athletes have been pumping themselves with for the last 10 months. Duggie, Julie and Gregor (my support team) looked happier and more excited than ever, others who brought along their unaware parents were now perhaps worried they wouldn’t endure the day that was ahead of them. The organisers; Paul McGreal, Stewart McInnes and the whole Celtman Xtreme team really showed their experience from the get- go. The briefing went on in very Scottish-humour, immediately dispelling the tension in the room as they reminded us to take time to look up and absorb the breath-taking views only the North West coast of Scotland could offer. The sense of community in Torridon was very warming, and gave the event a sense of purpose as the community centre hosting the briefing gets a healthy injection of cash from Celtman each year to keep the place running, meaning the community is directly benefitting by the event and the locals greet athletes with welcoming faces despite being returned with the typical athlete-zombie face.
This year was different for me to Norseman 2014, that year was all about getting to the finish line. This year I wanted to make the cut-off for the mountain. That was the goal. Both were about being the first Maltese national to complete the events. To achieve this the goal meant to complete 3.8k of tide assisted swimming and come out of T1 in an hour, complete the 202km bike route with 3000m elevation in 8 hours, giving me 2 hours to run the first 18km up the Coulin pass with a stone underfoot carrying a backpack with mandatory kit. The rest I didn’t focus on, I could have crawled the rest to the finish line for all I cared. Getting to the cut-off point in time was the goal.
As running is my weakest discipline, I asked a talented runner and Limerick based coach Mike Carmody to coach (check out his bio and tips below) in order to focus on the running. The previous 10 months saw me backing off from swim volume to prioritise cycling time, running regular trail and hills, doing non-wetsuit open water swims to acclimatize and long bike rides. The exercise load started with a consistent 12 hours a week for the first 4 months and ramped up drastically after that when the long bikes started to go up to 6 hours in one session, and peaking with a 210k bike ride. The training was lonely and exhausting, so having Mike encourage and guide me was invaluable. Having friends who endured my boring bike chat, 9pm shut downs and lack of energy for much else then my bike was really remarkable. My lovely sister Rebecca, who always put a smile on my face and restored my flailing confidence when I would skype her whilst wolfing down some food after a long bike complaining of my aching body and dire social life.
The day had arrived.
2.30a.m I was up just before the alarm went off. I am pretty sure I looked like an owl. Poor Duggie didn’t quite wake in the same way, instead I woke him just before his alarm and he dragged himself out of the tent. The other support remained for more sleep. We rolled down to the start, Duggie keeping me nice and calm. We arrive at transition, and there is a strange sense of calm amongst the athletes. There were no nerves, it had all transformed to focus, we were all happy now busy doing what we know how to do. Checked in and got the GPS tracker, T1 set up. Duggie was unbelievable, allowing me to repeat myself a million times over with the plan. “ok so Duggie, out of T1 in an hour… it’s ok if I look like a blue popsicle, I’ll warm up on the bike” to which Duggie repeated a reassuring “aye aye”. Back to the Land Rover which had 2 kayaks on it to be easily identifiable, to force down the porridge and coffee I prepared the night before. We took in the great view of the water with the moonlight shimmering on the surface, nervously making jokes of the jellyfish we had encountered in thousands just 2 days before. I was actually concerned about them as when we tested the water I was hysterically laughing and attempting to swim with my head out of the water as we waded through the mass of slippery beasts. But I was calm on the morning and was adamant not to let something like this jeopardize so much time and effort of my support and myself.
The buses were loading the athletes, up I went and round the coast to the start-line, out of sight of all the kind support and villager faces that we used as nerve clenching crutches the previous couple of nights. We were there, and it was happening. The bagpipes were playing, and we tried not to waste too much energy as we flailed to keep the midges away. There wasn’t much friendly conversation at the start-line as the focus was narrowing every minute. Out into the water we went, some more hesitant then others between the cold and the jellies. That’s not my style though, once allowed in I got into the water to warm up and set myself up at the front assessing my view for good sighting. 5a.m on the dot the fog horn sounded and we were off!
Figure 1 At the start where athletes exit the water once we come round the second island and head for the slipway
Figure 2 Coming out of the water heading into T1
Figure 3 Bagpipes & drums playing as we exit the water, everyone wearing midge nets over their faces to keep the little beasties away!
The swim went well, a good start, I kept calm with the jellyfish and focussed on being in the water the least amount of time as possible. The pack started to funnel in the first few hundred metres and I found myself in the middle of the first few fast ones and the second bunch. I just kept to my rhythm as I had a couple of people sitting on my feet. I took a wide veer from the island shore as I felt the water was moving better with the tide out there. This proved to be a good strategy in the end. Out the water there was a great atmosphere as we were greeted in with the first signs of daylight. Out the water in 49 minutes, and out T1 in 55- all was going to plan!
Figure 4 The bike route shown on a map. 202km with 3000m elevation
Figure 5 T1: where we changed from our wetsuit to bike wear, and headed straight up the little hill in the background
Figure 6 Douggie holding up the Maltese flag as I approached one of the peaks on the bike
After a quick drying up, off I went on the bike. I would see my support after 60k and then every 50k after that. The aim on the bike was to average 28kph on the bike and stop minimally to get it done in 8h max including any stops or punctures. Onto the bike I quickly realised my GPS did not work and was not clocking my speed or distance- eventually I found out it was most likely due to the interference from the tracker given to us. I realised this quite quickly but decided to pace myself according to feel rather than wasting time seeing what was wrong. I wasn’t too phased, as you learn to take the unexpected in your stride, it’s part of the mental challenge involved. It was risky as over-exerting early in the bike would pay the ultimate price later. My support adapted quickly and tried to estimate how far into the bike I was at various points. Nutrition on the bike was crucial too, I knew I had to get 60-75g carbohydrates in me every hour to sustain the level of effort I was working at, so I had prepared all this beforehand and rationed out the food and drink for 8 hours of cycling time. I felt strong on the bike leg and had confidence in the amount of training I put in it. It would prove to be a struggle to keep eating right up till the end on the bike but I forced myself as I knew once on the run I wouldn’t be able to tolerate much. I was smiling throughout, took in as much of the beautiful views I could and absorbed the great energy of Julie, Duggie and Gregor who just really were so bright throughout the whole day. I got the bike done in 7h43 and transitioned in 3min 30s to maximise the time I had available to run the Coulin pass. This next 18km would determine if I make the cut off or not so I was still very focussed. Gregor joined me at this point and we set off at a pace of 6min per km on a stone track and with packs on our back. Gregor was very energetic and I was feeling good, but I kept quiet and focussed just telling myself to keep going as I knew the fatigue would hit me soon. Within a couple of km the pass started to get steeper climbing up to 250m over the next 8k. We kept plodding and Gregor kept drip feeding me energy gels and flat cola whilst stopping at the water stations whilst I just tried to keep a rhythm going. The downhill offered a bit of relief but in the back of my head I was worried I would get a stitch and be unable to continue the pace. We got the tarmacked section and I knew it was the last stretch to the transition. I picked up the pace a little and made it to the T2A cut off with 30 minutes to spare. Phew!
There was a medical tent at that point, and a kit check, so once all was cleared Gregor and I bid farewell to Duggie and Julie and we would only see them again 7 hours later!
Figure 7 Elevation profile of high-level run route.
Figures 8a and 8b Some of the views during the mountain stage
We started to climb the first munro which was 900m straight up, in sections so steep people were almost tumbling back with their tired legs. One foot in front of the other and we were up the first munro in less than 2 hours. There was the mountain rescue dotted above the mountain tops to ensure we were in a fit state to continue as up there you could run into trouble very quickly. We enjoyed great views and up until this point Gregor was still considering doing it next year! There was good comradery amongst the athletes and past the high level checkpoint we were all in it together. There were a few false summits which wore on the mind at that point, and by the time we were descending the legs were so phenomenally exhausted that it didn’t feel much easier than the uphill. Descending the scree slope we scrambled down the side of it into a boulder field which was hard to navigate on, so the map was out as we tried to figure out which direction to head in.
Figure 9 Reaching one of the 2 summits
Just before Gregor and I made it to the road below the mountain top and we were delighted to see Duggie’s friendly and energetic face. He accompanied us, humouring us with “oh you look fresh”… “aye right Duggie!”. At the road we saw Julie and had a moment to grab some things from the car, I don’t think I was ever so happy to eat some smoked salmon! We were all pretty famished by then so Julie and Gregor headed off to get some food and meet Duggie and myself at the finish line. The last 7km where on the road and flat. I had a decision to make, I would attempt to run this putting my body under stress again risking of collapsing before the finish, or I walk this and make it to the end having accomplished the mountain. Duggie and I enjoyed a fantastic 7k walk with the moonlit mountains towered on our sides. I heard the best Duggiepedia stories, catching up on the last 3 years since moving from Ireland and life in general. I spoke to my lovely sister too, hearing her voice was so fab as she made me laugh as she was describing dining on a boat on the river Danube. My family and friends had been tracking me all day and the feeling was amazing. We crossed the line together: Scotland, Ireland and Malta. I was the 10th female to cross the line from the mountain finish, a further 10 woman completed the low course route, and 15 others took to the start-line but did not finish the event. The race organisers were all there to greet us at mid-night, really proving how Celtman Xtreme is run with heart and soul!
The next day was spent with my support attending the ceremony and going over the previous day events. It was a great feeling to hold the Maltese flag up at the end with Julie, Gregor and Duggie who made it possible on the day to achieve one of my dreams; with great support from Glasgow Triathlon Club and Limerick Triathlon Club, my loving family- especially my sister Rebecca, as well as my fantastic friends Rachel Turner, Ronan, Alice, Alan, Lenny, Sinead, Janet, my sporting inspiration uncle Jo and his partner Maggie as well as many other; technical support from massage therapist Orla and bike mechanic extraordinaire Bob; and a brilliant coach, who really gifted me with the privilege of feeling like an athlete- without his support I would never have made the mountain top- go raibh maith agat Mike!
Figure 10 Coming into the finish 19 hours later
Figure 11 Duggie telling me a jellyfish jokes the day of the ceremony.
Figure 12 The best support crew ever! From left: Julie, Gregor, myself and Duggie with the Maltese flag at the finishing ceremony.
Figure 13: 149 athletes who completed the high and low course
About the coach Michael Carmody:
From: Shannagolden, Limerick
Sport: Long distance running – 1500m to 10 miles
Favourite Event: Cross country
3rd in the National Community Games Marathon (7k) 2006
1st in Munster Schools cross country championships 2009
2nd in the National Junior cross country championships 2009
1st in Munster U23 cross country championships 2008 and 2011
1st in Munster Senior cross country championships 2012
6k = 18:07
4 miles = 19:24
5 miles = 24:49
10 miles = 52:20
800m = 1:59
1500m = 4:06
3000m = 8:30
5000m = 14:56
10000m = 31:29
Future Goals: Olympic marathon 2020
Coaching: Coach to a significant number of athletes ranging from 400m runners to ironman triathletes to those wishing to complete their first 5k race
Top 10 tips from coach Carmody
“High volume, low intensity”: In order to obtain a good performance at Celtman it is essential to be extremely efficient aerobically. Therefore the key to any good training programme can be surmised as “high volume, low intensity”.
Minimal emphasis on anaerobic training: An individual’s anaerobic capabilities are of minimal concern in such a long event. Therefore anaerobic work is best confined to short max effort sprints on the bike and short hill sprints in running, as well as hill repetitions in both the bike and the run. The short sprints help to prime the neuromuscular system, while the hill repetitions help to build essential leg strength.
Train yourself to use fat as fuel: As the ability to utilise fat as fuel is of such vital importance, it is a good idea to do a significant amount of your training either on an empty stomach in the case of short sessions or in the case of longer rides and runs, to avoid carbohydrate consumption within the session. However it is essential that your heart rate does not exceed 75% of your max in order to ensure that you are tapping into your fat reserves. Additionally fasted sessions can place strain on the immune system, which means that very often there is a trade off or a balance to be struck between opting to go fasted or to go fuelled.
Psychology: Psychology cannot be understated and training by oneself can be very beneficial. 6-7 hour solo training rides may seem sole destroying at the time but they can very often be the difference between reaching your goal or not.
Sacrifice the swim: The percentage of time that you will spend in the water in a an ironman race is less than the percentage of time that you will spend in the water in a short distance triathlon. The percentage of time that you will spend in the water during Celtman is even less again. Therefore it often pays to sacrifice training time in the pool in order to reap greater gains in the bike and/or the run.
Go Non-wetsuit: In order the prepare the body and mind for the low water temperatures of Celtman, it can be a good idea to do a significant amount of swimming without a wetsuit. However this can place an excessive burden on the immune system, meaning that a fine line must be thread.
Taper: There is nothing worse than preparing specifically for an event for up to 12 months and then to underperform on the day on account of not tapering properly. Both the body and the mind need to be freshened up in order to get the full benefit form all of the preceding training. A gradual and progressive 3 week taper is recommended for an event such as Celtman.
Recovery: It is said that a standard ironman race can temporarily age the body by up to 20 years. Celtman takes an enormous physical, psychological and emotional toll on an individual. Therefore somewhere in the region of a 6 week period of active recovery is advisable before the resumption of full training can even be considered.
Who is suited to doing well in Celtman?: Aerobic “monsters” who possess vast quantities of slow twitch muscle fibres and who are very good at clearing lactic acid, are the people who are best suited to performing well at Celtman. This can be ascertained from a standard lactate test.
When should I consider doing Celtman?: It takes years of physical and psychological conditioning in order to be able to perform well at Celtman. Hence it is not advisable to consider signing up for the race immediately after you have completed your first sprint distance triathlon.