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Racing the Celtman Xtreme triathlon

Written by Fiona

August 23 2016

The Celtman! Xtreme Triathlon is an international triathlon that takes place over 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 two Munros.

It is held annually in June in Achnasheen, Wester Ross, at the foot of the Torridon mountains in Scotland.

Ranked in the “extreme” category because it offers exceptional difficulties, it has different rules from other triathlons of Ironman distance and a reduced number of competitors.

Created in 2012 , it is the second event in the category “Xtreme Triathlon”, together with the Norseman in Norway, established in 2003 and founder of the extreme triathlons.

Lexi and Duggie.

Lexi and Duggie.

Lexi’s Celtman! race report

Friend and competitor Lexi Cremona, originally from Malta and now living in the Republic of Ireland, completed the Celtman! this summer. She has written a race report.

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 and in the build up to this one day.

The logistics, tapering, nutrition, bike mechanics and equipment were organised in Germanic fashion. I had no appetite, I had no space in my mind for anything else and all my energy was focused on executing the plan set out to achieve this goal.

Thankfully, it all went smoothly. My support team, Duggie, Julie and Gregor, arrived and their Scottish banter relaxed me. It was time for briefing. The nerves of the 165 athletes and all their support teams was palpable and so contagious that I had to leave the room for some fresh air.

Emaciated bodies and chiselled cheeks were worn by the well-tapered bodies in the humid room. Some support teams looked lost, others were frantic and all were concerned as they tip-toed around the crammed bodies of loaded springs.

A short film of the previous year’s event day was shown. The room was dead quiet and the support teams were now drawn into the same wave of emotions that the athletes had been pumping themselves up with for the last 10 months.

Duggie, Julie and Gregor looked happier and more excited than ever. The organisers, Paul McGreal, Stewart McInnes, John Whittakar and the whole Celtman Xtreme team, really showed their experience from the get-go. The briefing went on with great Scottish humour and this helped to dispel a bit of the tension.

The sense of community in Torridon was also very warming.


My goals for the Celtman!

This year was different from my Norseman race in 2014. That year was all about getting to the finish line, while this year I wanted to make the cut-off for the mountain run section. That was the goal. Both events were about being the first Maltese national to complete the events.

To achieve my Celtman! goal I needed 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
  • Run the first 18km along the Coulin pass in two hours to meet the cut-off point for the higher-level run section (rather than the lower level run).

The rest I didn’t focus on and I could have crawled the rest to the finish line for all I cared. Getting to the cut-off point in time was my main aim.

Training for the run

As running is my weakest discipline, I asked a talented runner and Limerick-based coach Mike Carmody (check out his bio and tips) to coach me. The previous 10 months had seen me backing off from swim volume to prioritise cycling time, running regular trail and hills and doing non-wetsuit open water swims to acclimatise.

The exercise load started with a consistent 12 hours a week for the first four months – and ramped up drastically after that when the long bike rides started to go up to six hours in one session and peaked with a 210k stretch on the bike.

The training was lonely and exhausting, so having Mike to encourage and guide me was invaluable.

Having friends who endured my boring bike chat, 9pm shut downs and lack of energy for much else than my bike was really remarkable.

This included my lovely sister Rebecca, who always put a smile on my face and restored my flailing confidence when I Skyped her whilst wolfing down food after a long bike ride and complaining of my aching body and dire social life.

The day of the race

The race start, complete with bagpipers (and midges).

The race start, complete with bagpipers (and midges).

At 2.30am 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. After I’d wakened him, 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 arrived at transition and there was a strange sense of calm amongst the athletes. There were no nerves as it had all transformed to focus and we were all happy being busy and doing what we knew how to do.

I checked in and got the GPS tracker, and set up T1. Duggie was amazing, 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.”

I then tried to force down the porridge and coffee I’d prepared the night before. We took in the great view of the water with the moonlight shimmering on the surface, while nervously making jokes about the jellyfish we had encountered in thousands just two days before.

I was concerned about them because when we tested the water I was laughing hysterically and attempting to swim with my head out of the water through the mass of slippery beasts. But I was calm on the morning and was adamant not to let something like this jeopardise so much time and effort for this race.

More of an immediate problem at the start line were the midges. With bagpipes playing, at exactly 5am, we were off!

A good Celtman! swim

The swim went well. I focused not on the jellyfish but on being in the water the least amount of time possible. The pack of swimmers started to funnel in the first few hundred metres and I found myself in the middle of the fast swimmers and the second bunch. I just kept to my rhythm as I had a couple of people sitting on my feet.

I then took a wide veer from the island shore because I felt the water was moving better with the tide out there. This proved to be a good strategy in the end. I was out of the water in 49 minutes, and through T1 in 55 seconds, so everything went to plan.

Lexi exits the swim.

Lexi exits the swim.

Out on the bike

Bike route. 202km with 3000m elevation.

Bike route. 202km with 3000m elevation.

The aim on the bike was to average 28kph and minimal stops. I needed to finish in eight hours including any stops or punctures. Annoyingly, my GPS did not seem to be working and, in the end, I discovered this was probably due to interference from my race tracker.

You learn in long distance event to take the unexpected in your stride.

My support adapted quickly and tried to estimate how far into the bike I was at various points on the course.

Nutrition on the bike was crucial, too. I knew I had to consume 60-75g carbohydrates each hour to sustain the level of effort I was working at.

I felt strong on the bike leg and I had confidence in the amount of training I had done. It would prove to be a struggle to keep eating right up to the end on of the bike section but I forced myself as I knew that once I was on the run I wouldn’t be able to tolerate much. I’m still unable to eat bananas eight weeks after the event!

I was smiling throughout and took in as much of the beautiful views as I could. I also absorbed the great energy of Julie, Duggie and Gregor.

I got the bike done in 7:43 and transitioned in 3min 30s to maximise the time I had available to run the Coulin pass.

Duggie raises the Maltese flag in support.

Duggie raises the Maltese flag in support.

Running towards the goal

This next 18km would determine if I make the cut off or not so I was still very focused. 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, just telling myself to keep going as I knew the fatigue would hit me soon.

Within a couple of kilometres the pass started to get steeper climbing up to 250m over the next 8km. We kept plodding and Gregor kept drip-feeding me energy gels and flat cola while stopping at the water stations as I tried to keep a rhythm going.

Reaching one of the two summits.

Reaching one of the two summits.

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 to 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, plus a kit check, so once I was cleared Gregor and I bid farewell to Duggie and Julie. We would see them again seven hours later!

The higher level run

Elevation profile of high-level run route.

Elevation profile of high-level run route.

We started to climb the first Munro, which was 900m straight up, in sections so steep there were people almost tumbling back with their tired legs. I simply placed one foot in front of the other and topped out on the first Munro in less than two hours.

There were the mountain rescue crew dotted above the mountaintops to ensure we were in a fit enough state to continue.

We enjoyed great views and up until this point Gregor was still considering doing the event 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 did not feel much easier than the uphill.

Descending the scree slope we scrambled into a boulder field, which was hard to navigate, so the map came out as we tried to figure out the direction to head in.

Just as Gregor and I were descending the final part of the mountain, we were delighted to see Duggie’s friendly 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 final race section

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 and risk collapsing before the finish, or I would walk this and make it to the end having accomplished the mountain.

Duggie and I enjoyed a fantastic 7km walk with the moonlit mountains towered at our sides. I heard the best Duggiepedia stories, catching up on the last three years since moving to Ireland and life in general.

I spoke to my sister, too, and she made me laugh as she was describing how ironically different her day had been dining on the river Danube whilst tracking me.

My family and friends had been tracking me all day and the feeling was amazing.

We crossed the line together: Scotland, Ireland and Malta.

The finish.

The finish.

The final results

I was the 10th female to cross the line from the mountain finish and a further 10 woman completed the low course route, while 15 more 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 the Celtman Xtreme is run with heart and soul!

The day after the Celtman!

Lexi and her support team, Julie, Duggie and Gregor.

Lexi and her support team, Julie, Gregor and Duggie .

The next day was spent with my support attending the ceremony and going over the previous day’s events. Even though I’m a strong believer that it’s all about the journey, 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.

  • See Celtman! to register your desire to enter in 2017.

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