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Colm overcomes nausea, anxiety and exhaustion to finish Starman

Written by Fiona

August 31 2017

A friend and fellow Glasgow Tri Club member Colm Tracey took on the inaugural Starman Night-time Triathlon this month. Despite feeling sick, extreme tiredness and a deep desire to simply stop, he made it to the finish line. Organised by True Grit Events, the middle distance Starman Night Tri is set in the  Cairngorms National Park. It started at midnight and included a four-lapped swim of 1.2 miles in the waters of Loch Morlich. A 56-mile bike ride followed with many ups and downs and then a half marathon that ascended the mountain of Cairn Gorm.

Caroline MacKechnie of True Grit Events, said “We are absolutely overwhelmed by the success of the event, especially as it was the first one. Everyone who took part gave everything and really seemed to enjoy themselves, too, despite the huge challenge. We´d like to thank everyone that helped make it happen and most importantly everyone who participated in this crazy challenge. We hope to see you all back here next year.”

Participants could enter individually or as part of a relay team. Th winner was Scottish athlete Sean McFarlane, 44, of Dollar, in 6:39:07. The first female athlete was Gillian Sangster, 46, of Carnoustie in 7:33:05. The first relay team in a time of 6:39:52 included Morven Bridges, Andrew Vickerstaff and Steven Worsley from Inverness and Gairloch.

Colm prepares for the swim.

Colm’s Starman race report

With my brother Ciaran in tow as support, I drove up to Aviemore Saturday morning, with my nerve jangling. We reached the beach hub to register not long after it opened, where the True Grit crew were a hive of activity, yet seemingly serene in everything they did. As a boutique race, as Caroline put it to me, it was a small and very friendly affair, and I felt welcome from the outset.

After a bit of flapping back and forth on my part, I was tagged with a dibber chip, and my T2 kit back packed and left, then it was into town for some food and a couple of hours’ kip.

Sadly, with the exception of a half hour, sleep eluded me, as my confidence from just days before abandoned me to a torrent of self doubt. I was questioning everything I’d done in training and what I was about to face and this set my stomach to gurgling nausea mode. When the time came to leave, I wanted to crawl under the covers, but my brother was having none of it, so off we went.

Despite the darkness, setting up in T1 had the familiar air of T1s everywhere so I felt at home, despite the continued nausea. Once finished, it was on to the beach to contemplate the dark water with everyone else.

Ready for the swim on Loch Morlich beach.

Starman night swim

Getting ready for the swim was a little different than normal, as we all had to be fitted out with glow sticks with one each side of the head attached to the goggle strap and a third tied to the wetsuit zip, which resulted in plenty of jokes and photo opportunities. The bonus for me was that the process meant I had my wetsuit on earlier than I might have for other races, so I had plenty of time to move the neoprene about for the best fit I could get.

The briefing was clear and given the turmoil in my stomach, it was good to be told that if anyone wanted to come out of the water early, we could just head out on the bike. This further demonstrated the friendly approach the team was taking to the race.

Straman night swim.

The swim was four laps around five illuminated bouys, with each lap finishing by nipping through goal posts back towards the beach to shout out our race number, so the organisers could make sure everyone was okay. As well as that, they had a kayaker at each buoy, a couple alongside the swimmers and a rib in the middle, and we were never more than 80m from the shore, so at no point did I feel unsafe.

We went off in three small waves, with me in the middle wave. The first wave got in, then everyone on the shore gave them a countdown – and the inaugural Starman was underway.

Swimming around a buoy.

It was strange watching the green glow from the sticks spreading along the water, but I didn’t have long to think about it before we were called over to dib in, then into the water, ready to go.

The water was pleasant enough, though a little bit choppy, so I struggled to get into a decent rhythm throughout the swim. It was a mix of breast-stroke and crawl for me and when my crawl did click, it felt glorious, but inevitably the nausea from my stomach would break my stroke and I’d be back to breaststroke to steady myself.

Swimming round the buoys or close to other swimmers had a slightly surreal feel with the glow in the water from the lights and glow sticks, which was oddly soothing.

At the start of the third lap, I was feeling rougher still, so I took the decision to call time after that lap, rather than risk getting worse and ruining the bike. I was disappointed but relieved to be heading to T1, which was a short way up the beach behind the hub.

The bikes were set up on tarpaulins to keep the sand away, and there were buckets to wash your feet in to get the sand off of them. This was another nice touch.

Colm heads out of T1 for the bike course.

The Starman bike ride

Given that I had exited the water early, I felt no rush to be out on the bike, so I took my time, got my kit on, then wheeled the bike to the mount line, dibbed again and I was away.

The first section of the bike to Colyumbridge was predominantly down hill, so I was able to get used to the bike and the feeling of cycling in the dark. I had a bike light (plus spare) and a head torch, and between them on the lowest settings they provided ample light to see the road surface ahead. I started taking fuel on board and began to settle into a rhythm.

The only negative I can give to this event was that some of the arrows were difficult to see in the dark (orange arrows with small reflective patches stuck on). Admittedly they did highlight that it was our responsibility to follow the route, carry a map etc., but I came close to missing the second (?) turn (totally justifying the decision to put my glasses on), and the other competitor behind me would have missed it if I hadn’t been there.

The section after the turn was rolling road through the trees and was very enjoyable.

Making good progress, I came to the climb before Grantown on Spey slightly ahead of my target time. There was a nasty wee steep section but once over the top, the descent was the most fun I had all race. I made the lights brighter to better see the road and cranked up the gears, grinning ear to ear as I swept down the hill.

The feed station was a good chance to stretch the legs and get some different food on board, then I was off again into the night.

Cutting off the main road, there was a section of back roads along near the river Dulnain (I think!) where I enjoyed the most majestic part of the race. Spinning along the quiet road, I noticed that the clouds had moved away quite a bit, so I dimmed the front light and switched off the head torch to see the stars.

Buzzing along the lane under the stars, Starman lived up to its name.

On the stretch back from Boat of Garten I was struggling to take on fuel (the granola bars had become dust in my mouth and I had to sip gels to stop my stomach rebelling) and the air took that pr- dawn drop in temperature, though as the long drag up the hill began at Colyumbridge, being too cold was not an issue.

After the initial drag, the hill kicked in, and as I climbed, I noticed that dawn was coming. After a sustained effort, the incline became less severe and I was able to turn up the speed a bit. I heard two people approaching from behind which spurred me on to T2 in an attempt to beat them there (I did!).

The Starman run.

The Starman run

I racked my bike, lifted my GPS tracker from the top tube then stumbled over to my run bag. As I was getting my bike kit off and and run kit on, one of the relay swimmers was in T2, helping bag up kit and fetch people hot drinks and snacks from the feed station in a way that summed up the mood of the race: Totally friendly and helpful.

Once kitted up, I finished my hot chocolate that she’d brought over, then raided the feed station for food I thought I could stomach. Grapes, nuts and a snickers bar were gratefully munched, then a Mars and a Snickers stashed in the race belt for later. Then began my most miserable section of the race.

The run course takes you up the Windy Ridge path towards Ptarmigan Station. The opening section is an unrelenting steep climb for the most part up stone steps made from local rocks, so varying in height. I’d reccie’d this part a few weeks before, so I knew what to expect, but it was a shock to the system so far into the race and I was left with two speeds: Slow and slower.

It was now around 5.30am and I could feel my tiredness really kicking in, but there was nothing to do except keep putting one foot in front of the other and trying to get food and water into myself. I got up the steepest part, but even though the path was in theory easier, my legs couldn’t go faster and I fell into a dark mood.

I was convinced that I would not be able to finish the race. The only way I kept going as I walked above the cloud line was to promise myself that I would jack it in when I got back to T2.

Colm’s photos reveal the beautiful scenery of the run.

Near the top there were a couple of marshals to keep us on track (though it would be very difficult to lose the path, even in the middle of the night) and as I reached them, I wanted to stop and sleep, but their cheery words helped me trudge on.

The final section of climb was to the top of the roped section of Cairn Gorm. Due to the low cloud cover, mountain rescue had rightly put a brake on the summit being the turning point. I trudged back down to Ptarmigan Station, had a word with the marshal, then attempted a run down hill. To my surprise, I could actually run.

Coming down under the cloud, my mood started to slowly lift. After passing another marshal, I took the chance to take a couple of photos and enjoy being in the surroundings. I reached T2 without issue, and by this point I had decided T2 was not the end.

I took my time at the feed station, eating plenty and drinking coke, gabbing away to the volunteers until I felt a bit more human, then I was off downhill again.

Colm “endures” the run.

Due to a landslide, the route had been changed, but the surface was good underfoot and the views were lovely as I wound my way down to the valley. The lower I got, the warmer I became, so I took the chance on a wooden walkway to get my leggings off. Sitting down with abductors that spasmed when I lifted my legs to pull the tights off was a different kind of pain!

Then it was on to the flat again where I lost the ability to run once more, so I simply walked. I reached the turn for the second half of the run and actually took it, convinced that I’d be too late to the bothy, so I’d get sent home along the lower option.

After a long walk, I reached the bothy five minutes after the cut off time, yet they still sent me up the hill. Cruel! A bacon butty awaited, so I changed into my sunglasses (I knew I was going to be slow, clearly) and began the final climb.

Running towards the finish, with a big smile!

By the time I thought I was halfway up the hill, I could see the last runner had started up the hill, so was closing on me, which kept my focus on making steady progress up the hill. I had a moment of despair reaching a false summit, which was the actual halfway point, but I kept myself going by eating, drinking and taking the odd photo of the beautiful views.

Eventually I reached the top, dibbed in, said thanks to the crew for waiting so long and shambled off down the hill, running when I could. It was a lovely trail through the woods that seemed to go on forever and then I was heading to the beach, past my paparazzi brother and onwards to the finish line where my medal awaited and I could stop after 10.5 hours of glorious torment.

Once again, the crew showed their class, with the enthusiasm they welcomed me home and with the banter from the marshals who on course had heard my doubts about finishing and encouraged me onwards. It would have been a much harder task without you folks.

There was post-race massage, which did me a power of good. There was more banter with the crew and organisers and then there was sleep in the car on the way back down the road.

Thanks for the support

I have many people to thank, including my friend Craig for the recent rides on the bike, as I tried to get myself into some kind of shape on the saddle, to Fiona (that’s me!) for the loan of the head torch (it was amazing on the bike) and Iain for the bike lights (just brilliant), Ciaran for the support over the race weekend and before and most importantly my partner Mairi for putting up with all the training and complaining.

Colm’s race in a nutshell

I underestimated the race and I over estimated myself. It was a hard route, compounded by the night-time aspect. Physically and mentally it was tougher than I expected, but with determination and cheery words from the marshals I pulled myself through and I am so glad I did as it was worth every bit of it.

The course was tough but rewarding, the event was brilliantly organised and the whole race had such a friendly vibe.It is also really nice to think I was there for the first one and stepping into the unknown. If you fancy a challenge, I can heartily recommend this as an event to try.

I still get surprised at how far I’ve come – when I did my first half Ironman in 2011, I couldn’t walk properly for a couple of weeks. Five days on from Starman and my legs are functioning just fine, except for being tired, so I feel I need another week, then I can get back into training. After all, I’ve got the Lochgilphead Triathlon to get ready for in a few weeks.

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