Celtman – The Supporters Story

IMG_1637Two weeks ago today it was all over. Celtman 2019 was done. It wasn’t a one woman show though. An event like this needs a support team, and well, I was part of that team. So what’s it like supporting on such an epic event?

When The Short One got into Celtman back in November 2018 I didn’t hesitate at offering to be part of her support team. It wasn’t an option. An excuse for a 5 day trip away from my kids with one of my best friends, in one of the most beautiful places in the world. It was a no brainer!

I don’t recall it requiring much negotiation with the husband either. After our 2018 solstice trip I think he’d conceded that we’d want to clear off again for another midsummer trip. He’s come to realise how much I need my adventures.

Celtman isn’t like most iron distance triathlon’s, there’s a reason it’s called extreme. It’s unsupported. It’s a point to point. It has, what we realised, are pretty tight cut off times throughout the race. That means there’s no doing laps round a short course with feed stations and lots of spectators to cheer you on, or taking things steady. It can be a very single, lonely venture. Other than at the start, finish, transition zones and some of the trickier parts of the run you see little evidence of the event. You have to have a support crew to feed you, help you in transition and make sure you’re motivated to keep going for hours on end………….the final finisher took over 18 hours at this year’s event! That’s a long time in your own head!

That’s where I, and The Taller One came in. I’d been down as support driver since day one, The Taller One got roped in a little later as the mandatory support runner. It took The Short One a while to convince one of our many running friends that spending 5 days driving around Scotland in a van with the pair of us would be a good idea. I can’t imagine why.

He was perfect though, the calm, collected influence we needed to our occasionally excitable, nervous pairing. Cracking his head open the day before race day just added an extra frisson of excitement 😉

The excitement for our trip had been building for weeks. Nerves about racing on The Short One’s part, concerns that the ankle she’d damaged 8 weeks before would give out and that her resulting fitness levels had dropped too low. Excitement about the dipping opportunities I might get and the apprehension about what supporting on a race like this would entail. A chance for all of us to have a rare adventure away from home.

The Thursday before race day the long journey started in The Celtvan. Lent to us very kindly by my brother in law. A re-mapped ex Parcel Force van converted into a camper van. It matched my Dryrobe exquisitely and definitely had the power and space to take on our challenge. Not our lodgings for the trip but it certainly felt like home by the time we got back.

Day 1. Uneventful drive up. I instantly fell in love with our home for the trip in the sleepy village of Lochcarron. The Loch was less than 50m from the front door. I think I was in it within 15 minutes of our arrival 🙂

Day 2. Awoken by The Short One at 7am to ask me very kindly to come down and have a look at The Taller One’s bleeding head. An early morning walk and small slip had resulted in a 2 inch long cut to the back of his head. We gave the quiet little medical centre quite a shock when we walked in at 8am. All was fine, no stitches required, just needed to be kept dry. Thankfully no instructions to sit still for a few days either!

And from there the hectic schedule commenced. A social swim at Sheildaig where the swim would end the following day. An opportunity to meet a few other athletes, experience the cooler Scottish waters and prepare for the jellyfish.

Not being one to miss out on a dip, of course I joined in. A little out and back, a little chat. A mild freak out from The Short One when a jellyfish came in for full face hug. For a while I think the safety canoe looked a little concerned at the noise. He eventually realised we were just in fits of hysterical laughter and moved on.

Then followed the well-oiled machine of kit check and race registration, nap time and further kit packing back at the house, race briefing, final van loading and a carb heavy dinner with a little local brew for me.

Day 3: Alarm at 2am! I’ve never woken up so sprightly so early before. Clearly the adrenaline was already running. With final bits loaded into the van, a spot of breakfast and every thermal drinks container we owned filled and ready for the day ahead we were on the road by 2:30.

I don’t think I’ll ever forget that drive over. A little light in the sky, enough to see the hills but little enough to say it was still very much the middle of the night.

No other cars on the road to start with but then, in the distance, tail lights began to appear. A steady stream of other Celtman vehicles making the trip to Sheildaig. At one point they were laid out across a winding road though a glen in front of us. A steady snake of Celtman excitement and apprehension ahead.

As we drove into Sheildaig Take That’s Greatest Day aptly came on our playlist as we joined the queue to park in the tiny lochside village. Every verge, kerbside and spare piece of road taken up by race vehicles, all with their vivid pink race stickers in the window.

Bike racked, T1 kit unloaded, changed into wetsuit and it seemed no time at all before we were waving The Short One onto the bus to take her to the start line.

A midge infested bacon roll and a brew for The Taller One and I, a little 30 minute power nap in the van and further prep of food and drinks ensued. I was still faffing around when I heard the piper begin his call to action as the first swimmer came in.

Then started the first of three anxious waits for The Short One. A steady stream of cold, serious faced athletes made their way from the water. Some bewildered by the cold, some unable to stand and get their feet for the run to transition. I stood and waited patiently for the steady stroke of The Short One that I know so well.

I knew she’d be towards the back of the swim, one of the slower but very steady swimmers. She emerged in a happy place as she came out, no blue face, cold water dizziness or confusion for her. Just her regular race grin. Our winter swimming had paid off!

A gentle run up to transition with a little stop off as another kind supporter poured warm water down her back and we were off for the first of two dressing sessions. Years of practice at getting two small boys dressed transferred well to a damp triathlete with mildly numb hands. Wetsuit whipped off, towel applied, feet warmed in a bowl of warm water, full change of clothes, coffee and porridge. A perfect T1……..or so we thought.

She went to pick up her helmet before grabbing her bike. It wasn’t there! In our nerves at 3am we’d left it in the van. The beautifully packed T1 box with everything we needed had been there but we’d forgotten the most important bit of kit! The Taller One was dispatched for a sprint back to the van and she was off within a couple of minutes. Thankfully the un-warmed up sprint didn’t seem to break The Taller One either. We didn’t need an even more broken Taller One for later!

And so the long bike leg commenced. Off the Celtvan pulled for the 202km drive around Wester Ross chasing down bikes, passing out food and drinks, analysing the weather, a spot of tree surgery, briefly enjoying the view when we could.  Did she have a headwind or a tailwind? Would it rain? Was she cold? Too warm? What state would she be in at our next meet point?  What food would she want next? A constant stream of thought and considerations.

The first half of the bike was brutal for The Short One. More of that from her here The Short Adventures – I came for an adventure………. A constant headwind combined with endless hills. The rear half of the athletes were hit by a change in wind direction that kept that headwind in place for even longer along with some heavy, heavy Scottish rain. Suddenly the back half of the race started to drop off in pace making the all-important time cut off at T2 even harder to make.

It had never even entered our head that The Short One wouldn’t make the T2 time cut off. The bike’s her strongest section. Usually overtaking those in front who’d manged a faster swim. But the weather didn’t work in her favour. Suddenly talk turned to cut offs. Would she make the bike cut off, would she then make the next cut off at T2A with her rickety ankle (halfway through the run)?

Never fear though, The Taller One was on it. There was no hesitation in his decision to join The Short One on the whole run leg rather than just the second half as planned. Whilst I drove he worked out pacing and how hard he was going to have to push The Short One through to T2A.

At our next stop with The Short One as she shouted “You’re gonna have to get me to T2A Connor” we could relieve her worries and shout back “Don’t worry, He’s on it!”.

Thankfully the rain eased and that tail wind she’d needed all day appeared. Combined with the downhills she’d been working up to for the whole first half she was off like a rocket. Strong, chasing other cyclists down, in her element. She arrived in T2 with 30 minutes to spare and a massive grin on her face.

An even faster re-dressing session and off that dodgy ankle went with the Taller One to tackle the first half of the marathon.

I ambled back to the Celtvan with all the gear. I started trying to tidy away all the kit that had seemingly vomited from the doors of the van onto the roadside. I couldn’t concentrate! Now they were both out running I realised how tired I was! Unable to concentrate or work out where everything needed to go. Utterly exhausted.

Other than a brief 30 minute rest before the swim came in I’d not stopped since 2am. It was now 4pm. No wonder my brain had finally switched off. I conceded to a fresh cup of tea, a pot noodle and a well-deserved sit down. No time for a nap though, my job was not yet done! I still had to meet them for a re-supply at T2A.

Revived by food and a brief dip in the river on the way up to T2A I parked the Celtvan up with more vehicles than I expect are usually seen in Glen Torridon and started the long, anxious wait for the runners to come through T2A.

Athletes, came and went. Had their kit checked, picked up extra gear, fluid and food, met their supporters. I waited. And waited. Nervously 45 minutes ticked by. The anxiety of the supporters around me building as they waited to see whether their athletes would make the 6pm cut off.

From 5:45 I could feel my heart rate slowly start to increase. The tension building. Waiting to see if the first glimpse of a runner coming over the brow of the hill was the comedy duo of Short One and Taller One. Where were they? Had something gone wrong? I knew it was going to be tight to make the cut off but would they make it or not?

Alas it was not to be. At 6:10 pm I finally double checked that the organising team wouldn’t let anyone else through the checkpoint and sombrely walked back to the Celtvan. Hugged and comforted by those whose athletes had just made it through as well as a few in the same predicament as me.

What did I do now though? Where were they? Had her ankle given in and were they now stuck somewhere on a hill unable to get any support? Had someone picked them up on the road and given them a lift back?

As I turned the Celtvan around to go and find them The Short One’s unmistakeable pink hair appeared by T2A. Her ankle had gone at around 10km and, with the help of the Taller One, had hobbled back to the road. The Taller One then ran on ahead to find support or at least let me know what had happened. Luckily The Short One managed to hitch a lift and get back to me not long before The Taller One jogged in.

Re-united and all a little confused by events we piled back into the van and headed off for a well-deserved feed at the finish line. Watching others cross that line to applause. Looking exhausted but content clutching their special bottle of Celtman beer.

It was a weird feeling. I’d been so positive for The Short One about her completing the race that I hadn’t properly prepared myself that she might not. It was always a possibility. The bad ankle. Full knowledge of what North West Scotland can throw at you in terms of weather. The myriad of other things that can go wrong on such a long distance race. I’d prepared myself for the glory of a full finish, running across that finish line together. Completing as a team, which is what this race was all about. Something that I’d been invested in for more than 6 months.

The Short One was surprisingly chipper about the whole thing at the time. A fully justified, enormous pride at what she’d just achieved. A constant 13 hours of being on the move. Hammering everything she had to make it to the finish line. She worked so hard and I’m so proud of what she did. What we all did to get her there.

Back to our little house by the sea. I threw myself straight in the Loch. I needed some cold water therapy. I had a little cry. The exhaustion finally kicking in to full effect.

The following day was filled with race analysis. How many people didn’t finish? Who won? Could they have made T2A in different circumstances? But The Short One and Taller One treated me too. They drove me round, indulging my need for beautiful scenery. Taking me over the Bealach Na Bar to Applecross for the best fish and chips I’ve ever eaten. Allowing me to dip when I could. Seeing some of the most stunning scenery I’ve seen in a long time. The weather was still windy but oh so clear. Clear views of the Torridon mountains, across to the Isle of Skye and the Outer Hebrides abounded.

We finished the day at the end of event Ceilidh in Torridon. A chance for the event crew to let their hair down joined by the few athletes who hadn’t already started their journey home. It was perfect. I love a good ceilidh. The music, the sociability of it. The comedy element of people trying to work out what the hell they’re supposed to do. It’s magic. I loved it, it made for the best end of trip evening. We even managed to purloin ourselves some of that famous Celtman beer.

We were all exhausted but content on our long trip home.

So, what did I learn as a supporter on our virgin Celtman trip?

We felt pretty well planned and organised for our trip. The Short One’s attention to detail and penchant for organising (many spreadsheets were involved) worked well. There were some things that we felt worked particularly well and a few things we learned along the way. These are my top ones though:

Expect the unexpected. Our big unexpected events were a large gash in The Even Taller One’s head, The Short One’s broken phone, a broken wing mirror and a lost dryrobe. There were a myriad of other smaller things too.

Know what your athlete should have in transitions and double check it for them. Without doubt The Short One was too distracted to realise she hadn’t picked her helmet up along with the beautifully organised T1 box!

Assume there will be no mobile signal. We knew it would be patchy so we weren’t relying on it but I know others were using the online tracker to work out where their athletes were and struggled along the way as a result. Our plan of just chasing her down and overtaking so we knew where she was worked well for us.

Plan the bike route and rough timings well with your athlete. The Short One had worked out timings on the bike. They didn’t work out perfectly and were slower than planned due to the horrendous headwind but it gave us a great plan to work from. I had it all mapped out on A4 with key landmarks/settlements/and lochs marked so we could work out how she was doing and where we needed to be. It was a great, easy reference for us on the journey. It’s not a hard route to follow, there is basically just one road.

Plan to stop more regularly than your athlete might initially suggest to support them on the bike. Particularly if the weather turns. We had set points to stop at on our route plan but it became clear that, as the ride went on, she needed to see us more often. She very rarely stopped but it was a boost to her morale to see us cheering and shouting from the roadside in the pouring rain.

If you get chance for a rest take it. It’s a really bloody long day. But be prepared to be on the go for the whole of the bike leg. It was a constant chase down kind of affair for us.

It was exhausting! I knew it would be. I’d seen plenty of comments on the forum that said supporting was just as hard, if not harder, than competing. The week after we got back I was utterly drained. Physically and emotionally. Some kind of post event zombie. Don’t underestimate how big a commitment this is as a supporter.

So, will we be back to finish what we started? I don’t know. We all need time to recover from this epic adventure. I need to go back up there and enjoy that beautiful place without having to rush around to a plan. At my own pace, exploring the water and the mountains. Maybe, just maybe, one day we might be back. More experienced, even better prepared. Only time will tell.

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