Sam Black, a BSc (Hons) marine science student at SAMS UHI in Oban, received support from the university’s Elite Athlete Fund to compete in this year’s CELTMAN! The extreme triathlon is held in Wester Ross in June and involves a 3.8k swim, a 202k cycle and a 42k run. Here, Sam describes what it’s like to take part in the gruelling challenge.
Sam with his support runner Joakim
I’m very happy to report that, in a time of 15 hours, 19 minutes and 58 seconds, I crossed the Celtman finish line after a fairly strong race. Additionally, my arrival at the second run transition with 45 minutes to spare enabled me to run the high mountain route, earning me a Celtman finisher blue t-shirt and a pair of rather sore legs. Easier said than done right? Well, here’s a little look into what it involved…
The day before the race
10pm: After a long journey and some delays my parents arrived in Torridon with 90% of my race gear. Almost immediately a whirlwind of packing, preparing and practice ensued which continued until around 1am. My mind raced as I lay in bed with around 7 different alarms set for 2.15am.
With at most an hour of sleep under my belt the alarm rang and I began shovelling porridge and toast into my mouth. My father, girlfriend, support runner and I left the cottage at 3.15am and headed for Shieldaig through a thick fog. Upon arrival I registered, set up my gear and jumped on one of the buses taking athletes to the start line.
Tensions where high as we disembarked the bus at the start line. For the next 30 minutes we waited impatiently in a field by the start line as the midge began to swarm, urged on by a group of drummers and a piper who played a foreboding tune.
Following this we headed to the shore as the race organiser shouted, “5 minutes until the start!” Unlike the majority of others, I stayed on dry land until we had one minute left, where then I made a quick dash out to the start line. Shortly after I heard somebody shout from behind “bloody hell go C’MON, the airhorn’s burst”. The message quickly swept through the ranks and before I knew it I was swimming for my life through shoals of jellyfish and neoprene clad feet. After a few kicks in the face I made my way into the clear and swam into a nice rhythm; stroke, stroke, stroke, gasp, repeat. We were racing!
“I’m getting pretty cold now, I must be near half way”, I said to myself. Sadly, after checking my watch, I found that I’d been swimming for 11 minutes. I battled on, but with around 500m to go I couldn’t keep my fingers together and my pace dropped. As one of the very few who made the mistake of swimming in bare hands and feet, arriving on the rocky, barnacle covered shore was a tricky business. Now completely disorientated, I was thrown up the shore by a marshal where I found my feet on the Shieldaig slipway.
Photo by Steve Carter (stevecarter.com)
My support runner (Joakim, who could have been Postman Pat for all I knew) pushed me towards my bike and helped me get changed. After 2 small sausage rolls, some hot water and a kit change I felt human enough to grab my bike and head off to start my 202 km cycle.
As my father was on kayak safety duty, I rode the first 70km of the cycle unsupported. I blasted through the first 50km incredibly fast, averaging around 33 km/h, purely because I was freezin’!
The next 150km seemed to pass quickly thanks to my fantastic support team, the incredible weather, jaw-dropping scenery and a quick toilet stop that even Paula Radcliffe would have been proud of.
Yum-yums, mars bars, flap jacks and energy gels kept my spirits high as I pushed through a light headwind toward transition 2. I couldn’t wait to give my wee bony bum a rest and stretch the legs out!
Riding slightly ahead of the main group I was, unlike many others, lucky to get through transition 2 (Bike to Run) fairly unscathed in around 6 minutes. With 2.5 hours to cover the 18 km to transition 2A, Joakim and I were pretty confident we would make the 11 hour cut off, enabling us to run the high mountain route. The continued roastin’ weather coupled with the brutal nature of the bike to run transition made the first 12 km pretty tough.
With gritted teeth I arrived at T2A with 45 minutes to spare: “Congratulations, you’re going up the mountain!” said someone at the sidelines. “Yay for me”, I replied as we began our approach towards Ben Eighe which towered above us.
The first 300m of ascent gave me a new found appreciation for the accuracy and appropriateness of the word ‘hamstring’. However at the 500m mark my legs woke up, allowing me to almost double my pace. After being piped up onto the ridge by yet another bagpiper Joakim and I snapped a few pictures and set off down the scree. I was able to shut off my brain as we began our descent over the blocky, sharp rock and before I knew it we were applying some emergency blister patches on the summit of the second Munro.
By this point we were quite unaware that the hardest part was yet to come: 4km of treacherous descent and 5km of mind numbing stepping stone trail, all before 9km on unforgiving asphalt. My stomach packed in after 6km and was only saved by a pact Joakim and I made over a mars bar – “The first one to be sick loses”.
Upon reaching the road we ditched our bags, drank the rest of our water and ran off the go get our free finisher beer. By this point we were both pretty tired, however we pushed through. With 3km to go we were rewarded with a gorgeous view down Loch Torridon. I could have cried….in fact I probably was crying, who knows! The last 1km followed the shoreline by Torridon village before doubling back and finishing up at the village hall. As we rounded the corner I saw my Dad, who informed me that everyone was at the finish.
The finish line
Joakim and I crossed the line with a time just shy of 15 hours and 20 minutes. It was pretty moving to have so many friends and family members at the finish. It was as much their race as it was mine and I cannot thank them all enough for their support.
And that was that. Joakim and I continued to eat from the moment we stopped until when our heads hit the pillow that night. Surprisingly my legs felt pretty good and the only injuries I appeared to have sustained were a result of insufficient application of anti-chafing cream. And with that, I’ll leave it there.
Well, almost! I’d like to say a huge thank you to the University of the Highlands and Islands’ Elite Athlete Support Fund for their financial support. Ultimately, I would not have been able to compete in the race had I not received the funding from the support fund. It was incredibly comforting to be supported by my home university institution and I hope through my blog, various newspaper reports and the CELTMAN! video itself I have inspired both students within and outside the university to do something similar.
Joakim (blue t-shirt) and Sam (vest top) with friends and family at the finishing line