Celtman extreme Scottish triathlon

An account of the Celtman staged at the weekend from Donald Smith including Sean Nickell.


It takes a very special race to draw triathletes back to one of the remotest parts of Scotland. The sea is colder than most open water training environments, and almost certainly infested with jellyfish. The cycle route is 13 miles longer than Ironman, and most of the marathon is off-road in wild, mountainous terrain. The weather can, and will, change with distance and altitude. There are no aid stations on the 125 mile cycle so your own support crew must look after your hydration and nutrition. Support crew are responsible for getting their athlete to Shieldaig at 0300hrs and still have to be capable of joining their runner in the mountains late in tbe evening. There’s no medal, just a t-shirt and a bottle of beer.

I finished my third Celtman and ninth Ironman distance triathlon on Saturday.

Conditions were perfect for the swim.start; the orange and red traces of a new dawn breaking, sillhouetting the black mountains and still, dark lochs as we drove between our campsite in Torridon and Shieldaig to join 200 triathletes from 38 countries was breathtaking. The glorious colours in the sky were reflected in the deep water of Loch Shieldaig as we left our support crews for the buses to the swim start lit by flaming torches and a burning Celtman triskelion, on the far side of this deep, tidal sea loch. The visual spectacle was enhanced by midge-netted pipes and drums of Clann na Drumma, then THAT photo. It’s the only race I’ve done where all starters stand together for a pre-race photo (then all finishers stand together on a mountainside the next morning for the after shot.)



The sunrise may have been breathtaking, the cold sea more so. I had a couple of minutes to acclimatize as I swam out to the deep water start. Shortly into the course I saw my first jellies. A few at first, then bigger groups. Moon jellyfish – unpleasant to the touch as you swim through them but non-stinging then, whoaa… was that a Lions Mane jelly? The burning sensation on my face left no doubt. My nose, lips and chin were on fire for the rest of the day. I encountered several more and got more stings on my hands as I tried to use my wetsuit sleeves to push them away from my face. A mile from the start. More than a mile to swim exit. In the words of Dory, “just keep swimming!”

T1 was a welcome relief as Seán helped me put of my wetsuit and I had a “shower” from a flask and some coffee and food before I headed out on the bike. For the next few hours Seán drove around the bike route stopping every so often to top up my bottles, feed me, tell me I was doing superbly and looking good and other such lies… The rain came on around 45 miles in, and driving rain and headwinds would dominate most of the remaining 80 miles. It was a slog until the last few downhill miles into the new and improved T2 in Kinlochewe. Seán was waiting for me with my run kit then he took my bike and cycling kit and drove to the checkpoint 12 miles into the run and ran back into the Coulin Pass to meet me. I’m very thankful that he did as he was able to pace me for a few miles to make the cut off at T2A. We then ran/hiked together through rough terrain, pausing only to thank the volunteers from Torridon Mountain Rescue who were standing out in atrocious conditions, until we dropped back down to the treeline and followed the forest trail to the road for the final couple of miles into Torridon. The support from local residents and other race crews throughout the day was incredible, but my favourites were the couple who presented us with a dram each as we arrived into Torridon. An Islay malt proved the perfect chaser to get us up the hill to the bottle of Celtman Ale presented at the finish line. Soup, hot food and heroic tales abounded inside the village hall as I joined in the celebrations with new friends from all over the world and old friends, Louise and Nial as they completed their first Celtman.

Thank you to everyone who sent kind messages and helped cheer me on during the day. I didn’t get a chance to read your comments until we stopped in Fort William on the way down yesterday. There must have been a brief patch of 3G up the hills as my phone pinged incessantly for 45 seconds, but by the time I retrieved it from my backpack the moment had passed.

Huge thanks also to Nial for the use of his tent – I’ve stayed in smaller hotel rooms!

The biggest thank you of the weekend goes to Seán. He ran a 50 mile ultra in the Mournes last Saturday. Next Saturday he’s running the Energia 24 hour race in Belfast, so this wasn’t the recovery/taper plan anyone would recommend for the weekend in between. As well as all the practical support, he even paced me to a PB – 16:17.