The only races I ever dreamed of entering were Norseman and the Marathon Des Sables. I’ve been lucky enough to have taken part and supported at Norseman but I will never do MDS. My body struggles badly exercising in hot weather. MDS would kill me!
I only entered Celtman because I wanted to do it in the future. Entering this year would increases my chance of getting a ballot place later. Failed entries give you more extra ballot places in future years.
And then this happened
Trust my luck to win the one ballot I didn’t want to win!
…now that it has happened I’m excited about it. It will be great fun to go head to head with Andrew. May the best Todd win!
Although, if you are anywhere near Torridon in June 2020, expect to hear me repeatedly utter the line made famous by Dante in Kevin Smith’s Clerks “I’m not even supposed to be here today! ”
I spent the week before the race full of the cold. Not the normal cold but life threatening man flu.
My fellow men will sympathise at just how potent this horrific affliction can be. Its only known cure is watching TV, drinking beer and replying “no. I’m ill” to any enquiries about whether any housework is going to be done.
I decided I wasn’t going to do the race as it always rains when I take part. Last years event was so biblically wet I spotted Noah leading animals two by two to his boat. I didn’t fancy running whilst being at deaths door.
But for the first time in my five attempts at the race there was no rain. It was actually a very pleasant sunny morning.
I decided to run. I was still ill and I definitely wasn’t fit enough for household chores. In fact, I think it might be a few weeks before I can even think about hoovering or helping out around the house. A run though is fine to do.
The course is two laps of Bellahouston Park. It’s not a very scenic park but it’s pleasant enough. It’s mostly flat but there is one hill that is tackled twice.
I decided I was going to run as fast I could. As soon as the race started I legged it away from Andrew. Later Andrew complained I went off too fast. No – he went off too slow!
The race was pretty dull. I spotted Andrews wife a couple of times so I gave her a wave. Which turned out to be more times than Andrew spotted her. He managed to run past her without seeing her.
I kept a good pace up for the whole race and I was happy with a sub 45 time. I didn’t expect to be as fast as that. Maybe man flu isn’t as bad as I thought….
IronMan UK was my one and only long distance triathlon. Never again I said. That was it. One go. Done it. Never need to do it again.
Except for Norseman.
And possibly Challenge Roth.
But the chances of getting in were so slim that IronMan UK was, I thought, the only time I’d ever swim 3.9km again, probably the only time I’d ever cycle more than 100 miles and definitely the only time I’d run a marathon as I don’t like running long distances.
Oh, and except for Celtman too.
Apart from those three races, I was never going to voluntarily spend an entire day racing again!
But what were the chances of getting into Norseman? Challenge Roth or Celtman? People try for years and don’t get into any of them. I applied, still with no expectation of getting in, and, straight away, I’ve got a place in Norseman.
A couple of years later and I manage to get a place in Challenge Roth too.
And now I have a place in Celtman.
I don’t know whether God likes a laugh, but he certainly enjoys a good ironic chuckle.
While Norseman was fantastic. I’ve written about it on the blog and you can find out all about it. Roth too. And they were both ‘special’ and they have given me some great memories (along with a deep, deep fear of losing my watch while swimming – read about it here and, four months later, I’m still mentally scarred by it!), it’s Celtman which means the most to me because it was Celtman that got me interested in triathlons.
I never watched triathlons on telly. I’d never heard of IronMan or knew anything about the World Championships in Hawaii. I knew triathlons existed, I’d even tried to the New Year’s Triathlon in Edinburgh but I was like a dog playing football. It might know to chase a ball but that’s all it has in common with a footballer. I knew you needed to swim, bike and run but I didn’t know it was better to swim freestyle, that a mountain bike is not the professional triathlete’s first choice or that the run is something you race, not walk in to finish.
Celtman changed that. I was watching the Adventure Show on BBC Scotland. Every month it reports from different events across Scotland. In 2011, it reported back from the first Celtman extreme triathlon. 3.4km swim on the west coast of Scotland, a 120 mile cycle round the Applecross penisula and then a marathon up a Munro and finish in Torridon.
“That’s impossible,” I said, “how do they do that?”
Every year since I’ve watched the Adventure Show and thought I would love to take part but secretly I knew that I wasn’t good enough. I don’t want to swim through jellyfish in freezing cold water. I’ve never cycled 120 miles. I’ve never run a marathon up a mountain. That’s what other people do.
But as I started to train for races in middle distance, then long distance, then Norseman and Roth, I started to think this year that maybe, with a bit more effort, I could be ready for Celtman. Because I don’t want to just complete it. I want to stand at the top of the mountain and be one of the few competitors who complete the whole course. In order to do that you need to be halfway through the run eleven hours after starting. Which means I’ll have around 8 hours to complete 120 miles on the bike, knowing that my swim time is the one thing I won’t be able to change no matter how hard I train.
And, to make this Celtman, even better, unlike Norseman and Roth, Iain will be racing too, which will be a good incentive for both training and on the day itself. Though it has spoiled my support runner plans as he was going to run the final half with me!
Now that I’ve secured a spot I keep thinking of the first edition. I think how impossible it seemed and I think how possible it now is. I can’t wait to take part!
The Bealach na Ba, in the North West of Scotland, boasts the greatest ascent of any road in the UK. It begins at sea level and rises to a height of 626m. It takes six miles to get from sea-level to the top.
The name means ‘pass of the cattle.’ It was originally a gravel track used by crofters to move cattle between two parts of the Applecross peninsula. It’s now mostly used by tourists. The route is part of the famous North Coast 500 which has been named one of the top coastal road trips in the world.
It is 2012 and I am at the start line of my first ever bike sportive. I look at the other riders.
They are all using road bikes. I am on a mountain bike. I am the only one on a mountain bike. Why are they not on Mountain bikes? We are going to ride up a mountain. Surely a mountain bike is the most effective way to do that?
They are all wearing skin tight lycra. I have wearing a thick winter jacket and a pair of baggy shorts.
They are all clipped into their bike using proper bike shoes. I am wearing trainers.
They all have a bottle on their bike. I do not have a bottle on my bike. I have a backpack containing a sandwich, a two-litre bottle of water, and a map in case I get lost.
It is fair to say I do not know what I am doing.
Andrew is here but he is not on the start line. He has the flu. He has offered to drive a van around the course in case I need him. I spot my friend Malcolm who is also doing the race. I say to him “Good luck.” He says “You’ll need it more than me” and he then rides off. All the other bikes whizz past me.
I now realise why they are on road bikes. Honestly, up until this point, I thought there was no difference between a road bike and a mountain bike. I had assumed road bikes did not go up hills.
I honestly do not know what I am doing.
After two hours of cycling I have cycled further than I ever have. I realise it is two hours back to where I started so I will need to the do the same again to get home.
I stop and eat a sandwich. I wonder how the other cyclists are getting on. They must be starving. They don’t have any sandwiches.
I try phoning Andrew but I don’t get a signal. The race is too remote for mobiles to work correctly.
After another hour I reach the climb. The sign at the bottom says
Road to Applecross (Bealach Na BA) This rod rises to a height of 2053 ft with gradients of 1 in 5 and hairpin bends. NOT ADVISED FOR LEARNER DRIVERS, VERY LARGE VEHICLES OR CARAVANS AFTER FIRST MILE
It does not mention bikes. That means I’ll have to do it.
I start the climb. Within 100m I have started to heat up. I start to sweat. I decide to take off my jacket. I put it in my backpack. I restart the climb. It doesn’t feel too tough yet.
The road gets steeper. I try to switch to a lower gear. I am already in my lowest gear. No wonder the start was easy.
The road climbs higher. I struggle to turn my pedals. I haven’t even done one mile of the climb. I’m still at the part safe for learner drivers, very large vehicles and caravans.
Maybe a bit of food will help. I stop and eat the rest of my sandwich.
I restart the climb. I feel heavy. The sandwich has not helped. I struggle onwards. I stand up on the pedals to make them turn. I stop and admire the view. I consider quitting. I don’t have to think twice. I decided to quit.
I wish I could say I have the stomach to battle it out when things get hard but I don’t. I try phoning Andrew again. He can come and rescue me. There is still no reception. Feck. I’ll have to keep going. Mainly because I assume I’ll get a phone reception at the top of the hill.
I push my bike all the way to the top of the hill. A film crew is waiting for me. Probably not me specifically but anyone doing the race. They are filming for BBC Two Scotland’s The Adventure Show. The reporter approaches me:
– I can’t believe you’re using a mountain bike!
– It’s my only bike
I take out my water bottle to have a swig.
– You carried that all the way up the mountain?
– Yes. I thought I’d get thirsty.
– You do know the organisers supply water and food at regular stops?
I thought I had to supply everything myself! DOH!! I try my mobile. It has a signal. I try Andrew but there is no answer. I send him a text saying. “I quit! Come and get me at the bottom of the hill in Applecross”
The descent of the other side is great fun. Six miles of fast downhill with treacherous corners. At one corner an ambulance is tending to a rider. I think to myself how glad I am that it is not me.
At the bottom of the hill I reach Andrew. There’s 40 miles to go but I’m not doing any more.
I’ve achieved my race by cycling further and higher than ever before.
We head to the finish to wait for Malcolm…and we wait…and we wait…and we….
As it gets dark there’s no sign of Malcolm. I approach the race organisers and ask if they have seen him. They go to check their list of riders. When they come back they have bad news – Malcolm was the man I passed on the mountain who was getting tended to by the ambulance.
The news got worse. He was taken to hospital. Great. He must be in Inverness as that was the closest one to us. We need to go that way to get home. We’ll pick him up on the way but the news got even worse. The hospital was not Inverness, which is close by and on our way home. He was sent to Broadfoot on the Isle of Skye which is miles away and nowhere near our route home.
We head to Skye to collect him. He is sitting on a chair with his arm in a sling. His brakes failed whilst taking a corner on the descent. The bad news was that he had broken his collarbone and will be off work for six weeks. The good news was that it coincided with the Edinburgh fringe. He spends the next six weeks partying.
When is a sports book not a sports book? There is a pattern to sporting biographies. A couple of chapters on childhood. A spark or twist that sets the athlete on their sporting journey. Then a forensic minute by minute breakdown of their greatest achievement before either a hopeful look to the future for more medals/trophies (current athletes) or a final “what a career I had!” for those who’ve retired.
Most sports books are predictable and only really of interest to people who really love the sport that’s been written about. No one will pick up Geraint Thomas’s tour diary who doesn’t already know they want to read about how he decided on his gear selection for every stage of the Tour De France.
The Lost Soul of Eamonn Magee is different, at least for most of it. Eamonn Magee was a Northern Irish boxer who was brought up in one of the harshest areas of Belfast during the Troubles. His biography is as much a story of what it was like to live beside nationalists and unionists and see a community defined by both. It’s also a story of a man who started drinking at nine years old and made a life of alcohol, drugs, violence, prison and chasing women – and, when his trainers could control him, boxing too.
The first half of the book is gripping. It explores what it was like for an angry alcoholic petty criminal to grow up in Belfast in the 80s and 90s. It shows the impact that the IRA could have and how one word from one well connected member could mean fleeing your home that night to live in London for a year. It sets Eamon’s life in context and it tries to explain how one boxer came to represent Northern Ireland for a brief few years as someone who could wear the Irish tricolour but still be loved by unionist fans.
And then, in the last third of the book, it begins a detailed round by round summary of Eamonn’s career. Which if boxing is your thing then I’m sure it’s great. But, as I don’t know my uppercut from a supercut, and couldn’t tell you if the author was describing a boxing match or a barbers, this section was a bit of a slog.
However, the rest of the book is recommended and provides a glimpse defined by trouble and Troubles.
I learnt to swim in the 1980s. My dad taught me using the “do not drown” approach.
He got me to stand two metres from
a pool wall. I then tried to swim to the wall. If I did not drown, he would
increase my swim to three metres from the wall, and then four metres etc.
My fear of drowning meant I quickly
learnt to swim. Unfortunately, my Dad only knew the breaststroke so that was
all I learnt. He did not see the point in freestyle swimming. His view was “Why
do you want to stick your head under the water? There is nothing to see there
except peoples feet.”
My school attempted to teach me
other strokes but I was not very good at them. I hated the weekly swimming
lesson at our local leisure centre. I found the smell of chlorine in the pool
I have subsequently discovered chlorine
has no smell. The smell in the pool was from chloramines, which build up in
pool water when the water is not properly clean. A smelly pool is an unclean
If I had known that, I would have
hated swimming even more than I did.
A common sight, in a leisure centre, in the 1980/90s was a footbath in the changing rooms. A sign above it would read, “Always dip your feet into the foot-bath before entering the swimming pool.” Supposedly the foot-bath contained chemicals that prevented foot infections like verruca’s.
Modern leisure centres do not have
footbaths. Therefore, have we discovered a cure for verruca’s? No – we haven’t.
What we have found is the cause of verruca’s. It was the foot-bath! Leisure
centres did not clean them often enough. The foot bath was basicaly a seething cesspit
of fungal infection.
I got a foot wart. Andrew got a verruca. Everyone in my school class got something.
As well as pool swimming my first
ever open water swim occurred during my school years. My class went away for a
weekend to an outdoor centre by the Atlantic sea.
For some reason, which I cannot remember,
the teacher made us all stand on a pier next to the sea. Strip to out swim
shorts and then jump in the sea. It was November. The water was freezing. I
nearly drowned. As soon as I divided into the cold water, my body seized up and
I struggled to breathe.
Imagine the scandal now if a
teacher forced a class to jump into the Atlantic in November without checking
if the pupils could swim!
Its no wonder that I didn’t swim again after leaving school for university. My abiding memory of learning to swim was verrucas, unclean pools and nearly drowning.
I was 14 when I broke the 100m sprint world record by sprinting home in 9.5 seconds. I could have run faster. Conditions were tricky. We didn’t have a running track at our school so all sprints had to take place on the road in front of the school gates. A teacher would stand at the end of the road and stop the traffic to give us a minute to run clear before angry drivers would start to beep their horns.
Also, I was wearing Adidas Sambas, which were perfect for playing five a side football but had, as far as I know, never been Carl Lewis’s first choice to contest the Olympics. In fact, they wouldn’t have been his second or third choice either given he was a professional athlete with access to global brands and I needed a pair of trainers that would last from birthday to Christmas because I only had one pair of shoes. Sambas were versatile. (And smelly).
I must admit it was also windy. And wet. But this was Stornoway in the Western Isles and every day is windy and wet. But that only makes us run faster because everyone knows the cure to pneumonia is to outrun it.
Unfortunately, even with these impediments, and while I broke the Olympic record, I didn’t break our school record. That stood at 9.1 seconds and had been set about 10 metres earlier because I wasn’t the first to finish that day. I wasn’t even in the top three. I was sixth. I can only guess this is how Venus Williams must feel when she looks at her trophy cabinet, one of the most decorated in tennis, and then pops round to see her sister, Serena.
I was happy though. It’s not every day you beat the world record. Unless you’re Adam Peaty swimming the 200m breastroke and every time you break the world record is every time you go for a swim. Just imagine how fast he could be if learned how to swim the crawl?!?
Unfortunately, my record didn’t last long. A formal enquiry was launched, which is an elaborate way of saying Mr Dunlop, our PE teacher, scratched his head and said “This ain’t right!”
You’d have thought he was pleased, finding a generation of natural sprinters. But he called over our two fastest runners and asked them to run again, which they did, after we stopped the 44 bus and created a tailback all the way back to the Stornoway harbour.
They lined up. Standing start, none of the blocks nonsense that the professional use. How can you run faster if you have to get up first? If you’re already standing then you’re clearly going to have an advantage over someone kneeling down!
He blew his whistle and – they smashed it. 8.9 seconds. We were witnessing history. Some people say it’ll be another hunded years and at least four generations of evolution for mankind to ever run so fast – we did it twice in five minutes.
“Well, it’s not my stopwatch.” Said Mr Dunlop.
“Maybe, we’re just really fast.” I suggested.
He took one look at my Adidas Sambas and track bottoms – as I’d forgotten to bring shorts. Also I still had my glasses on because otherwise I’d never have managed to run in a straight line. And he knew that I knew that I had never shown any athletic ability what’s so ever and could only say:
“Right, either we’ve got a generation of Ben Johnson’s or one of you wee b******ds didn’t measure the course out correctly. Who’s got the metre stick.”
And with that grabbed the metre stick and meticulously laid it end to end 100 times along the road – only stopping four times to avoid being run over by passing traffic.
He came back.
“It’s only 80m – you can all run again!”
And that’s how I lost the world record after just five minutes. It turned out I never had it in the first place. But, for five minutes, I was ever so briefly, the fastest man on the planet, except for the five ahead of me, but they cheated so they don’t count.