The Celtman: A photographer's perspective

Thor Hesselberg (foreground) and support runner Ryan Maclean descending the scree gully on Beinn Eighe during the 42km running leg of the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon

Thor Hesselberg (foreground) and support runner Ryan Maclean descending the scree gully on Beinn Eighe during the 42km running leg of the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon

One of the founding organisers of the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon, Paul McGreal, is welcoming folk across the race finish line in Torridon, a remote village in the far north-west of Scotland. Spread out around Paul, both inside and outside a building that usually serves as the village's community centre, is a bustling pack of super-fit but now deservedly worn-out triathletes, all of whom can now call themselves a Celtman (or Celtwoman).

The triathletes, chosen by lottery from a strong field of international entries, are busy recounting the race tactics they've just used with each other, joking with their supporters, stretching, eating or simply staring into space as a handful of first aiders keep a watchful eye on them for exhaustion. Scotland's weather has been kind this year and the majority have just completed the third annual Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon, an iron-distance endurance race that starts on a remote beach near the picturesque village of nearby Shieldaig. To finish the Celtman race and be awarded a blue or white finisher's t-shirt - there's no prize money for the Celtman - each competitor has to swim 3.8km across a tidal sea loch, cycle 202km around highland roads and then run a marathon distance 42km over (for a blue t-shirt) or around (for a white t-shirt) 2 Munros, Scottish mountains over 914.4m high. There's certainly no guarantee that everyone who starts the race at 5am in Shieldaig will make it over the finish line in Torridon.

Photographing an extreme event like the Celtman is a challenge Edinburgh-based outdoor sports photographer, Colin Henderson, relishes.

"It's the distance the race covers that makes it so difficult, to be honest", says Colin, "You can't be everywhere so you need to pick and choose your locations wisely. For example, if you cover the swim start and exit, you're likely to get stuck behind the athletes because the early stages of the 202km cycle takes them up narrow Glen Torridon and you risk being unable to take any shots". Colin continues, "I like to take time in the days preceding the event to scout out what I feel are the best locations. The challenge I set myself is to aim for a small number of excellent photos from each leg so I can do the event justice photographically, rather than position myself in one place and photograph every athlete. I also like to find angles that are suitably different from the images I shot the previous year, or that are different to angles any other photographers use".

The Celtman triathlon was created in 2012, in the style of and in homage to the original extreme triathlon, the Norseman of Norway. It's since been billed as one of the 'toughest triathlons in the world' by 220 Triathlon magazine. The idea behind the race came from Paul McGreal's fellow founder, Stuart McInnes, who came back from a film commission to the Norseman excited about the potential for a similar event in Scotland.

Stuart, together with Paul and race co-ordinator, John Whittaker, designed the Celtman course in 2011. During their planning, they consulted regularly with the organisers of the Norseman to ensure a strong partnership was formed. Scottish triathlete, Stuart Macleod, was also asked for advice on the final course design. Three years on, the Celtman is now an established race with an international field. It is part of a family of extreme triathlons in Europe and abroad – see xtriworldtour.com).

On the 3.4km swim leg, Celtman triathletes have to contend with cold water temperatures, seaweed, jellyfish and strong tidal currents. "I like to get in the water to photograph the athletes at the start of the race", says Colin. "The water temperature is always a factor. On occasion, the swim has had to be cut short to 3km due to a low temperature of 11 degrees C and I found I couldn't stay in the water very long as it's difficult to manipulate the controls of your camera when you're body is shaking with the cold. What makes the start especially difficult to photograph is the dim light you're shooting in - the race starts at sunrise in a small, fire-lit cove off the north-west coast of Scotland. I like to use a flash in my underwater case to brighten up the colours in my images".

Once Colin has photographed the swim start of the Celtman, he packs up his gear, warms up again by putting the heater on full blast in his car and heads up Glen Torridon to catch the lead cyclists coming up the glen.

"For the 202km cycle leg, I like to do two things. First, I like to get up high above the competitors and show them in context of the landscape. There's various crags alongside the winding highland roads the cyclists follow that enable me to do this, though some of them require easy scrambling. Then I like to come back down to the roadside and capture close-ups of riders as they pass by. A zoom lens is essential here for separating the riders from the background. Having the camera handy all the time too means you can react quickly to what is happening around you. Your normal camera strap is sufficient but a dedicated strap is more comfortable and easier to use".

When it comes to the 42km running leg, Colin's background photographing mountaineers in the Scottish mountains gives him the edge. "After shooting the start of the cycle leg, my focus is to get back to Glen Torridon and climb to the summit of the first Munro (1010m high Spidean Coire nan Clach on Beinn Eighe) as quickly as possible", says Colin. "You think you have plenty time - after all, the athletes have 202km of cycling and half a marathon to run before they get there - but the first racers are heading towards you faster than you think".

Colin continues, "Normally I'm a big advocate of the 'fast and light' methodology prevalent in adventure photography, especially when long distance and large height gains are involved (the Celtman run covers 42km and goes over two c.1000m mountain summits). But I find with the Celtman I can get a better variety of shots if I carry a wide angle and a telephoto zoom lens on two separate camera bodies. For example, I can shoot wide when the athletes pass close to me and then switch to the telephoto lens to compress them and show their scale against the distant mountains. It's perfectly possible to do this with one camera body, switching lenses each time, but the speed the athletes travel mean you run the risk of missing shots. The downside is the weight. Ascending a 1000m high mountain and running along a ridgeline with 6kg of camera equipment trying to keep up with endurance athletes, even those 26km in to a 42km run, is challenging to say the least".

Basing himself near the first summit on Beinn Eighe, Colin can see the leading athletes making their way up to the summit. "It takes me a good 75mins to climb the from the roadside checkpoint to the summit. And that's me moving quickly. The first athletes aren't far behind and, as soon as they reach the summit I start running along the ridge with them. My pre-race planning means I've already visualised where I want to take shots so it's simply a case of trying to keep up with the athletes as they head off towards the second summit, 2.5km away. This is difficult as they're super fit and carrying only the essential safety gear".

Knowing the topography of the mountain is where Colin can start to gain an advantage. He continues, "I know I can't keep up with each athlete all the way along the ridge but to return to the roadside from Beinn Eighe the athletes need to descend into Coire Mhich Fhearchair. The access gully for this spectacular mountain corrie is on the way to the second summit so as long as I get to the gully entrance before the first runners return I can get some shots of them descending".

During the 2013 race, Colin spent two hours in this steep scree gully waiting for the first athletes to arrive. Cold, driving rain and strong winds are classic hypothermia conditions and the organisers, in conjunction with the volunteer mountain rescue safety team, had limited the high route to the first 11 athletes. 'Normally, the view from Beinn Eighe is epic but in 2013 the cloud was down to 500m and you were lucky to see someone 15m away from the top of the mountain. It was a cold, wet and miserable afternoon", recalls Colin. "My main challenge was how to keep my fingers warm and my camera and lenses dry. Nikon equipment is fairly water resistant but it doesn't completely keep water out so I use a cheap rainproof cover to give me peace of mind".

In 2014, 2015 and 2016, the weather for the Celtman was generally better and Colin captured shots of the athletes running along the Beinn Eighe ridge with the spectacular Torridon views in the background. In 2017 however, the weather dictated that the race didn't go up Beinn Eighe at all and the lead competitors were directed onto what is normally the ‘White T-shirt' route around the back of another Munro, Liathach (which is still a challenging trail and not to be underestimated). "That's what I like so much about photographing the Celtman. Each year the weather is completely different and it dictates what you can shoot, how and where. Even though I have a shot list, I'm not entirely sure what images I'm going to get until the action and the weather unfolds in front on me. Covering the race physically is a challenge but I enjoy that and, as I have complete autonomy on where I position myself and the shots I take, it's different from shooting commercial work. I treat it as a project and a way of keeping myself fresh. I look forward to shooting it every year".

Colin's Celtman gear list

  • For the swim - Nikon D700 camera body; Nikon 17-35mm F2.8 lens; Nikon SB-910 camera flash; Ewa Marine U-BXP100 waterproof case

  • For the cycle - Nikon D4S and D810 camera bodies, Nikon 24mm F1.4 lens: Nikon 70-200mm F2.8 lens; Joby Ultrafit sling strap

  • For the run - Nikon D4S and D810 camera bodies, Nikon 24mm F1.4 lens: Nikon 70-200mm F2.8 lens; Nikon SB-910 flash; Honl speed grid; Joby Focus tripod; Lowepro Toploader Pro AW75: Photosport AW200 backpack; Optech rain cover; Map and compass, waterproofs, extra clothing; nylon shelter for emergencies