Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon

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

The Celtman: All in it together

A home for a feature article I wrote about the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon, an iron-distance event that takes place in the North-West Highlands of Scotland. Competitors swim 3.4km in a tidal sea loch, cycle 202km on scenic highland roads and run a marathon 42km over two Munros (Scottish mountains over 3,000ft high).

Competitors preparing to enter the cold water of Loch Shieldaig at dawn for the 3.8km tidal swim leg of the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon

Competitors preparing to enter the cold water of Loch Shieldaig at dawn for the 3.8km tidal swim leg of the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon

Yes, the Celtman’s only been on the go since 2012, and it only happens once a year. But it’s like a drug in some ways. Your training starts almost as soon as the race finishes, it’s super hard and you push yourself to some very dark places, even on race day. But we’re not competing for any money, it’s the quest for a finisher’s t-shirt that’s so addictive. And people are starting to return year after year. It’s becoming one big international Celtman family.
— Ryan Maclean, a local of Torridon and a competitor in three Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlons

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 3.4km 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.

“We created the Celtman in 2012, in the style of and in homage to the original extreme triathlon, the Norseman of Norway”, says Paul, pausing to check GPS co-ordinates on a computer that shows where the remaining competitors are on the course. A former project manager, Paul McGreal has been organising independent sports events for 8 years, 3 of those as a full-time professional. “The idea behind the race came from 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 three extreme triathlons in Europe (Celtman / Norseman / Swissman).

Local heroes

When Paul McGreal and Stuart McInnes first visited Torridon and Shieldaig to scout out locations for the Celtman, a key consideration for them was a desire to involve the local population. As Paul says, "A race this size in this place can only be held with the goodwill and support of the residents of both villages".

Stuart McInnes continues, "Simply put, the Celtman couldn't exist without the support of the locals, their help is invaluable and we really appreciate it. To give something back, we were keen to find a local person strong enough to take part in the event. A name that continually cropped up in conversation was that of Ryan Maclean".

Born in Kinlochewe, a small Highland village 17 miles from Shieldaig, and now a resident of Torridon, 30-year old Ryan Maclean is a part-time firefighter and volunteer for the local mountain rescue team. Ryan's day job as an outdoor instructor for the Torridon Hotel sees him guiding hotel guests on kayaking, mountain hiking and scrambling trips outdoors. Such an active lifestyle provides Ryan with a good base level of fitness and he adds to this with regular cycling, running and swimming sessions amid the mountainous Torridon landscape.

Growing up, Ryan's ambition was not to be a triathlete but a mountaineer. Setting himself lofty ambitions from an early age, his goal for adult life was to stand atop the tallest mountain on earth, Mount Everest, whose summit is located in the appropriately named death zone. (The 8,848m/29,029ft high peak is littered with the bodies of frozen climbers who have come to grief on its slopes and not made it down alive). Standing on top of the world was not an unrealistic ambition for Ryan. From a young age, he was out regularly in the mountains with his father, Eoghain Maclean, the Reserve Manager at Scottish Natural Heritage and the team leader of Torridon Mountain Rescue Team until his retirement after 40 years service in 2013. Ryan followed his father into the rescue team at the age of 16 – one of the youngest team members - and has been a volunteer ever since.

After gaining lots of experience climbing in his local hills, Ryan focused his attention on realising his ambition to climb Mount Everest. At aged 24, with successful acclimatisation ascents of Kilimanjaro and Aconcagua behind him, he continued his journey as he set out ascend Denali (Mount McKinley), the highest mountain in North America at 6,168m (20,237ft) and a common testing ground for those wanting to progress to Everest.

Speaking as he looks out of his living room window to the mountains beyond, he recounts how "We had a lucky escape on Denali. After a successful gear carry to 16,500ft we descended to 14,000ft due to incoming bad weather. For 5 days we were stuck there, unable to go up or down as the weather got progressively worse. On the 4th night, gusts of wind that reached 80 miles an hour started to tear apart our tent. It was a harrowing time, as we clung to the side of the mountain protected only a protective wall we had made out of snow bricks. I have never returned to high altitude mountaineering, but I was looking for something else that would push me beyond my limits and along came the Celtman”.

Around the time Ryan Maclean was seeking new ways to push himself fitness-wise, Paul and Stuart were looking for their local athlete. In 2011, the three hooked up for the first time in the bar at the Torridon Hotel. Looking back, Ryan admits he was thrilled to be asked but somewhat hesitant to commit, at least initially. He recollects that "this was mainly due to my lack of triathlon experience (as in no experience whatsoever). But the Celtman sounded exciting and I soon said yes". Ryan's 'race-to-get-ready-for-the-race' was on.

"My first port of call was online", recalls Ryan, "I started off simply asking questionson internet forums, seeking out hints and tips".

Alan Cardwell, triathlon coach for Lanark Triathlon Club and Scotland's first Swim Smooth coach, gives new Celtman entrants some advice, "The Celtman is pretty special, as endurance races go. For the swim, the key is to be acclimatised to the cold water - it's not unknown for people to train offshore in the Scottish winter.Fortunately, this level of commitment is not essential but you do need to put in the hours outdoors. Cycle-wise, it'seasy to underestimate the difference 22km makes on top of an Ironman distance. Focuson building your strength and endurance on the bike - big blocks of aerobic work and low-rev, big gear intervals are ideal.But remember, it's the run where the tough stuff starts. Running on rough, hilly ground is obviously good preparation but, unless you plan to win, you won't be moving that fast in the race - most people run 1h:30mins+ for the Coulin Pass section - so there is no need to run overly hard in training. The key to success is aerobic fitness as the climb over Beinn Eighe is arduous to say the least. Legs are weary and the terrain is treacherous. Any lack of strength or co-ordination will let you down so be sure to include strength training so you can cope with the demands of the rough terrain. Finally, concentrate on what you eat and drink - don't try new ideas on race day or you may get a nasty surprise if your stomach rebels or you fail to fuel sufficiently for the day”.

In 2012, Ryan’s effort’s paid off and he successfully finished the Celtman, winning a white-t-shirt for completing the low-level route in 17:36:44 hours. In 2013, he was back, full of confidence in the lead up to the race and with high hopes for a blue t-shirt. But, Ryan recalls, "The month before the race I came down with a bad chest infection'. Despite his doctor's advice not to compete, Ryan chose to ignore it, a decision he still regrets as, during the swim, his illness brought on exhaustion and he was forced him to call for help and hitch a lift back to Shieldaig aboard the safety boat. As the remaining athletes headed out onto the 202km cycle, a crushed Ryan returned to his house, hugely disappointed with himself for his decision to start the race whilst not fully fit."I was crushed",he says."I'd put in the best part of a year's training for it and I felt I had let folk down.

To his credit, Ryan soon snapped out of his funk and continued to support the race. In 2014, he focused all his energy on completing the Celtman and trained hard throughout the year to shave over 90 minutes off his 2012 time and finish again with a white t-shirt. One of the people he credits with inspiring him throughout his journey is 43-year old Stuart Macleod, an IT Delivery Manager from Edinburgh.

Nevereverquit

Stuart Macleod is the only Scot to have completed the Norseman 3 times. An experienced competitor and veteran of the Celtman, he has placed in the top 4 in each of the three years the event has been running. Stuart is the only person to have completed the Celtman course in winter, attempted independently from the race, to celebrate his 42nd birthday in 2013. “The Norseman and the Celtman are both tough races",says Stuart from the balcony of his home near Arthur's Seat, an extinct volcano and a prominent landmark in Edinburgh. "The cold water temperature on the swim, the distance on the bike and the 3,000ft of ascent on the off-road run make the race physically demanding. Controlling your mental state is just as important as physical fitness. I think that anyone that has the right attitude can complete this race. It's having the ability to endure and be resilient. An attitude I call#nevereverquit”.

International flavour

Mental fortitude is a key attribute in long-course triathlons and a #nevereverquit attitude can often be the only thing keeping a competitor going when every muscle and sinew in their body is tugging at their psyche. It's a strong-minded individual who can battle through the challenge and finish the race.

Vasilis Toxavidis and Thor Hesselberg, two overseas competitors in the Celtman, are in the kitchen of a modern two-storey house they've rented for the week in Shieldaig. It's the evening before the Celtman and a number of folk have filled the house getting ready for the 5am race start. Alan Cardwell has just left, having introduced the group to a pair of support runners (each triathlete must have a buddy athlete for the marathon leg and many overseas competitors only get to meet up with these volunteers the evening before). On his way out, Alan traded good-natured insults with another competitor, Don King. Don, who works in Switzerland, has driven 1,000km from London to compete in the Celtman, freely admitting it's because "I love my sport".

Scottish-born Don, Greek-American Vasillis and Thor, president of the Tempo triathlon club in Norway, first competed in the Celtman in 2013. Speaking over a kitchen table littered with energy bars, bike parts and sports tape, Thor recalls that the Celtman was his first ever triathlon. "I'd entered in memory of a friend".he said, "having never biked, run or swum any real distance before. I was pleased just to get out the water that first year, to be honest. But my experiences on the bike and run were great and I’ve come to realise the Celtman is my type of event - I love the challenge".

Vasilis chips in, “The challenge is what keeps me coming back. I’ve had my fair share of technical issues - in 2013 I broke a derailleur on the cycle leg and I had to run 13 miles with my bike on my back (only to miss the cut-off) but I’ll keep coming back until I get a t-shirt. It’s that kind of event”.

Kindred spirits tend to form strong bonds and Thor, Don, Vasillis and Ryan all keep in touch. They stay in regular contact and give each other encouragement at endurance events throughout the year, always with the tag line #finishingisyouronlyoption. Vasillis has used this to great effect to complete the Virginia Triple Anvil, a 3x ironman distance event, Thor the Aurlandsfjellet Xtreme triathlon and Don the Rockman, a 41km swim/run race. Thor Hesselberg also set up a Facebook group designed to give support to new and past racers about the Celtman. The forum came into its own in 2014 when Swedish race winner, Johan Hasselmark, issued a plea for help after his race bike didn't arrive off the plane from Edinburgh. Within minutes, multiple offers of help were received and a state-of-the-art replacement was offered. Johan eventually started the race with his own bike, which he received only 10 minutes prior to the race start before going on to win the event in a course record time of 11h:41m:30s.

At first light

Before any Celtman competitor can contemplate the cycle stage, they must first conquer the swim. At 3am on race day the waters of Loch Shieldaig look black and uninviting as tiny Shieldaig bursts alive, albeit respectfully as the villagers are still asleep. As the triathletes, organisers and volunteers busy themselves with last minute tasks ahead of the coach journey to the start line, a film crew captures their early morning emotions (the race is covered by the BBC Adventure Show, as well as an independent film crew).

At 4am, the light in northern Scotland is still weak, even in mid-Summer. As the athletes depart from the coach and spill out into the cove that acts as the start line, flickering fire buckets cast them in atmospheric light. You can't see Shieldaig from the cove, which should add to the tension, but a strange, almost respectful, calm descends over the athletes as they settle in and focus on the immediate challenge ahead. On Stuart McInnes's command, a huge Celtman logo is set alight on the beach and a lone piper steps forward. As the sun begins to rise, the air is filled with the rousing sound of bagpipes as the triathletes are led, in front of a now fiercely burning logo, down to the shore-line. 'It's the start of the Celtman that I look forward to most", says Paul McGreal. "The atmosphere is almost electric and it makes the hairs on the back of my neck rise'. As he speaks, a sharp, sour smell of seaweed permeates the air as the athletes, first in singles and pairs and then in big groups, wade out into the water and swim into the sea. At least two lay claim to have encountered the race's first jelly-fish. Within minutes, they're at the start line, there's a short pause before the horn sounds and then they're off, each on their own personal journey.

All in it together

When you add together the atmospheric start of the Celtman, the stunning scenery of the cycle and the views from the mountain run, you have a great long-course race. Add on the camaraderie of a group of international athletes descending on a tiny Scottish village and the support the locals give the event and it makes the Celtman one of the premiere events in the triathlon world. Each year, more people enter the race than can compete and a ballot form of entry is necessary to give people a fair chance of being successful.

"The ballot system ensures we can keep our entries fresh and fair", says Stuart McInnes. "We've had so much interest in the Celtman from around the globe that we're keen to ensure as many as people as possible can take part. The 2015 event is full but if you're thinking of an event to enter for 2016, you should definitely keep us in mind".

Summing up his Celtman experiences, Ryan Maclean says, "Personally, both times I've crossed the finish line of the Celtman, I've been flooded with such a feeling of achievement that I know all the pain during training is worth it, it's a feeling like none other. In the first year, I was not sure I could complete such a challenge but with the right training and preparation I proved myself wrong and I did. Then, after my disastrous race in year two, I wanted so badly to come back and complete the course. The whole of my third year I was focused on becoming a Celtman again with the mindset that the impossible is nothing and if we want something so much we go and get it no matter what. That's what the Celtman does for me, it makes me believe that the impossible is nothing, It's the hardest day of your life but at the end it's one of the most amazing days of your life, it's a journey I enjoy being on. We are all in it together, Stuart, Thor, Vasillis and Don and every single one of us that stands on the start line, plus every person who supports us on the way, we are a family and we are there for each other. When we stick together, the impossible is nothing and it's the friendships I've made that will help push me to enter again next year, gunning for a blue t-shirt. Roll on my next Celtman."

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Editorial publications: Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon

A selection of editorial features which have used images I’ve captured at the Celtman Extreme Scottish Triathlon, an iron-distance race in the North-West Highlands of Scotland where competitors swim 3.4km across a tidal sea loch, cycle 202km over scenic highland roads and run a marathon 42km over two Munros (Scottish mountains over 3,000ft high).

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