Burning flames lay behind me, hypothermic icy water lay before. A glance to trees overhead, leaves still as if a photograph. Unexpected calm and brightness from a 3am start in the Scottish highlands on the day of reckoning, the day of willpower, the day of Celtman. I set my bike, as I have many times before, shoes open and waiting, helmet and jersey, all at right angles. I equip myself with only swimming gear and a flapjack - my silent version of porridge for breakfast - and head to the bus waiting to take the 175 Celtman compatriots of 2016 down the road to the sheep shit midge field for photos and kilted musicians, and the scene of our beginning. I meet Andy Duggan, the lead swimmer of the pack and 6th overall finisher on the bus, and all around have erupted into conversation, laughs, cheer. It is the oddest thing to find yourself within 175 neoprene clad eccentrics, at 4am now, in the furthest reaches of the Scottish highlands, 39 countries represented, talking with someone who has such high ambition for their day. I was in awe and yet at peace. I felt connected to every one of them, we were all about to share something rather extraordinary that day.
On with the swim then. 5am gun. The deep water start was nothing worse than the water of the Sark triathlon in April, so I acclimatised quickly. Jellyfish provided a safari of entertainment for the sub-hour 3.4km swim, I was happy to see, when I emerged back in Shieldaig. I shot a smile at Sam, awaiting my shivering, collapsing corpse, assuring him the swim went great and I needed no hand to skip the rocks - I was ready to be united with my bike.
Bike. 6am. All going to plan. Andy and Ian had said that the initial steep climb out of Sheildaig was nothing when you are soaring from adrenaline and a quick transition. I certainly now seconded that opinion. I overtook three guys on the first climb-and-turn out of town and was loving the use of my legs. Amy (my trusty steed) had had an upgrade in chain and wheels. This was the very first ride I had on those wheels and I knew they'd feel like pushing clouds. The satisfying sound and immediate response to my surges up and down hill, tucked onto my aerobars, I knew this was going to be an epic bike ride. The swim was just a warm up, now I was racing. Now I was pushing.
The 127 miles of the Celtman bike course is pretty much one road. There are two junctions - one after around 6 miles and one at 110 or so. Having had my cycling experience mostly in either Cambridge or Guernsey, I have never quite experienced such a challenging, undulating, picturesque, mystifying ride. Mystifying: there is a 10 MILE section of uphill, climbing 1,000 feet, followed by a 20 MILE section of downhill. As I was still going down, I just couldn't compute how I hadn't hit sea level again yet, but there it was. A blissful 20 mile reward for a 10 mile stretch, starting at the 70 mile mark, of hell and sub 10mph pace. Well earned I'd say.
Through the race I was very aware of Ian gaining. For the first time in a race, I was not threatened by this though, only relieved - if Ian was close by, then it would mean that we were both on track for our shared time goals to reach the mountain by 3:45pm. Celtman required a car support team for each racer. Ian and I both had the expertise of Andy (whom has already earned himself a blue Tshirt in 2014) as driver, Kate as official photographer and extreme-flag-waving specialist, and Sam and Paris as water throwers/Olbas oil applicators. They were incredible. Although the race could probably be improved with designated water stops so avoid congestion (I did have to brake through support-vehicle traffic on several occasions when approaching a slower cyclist (OK maybe just a couple of occasions!)) but, actually, not only does it add another layer of uniqueness to the race, it is unbelievably boosting to see your flag, familiar faces and shouts of your name. I will be forever grateful to those guys for their help that day - they won't ever understand how much I needed it and how much it meant for them to have such enthusiasm over the course of the whole day, but especially their 7 1/2 hour car journey. Amazing friends.
I digress. It's 12:45pm and I know I need to be off this bike by 1:30pm. I make the calculations and must make each mile last no longer than 4 minutes maximum to ensure I have enough time. Numbers. Counting. Pedal stokes. Miles. Time. I count. 1:33pm my leg swings off Amy and Fiona, lovely Fiona, intercepts her whilst I rush to the porta-cabins, desperate for a rather uncomfortable comfort break. 50 seconds. shoes off, shoes on, camelback. 120 seconds. IAN! shoelaces. 180 seconds. Gone.
1:36pm, and right on target, Sam, Paris, Ian and I are all running. Finally. Legs are feeling great. Walking the first 2 miles uphill to the top of the Coulin Pass felt amazing to be upright. Got to the gate. Quick spin around, what a view. Conscience of the time restraints, I press on to be a part of the view, now cruising downhill, stones, forest, mountains. No breeze, breathing. Heart still beating, legs still pulsing, feet brushing over grasses and holes and all those cracks you get with foothill paths. This is where I want to be. Dodging, smiling, swinging, Sam and others sharing this incredible experience. Now I feel alive. Now I feel like I'm really achieving. I'm going to make it. Ian's going to make it. Sunshine, streams, smooth sailing. We had to average 12 minute miles to cover the 11 taking us to T2A, the mountain pass cut off, by 4pm. Totally achievable. We covered one of the more downhill sections in 8minutes30. Feeling so good.
3:45pm. There it is. And there's Ian. Sam turns to me and says that we could walk the rest of the way and comfortably get there. It's obviously hypothetical, but it's such a great relief. I thought that was the hard part over, I could then just cruise up the mountain and enjoy. Yeah. No.
3:55pm. Caught back up with Ian and Paris, we're heading up the initial mountain pass. It's fine, really. Andy and Kate had brought us to this initial section the previous day, and I knew on fresh legs it was totally fine. On tired legs, although obviously a challenge, I knew I could just keep going, keep stepping. 1 mile took us 49 minutes. The next took us 1hour1minute. It was steep. We reached the first peak and were greeted by another familiar face - Jez I had met at 530am in Guernsey two days previously in the taxi to the airport. He was marshalling the race in order to return the following year to quench his blue shirt demons. I apologise to Jez, as although he absolutely brought me strength, I couldn't help but then come to the realisation that this initial peak was by no means the hardest section done with. No. We weren't even at the highest peak yet. Sorry Jez - I wish I could have been more joyous to see you on my face (whilst I could still smile!) but, sitting behind you was the path I still had yet to stumble through, and it wasn't an easy one.
The ridge continued on for many, many hours. Ian, Paris and Sam were my heroes. Jokes, chat, stories, ramblings and utter nonsense is just what I needed to get through. Thank you. You can see from the pictures above how extreme it was. All the bike was forgotten, the swim a mere paddle. Atop the mountain range, climbing and descending peak after peak, boulder over boulder, foot in front of foot, I reached what I thought I could reach. But that wasn't enough. There were more footsteps, more boulders, more peaks. Onwards. I slowed. Ian, having trod these ridges before, surged on. The final hill was an out and back, so I knew when I saw Ian and Paris again that it wasn't far to the final peak. Then we got there. Over 4 hours on the mountain. I just didn't feel anything. I was looking at the view, the incredible view. The mountains as far as the clouds allowed. The lochs, the highlands. My heart went out to them. I was free. I felt nothing. Not ecstatic, not drained, not elated, not thirsty. I just was.
I shook it off. A moment I've never had before, but I know I will have again. The scree slope was next on the agenda, and I really needed to pee.
So, my thighs stinging from 'sterilising' my chaffed skin (didn't tell Sam about that bit!) we descended the ridiculousness that is the scree slope. Here's a word of warning for you - if you suspect a dodgy part of a course, something that is mentioned in safety briefing to be wary of, AND there's very little/no video or picture evidence of it, it usually means it's too dangerous for camera equipment. So it's pretty effing dangerous. That's a pretty accurate description of the scree slope. Remember my 'perceived' fitness level I was just knocking on the door of when I saw Jez? That was almost 5 hours ago now. I'm in the beyond, and all these beautiful Celtman compatriots around me were in exactly the same place.
Alright, we're in the home straight. Two more 'chapters' left. Just this rocky, boulder-y 5 mile path back to the road, which leads 6 miles back to Torridon and the finish line. What? In the bag you say? Hard part's SURELY over now you say?
Sam spins and sees my bloody face. All I know is that blood and grit has suddenly filled my mouth. Lovely. We had run out of water around 2 hours ago, and, kicking a rather big boulder, my feet didn't make it underneath me for this step down off a rock. Face first, I managed to plough the path of it's minor stones and pick them up in my upper lip. Sam was convinced I'd either broken my nose or pierced my lip with a tooth the way it was bleeding. Two American athletes that we were walking with turned around and offered a pain killer and a steri-strip. Sam cleaned it as best as he could, and I managed to fashion a rather fetching white moustache from the tape we used to hold my lip together. Again, though, I felt nothing. Not the pain, not upset, I was fine. Actually, in hindsight I actually just felt one thing - determined. I was going to finish this. The mountain rescue people and Sam were asking if I should continue, was I dizzy, what did I need. My finish line seemed compromised. But it never was to me. I knew I was fine, at least for another hour or so. I had no doubt in my mind that I would complete this (now) bloody race even if the fall meant I needed stitches. Which it didn't. I knew it wouldn't.
We reached the road and I was so pleased to not have to study each step any more. 9 hours on our feet now, 17.5hours pushing forward. Somehow, however, I just didn't feel that. I didn't feel the 3am alarm drying my eyes, the 5am swim drain my shoulders, the 7.5hour bike in my lower back, the mountain burn in my chest and deep into my quads. The grit in my teeth the blood dripping off my nose and chin. I didn't feel it. I could have just got out of bed on any given morning in Guernsey and be going for my usual 6 miler around Saumarez park. I wanted to run. To the corner, to the next post... ah screw it, let's not stop. Never stop.
I did a full body scan - surely I'm delirious? Surely I'm severely dehydrated or lacking in nutrition? But no. Me and Sam were laughing, smiling, contemplating how insane this race is and... where is this running coming from? We passed Ian and Paris. Hi! Nice moustache! We didn't stop. Sorry guys, I couldn't stop. I couldn't walk any more. Walking was harder than running. I loved the pace, I pushed harder. Sam followed suit.
Then there we were. Suzie and Ian's kids shouting, Andy, couldn't believe it. Kate, over the line, wondering what on earth was on my lip! The organisers, hugs, concern, beer. 18hours, 35minutes and 45seconds from the start line. I was somehow just floating. My feet didn't touch the floor.
There's an adventure. One that took me so much further than I had ever envisaged. I knew the distances, but it was inconceivable to train for. Especially from Guernsey - pretty much the opposite landscape to the highlands. But through getting through the unknown, physically this time, was the adventure. And I loved every second that I spent pushing past the limits I didn't even know I had set myself.
I'm going to try and not set limits any more. Why put up obstacles? 'I could never do that' 'It's too far' 'It's too high'. It's bollocks. Perhaps it's the risk of failure that is actually the problem. Whatever it is, the most free I've ever felt, is when I was on the peak, seeing where I'd come from, the landscape I'd summited. I felt nothing, but felt everything. I let go of what was small and unimportant, and held onto the bigger picture. It was only one day. but a bloody big one.
Jenny was born in Dorset, and now is living in Mozambique. She participates in long-distance triathlon and rowing challenges. She has a conservation degree, and is currently working toward her masters degree studying the Stingrays of Mozambique.