Here I am. It is 5am. The road to get here has been long. I suffered, I sweated, I puked, but I am here.
Two people, two races, one goal – finish. For one, he stands at the edge of an inlet to the Atlantic Ocean in the west Highlands. Around him, the drums ring out in the morning air, and the fires criss-cross the Celtic swirls that stand 15 feet high.
It’s the town he’s always known, the sights and smells he’s always had, but now an enormous adventure awaits.
For another, she stands at the edge of the Pennington Flash, zipping up her wetsuit, prepared for her greatest challenge – and she is 3,700 miles from home. For her, the swim is her strength, being a mile swimmer as an undergraduate; for him, the first time he had swim for 12 years was this time last year, on the edge of his first Ironman.
Two people, two races, one dream.
Robin Downie in an ever-smiling Highlander from Lochcarron, the starting location for the Celtman! EXTREME Triathlon. Not many people can say their ‘local race’ is anything more than a 10K park run, but for Downie the trot around the town is anything but.
A 2.4 mile swim in jellyfish-infested waters, followed by a 125 mile bike ride through some gruelling terrain (often in brutal conditions), topped off by a marathon which climbs two Munros.
Show me your local race.
“We get competitors from all over the world, usually 50 countries are represented at Celtman”, he says. “And there are very few locals that do it, and for me that is why I decided to do it.”
Here’s the thing, though, Robin Downie – now ready for his third Ironman – had never done a triathlon before starting the Celtman last year.
“I never had the intention of doing a triathlon, but the idea of doing it for the locals brought me to it. I hadn’t swam in about 12 years, and that had been basic swimming in primary school, and I was absolutely terrified of open water swimming.
“I didn’t post the best swim time, but I completed it … I knew I had a good bike, I knew I had a good run, but you don’t even get on the bike if you don’t complete the swim, so the first thought was just to build it up through swimming in the pool.
“I was coming out of every swim exhausted, being sick all the time, struggling to even walk a mile after the swim. Then eventually I got into open water and I was hyperventilating … and I was unable swim on my front, which made it really difficult.
“My local dentist helped me out with some swimming and I sort of got over that. I started to take in less sea water, which is pleasant.”
I laugh: “More air and less sea water.”
For Shannon Scovel, though, the story is the complete opposite. Practically built in the water, Scovel took on one of the least popular events in the swimming calendar: the mile swim.
“I’m not very fast”, Shannon grimaces, “so that ruled out all the sprint events. I thought, I might as well out-grit everyone else. From a young age I veered towards the distance events; there were less people in them, so they were less competitive.
“And it was fun, to just really challenge my body and see what I could do.”
I remember when I first met Shannon. She was an integral part of our sports team at the student newspaper in Stirling, and had a phenomenal talent for writing. It was only recently I learned more about her antics in college and university as one of those who lived in the “D Lane” or the “Animal Lane”.
Why the Animal Lane? Because to cover a mile in a 50m pool requires a little over 32 lengths. That’s a lot of tiles to count on the floor.
Being a swimmer means early starts, and being able to have that discipline to go back and forth in the pool to cover the miles is something Shannon believes has helped drive her through this crazy journey to becoming an Ironman.
“I would get sets handed to me in swim practice, and I would look at them and think, ‘There’s no way’, and then you would do them and it would give you the confidence you can take on challenges you never thought you could do before.”
Largely, though, their motives for doing an Ironman rest with the ones they care about. Harking from Cary in North Carolina, Shannon’s parents completed their Ironman. Watching them cross the line, and having done a couple 70.3 Ironman races herself, Shannon immediately went to the calendar to find a race.
Studying for a Masters in Gender Studies at Stirling University, Scovel saw it as the perfect time to balance life with training. Although used to the early morning swim sessions, she found the flexibility afforded to her by the programme to help a lot with the training.
On the flip side, as a nursing student, Robin Downie has had to tailor his entire programme around placement. Currently placed in a prison in Polmont, Downie uses the 35 mile round trip to work as his base mileage every day.
The day we met, he had headed off on the bike at just before 5am, got to work, “taken two hours to hand the drugs out” before getting his breakfast of porridge, nuts and golden syrup.
For Robin, a significant part of his training is simply being out there. He doesn’t follow a specific training programme, he just has periods where he does training whilst fatigued from a week of hard mileage, but otherwise his aim is to be outside in the hills and on the roads of Scotland.
“One of the benefits of Celtman is the fact it is in a beautiful part of the world. I often think of all the family and friends who are around me and being supportive, because that is a huge incentive.
“A lot of people have gels for an Ironman, but I like to just have homemade rocky road. You know, when you’re on the bike, you’re not thinking about the run you’re thinking, ‘Oh! In five miles time I get a nice bit of rocky road, because that is what keeps you going.”
For Robin, with the hardest part for him out the way once he is out the water, the only way is up, but for a mile swimmer the race begins once you leave the water.
Recently, Shannon took part in the Tour de Forth – a sportive criss-crossing the Firth of Forth. All the while she sported the black and pink jersey with Lori Cove across it, in honour of a family friend who suffered life-changing injuries after a driver with no license collided with her and those she was cycling with.
“I have my Race for Lori jersey, so I will be putting that on to start my 112 mile bike, always riding in her honour. And then the run, thinking about family and friends who are supporting me – every mile thinking of someone who has made a difference in my life.”
What, then, is the anatomy of an Ironman? In front of me sit two people with different stories, but with that insatiable drive and determination to have pushed through weeks of hard training.
“You have to love challenge”, says Robin, “and you’ve got to love putting yourself out of your comfort zone. One of the hardest parts of an Ironman is signing up and then telling people, because then they know and you’ve got to train.
“The hardest part of an Ironman is not the event itself, it’s the training week in, week out, and you have to say no to a lot of commitments, but that is what you signed up for.”
More than that, though, Robin has had the Highlander toughness instilled in him since he was a lad, his father not to put the fire on in winter but to put a jumper on, “because you’re a Highlander and you have that Celtic blood in you”.
Since Shannon learned of my own desire to get more in to distance sport, she tried desperately to get me signed up for her Ironman race in Bolton, so I asked her again to put the case to me.
“Do it!”, she laughs. “It’s a cool journey. I haven’t completed it yet, so I will let you know how I feel in the end. You are part of this community of people who are all trying to push themselves, and I am inspired by Robin. It’s a great group of people always trying to bring others into it.”
“For someone who hasn’t done an Ironman before”, Robin adds, “how many people can put on a job application they have done an Ironman? It really stands you out from everyone else, because it is such a challenge that people can never think about doing it, to show that kind of endeavour and that kind of commitment to something.”
Robin Downie will be racing the Celtman this weekend, while Shannon Scovel will be racing the Bolton Ironman on July 15.