It’s midnight. It’s dark. You’re on a beach, but the beach is 300 metres above sea level.
You’re surrounded by others waiting around nervously in wetsuits and glowsticks. You can feel the sand between your toes.
The countdown begins and now it’s your turn to launch out into the inky darkness beyond.
It’s the STARMAN Night Triathlon.
STARMAN took place on 14th– 15th August 2021. Given the previous year we’d all had and the many cancelled events, it was quite an achievement that the race went ahead at all. Quite how the organisers pulled it off is impressive enough, even more so that it went so well and was really well organised.
With all the training done, it’s time to go. All the kit’s ready and laid out in order for the swim, the run to T1, T1 itself, the bike phase, T2 and then the run. All the devices and lights have been fully charged up, the route maps printed and laminated, and everything is organised into clear plastic crates for each phase and transition. The bike chain is oiled, tyres pumped up, I’ve checked the weather forecasts and the travel reports for the A9, and so we’re off up the road in good time.
Registration was at the Cairn Gorm Ski Centre Car Park. I drove up the road to the Cairn Gorm car park and heard the car straining up the steep bits of the hill. I was having to keep dropping down gears to get up. I thought about what was in store – I’d be cycling that hill later on. Oh yes, “that hill” is at the end of the 90km bike in the middle of the night.
Registration was orderly and thorough. The marshalls and volunteers were very friendly and helpful, which helped me feel at ease and that I was in good hands. Right, what to do now? It’s 3pm and you can rack your bike from 10:30pm onwards.
Off to a pub – for a meal that is. Pasta and loads of water. Then waiting a bit again, doing as little as possible. I’m getting nervous now and I’m joining in less and less of the conversation. The weather forecast had said clear and dry, but I see the cloud is shrouding the hills and it’s starting to drizzle. Then there’s a heavy downpour. I suddenly realise that I’ve never ridden my new bike in the wet before. I wonder how those tyres will cope in the wet? And the brakes? Well, we’ll soon find out.
So, 10:30pm arrives and I go to T1 to rack up the bike. The area around Loch Morlich was busy all summer, especially with staycations and the mini heatwave we had, so the organisers changed T1 to the Hayfield, about 1km from the beach. Good idea. Loads of folks were at T1 now. Some real superbikes on show, with what looked like full workshops on the go out the back of vans.
Up until recently, I only had a second-hand bike which I bought off a guy on Gumtree a few years ago. However, in April before STARMAN, a spoke broke while out on a ride, leading to all kinds of other problems. It was time to put that bike into pasture for the turbo trainer only. So, at the start of the summer, I bought my first new road bike. It was in the £500-£1000 category, which is all I could afford, so no wheel upgrades or anything like that. No problem. It goes like a dream. I only mention that in case you think you can’t do this event if, like me, you’re restricted in terms of budget or what you ride on.
Now to put the lights and the tech on. Loads of lights. You can’t have too many. One of my front lights failed later on, despite testing it once on a night ride, and so back-up lights are essential. Front and back lights all tested. I put my basic Garmin device on the bike (but, as with my watch, ended up not using it, as I couldn’t see it in the dark).
I also put on the light I’d bought for the helmet. That ended up being essential. Not all the signs are easy to see in the dark and not all signs are right in front of your bike lights. You also need to look around for things in the dark and have a light to fix a puncture (please no). While getting everything ready in T1, I wore my helmet with the light on, which was handy. It also helped the local midges find me. I thought that midges only came out at dusk and dawn, but no, they’re awake at night too. Some folks had midge nets. Good thinking.
Right, off to get changed for the swim. About an hour to go now, so it’s about 11pm. A full wetsuit is compulsory. You’d want clear goggles for this swim. It’s at night and the last thing you want is tinted goggles. It’s already dark enough. You know there’s water out there, but you can’t actually see it.
When we are ready to go, all in black, in the dark, it’s just a bunch of green glowsticks and luminous smiles waiting on the beach. There are two flashing blue buoys at the shore. So, that’s the entrance and exit. There are about four or five flashing buoys out there in the water forming a loop. They’re flashing white and it’s four times round that loop. It’s explained that the blue glowsticks are on kayaks. So that means the safety crew are coloured blue, fellow competitors are green, and the course buoys are flashing white. Those are the only three colours you really see in the pitch black. Little green glowsticks, blue spots here and there, and white flashes out on the water.
The safety brief is done and now I’m getting really nervous. Everyone’s friendly and in good spirits which helps. We’d all estimated our swim time in advance and had been sorted into about 5 waves. The waves go out in about 2-minute intervals. My wave is shouted out and so I kiss my wife and kids goodbye.
I dib in with my timing chip and call out my number (the first of many times tonight) and we are allowed a splash for a couple of minutes. I do my usual and get down and scoop as much water as I can down the front of the wetsuit, with the usual shock and sharp intake of breath as the cold water makes its way down. The countdown starts from 10, and then we’re off.
I’ve never done an open water swim in a triathlon before. I took it easy and almost immediately caught up with the wave in front of me. I swam through that wave, carefully weaving in between folks. No argy-bargy in this event thankfully. There were varied abilities and quite a few had gone for breaststroke as far as I could tell. That’s not surprising. If breaststroke works for you, go for it. Also, you really do need to look up and concentrate to follow the course. Spotting those flashing white lights in the dark in the midst of the trippy, psychedelic mix of green and blue glowsticks floating about was all you had to go on. Apart from that, it’s black below the water and black above the water. It almost felt like I was swimming with my eyes closed. After a while, I found my own space and didn’t encounter anyone else for the rest of the swim. The water was flat calm, pretty warm and silky smooth. The swim was flowing, it was serenely silent, and it was utterly beautiful.
It all ended too soon. I aimed for those two blue flashing buoys at the shore and stood up with the usual swim head-dizziness I get every time. A friendly marshall took my arm and steadied me, asking me if I was OK. I was. The team here are good.
I dibbed out, shouted my number confirming I did 4 laps, then ran along a line of glowsticks in the dark, with my prescription goggles steaming up, heading towards the plastic bags. I found my bag. Glasses on, headtorch on, skooshed the feet and trainers on. I drank the rest of the bottle, and put the bottle, my swim cap and goggles into the bag to collect after the race, and we’re off. Folks in wetsuits all running in the dark to T1 with headtorches on.
I had decided beforehand on a full change in the changing tent. I was going to be out there for over 4 hours I reckoned, and I knew from my one practice night ride that I really felt the cold at night. So, I did a full strip right down, towelled myself dry and put on a completely new set of dry clothes. It was well worth it (for me). It took quite a while to change and when I came out, I wondered where everyone had gone. They’d all gone off without me.
I then saw there were still some bikes left so it wasn’t that bad. Right, helmet on, helmet light on, just to let the midges know where I am again, but I’d soon leave them behind. Bike lights on, phone lit up and the route started on it. Walk to the roadside, dib in and we’re off.
It’s raining, so I want to see what the brakes are like in the wet. All good. I weave about a bit and the tyres still hold the road. All good again.
The route starts on the road from Loch Morlich on the general downhill towards Coylumbridge. That lets you get your speed up and your legs moving. Occasionally, you can see red flashing rear lights up ahead. Sometimes they disappear into the distance again, sometimes they get closer. Other than that, it’s pitch black, apart from your own pool of white light right in front of your bike. There is absolutely no other light source, sometimes for miles around. It’s proper dark.
It’s not closed roads on the route, but I only experienced about two cars on the whole 90km route (and one of them was a marshall checking on us, and a motorbike marshall going around too). Not a single traffic light. Not a single pothole. Coming from Glasgow, that was a welcome relief.
So, I reached Coylumbridge and noticed that you really needed that headtorch to look around and see the direction arrows at the side of the road if you were relying on them. My phone alerted me to all the turns. So, off into the countryside. A few folks caught up with me, although I overtook more than those who overtook me. No worries about that. It’s a long way to go, and I’m here to complete not to compete. After this past year, just making it to the start line and being there was enough. If anyone passed me, they gave a friendly word. I did the same with others. There was a good feel to the event.
The course twists and turns. The bigger the pool of light in front of you, the more confidence you have, especially on the tight bends on single track roads. The route also goes up and down. Early on I reach 55 km/h downhill, which for me is fast even during the day. With the drizzle firing long white lines into the bike light, it felt like I was on full warp speed in outer space. Exhilarating in the dark.
The drizzle eased off and, a bit like the swim, you find your own space and your own pace, in total silence, in a completely peaceful place, no traffic, no distractions. It’s such a well thought out course. I did a recce of it in the summer during the day (in 25 degree heat) and so I knew that the surroundings were absolutely stunning. I could remember it all as I went round in the dark.
I reached about half-way round, and I was still doing OK. It was dry now. I was keeping a steady pace, checking my speed as you can’t really judge speed in the dark, sipping away at the water, taking occasional gels, making sure the wrappers all went in my designated rubbish pocket in my jacket.
I’m feeling good and am carrying loads of food and drink so I motor on without stopping at the feed station, with encouragement shouted from the roadside. I decide on some real food so I start on the mini pork pies. Everyone’s got their own favourite food for bike rides and trail runs, and for me it’s pork pies. You can hold them easily, they’re salty and you feel full afterwards. So, I had pork pies with me, and now two of them are down the hatch while on the move.
OK, so now we’re getting there and the kms left are getting fewer and fewer. There’s a long section of single-track road, with loads of night-time wildlife (was that a bat?), and lots of country smells. I feel myself plodding a bit now. I check and I’m not getting that much slower, but it’s heavier work for a bit. I keep going. A key moment is to reach Coylumbridge again, turning left back towards Loch Morlich.
I’m nearly at that point and then I begin to get stomach cramps. I quite often get stomach cramps after long swims, but leaning forward on the bike for so long, in the middle of the night, and now filled with a combo of drink nutrition, gels and pork pies, it all didn’t make for a very comfortable experience. I stand up on the pedals and stretch my abdomen as much as I can and that helps. It also felt good to stretch out the back of the legs and keep the cramping at bay.
Right, Coylumbridge is up ahead, so I ease off on the pedals. The road back towards Loch Morlich is gradually uphill, which I’d never noticed before until I did the recce of it on the bike. I make the left turn at Coylumbridge and I also know from the recce that I need to keep something in the tank. Apart from the run (not thinking about that for now, one stage at a time), up ahead is “that hill”. I remember the car straining to get up to the ski car park on Cairn Gorm. Now, I’m passing Loch Morlich after about 80km, and that hill looms up ahead. It’s dark and covered in low cloud, unseen but brooding away, just waiting for me.
The hill starts, and I’m already tired. I’m in that wet wispy mist that hangs about pine forests in the early morning. I haven’t eaten for a while, I’m slowing up and I’m going down the gears. I was going to keep the easiest gear for a psychological boost later on up the hill, but the clicks have run out and I realise I’m in it already. So, head down and I’m determined to get up this thing.
It’s long. It’s steep. It’s getting steeper. It’s not that I’m “spinning away”, I’m now just grinding those pedals round and round, just making sure they keep going one revolution at a time, no matter how hard it feels. I keep going and we’re really in the cloud now.
Suddenly, there are front lights coming fast towards me down the hill on my side of the road. How’s that?! No, it’s runners with head-torches running past. They’ve already been up and done the first mountain and are running back down. Good for them. Strangely, that was more encouraging than discouraging. That’ll be me in a while. I hope.
I keep going and now I’m breathing really hard through gritted teeth, seething and pushing and pulling all the way up there. I know from my recce that if I reach the Sugarbowl car park turn, the worst of it is over, and all of a sudden I’m there. I thought I still had a bit to go before that point, but I’ve got there sooner than I expected. There’s a chap walking and pushing his bike uphill. No judgement here.
I keep going and now I’m slow but I keep going forward. This is a real slog now and it’s brutal. I pass a helicopter parked at the side of the road. I think about hot-wiring it and remember an episode of the A-Team, but I keep going.
Bizarrely, I then look up and see myself riding towards me. I’d heard about possible hallucinations and now there’s a dark figure which is definitely me, riding towards me but not getting any closer. I wave at myself just to make sure. It is me, waving back. I’ve lost it.
Then I realise what it is. That guy who was walking, he’s back on his bike and is right behind me and his front light is projecting my shadow onto the fog in front of me. Weird. Anyway, I watch my shadow cycling away at a constant six feet in front of me for a while, and then I fade away, or at least my shadow does.
Up and up into the clouds I go and then unbelievably the road flattens out. I suddenly pick up speed again and it’s the car park! Yes! I can’t believe it, I’ve made it. That new bike was brilliant after all.
I dib in with the friendly marshalls, rack my bike up, switch off the lights and the tech. I stretch my back and legs, then go for another change. My clothes are soaked from a combination of sweat and the low cloud. So, into the run gear and I start up Windy Ridge, which is actually not that windy today. It’s also not that dark now. Three or four of us find our way up the path going at about the same pace, so there’s a bit of friendly chat for company and encouragement along the way. I pass a few folks taking a breather and make sure they’re OK before moving on. Everyone’s OK. It’s part of the ethos of the race to look out for each other, and stop and help anyone who needs it, which is good.
The steep stone steps mean that you gain altitude really quickly, but after the bike and “that hill”, it’s a real effort on the quads and lungs to keep going. Very soon, it’s a complete pea-souper again. The visibility is down to yards. No stars above to see or lovely pre-dawn views. This is a thick fog. It’s very still and very quiet, and it’s not going anywhere. The legs are loosening up and I make it up to the Ptarmigan restaurant. I remember getting a hot pie in there while on a BB skiing trip about 40 years ago. I keep thinking about pies.
It’s time to check in with the dibber again. From here, it would have been straight up to the Cairn Gorm summit and back, but the hill safety team have decided that no-one is going up to the summit. I could have navigated it with the compass, but I’m happy with their decision.
So, time to turn back down the route which takes a different trail down from the Ptarmigan, back down towards the ski centre. Thankfully, for the first time, I actually break out into a run. The “run” phase is more of a “mountain” phase, and for me there was only so much running that actually got done. There was a lot of hiking going on, but now I’m on a trail all by myself and running downhill with the clouds clearing, so I get a good view.
It’s quite steep and it’s spine-jarring for various bits. About eight weeks before the race, I had a sciatica flare up and I needed sports massages and physio sessions, due to running downhill and the effect it had. Now, I’m running downhill with my full race vest on and I’m really feeling it in my legs and in my back. And my bladder. There are loos at the ski centre so I just focus on that, and not on the sound of running water from mountain streams that I’m sure I can hear flowing past.
The clouds have cleared for a while and there’s a pit stop at the ski centre. Loos, thank goodness. I change out of my trail leggings into my shorts. The cloud is lifting and it’s getting warmer. There’s food and water on offer. I’ve loads of water in my vest and the more I drink of that, the lighter my vest will get, so I take on a few banana pieces and some sweets.
Unlike when I was going up, I can’t remember running past anyone who was still coming uphill on the bike. Given the amount of bikes I remember already racked, I reckon I’m quite a bit back, but I don’t give a hoot. I’m here, I’m still moving forward and I’m running.
I pass a number of people on the downhill run, and everyone’s happy to run at their own pace, and everyone has a friendly word as I go past. I’m glad to get off the tarmac road. Running downhill is hard.
I see the familiar sign markers pointing the way off the road and into a forest trail cushioned with pine needles, which felt so much better. Through the forest to the Glenmore Lodge, then the flattish trail past An Lochan Uaine. The “Green Loch”, where the fairies wash their clothes, was looking stunning in the early morning light, reflecting the pine trees on its perfectly flat, green surface.
I had been all on my own again for miles now until just after the loch when I saw a friendly marshall with a beautiful dog, who came over and wagged its tail and gave me a friendly lick (the dog that is). For some reason, I couldn’t have thought of a better boost at that point. It was wonderful. My eyes filled up a bit.
Now a gradual uphill on the stony track to the Ryvoan Bothy. I was doing a full-on walk/run thing by this stage. Any uphill slope was walked. Anything flat got a run. I was doing OK with that approach.
I looked up at the next mountain, Meall a’ Bhuachaille. It’s not a munro but I went up it on my recce a while back and I know it’s stubbornly steep and tough. I reached the Ryvoan Bothy where there was another pit-stop and time for more bananas and sweets. Right, big intake of breath and up we go. There are stone steps all the way up and it felt like a never-ending stair-climber. It just went up and up and up, and up into another complete pea-souper.
This is the last leg and the last uphill, so it’s head down and keep going. Thankfully, eventually, the hill safety team came into view through the fog at the summit cairn, with their brightly coloured jackets on. I checked in with them again, and they pointed the way for the track home. Again, the visibility was down to yards, so I was pleased to get the directions, and saw the orange marker.
It’s all downhill from here, but in a good way. I felt good and the end was in sight. Well, it was still a pea-souper, but if you could see the end, it would have been in sight. Down the track to the low saddle of the bealach beneath the Meall, where I knew to look out for a left turn. I hadn’t been down here before on my recce but others had, and helpfully put photos on the Facebook page for training chatter. Things like that became really important at moments like this.
Then, appearing in the cloud, was another marshall, making sure no-one missed the left-hand turn down the way. As with all the marshalls, I thanked them for being there for us. They were out in the cold, at night, in the dark and the mirk, getting wet or surrounded by midges trying to get through their head-nets. They were always friendly and encouraging and motivating and helpful and safety-minded.
So, down the steep steps back towards Loch Morlich, on stone, on gravel, hardly any mud at all, jumping over small streams using stepping stones, running along pine forest trails. It’s a beautiful course.
Then suddenly, the tarmac of the road at Loch Morlich appears. I’m back! Nearly the end!
Almost, because you’ve to run along another trail away from the campsite and then to the far end of the beach. And then run along the beach. Sand is usually a right killer to run on but not this time. I reach the beach and can now actually see the finish line. It’s about 500m away along the beach and now I’m smiling all over. I’m not running on sand. I’m running on air. And also running on fumes.
I hear my name being shouted. It’s my wife and kids cheering me on. Marshalls are cheering and clapping too. And then, I put my best face on for the photographer, although I’m probably covered in salt and sweat and gels and pork pie crumbs.
I’m over the finish line and it’s done. I get my medal round my neck. The medal is beautifully crafted.
I also get a bacon butty and coffee. A bacon butty and coffee never tasted so good.
The STARMAN Night Triathlon is dark. It is brutal. It is unique.
I loved it. And I came out the other end smiling.
If you’re able and can do the training, it’s a great event.
I collected my swim bag from the beach, then up to T2 to collect all the other gear and the bike which was waiting for me.
Slept all the way home.