Chris Stirling won Celtman XTRI and the Canadaman XTRI in 2017 and now he wants to go back to Norway to take care of some unfinished business. But it is not just about racing, he loves the mountains.
And a few years back Stirling showed up at a race with a cougar. Yes, a cougar.
Slowtwitch: Thank you for your time Chris.
Chris Stirling: Thanks guys, the pleasure is mine, I have always enjoyed following Slowtwitch over the years, particularly the great interviews so it is an honor to be asked for a contribution.
ST: You are too kind. But tell us, what are you currently doing to get ready for the season?
Chris: Laying some foundations under the watchful eye of my coach Alan Cardwell (C3 Triathlon), building on last seasons bike fitness and making sure to make time for some fun in the mountains. I love to mix up the training throughout the year but once race season comes around things get more specific and focused so I'm making the most of extra time running in the hills and mountain biking.
ST: Did you take any time off from training?
Chris: I took some time off a structured schedule after CanadaMan in July but we got going again in September. The short break from training was all I felt I needed. I had an injury and niggle free season and as I said before I like to mix things up, so enough its easy to freshen up. I think the saying 'a change is as good as a rest' seems to work out best for me. I just love doing physical stuff.
ST: What do you do to mix things up?
Chris: Riding and racing the MTB. At the end of October I raced on a team of four at the Relentless 24 Hour event underneath Ben Nevis, and we came third. I loved every minute of it, playing bikes with your mates all night is how I would best describe it. Also mixing fell running/racing with winter mountaineering in the hills of the Lake District. In the winter when covered in snow it is not fast going but awesome for building strength, not to mention refreshing the mind. A good friend has a saying, 'Just Dae Stuff' and I think that sums it up pretty well, anything could be on the cards as long as its fun and adventurous.
ST: Is there a big A race looming in the distance or are there several targets?
Chris: There is one big one, Norseman in August and once that is done I am looking forward to visiting Patagonia for the PatagonMan in December. It is going to be quite a long season!
ST: You did Norseman in 2015, but it did not go as well as you wanted. Is that a fair statement?
Chris: In a way yes, it was more a feeling that I did not give the race the respect it deserved and do my best to prepare for it. The actual race went as well as it could have done, my support crew and I had a fantastic time but on reflection I had some regrets. I was lucky to have one of the elite slots after finishing second at Celtman in 2014 and chose to race Celtman again in 2015, focusing on trying to win that and then just seeing what happened at Norseman. It's so hard to get in now I didn’t know if I would ever get to go back so it left me with some unanswered questions but still an awesome experience.
ST: What is the goal for Norseman this time around?
Chris: We are training specifically for the race and I hope to answer those questions I was left with after 2015. Top 5 is the aim, it's a big ask, the standard at the race is crazy but nothing motivates me more than a goal that seems a big stretch and I do believe it's possible.
ST: Last year you won the Celtman Xtreme Tri and the Canadaman, which one of those titles means more to you and if so, why?
Chris: They were both very special in slightly different ways. I had been 2nd at Celtman in 2014 and 2015 and then DNF'd in 2016. So to finally put it all together and win the race was literally a dream come true. I'm glad it worked out like that, it was a fantastic journey and I had to grow as a person to achieve it. That race has given me so much over the years. My partner Jo was also very relieved. She thought she might get a break from me going on about the race. But walking back to get showered Steve and I already started talking about Norseman!
CanadaMan was only 3 weeks after Celtman and I did not have a clue how it would go. I can say I had to dig deeper than I ever have physically and mentally to win it. I had a puncture on the bike and thought all was lost, recovered then had to hold off a storming Jerome Bresson for 30km on the run. Lauren and Vassilis did an awesome job as my support crew that day and the support from the people of Lac Megantic made it very special.
ST: Celtman was your very first triathlon in 2012. You apparently did not bother to first participate in a Sprint or Olympic distance event - you went straight for the big one. And I think you had a very sexy bike.
Chris: Ha ha, yes it was, you may have guessed I'm not one for doing things by halves! As soon as I saw it I knew I had to enter, I had zero experience, didn’t own a bike and couldn’t really swim. So I bought an old steel Cougar race bike for £60, my mate Pete hooked me up with a wetsuit and I became a triathlete. It is as easy as that and I try to remember that now. I just got stuck into training and had good friends around that wanted to help out. As I said before it is amazing what that race has given me with friends and experiences.
ST: Was your Cougar the coolest cat in transition at Celtman?
Chris: Of course, well at least it did seem to draw plenty of attention pre-race, so I'm guessing that is because it was so cool. It was not so cool when the saddle rattled loose and the shifter broke on the bike course but luckily Steve my support crew was on hand to calm me down and get me back on the road.
ST: Excellent. What about Swissman?
Chris: Yes, 100% and hopefully in 2019. The race looks amazing and finishing underneath the Eiger North Face has a special draw for me as a mountaineer. That has given me a thought, how cool would it be to carry on to the top of the mountain after the race. I will have to check that out. Maybe after a few hours sleep though.
ST: You had come from mountaineering and were always running some to stay fit, but I think an injury put you on the triathlon trajectory.
Chris: Yes, that’s true, in the back of my mind I had always wanted to do a triathlon after seeing some stuff about Ironman in my early twenties but had never managed to make it happen. In 2011 I tore a pulley in my finger sport climbing and knew climbing would be off the cards for a while so decided to get it done. When I found Norseman and realized triathlons existed that went up mountains, plus Celtman was taking place in the Highlands of Scotland I became very interested.
ST: What are some of the mountains you have climbed before 2012, and do you still go out and climb some?
Chris: I have had so many amazing experiences climbing and running in the mountains with friends and alone. From boulders in Bishop, California to 24+hr winter epics in the mountains above Chamonix to summer evening cragging and scrambling in the Lake District or sports climbing in Spain. It is less a list of mountains, and more a collection of adventures. Yes I still climb but mainly scrambling when out on runs in the hills, not to the same technical standard as when that was all I used to do. Spending time in the mountains is important to me, and always part of my training.
ST: You represented Northern Ireland in the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships in 2014. How did the race go and what was the distance and elevation?
Chris: The race was the Pikes Peak ascent in Manitou Springs Colorado, now that is an awesome hill to run up and down! Its just over 13 miles up and finishes on the summit of Pikes Peak at 14,115ft (4302m). Total ascent is 7,815ft (2382m). The race motto is 'Oxygen is overrated'. Coming from sea level in the UK and with only a few days to prepare the race went as well as I could have hoped, I finished in 3 hours 20 minutes, I cant remember much about the final part of the ascent but it was a strange feeling willing my legs to keep moving but nothing really happening.
ST: Any interest in trying that course again?
Chris: I will be back to Pikes Peak for sure, the mountain has something mesmerizing about it and it is hard to shake. We actually ran the mountain up and down a day after the race, it just felt like the right thing to do and I just had to experience it again. Amazing race atmosphere to, the whole town went crazy for the race, the support was unreal. Supercool place.
ST: In 2015 you partnered up with Stuart McLeod and tackled a SwimRun race. Talk about that day.
Chris: Yes, we raced most of Loch Gu Loch, together. I say most because after leading the race for over 7hrs and with a nice 10-15min lead we took a wrong turn with about 8km left to go and ended up stranded on the side of Loch Ness looking at a 5km swim back to the finish or a lift in a boat. We wisely got in the boat. We did get the map out, but the waterproof case had leaked and we found a mushy mess in its place. Live by the sword, die by the sword, we raced hard together that day and its one of the best days out with a friend I have had. Despite the outcome nothing can take that away and it’s a great tale to tell, wouldn’t have been the same if we'd just won it. We still get plenty of stick for it now.
ST: Was there any discussion about swimming or getting in the boat?
Chris: We certainly tried, a mix of swimming, scrambling and hiking along the shore, but that side of Loch Ness is pretty wild and steep! The water temp was less than 10 degrees and we had cooled down way too much to take on a swim that long. By the time the boat got to us it was the right choice. Everyone at HQ was watching our trackers and just shouting no, no! Wallace and Gromit’s Grand Day Out.
ST: Will you go back to see if you can do it without getting lost, or maybe try a different SwimRun venue?
Chris: I went back the next year with the super strong Dirk Zangen, we finished 3rd and the big man made sure to look after me and keep us on track. Another awesome day with a friend I met at Celtman (2015 winner). SwimRun is a very special and exciting sport, there is something very wild and primal feeling about it, added to the team element so there will certainly be more SwimRun in the future and the Cowboys will return! ÖtillÖ is very high on the list and must be done at some point.
ST: What is your day job?
Chris: I work in a bike shop as a sales assistant.
ST: Talk about life in your younger days.
Chris: It is not stuff I often go into but its kind of significant being where I am today and how I approach life, training and racing. I always had so much energy as a kid and all I wanted to do was be outside and I really struggled stuck in a classroom. During my teens I lost interest in everything and struggled with depression, alcohol and drugs came along and became a way to deal with how I felt inside, eventually leading to addiction and all that comes with it. A big turning point for me came whilst in rehab when we went for an afternoon out in the hills, I remember messing about climbing rocks and reconnecting with the outdoors. Its not been plain sailing ever since but the trend has always been up. It is why I love XTRI, SwimRun etc so much - the connection with the sea, mountains, lakes, the natural environment and friends. The racing side of things just adds more purpose. For me life doesn't get much simpler than when your pushing as hard as you can running up an awesome mountain after 10+hrs racing.
ST: Is there anything else we should know?
Chris: I have probably gone on enough I think! Thanks again for having me and I hope everyone has a great winters training and an awesome season racing!