Students of the Blues often ask themselves: what happened to Robert Johnson at the crossroads in Clarksdale, Mississippi?
The story goes like this: back in the 1920s, Robert Johnson wanted to play the blues. But he really sucked. He sucked so much, that everyone who heard him told him to get lost. So he did. He disappeared for a little while, and when he came back, he was different. His music was startling and musicians who’d laughed at him before now wanted to know how he did it. And according to the now-famous legend, Johnson had a simple answer: he went out to the crossroads just before midnight and when the devil offered to tune his guitar in exchange for his soul, he took the deal.
The four hour drive up to Tyndrum in 30°C heat in a car with no air conditioning was not pleasant; it was even less pleasant knowing that the temperature would drop over the course of Saturday and, by Sunday, daytime temperatures as low as 12°C were forecast for the Ullapool area. Still, it’s always pleasant to arrive in Tyndrum on Highland Trail weekend, especially so this year as I’d got away from work at midday and arrived there by 17:00. I checked in to the bunkhouse and got my bike out, ready for a little ride around the place to see who was around. I quickly bumped into Ian Fitz and Greg Cummins (USA), as well as Joachim Rosenlund (Nor) and had a bit of a chat with them, then I headed back to the bunkhouse and cooked my evening meal so as to be in time for the ride out to remember Mike Hall at 19:30. We rode a couple of miles up the hill to a lovely part of the river, where about 20 of us sat down and had a chat. It was good to talk to Maurizio Doro from Italy and give him a bit of advice on what to expect and from where it was safe to drink water from.
I was sharing a room with Rich Rothwell, who was making his way up from the North East too, but at that point was a bit further back down the road. As he wasn’t due to arrive until at least 22:00, I headed along to the Real Food Cafe to meet up with the other riders. I missed this last year as I didn’t arrive until after 20:00 and then had stuff to sort out so it was good to meet and mingle with them. Plus, last year’s race included a couple of pleasant “truces” when myself and a small group of other riders sporadically met in various cafes for food together, before recommencing our own races once out of the cafe door; this year my pre-race strategy did not include anything of the sort and I anticipated a much swifter approach to grabbing food at key points, so the chance to socialise before was an opportunity I was eager to take.
At the RFC, it was great to put faces to a lot of names: the Lakes team of Mike Toyn and Chris Hope; the much-anticipated Neil Beltchenko all the way from Creste Butte; Huw Oliver and Fitz. I finally got to meet Scotland’s bikepacker entrepreneur extraordinaire, Markus Stitz and last, but by no means least, Jenny Graham, who I took great pleasure in regaling with a line that she must have already heard a million times: “So, Jenny, tell me about that time at Shenavall ….”
By 22:30 I was back at the bunkhouse and settling down for bed, but I’d since heard from Rich that he was badly delayed and probably not going to be arriving until midnight. I knew I wouldn’t be able to sleep waiting for someone else to arrive in the small room and it was hot anyway as the day’s heat hadn’t really dissipated much as night drew in. I concentrated on staying horizontal because even if I wasn’t sleeping, just being in this position would be a luxury over the coming days of the race.
Rich finally arrived, a bit flustered just after midnight, but managed to get himself settled in quite quickly and I think we were both finally asleep by 00:30.
Saturday: Tyndrum to Strathgarve Lodge; 251km.
Race morning dawned fine. I was up at 07:00 to have 150g of pasta al bianco, happily sticking to my tradition of last year. In retrospect, I could have probably eaten more and I think I definitely would have if I had known the pace that was soon to unwind in the course of the morning. The bike and bags were sorted and I didn’t have any last minute changes of items either being added or subtracted. As usual I was taking quite a lot of food and was relatively svelte in other areas of kit such as spare clothes, lighting, waterproofs etc. I went back to the cafe but just drank water, not really feeling like coffee, or eating. Rich and Tom Seipp were in the cafe having completed their ITT at 02:00 that morning, when they were greeted by Alan Goldsmith, in what I though was a very selfless gesture on his part considering he was starting off at 09:00 with the rest of us. As I was chatting to Rich Seipp in the cafe about his extremely innovative method for fixing auto-separating rims, the group photo was being taken outside of all the 2017 starters, so I unfortunately missed that.
Time was now ticking away and there was only fifteen minutes to go as we headed up that famous little back lane to the starting area. At the rendezvous, we had one minute’s silence for Mike Hall, then, without much ado we were arranging ourselves and we were being sent on our way by the first 12 year-old boy to complete the Highland Trail 550: Tom Seipp.
A startline photograph shows me, right there next to Alan, foot already clipped in and moving. We moved up the first gradient on the double-track and I was in second place on the tricky singletrack just before the drop under the arch of the railway bridge. By the time that we had reached the foot of the glen than defines the start of the first climb, up to the shores of Loch Lyon, the lead group was starting to form with the usual suspects present and correct: myself, Rich, Neil and Chris. The relative steady pace of the long-range contenders was periodically interrupted by a young French guy and another rider who eclipsed all others in terms of minimalist kit. This brisk but irregular pace continued through the glen, where at Bridge of Balgie our road temporarily intersected with that of a local Sportive event. As we approached the monument and the foot of the second steep climb of the day over towards Kinloch Rannoch, the opportunity to raid the Sportive’s unmanned water station was too good to miss. Through narrowed eyes the road riders looked at the two mountain bikers, throwing themselves into the centre of the stash of water bottles and quickly drinking and re-filling. Looks suggested that words were on the tips of tongues, but they never quite reached the open air before the scavengers were off and away with a smirk and a shrug of the shoulders. In stopping here to refill water I had lost some ground on the climb to Rich and Neil, but I caught Chris, who it later emerged was having trouble with a puncture. By now the temperature was in the mid-twenties and I was feeling quite hot as I was wearing a midweight merino baselayer.
I continued over the summit of the steep climb, riding all the way, compared to pushing the steeper slopes the year before and as I began my descent through the woods, I dropped my chain. I was a bit annoyed at this because I had never dropped the chain off the single ring before: I knew the reason was that I had put on a new chain for this event that hadn’t quite bedded in. Either the chain would bed in and stay put, or this would continue to be a problem for the remainder of the event. Thankfully, the former occurred very quickly. This left me with a minor deficit on the long descent through the woods on fast firetrack, but – uncharacteristically – I closed the gap to Rich and Neil, sensing that they were aware of a route deviation upcoming, but not quite sure where it was. I knew this little cut to the right down to the bridge was one of the trickiest bits of navigation on the whole route and was able to sail past them and lead them down it as they were still deciding where to go.
This put us in a reasonably stable group of three heading west across the open moorland until Rich’s bike started making unpleasant noises and he had to stop to fix it. It turns out it was a loose cassette lockring, which he fixed at Wolftrax with the use of superglue. As he was stopped by the side of the trail, I metaphorically patted myself on the back: putting threadlock solution on the cassette lockring had been the very last thing I did as part of my very extensive pre-race bike fettling.
Heading towards Ben Alder along the shores of Loch Ericht – lying particularly low due to a lack of rain – Neil and I were behind Florian, who had taken a flyer on the previous climb, bizarrely enough, just after admitting to me that he had no idea how his body was going to respond the next day! Pushing up the headland that juts out into the loch, before the drop down to the suspended bridge and the bothy, I heard a pair of cuckoos singing loudly. The thought struck me that there might not be cuckoos in the part of America that Neil came from, especially with him living so high up at altitude in Colorado.
“Do you know what bird that is?”, I asked him.
“Owls, I guess”, came his reply.
“No, they’re called cuckoos after the sound that they make. You might hear more of them on this trip.”
We got to Ben Alder Cottage in four and a half hours – already thirty minutes up on last year and I led the way up the long steady climb, which gave Neil his first taste of highland drainage channels cutting perpendicularly across the track. Half way up, I stopped at a favourite burn and filled my bottles with water. By this point Chris was back on and he stopped with Neil to fill up too.
I crested the Bealach first, but walked the one short, steep section on an early part of the descent that I always do and so allowed Neil to ride past me and open up a gap. I was very pleased to hold him to about fifty metres and by the time we passed the “ex-Culra”, we were both riding side by side. We continued by the shore of Loch Pattack and past the new hydro diversion towards Arverikie and “Monarch of the Glen” country. I explained to Neil that this favourite TV show could best be equated to “a Scottish version of The Waltons”, and in doing so acknowledged that my career as a tourist guide was stillborn. By this point Chris had overcome his bad luck of an early puncture and had re-caught us, only to be ran into by a small deer that became spooked by the fact that it couldn’t jump the fence at the side of the track.
Chris’ misfortune was minimal compared to the young Frenchman, Florian, who had his head hit by an errant traffic barrier as he was leaving the forest track at Kinloch Laggan. He made it to Wolftrax with a cracked helmet and that was the last I saw of him, though I believe he went on to complete the route. At Wolftrax, we quickly grabbed food and drink and I refilled my stemcell with as many small cereal bars as I could fit: already mindful of how many I had consumed in the initial fast pace and what I would need later if I was planning to move quickly through Fort Augustus and to skip Contin altogether. I was out of Wolftrax, after a quick 10 minute stop, by 15:30, compared to just arriving there at 16:00 the year before. Chris and Neil had a slight gap on me, but I was back up to them by the Garva bridge and we commenced the Corrieyairick pass together as a trio.
I’ve ridden this climb quite a few times now, so I was a bit disappointed to lose the front wheel on a drainage channel, about a third of the way up. The pace set by Neil and Chris was quite brisk at that point; to try and close the 20 metre gap that quickly formed would have required going into the red. I resigned myself to keeping them within a manageable distance, but the gap was slowly growing, despite some appearance of foreshortening as we all dismounted for the upper hairpins of the pass. At the summit, the pair were clear, but I still hoped to have an ace up my sleeve: I was planning on heading for the fish and chip shop, therefore hoping to save time on others, who I anticipated would take the more traditional line to the pizza restaurant. In the end, I don’t think they went to the pizza restaurant, but just stocked up at the petrol station. I had fish and chips and two cans of fizzy drink and had the strange idea to take another portion of chips in my backpack to eat cold later! As I left the canal and rode past the petrol station I saw about half a dozen bikepacking mountain bikes, including an orange full-susser, which I thought was Fitz’s. I was surprised to see half a dozen bikes there considering I was about 45 minutes up on pace on last year AND had cut my Fort Augustus stopped time in half too. It turned out speaking to Rich later that it was his orange-coloured bike there and the other bikes were all bikepackers, but they were just riders passing through and not other competitors on the Highland Trail.
Despite thinking that I was only just ahead of a small group of about 6 riders, I still consoled myself that I was moving out of town while they were still in the shop. I sensed that Neil and Chris were already out ahead of me and this was quickly confirmed seeing their tyre tracks on the wooded stretch to Invermoriston. As I left Fort Augustus around 18:30 it was feeling cooler and that merino base layer didn’t feel so hot now. The weather appeared to be following the last forecast that I’d seen, with a sharp drop in temperatures coming through as well as the threat of rain in the sky.
At this point, on the trail out of Fort Augustus, I felt like the race had properly started. Moreover, although a bit annoyed at being off the pace of the two leaders, I was generally pleased to be riding by myself and precisely controlling not just my own pace, but my destiny too. Once I knew my riding buddy from last year, Stuart Cowperthwaite, wouldn’t be starting, I had accepted in my mind that I would be riding vast stretches of the route alone and I was up for this. At this early point of the race I could see the sheer class of Neil and Chris and while I still vainly and desperately wanted to win the race, I was intent on keeping calm and sticking to my tactics. My target for the first day was 25km further than the Hydro bothy reached last year: a covered barn near Strathgarve Lodge, which was at exactly 250km from Tyndrum. It also required me to miss the Contin shop and I was fully prepared for this.
As I started the gravel climb up to the Bhlaraidh Reservoir, I looked to my right and who should be beside me but Rich. He explained it was his bike at Fort Augustus and he explained the drastic measures he had employed at Wolftrax to remedy his mechanical woes. As we made our way up the climb, Rich began complaining that he was thirsty and desperately needed to find a stream for water, making me wonder what he’d actually been buying in the shop, just a few miles back. He also lamented not bring any electrolyte tabs with him. At the second dam, he stopped to fill up and I pressed on towards Loch Ma Stac, now on familiar trails that I had only reccied a handful of weeks ago. To my surprise, as I pushed my bike around the rocky shore, I spotted Chris and Neil just coming off the shore by the ruin, little did I know that this was the last time I would see either of them until the finish, but at the time I was encouraged; especially as I seemed to be closer to them than Rich was to me.
I came off the loch and before passing by Corrimony bothy, encountered a lonely tent pitched by a quiet stretch of the burn. Not for the first time in this event, I would pass by solitary tents in isolated locations; on this particular occasion, I didn’t disturb the tranquillity of the occupants with the noise of squealing brake pads or with a feint headlight suddenly illuminating the fabric of their shelter. Emerging on to the track by the windfarm, I was surprised to see that it had all been chewed up by diggers, even though it was untouched when I rode along it just a few weeks before. Through Corrimony, past the burial mound, on to the road, skirting Cannich and along the back lane to Struy, where I decided to stop at around 21:00 to put on extra clothes and sample the delicacy of cold chips. In fact, as may be anticipated, the chips were not particularly pleasant and I ended up throwing most of them into a bin, but at least I wasn’t feeling hungry as I was about to embark on one of my least favourite sections of the whole route: The Track of a Thousand Puddles. This track leaves the road at Erchless Castle and re-emerges at the road section just five miles before Contin and passes via the Hydro bothy at 225km – the point where Stuart and I stopped after Day 1 last year.
Commencing this track in fading daylight was already a bonus, compared to total dark last year, and I managed to reach the main summit point, before the track heads slowly west towards the Hydro bothy, within reasonable daylight. In fact, the puddles weren’t as bad as last year, but there were still a few that were bottom bracket depth. As the pipes and infrastructure along the side of the track started indicating to me that I was getting to within 15 minutes of the bothy, the rain started. I didn’t deliberate, but got my waterproof jacket and shorts on straight away. I also fitted my helmet torch and switched on my rear red LED, so that I didn’t forget to turn it on when I got to the Contin road stretch. I’m not one of these people who goes into stealth mode and switches lights off for fear of being seen by another racer ahead or behind; I’d rather give a rival a vague psychological boost than risk being hit by a vehicle on the A835 road that passes through Contin. In any case, I got the sense that I was quite alone: separated as much from the trailbreakers ahead as from pursuers lingering behind.
I passed the bothy, knowing full well that Neil and Chris would have never stopped there, and carried on past the dam, where the track became smooth tarmac. I later learnt from Fitz and Huw that there were seven in the Hydro that night. This fact reveals a great deal about the evolution in the pace of the Highland Trail: just a couple of years ago, Ian Barrington wrote about Corrimony bothy as the place where the leaders aimed for and then left at various intervals in the early hours of the first night. I ended up stopping at 250km, whereas I subsequently learned that Neil and Chris had bivvied down for a couple of hours near the Inchbae Lodge Inn – 10km further up the trail than me at kilometre 260. The cracks were already beginning to show, although not all these cracks were insurmountable gaps.
Coming through Contin, I stuck to my strategy: deviation to the left to the campsite toilet, where I went through a pre-planned routine: clean bottles and fill both with clean water and electrolyte tabs for next day and then fill my 1 litre collapsible bladder with water for the night stop because I already knew there was no water immediately available there. It was raining just as heavily as I left Contin but I knew I didn’t have far to ride and there was just one small climb up above Loch Garve before I arrived at my chosen barn at half-past midnight. This summed up the 2017 Highland Trail for me: good, but not good enough: I’d arrived at the Hydro at 01:00 last year so I had ridden 25km further, 30 minutes quicker this year, yet there were two guys 10km further up the road! I was on the back foot already.
I arrived at the barn. Wind had blown leaves in so, although the floor was a bit rocky the bed of leaves considerably softened it. I settled down and didn’t cook a dehydrated meal, but got the stove out ready to cook an Extreme Foods porridge and a coffee in the morning, knowing that I was still at least 3.5 hours from Oykel Bridge. By 01:00 I was in my bivvy bag just about ready to go to sleep, with my alarm set for 04:30, with the aim of being breakfasted and moving by 05:00. Just as I was about to fall asleep, I heard a bike pass by with its lights blaring. As I was well hidden from view of the trail, I suppose I should have just kept quiet, but I called out, “Who’s that then?”. It was Rich. He didn’t take any persuading to grind to a halt and get his bivvy bag out too. He was mumbling something about getting up at 3am and talking about the fact that he didn’t have any food.
I suppose normal tactics would have been not to comment and to let him head off for a long day without food into one of the longest and most remote stretches of the whole route. But, I wouldn’t have felt great just letting him plunge into what was clearly the unknown to him, with zero food supplies. At the time he was talking about setting off, he would have missed the Oykel Bridge Hotel and, in any case, they only provided hot food and little in the way of supplies to take away.
I said that I thought it would be better to go 10km back down to Contin and stock up at the shop that opened at 07:00. I even told him about the possibility of getting the house speciality: the microwaved burger – surprisingly appetising if eaten in double quantities with some decent miles in your legs. He acknowledged that he didn’t know what was ahead of him and I explained my tactic of skipping Contin had been carefully planned for weeks before. I felt better telling him this and I hope I wasn’t being too dramatic in my concluding sentence on the subject when I said, “If you head out to Bealach Horn without any food at all and the weather breaks, you’re going to end up calling Mountain Rescue.”
We both fell asleep. Day 1 over.
Sunday: Strathgarve Lodge to The Altnacealgach Inn; 230km.
The alarm was set for 04:30, but heavy rain fell 15 minutes before and woke me up. I didn’t argue with the weather, but instead took the early awakening as a positive sign to get myself on the move more quickly. I fired up the stove and boiled water for the porridge and coffee, while brushing my teeth with my patented cut-down toothbrush. The stove was balanced on the chassis of an abandoned piece of farm machinery that was stored in the barn and while it was boiling, I got the rest of my kit packed up and got dressed. I was wearing most of my cycling kit, but took my cycling shorts off to sleep and was wearing lightweight running shorts, so I needed to get changed back into lycra.
By just after 05:00, I was moving, giving Rich some last instructions on how going down the road to Garve may have been a quicker route to Contin and, adding that, as long as he re-joined the gpx track at the same point, then his route would be valid. I got moving and my legs felt reasonable. Day 1 is predominantly rideable with over 4,000m of climbing, whereas the remaining days introduce significant sections of hike-a-bike (HAB). While the HAB certainly slows progress, it can be viewed positively in that it allows muscles that are tired from cycling to be rested, while those focused on walking take over.
I estimated around 3.5 hours for the section to Oykel Bridge from Garve. “The Long Glens”, I call it because the route drags around Loch Vaich and then drags down a long straight glen from Deanich Lodge and finally drags through another after passing through the gate at the second checkpoint at Croick. The minor tedium of these now-familiar glens was eclipsed this year by a reasonably strong headwind that was present for most of the route to Oykel Bridge, although the section from Deanich Lodge seemed to provide some relief. As the track exits onto a small road, a few miles before the Croick junction, there is a Wilderness Centre hidden away up a side track – this would explain a group of about a dozen people doing stretching exercises on the grass with an instructor at about 8 o’ clock in the morning. Stretchers and cyclist both seemed equally oblivious to each other.
Before 09:30 I arrived at Oykel Bridge Hotel. I went in by the side door and was met by the new owner: an Irish lady of spinsterly aspect, little disposed to hospitality at the best of times it seemed, and less so when she had already been affronted by my bikepacking predecessors, who had apparently entered the premises through an open door and sought sustenance at 06:25 that morning. Undeterred, and using my characteristic charm, I attempted to persuade her to provide me with a cooked breakfast, a cup of tea and two Snickers. I also enquired if I could close the outside door to the room as it was a) quite fresh inside and b) there was no other customer there who might object. I added to this effrontery by inquiring if I could use the Wi-Fi; I could have sworn that her negative reply caused her to radiate perceptibly.
I went to the loo and washed my face in warm water, cleaned and filled my bottles and was amazed to find that my cooked breakfast was already there at my table: not much of a surprise in fact, as it was just the warmed-up leftovers from the guests’ breakfast. Without Wi-Fi, I didn’t succeed in getting any TrackLeaders updates, but my host effectively told me all I needed to know: Chris and Neil were 3 hours ahead of me but had not stocked up on food since Fort Augustus and wouldn’t get the chance until Kylesku, which was eight wilderness hours from here.
As I left she appeared to mellow somewhat, telling me that if I passed by again later that night – even after 9pm – if I could see a light on in the guest bar, there would be someone about who would serve me something warm. I appreciated this change of heart and thanked her, but I knew that it was 14 hours going well to get back, so that would put my passing by near to midnight. I got moving from the hotel by 10:00 – three hours up on last year already.
Glen Cassley through to Duchally Lodge offered more of the same headwind that I’d already sampled on the way to Oykel Bridge. This was becoming a trifle dispiriting, especially up such a long lonely glen. My solitude was broken about half way up by a herd of highland cows across the road being directed by a farmer and his young family into a neighbouring field. I chatted with them a little and admired the young boy in his fancy dress costume helping to shoo the cows. It seemed an idyllic life in a lovely place, but the fact that they were all working together as a family on a Sunday morning perhaps hinted at some of the hardship behind the superficial impression.
I had calculated that on the worse switchbacks of the Power Station climb that the wind would assist me, but this was little consolation on the long trek to the foot of the climb. Once over the summit I descended, passed the head of the loch and manoeuvred my bike through the awkward gate at the small collection of houses where the route joins the A838. Last year the rain was falling hard and I was putting on every bit of clothing to keep myself warm; this year I was so bold as to remove arm warmers and leg warmers as the day was now finally starting to warm up a little, although this was always tempered by moving against a fresh headwind. This headwind had no intention of relenting on the road stretch to Merkland Lodge and I was pleased to take the right turn and climb off-road up towards Gobernuisgach Lodge. I passed the summit of the pass and glanced over to the loch on my right to see a family who, having finished fishing, appeared to be waiting for transportation to come and collect them. Sure enough, as I descended towards the lodge, a 4×4 was coming up the track towards me and I was squeezed up onto the verge.
On starting the track up Glen Golly, I was surprised to see a couple of walkers; I’d never encountered anybody up here before. The change from cycling legs to walking legs took place and I pushed up to the first summit, then I negotiated the boggy moorland track with a little more aplomb than usual and, before long, I was dropping down to the perfect point for the stream crossing. The long push up to Bealach Horn seemed slightly more palatable for being familiar with it and I spared a thought for anyone who had come this far with minimum or no rations left. At the burn, just half a kilometre from the summit I refilled my bottles, knowing that water this high up has to be pure. On the long descent to Lone, just past the worst washboard section, a stone flew up, ricocheted off the crank and hit me full on the shin bone of my left leg. It hurt quite a lot, but I thought it was a blunt impact; in fact there was quite a lot of blood pouring down my shin, on to my sock. I stopped and looked at it, but realised that the worse of the pain had passed, so I continued my descent.
I passed the farm shed at Lone, thinking as I always do, what a fine sheltered bivvy this would make, (but not on any schedule I’ve ever seemed to pass by it!) Through Achfary and on to the pre-Kylesku HAB. Up here I met a couple of ladies out with kids and, as I was starved of any conversation, I stopped to talk with them a bit, turns out they were from Inverness and knew of the race. I remembered arriving ravaged with hunger at the summit of this climb last year and then freezing on the descent, that was in shade of the fading sun; this year I didn’t suffer the same troubles and I was soon passing by the turn for the Kylesku hotel. It was around 17:45 and I remembered that Drumbeg stores stayed open until 19:00 for the Highland Trail so I thought I would push on to there, notwithstanding 9 miles of razor sharp climbs and descents to get there along the otherwise jolly coastal road.
I made good time and was at the shop by 18:50 – still a good 3 hours up on last year and more considering that this is where I stopped at the end of Day 2. The shop wasn’t open, but I’d met the owner and had a good talk with him on my reccie in March 2016. I knew he was a good sort and that he understood and supported the race. Sure enough, a knock on the door and a quick word with his wife and he was opening the shop and providing me with all that I needed. I was there for a good 20 minutes chatting with him and in this time, I learnt that Neil and Chris had only just passed an hour ahead of me. So, this three-hour gap at Oykel Bridge had shrunk to just one hour? I thought I was suffering a bit over Bealach Horn and with the headwinds, but they must have really felt it and their slow pace could only be testament to how depleted their supplies were. While I was encouraged to draw that close without having to expend any excess energy myself, I nonetheless felt that they would likely pick up the pace once they had replenished their supplies. Plus, if it was visible to me on the shopkeeper’s laptop that I had closed to one hour behind them, it’s fair to assume that it was visible to them too. Nonetheless, it was encouraging to note that a challenging, lonely day for me had brought me closer to two athletes of their calibre. Perhaps, my threat was a little too significant as it seems that soon after Drumbeg the leading pair split, with Neil surging on and Chris pushing as far as the Schoolhouse bothy before seeking a few hours of rest with a roof over his head.
I left the shop feeling content: I’d had something to eat, had a chat with someone interesting and I was feeling positive that I was heading down the road from Drumbeg at 19:15 on Day 2, whereas last year I was moving down here at 08:00 on Day 3.
But this is the weird timewarp zone, where hours bend, warp, expand and contract like a psychedelic illusion. Once you start gaining time, the hours stretch out over the abyss formed between the day you have yet to complete this year and the day you already completed last year. It takes a cynical head to rationalise this time shift and to avoid falling into calculations that involve subtracting 12 hours from last year’s finishing time. In fact, time ‘rights itself’ once you begin moving through terrain than you also moved through on the same day last year. It’s only the in the morning that your time advantage is true; once you pass a certain point in the late afternoon or early evening and effectively surpass yourself of the previous year, the chronometric distortions come into play again. Try thinking about this when your blood sugar is low and you have been riding for 15 hours already …
After Drumbeg the rises in the road become gentler and it is a pleasant road to cycle along. At the hour I passed the Achmelvich Youth Hostel, time and temperature were both still civilised, so I made my way on to the final section of track before Lochinver aiming to be starting on the track to Glencanisp at 21:00 in good light. I already knew that I would be lucky to find anything open in the village at this hour and I was prepared to not stop and to finally re-stock in Ullapool, sometime the next morning. The stream water I had been drinking in moderate quantities over the last couple of days didn’t upset my stomach, but it certainly stimulated my digestive system and I found that once this effect surpassed a certain point, I would have a few minutes warning and then be constrained to cede to physiological requirements. This was to happen a few times over the coming days and the moorland approach to Lochinver was to be the first of these impromtu pauses in my progress.
I hadn’t quite remembered the track through Glencanisp so well, because I seemed to recall the first half to a point past Suileag bothy as being fast riding, in fact it was a bit interrupted, even including some smaller HAB sections. I was keen to get as far along as I could before the light started fading around 23:00 and I reached the track above the flanks of Lochan Fada. From the east end of this lochan, there are only something like 6 kilometres to the exit onto the road, just below Ledmore Junction, but it’s difficult to ride for any prolonged stretch and is even more difficult to navigate: it’s the only remaining section of the whole route that I still have to navigate with the gps screen switched on most of the time. I sensed that my excessive walking through the back end of Glencanisp was causing me to lose time, both to those ahead and behind me, or perhaps everyone just finds it slow, difficult going through here?
Once you finally reach the track on the north-east side of Cam Loch, progress becomes slightly better, but by this point it was after midnight and dark. Stumbling around trying to ride tracks that didn’t want to be ridden, I slipped off the seat and gave myself a bash in the groin, which was an unpleasant wake-up call, but at the same time, not as painful as it could have been in the worst case. By the head of the loch, I could ride, but my brake pads were squealing wildly so I can only imagine the effect this must have had upon the occupants of the small tent that I passed close by to. As has been the case before, I slightly mistook the final 300m exit track from the loch to the A835 and found myself wading, with the bike aloft, through deep, difficult bracken-covered hillside. It seemed like an eternity at this point of battered reserves, but after a few minutes I found the correct path that I had only really been a matter of metres away from anyway.
Once through the gate, I ate some food, had a drink, oiled the chain, turned my front and rear lights on and got pedalling towards Ledmore Junction. I had planned where I wanted to arrive at for the first two days and from then on, my strategy was to let the race decide where I would end up and when I would sleep at the end of the remaining days. For Day 1, I had achieved my objective of the barn bivvy at 250km and for Day 2 my best-case scenario was reaching the Schoolhouse bothy, past the Oykel Bridge Hotel and nicely into the leg to Ullapool. Looking back retrospectively at my 2016 ride, I was annoyed that I had stopped at locations which were in fact followed almost immediately afterwards by some relatively easy riding that could have taken my further down the trail: after the Hydro, (where I stopped at the end of Day 1, 2016), there was a decent stretch of downhill on good track past the dam and after Drumbeg, (Day 2, 2016) the severity of the road eased considerably and, again, good progress for moderate effort was to be had.
I was determined that this wouldn’t happen this year and I had already achieved this by sailing straight past the Hydro bothy the day before. I knew that however rough I felt coming through Glencanisp, I would be able to respond and pedal the 26km to the Schoolhouse bothy. Around 18km of this was on road with no excessive climbs and quite a long descent near the end. Once passed the Oykel Bridge Hotel, the forest track did rise for a couple of kilometres, but the gradient was not excessive. In any case, in my mind, this extra distance – which would equate to another 90 minutes riding – was worth it to get to the sanctuary of the Schoolhouse. From here I could rest up, be on the road at 06:00 and hit Ullapool at 08:00 in time for the butchers and Tesco, which I had already checked were opening at that hour. Plenty of carrot at the end of the stick!
What really happened though, once I started riding at around half-past midnight was that the temperature really dropped very quickly, possibly due to the road being very close to the chill air coming off Loch Borralan. My feet were already wet, cold and muddy from a couple of hours of tramping through lower Glencanisp and my upper body, head and hands were rapidly losing heat in the unexpectedly cold air. I reasoned quickly: I could stop and put on jacket, fleece hat and claw gloves to keep the upper part of my body warm, but I had nothing to invigorate feet that were already cold. I had a plan B anyway and it was fast approaching. During my 2016 reccie, when I rode by the Altnacealgach Inn – more of a motel than an inn – late in the afternoon, I noticed that the first building on the left as you approach was a woodstore and the tall sliding door was open. I was calculating that if they didn’t have any fear of wood going missing a year and a half ago, they hopefully wouldn’t have any fears now. Getting inside this woodstore would be a quickfire solution to getting warmed up and, I also reasoned that the time to get my warm clothing out and get dressed would be about the same as getting my mattress and sleeping bag out.
For 99% percent of this race, my superior knowledge of the route: distances, bivvy spots, bothies, food supplies, opening times, drinkable water etc. etc. was a distinct tactical advantage; here at the Altnacealgach Inn, too much knowledge may have been a dangerous thing. If I couldn’t have stopped in the woodstore, I would have been forced to put more layers on and push on to the Schoolhouse as there is no way I would have bivvied anywhere along the side of the road when I was already cold and weary. In any case, looking back I remember getting cold very quickly after Ledmore Junction and at this point I was in my twentieth hour and so my resistance was not as high as it could have been. I opted for the woodstore and, on pulling over in front of it, found that, although the door was shut, it was not locked. It required a little effort to slide it open about half a metre so that I could get myself and my bike in, but it wasn’t too stiff to slide and it didn’t make any noise when I moved it. I shut the door, fumbled and messed around with my mattress, sleeping bag and bivvy and tried to arrange the rest of my kit ready for getting up at 05:30 in the morning. I finally got to sleep in amongst the lawnmowers, paint tins and general rammel just after 01:00 after a 20-hour day consisting exclusively of solitary riding and pushing.
Monday: The Altnacealgach Inn to Easan Dorcha (The Teahouse); 137km.
I was up on the sound of the alarm and ate a few bits of flapjack and cashew nuts and got myself packed up and out of the sliding door by just after 06:00. I knew that by the time I’d be passing the Oykel Bridge Hotel, they would be open and I could probably get a decent warm breakfast; I also knew that the butcher in Ullapool would be open at 08:00 and the scotch pies would be warm from any time after 08:30 …. so I rode straight past, spotting a fatbike perched up outside the hotel. As I headed out on the track through the forest, I saw Johnny Baker coming the other way. We stopped and had a quick chat and then I headed off the Schoolhouse.
I stopped there and stripped off some of my cold weather kit and sorted out a bit more food and drink to last me for the couple of hours to Ullapool. A German guy came through from the other room with his dog and talked about how he was planning to make me a cup of coffee. I was a bit confused because he seemed to be talking as if he knew me. Only later I realised that he was confusing this shorter, frenzied biker with a bald head with the slightly taller and faster version – Chris Hope – who had stayed here a few hours previously. After bidding my would-be host goodbye, I set off, through Strathmulzie until the fork on the right and the climb that brings the solitary Highland Trailer ever closer to bright lights, big city of Ullapool.
The forced decision not to push on to the Schoolhouse is the only tactical regret that I harbour from the 2017 race: I’m not saying that arriving there at the end of Day 2 would have changed the result in any way, but I would have been pleased to have succeeded in following my pre-race plan for the first two days to the letter. If I had arrived at the Schoolhouse, I would – in theory – have closed the gap to Chris, however this would have been a very temporary closing because he would have probably been on his way again just an hour or two after what would have been my 02:30 arrival.
There was also the other question of how much I would have paid for such a long day (around 22 hours) before the third day that was to take me through Fisherfield and all its delights. On the other hand, I am convinced that, had it been just a little more temperate as I started on the road from Ledmore Junction, I would indeed have arrived at the Schoolhouse, because I always prefer to push on for another couple of hours to a decent shelter, than to just stop and make a rough, makeshift bivvy with little or no additional cover. All this was not to be though and, I repeat, the premature stop at the remote motel is my only significant regret from the whole race.
I dropped down into Ullapool at around 09:45, went straight to the butchers and ordered two warm scotch pies to eat immediately and two cold ones to take with me. The butcher seemed genuinely surprised when I explained the importance of a balanced scotch pie diet to extreme endurance athletes. I moved on up to the waterfront and ate the pies while drinking Irn Bru and simultaneously checking TrackLeaders for the first time. I saw that Fitz was now on the scene and had seemingly passed straight through Ullapool and was currently 5 miles ahead of me up the road. I felt reasonably sure about being able to close him down in Fisherfield as I was looking for a ten-hour Ullapool to Kinlochewe stretch, once I finally got going. I called Laura up and had a quick chat with her, between mouthfuls of hot scotch pie, then I turned my bike around and headed to the Tesco to stock up on some flapjack for the road ahead and some shortbread biscuits and yogurt drink for the present. I think I was in Ullapool for half an hour, but I had a full belly and had replenished my supplies with foods that really worked for me: scotch pies and flapjack, plus both bottles filled with sugary Lucozade isotonic drink.
It was reassuring to think that, all being well, I would easily clear Fisherfield in daylight; a more tranquilising prospect than last year when Stuart and I only got as far as Letterewe before bivvying down for the night. I completed the road section safely and took the minor turning to the start of the Coffin Road, which starts with its infamous and insanely steep incline up the side of a muddy field. Over the top I went, passing not just one pair of walkers, but two, asking each time how far ahead the bloke in the orange top was. As one pair said five minutes and the other pair said ten minutes, I extrapolated, re-calculated, squared my answer, divided it, and then rounded it to one decimal place to arrive at a probable deficit on Fitz of approximately 7.5 minutes (+/- 10% accuracy.)
The descent down to the short stretch of road before the Corrie Hallie entrance to Fisherfield was still fresh in my mind from my reccie and I think I made a relatively decent job of it. Briefly onto the road and then on and upwards into Fisherfield, trying to ride as much of the initial slopes of the climb as I could, yet not wanting to blow my legs up, so hopping off and pushing when the gradient rose a little too severely. Of course, after the stream crossing half way up, it all gets a little too severe, but it’s not the worse climb to push up and the descent down the other side, to the head of the glen that will eventually lead to the much-heralded Strath na Sealga river crossing, is a fast one and is certainly less menacing that others to be broached in the non-too distant future.
A couple had managed to a get a 4×4 all the way down to the locked building at Achneigie and were busy unloading their supplies for a secluded stay as I rode by. I rode on past Shenavall and then continued to the river crossing along the final rough kilometre of track. On the other two occasions that I had been into Fisherfield, I had been consumed by angst about the depth of the river crossing and how difficult it may end up being; this time I was not only consoled by the very low water levels I had seen so far along the route, particularly Loch Ericht, but I was also distracted by the relentless pace of the event into taking the crossing for granted. Indeed, the level was the same as my April reccie, but a little warmer: over the knees at the initial point of entry, then quickly dropping to lower shin level for the remainder. Looking across the wide-open mouth of the glen, I could see Fitz just disappearing behind a hillock that led to Larachantivore.
Before long, I had perched my bike on the fence by the little copse outside the locked building and was eating my third scotch pie of the day, fortifying myself for the truly remote stretches that this magnificent and intimidating wilderness had yet to throw at me. Just a hundred metres or so ahead, I could see Fitz. He seemed to alternate between being stopped and walking, but I didn’t see him riding much. Soon after leaving Larachantivore, I caught Ian. He looked a little flustered and seemed red in the face; he was wearing a lot more than me: waterproof trousers and a jacket, which struck me as a bit odd as the temperature was mild and there was no moisture in the air. He said that he had bivvied down for just 45 minutes in a ditch by the side of the road, very close to the motel where I too had stopped the night before. We didn’t say too much to each other; I think we were both in solitary mode and had become conditioned to being alone by the previous two days. I drew ahead as he took some kit off and over the long HAB haul up Gleann na Muice Beag, I put definite distance into him. On the false flat over the summit I seemed to have a clear gap behind me, but then I saw him drawing close again as approached the lochan that marks the start of the arduous descent to Carnmore and its distant causeway.
I went quite fast down the first half of the descent, but didn’t hesitate to take things more cautiously on the steeper lower slopes and automatically dismounted in a couple of places. When I reached the foot of the descent, within view of the lonely building, the rain started – exactly as it did when I arrived at this point in April! As I put arm and knee warmers and waterproof shorts and jacket on, Fitz came past me and opened up quite a sizeable gap himself on the trail to Letterewe. I passed through Letterewe at exactly 6pm, mindful that Stuart and I had left from here at exactly 6am the year before. Fitz and I came together soon after and rode together for the majority of the Postman’s Path, until he scurried off within sight of Kinlochewe.
I didn’t ride all the way through Fisherfield and Letterewe with Ian Fitz, but I went through a sizeable chunk of it with him. Last year, Stuart and I regrouped in Ullapool and rode through most of it together. There’s something about this sport that I think creates real closeness between participants due to the random way that out racing trajectories sometimes collide. I personally think that it’s a really significant thing to ride a bike through Fisherfield in the company of someone else and I’m lucky to have done it with Stuart and, now, Fitz. Bonds are created. You will always respect that person. Imagine meeting them again later, perhaps in a more benign mountain bike environment, and just momentarily reflecting back on that great, vast, epic landscape that you have both passed through together one day, back in May.
I feel a very similar thing about bivvies, when there’s just one other person with you in whichever desolate or imaginative spot you finally choose to sleep for a few hours. The first time I bivvied was on the wet platform of Horton-in-Ribblesdale railway station, in the drizzly rain, during the 2015 Yorkshire Dales 300, when Stuart and I were both rookies, looking a long way into the distance at this mythical beast that we had heard of in the Highlands. Apparently, there’s a kind of bivvy etiquette in long-distance bikepacking races, where it’s acceptable to get up quietly while the other person sleeps and scurry off to your own advantage, but I’ve never really gone for that. Back in the Yorkshire Dales, Stuart was fast asleep when my alarm went off, but I still got him up and we set off together. He had a strong second day and beat me soundly, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have fared any better by sneaking off at three o’clock in the morning. I’ve bivvied more times with Stuart than anyone else, sometimes in races or other times just exploring the Cairngorms in summer or the Lake District in the snow.
When Rich stopped at “my” barn near Contin, I felt that we too became wordlessly bonded by the strange ritual of both lying on the same leaf-strewn floor, in bivvy bags, with midge nets on our heads. Apart from the fact that the principal characters are always in a significant state of tiredness, it is compelling to notice how there is a minimum of fuss in just trying to settle down and make yourself as comfortable as you can, even though you may be wet and cold and the surrounding air is thick with midgies.
It’s only looking back and reflecting that I realise how strange, yet how strong these bonds are that form in extreme events like the Highland Trail. Sure, the other riders are rivals, but above that they are people that I like and respect and – insomuch as you can within the rules of self-supported racing – I care for them as well.
I’m not really one for groups or being part of teams, but I feel close to these people, even if – by normal conventions – I don’t actually know most of them very well beyond saying, “Hi, how are you doing?” and chatting a bit about kit. That’s why I was really pleased to be able to get along to both the Mike Ride on the Friday evening AND then the RFC meet up: I really didn’t feel like my normal square peg in a round hole much that night.
When I caught up to Fitz again, we were both able to share our strange experience of meeting a lone, ill-prepared cyclist on the plateau, just before the descent into Letterewe. On the open, grassy plateau (Strathan Buidhe), the rain was falling quite heavily and I could see Fitz about three hundred metres ahead appear to temporarily stop and talk to another person, who was heading in my direction. As I in turn approached this character, I saw that he was a young male in his twenties, pushing what looked like a new, blue mountain bike that was too big for him. He had no helmet, but carried a small rucksack and wore a waterproof jacket, yet the hood wasn’t up so the rain ran down his head and plastered his hair to his skull. The bike he was pushing had the tyre off the rim on the drive side to expose a deflated inner tube flapping around inside the carcass.
He asked me if I had a spare tyre lever, I answered in the negative and told him that I was in a race. “I’ve snapped mine”, he replied. I was more struck by the singular form of tyre lever, rather than his overall predicament: he seemed to suggest he only had one, whereas they are usually sold in threes. I found the situation quite unsettling; I didn’t understand why he was moving further away from any trace of civilisation in difficult weather conditions with an unrideable bike. The best thing for him to do, given his unfortunate circumstances, would have been to turn around in the direction he had come from and retrace the three, mainly downhill, kilometres to Letterewe, where he had some hope of making an emergency telephone call from.
As I rode through the grounds of Letterewe, I noticed that they was a group of tents in the last cultivated field before the wilds of the Postman’s Path begin. I wondered if the forlorn cyclist was a member of this group as, apart from Fitz and myself, they were the only other people in the very remote corner of the Highlands. Soon after starting the Postman’s Path, I caught back up to Fitz and we exchanged notes on the bizarre plight that we had both recently encountered.
We continued, under quite heavy rain along this difficult stretch of terrain that can take up to two and a half hours before the road stretch leading into Kinlochewe finally emerges. Through Fisherfield, we’d parried and jumped ahead of each other in turn, but here in Letterewe, under the rain, with the muddy, damp ground below our feet we seemed to find some mutual solace in company. We didn’t talk that much, but it was good to be able to tick off the individual component stretches that make up this difficult section by the shores of Loch Maree. The whole stretch is 15 kilometres long, but it does ease slightly in the final 4 kilometres as the Postman’s Path joins the approach path to Slioch at the wide wooden footbridge. Fitz had faith in information that suggested to him that Neil, and Chris in particular, were still within reachable distance ahead; I had seen nothing myself on TrackLeaders back in Ullapool that reassured me of this fact. In any case, I was not about to put in any kind of surge late on Day 3. If there was one thing that I was determined to do after last year’s race, it was to arrive on the decisive last day with reasonable – I hesitate to write “good” – legs and in healthy shape. Just before Fitz departed within sight of the small village, I started thinking out aloud that I had a “dream scenario” that involved stopping at the Teahouse bothy and not even pushing on, over the Torridon plateau, to Achnashellach, where I knew a couple of decent bivvy sites. Fitz seemed to be taking this on, without saying much, but I think this was just what he wanted to hear as I got the distinct feeling he was planning another minimal sleep night raid. Shortly after this rather one-sided discussion, Fitz started pulling away from me. I didn’t raise my pace at all because I already knew I was going to stop at the public toilets in Kinlochewe to sort myself out: avail of an actual toilet seat, clean and refill bottles and eat that last scotch pie once I got moving. Therefore, I wasn’t pushing too hard, so imagine my annoyance to catch the left side of my handlebars on the same clump of overhanging soil that I’d caught them on back in April as I exited a curve on the track. The impact on the far end of the bar stopped the bike dead and chucked the bars around viciously, forcing me to an immediate stop. Fortunately, I got me feet down quickly and didn’t stumble off the path, but it was exasperating to come to grief pulling the same manoeuvre in exactly the same place.
I rolled in to Kinlochewe a couple of minutes over my 10-hour schedule from Ullapool, so was pleased with that. (Subsequently, I checked Neil’s time for this same segment and was pleasantly surprised to find that I had covered it three hours quicker than his thirteen.) At the time, I knew in my own mind this was a decent split, especially on Day 3 with a not-inconsiderable chunk of cumulative fatigue starting to do its business within my ageing body.
The loos were a midge haven, but I had things to do and sort out, so I was there for about 15 minutes getting my act together. I later heard that Javi and one of the Czech guys sleep in there that night. I didn’t plan to get food in Kinlochewe. By now it was getting on towards 21:00 – the cafe had long since closed and I’d never heard particularly good things about the pub, besides, I was still carting around a full gas bottle, 2 x Extreme main meals, 1 x breakfast and a decent assortment of salami sticks.
What started off as a reverie when I was talking to Fitz on the last part of the Postman’s Path, now suddenly started taking on the flesh of reality: why NOT stop and sleep in the Teahouse? 1) there’s unlikely to be anyone else there, 2) it’s a lovely place that I have fond memories of staying at in the past, 3) I’ve got a nice dinner and a nice breakfast that I can cook there, 4) I’ll get a better sleep there than in a bivvy at Achnashellach, 5) by the time I come to tackle the tricky bit of the Torridon descent tonight the light will have almost gone and 6), if I make a deal with myself to stop there, I’ll get up invigorated and push on at 04:00 the following morning. Carrot and stick. I moved on through Kinlochewe, past the side of Loch Clair and then on the climb up the east flank of Loch Coulin, pondering to myself if anyone else in this event knew that the track on the WEST side of the same loch is pan-flat. You have to admire Alan’s sense of humour at times.
Past the lonely house at Coulin, the track proceeds towards the Coulin pass, but the track then turns right by the bridge and climbs up towards the river that the bothy gets its other name from: Easan Dorcha. As with the lovely glen past Loch Pattack on the first day, here is another of my treasured Highland locations that has become wrecked by hydro work. There is a large-scale project ongoing here, with a building site back down at the bridge and, just a few hundred metres before the bothy, a large building being build and new deviation to the existing little track that veers off northwards up the flanks of the glen. I know this place well and I almost took the steep new track myself, but quickly corrected and in a few minutes I was wading in the burn outside the Teahouse, filling up with water to last my meal and breakfast cooking requirements. I felt quite crazy to be stopping at 21:45, when there was still about an hour of decent natural light left. In fact, I felt like I was committing a grave bikepacking sin by daring to stop riding when the natural light was still adequate. I was “counter-influenced” by Fitz: I sensed he was chasing after the leading two, but I thought that now, more than ever, it was important to remain lucid and stick to what I thought was the right thing to do. Last year I got beaten by a guy who had the balls, (or the overwhelming sense of tiredness!), to stop for five hours sleep on the last night. I would stop here at 22:00, cook a decent meal, get to sleep by 22:30, be up at 03:30, have warm porridge and coffee and be riding by 04:00.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander: five hours sleep.
As I fell to sleep, I asked myself if I could still win this race? My overwhelming priority – to avoid the final day collapse that I suffered last year – was to get myself to Day 4 in the best possible shape and, with this tranquil bothy interlude, I felt I was achieving just that. I acknowledge though, that it is one thing to get myself to the final day (relatively!) fighting fit, but it is another to assume that I will have anyone to fight with! I mean this in the sense that, with the time and distance gaps the way that they currently were to the front runners, they would have to have a catastrophic collapse to bring them back in reach so that I can fight with them. For sure, I’m not continuing this race wishing this upon them, rather I am recognising that competitors of the calibre of the three that are ahead of me don’t simply fold in races: they manage the situation, master it and move on.
That is not to say that I will not be involved in any fights at all over the next day: I anticipate that I will need all my strength and guile just to resist from an anticipated push that will surely come from behind me. These are exciting thoughts and challenging times.
Tuesday/Wednesday: Easan Dorcha to Tyndrum; 245km.
The door opened.
“Who’s that?”, I slurred.
“Huw? Huw who?”
“Oh. OK. Hi Huw”.
Huw Oliver came in. It was about 01:00. He left his bike outside and seemed to settle down quite quickly on the limited floorspace next to me. I seem to remember him saying something about not having a sleeping mat and the wooden floor being a little hard. I murmured that I was getting up at 03:30 and went back to sleep with remarkable ease.
The alarm went off at the designated time and I was quickly up getting the stove lit and the sleeping kit packed away. Huw was stirring a little so I gave him the foam mattress that was already there in the bothy. I had quick visit outside with the bothy spade, hoping to avoid similar eventualities during the long day ahead, then returned to the bothy to eat my porridge and drink my milky coffee. I was never, ever going to moving by 04:00, which I knew very well anyway, but 45 minutes from bed to breakfast to bike is exceptionally fast for me and I was not displeased to be heading out towards the little footbridge, past the bothy, that led to the Torridian slabs at a quarter past four in the morning. I seemed to take a little bit of time to get moving, but I was generally feeling good. I had no regrets about tackling this section in what was rapidly becoming the full light of morning, rather than what would have been the fading light of the evening before. Full light or fading light, I still took the utmost caution down the Achnashellach descent, dismounting without hesitation, yet still riding a decent portion of it. There’s no point risking here as this is the third-ultimate technical descent, with only the drop into Kinlochleven and the descent of the Devil’s Staircase left to catch out the sleep-deprived bikepacker.
Little did I know that Rich Rothwell had stopped in the new hydro construction, just a couple of hundred metres back down the trail from our temporary refuge, and was following me across Torridon. I’m not quite sure why he didn’t catch and pass me because with his greater technical ability he would have roasted me on the descent to Achnashellach, even though I knew it well from having been over it half a dozen times previously. For whatever reason, he stayed behind me and then made the same mistake that I did the very first time I rode it this way: on completing the main descent and entering the woods, I missed the left turn through the gate that leads to the forest track and the railway station and instead went straight on following a dead-end path into wet rhododendron bushes. I suspect that this lost him more swear words than actual minutes!
Once I hit the road, I realised that – finally- the wind seemed to be favourable and I could power along quite nicely, noticing that I still had enough flexibility left in my upper body to get down on the aero bars. Through Strathcarron, up the Attadale road ramp and then, off-road, up the track that leads into the heart of Attadale Forest. I remembered pushing up the latter half of this climb last year, so was pleased to ride all the way up without excessive effort this time. I kept checking and double-checking and as far as I could make out there were three sets of tyres ahead of me, that I interpreted as being Neil, Chris and Fitz. At this point I had no confirmation, but I was sure I was ahead of Rich, though I had no idea of how far ahead.
The turn off the Attadale climb leads to the perpetually muddy descent to Glen Ling and from there, once the footbridge is crossed, along perhaps the most excruciating couple of kilometres of the whole route. The mixed stretch of slippery rock, short sections of pushing and tricky, semi-rideable sections perhaps isn’t that terrible, but it’s always touched a raw nerve with me since the very first time I reccied it; I just don’t like it. Once past Nonach Lodge though the going is good on a decent road taking the north side of Loch Long. Coming towards the end of the road by the loch, you can look across the water and see scattered little settlements and holiday homes and, perhaps for the first time, you have a small sensation that the true isolation and wilderness is now at your shoulder and you have turned a corner into slightly more accommodating terrain, where the chance of a bite to eat and something to drink doesn’t seem to be quite so far away as the very ends of the earth.
It was about 07:30 as I spotted Eilan Donan castle and I smirked to myself that from here onwards, in 2016, I started making a series of mistakes that compromised any slim chances of victory that I may have had. The first mistake was calling in on the place on the right, ironically called “All the Goodness” – in fact it’s just coffee and expensive sweet tat for camera-wielding tourists; the more considered option is to ride a kilometre further and come slightly off route and go into the village of Dornie. Here, as well as two pubs serving hot food, there is a decent village shop, which I was just about to discover for the first time once I had asked its location from a young lad setting out to school.
I’d missed my traditional micro-waved burger at the Contin stores, so I was elated to see that there was just one left in the fridge. The lady kindly heated it up for me and let me eat it, and the yogurt and biscuits that I had bought, inside the shop as it was still raining outside. I checked TrackLeaders and could see that Rich had indeed slept in the hydro building, so close to the Teahouse, however, his track was now looking indistinct and it was difficult to tell if he was even moving, although I assumed he was. Huw was on the move and Fitz, looked like he was a good 15miles ahead, which I accepted as a fair price for the relatively comfortable night I had just had. Dornie marks exactly 200km to go and it’s quite a tough slow 200 km with Glen Affric, the Pylon Climb and then a decent chunk of the West Highland Way back to Tyndrum. Additionally, there were to be further obstacles that would manifest themselves this year, other than those than readily show themselves on a map!
I set off again, happy to have had two decent breakfasts already before 08:00. I generally feel that Glen Affric plays to my strengths and deep down I hoped that the prolonged HAB climb up from the Glenlicht Hut would be a psychological obstacle for some of my nearest rivals, many of whom would be discovering it for the first time, whereas for me it took me back to a carefree, innocent time of simple exploration long before I heard of the Highland Trail. I had been pushing bikes up here and riding gingerly down it for some years and I felt my familiarity with the climb made it slightly less challenging; certainly, it was a place where I felt I could capitalise on. In fact, as I was about 10 minutes into the climb, just about to disappear around a corner out of view of the lower glen forever, I spotted a rider at the hut. I convinced myself that this was Rich, but it seems he may have passed me at Dornie while I was in the shop, so in retrospect I discovered it was Huw. He must have got up quickly and got moving when I left the bothy, because the last he said to me was that he was going to sleep a bit longer. Having someone behind me on this HAB climb was a good motivation to push on, plus there were a pair of walkers quite a long way ahead who I seemed to be closing in on: it’s always encouraging to be able to move faster up a long steep hill, pushing a laden bike, than people who are just walking up with a daysack on their backs!
On the final stretch of the HAB, I suffered what is an almost unavoidable event when pushing a bike for great distances each day over rocky, difficult terrain: the pedal dug deep into my left calf muscle, causing me to gasp aloud. The pain was instantaneous, localised and very acute. I’m sure that it was accentuated by the fact that my muscles were very tender and by now, on the fourth day, carrying very little protective fat around them. I’ve always believed that with this kind of muscular pain it is best to try to keep moving as the blood flowing will take the pain away more quickly than just keeping still. I tried to walk a few steps but was limping quite heavily, but I had nearly crested a brow, so I got on the bike and freewheeled down the other side. When it came to peddling again, the calf felt slightly less painful, but when I got off to push, I was still limping. I had to overcome this: it was bad, but not that bad. At the Teahouse, I was really pleased to reflect that after three long days, I hadn’t had to take any Ibuprofen so far, but here in the confines of Glen Affric, I knocked back a 400mg pill. I had specifically taken advice from a doctor friend before the event, because I had managed to find 400mg pills, rather than the more common 200mg variety. She advised that I could take three in a 24hr period, with four hour gaps in-between, never on an empty stomach and never in a dehydrated state. My belly was still quite full and I knocked back my second water bottle, being sure that I could refill in just a few kilometres at the upcoming Youth Hostel.
I closed in on the walkers, passed them and then reached the first of the rideable dips in the landscape that punctuate the three kilometres from the top of the climb to Camban bothy. I kept looking back but there was no sign of my cycling pursuer and soon the walkers were out of sight too. I stopped at Camban and went inside, for no particular reason, just old times sake, although I did oil my chain before moving off.
From the moment you pass the bothy, the track becomes rideable and it is predominantly downhill to Alltbeithe Youth Hostel. I shouted to a group of walkers who were making their way up the track, seemingly not so aware of the speed that I was approaching them and then thanked them as I passed for keeping to one side of the double track.
The Youth Hostel is a lovely place, unlike any other hostel in that it is generally open through the day and passers-by can buy drinks and some snacks. I remembered this fact well from passing by with Stuart last year, when it was exactly 18:00 when we arrived; now it something like seven hours earlier. I went into the porch and shouted, “Hello” and, sure enough, the same lady who was there last year came through. I think she has got used to my garbled instructions for multiple bottles of soft drinks, because she was gone and back again bearing a fine assortment of fizzy pop in no time at all. It was nice to talk to her while I was filling my bottles and it was touching that she remembered me from last year, even though, like this time, I was only stopped for a couple of minutes. She was very sweet and handed me a cereal bar, saying, “In case you have a sugar dip later on.” I smiled with sincere gratitude and didn’t have the heart to tell her that I’d been experiencing a “sugar dip” ever since the middle of Saturday morning! Just like the Drumbeg store, this is a place that I yearn to come back to in less frantic times.
I made good progress through the glen to the private climber’s hut at the head of Loch Affric that is known as “The Strawberry Cottage”, (for no obvious reason that I know of). A little after I crossed the bridge, my stream-water fuelled digestive system gave me another of its two minute warnings and I had little choice but to oblige it. By this time I thought that, notwithstanding my brisk pace up the HAB climb, my pursuer from the Glenlicht hut would be closing in on me, but as I rearranged my garments and began peddling again, I could still see no sign of any approaching cyclist. I continued briskly down the good track on the south side of Loch Affric and then by the south side of Loch Beinn a’Mheadhoin, beginning the short climb that marked the rather unhappy point where mine and Stuart’s paths separated last year.
I turned around 180º on myself at the far end of Tomich village and immediately realised that I had made a minor error: I’d assumed that there was no wind in Glen Affric and I was just making good progress, but in fact it was now obvious that I had been aided by a reasonable tailwind as I was now riding directly into a headwind with the best part of 500 metres of climbing up the Pylon Climb straight in front of me. The initial slopes seemed like a slow grind, but once I clearer the lower wooded slopes and was up out on to the main climb proper, with all its exposed expanses, I seemed to be moving a little better. In fact, the wind was more front-right side, rather than full-on frontal and I moved steadily upwards. At this point it dawned on me, rather forcibly, that my lowest gear of 32 x 40 wasn’t low enough as I was close to my limit on this relentless climb, with an unfavourable wind and four cumulative days in my legs.
Once again, familiarity with the surroundings helped me out and I refused to be duped by the succession of false summits that punctuate this climb, allowing myself to relax only when I’d cleared the true, final one. The descent down to Torgyle Bridge is incredibly fast on a long, winding gravel track and before long I had crossed the road and was heading up the last climb before Fort Augustus on the Old Military Road. On this climb, the toil from the previous ascent made itself felt and I was forced to stop on more than one occasion to wolf down a couple of salami sticks. It’s not the worst place in the world to suffer though because the gradient is not too steep and all the delights offered by the cafes and shops of the canal town are not so far away. I summited and shot down the descent through Jenkins Park, rather annoyed that it was wet and muddy from recent rain and then, there I was in Fort Augustus. Having skipped it on the first passing, this time I opted for the pizza restaurant and was immediately gratified to see that the charming proprietor was living up to his reputation by arguing with a family and then kicking them out of the place!
It was 15:40 when I arrived and I set about ordering soup, sandwiches, tea, millionaires slice and Irn Bru for my bottles. The service was much quicker than the last time I was there on the Saturday evening of 2016’s race, and I was soon leaving the multitudes crowding the lock gates and setting off to plough my lonely furrow once again, this time direction Fort William, via The Great Glen, time around 16:00.
The joy of being seven hours up on my 23:00 departure from the same point last year was tempered, not a little, by the immediate realisation that I was riding straight into a block headwind. Worse, seeing that the Caledonian Canal that I was following was virtually a straight-line heading south-west to Fort William, this pernicious wind would be a constant factor for the next 50 kilometres. I really wasn’t too happy with this situation, but I tried to buoy myself up thinking of sections I knew along the way where, at least if the direction was always the same, the amount of vegetation and possible shelter offered by trees might intervene.
Just after the road crossing at North Laggan, the route passes parallel to the old Laggan Youth Hostel, and even if the hostel can’t be seen from the route, I know very well that its proximity announces the 100 kilometre to go point. As the time was around 17:00, this signified a slow nine hour 100km stretch since leaving Dornie at 08:00, although in all fairness to myself, it was difficult to see where I really could have picked up much more time. Adding the nine hours to the four from the far side of Torridon and I was already on about 13 hours moving time, which with another hour and a half to Fort Bill, plus a generous eight hours from there in to Tyndrum was amounting to … erm, too much to even think about! By now though, as if I didn’t already know at four o’clock this morning, the reality that I would be riding all the way through started to rest upon me, rather like a numb, unforgiving headache.
The switch to the west side of the glen at Laggan Locks, marks the start of a slightly more undulating trail towards the short road section at Clunes. The section sticks more closely to the hillside and does, in parts, benefit from some shelter in the trees. I was looking for a small psychological respite from the headwind; I’m not sure if I found it along this pleasant expanse of lochside cycling, or whether I just simply became more resigned to the grind. The overwhelming positive was that, despite the headwind, I was feeling infinitely better than this time last year, when I was riding along here after midnight, in the dark and all manner of demonic pains were springing up from different parts of my body to try to sabotage my progress.
After the little loopy bit through the woods just before Gairlochy, I then crossed back over to the other side of the canal and, according to conflicting signposts, I either had 6 or 8 miles to go to Neptune’s Staircase in Corpach, on the outskirts of Fort William. Along the pleasant, but repetitive landscape of the canal, the path and the greenery, I advanced slowly, as the headwind seemed to pick up renewed force here; or perhaps I was simply losing my force! Despite the moderate pace, I turned around a bend and saw the start of Neptune’s Staircase in front of me, leading me to think that the 6 mile signpost had been the more accurate one. The route into and around Fort William was not only made simpler by the diversion caused by the closure of the Soldier’s Bridge, but it was also more beneficial too, taking me past three different petrol stations.
At the third one, I pulled in. It was around 19:30. I now knew that what I bought here would have to last me until the end: the pub and the chip shop would still be open in Kinlochleven when I passed through in about three hours time hence, but there would be no more take-away supplies that I would be able to buy. I must have had enough savoury food with me as that is what I generally prefer to eat, because at the petrol station I bought two slices of rocky road cake and some strawberry milkshake to drink. Two flapjacks for the road and Irn Bru (again!) for the bottles to ensure I had everything to see me through. The temperature was already falling a little, so I knew that I would have enough liquid to get me through the next eight or so hours.
After the exquisite dining experience of munching food and slurping drink while stood next to my bike on the garage forecourt, I clipped in and set off. The route skirts through the approach road to the town centre, before veering left at the roundabout that indicates the end of the West Highland Way walk. This point signifies the start of the last 70 kilometres.
After a short distance on the road down the glen to the Youth Hostel, the route turns right, crosses a carpark and then begins to climb gradually for a quite a distance, through the Nevis Forest, before some further ups and down and then spits you out on the side of a long, wide glen onto the Old Military Road. At the far end of the carpark, under shadow of the trees, I spied a frantic, hobo-type figure, flinging around items of clothing and other material from assorted bags that were scattered around the floor and the bike. I had to get very close to actually realise that this was in fact Rich Rothwell, last seen at five o’ clock in the morning at the far side of Contin. I was a bit perplexed to see him because when I briefly checked TrackLeaders at Fort Augustus, it seemed to indicate he was behind me. He explained he was repacking as much kit as he could from his bike bags into his rucksack so that he could get as much weight of his bike as possible so that it would handle better. Rich knew this part of Scotland because he had previously ridden a double WHW. While he was stopped, I swopped out the batteries in my faithful 80 lumen Petzl headtorch and zip tied it tight to my helmet to stop the movement that had annoyed me so much the last time that I had used it in the dark. I couldn’t cut the ends of the zip ties, so they protruded above the front of my helmet like a pair of little antennae.
He said he had been having trouble with his tracker and he asked me to check it again to see that it was still on. He said he was just behind me coming over Torridon and then got lost in the rhododendron bushes, so this would mean that the only place he could have passed me was when I was in the shop at Dornie or in the pizza place at Fort Augustus. Anyway, pass me he had and here we were together, with 70 kilometres to go, the honour and the kudos of the North East of England up for grabs, right in front of our wheels. I should hasten to add that I didn’t really see it quite like that at all. I’d spent so long alone on this race, it really was quite a novelty to see him and I suppose that distracted me from the business of focusing on the fight for the still prestigious placings behind Neil, Chris and Fitz.
Once Rich was packed, he was up and off at a great speed up the climb. I wasn’t surprised at this because I know he’s a thoroughbred; just because I wasn’t feeling sharp tactically at that moment, in no way precluded him from feeling so. He pulled ahead and I went steady up the long climb, just pleased to not be pushing up its gentle gradients, like I was last year at two o’ clock in the morning. Despite Rich’s pace, I was surprised to close in on him again a couple of times further up in the Nevis Forest, but then the elastic snapped as the route started heading south and he was gone.
I moved well through the wide expanse of the glen, took my normal cautious approach to the descent into Kinlochleven and was in the town by 22:00, still with some semblance of natural light hanging in the skies. One last check of the TrackLeaders seemed to show Fitz just a mile ahead, but this was a long, slow mile, all uphill on the landrover track to the upper hydro station.
Once the town had been passed through, I was soon on the climb and strange emotions began to play on me, regurgitated from last year: from this point onwards I had become aware of Liam Glen’s incessant closing down, his vaporisation of my slender lead and then, shortly after, this same lead being cremated and resurrecting itself as the mournful deficit that chimed my arrival at Tyndrum. But that was last year. Was this year better or worse? How could I be so, so far ahead on last year’s schedule and yet just be scratting around trying to salvage something in the top five? In a way, I felt a little demoralised, but I was also consoled by the quality of the riders that were ahead of me. There’s a thin line between: on the one hand, eulogising these characters too much, such that my defeat at their hands is somewhat mitigated and, on the other hand, recognising in a simple hierarchical – almost animalistic – way that, yes, they’re really rather fast!
By top of the track and up and onto the open moor I went, now in darkness, yet with no trace of any lights to be seen ahead, not even when I dropped into the wide bowl that precedes the summit cairn of the Devil’s Staircase. Once again, I was proud of myself for going steady and avoiding a disaster, way up here that would not only put me out of the race at this late stage, but would also make my eventual rescue rather difficult! I walked a few sections at the top of the descent, but for the bottom two thirds, I seemed to get myself sorted and rode most of it. Down below I could see the road in the bottom of the glen and, fleetingly, I thought that I saw two sets of lights that were too weak to belong to motor vehicles: Fitz and Rich? One appeared to be just completing the descent and was nearing the road, while the other seemed further head, on the track past Altnafeadh. However, these flashes of light were so ephemeral and my interpretation of them so haphazard that the absurdity of the potential closeness of three racers – after all this distance done – didn’t really register with me.
Once safely off the last major technical obstacle of the whole route, I re-joined the Way as it ran roughly parallel to the A82 on the way to Kingshouse. Though only three kilometres long, this section dragged on, more so because I kept anticipating the brief, fast descent to the back road leading to the hotel that I didn’t want to get caught out on with my minimal power headtorch. While the main consumables on my bike had performed well – the chain had bedded in and was behaving better now than on the first day and my sintered brake pads had survived all this distance without complaint – my left shoe plate was sticking badly on release. I knew it was the cleat and not the pedal, but all I could do to try and help the situation was to loosen off the pedal release tension a couple of clicks: just the job you want to be doing in the middle of the night by faint torchlight.
Past the tents pitched around this fabled highland refuge point and then past the sizeable clump of buildings, finally over the A82, all the while, with not a living soul to be seen anywhere. The next section, in a boiling morning sun was purgatory for me the year before and I remember simply getting off the bike, removing my rucksack and lying on my back, looking up at the sky; this year, it was the dead of the night, the temperature was falling, the solitude was immense, but my legs were still working. I hadn’t eaten for a while, so I finally forced myself to eat one of the Snickers bars that I had been carting around in my stemcell all the way from the Oykel Bridge Hotel. The sense of fulfilment in riding up the gentle drag, all the way to the ruin of the cottage at Ba, was reassuring because I knew then that the track over Rannoch Moor was then predominantly in descent, however, this would bring its own challenges with my minimally powered headtorch. In fact, the next challenge was not as I expected it to be: once again, just as at Ledmore Junction, the temperature appeared to drop very quickly. Of course, it didn’t help that I had stopped pedalling slowly uphill and was now dropping, quickly downhill and so generating little energy, but the severity of the effect of the cold on a fragile physique that had now been moving for about 22 hours was rapid.
Unlike at Ledmore Junction, my feet hadn’t been walking through wet, muddy terrain as I had mainly been riding for the last couple of hours and, even when walking, the ground was generally dry and rocky, rather than peaty and boggy. But my feet were still desperately cold. I didn’t panic, but I was right in the middle of Rannoch Moor, in the pitch black, totally alone with my body temperature dropping minute by minute. For someone who can be an annoying, hissy-fit, drama queen, I constantly amaze myself with the overwhelming aura of sang froid that mysteriously takes command of my mind and body in situations like these: in my April reccie, I snapped my gear cable riding through the heart of Fisherfield, but I just got on with it and fitted the spare, notwithstanding all the potential traumas of threading the cable through the interior-routed frame. Once again, I took faith in the equipment I was carrying with me: I had my heavyweight claw gloves, that had already served me well more than once this race, and, the final ace up my sleeve was a Surviva hooded foil vest, which weighed just 60g but was there in my backpack, ready to be used as an additional insulation layer below my waterproof jacket. I stopped and put all this kit on, but once again I had nothing to put on that could help my feet to warm up, or even retain the last remnants of heat that they may have possessed.
The cold, especially in my feet, had got to me again and, like at Ledmore Junction, it would halt my progress to my desired destination. Before the race I had bought a second pair of shoes which were slightly larger and so able to accommodate a thicker grade of merino sock. Wearing these would have kept my feet warmer, maybe just that extra degree or two that could have ensured that I could have carried on riding. However, I had only used these new shoes for a few hours and, while I felt confident in the setting of the shoes plates, I couldn’t be 100% sure as to how they would perform over extremely long days. I didn’t want to risk the severe achilles pain that flared up last year and added considerably to my woes on the final day. On the other hand, the older shoes that I ended up taking, couldn’t accommodate a thicker merino sock, but I was confident that the cleats were set perfectly and I’d already used them for about 30 hours riding in two and half days when I did my reccie in April with no problems at all. So, peace of mind and injury insurance won over thermal comfort.
Despite all this kit, I was still battling against the fact that the air on this vast open moor was bitterly cold and I hadn’t peddled much for the best part of four kilometres. By the time I reached the small road at Forest Lodge, my temperature had dropped further and I was starting to move into survival mode and think about how I could get my temperature back up. The fact that I was now within 15 kilometres of Tyndrum was utterly irrelevant, as was the fact that I was in a race at this point: I had to get myself warmed up!
In the faint light, I saw a group of a dozen tents in that perennially popular spot, down by the bridge, just before the Inveroran Hotel. I thought about just getting off my bike, opening one of the tents and climbing in next to absolutely whoever it was inside, just to get some warmth. It vaguely registered with me what a horrifying occurrence this would be for the unlucky camper and I passed by before the thought gained further purchase. At the hotel, Alan grants us the uncharacteristic mercy of following the small road around to the Bridge of Orchy, rather than taking the Way up and over the hill to the right. On the road, I tried thrashing vigorously on the bike, out of the saddle in an effort to generate some heat. The road actually seemed to be helping me, as the gradient rose a little around its northern-most point, but no sooner had it done this, then it dropped for two long, cold kilometres down to the small hamlet, illuminated by its characteristic hotel. By now I was shivering on the bike and I knew that the final 10 kilometre stretch from Bridge of Orchy to Tyndrum along the track parallel to the railway was also mainly downhill; once I started on that track there would be no shelter at all and I was genuinely worried about making it safely to Tyndrum. Thoughts of Richard Rothwell and Ian Fitz had long since evaporated and I was principally and uniquely concerned with getting my temperature higher.
As I rode past the back of the large hotel, I remembered from my West Highland Way trek back in 2003, that there were external dorms here, but it was too risky to simply try the door of one and sneak inside because they were very likely to be occupied just one day after the bank holiday. I didn’t dare try one of the rear-facing doors into the main building either, but in any case, they seemed to be fire doors that probably only opened from inside.
Think! Think! Think!
Then I remembered another highland expedition up here in my distant past to “bag” the Munros to the east of the village. I had stayed at the bunkhouse on the railway station. Now this bunkhouse, being a converted railway building, didn’t have any internal corridors between any of the rooms: to go to the loo in the night, you walked out of the dorm, along the platform, into the loo and then back along the platform to the dorm; similarly, in the morning, you left the dorm and walked along the platform to the breakfast room. My only hope was that one of these doors was open.
I parked my bike in the passenger walkway under the railway lines and walked up the steep steps to the platform, where the bunkhouse stood, just 50 metres away. I started walking towards it and quickly realised that the platform concrete had been replaced by gravel, which seemed to let out an enormous roar each time I stepped upon it in the dead of the night. I quickly jumped on the edge of the platform that still retained the concrete slabs. Here my progress was silent, as befits the prowler in the night. I turned my headtorch off, as there was enough light emanating from the building. I made my way along the platform and looked at each of the doors, there must have been half a dozen of them. I remembered that the furthest one was the male dorm, so I wasn’t about to try that, although I was thinking up excuses along the lines of, “I’ve been lost all day on the hill”, that could have vaguely excused my intrusion in there. But, there was one door with a light on, about halfway along the building, although to get to it I had to cross three metres of crunchy gravel. With my calf muscles lacking in flexibility after four days of being brutalised, raising myself onto tiptoes wasn’t an option so I just tried to walk across, as quietly as I could.
I tried the door … and it opened!
Inside was the breakfast room: about a dozen chairs arranged around a large table with barely any room to move around the outside of them. Near the entrance, there was a small breakfast bar with boxes of cereal and stuff. As I was surveying this scene, I heard movement from inside and I froze holding the door open. Someone was moving, towards a toilet it seemed. I paused, then heard a loo flush and then faint footsteps. Maybe the ladies’ dorm had an internal loo that didn’t involve walking along the platform? Or maybe this was the custodian’s private loo? In any case, while they had given me a fright, I was sure that I hadn’t disturbed them. I could already feel myself warming up a little just from the rush of adrenaline and the thought of getting in here for a few minutes was really starting to bring me around. First, though, I had to repeat the whole process because I had to go back to get my bike, walk it up the steep steps, bring it along the platform and place it outside the breakfast room.
Finally, I was inside. I wasn’t hungry, but I wouldn’t have touched the food anyway as I really didn’t want to abuse this much-needed sanctuary. I simply took my backpack off, sat down on a chair and gently lifted another chair so that I could rest my legs across it. With the door closed and protected from any drafts of wind, I felt warmer. But I was also dopey with tiredness – it was something like 02:30 and I’d been going for so long. I didn’t fight myself, or set any alarms, I simply sat down on the chair and let my eyes close. I was something like eleven hours up on last year, I could doze for six hours and still finish well inside the previously mythical four-day deadline. I was losing focus on racing; sleep was advancing.
I really wanted to win this race. It’s natural if you are second in a race one year, the year after, you will come back wanting to win. I let myself get carried away with this idea: on many occasions in the weeks before the event I would find myself riding along or walking along and welling up with the emotion of how much I wanted to win. Thankfully, things reached a climax before the event and a lot of this self-inflicted tension and longing was dissipated before the event actually started. A group of us went for a pizza on the Wednesday night before and a good friend who knows a lot about cycling – and more importantly, had followed me day and night through the 2016 race – reminded me that I was 47 years old and that I had to be realistic and ultimately ride my own race. I didn’t know it at the time, but when I reflected, just a day later, it felt like a weight off my mind. He knew, knowing me, that I wanted to win, but he was able to offer me a realistic perspective that I trusted; his kind wisdom didn’t feel like a lack of faith on his part, or an excuse on my part.
In the end, he was right: I had been too guided by Strava data logged by the riders that I considered the contenders: if I had done more than them, then surely I could beat them, was my flawed rationale. Furthermore, I was buoyed up by the fact that, as well as matching the quantity of training of the year before, I had increased the quality, both by boosting my strength by doing two-thirds of my training on single-speed and by fitting in more rides over 200km. Whatever my Strava data fixation, I should have known that the training persona and the racing persona are two different beasts. I was also deluding myself by placing too great a parallel with my situation and that of previous winner Tom Rowntree. Tom had a hard-fought podium place in 2014 and came back to win in 2015, saying, “returning as a veteran is a massive advantage for any challenger.” Similarly, I thought a difficult apprenticeship served in second place in 2016 was a foundation for a win in 2017.
I basically thought that by reliving the two-race path of experience that Tom Rowntree took to his win and then training myself to be able to race a couple of hours faster than Phil Simcock and Liam Glen’s previous winning times would be a formula for victory. The cruel irony is, that in any other year, I may well have been correct!
I was sure that I had a very detailed knowledge of the route and a good grasp of the tactics to use in certain places and situations. Amongst the contenders, I thought only Fitz had as good a knowledge of the route as me and I also knew he had the potential to come up with a strong strategy, as he had already demonstrated this is 2016 by pushing all the way from Shenavall. However, I was also aware that previous winners such as Liam Glen and Phil Simcock had arrived at the race with none or little route familiarity and still ended up victorious. In fact, I could go as far as to say that they had charged at the route like a bull in a china shop … and little harm it had done their final aspirations!
Once I was in the race and the dust had settled and the initial hierarchical order had been established with Neil and Chris moving away late on Day 1, I got my head together and just concentrated on doing the best I possibly could. It was a thin line between thinking: “You’ll never be here again doing this at this level, you must make the most of it. Push! Push! Push!”, and, “Stay calm, keep cool, stick to your plan. Your pace is good, just keep doing this. And look after yourself too!”
Paradoxically, in wanting to win – and by definition wanting to beat your rivals – it doesn’t mean that you respect them less or take them for granted; in fact, the reverse is true. There were aspects of the competition that I rationalised and mitigated through my own sense of desire and folly combined: Rich I had raced against over the years in Northumberland so I had actual, undeniable proof that he was fast and dangerous. Furthermore, according to my Strava metrics, he was the only other competitor with a similar volume of training as myself completed coming into the event. Chris had done a ridiculously fast 19 hours around the Cairngorm Loop – a 300km route that I know very well and can appreciate the enormity of such an effort; yet, I persuaded myself that his being fast over one day wouldn’t necessarily translate to being fast over 4 days. Similarly, with Neil, I had heard that he held the record for the Arizona Trail Race and the Colorado Trail Race, but blindly convinced myself that, “that’s America, this is Scotland!” It wasn’t until after the Highland Trail, talking to Neil in the RFC, that he happened to mention that he won one of these races by sleeping just 20 hours in seven days. Gulp!
Technically, Neil’s level of preparation was outstanding. One only had to look at his bike for a few minutes to remember that, yes, mountain bikes were born in America and they probably still know a thing or two about these bikes, irrespective of the global diffusion of this genre of pedal cycle. Whilst verging on the prohibitively expensive for the majority of British bikepackers in the race, Neil’s kit nonetheless represented the cutting edge of stuff that would really work in a race like the Highland Trail – or indeed any off-road race in the world that he happened to drop himself into: full suspension carbon frame, twelve speed 10-50 block with 32 single ring offering a lower low and a higher high than my 32 x 11-40 set up and, finally, a dropper post that would still provide ample wheel clearance when combined with an under-saddle bag. Similarly, it emerged that Chris Hope had ridden all 13 of the rough, boulder-strewn hairpins at the top of Corrieyairich Pass – virtually impossible on a normal mountain bike, but incomprehensible with a laden bikepacking rig. This was the awe-inspiring physical and technical ability of the competition in a nutshell.
In relating the folly of my thoughts – how I raised my game, yet underestimated my rivals – my aim is only to provide a more honest and human account of the race; to complete the portrait of the competitor who thinks, as well as pedals, no matter how illogical his thoughts may be.
My eyes opened once, but I closed them again. I suppose, sub-consciously, the racer in me had set the chairs so that they weren’t actually that comfortable so, when my eyes opened the second time and I could feel warmth all over my body I knew it was time to go. My watch was buried under the claw gloves and the jacket, so I had no idea when I arrived there or how long I’d been there. I stepped outside, grabbed the bike and headed off the re-join the Highland Trail Race!
I knew I had enough body heat loaded up in me to get me through the last 10 kilometres, no matter what, but as I started moving along the West Highland Way I could feel that the air was, relatively, a lot warmer and I also sensed the first light faintly breaking through so I estimated it was sometime after 03:00. Maybe I hadn’t been inside the station bunkhouse for that long after all? As if to clarify what time it was, the alarm on my watch, that was set for the previous morning at 03:30, went off after I’d been riding for a few minutes. So here I was, in the middle of the night with light gently sprinkling itself down from the sky and across the landscape and just five or so miles to go.
I kept going and sure enough, my body heat didn’t desert me and the light kept creeping up until, by the time I crossed under the railway line for the very, very last HAB up the trail on the other side, I had switched my headlight off. It really was all downhill now with just a couple of kilometres remaining. As I crossed over the final railway bridge with just a solitary kilometre left to go, I stopped, checked my watch – 04:08 – and recorded a garbled little message into my phone. At this point I believed I was fifth; I talked about how much faster I’d gone, but I seemed a little despondent that I hadn’t finished the race in a higher position. The slurred tiredness in my voice is very evident.
From here, I rolled down the hill to the last building on the outskirts of Tyndrum, the place that marks the finish line of the Highland Trail. It was 04:14. I was done. I sent the Check-In message on the tracker, switched it off and took a selfie on my phone. I was still wearing the foil vest under my helmet so my appearance was mildly extra-terrestrial, to say the least.
I finished in solitude, no-one there. I got a text from Laura saying, “Well Done”, and adding that she was now going to sleep, which I didn’t begrudge her. It was daylight now. I didn’t hang around, but rolled gently down the hill, not only looking like, but feeling a little like The Man Who Fell to Earth.
I knew that the Real Food Cafe would be open in about three hours, at 07:30 and that seemed to dictate my actions. Back at the campsite, as I rode up to my car, I passed a van with the side door open and a pair of muddy cycling shoes outside it that I recognised: Fitz was inside, wrapped in a down jacket and getting a brew on the stove. The first thing I did was congratulate him, but, before I could get the words out, he corrected me by explaining he was a DNF, having withdrawn from the race at Fort William due to an injury he had apparently been carrying for some time. I was a little confused that I had still been following his tracker at Kinlochleven and was sure to have seen his lights on the Devil’s Staircase; he explained that he followed the route as far as the foot of that descent and then came back over the road, not over Rannoch Moor. He too suffered badly in the cold and it seems his improvisation was even more spectacular than my foil garment: he wrapped his down bag over his head and pedalled as if wearing a kind of insulated cape!
I had a cup of tea with him and he offered me some of his savoury rice that he was cooking up. We didn’t say so much, but I kind of sensed that it was difficult for anyone to offer him consolation in that moment; perhaps the person closest to being able to offer him it was another person who had just gone through a very similar experience. I liked to think so. After a while, Ian began needing sleep and I simply wanted a shower.
I packed my bike in the car, had a long shower, got changed and then went inside the bunkhouse for a brief nap on the sofa. As it approached opening time at the cafe, I drove the car down there and stayed in there until I finally left Tyndrum in the late afternoon.
I saw a variety of riders: the ones who finished and came straight to the cafe: Steve Large, Pavel Machacek and Justin Atkinson, and the ones who were coming in after varying intervals of sleep: Neil Beltchenko, Chris Hope and family, later Rich and finally Fitz. It was good to catch up and congratulate, though it was a pity to miss seeing Javi at the end of the event.
The final results from the race, featuring the competitors that I came most into contact with, were as follows:
- Neil Beltchenko 3:10:22 New course record.
- Chris Hope 3:14:24
- Rich Rothwell 3:18:18
- Philip Addyman 3:19:14
- Huw Oliver 3:21:19
It had been an epic.