Bikes have taught me many things and taken me to some wonderful places. I’ve learned to better appreciate my surroundings and enjoyed developing the skills required to travel through it as smoothly as possible. The wonderful thing about mountain bikes in particular is that efficiency is an extremely elusive beast, which can never be fully mastered. Climbing, descending, carrying, fuelling your body, maintaining your bike, and feeling your way across rough landscapes. These challenges first attracted me to mountain biking and I’ve long been hooked.
Once in a while, a ride comes along that completely redefines ‘the challenge’. The goal posts move and a huge physical and mental shift is required. My first 24hr solo race several years ago required such a reset. The Highland Trail 550, which I completed at 3:18am on Wednesday morning, a completely broken man, not only moved the goal posts; it completely redefined the rules of the game.
The HT550 is an ultra distance unsupported 550 mile mountain bike race which starts at Tyndrum and heads north before reaching the far north west corners of Scotland and loops and meanders south back to the start point. The statistics are alarming: 16,000m of vertical climbing including many major high passes, some of the roughest ground in the most remote parts of Scotland, some notorious hike a bike sections, and very few options for supplies. More information can be found here.
I was in this to ‘race’. This means very little sleep. Moving forward as much as possible, no matter how slowly. Stretching the limits of endurance. As a concept over this duration and terrain, this was a big black hole for me; but once I was in, there was no turning back, on this I was reassuringly resolute.
The physical and mental test started way before the start line. The working week had been brilliant but very busy, (an amazing couple of days spent with Croftway Primary at Kielder) and I left for the long drive north later than I’d wanted. Road works and the obligatory tour bus along Loch Lomond resulted in a tiring and stressful drive and bed at midnight. Far from ideal.
Saturday dawned clear, blue and VERY warm. Spirits where high and of course mixed with nervous apprehension of the challenges that lay ahead. After a start line tribute to Mike Hall, and a bit of gridding(!) we were off. We formed an enthusiastic, friendly lead group and it was great see Chris Hope, ride with Phil Addyman, and start chatting to the others who felt comfortable off the front. Deep down though we all knew this pace was silly for a 550 mile race! You can’t beat a bit of adrenalin!
Rather than give a blow by blow account of the route and the race, (over this terrain that would be impossibly long!) I’d prefer to relay some key moments in the event. Some concern ‘the race’ and others my emotions, impressions of the area, and the sheer physical and mental difficulty of the challenge. Highs and Lows are too weak a cliche but extremes and superlatives abounded on a ride that reset my perspectives on what endurance means.
Early into the race, I had my first set back. A rattling noise developed. With this fast moving group I did not want to stop and become isolated but accepted that I had to check my bike over. The noise was elusive but eventually I found the cassette lock ring was loose! That NEVER happens and it was one tool I would never carry! In a slight panic I chased and intermittently stopped to finger tighten it. This was not a solution though and I rode on to stop at Laggan Wolftrax bike shop, knowing it was my only option.
As I had been riding with a loose lock ring for so long, (and the shop had no lock-tite) I took evasive action and used a spot of super-glue; I could not risk another failure.
Alone now and starting to feel the isolation… night drew in and so did the weather. Heavy rain fell as I approached Contin, well before midnight. I passed through town pleased with the pace I had settled into. Through the town and up into the Strathpuffer woods. Not knowing where I would sleep, the radar was on for a decent spot: anytime between now and 3am would do. Then I found it, and in the farm building, I also found Phil Addyman, getting all snuggly in a pile of dry leaves. We chatted and it became apparent that I had made a big mistake. With little food left, I had missed my chance to stock up for the next monster stretch of wilderness… There was no option; I had to wait in Contin till the morning when the shop opened at 7am. I was devastated but knew I had no choice. It felt like my race was over.
I had planned on leaving my bivvy spot at 3:30am. After back tracking around ten miles to Contin and stocking up at the shop, I was moving again after 7:30 and heading back towards my bivvy spot. I had lost well over 4 hours.
That morning was tough. My head was down. I knew the quality of the riders in front of me, (now MILES in front of me) and the race just felt like a long ride; a tour. So my first mental slight of hand was to say, ‘heh, that’s not so bad a way to spend a few days’. The enormity of the undertaking still loomed large so taking some race pressure away was actually a good thing. Relax. Ride smooth. Enjoy the stunning ride!
There was the rough with the smooth. A long grey loch side path was clammy cold and overwhelming in its isolation but at the same time I was developing a feel for the character of the ride. It was wild and beautiful. A privilege to freely roam across this spectacular terrain.
Then, as I grew more confident with my progress, the thrill of the hunt crept in. Yes, this felt like a hunt. I had caught and passed many of the riders who had got ahead of me on my long Contin stop. The tyre tracks had reduced in numbers. Some were looking a little fresher than others… This released whole new thought patterns that I had never experienced in a race… I was tracking my competition! It felt primitive, deeply exciting, and tapped in to a human behaviour that suddenly seemed so natural. I loved it!
After passing the incredibly scenic Bealach Horn, a huge hike a bike primed me for a massive high speed, rock spitting descent. The sun was warm, the riding was incredible. After another big up and down I rolled loch side into spectacular Kylesku. Little ‘real’ food had been eaten till this point and a seafood restaurant was too good to pass up. The staff were incredibly accommodating. It was a very tidy joint and I fell into the door not knowing what to do first; plugging in phones / repacking bags / asking for coffee / stripping off filthy kit. Basically starting to go feral. The artificial light played havoc with my eyes and everything felt hyperreal.
The incredibly understanding waitress knew about the HT550 and assured me she would push my order through quick. Meanwhile, between two coffees / two cans of lemonade, I asked if she had other food I could take away. She came back with an assortment in her hand for illustrative purposes:
“We have dry roasted nuts, salted nuts, chilli nuts, Mars Bars, Twix, Snick….”
A beautiful sunset road section then followed before a maze of inlets and rough single track. This area was stunning and despite the creeping exhaustion I did not want to be anywhere else.
Things got less idyllic as the night crept in. A huge rough climb developed into a saturated loch side slog. I did not know what lay ahead but I knew I needed to push through. There was no bivvying here. The push and carry continued well into the darkness. This was going to be a long night. My sense of ‘the hunt’ returned and behind me I saw the odd flash of light… ditto away in the distance (which was very hard to judge)… but who else could be so daft as to be out here at 2am?
Early light broke through and after 20 hours of riding I knew I needed a break. A chilly 3 hours was spent dozing in a farm building and early morning was windy and bitterly cold.
The day got warmer, even if the terrain got tougher. This was the meat of the ride. Some of the toughest sections hit me on day three. Fisherfields was stunning on approach and in it’s purity, yet fearsome by its reputation. I had my first major physical and mental wobble down there, just after wading across the inlet. I went dizzy, the warm humid weather front laden air was overbearing and oppressive. I thought I was done but after a big hit of sugar and an hour or so of pushing up up up my head cleared. Then the weather broke; light at first but the rain fell progressively harder.
Another high pass and traverse, then down. Very down. Down a chasm. Incredible riding. Steeper and steeper. And then I was halted not by the terrain but the view. It was dark with heavy rain and swirling cloud, yet it was mid afternoon. Beneath my lay Loch Dubh, one of the most remote spots in the UK. A huge black and grey rock face plunged into the water. There were no signs of life at all. It looked and felt like the entrance to Mordor. For once, I was more than happy to have the weight penalty and security of a bivvy and a sleeping bag.
Out of this unforgiving place and onto something far worse… The Postman’s Path along Loch Maree. The most horrendous section of hike a bike I have EVER walked / scrambled / dragged myself through. Think Lock Lomond is bad? Times that by 3 and you get some idea. When this abomination was seen off some 3 hours later, it felt so good to be back on my bike, a few quick tarmac miles leading me towards Torridon.
I knew this was a tough stretch so decided on an early bivvy. Up towards the pass I found a half built building. Get sorted quick. Saturated and muddy I crept into my sleeping bag. Head down at 12:30.
Up again at 3:30.
I knew to have any chance of getting back up the field after my Contin mistake this would be my last sleep.
Misty early light brought promise. I spotted Huw Oliver’s bike outside a wooden hut. Picked up my bike… crept past on the heather. Wouldn’t want to wake him eh?
Then, as the single track started, a pale figure pushed and carried in the distance in front of of me. It was Phil Addyman. I hung back just out of sight, feeling a massive wash of relief knowing I had made up such a large chunk of time on one of the front runners.
The wet slabs and boulders of Torridon where negotiated with care at this crazy time to be riding a bike. Perhaps too much care; Phil went out of my sight near the bottom and I took a wrong turn. Down, down into saturated rhododendron bushes. Like being whipped by soaking wet canes. By the time I realised my mistake and backtracked once or twice, I knew Philip would be well gone. 20 minutes to half an hour was spent floundering around down there, my head no doubt pickled by the early hour.
The day grew warmer and the ground firmed up, a result of the change in terrain. More passes. More climbs. More crazy high speed descents. The body and mind were relaxed now. Just let go and let the bike roll.
Late afternoon and I hit Fort Augsutus for the second time. This time there would be no mistakes; I FILLED my bag with the most high calorie food possible. I knew the end was in sight (a mere 35 miles along a loch side path then the toughest half of the West Highland Way. Shifting goal posts see?).
I developed a strategy; a good stop. Fish and chips. Don’t hurry. Eat till you burst. Set off along the loch steadily. My stomach had work to do. Don’t push all the blood to the legs.
Gradually I picked up the pace. Think efficiency. High smooth endurance pace. Approach Fort William. Down some caffeine tablets. Last ditch effort. Two big hills coming up. If there is anyone in striking distance, this is thee last roll of the dice.
I stopped to repack my bags. Then Philip came up BEHIND me! We were both confused but he had stopped at the garage and here I must have passed him. It was great to chat and have some human contact after all those hours and days in the wilderness. But this was a race. There may be others ahead. I was well fuelled and feeling strong. I pulled away up Glen Nevis and felt great all the way to the Kinloch descent.
A little too great actually. With full luggage I rode the descent faster and harder than I have ever ridden it before; sliding round corners and hopping across the round boulders. Who says bike packing is cumbersome and dull?!
Then ‘ping’ my over exuberance resulted in a snapped rear spoke and my chain wrapping round my mech. Idiot!!! No reason to ride like that now! After what seemed like an age I got going again, this time to be caught out by prior knowledge of the West Highland Way and a desire to follow my instincts, not the GPS!
Anyways, eventually sorted I was soon on my way climbing up towards Devils Staircase in the growing darkness.
There, a dim flash of light. A head torch perhaps. Looking at the rocks, I saw the odd wet foot print, a small tyre mark. It was warm and windy. Those marks belonged to that person. They would have dried in 20 minutes or so.
I turned my light off. Strangely, it didn’t bother me. I just found my way. That primitive animalistic feeling returned. In fact, I rode down the first gully in almost total darkness. This was ridiculous but brilliant fun all at the same time.
Over the top, I continued in the dark till common sense prevailed. I’d then ‘given myself away’ so nailed it, feeling exposed by my amazing Exposure lights (which performed flawlessly throughout).
On past King’s House and up onto the Drove Road. No sign of the mystery light. Adrenalin left my body. What’s done is done. Just need to get back now. I had been riding for almost 24hrs since I left Torridon.
The Drove Road nearly finished me off. Relentless cobbles smashed through my palms and wrists. The frequency built as did the pain in my hands. My back ached. It was hard to sit down and even harder to hold the bars. It was nothing short of torture and it seemed to go on for hours. (It was actually around 5 miles!).
It was bitterly cold too. I stopped to put on a down jacket and kept it on till the end, even up a long off road climb. My energy levels were completely depleted now. Eating blocks of tablet fudge, (essentially raw sugar) was no longer creating a response. I was done. Those last two miles were incredibly slow. Each pedal stroke got weaker and the final hike a bike felt like gravity would win and I would collapse in a heap at the bottom of a boulder strewn slope.
Then it was done. No fanfare. No finish line crowd. Just me standing in the dizzying star lit silence. 3:18am. Stop the tracking device. Roll into the deserted town.
I collapsed in the back of my car and fell into an uncomfortable shallow sleep, occasionally waking up with numb arms and cold throbbing fingers. Morning broke. I struggled to open a water bottle, intermittently giving up to slump back down into my sleeping bag. Exhaustion beyond anything I’ve ever known….
Turns out Ian Fitz was the mystery man on Devil’s Staircase. He had a rough ride and, after all that distance, returned on the road unable to finish the job due to injury and fatigue.
So despite my fateful first day, I had salvaged a ride and a result I am proud of; at the 11th hour, with a good final day strategy, I moved up into 3rd place. The visiting American Neil Beltchenko took top honours whilst the superb mountain man Chris Hope took 2nd place. Well done to them and everyone who put it all on the line to complete this insane challenge and race.
I’m sure, dear reader, this event sounds horrendous! It’s an acquired taste for sure but I have definitely acquired it! Every brutal, serene, stormy, isolated, stunning, thrilling moment was exquisite in it’s intensity. Ultra distance multi day racing; you have me hooked.
p.s. Apologies for the lack of pictures! My phone kept cutting out for some mysterious reason / and or the sheet rain presented too much of a risk. You’ll have to just head up to the wilds of Scotland yourself! Trust me, it’s worth the trip 🙂