Time to sit in front of the screen and blog the Highland Trail 550 event. Somehow I need to capture the thrills and spills of the HT and put them onto the digital story board. My memories, thoughts and feelings cataloged and spell checked so they can portray my time spent in the saddle.
Once upon a time there was a long distance bike event called the Highlandtrail 440. With your bike laden with spare cloths, sleeping equipment spares and accessories you followed the GPS arrow covering the pre prepared route as quick as you’re fatiguing legs could propel you. If you scratch (drop out) you are left to ponder what if. If you finish you enter legend status. I unfortunately remained at home for the inaugural HT and waited 12 months for the 2nd edition (now with a further 100 miles added).
So it began. Log on and upload the blogs. Read the reviews and study the kit list. Undertake some overnight equipment testing rides and put together some sort of training plan. Tyres were tested and sleeping bags compared. Chainring sizes were reduced and maps printed. My check list was methodically drawn up and updated. Slowly I prepared myself for the HT.
Work was keeping me busy leading up to the HT. I had arranged a lift with Phil and on Friday night we travelled up to Tyndrum were my room for the night awaited. In the wee hours of the morning we arrived at the campsite. Phil dropped me and the bike off outside the hostel and as I entered the code on the front door Phil drove off to spend the night laid out in the Mercedes. Hindsight now tells me this is where it all goes slightly askew. My room was left locked with no key to my bed for the night. With everything closed and snoring coming from full rooms I spent the night on the sofa. Not the best sofa in the world to spend the night on and with weak bladders keeping the squeaky toilet door busy, sleep was hard to come by. Mistake number one.
A surprise birthday celebration had been secretly organised for Alan (the event organiser and competitor) so an early assembly time at the local cafe was arranged. Even less time to spend on the sofa. Outside in the early morning sunshine numerous riders were packing their bikes. Eyes scanned other riders rides. Equipment was compared and nervous quadruple checks were undertaken (or was that just me). Before you could say “Now have you got everything” we all headed off to the Real Food Cafe for breakfast, Birthday cake and bagpipes.
The clocked struck 9am. No fan fare, no cannon shot and no emotional send off, just a gruff voice yelling “GO”. And so it began. The Highland Trail 550. 38 riders left the start line to undertake their own race. Their own adventure. The miles awaited them and the terrain would test them. Their bodies would question them and determine the answer. The body may be fit and trained but would the mind be ready for the monster ahead.
I had a plan. Plan A. 93 miles per day with up to 16hrs of day light to accomplish this distance. Always have a plan B but I was so focused on plan A that plan B was yet to be drawn up. Mistake number two. Now as you can imagine this blog would become very boring if I was to cover the whole race. “We then cycled into this Glen and then we cycled down this Glen and we cycled round this Loch and around another Loch” etc etc etc. Needless to say this did not turn out as I expected them to. Plan A started off well but ended on a bad note. Day one was going well. Legs felt good and the scenery was making my smile muscles ache. Lunch at Kinlochleven arrived without a hitch. As I sat next to Alan sharing our arranged schedules he gave me my first words of wisdom. “Get some miles into the bank because you can have an easy 93 mile day and a very hard 93 mile day”. I knew what he meant. Good healthy advice but it still planted a little seed of dread in my mind. Lunch was dispatched and off we went. By now riders were spaced out. The HT is an individual time trail and as such I wanted to remain solo. My next stop was Fort Augustus and the Pizza restaurant which would supply us with an evening meal, goody bag and breakfast. A 100 mile day (miles in the bank Alan). I reached the canal side restaurant at 9.30pm to find several other riders tucking into hot food and consuming caffeine laden beverages. They clearly had more miles on the mind. A sat amongst them pleased with my first day. “One coffee, one Coke. Spag bol and some water please”. As the food went down so the sick began to rise. A trip to the head evacuated my much need fuel. This wasn’t promising. How can I now not feel hungry. I tried to force down the food but it kept coming up. Now I began to feel cold. With no chance of eating a much need meal I joined two other in camping at a local campsite. I erected the tent, blew up the therm-a-rest and slid into the sleeping bag. Everything prevented me from sleeping. The block over an acre away snored as if he was sharing the sleeping bag with me. The midges wing beats made me toss and turn and then the local lock in threw out their boozed up residents. Nevertheless I managed to get a little shut eye and by 6am I was up, packed and on the trail. Mistake 3 and 4. I still felt ill and the thought of breakfast made me queazy.
I headed out of Fort Augustus and headed out into the hills. Within half an hour it started to rain. The water proofs where unpacked and did a grand job of keeping me dry but my so called dry bags didn’t do the same for my kit. It took me 3 hrs to make it to the Bothy which was only 30km from my camping spot. I got out of the rain and put on a brew. Boiling water brought to life my dehydrated rice and chilli but a tender tummy could only manage a few mouthfuls but the coffee was good. I ventured back out into the rain and head-on into the now thickening mist and low cloud. Just keep going Stu. By lunch time I was feeling worse. No energy. Tired legs and a tired mind. Time to prepare a plan B. I pulled onto a dry verge and got out my paper maps. I was close to Strathpeffer. Time to re assess my position. I got a room and hung out my kit to dry. I brought some food from the local store and returned to my room to contemplate my next move.
I had to make a decision. A decision that at the time was the right one but now I think was it the wrong one. I could torture myself with the decision I made. Hindsight messes with the mind. All I can say and in my defence, at the time it was the correct decision. The race for me was over but not the ride. I still wanted to ride for 4 more days (Jade and Stella had planned to meet me at the finish on Thursday). A good nights sleep and some food will help me find some form and energy to enjoy a tour of the Highlands.
As I left my hotel I saw several other bikes propped up outside other local hotels. Mike and Phil beconed me over and whist tucking into a hearty breakfast they to had decided to scratch from the race. Mike was buried in his iPhone checking out the Trackleaders website. Each racer carried a Spot Tracker which recorded our GPS position. This could allow friends and family to log on a watch how the race unfurled. It looked like a few people had also stayed in Strathpeffer and some had already scratched. Mike also wanted to continue cycling and as we left Phil at the train station we headed across country to rejoin the HT route south of Torridon.
With the burden of the race off my shoulders I could relax and ride at a more sedate pace. My Race was now an adventure. This was my first time in this part of Scotland. 2 years ago I had completed the Cairngorm 200 event covering 200 miles in and around the Cairngorms NP. I was now being treated to the delights of the Highlands. Lochs and Glens. Long valleys and wide lochs. If I passed a tea room I could linger with a brew. If I felt tired I could rest with a Kit-Kat. Mike and I rode together for a day and a half before we parted company and continued solo. I finished my ride on Thursday afternoon with a burger and beer back at the Real Food Cafe. I had covered 400 miles on my journey. My first long distance tour. My Highland Trail race had grown into a ride to remember for all its faces. The event has taught me a lot and I am enriched by its short experience and there is always next year to plan. Take two as they say.
I could reminisce on the route and its views in this blog. I could describe the climbs and its rewards but I could not do it justice. All there is to say is WOW, with a big grin and a smile ear to ear, WOW.
Enjoy the video & pictures.
If you are interested in arranging your own adventure in and around the Yorkshire Dales then give me a call on 01756 796844. Week day and weekend trips. Bivvy trips and touring. Road or off road.