A Vision Quest on the Highland Trail – Part 1

Apologies, I was too busy swallowing flapjack, pedalling and talking to myself to take any photos on this adventure. Besides, the phone was firmly stashed in many layers of waterproofing, somewhere in the depths of my seatpack. So in their place, let the words do the picture-painting for you, and I’ve dug out some photos of the same trails, taken on less suffery days…

 

It’s been a long winter. After trying my best to derail it by breaking my ankle, we set sail for Patagonia in December, and spent two months being delighted and frustrated in turns on the mountainous gravel roads. A brief return to Scotland for six weeks was spent training for a winter mountaineering assessment, meaning long, cold days on the hill under heavy bags, which in turn was preparation for… a month spent touring again, this time on fat tyres in the wintry Highlands of Iceland. So like I say, it’s been a long (fun) winter. With so much time spent exploring and messing about, I hadn’t trained for the Highland Trail, except I had, sort of. All those long days by bike and foot taught me a few things: that it won’t get fixed if you don’t fix it, that a bellyful of food makes everything better, that protesting legs always have an extra day in them.

 

Although I was signed up to leave with the group on the 28th May, that wasn’t to be, as that date was taken by the chance to go to France and earn my carte-pro, which if I succeed will earn me the right to guide in France again and be paid by the kilo of Beaufort cheese. Hurray! So, a quick reshuffle of dates, a few quick panic attacks, and I was left with a week to prepare for the HT – a week in which I was also working every day, but it would have to do.

 

Predictably, this leads to a car park in Tyndrum, the start point, the night before I was due to set off, hurriedly packing bags and testing combinations at 11pm, as well as trying to get a last bit of carbohydrate down my throat. Nothing like a calm, collected pre-race preparation, is there? I have to thank Andy from Backcountrybiking, who saved me a load of time by loaning me a GPS (never navigated using one of those before, didn’t really trust them) and laminated hard copies of most of the mapping I would need for the tweaked 2016 route. I spent a few evenings agonising over gear choice, but if that floats your boat you can have a goggle here. Ultimately, I know my summer kit well enough from living with it for months in Patagonia that it wasn’t too stressful, and I know that I can look after myself in Scotland in summer conditions.

 

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Packed! Sort of…

What I didn’t know was how much food would be required for an 18 hour day? How little sleep could I ride on? Would I even be able to take one day and night of riding every waking minute? This was my first ITT, and a whole step above any endurance challenge that I had ever done before; I’ve raced a 24 hour solo, once, and it shattered me for weeks. This was going to be at least six of those, back to back, on the roughest, remotest trails Scotland has to offer, with some underfed, broken sleep in between. All on my own. I was going to be happy if I even made it back to Tyndrum in the allotted 8 days that finishers are allowed for their time to count. With all these things clanging round my head, I eventually nodded off in the back of the van under frosty skies.

 

The familiar pre-race nerves felt absurd as early-bird tourist wandered up the road the next morning, and drivers began to arrive at the Green Welly Stop. I was running about frantically, assembling last minute additions and in a constant state of needing the toilet. To anyone that’s raced before it might sound familiar, but I was the only one doing it in a sleepy highland village first thing in the morning. The air was bright and clear, with one of the last frosts of spring riming the grass. As my self-imposed deadline of 8am ran closer, I felt ready, almost, and without ceremony I pulled out of Tyndrum into the unknown, still munching on the remnants of a peanut butter sandwich. The nerves melted away as they always do when the fun begins, and I tried to settle into the first of several long days.

 

Cruising up the West Highland Way and then over into Glen Lyon was easy enough, the only challenge telling myself to stick to an easy spin. There was none of the stopping and faffing that usually accompanies the start of a trip, as the kit and setup was very familiar by now, if a little sparser than the usual touring load. The bright sunshine was very welcome, although it was midday before my feet thawed from the cold morning frost. On the climb out of Balgie Bridge into Rannoch I pushed, thinking to maintain energy as much as possible where I could. The week before I had read a useful blog post by Rob Friel on Dirt School’s website, about training for and racing 24 hour events. He used the analogy of sports car and Prius engines when describing the way we burn sugars and fats. That quickly became the refrain in my head for the next five days, telling myself off for using the sports car engine and thinking always “Use your Prius!”

 

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Ben Alder singletrack in autumn

I ate a little when I felt I should and span on, the only unexpected thing being the DofE group I passed above Loch Rannoch, one of whom said “here, look, it’s Danny Macaskill!” – I took it as a compliment. The dry surfaces made fast going, although a slight northeasterly headwind slowed me a little all day. The singletrack through Ben Alder was as magic as ever, but time slipped away and I think it was around 6pm by the time I passed Laggan. The climb over the Corriyairick pass to Fort Augustus had been a major objective for that first day, so I powered up with a sugar boost and got myself up there, the only rule being never to stop moving. I heard at least two sonic booms as I descended the other side and scared myself very much awake. The shop was shut, but as it was 8.45 I had caught the chippy before closing time. A large fish supper made me feel sick and very happy, and I felt that the first day hadn’t been too bad for a 13 hour stint. The weather was clear, promising another frosty night, so I followed the route up the Great Glen until darkness stopped play at around 10.30, bivvying under a tree beside the empty holiday cottages at Invermoriston.

 

Day 2 dawned frosty again, and although I normally sleep poorly when I bivvy, my eyes hadn’t opened once during the night. I had slept through the alarms placed next to my head, waking at 5, which would become a bit of a theme. Still, I felt rested and happy to set off at 5.20, starting the first of two climbs to Contin where I would stock up on food for the infamous northern loop. The first to Loch Ma Stac was steep at times but pleasant enough first thing, with the water levels being low enough to ride along the rocks on the shore rather than bash across the bog. A longish road stretch along Strath Glass followed the descent to Cannich, before the next climb up and over to Contin. This proved to be a bit of a bugger, with rough, boggy landrover track traversing for several kilometres to Orrin Reservoir, rather than the simple, cruisy descent that you always manage to convince yourself will be there. It was past midday by the time I arrived in Contin, so I got a cup of tea and a couple of sandwiches from the stores and re-fuelled, before going back in to buy my supplies on a happy and fully functioning brain – we all know the dangers of shopping on an empty stomach! I added flapjack to the many packets of oatcakes, and some cheese to provide plenty of fatty calories to digest while I was sleeping. The idea of sticking to carbohydrates and sugars in the day, and fats and proteins before bed seemed to work quite well, although I often felt a bit nauseous and low on appetite after a long day of pedalling, and had to force myself to eat before sleeping.

 

Leaving Contin was a bit of an unknown for me, as the long pull northwards through Easter Ross to Oykel Bridge was unfamiliar and looked, at least on the map, like it might be a bit monotonous and uninspiring. The opposite turned out to be true, and the food and rest in Contin set me up for a good eight-hour stint in high spirits, passing Garve, Black Bridge, Alladale and finally arriving in Oykel Bridge just before 9. The riding was mostly efficient and fast rolling, with small climbs and unexpectedly beautiful scenery, especially in forested Alladale.I found just two people in the bar at the Oykel Bridge Hotel: the Australian barwoman, who seemed to be on a gap year and perhaps wondering how she had ended up in Oykel Bridge of all places, and a man who was drinking Coke by the litre and seemed desperately to want someone to talk to. The barwoman tagged me in when she went in search of the chips I’d asked for, so I learned that the man was a contractor who built forest roads. He pointed out (neither the first nor the last to do so) that my bike had big tyres, on which point I had to agree with him. I said they were good on the rougher tracks, which set him off again on an account of all the forest roads he’d built, but by that time chips had arrived so I could politely nod and say “ah, yes”, while ingesting fried potato as fast as I could. I tried to say sorry with my eyes as I left the girl to her other customer and rode on again in the last of the light, finally stopping to bivvy under a footbridge over the River Oykel to avoid any overnight rain. I even got the first midge bite of the year in the mild evening air.

Highland Trail 550 – Part 2

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