I’ll begin at the end.
There is a searchlight moon hanging low in the sky, but it’s almost hidden behind the squat silhouette of Buachaille Etive Mor. Although it’s bright tonight, the wash of pale blue light does little to fill the shadows of ink that deepen to black in the coires and gulleys, where vague outlines merge into one another. It’s a cold light; dead, even. The bones of the land are laid out, bare and massive, but without daylight they seem to lack scale, or life, or any sense that time passes here at all. There is a presence nonetheless. The hills facing me across Glencoe might be miles away, or might be right up close for all I can tell, but in the half-light they seem not inert but asleep, able to wake and move and reach me across the gulf. At their feet a thousand pools of peat-stained water twinkle silver in a mirror image of the stars above them.
It feels old.
Having reached the summit, I stop in the wind as I have been doing more and more frequently, and catch a sensation that with the mask of daylight lifted, the real face of the land can be seen, pitted and scarred by time, and too old and big for my own journey through it to carry any significance. It isn’t a comforting feeling, the coldness of the rock and the inert stillness of the land. The climb from sea level at Kinlochleven has taken two hours, a slow march of unfeeling repetition, with an awareness of discomfort and tiredness but only indirectly, as if they were happening to someone else. Hundreds of metres below, the road extends as an incongruous metallic flash of reflected light, speeding out across the blank, black space of Rannoch Moor towards where I know I will eventually find the end of this. For the time being, I have to think of nothing but forward motion, even eating and drinking having been abandoned a while ago, too much to think about.
The warmth generated by the climb is being leached away from my body into the night, not only by the clear skies but by the probing fingers of the wind as well. The temperature has plummeted since the light failed around 11pm; I am cooling down, and my body can’t fight like it could a few days before, it knows that this is nearly over, and it wants to stop struggling. Rather than being unpleasant, it feels like an invitation to sleep, to lie still and stop all this movement, and join the giants. I am just one small speck of heat and life and movement in a big, big space, and for the first time in 520 miles I feel truly alone, and lonely.
The sun is gone, and life with it. I have a very real feeling that if I stay here for too long, under the cold eyes of the hills and the stars, that sleep will swallow me permanently. I drop my eyes back to the trail, and push away from that place in the wind, while the unseen sun begins to stain the sky in the east.
Nearly four days earlier, around fifty of us had begun the now yearly journey from the bottom of a small lane in Tyndrum, convinced by reasons of our own into tackling this journey across the Highlands, tracking a remote and unforgiving line that would take us through rolling glens and river systems, beneath the monolithic giants of Assynt and Caithness, and across the steep, fjord-like terrain of the north-west before sneaking past Ben Nevis itself on the return home. The route was not unfamiliar, as I had ridden it as an ITT the year before, although my big ambition this year was to knock some significant time from last year’s finish of 5 days 15 hours.
Saving weight to go faster is one thing, but I knew that the main thing I would have to do was cutting down on stopped time. That meant efficient resupplies and, crucially, a lot less sleep. Riding on my own last May I had struggled to stay motivated in the mornings, slept right through alarms and stumbled around shops in a sugar-deprived haze, dithering over the food that occupied my mind more than getting back on the trail. All that had to change, and that meant going a lot further into reserves of mental energy than I had dared to go before, which scared me and excited me in equal measure.
The day before the start was bright, hot and sticky. There were already plenty of faces in town, and if you looked closely there were bikes propped up in all sorts of shady corners, closely attended by people who were usually eating something, packing, repacking or generally fretting. As the heat quietened down Alan invited us to gather and ride a mile or so out of town, to sit by the river with some beers, and to talk with familiar and unfamiliar faces while some choice words were said in remembrance of Mike Hall. I didn’t know Mike, but for me it set a tone of mutual support, new friendships and the embracing of personal challenge that put me in a really positive mindset before turning in to a fitful night’s sleep in the van.
Any nerves or last minute problems were instantly forgotten in the pace of the start on the gentle climb out of Tyndrum over to the Orchy. I couldn’t believe the speed at which everyone seemed to set off, which was the polar opposite of my ‘tortoise rather than hare’ approach that hadn’t really worked last time. In minutes, the sweat was pouring down my face and into my eyes, and in the heat I was worried that dehydration could be a really big factor on this first day, so I dropped any pretence at trying to keep up with the pack and let the 16 or so riders zoom away ahead of me. I find it very easy to get sucked into a pace beyond my capability so right from the start I had to make a conscious decision to ride my own ride and ignore anything else going on around me.
Past loch Lyon and into Glen Lyon, there was a constant juggling for position as people seemed to take a while to find their pace, and speeds seemed very inconsistent. Eventually I settled in near Javier and Ian Fitz as we all headed through to Loch Rannoch, but the heat went nowhere and it was a case of getting water down me as quickly as possible. The afternoon drew on, and cloud began to build in anticipation of the promised thunderstorms later in the day, although the boggy section through to Ben Alder Cottage was thankfully the driest I’ve seen it. I passed a couple of folks there, and tried not to count the number still ahead of me, which was still around 12 or so.
The singletrack section, threading its way over the bealach from Ben Alder Cottage before plummeting beside a gurgling stream through the moraines towards Culra bothy, can’t fail but be a highlight of everyone’s ride on the Highland Trail. I took my first proper stop, just for a minute or so, on the top to savour the breeze and to look about. The self-imposed pressures of racing fell away just then and I really did forget about everyone else. I was alone now but I felt good; I had a smile, and now that the trail had turned slower, more technical and more mountainous, I felt far more comfortable than when trying to keep up with stronger riders on the road and doubletrack. I think this was the last time for quite a while that the time of day actually mattered.
All the way out from Culra, along the long estate track past the Pattack, to Loch Laggan and finally on past Spey dam, the miles seemed to come easier than when I was measuring my effort against other people. It was late afternoon, and as well as the heat the humidity had continued to build. The Corrieyairick was unpleasantly sweaty, but as I crested the summit there were none of the lightning strikes that had been filling my mind on the way up, so it was with relief that I let gravity take the helm and pull me all the way down the long road to Fort Augustus. I looked back at my Garmin after the race and noted that I hit my maximum speed here, topping out at just under 80km/h.
Rather than hit the fuel station, I had a plan for Fort Augustus when I arrived just after 7pm. I went straight to the takeaway pizza place just away form the main road, and got straight in there with a kebab and chips, and a pizza to take away. My plan revolved around getting to Contin Stores as soon as they opened the next morning, and I was carrying enough other snack foods to make that with no problems. The pizza got rolled up and stuffed into my back pocket for later. The kebab wasn’t so lucky. I was aware of the odd rider arriving and leaving over on the main road, but I consciously ignored them, while thinking to myself that last year I only made this point by 9pm, and was only in Invermoriston, ten miles down the road, when I went to bed that first night. Clearly, I was in uncharted territory, an elating thought. I decided to ride until 1am or so, and just drop down wherever I happened to be. I was alone leaving town, which I decided I preferred, and settled back into a rhythm, making sure to keep eating once the kebab had moved over and made some more room in there.
I remembered the two large climbs between Invermoriston and Contin fairly clearly, not that they were happy memories. They’re steep, but more than that I find the heavily managed moorlands in that area a little depressing, being as they are devoid of much life or character; dead, rather than bleak. They went without much trouble though, and as the light finally gave out around half past 10 I found that my motivation and energy remained. Passing Cannich and winding along Strath Glass, rain began to fall out of the dark, but it was a light, warm rain that gave relief after the endless stickiness of the day, and if anything my mood lightened. I was well ahead of my 2016 self, and began to think of what I might buy in Contin tomorrow.
The rain came on heavier as I climbed up the Track of a Thousand Puddles, which crosses the long section of moorland that leads to Orrin reservoir. Wind joined it, and all in all it was looking like a grim picture. To make matters worse, I looked over my shoulder as I was putting on my jacket to see a couple of sets of lights, a mile or two off, shining through the dark and announcing company behind me. I resented the intrusion into my isolation and pressed on, thinking that I should reach the Hydro bothy at around 1am exactly, which would do fine as a place to get out of the wind and rain rather than an exposed bivvy.
I arrived at the bothy a couple of minutes after Ian Fitz, who himself had woken up Javier who was curled up in a corner. I felt a little bad to wake Javi, and got out of my wet clothes and into my bag as quick as possible. I had decided not to bring a sleeping mat, which I now regretted a little as I lay on the cold concrete floor. I shouldn’t have felt bad, because another four riders piled in to the bothy shortly after Ian and me anyway, and it was some time before we all got away to sleep. I had no idea who they all were, but I was surprised that so many riders had evidently pushed on even further than this point, and presumably beyond even Contin…
Up at half 4, I shovelled some oatcakes into my face while I shivered along the track a couple of minutes behind Javi and Ian, thinking that I would see them in Contin. Little did I realise that they had other ideas, and had stocked up in Fort Augustus in order to push straight on to Oykel Bridge. I hadn’t even thought that I would make the hydro bothy, so the idea of skipping Contin would have seemed crazy to me just a day before. But here I was, and I had misjudged the time needed to roll into Contin, arriving there just after 6am. I knew the shop might open a little earlier than the advertised 7am, and hoped beyond hope that I wasn’t about to stand around in the cold for an hour. I was annoyed at myself, not so much for losing time, but for losing forward momentum. Still, I was five hours ahead of last year, and the conversation in the cold morning was welcome and warm. I entertained the idea of pushing on to Oykel Bridge, but dismissed it as a stupid chance to take this early in the ride. I waited with Dan Golob and Philip Fraser-Thomson, who it turned out had been sharing the bothy as well, and Lee Craigie who rolled up nonchalantly a little while later, having slept at Cannich but risen early. A surprise arrival was Rich Rothwell, who arrived from the wrong direction! It turned out he had pushed ten miles further on and slept in a barn with Philip Addyman, who had explained to him that it was a bloody long way to the next food supply. Rich wasn’t so familiar with the route, and decided to head back to Contin to buy food rather than risk going to the sad zone by getting stuck without food in remote country.
When the shopkeeper arrived at 7, we all piled in and began our little personal supermarket sweeps. Lee shared some trail food gold, explaining that a packet of macaroons contains 1,000 calories in just five of those delicious biscuits, so a few packets went into the depths of my seat bag. Sandwiches, too, and some scotch eggs, while I enjoyed a cup of tea. Rich set off sharp, keen to make back some ground on Philip. Lee and I just behind him, and after the solitude of the day before it was nice to chat with someone else that knew this part of the world. I asked a lot about Lee’s ride last year, realising that I was now on a similar pace, and the miles passed quickly as we traversed Strath Rannoch. She planned to divert from Oykel Bridge, abandoning the race route and heading to Ullapool, but reckoned that if I skipped a stop at Oykel I would be able to make the Kylesku Hotel before they stopped serving food that evening. Soon after we split, and I was alone again, with all radar aimed towards Oykel Bridge, which was a huge landmark for me, being the point that I reached on day 2 last year, but which I now looked like reaching by midday.
As it turned out, it was around half 12, and I pulled in to learn that Javi had left around 2 minutes earlier, which bolstered my mood to think that I had made back a lot of the hour wasted at Contin. I got a cooked breakfast, as did Steve Large, Dan Golob and Pavel Machek. I had noticed Pavel the day before, standing out a little for wearing quite bright, ‘Euro-style’ clothes and riding in a visibly powerful style. He is a big guy, quiet, but had a constant smile and was happy to make conversation. I didn’t realise it yet but I would get to know him a lot better in the days to come. I set off forty minutes later with a belly full of delicious fried food, caffeine running in my veins and several egg sandwiches in my pockets courtesy of the inn. The sun was out, it was another beautiful afternoon and things were looking bright to be heading into what, for me, is certainly the emotional crux of the route – the northern loop and the Bealach Horn.
After several years of living, working and playing here, I feel like I know Scotland’s highlands fairly well. After all, it is not a big area in comparison to, say, the Alps. Or Mongolia. For all that the logical part of my brain tells me that no part of the Scottish mainland is actually that remote though, there are places that have a size beyond the physical, and Glen Golly is one of them. Awe, in the terrible, biblical sense, was the first word that came to mind when I paused on the edge of the boggy plateau that falls away to an Dubh Loch, the Black Loch, with the escape route, no less steep, to be seen thrusting its way upwards a kilometre or two away. I had ridden up Glen Cassley, past Loch Shin and over to Gobernuisgach Lodge with Dan, chatting away as we rode about our ‘normal’ lives, in which he works as a chef. The company was good: Dan is a Tour Divide veteran and I like nothing more than questioning people about amazing adventures like that.
A place like this demands that a rider enters alone, I think, and as we hit the more technical bog-surfing of the plateau after the hideous Glen Golly climb we became separated, and we would each battle with our own demons here. I wouldn’t see Dan again. The scale of the place, which fittingly is the most northerly point of the route, feels monstrous and huge, as the warm light of the afternoon couldn’t penetrate it, all steep walls of naked rock and dark silence. It brings home to you how far you have come from comfort, from friends and from security, and the precariousness of your position is made clear. In other circumstances it would be just another coire. In the context of our own journey, it was the leap off the edge of the known and an entry into the real test that is the west coast section of the route. From this point on was where wills would be broken, bodies would be beaten and where grit would be needed to make it through. Whenever another HT550 rider talks about the Bealach Horn I hear the same tone of voice and look in their face that tells me I am not the only one who feels the foreboding of that particular piece of trail.
If it’s an entry into the hardest part of the ride, where the real racing begins, then it’s also an entry into the mindset needed to take you all the way back to Tyndrum. I knew that things were still going well, so I tried to stay measured and confident, maximising my advantage on the technical terrain to ride most of the vague, steep and boggy descent down to an Dubh Loch and, without pausing, began to methodically trudge my way upwards to the bealach. For such a small section it takes a long time, and the sun was lower when I barrelled out of the hills to Achfarry after the endlessly rough descent, still alone. This was where I started to feel the real advantage of the Tallboy over the Krampus that I rode last year. Rather than nursing it down, I felt the connection and traction that allowed me to save a heap of time, and as I began the steep climb over the coffin road to Kylesku I could see Pavel, Javi and Ian Fitz just five minutes ahead of me, who I had thought to be around an hour ahead earlier on.
At the start of the climb I had switched from the outward to the homeward tracks on my GPS, a small digital recognition of progress and a huge emotional lift to speed me on my way south. I had been on the go for more than 12 hours already today, and there was still much to be done on the second day; I wanted to be like clockwork and to be utterly consistent, no matter what happened. There was only momentum, and the next milestone to be reached, which in this case was the Kylesku Hotel. I knew that time would be tight to make last food orders, but as I followed the shore of Loch Glendhu I had to stop for a couple of minutes to watch a family of otters playing on the rocks by the water. The low evening light caught the water on their fur, and for a moment it seemed like the only important thing was just to watch and be a part of it – the race couldn’t have been further from my mind. Then the clockwork ticked, and I finished the last couple of kilometres to prop my bike outside the hotel with several others, some that I didn’t recognise. I was moving forwards through the field, and it was at this point that I realised it would be feasible for me to finish this ride in less than four days, but only if the clockwork kept ticking.
Inside I found Javi, Pavel, Steve and Justin Atkinson, all sitting down to enjoy a meal. They were smiling, having come through the other side of that far-flung northerly section, the Highland Trail rider’s equivalent of Cape Horn, unscathed and strong. They stood out immediately from the well-dressed, clean and polite tourists by the fact that all four radiated energy and life, the only truly colourful corner of the room. I joined them with a big bowl of chips and a glass of milk and we compared battle stories so far.
I was really pleased to have met up with Javi, and after eating we set off together to ride the twenty tortuous miles of tarmac around the coast to Lochinver – those twenty miles were the highlight of the ride. The sun was sinking into the water of the Minch, deepening in colour every minute between a watercolour sky and a flat-calm sea, until the two became one pale blue wash. We felt strong, full of food and the confidence of good company as we settled into a rhythm; I tried to match Javi’s singlespeed levitation technique up the short, sharp climbs. I knew it was unwise but right then I felt like I could do everything, and on the tops of the hills we might as well have been gliding like a pair of gulls in the fading light. We laughed a lot, because so little needed to be said in words.
Suileag bothy seemed like a logical stopping point, and I drew in to Lochinver just a little ahead of Javi, expecting him to follow me up the track to the bothy. When I got there, at 1am sharp just like the night before (the clockwork was still keeping time) I found Fraser Macbeath’s cyclocross bike propped outside and went in to find him. I didn’t understand how Fraser was doing this on that bike, but I knew enough of his reputation for being a hard bastard that I didn’t question it. Inside though, I found him hacking away with a horrible cough and saying that he felt rough. He sounded it. I had nothing to say, this was all self-imposed, we each accepted the things that fate would throw our way when we started the ride, but I was glad that he was in the bothy, from where he could at least bail easily and safely if things didn’t improve. I expected Javi to arrive any minute, but instead it was Steve that joined us twenty minutes later, much to the annoyance of the hiker who was sharing the tiny room, who had now been woken up three times in an hour. Little did he know we weren’t staying long…
Three and a half hours later I was on my way again, greeting another dawn with a mouthful of oatcake and scotch egg while preparing to numb myself to the pain of the Suilven Traverse. Three hours or so seemed to be enough sleep just to tide me over, and although I wasn’t looking forward to what was coming, I felt refreshed enough and glad to resume the movement, and the ticking. This is easily my least favourite part of the route, ten miles of awkward, boggy, never-ending schmung that finally spits you out at Ledmore junction, before a final tarmac time-trial to close the northern loop. I was glad to get it out of the way first thing, and it was three hours before I popped out on the tarmac and began a surprisingly cold road ride towards breakfast at Oykel Bridge, getting there just after 9am. The clockwork was still functioning: I didn’t question the slow pace through the hike-a-bike, just moving forwards, forwards, forwards. Shortly after I arrived so did Steve, but this time round I just filled up my bags with another round of thick wholemeal egg sandwiches, which so far were proving to be good endurance food.
Steve powered on ahead of me up the climb in Strathmulzie, but I saw him again on the descent into Glen Achall, so for the fourth time since the previous morning I had company for a little while, and we chatted about nothing much. Once we rolled into Ullapool though, Steve veered off to see if he could pick up a spare inner tube, and the little voice in my head told me that this could be a chance to get the jump on him. I decided to forego Tesco, because last year I had fallen victim to its glut of choices and spent the best part of an hour just wandering the aisles, and wasted more time after that eating and packing. Instead I went to the garage on route, and stocked up on more egg sandwiches. They were doing me fine so far, so why change anything? When I left, every available bit of space in my bags and pockets was full of egg sandwiches – I had an idea to make the Teaouse bothy in Torridon to sleep, which would mean the next resupply point was to be found in Dornie.
The Coffin Road, which connects Lael Forest with Dundonnel Forest, was no less hideous than I remembered. In fact, it might have gotten steeper since last year, and the humidity was oppressive, little eggy burps not helping at all. As I crested the top, I could see Steve not far below me, although some hikers told me that there was someone else only ten minutes ahead of me. I never worked out who that might be. Dropping away from the moor towards Dundonnel House, I put a big gap into Steve, who faded into the distance. The next climb marked the entrance into the big, bad wilderness of Fisherfield, where a race could easily be made or broken by underestimating the scale of the hills and the physicality of the trail. I kept looking over my shoulder, half expecting to see Steve, but instead it was Javi and Pavel that I saw creeping up behind me near the summit. They couldn’t have been more different: Javi doing that levitating dance again, imp-like; Pavel, much the bigger rider, like a mountain train inching its way upwards, powerful and methodical.
I didn’t see them again until we had descended truly into Fisherfield Forest, into the perfect isolation of Strath na Sealga and the infamous river crossing at Shenavall. The river was starved of water and benign, but the trail leading along the strath to it is long and physical, and I deliberately took it very easy: I figured we had a long evening ahead of us if we wanted to reach Kinlochewe, and the trail was only going to get harder.
Pavel asked me the best place to cross the river, and I pointed him to the wide, but shallow, bar at its mouth where it joined the loch. He seemed ecstatic, whether from tiredness or the beauty of the place I don’t know. He took several photos and we ate a little while Javi caught up. After that I let them set off ahead up the next climb. The light was beginning to fade into the gray of summer dusk, but we plodded on, and I saw both riders again at the descent into Carnmore. It is always a fantastic place: I am never unmoved by the sudden reveal of Dubh Loch and the causeway, and the stepped, mossy ramparts of Beinn Lair across the other side of the enormous glacial punchbowl. Javi felt the effect of the place too, and we had to stop to take a photo, but also to drink in the feeling of being really, truly, content in the here and now.
Our little party of three ebbed and flowed, converged and spread, but we moved along in our own way, over the causeway, along the shore of Fionn Loch and over the bealach to descend towards Letterewe. It was 9pm when we popped out at the loch shore beside the house, and I realised that we were currently ahead of the pace of last year’s leaders. I had no idea how many riders were still ahead of us, but it was a wild thought to think that I might really come in ahead of the previous record if I could just keep the spring wound up and the clock ticking steady, as it had done so far. As quickly as I thought it, I tried to shake it off and get back to the one task that mattered, so I said goodbye to Pavel who was eating, and moved forward again along the Postman’s Walk.
Unkind words are sometimes said about this section of trail, but personally I don’t mind it. A lot of the singletrack is very narrow and very, very exposed along the steep bank, but I knew that if I had one advantage over the other riders it was on technical ground – I had already put several minutes into Pavel and Javi on each of the previous descents, which they then had to regain by working harder than me to catch up, and I suspected that I was feeling a bit fresher at this point. I pedalled the majority of it, and gave silent thanks to whoever had cleared to the huge fallen tree out of the narrow gorge crossing. I was aware of Pavel hovering close behind me at times, but as we tackled the big up and over that marks the worst section of the trail, we lost the light and I lost him as he left the best route to stomp through the marsh. I descended steeply for a few hundred metres and regained familiar trail beside the loch. When I looked back ten minutes later, I could see Javi and Pavel’s lights picking their way erratically down the same slope, and the tiny pricks of white light were as good a demonstration as any of our scale relative to the terrain we were travelling through.
Kinlochewe was dark and deserted as the clock struck midnight – it had taken 11 hours to get there from Kinlochewe, but what pleased me more was the fact that I felt okay, sleepy but unbroken by the longest and roughest remote section of the route. I had already resolved to press on to the Teahouse; I saw no lights following me on the lonely road climb out towards Coulin Estate. How many other riders were out there right now, moving like clockwork ghosts through the dark? As I approached the bothy an hour later I saw no bikes or lights there, so I assumed that I had the place to myself. Gratefully, I sagged off my bike and opened the door, only to met by a strangled gargle and a sharp voice:
The answer to this seemed very obvious to my sleep-deprived self.
“Oh aye? And who’s me?”
I thought repetition might help the message get through.
“Right you are then, me, but come in and make yourself comfy before the midges get in”.
It was Philip Addyman, not someone that I had expected to meet at this late stage. He had stopped a couple of hours earlier, as his tactics revolve around riding fast and sleeping well – it seems to work for him. He explained that there were only three riders ahead of us: Neil Beltchenko, Chris Hope and Rich Rothwell, who clearly hadn’t hung about after his earlier miscalculations. I let that information sink in, and then told the inner voice to shut up as there was still a lot of work to be done. For the second night in a row, I went to sleep expecting to be woken by Javi at any moment, although he never arrived.
Philip was up at 3, eager to move, and as he brewed up a drink and packed he even lent me the piece of foam he had found in the bothy and used as a mat, so I got another half hour of sleep before getting up myself to join him. I thought I should have risen at the same time as him, but realised that I preferred my own company now, and by riding alone I didn’t have to try and tick to the beat of someone else’s clockwork. I wanted to ride my own race.
The day dawned murky, and as I climbed the familiar singletrack to Drochaid Coire Lair the fog precipitated into an unpleasant, driving rain. I wanted to press home any advantage before leaving Torridon, so I kept riding where possible and dropped straight into the Achnashellach descent, enjoying a clean run on the lightly loaded bike and the feeling of flow that comes with settling back into movement. I wondered if Javi and Pavel had passed me in the night, and tried to keep warm along the long, aero-tuck road section along Strathcarron, thinking about the cup of tea I was surely owed in Dornie. The climb up through Attadale Gardens is another familiar one, not that it made the gradient feel any easier, and the rain was persistent. Glen Ling is an unpleasant descent in anything but the driest conditions, which these were not, and it felt like hours before I popped out on to the road to Dornie, where the familiar, tourist-riddled outline of Eilean Donan Castle greeted me, before arriving outside the shop at 9 to see Rich Rothwell’s Specialized propped up outside. I went inside, shivering, and saw that Rich had exactly the same thoughts as me, as he was clutching a cup of tea. We acknowledged each other briefly and he told me that he had gotten lost for a while in the rhododendron jungle at the bottom of Achnashellach, but soon he was off: this was a race after all. I stayed twenty minutes or so, drank tea and bought a lot more macaroons, before leaving as the rain cleared. I knew that it was 50 miles or so to Fort Augustus, from which point the finish would begin to feel very close.
Unfortunately, it’s a bleak and lonely 50 miles. The hike out of Glen Lichd is stunning, as is the narrow ribbon of singletrack that delivers you from the west coast watershed into the eastern one at Glen Affric. I whizzed past Allt Beithe hostel as I dropped out of the Kintail hills, but stalled a little under the drag of the long doubletrack slog along the glen. The two climbs to take you into Glen Moriston and then into the Great Glen are long, dull and mostly unrewarding, and they make me grumpy. It was difficult to keep emotion out of it and stay true to the purpose of movement when my head was screaming that it didn’t like this anymore. No amount of calories seemed to be helping, and the will to pedal was just drying up. Time began to slip away from me, and it was 5 before I did arrive in Fort Augustus, in need of a serious pick-me-up and with the clockwork cogs groaning.
I stayed 20 minutes or so to drink a few cups of sweet tea – it’s still a long way home from Fort Augustus, and I figured that taking the time now to replenish my body and to eat a proper amount of food would pay itself back in spades later. More egg sandwiches then.
Of course, there is always a headwind on the Great Glen Way. Always. I don’t think I’ve ever known it to give anything else, regardless of direction of travel. I knew the temptation to go too hard on the flat ground, so tried to keep to the easy, efficient rhythm and spent as much time as possible in a tuck with my elbows on the bars. The miles came and went eventually, although it was late evening, around 10 if I remember right, as I arrived in Fort William. I stopped only to pick up a can of Coke at the Co-op in Caol, and put my lights on as I span out of town and into Glen Nevis, ready to get this section done.
The combination of caffeine and swooping singletrack on the West Highland Way brought me back to life, whooping and trying my hardest to soak in everything about the moment. I felt no tiredness, felt nothing at all really, just cold air on my face and the ripping of the tyres underneath me. I felt the best that I had since the Lochinver road section of two nights before.
The big, black emptiness of Lairig Mor revealed a sprinkling of stars overhead, explaining why the temperature was dropping. I developed a tic, looking over my shoulder constantly for the telltale signs of bike lights behind me, but none came. It looked like I was alone, but as I began the fast descent towards Kinlochleven I felt the night stealing up on me as my body cooled, and I struggled to eat and maintain energy levels.
Sometime between leaving the comforting warm glow of Kinlochleven’s streetlights, and the windy summit of the Devil’s Staircase, the sleep demon caught up with me. Along with the desire to stop and shut my eyes came a sudden fear of the isolation, the darkness and the distance not only between the winding mountain path and the finish, but also between this point in time and the dawn. The irrational and the emotional escaped and started to play games in my head, and I began to hear people speaking off in the heather, just outside the beam of my lights. They were leaving me behind, heading towards warmth and other people and leaving me here alone.
I had no idea how fast I was moving but I new it wasn’t. I hadn’t eaten or drunk for a while, the first time I’d let it slip since leaving Tyndrum. I crammed some macaroons down my throat, parked the front wheel in a drainage ditch, and leaned up against the bike to lock my legs out and shut my eyes.
That’s how it went, the last big climb. Sleeping standing up against the bike bought me 20 minutes or so, before I would have to repeat for a few moments’ respite. The cold would wake me up before too long anyway. That’s how we get back to the beginning, standing on the top and feeling some great detachment from time, from normality. Writing about it now it seems dramatic, but at the time it felt very real, perhaps the closest to hallucinating that I’ve experienced. I didn’t care who was behind me, who was in front, how long it would take to get back. I just wanted to escape this very real feeling that I was somewhere else entirely, somewhere very old and dark and lonely, and that continuing was the only way to achieve release – a clockwork ghost. It was as vivid as a bad dream for several days afterwards.
What snapped my head back into gear was the memory of a caffeine tab that I’d noticed lurking in one of my bags somewhere the day before. I dug it out, crushed it into my water, and drank up. Very quickly the clockwork ticked again, and the feelings that had been creeping up on me evaporated. This was just a bike ride, this was just a familiar trail, let’s get on it and ride some bikes. The feeling of elation was so strong that I got a little carried away, and hucked it straight to double-flat. Tyres re-inflated, I rode the Staircase as well as I ever had, incapable of doing anything wrong. The rush carried me over the old military road on the summit of Rannoch Moor, past the sleeping West highland Way hikers at Victoria Bridge and Bridge of Orchy, and on and on towards a rising sun. I knew that I had gone over the provisional target of 3 days 20 hours that I had been hoping for, but that was beside the point – I could do this, I could practically see the finish.
The final few miles are brilliant, all broad stroke geography that allows you to see the contours of the trail from miles away. The sunlight had been staining everything a deep orange as it oozed across the moor, but now the disc was above the horizon and the life was bleeding back into me as it warmed my skin. It was only now that I realised how cold the night had been.
The end, as ever, was unceremonious and anonymous. Perhaps it was fitting of a race against oneself. There was no-one there as I arrived in Tyndrum, so I gave an offering of some rubber to the bike gods in the form of a very long, noisy skid. A pause of a few seconds was all that was needed to acknowledge that yes, that all happened, and I was here on the other side. 3 days and 21hours, 19 minutes. 550 miles. New friends, new memories, new stories to tell. I staggered over to the van, put everything inside it and let the clockwork stop.
The rest of the day didn’t really exist. I woke up at 8pm, ate a little and saw Neil and Ian Fitz in the café, but then it was time to sleep again.
The morning after was more successful. A steady stream of riders arrived, including Jenny Graham in 5 days 2 hours – a new women’s record. She had pulled long back to back stints of 24 hours separated by 2 hours sleep, but she was as irrepressible as ever, and she joined in the growing huddle that had taken over a corner of the café, swapping stories and comparing experiences.
I saw Javier and Pavel, and realized that I had really missed them on the final day. Javi explained that they had spent an awful night’s sleep in the midge-infested toilets in Kinlochewe rather than pressing on to the bothy, and it had cost him a lot of energy and time the next day. Pavel was as animated as I had ever seen him, clearly having loved the challenge. We had only exchanged a few short conversations in reality, but the funny thing about the HT550 and other bikepacking races is the intensity of a friendship in which so little is said. It is more a matter of comradeship.
Ian Fitz was there too. I had been convinced that he was ahead of me, and he had been, he had scratched agonisingly close to the finish and returned on the A82 due to an injury. He seemed chipper, but his eyes said otherwise, and I could only guess at the emotional weight of a decision like that.
Neil seemed as fresh as he had been when we set off, sitting in the café catching up on work. He had smashed the previous record by half a day to put in 3 days, 10 hours, 22 minutes. Mad. Chris Hope had given him a good run though, coming in only 4 hours later. I had no idea why this year was the year of the record smashers, given that last year’s conditions had been so favorable as well, but it’s inspiring to see it happen.