The clock says that it’s three in the afternoon, although you could tell me it’s 3am and that would feel about right. My first reaction to my own truncated attempt at this year’s Highland Trail 550 and the fallout from it was to simply forget about it: there’s always next year, best perhaps to chalk it up to experience. There was always going to be a physical cost to a ride on the HT550, whether successful or not, so I set myself up to have several days off and let my body sort itself out.
Last year’s HT550 was a euphoric release. I’m only joining a long list of people when I try to explain it, and perhaps you can’t quite do it with words. At the heart of it is the purity of your existence during the time spent out on the trail, with the singular focus being on forward motion. You think about eating, and drinking, and sleeping. If you’re unlucky you deal with bad weather, or mechanicals. They’re only the means to the end though, which is the wind in your ears and the heartbeat of turning pedals. The emotional investment demanded by self-supported bike racing had crept up on me unawares, but the returns on the one I made in the 2017 HT550 kept coming for months. I still see sunsets and get transported back to the Lochinver coast road, riding with Javi on the many sudden climbs as he danced over the gold-crested waves that were swallowing the sun.
I knew from the moment that I finished last year that the only way to feel quite so alive again was to come back.
The run-up to 2018’s HT550 felt good. I set myself the target of going faster, and left it at that. I ‘trained’ with something resembling a vague structure, for the first time in my life, and enjoyed feeling both mentally and physically stronger with the cumulative miles. Over the short days of the New Year, I rode the length of the UK with Jenny Graham and Emily Chappell in four days (to the minute!), which became a huge positive reinforcement for me.
As normal, I barely slept the night before, lying in my van and sweating while the blue skies of the day bled into a long twilight rather than darkness. The last few weeks have been bizarrely dry and hot given Scotland’s usual weather. We all knew that the trails would be scorchingly dry and fast, but with the sunny forecast set to continue the risk of dehydration and overheating over consecutive days in the saddle would be very real. My plan was to repeat last year, and ride very steady on day one with a view to reaching the Hydro bothy or perhaps Contin, before resting a couple of hours.
The start felt fast. Stu Cowperthwaite led out of the gates into an already fierce sun, closely followed by another five or six riders, including Fraser MacBeath and Lee Craigie, and just like last year I let them go. I never like the first part of the ride anyway, with too much jockeying for position and inconsistent pace. The temptation is too high to join in the racing and burn matches too soon, even without the additional stress of the heat.
I got a bit of space to myself, rolling along Glen Lyon, and fell in with Pete McNeil and another rider for a while as we passed through towards Rannoch. After that, I rode with Justin Atkinson, a rider I had met briefly last year, and chatted away some miles. It all felt like a waiting game for the real event to get going tomorrow once the various riders had spread out and the landscape became more interesting, but I could feel the sensation that I so desperately wanted to return to, creeping back up on me as I relaxed into the ride. Now that the queasy feeling from the start had passed, my mind was turning away from distraction, and I could feel the wind back in my ears. At Ben Alder Cottage in the early afternoon, I could see some of the riders ahead of us, and took a dunk in each of the streams that we crossed on the magic carpet climb up to Bealach Dubh, passing Fraser on the way. Annie had even appeared near the top, having ridden in with our friend Alasdair to cheer us all on, and I felt relaxed enough to stop and chat for a minute before carrying on towards Laggan.
On the Culra side, I made time towards Lee on the descent, and watched her disappear around a moraine bank before we turned on to the south side of the loch on what is usually boggy singletrack. Not this time. As I rounded the corner, she was out of sight, and it wasn’t until we reached the plantation on the far side of the loch some fifteen minutes later that I saw her again, now much further away. I thought she must have put the burners on, but when she turned around and came tearing back the other way, I thought I knew what might have happened. “I’ve gone wrong!” she wailed, confirming that she had missed the turn, taken the shorter landrover track route, and was now returning to put her track right. I knew that it must have been incredibly frustrating to do so early and when covering ground so fast with other riders nearby, but I also figured that it would only take her half an hour, and that it was unlikely to phase someone so experienced too much, anyway. I expected I would see her again soon enough.
At Laggan, I knew I was already up on myself from the previous year, so I decided to stop for a quick can of coke and some cake before the drag over my least favourite pass, the Corrieyairick. I was surprised to see Stu Cowperthwaite sitting outside, looking a little bit strung out. It meant that we were now the sharp end of the race. I got an ice cream as well, and chatted to Stu for ten minutes, and I thought I could detect that he was feeling the heat, and possibly the speed at which he had set off. I left shortly after Fraser and Alex had joined us too, but not before the welcome sight of Javi’s very non-aerodynamic beard and hair had whizzed past at his whirring singlespeed cadence.
I caught Javi on the lovely road section to Melgarve bothy, looking forward to a distraction from what I usually find to be a mentally tough drag uphill as much as Javi’s company. Unlike last year, the miles continued to fall away easily enough, and the heat from the sun was definitely starting to fall away a little as the light became a little more golden, reminding me already of the last stint of riding we had shared the year before. We each put ourselves to the task ahead, our eyes following the ugly modern electricity pylons that shadow the 18th century military road that snakes its way higher and higher over the Monadhliath. I decided to ride as high as I could until it felt like I was going too hard, but to my surprise the ‘Chris Hope Commemoration Climb’ went easily enough and I span over the top towards the first checkpoint at Fort Augustus.
The temperature dropped like a stone on the way down, as there was a bizarre haar, which is more usually a coastal phenomenon in which heavy fog blows in from the sea. This one seemed to be coming from the cold, deep water of Loch Ness, and it was freezing! Soon after I arrived at the garage in Fort Augustus Javi arrived too. I ate as much as I could fit in before doing a restock of food for the next 24 hours, and left a little after Javi, as he had been more efficient. Stu and Alex had arrived while I was there, but I set off into the cold breeze towards Invermoriston on my own. The climb to Loch ma Stac doesn’t get any easier, and in the thick fog by the bothy Alex caught me while I faffed with food in my seat bag. We rode together down the hill, but he’s a stonger pedaller than me, and I entered the road section along Strathglass alone again, until a badge appeared to keep me company.
The fog was dense again on the Track of 1000 Puddles to Orrin reservoir, after the next climb. It was enough for me to need my waterproof, and the little bubble of light in which I existed was disconcerting and demoralisiing. My spirits took a big lift though when I passed the hydro bothy at ten past midnight, fifty minutes up on 2017. I decided to press on to a woodshed just after Contin. When I did pass the woodshed at 2.15am, I saw the little green flash of either Javi or Alex’s SPOT tracker coming from within, so rather than wake them up I rode a couple of minutes more to the woods at Garve Bridge, where I settled down in the chilly fog at 2.45, and set my alarm for 2 hour’s time…
I only slept an hour in the end, and dozed the rest until it got light. I was getting a little chilly when my alarm went, and the persistent fog had washed all the contrast from the scene. As I was standing mostly naked, I heard a whirring sound and Javi span past, looking as though the day before had never happened:
and then he was gone around a corner. Five minutes later I was mostly ready, when he came back the other way, still waving:
and this time he was gone in the right direction. I was alone again as the sun began to burn away the fog in Strath Rannoch, unsure if anyone else was ahead, and chiding myself that it didn’t matter anyway, because I was up on my previous time, and feeling fine. The trail north from Inchbae is one of my favourite sections, as the miles go easily and the chances of seeing anyone else are infinitesimal, especially at 6am. I reached Oykel Bridge at 9am, now 3 and half hours up on last year, and saw Javi’s bike outside so I decided to drop in briefly. He was looking cheerful as ever and ordered a cooked breakfast.The temptation was there to just miss Oykel Bridge altogether, but it was going to be another long day, and a quick sit down seemed a good idea.
I left five minutes before Javi, so as I rolled down Strath Oykel in the morning sunshine I realised that I was ‘leading’ the race – not somewhere that I ever expected to be! Nor was I surprised when Alex caught me up at the head of Glen Cassley, and we climbed over to Loch Merkland together, and then the fast section to Gobernuisgach Lodge where the bedrock erupts in boils from ancient hillsides and the real fun begins.
I passed Alex again as I Entered the Glen Golly section – as I began to inch my way up the steepening pitches of loose track alone again, singing along to a song. So good was the setting that I stopped to take a few photos as I left the track for the singletrack that would drop me over a shoulder and down towards an Dubh Loch (the dark loch). The time stamp on my phone says that it was taken at 2.40pm.
If you are familiar with Bealach Horn, then you’ll know that it is the route’s most northerly point, as well as being one of its remotest, most intimidating and most physically demanding sections to boot. In short, it is the worst point at which to have anything go wrong. I didn’t have a clue that anything was about to go wrong as I descended the dessicated peat hags towards an Dubh Loch. I felt more sluggish than I had fifteen minutes earlier, but I put this down to the climb I had just ridden, and decided to ease off a lot for the next hour or so.
Beginning the steep push away from the burn towards the bealach, I felt drained, and sat down on a corner to drink and get my breath – already I was mentally readjusting for this unforeseen delay. I lost track of time and Javi caught me. He was concerned as to why I was sitting, but at that point I was convinced I had just overeaten, so I said as much– “no no no, not here. No, come on, one step at a time, we will do it” – and so I followed Javi with him checking over his shoulder that I was still going, like having a hairy guardian angel. I plodded on for a short while, now feeling as though there was really something off. I remember being not too far from the bealach itself, still doing quick calculations about how much time this mistake was going to cost me, when my whole body contracted around my stomach and I threw up violently until only thick yellow bile came up.
What happened afterwards is mostly a big blank for me, but Scott and others havee been able to fill in most of it. According to him, he came across me lying beside my bike at about 6pm. I was still vomiting, and told him to carry on, which I had apparently also said to a few other racers who had come and gone in the intervening time. Only he knows what swung it, but right there and then Scott told himself that the best thing to do would be to make sure I got off the hill safely, for which I am more grateful than I am able to say using words on a page.
It took a few hours of stumbling and vomiting, with the sun beating down all the while, and when we got to the bottom a group from a nearby outdoor education centre had just set up camp. One of their instructors helped Scott to decide to call it in on 999, and an ambulance was despatched, before they helped get me to the road, where the ambulance met us at around 10, some 7 hours after I’d taken those photos. Ironically, the point from which the ambulance took me south is exactly the point at which the ‘out’ portion of the HT550 gpx track ends, and I should have been headed west instead, riding the homeward track to Tyndrum.
I remember bits of the ambulance ride, arriving at Raigmore hospital in Inverness at around 1am, and an endless procession of wards occupied by silhouetted shapes. I was put on a drip and had what felt like an unnecessary number of needles inserted into various veins. I felt crap; that’s about all there is to it. The next morning, fresh blood tests showed that I was rehydrating, and by the end of the day I was discharged with a warning that heat stroke would take a while to recover from. The specifics of how I became ill in the first place, then leading to the dehydration and heat stroke, seem to be due to either bad drinking water take from a burn, or a bug picked up elsewhere. The latter seems more likely, as 24 hours later the roles were reversed and I was checking on Scott, who was repeating my vomiting act of 2 days earlier. We have since heard that another racer also came down with a very similar bug, so the whole sorry episode might have been due to simply touching the wrong surface somewhere in Tyndrum or Fort Augustus…
So my ride was over. I didn’t find out until the Monday, but Scott had sacrificed his own ride as well, having worn out his body and his will to keep racing through helping me. Knowing exactly what goes in to preparing for the HT550 only makes me more grateful. Despite being tired and hungry like last year, I’m missing the high that comes with completion, and feel mostly guilt for Scott and a sort of shame from having come to be in that situation in the first place. Through my work and adventures like these, I spend plenty of time thinking about the ‘what ifs’ and feeling prepared for most scenarios, but this time things got outside of my control quicker than I could have guessed. The last thing I remember is not only wanting to lie down and sleep, but thinking that it was a good idea.
I wrote the account above shortly after the race while getting my body back up to speed after being released from Raigmore hospital. The physical side of the recovery was straightforward, just a case of time and rest. What I didn’t, or wouldn’t, appreciate was the need for an emotional recovery as well. I felt as though I could accept that things hadn’t gone as planned, that there was an element of bad luck involved, and I tried to write about my experience objectively, the way that I normally would.
The thing is though, eachy night I would return to the side of the track at the bealach, and a different version of events would play in my head. I filled the blank space in my recollection with a range of different things, finding none that made it sit any more comfortably. The return to Tyndrum to collect my van with Scott, as the first riders were finishing, had been a deeply uncomfortable experience, and I felt the solidifying of a lump of unhappiness in my stomach, above and beyond the disappointment of having failed to finish. I felt ashamed of the fact that I had come to need help in an arena in which self-sufficiency is expected and demanded, and guessed that this mental juggling was a reflection of that. In the daytime, people would ask about what had happened, and I would tell them, feeling as though I was talking about something that had happened to someone else. I found myself dwelling on it a lot in quiet moments, turning the whole incident over in my mind like a fascinating object, but about which I didn’t have the faintest idea.
At the back of my thoughts there was voice that I didn’t recognise as my own, quiet but insistent; it took a while to allow myself to stop overriding it and listen to what it was saying. It said: ‘they left you. They left you behind on the hill’. I was ashamed to think it, and now I’m ashamed to write it, but that didn’t change the fact that it was there. The irrational, subjective voice in my head felt abandoned back on the hillside, and unable to let go of it, especially not knowing what passed between me and the riders who passed me before Scott arrived. The other voice, the rational one – the one which I felt was ‘me’ – knew that wouldn’t have happened, that there must be more to the story, but the more that I listened to the quieter voice, the more varied the dreamed re-enactments became, while outwardly still giving the same rehearsed account of things to those who asked.
Sooner, rather than later, the people close to me suggested that talking these things through usually provides the solution. I’m glad they did. I anticipated a horrible, tense conversation, but Lee (one of the riders who passed by, and the one that I know the best) picked up the phone, and we talked about what had happened. I was a little ashamed to realise that I wasn’t the only one to have been dwelling on it. The hardest thing was to give open voice to the nagging thought, trying desperately to keep notes of accusation out of my voice but knowing that it now needed to be said and to be recognised.
There was no way to put a nice spin on it, and for sure it was one of the more difficult things I’ve ever had to say to a friend. As is so often the case though, almost as soon as the words were out the feeling evaporated, losing its power the moment that it solidified into reality. By talking it through, I realised that what happened was a product of people trying their best to make good decisions in the circumstances, neither of us in full possession of the facts and arriving at that situation through a long tunnel of fatigue and heat. The irrational voice had fed on uncertainty and fear, but couldn’t grow louder in the face of the honest voice of a friend, the way that the things that haunt us during the long ride through the night vanish at the return of the sun.
By taking a degree of ownership over the fact that I had felt that way, we were able to talk about it. Talking with someone else that was there and who knows far better than most the emotional spaces that such a physical challenge can take us to, we realised that we both had some troubling questions as a result: our trust in our own ability to make good judgements – something that we both rely on utterly – had come under question. Where is the line between racing self-sufficiently and coming to the aid of others? Was what happened preventable? Could it happen again? We both felt a degree of personal failure that we, in all our supposed wisdom, had let such a situation develop at all.
No clear-cut answers spring to mind, although I think perhaps it’s the questions themselves that are important. At the least, it turned an unpleasant experience into an opportunity to learn, and to strengthen rather than weaken the bonds that bind us when we collectively submit to the unpredictable experience that is life on two wheels. I’m hugely grateful to Lee, and of course to Scott, for letting me talk openly to them and to take what positives there are from the whole thing. If I thought I knew the benefits of speaking openly before, then I surely know them even more now. Stay safe out there – learn from each other, and look after each other.