Highland Trail 2016: Speechless and euphoric with a sore bottom

I rolled into Tyndrum on Thursday morning at 06:35 after riding through the night to finish under five days where I eagerly joined the other Highland Trail 2016 finishers for hours of storytelling over Scottish breakfasts, cakes, coffees at the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum. A strong bond had developed between the riders whilst riding and it was cemented by our post mortem huddle, a sense of mutual understanding of a shared life changing experience.

I’ll venture to say that a common objective for engaging in this kind of challenge is reevaluating the limits of the body and mind. It’s about recalibrating the mental and physical goal posts and overcoming the fears that persisted like dark clouds throughout months of obsessive preparation. Once you’re in the saddle, the worry morphs into determination and meditation and you realise that the previous limits were self-imposed… or something like that.

Okay, so like others have already said, I too am struggling to express the mix of emotions and realisation that comes with completing the Highland Trail. How can we adequately explain what happens in the deeper corners of the mind, especially once we’ve started to come back down to earth? I am still trying to make sense of it myself. Meanwhile, here are some photos, anecdotes, stats and kit list that I hope will give a glimpse of this mad and amazing experience.

Big shout once again to Alan G for devising this masterpiece of a route and for all the HT2016 riders for banter and encouragement along the way!

Day One – Tyndrum to Cannich

201km, 3,280m, 13 hours 15 minutes elapsed time (11 hours 45 minutes estimated moving time – GPS crashed)

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Five minutes to start at the Tyndrum Village Hall
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Rich and Shona of the excellent Keep Pedalling bike shop with their Salsa Powder Keg tandem, the first ever attempt on the Highland Trail. Yes, they finished! 😉
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Just getting started around the first few bends near Loch Lyon, I rode with Karl who I’d previously met from Bear Bones events. The pack was already starting to thin out as the faster riders pushed the pace.
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I hung with Lee and Scott for a while and enjoyed chatting as we cruised through these fast rolling early sections whilst our legs were still fresh.
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No one actually believed there would be such amazing weather (especially after the tales of the wet and cold HT2015). I certainly hadn’t envisaged actually using the 50ml of suncream that I impulsively purchased at Euston Station before leaving London. I only saw a few hours of light rain out of the whole five days of riding. I would have properly broiled on Day One without that sun cream. From this first HAB section up from Ben Alder bothy, we were getting scorched…
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…just before heading down that spectacular 10 mile singletrack, the unquestionable highlight of Day One. I want to do that trail again already even as I sit here on my blistered arse with a sore knee and cankles.
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I caught the HT mastermind Alan G near Fort Augustus and we rode down together for some food at Moorings. The front of the pack, Stuart C, Philip A, Lee C and Javi, were just finishing their food as we arrived. 
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Looking back at the haunted house (appropriately named by Ian Fitz) on Loch ma Stac with Lee and Javi not far behind, I continued past the Enrick Bothy until I hit a major hurdle – my GPS crashed and would not startup. I was forced to factory reset the stupid thing, which meant I lost my routes and tracks. In desperation, I rode down to the campsite in Cannich at 10:30pm and miraculously found someone awake who let me use their laptop and internet connection to reload the GPX files onto the GPS. Thanks to Matt at the campsite for saving me having to wait until the morning to sort it out! I got back on the route and bivied just a few kms outside of Cannich.

Day 2 – Cannich to Achfary

209km, 3,210m, 17 hours 52 minutes elapsed time (15 hours moving time)

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Around 07:30 the next morning, but no one to be found at the Hydro Bothy. I continued to Contin Stores where I found the friendly Ian Fitz and photographer James. We chatted about food strategy as I gobbled down sandwiches, Cup of Noodles, bananas and various sugary items.

 

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I was joined for lunch at Oykel Bridge Hotel by Ian Fitz and the speedy Liam Glen who had already caught up despite starting two hours late after locking his bike in his car before the start! I had only planned to ride another 50km on Day Two, but I was inspired by Ian and Liam’s goal to reach Achfary and I ended up riding another 95km. Liam and I left Oykel together, sharing memories of more casual bikepacking in Northern Spain. Liam eventually sped off on the first big climb and I returned to solo mode as I followed the Glen Golly River around the top of the northern loop…
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… the going got tougher, climbing up into the fog around the side of Meall Horn.

Day 3 – Achfary to Ullapool

131km, 1,902m, 12 hours 41 minutes elapsed time (11 hours 4 minutes moving time)

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Day three was the hardest day for me, but not necessarily because of the terrain. It began with oversleeping and losing a lot of time. I fell into a sour mood and which was exacerbated by the lumpy, paved section along the coast to Drumbeg Stores. 
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My spirits were boosted by the friendly shopkeeper at Drumbeg Stores offering hot coffee and pizza and by chatting to a remarkably fresh looking Brian Singleton who arrived shortly after me. 
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Sadly, I didn’t encounter any friendly pigs.

 

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As noted on the Bear Bones forum recently,  the infamous Lochinver pie shop is like the Highland Trail equivalent of ‘Pie Town’ from the Tour Divide. It would be devastating to miss this epic food stop. You can have these pies delivered anywhere in the world. I went for a triple pie combo: (1) traditional steak & ale, (2) chicken, leak and mushroom, (3) broccoli, cauliflower and cheese.
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Seana Bhraigh towered in the distance on the way towards Ullapool. I arrived around 730pm and secured what turned out to be the last remaining bed at the YHA hostel. Alan G (HT organiser and mastermind) appeared about an hour later and I explained sheepishly there were no more beds, to which he replied ‘Don’t you know who I am!?’ He pointed out that he’d gained on me that day and I mentioned that I’d overslept that morning. ‘You lazy fucker!’, he exclaimed! We both laughed and Alan pedalled off to the nearby campsite. He continued to gain time and finished 5 hours ahead of me.

Day 4 – Ullapool to Strathcarron

114km, 2,580m, 17 hours 50 minutes elapsed time (14 hours 11 minutes moving time)

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Another somewhat lazy start on Day Four as I began chipping away at the hardest stretch on my way towards Fisherfield.
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Lovely, wiggly double track rewarding us for the long schleps that preceded…
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…rolling down into the valley, with Dundonnell to the left…
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… then finally arriving in Fisherfield around 10am, when the clouds began to lift.

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Oh… the delights of Fisherfield. Whilst it was warned to be the most challenging and slow going part of the Highland Trail, it also gave promise of extreme beauty and remoteness. Fisherfield did not disappoint.

 

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Crossing the river after the Shenavall bothy, the water level only reached my shins. I can only imagine how tough this section must have been last year after the big rain.

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Near the top of the climb out of Fisherfield…
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… and then heading down to Carnmore and across the causeway leading to Postman’s Path. I soon caught up with Andy Lawrence who I knew from riding in Wales together in January. We chatted, pedalled, pushed our way around the Postman’s Path dreaming of cakes at the Whistlestop Cafe in Kinlochewe…
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It But it was not be, the Whistlestop had a private party and was not serving to filthy mountain bikers. I grabbed sandwiches and more sugar from the garage and crept up the shoulders of Beinn Liath Mhor and Fuar Tholl. The falling sun had cast amazing shadows across the flowing singletrack just before the rock garden descent to Achnashellach…

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Being a musician and music lover, I enjoy listening to noises and rhythms that the bike makes. I focus on pedal strokes, fabrics rubbing together and often create polyrhythms with my breathing. With the extended hours on the bike and a speedball cocktail of caffeine + missing sleep, I found that my musical senses were heightened to euphoric state. I was coming up on endorphins whilst the sun dipped in the sky. I had escaped the gloom that had been holding me back on Day 3.
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I called it a day near the top of the climb up from Attadale. As a first time midge net user, I hadn’t quite factored in how this would affect my feeding plan. In my sleep deprived state at the end of Day 4, I actually tried to pour the bag of crisps into my mouth through the midge net. The already crushed crisps went everywhere – in my bivy and down my top. I laughed hysterically and proceeded to hoover the crumbs up so as not to waste any of my food supplies. The light breeze arriving at the top helped blow off the midges and left me with this panorama as I started to doze off in my bivy.

Day 5 – Strathcarron to Tyndrum

229km, 4,210m, 25 hours 22 minutes elapsed time (20 hours 20 minutes moving time)

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When I started pedalling on Day 5, I had no idea I would be heading to the finish in one stretch. It’s a long way from Strathcarron and I was already feeling pretty destroyed. Still, as I plodded through the day, I started to consider that I could just push into the night. In my wrecked state, I sort of forgot about the Glen Nevis and the Devil’s Staircase. It was going to be a proper all nighter.
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I took my time on the way to Dornie, as I knew the shop would not open until 0730…
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… and time seemed to stop for a while.
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Now fully loaded with sandwiches, chocolate and ginger cake, I made a start at the climb up Glen Affric…
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… with the heavy lifting out of the way, I was eager to point the bike down some trails…
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…one of the many rewards for the hard pushing…
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Timing didn’t work out for me to stay in the Camban bothy, but I look forward to coming back another time for a more relaxed experience.
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I pressed onwards with a quick stop in Fort Augustus and Fort William and began the climb up Glen Nevis, just in time for another gorgeous sunset…
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My increasing delirium and fatigue became apparent as the light began to fade from the sky. I began losing control of the bike and mistakes. The worst error was missing an important left turn on the descent to Kinlochleven where I descended about 150m down the wrong track. I was unable to see the turn as the GPS was shaking violently. This might not have phased me on a casual ride, but in my battered state it was actually quite demoralising.I slowly crept back up to the missed turn, refilled my water at the stream crossing and got the breathing exercises going again. I met the Devil’s Staircase at 01:42 in the morning. A few more bites of food and few more pedal strokes, a bit more pushing, I was getting closer. I could do this.
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… and kept pushing into the dawn, where I found this cyclo-silhouette at the entrance to Glencoe Mountain Resort.
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… followed by a much needed dose of sunlight to lift my drooping eyelids…
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… finally getting to the finish at just past 6:40 in the morning, 25 hours after setting off the day before with only a few food breaks.
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 snoozed in my bivy for a few hours in the grass and awoke to find Andy and Gian finishing a few hours later…
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Javi the mountain goat single speeder and Lee Craigie both finished the day before me with super fast times. I rode with them on Day 1 and really enjoyed sharing stories at the finish.
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Andy, Gian and I finished just within the five day cutoff. Quite pleased with that result for my first effort.

Statistics

Total elapsed time including all stops and sleep was 4 days, 21 hours and 35 minutes.

 Distance (km)Elevation Gain (m)Moving Time (1)Elapsed Time (2)
Day One2013,28011:4513:15
Day Two2093,21013:5817:53
Day Three1311,90211:0412:42
Day Four1412,58014:1117:51
Day Five2294,21020:2049:22
Total911 15,182 71:18111:03
  1. Moving time per day is as suggested by my Strava tracks. Day One is an estimate because I lost the track when my GPS crashed.
  2. Elapsed time per day is from start to finish excluding sleep and bivy faff.

My ratio moving time vs elapsed time is obviously something that I could improve on. Compared with riders who finished before me, I had a lot more stop time and sleep time, much which was spent taking photos, eating and setting up / striking my bivy. In some ways I wouldn’t really want to change this, as it provided some time to soak up my surroundings. On the other hand, my competitive side wants to know what time I could have achieved had I pushed on with less sleep and fewer stops. Although my body is currently saying otherwise, my mind is already thinking about strategy for 2017.

Kit List

  • Jeronimo Rasputin 29+ on tubeless Chronicles
  • Alpamayo harnesses and bags – thanks Paul!
  • Homemade tarp and bivy (as pictured here)
  • Vango Venom 300 sleeping bag – slightly battered from touring, but reasonably light and compact
  • Thermarest NeoAir Xlite Regular (finally upgraded from my old ProLite and am so much more comfortable)
  • Shimano MT54 shoes with black Superfeet – I am loving these shoes, super light and great for on and off the bike; only had to replace the awful lacing system
  • Garmin EDGE 800 with OSM maps (Crashed again! This thing needs to be reset after 10 hours of tracking otherwise it crashes and needs to be hard reset which loses the maps and tracks)
  • Exposure Joystick – more than enough for 18 hours of daylight
  • iPhone for photos and back up maps
  • 11000mAh cache battery for recharging
  • Gore Bike Wear Trail jacket (only used for a few hours on Day 2)
  • dhb AVX Roubaix bib shorts
  • Smartwool long sleeve
  • Under Armour compression tights and top for sleeping (never used due to warm weather)
  • Yeti down vest (nice for setting up the bivy)
  • Lezyne SV10 multitool
  • 2 x inner tubes with some DIY sealant inside
  • Midge head net (absolutely essential!)

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