It has been five years since I first completed the Highland Trail 550 route in 2016 in 4 days 21 hours 35 minutes. At risk of sounding cliche, it was a life changing experience. Aside from having near perfect weather and conditions, there was a shared sense amongst the riders in 2016 that we had been a part of something magical and unrepeatable. Lee Craigie and others were so moved, they prepared a compilation of our words and photos called Joining The Dots. I still open it from time to time to revisit that shared journey.
This is why I have hesitated returning to the HT550. How can HT550 2016 possibly be matched? Aside from a few cheeky ‘lie ins’, I gave my full effort to get under five days and just managed to achieve it, thanks in part to the weather and trail conditions. Could the stars align again? Could I beat my 2016 time? Did I have the drive to push myself with less sleep? Could I experience that gobsmacked awe of the unrivaled natural beauty of the Highlands during those epic long daylight hours?
I had another go in 2019 where we were met with a smack in the face by biblical rainfall on day one. This highlighted my lack of preparation for the unmerciful side of the Highlands weather, the side that hadn’t appeared in 2016. It left me wincing, tail between my legs, questioning my approach and full of preparation anxiety.
I was on the list again for 2020 and we all know what happened. The start list was deferred to 2021, sadly with the exclusion of those based outside the UK. And the COVID-19 lockdown restrictions added a new dimension to the HT550 challenge. Bothies and shelters were off limits.
I sat on the fence about joining the start line for 2021 until just a few weeks before, considering a solo tour instead. But as I started to receive some route update emails from Alan and reviewing the new sections of the route, the itch reemerged. In 2017 and 2018 I had watched the other dots travelling along the route without me. I imagined them experiencing those places, wishing I were there. I was more likely to regret not doing this. I decided it was game on.
Day 1: Tyndrum to Corrimony
- Distance: 191.48km
- Elevation Gain: 3,488m
- Moving Time: 13:18:19
- Elapsed Time: 15:12:49
I woke at 07:00 in my hiker hut at By The Way Hostel with a noisy anxious belly. It was a chilly morning around 4°C, but the forecast was looking positive. I shoveled down a family size portion of porridge and some homemade Spanish tortilla (thanks Jenny!), washed down with a pint of jet fuel coffee.
I wobbled to the start line for my 08:45 departure. Even after all that preparation, I still found time for some last minute faffing, fumbling around with my camera whilst trying to find a pocket for a spare banana. Alan called the start and I finally lurched into action like a banana fumbling caboose.
The first few hours were a blur. With fresh legs and glycogen to burn, we tried to focus our remaining nerves into steady locomotion. I caught Andy Lawrence and we rode together through Rannoch Forest to Bridge of Gaur and into the bog trot beside Loch Ericht.
A few more slices of Spanish tortilla down the hatch and I was getting started on the Ben Alder climb. The sun had burned holes in the cloud cover, brightness was oscillating and I broke my first sweat of the day. I could see James Robertson waiting at the summit to capture our grimacing faces. He had already captured the lead group who were already rocketing down the Ben Alder water bar descent.
After a quick stretch and a photo, I started the descent, passing a few riders who were walking down the first steep section. I let out a few ‘whooohooos!’ whilst making sure to hop the pesky water bars. As I neared the Culra asbestos hotel, I encountered James Craven with a valve stem failure. His rear CushCore insert was out and he was switching to a tube. He sounded totally gutted.
The first day in a multi-day ultra is a jolt to the system, a blur of fast pace and nerves, as we drag with us all our pre-race preparation anxiety baggage. Perhaps that is why our stomachs revolted? Arriving in Fort Augustus, I ordered a veggie pizza, a bowl of lentil soup and a pot of tea, whilst wondering how I was going to force it down. I took a seat and looked around, a few others were staring blankly at their pizzas. More riders were arriving and soon the place was full of weary faces and pizzas that just wouldn’t eat themselves. Mine looked like Pac Man when he has nearly closed his mouth after getting caught by a ghost. Andy Lawrence sat beside me staring at his own Pac Man, also unable to eat it. Sadly, I later learnt Andy was forced to scratch, a surprise given his strong track record.
With considerable effort, I ate the soup and half of the pizza, wrapping the remainder in foil for my breakfast before Contin. I set off to make the most of the remaining light, hoping it could save me some time navigating the bumpy ride along Loch Ma Stac to the haunted house.
I saw a light flickering as I approached the start of Loch Ma Stac. It was James Craven dealing with a second tyre issue. This was his second sidewall gash. I really felt for him. He sounded devastated and had little option but to walk/ride back down towards Fort Augustus.
I rode until midnight to get past the boggy bits and found a nice grassy spot just before Corrimony. It was a clear chilly night on the hill, I just about kept warm enough to get some sleep.
Day 2: Corrimony to Bealach Horn
- Distance: 217.76km
- Elevation Gain: 3,080m
- Moving Time: 14:43:45
- Elapsed Time: 16:58:00
In the morning I gobbled down some cold pizza before setting off. My appetite had slightly improved from the previous day, but I was still wondering if I would keep it down. I was dreaming of cup noodles, a magic elixir for my grumpy belly.
I rolled into Contin stores to find Mike Debernardo, John Fettis, Steve Chapman and Ben Anderson just as they were finishing their snacks and heading off. I slurped down two cup noodles, two bananas, a coffee, and grabbed some snacks to go. I left feeling pretty strong so I picked up the pace in an effort to catch up the riders who had just setoff. It wasn’t long before I found Ben having a lie down in some gorse. It turned out he had decided to scratch.
Upon arriving at Oykel Bridge Hotel, Mike decided he would carry on without stopping. Steve was going to take a break. I calculated that I was still carrying enough food to make it to Drumbeg, so after a quick water refill, I set off to catch singlespeed Mike on the flat road section. I would later come to regret this mistake!
A woman on a touring bike with panniers joined rolled up alongside me as I was leaving Oykel. She was curious what I was up to.
“Are you riding the GB Divide route?”, she asked.
“Highland Trail 550”, I replied.
She explained that her husband was riding the GB Divide route south and she was delivering some supplies to him as her day ride. We rode together past the pub in Rosehall, where I spotted another rider just going inside. I would later learn from Mike D that it was Huw Oliver who unfortunately decided to scratch. My new pal continued to ride alongside me, with a helpful tailwind pushing us northwest along the valley of River Cassley.
Suddenly, the woman slammed on her brakes thinking she’d seen her husband, but it turned out to be Mike D who I’d been trying to catch up with. He had stopped for water. I kept riding. I wondered what Mike must have thought, seeing me riding alongside a woman on a touring bike with panniers, who then stopped and mistook him for her husband. She soon caught up with me and we finally intercepted the husband. I bid them a passing farewell.
I was starting to feel wobbly. Snacks were required. I spotted Mike closing in on me as I gobbled my final slice of Spanish tortilla. I tried to imagine my stomach digesting it and sending the energy where it was needed. I was desperate to get over Bealach Horn before the forecast weather rolled in.
The approach to Bealach Horn is a crescendo of brutal gnar. It starts out fast rolling double track and gets progressively rough and steep. Mike Deb and I rode together at a fair pace through Glen Golly until we reached the hike-a-bike, at which point I realised the extent of my lack of preparation for hiking. During lockdown I had done basically no walking, just the local rolling trails in the Chilterns. I watched Mike disappear up the climb as I struggled to keep the pace whilst pushing my bike.
The final stretch over Bealach Horn is a memorable affair. It involves a combination of riding and sliding down a sort of peat bog tiramisu, with bonus points if you can arrive at the bottom within close proximity to the stream crossing that leads to the death march up the other side. In bad conditions, it is disorienting and more time consuming. Fortunately on this occasion I had a gorgeous view of An Dubh-Loch below Creagan Meall Horn. It’s breaktaking, bleaky and otherworldly.
I crossed the stream and realised I was very thirsty. Idiot. I hadn’t been drinking enough water. I filled my spare one litre bladder and chugged the lot. I filled it again. More chugging. I tried to eat some of a coronation chicken sandwich from Contin Stores. It was revolting. Did I actually buy coronation chicken? What a fail. It was awful, I couldn’t eat it. Revolting. Who actually enjoys coronation chicken?
I started the death march over bastard Bealach Horn, but something was wrong. My heart started racing. I felt tightness in my chest and my neck. Each step was a serious effort. Damn, a serious bonk. I had neglected my nutrition and hydration by not having a good stop at Oykel and now I was paying for it.
One step at a time. Keep drinking water. As I neared the top of that final death march, I saw Steve C catching up with me. I explained I was feeling poorly. He suggested I tag along to the trees near the bottom of the long descent where he’d planned to camp. The wind was picking up as we made our descent, the first signs of some weather to come.
I pitched the tent, chugged more water, got in my bag, chewed some peanuts and was asleep almost instantly.
Day 3: Bealach Horn to Broom River
- Distance: 163.06km
- Elevation Gain: 2,656m
- Moving Time: 13:13:33
- Elapsed Time: 17:47:43
John Fettis caught up with me at the end of the traverse. We rode together to Oykel where we intercepted Andrea (Trepid Explorer) just finishing a pint with a group of young lads on a fishing trip before she set off on the northern loop. The lads were about eight pints into their Monday afternoon session at around 17:30 and they were excited to be following this mad bike race on their phones whilst occasionally checking their cryptocurrency wallets. Their fascination with us made for amusing chat in the pub whilst John and I drank tea and gobbled down our food. They kept laughing raucously in unison. It was a proper sesh, worlds apart from our state of mind.
We sat for a while, then suddenly realised it was going to be tight to get to Ullapool before the Tesco shut at 22:00. I jumped back on the bike and gave it some welly. I was zoomed out on the GPS to get an idea for how I was getting on and as the sky was losing the light, I failed to notice that I missed the left turn for the final trail section to Ullapool. By the time I noticed my mistake, I was worried I’d miss Tesco. So I decided to continue off piste, go to Tesco for resupply and then retrace back to the missed turn to avoid DQ. It was an annoying mistake as I lost around 30 minutes. But it allowed me to continue on past Ullapool and resist the temptation of a B&B.
I reached the new section along the River Broom and threw the tent up in a hurry. The sounds of the river lulled me to sleep in an instant.
Day 4: River Broom to Torridon
- Distance: 98.15km
- Elevation Gain: 1,814m
- Moving Time: 11:51:31
- Elapsed Time: 16:20:42
Another fairly late start, I was on the bike just past 06:00. I had been cycling for less than three minutes when I reached a rather off camber bridge. Not thinking much of it I just rode over and immediately both wheels flew sideways out from under me. I was left flailing wildly in the air trying to keep both myself and bike from falling off the bridge down into the river on the left. I was fortunate to get a decent grip and crawl off the bridge unscathed. I later heard a few others had a similar encounter, with Ian Macnab actually falling down into the river hitting his helmet on a rock! Fortunately he emerged without serious injury.
I started the climb up the gorge and saw Steve Waters catching me up. We reached the Falls Of Measach together and marvelled at the gorge and the perils of its steep walls.
The local Mace shop in Poolewe is frozen in time. I went for my usual cup noodle and asked the woman in the shop if she could please microwave it for me. She raised an eyebrow and explained that they had no microwave.
Day 5: Torridon to Fort Augustus
- Distance: 139.44km
- Elevation Gain: 2,682m
- Moving Time: 13:43:43
- Elapsed Time: 18:06:42
John mentioned there was a plan brewing for a quick pub stop… okay, let’s be honest. We decided to have a three course meal at the Tomich Hotel. It was probably a two hour break, but it was worth it. A bowl of soup, thai curry and apple crumble. With our bellies bursting, our eyelids began to slide down as we pondered how we were going to tackle the infamous pylon climb on the way to Fort Augustus. The pub owner came over and offered us a deal on two twin rooms. We looked at each other, each wanting to be strong whilst secretly wishing for one of those beds. But if we stayed in Tomich, it was simply going to be a longer ride on Day 6 and we were all keen to reach the finish by early afternoon. So we dragged ourselves back to our saddles and began the plod up to the pylons. It was not as bad as I remember, so perhaps the apple crumble did the trick.
Day 6: Fort Augustus to Tyndrum
- Distance: 123.78km
- Elevation Gain: 2,137m
- Moving Time: 9:00:57
- Elapsed Time: 10:25:26
I reached that final roll down to Tyndrum at 15:47 on Thursday, with a time of 5 days 7 hours 2 minutes. That’s 10 hours longer than my 2016 finish. But I was able to ride more of the final 40 miles in daylight, capturing better photos and I really enjoyed feeling fresh legs on the West Highland Way.
As I write this, it is two weeks since I finished the route. It has been a strange return to the daily routine of working from home in front of a computer and riding local training loops. I feel like I have left some of my mind, body and soul in the Highlands. It’s not the same euphoric feeling I had in 2016, but more melancholy. Should I (or could I) have pushed harder? Or did I get the balance right by enjoying sit down meals, riding my favourite sections with fresher legs in the daylight hours with a clear head and full belly?
I suppose this is a dilemma faced by anyone repeating an ultra route. How do you outdo the previous experience? I think it all depends on your expectations going into it. In this case, I wanted to enjoy riding my bike through some of the most epic terrain the Highlands, something I don’t get to do often. I wanted to get into a state of flow in singletrack sections: the descent from Fisherfield to the causeway, the Torridon rocks, the West Highland Way and Devil’s Staircase. And on this measure, I was successful.
I captured some video of my favourite sections. My hope is that this inspires someone to go out and ride this amazing route.