Words and images by Chris Hope:
The Highland Trail 550 has gained quite a reputation – having read a few accounts and chatted to people who had taken on the challenge in previous years, all had a fair degree of suffering, but one thing was for sure, the sense of satisfaction from completing such an outrageous and beautiful journey was overwhelming. It was this lure of adventure, challenge and the unknown that really captured my imagination, so without really thinking it through, I found myself sending Alan Goldsmith, the creator of this magnificent route, an email requesting an entry for 2017.
The Highland Trail 550 is a self-supported mountain bike ‘race’ starting and finishing in Tyndrum. It covers the grand total of 550 miles and 16000m of ascent through some of the finest and most remote areas of Scotland. The majority of the route is ‘off-road’ with terrain varying from gravel tracks to indistinct sheep trods. To the undiscerning eye, large sections could be considered entirely unsuitable for a bike! Riders are provided with a ‘gpx’ file to load onto their navigational device such as a Garmin and you simply follow the line on your device. Should you deviate from the route, then you must return to the route at the point you left it. You carry everything you need to survive for the duration of the ride, only replenishing stocks of food at locations open to the general public, for which there are very few at certain points on the course. Until 2017, the elusive sub 4 days to complete the course had not been achieved and the record stood at 4 days 1 hour. Clearly an objective to go after!
For me, the preparation is just as enjoyable as the event itself. I love thinking about it, planning it, training for it, working out schedules, optimising my gear, reading other people’s accounts…. With a bit of research I got to grips with gear requirements, constantly trying to shed weight wherever I could. Do I really need a spare pair of socks??? What’s the worst that could happen?? Ok – so I will definitely need a sleeping bag, but maybe I should treat myself to a 330g one. Helen won’t mind!
Despite a good background in multi day adventure racing and a few one day self-supported rides under my belt, I had quite a bit of apprehension about the HT550. Perhaps it was the fact that it was such a long way on the bike, perhaps the difference was that I would be on my own for several days with no team mates for support during bad patches. Maybe it was the fact that I knew the competition would be fierce and I would be racing rather than just riding for several days.
The big day dawned, very warm and humid, with a threat of thunderstorms later in the day. Fifty or so excited, apprehensive, slightly crazy mountain bikers made their way on fully laden bikes to the dirt road at the North end of Tyndrum. Alan Goldsmith called forward four riders to the start grid – I was one of them alongside Neil Beltchenko from the States and fellow UK riders Richard Rothwell and Philip Addyman. A nice gesture which added to the pressure! We held a minutes silence to remember Mike Hall, who was supposed to be on the start line but was tragically killed earlier in the year during a race across Australia. Then we were off – the usual adrenaline and excessive enthusiasm resulted in 6 of us making a break for it in the first few miles and riding at a pace more suited to a 4 hour cross country race than a 4 day epic. It felt good to be riding, everything was working well, I chatted with fellow competitors, all equally daunted by what we were about to embark upon. Two hours in and the first big climb, then an innocuous stream crossing and a hiss from my front tyre. Noooooo, I can’t have a puncture already. I tried to plug the hole but to no avail so quickly took the tyre off and put a tube in. I constantly remind myself that I’ve got 4 days to make the lost time up, but the 8 minutes of faff seems like an eternity as my riding buddies have disappeared. I tell myself not to chase too hard, but ignore myself and ridiculously push the pace on to close the gap. An hour later I catch Rich Rothwell also having a mechanical and Justin Atkinson. Then the 3 leaders are in sight on the climb around Ben Alder. I close the gap and settle back into their pace. Everyone seems to be suffering with the heat, we all stop at a stream and dunk our heads to cool down. Neil, Philip, Florian and I crest the summit together and begin the amazing singletrack descent towards Laggan, taking care not to get another puncture on the savage water bars.
As we enter the forest we startle a young deer – it darts left and right, then decides to do a complete U-turn and collides head on with me, head butting my hand and then my leg. Not sure who was most surprised or in pain, but both of us got away with the incident relatively unscathed.
We make a quick pit stop at Laggan café for a coke and some cake then tackle the mighty Corrieyairack Pass, the highest point on the entire route. By now it is just Neil, Philip and myself. The pace is still high and Neil and I begin to make a small gap on Philip. The gap grows a little more as we inch our way up the climb. Bravado gets the better of me and I keep riding up the ever steepening pass for as long as possible. Surprisingly I bag the climb without getting off. The descent to Fort Augustus is lightening fast and we roll into the village after 8 hours 20 minutes – about 1 ½ hours faster than the fastest riders the previous year. It is almost a rule of the ride that you stop in Fort Augustus for Pizza or Fish and Chips. It has already crossed my mind that this will waste valuable daylight and I ask Neil what he plans to do. As I suspect, it doesn’t involve stopping at a café! We call by the garage and both agree that we are likely to miss the next food stops of Contin and possibly Oykel Bridge Hotel, so next food might not be until Drumbeg Store – there’s only one thing for it, pack on board about 20 hours worth of food to see me through. I walk round the shop piling random food into my basket – scotch pie, steak bake, 10 flapjack, chocolate milk, raisins, potato cakes (bad mistake!), red bull etc…
Riding out of Fort Augustus up the steep climb with the extra weight felt horrendous but we were soon back into the groove and munching the miles. No idea what everyone else was doing behind. The rain started to fall but it was warm, no need for a jacket. It felt great to be riding with Neil. I knew of his pedigree and his impressive list of results and records but we seemed to be well matched, at least at this stage. Darkness fell as we passed Orrin reservoir and the lights went on. We cruised into Contin at 11.30, stopping at the closed garage to sort gear, get some food and fill bottles. Still too early to stop we set off on the next section until around 1am on the climb just north of the Inchbae Lodge Hotel, a soft spot in the trees looked appealing for a quick bit of shut eye. Neil opted for 1hr 15mins of sleep, so keen to stay with him, I went for the same. A noisy owl meant that I didn’t really sleep but it was nice to rest my mind and body. The alarm sounded and within 15 minutes everything was packed and we were back riding.
The pace at that early hour of the morning in the dark seemed a little slower than the previous day and we found ourselves battling a brutal headwind on our way to the Oykel Bridge Hotel. I secretly hoped that the staff in the Hotel would be following the race progress and someone would be waiting for us at 6.00 when we arrived with a hot coffee and a bacon roll. Wishful thinking! We walked aimlessly around the Hotel hoping to find someone in the kitchen but no luck, so we resorted to having some of our precious food that we had carried and a drink of water. No point in wallowing in self pity – back out there to commence the north loop which had a fierce reputation.
We continued to battle a fierce headwind heading north until eventually picking up the climb over the Bealach Horn. The scenery was stunning, the riding tough, the pushing and carrying even tougher. I was certainly starting to feel the efforts of the last 36 hours and I think Neil was too. As distant climbs came into view, we would simultaneously let out a sigh or a moan of disbelief that it could look so steep and so long!
As we descended toward Kylesku it felt as though we had turned a corner and we were on the home stretch. We weren’t half way there but we had passed the most northerly point. A small sense of satisfaction. This was quickly put to bed when faced with a seemingly endless set of steep climbs to get to the Drumbeg Store – the haven that I had in my mind to restock my now very depleted bag of food.
Despite the sign saying the store was closed, we were welcomed with open arms by the owner who brought us tea and armfuls of food. Pate, pies, cakes, crisps, bread. We ate like ravenous dogs, generally making a mess. Another quick calculation and again it became evident that I might hit the next major refuelling points at bad times, so again it was a case of stock up for the next 20 hours. Kinlochewe was likely to be the next place for food.
We hit the road again refreshed and with renewed enthusiasm for the trails ahead. The next objective was to complete the Suilven trail in the light which is a renowned tough hike a bike section. The Lochinver singletrack flowed well and good progress was made with the sun falling in the sky. The Suilven singletarck was as rough and difficult to ride as reputed but we smashed through it in little time and were rewarded with the most amazing sunset with Suilven silhouetted at the end of Cam Loch – a truly magical moment.
We hit Ledmore junction and tarmac just as the light faded and the temperature dropped like a stone. The next road section was done at time trial pace, back to the Oykel Bridge Hotel. Keen to get a little more sleep on night two I asked Neil what his plans were. He wasn’t sure and seemed to be keen to push on further. As we commenced the next fire road climb I sensed Neil pulling away from me and making a gap which I didn’t feel I wanted to close down. As his light moved into the distance I felt a sense of disappointment that it might be the last time we rode together, but equally I needed to ride my own race. Just as I contemplated my plans for the night, the Schoolhouse Bothy appeared at the side of the track. I had no idea that this bothy was here, but I had no hesitation in stopping and seeing if there was room for me to stay. I woke a poor walker and his dog and asked if there was room – sure enough there was a place to lay my pad and sleeping bag. I set my alarm for 2 ½ hours time.
On waking to my alarm, I couldn’t resist another minute or two. The next thing I knew I woke up to daylight, I had slept another 1 ½ hours. Shit – what an idiot, I was so mad with myself. I jumped out of my sleeping bag and did the fastest bag pack ever and was back on the bike in the early morning light. All sorts of thoughts went through my head – who had passed me while I was sleeping?, how far ahead would Neil be now?, I’ll probably make Ullapool when the shops open so no need to have carried all this food! As it happened, no-one had passed me, Neil was only 1 ½ hours ahead and I was far too early for Tesco.
The extra sleep had probably done me good, I felt fairly strong and the section to Ullapoool was quickly despatched. Now for the infamous section to Kinlochewe. The first climb was quite possibly the steepest bike push I had ever done. It felt like a vertical cow field. Any steeper and I would have called for a rope. The reward however was an incredible bit of singletrack down to Dundonnell. From here on the climbs, the views, the descents and the situations just got better and better – this was the amazing, remote and stunningly beautiful Fisherfield section. I was in my element – this was proper mountain biking. Big descents with big consequences if you got it wrong – but I was at one with my bike having lived on it for the past 2 days. I was tired but the exhilaration kept my spirits high.
The high spirits came crashing down when I reached the ‘Postman’s path’. This 10 mile section is a faint trail through the bracken and heather which I had heard was about 50% rideable. It started well and I was pleased with myself as I nailed a few precarious sections along the steep hillside. It soon turned progressively worse and it became very frustrating, virtually impossible to ride and so narrow pushing was awkward. It went on and on and on. To make it worse the rain started and I had virtually run out of food. All I wanted was to arrive at Kinlochewe and get some warm food – the first real food since I started. In a fairly exhausted, cold and wet state I entered Kinlochewe and headed straight for the Whistlestop café. Unsure what I wanted, I ordered soup and a roll, coffee and a sandwich to go. I politely requested a quick turnaround as I was in a race!
Back out into the rain and the next objective was to complete the technical Torridon descent in the light. My arse was now on fire – the chaffing was taking it’s toll and it was hard to get comfortable. More climbing up the fantastic Torridon singletrack and then what a descent – Achneshellach did not disappoint, but in my tired state and with
a lot of weight on the bike, I opted to get off the bike for a couple of sections rather than risk breaking either me or the bike.
It felt like a relief to hit tarmac and get some miles in on the way to Dornie. I couldn’t remember whether it was tarmac all the way or whether there was another off road section. Disappointingly my gps directed me back into the mountains for another monster climb and purgatory descent through bog, mud and other difficult to ride terrain. It became dark and it was another low point for me – this is just not funny any more!
Dornie and the castle were a very welcome sight at about 11.30 pm. I stopped for a moment or two to take in the sights, get some food and contemplate the next bit. I had no idea what the next bit to Fort Augustus was going to involve but I suspected it would be hard and had a rough idea that it might take 8 hours or so. Lights on and it was onwards up the long tarmac climb and off towards Glen Affric. Time was getting on and I knew I wouldn’t make it back to the finish without sleeping again, so I decided to bivy in a field. It was going to be no more than an hour with 15 mins of faff either side, so 1 ½ hours of stop time. It was a good sleep but to be fair another 7 hours would have been nice.
It was still dark as I started climbing. It was rough and steep so I opted to carry my weighty stead. Onward and into Glen Affric – it was now light but the sleepmonsters were getting me. I nodded as I rode and decided I needed to stop for a 10 minute sleep. The midges were savage so I pulled on my waterproofs and a midge net, lay on the side of the track and drifted off into a deep sleep. Back up, kit off and riding again, refreshed and suddenly significantly faster.
I could see I had 2 big climbs left before Fort Augustus, the first went on and on and on. I thought it would never end as I weaved across the track backwards and forwards. A lightening descent and then I was nodding again. Just five minutes to close my eyes and then back to it. The lure of Fort Augustus and hot food kept me going.
I arrived in Fort Augustus late morning on Tuesday, some 74 hours after setting off and I was ready for coffee and a bacon butty, luckily the garage sold exactly that. I now no longer had any shame as I sat in my filthy state on the garage forecourt eating food and tending to injuries.
It was now the home stretch. In any other situation the 80 mile or so route back to Tyndrum would be a big day out on the bike, but it felt like the finish was in sight. I knew the next section to Fort William was fairly straightforward along the Great Glen Way – good tracks and not too hilly. What I hadn’t accounted for was the strong south westerly headwind and the monotonous nature instantly sent me to sleep. I had to stop twice on this section for 10 minute naps at the side of the track – again oblivious to the fact that other users of the trail must have found it a very strange sight.
Fort William arrived and it was time for a bit more food. I stopped at the Co-op and bought just enough to get me back to the finish, an estimated 7 – 8 hours away. The beef pastrami sandwich tasted amazing and I suddenly felt a new lease of life. I rode the next section to Kinlochleven like it was a 3 hour cross country race, beasting the climb and descending like a loon.
One more big climb to do over the Devils Staircase and it was the run in to the finish. Oh dear – perhaps I went a bit daft on the last section, my body was now starting to rebel. I was feeling a bit sick and couldn’t face eating. I was also starting to have strange feelings – almost an outer body experience. I felt as though I was two people and one part of me was looking after the person or thing that was riding the bike – constantly checking that ‘the rider’ had enough food and water. It was the strangest feeling.
Safely up and over the Devils Staircase and it dawned on me that the ‘run in’ to the finish was still about 20 miles. I was struggling to make good forward progress, everything was an effort, I felt sick but knew I had to eat if I were to finish. I had to keep stopping for a breather and I was losing it, I was so tired. The hallucinations were driving me crazy, I would see people and animals up ahead of me, which would morph into a rock or a gate post as I got closer.
It was like a bad dream, desperately trying to move but my body didn’t work, it felt like I was riding through treacle. I managed to eat half a Snickers bar and within minutes I felt a hint of energy flow to my muscles. One last climb to do and I was back. Darkness had fallen which seemed to make the climb go on forever. A ghost like creature jumped out from behind a rock but then vanished into thin air – another hallucination but that one actually made me jump. As I crested the final summit, I heard shouts and screams from the road – ‘Go Daddy, you can do it’. It was Helen and the kids who had been waiting at the finish for over an hour, desperately watching the tracker, willing me on and they’d come out in the car to see where I was. What an amazing thing to hear after being on my own for so long. Five minutes later and I was blasting down the final track to give them all big hugs and celebrate finishing what had been the most epic ride of my life.
So, 3 days 14 hours and 24 minutes after setting off I completed the Highland Trail 550. Any other year and this time would have been the fastest by a significant margin, but not this year – Neil Beltchenko proved that he could maintain a higher pace and get away with less sleep setting a new record of 3 days and 10 hours – a fantastic achievement. Was I happy with my performance? – absolutely. I left nothing behind and was pleased to be able to give Neil a race. Whilst he had a convincing win, I was always close enough behind to keep the pressure on him. Equally, I had similar pressure from the guys chasing me down. Ian Fitz, Rich Rothwell, Philip Addyman and Huw Oliver were all close enough behind to make me push the pace continually and enter an increasingly sleep deprived state. Was it worth it? – oh yeah! The memories of that incredible journey will stay with me forever and the sense of achievement and satisfaction is immense. Rarely do you get to experience situations which are so committing, experience such solitude and challenge your body and mental resolve to such extremes. It isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I’m glad it’s mine!
Lastly, thanks to my amazing wife and kids for continually supporting me on these daft adventures and sacrificing some of our precious family holiday time. Thanks to Cyclewise for their support and unbelievable enthusiasm for all things bike orientated. Thanks to Whyte bikes for the amazing weapon that is the M109C which didn’t miss a beat for the entire journey! Thanks (I think) to Alan Goldsmith for inventing such a beast and continuing to inspire people to take this on!
Well done to every rider that completed, or even started, the HT550 this year or on previous years. It really does take considerable commitment and determination. Respect!