Highland Trail 550 | 2019 ‘Epic Wet Edition’ – What Did It Take To Get Round?

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This year’s Highland Trail 550 was, by any stretch of the definition, epic. Heavy rain in the first couple of days turned rivers and streams into raging torrents and chest height flows. Kit was soaked. Not just the stuff riders were wearing, but all their spares too. Experienced riders – including the race organiser himself – quit, or ‘scratched’, from the race at such a rate that at one point we were wondering if anyone would finish. In the end, plenty did – though some big name experienced contenders didn’t.

Our beer and coffee man, Stu Taylor, was there trying to beat his time from last year (when heatstroke was a real risk). Unfortunately he was one of those that was forced to bail, and chatting to him afterwards we thought it might be interesting to look at some of the reasons why folks did or didn’t make it. What combination of kit, motivation and experience was needed to get round, or not? What compels someone to ride for four days before quitting? Stu got in touch with a bunch of friends made along the way, and here are his and their takes on what went wrong (or not).

Stu Taylor HT550
We’re glad Stu stayed in a hotel with proper big towels.

Stu Taylor

  • Palmares: HT550, French Divide, Italy Divide, Dale’s Divide, Lakes 200

Goal going into the HT550?
To finish in under 4 days and beat my previous time.

When did you scratch?
On reaching Cannich campsite as this was the easiest place to join the return route back to Tyndrum. Remembering as it’s self supported you still have get yourself back somehow.

Why did you scratch?
I was packed to race not complete. In those conditions, mildly hypothermic, no dry clothes and hours behind my previous year’s time left me with little to no reason to carry on in the dangerous conditions.

With hindsight, would you have changed your preparation or goals, or are you content with having scratched as being just one of those outcomes that will happen sometimes?
Looking back now I really wish I had packed to complete the event, but under the circumstances it was right for me to scratch.

Do you think you made any errors in planning/kit choice that contributed to the scratch? 
My goal was to race, I packed and was ready to race which is a fine line with minimal kit. It didn’t pay off this year.

Any amusing anecdotes from this edition?
Checking into a hotel in Fort Augustus the land lady was superb rinsing off bikes, taking all of clothes to dry. This left me a slight problem of not having anything to wear at all so she allowed me to have a pint in the bar just wrapped in a towel!!

Clem Shovel

  • Palmares: Previous HT550 finisher, French Divide, Tuscany trail, Transgermany (fastest singlespeed), Transcontinental.

Goal going into the HT550?
First, finish it with one gear, and beat my old time.

When did you scratch?
Part way through the second day, after 240km.

Why did you scratch?
At Contin, after being in trouble with some river crossings – too deep, too strong. And my buddy John nearly drowned, when we try to cross one of the rivers.

With hindsight, would you have changed your preparation or goals, or are you content with having scratched as being just one of those outcomes that will happen sometimes?
I was ready, my kit and my bike too. I’m used to bad weather. I’ve gave up because of the danger. I felt the fear of being injured, or death. No problem with having scratched, from time to time we have to be humble in front of nature.

Do you think you made any errors in planning/kit choice that contributed to the scratch? What were they?
Maybe I set my bivi too early, and the level of river grew up during the night. But I know the route and after Oykel Bridge it’s worse. My kit and my gear was good, but after 10hours of Scottish rain, the best rain gear still gives up.

Any amusing anecdotes from this edition?
Could be worse, but my buddy John White fell in a river when we were crossing it, and disappeared in the water completely! I just grabbed his bike! And this crazy guy finished the full route, very inspiring.

Rich Rothwell

  • Palmares: I have completed many long distance wilderness mountain bike rides and races, and spent many nights huddled in a bivvy bag, but HT550 was my first multi day ultra-endurance MTB race in 2017. It completely captured my imagination and I loved every moment of it, including the incredibly tough times that are inherent in an event of this nature. The weather was not great right through but it wasn’t terrible. When it rained it wasn’t too cold. Despite some costly strategic mistakes I was very pleased with my sub 4 day ride and I finished 3rd. It instilled a desire for more bike packing races, and after meeting Neil Beltchenko from Colorado, I committed to the Colorado Trail Race in 2018. It was incredibly challenging in some very different ways, but both races were amazing life changing experiences.

Goal going into HT550?
I went in wanting to win! I was very confident in my preparation physically and mentally. I knew where I could make good time and when I would just need to get my head down and grind it out. The candle had been burned at both ends to ensure I stayed on top of my business and family commitments, whilst training hard. When you are motivated with a goal, the adrenaline carries you through!

When did you scratch?
I actually scratched quite early near to Cannich after about 13 hours riding. Phil Addyman (who I was riding with at the time and was also suffering with the conditions) told me this was a good point to bail out. The further north you go on the route, the harder it is to return and of course the terrain gets very remote.

Why did you scratch?
At the time it was a very easy decision to make. The bottom line was, I was just too cold. Normally, I can cope pretty well with cold and wet conditions. It’s pretty standard when you live in Northumberland. I had a decent amount of clothing on, I was eating well, and riding at a good steady pace, but I was completely saturated and just could not warm up. It was incredibly frustrating as I otherwise felt in great physical shape. Climbing was just about ok, but the long descents left my saturated hands and feet numb, and within 30 seconds of stopping, (at a gate for example) I started to shiver to my core. The physical discomfort was not actually my main concern; it was the (lack of) ability to sort any mechanical issues in the upcoming remoter areas; my hands just wouldn’t have worked! I believe I would have really struggled if the wrong thing had happened in the wrong place. In the following week, I felt pretty low and very disappointed after the preparation I had put in, but I knew I had made the right decision. Over the following days, the stories came out about the rivers in spate and the treacherous crossings, other experienced riders getting into tricky situations, experiencing close calls, and making hard decisions. I’ve put myself on the edge many times on long distance rides and races, and ended up in some precarious situations but this felt different; I didn’t feel in control and for once in my life, I walked away before I got in too deep.

With hindsight, would you have changed your preparation or goals….
My physical preparation was bang on. I had a clear goal; I was out to win and to stand a chance of that, I needed to go light. If you don’t go light over that route, you won’t win! It’s a gamble! This year wasn’t just about getting round for me; I could have carried a load more stuff and got round, but that wasn’t my goal. So my strategy didn’t pay off; I have no regrets taking that gamble just disappointed that it didn’t come off.

Errors in planning / kit choice…
The only thing that might have kept me going longer was a pair of full length waterproof trousers. Everything was saturated right through and, no matter what clothing you wear, that is unavoidable in those conditions. However, full leg coverage helps maintain core body temperature when it is very wet and cold and it could have made a difference. Perhaps a baggier mountaineering style waterproof jacket with (another) spare base layer would have helped but it’s all easy to say in hindsight.  I don’t think that even in our wildest imaginations, us HT550ers expected it was going to be THAT bad in the early stages of the race!

Amusing anecdotes
A group of us were standing outside Londis in Fort Augustus as the rain lashed the streets; Javi, Ben, Phil, James, and I. We were all suffering badly from the cold; pale faced and desperately trying to pack our food supplies whilst retaining any heat. Dusty, (the eventual winner) pulls up, strips down and changes his top; “Man I’m sweating!” he proclaimed. It was then that we all realised this laid back and friendly Alaskan had all the qualities needed to win this race!

Stu Taylor HT550
Stu Taylor’s hands. Ew.

Cath W

  • Palmares: I was a rookie at this years HT550 – I had reccied the southern and northern loops, completed a few BB200 (including last years storm riddled one – I was the only woman to  finish), Jenn rides, Roveniemi 150 & did 5 days on last years French Divide.

When did you scratch?
I scratched at Invermoriston after breakfast on day 2.

Why did you scratch?
A couple of reasons why – I was cold, temperatures were low with a northerly wind, I was wearing all my back up spare kit and not maintaining warmth.  It was wet and the forecast for rain was unremitting, I thought about sitting it out but that would take a long time.  River levels were up massively – I did not want to get myself into a situation where I could not cross a river and then not be able to get warm

With hindsight, would you have changed your preparation or goals….
I don’t think you can beat the weather – I was disappointed to scratch but am glad not to have been washed away. If anything I would have worked on more upper body strength to carry my bike overhead.

Errors in planning / kit choice…
Would I have changed anything -maybe taken a full sleep mat rather than a klymit x frame, water wings and a drysuit. I bought some rubber gloves in invermoriston- they are now part of my back up kit.

Amusing anecdotes
The number of wet wandering bike packers in Fort Augustus when I got back there was quite funny – all assessing & wondering whether or how to carry on, return, do a tour or make it a barclay race?  I was very proud of the marigolds and showed them to anyone vaguely interested. Looking back the temperatures were similar to those in Roveniemi in Feb – although I was too hot then in full winter kit – it rained there too!

https://www.instagram.com/p/Bx2ertanYa3/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

Alex Pilkington

  • Palmares: Did the HT550 last year and have done several other self-supported ITT rides in UK and Europe.

Goal going into the HT550?
To finish it and to enjoy it. I was not as fit nor as motivated as last year, so I had no plans to better my previous time or aim for a podium spot!

When did you scratch?   
KM235 at around 07:30 on Sunday, just before Contin

Why did you scratch?   
The constant wetness and cold had got to me, also some of the river crossings were getting dodgy and I had already had a bit of swim in a flooded burn just before the Hydro Bothy.

With hindsight, would you have changed your preparation or goals?
Happy with decision to scratch. Obviously disappointed. I had taken a lot of kit and at the time of scratching I was wearing it all, feeling cold still. I had heavy weight ‘trekking’ waterproofs, two primalofts and two base-layers and was still cold to the bone. I also took a tent but did not need it.

Any amusing anecdotes from this edition?   
When I bailed it was 7.30am and the only place open was a filling station, the girl in there was happy for me to hang around and warm up – I was stood close to the pie-warmer and I remember her saying – “if you get any closer to that, you’ll be inside it!’

Summary – I found this year’s HT a pretty grim experience, I struggled with pace and motivation almost from the start and every road crossing I passed seemed a good opportunity to bail… I could not get into it at all, but tried to stick with it. I found a dry barn to sleep in in the Glen near Struy and had a reasonable 4hrs sleep on the first night, but the morning after was even wetter, as was the next 12hrs forecast. Respect to all finishers, I think that this year’s race would have taken a lot more out of everyone than last year’s race – last year’s race was a pleasure to ride all the way! Anyway after quitting I did enjoy a very pleasurable 2 day ‘pootle’ back to Tyndrum and dropped in on a few friends, ate some good food and dried out, I also explored some new places. Still love Scotland!

Alan Goldsmith HT550
Alan Goldsmith captured the feeling of wet rather well.

Even the organiser didn’t finish this year…

Alan Goldsmith

  • Palmares: 7x HighlandTrail, 2x Tour Divide, CTR, 2x ACT5, NAVAD, 3x Cairngorms Loop, 3x Lakeland 200, 4x Bearbones 200, Dales Divide and many more.

Goal going into the HT550?
Leading up to it the goal was 4.5 days. On the day, having seen the weather forecast the goal was to get around safely!

When did you scratch?
On the morning of day 2.

Why did you scratch?
It was obvious at the first stream crossing that the volume of water was way too dangerous. I was nearly swept away in a stream you can normally ford with dry feet. Easiest decision ever.

With hindsight, would you have changed your preparation or goals, or are you content with having scratched as being just one of those outcomes that will happen sometimes?
No. Extreme weather has to be respected. As organiser I thought by being seen scratching it would encourage other to make the same decision. I think that probably worked to some extent. It was a very worrying couple of days for me! I was very happy no one came to serious harm.

Do you think you made any errors in planning/kit choice that contributed to the scratch? 
No I had a proper tent and proper sleeping bag, a stove and could have spent multiple nights out in the open (unlike most!). I had enough clothes and the fail safe Marigolds plus wool liner gloves for my hands. My brand new waterproof jacket wasn’t really up to the job but at least I got my money at the end of the week.

Any amusing anecdotes from this edition?
Not really! I stopped at the Ice Factor in Kinlochleven when I was touring back and noticed that the shop was selling the same waterproof jacket that I had so I told them how it wasn’t waterproof. They tried to sell me a more expensive one and offered to dry mine out while I went to the cafe!

I also met some Cumbrians on a pub crawl!

Nelson HT
Nelson Trees captured a moment of blue skies.

And now we hear from some finishers!

Javi Murchante

  • Palmares: Successfully finished Highland Trail on 5 consecutive occasions. Other similar events are the A-Cross the 5 in 2018 and (not really similar) North Cape to Tarifa adventure in 2018. Done a few 1 or 2 day bikepacking events, like Braunton 150 but nothing like HT550.

Goal going into HT550?
For this year, I really really wanted to finish at any cost to have a perfect  5 out of 5 attempts because I won’t participate next year and who knows when. My racing goal was finishing by Tuesday 23:59 (3 days 15 hours) but I knew with the rain it would be unlikely.

Why do you think you made it and others didn’t? 
I’d say experience on this event helped a lot. Also I always take 2 weeks annual leave to prepare the race properly, not leaving things for the last minute. The equipment I chose was key to success. I also felt a bit lucky with the river crossings  and, as mentioned above, the will to finish 5 out 5 was very strong.

Was there a kit choice you made that was especially good? 
I took 2 waterproof jackets, 7mesh Oro shakedry and Showerpass Refuge jacket and 7mesh bombproof Revo waterproof shorts. Best ever! Also the winter X Bionic base layer kept me warm.

Any amusing anecdotes from this edition? 
On day 2 after having food at Oykel Bridge hotel and before entering the first off road bit of the daunting northern loop I stopped by Merkland Lodge looking for some shelter from the strong head wind and rain. I needed to assess the situation and think about my next move because I didn’t feel I could go over Bealach Horn before getting dark despite I had plenty of time. Maybe sleeping just before entering Glen Golly, at the Gobernuisgach Lodge,. Then a rider came towards me. He asked me what I was doing there and offered me a bath, he was the owner of the Merkland Lodge, right where I had stopped. A bit shy I said no but I was thinking yes. 5 minutes later I was dropping all my wet stuff in the drying room, getting ready for a hot bath and he even offered me a bedroom for the night, which I couldn’t refuse. I thought I was dreaming and felt very lucky. George, a million thanks if you read this! Bed had electric blankets, first time ever!

https://www.instagram.com/p/ByLXFJQFUr7/?utm_source=ig_web_copy_link

James Hayden

  • Previous experience of HT550/similar events: None! I'd never ridden a mountain bike before. I have plenty of ultra-endurance cycling experience, but all on the road. I did think the Italy Divide [which he won – Ed] would count as relevant experience and preparation, but I was completely wrong, it was very much gravel and the Highland Trail was serious mountain biking.

Goal going into the HT550?
To finish! All I could wish for having never ridden such a race before was to be able to finish. In doing so I gained the experience I needed to learn and develop as an off-road racer.

Why do you think you made it and others didn’t?
Years of experience. I know what it takes to finish. I know what it takes to ride in bad conditions, and my kit list was extensive. Perhaps mostly because I did not know better, I had no idea what was coming or what to expect so I was blissfully ignorant.
For me I compete in ultra-endurance races firstly as a test against myself. To see how tough I am, to learn and to grow. So if I go I to a race with tough conditions, I treat it like any other aspect, simply a test I must pass.

Was there a kit choice you made that was especially good?
For sure, I packed for rain and we got it! I bought a new Arcteryx Goretex Pro coat the week before just for the race, and it earnt every penny. I was never wet or cold.

Any amusing anecdotes from this edition?
Many! For me, it really was a crash course, many of which were recorded on my GoPro! The highlight that didn’t make my short film was riding into a puddle, a puddle that was in fact a bog, my bike came to an abrupt stop as my front wheel sunk handlebar deep. I catapulted over the bars and I became submerged. Soaking wet and stinking of bog the sun was setting. Quickly before getting hypothermic, I changed out of my bog clothes into my dry sleeping clothes and hoped there was not another bog to come as I rode off into the dusk.

Nelson Trees
Nelson managed to take pictures and finish!

Nelson Trees

  • Palmares: I’d raced the Transcontinental 3 times, I scratched from the first and then finished top 10 in the next two. I also raced Highland Trail last year, albeit in very different conditions (it didn’t rain once in 4 days of racing!) Otherwise, my mountain biking experience is limited to scouting Kyrgyzstan for the Silk Road Mountain Race.

Goal going into the HT550?
This year, my goal was to try and shave some time off my finishing time from last year which was 4 days and 4 hours. It became pretty clear after a day or so of riding that doing that in this year’s weather conditions wasn’t going to happen. It quickly became a case of just sticking it out and making it round the course.

Why do you think you made it and others didn’t?
For most of the ride, the weather didn’t actually get to me too much as long as I kept moving. Getting up in the morning and back on the trail was probably where the rain really made things miserable. Literally every piece of clothing I had was wet. I slept naked in my sleeping bag. Crawling out of that warm haven to drag on wet, cold clothing as quickly as I could while shivering at 4am was probably a low point. I think that I got through all this without scratching primarily because past a certain point on the route, there’s not much point scratching unless you physically can’t go on. If you scratch, you’ll still be wet and cold and in the middle of nowhere. You’ll then have to face figuring out transport back to civilisation with a bike and in a sleep deprived state that may actually be worse than riding your bike. For the people that did it, it took almost as long as just riding to the finish. I still honestly would have scratched 37km from the finish if I could have done. A catastrophic series of punctures left me hiking back down the devil’s staircase to Kinlochleven at midnight in the pouring rain. There was no transport out of town. After a night’s sleep, it was easier to find some patches and fix my tubes and finish the race than to scratch and find another way to Tyndrum.

Was there a kit choice you made that was especially good?
My race was more defined by poor kit choices than good ones really. I started the race with organic pads that I burned through in a little over 24 hours. I only had one spare set which went on the front of the bike. Pretty poor planning… For the next three days I only had front brakes. I smelt my pads getting toasty a few times on the steeper technical descents. The one thing that did work out well was my front handlebar bag, a dry bag with from Alpkit with a harness to hold it. All my sleeping kit was in there and it stayed perfectly dry for the entire race. It meant that despite everything else I had being sodden, I always had somewhere to retreat to if I really needed it.

Any amusing anecdotes from this edition?  
One of the funny moments was when I got in to Kylesku late at night a couple days into the race. I was looking for somewhere out of the rain to sleep and came across the public toilets in the centre of the village. As I opened the door to the men’s I found Liam Glen, who’d been way ahead of the field a bit earlier in the race. He’d had his sleep and was on his way out. I took over the facilities from him and got a few hours kip in there. Ben Steurbaut was actually asleep in the ladies next door at the same time! These races really are so glamorous.

And finally, let’s end with the winner.

Dustin Eroh

  • Palmares: Arizona Trail Race 750 (2018) Kenai 250 (2016, 17, 18) Second on all of them.

Goal going into the HT550?
HA!!!  The goal is always the same.  I just want to finish!

Why do you think you made it and others didn’t? 
Not sure, maybe it had do with the fact that I possibly had only one chance to ride the route since traveling to Scotland from Alaska is quite a challenge and an expense. Hard to say though. Everyone has there own reasons I suppose, and I’m not really sure what my reason to keep going exactly was except I just really wanted to finish the route.

Was there a kit choice you made that was especially good? What was it? 
Hmm, I’m not sure.  My kit doesn’t tend to change too much from event to event.  I really liked my Dropper post seat bag I made before the trip.  It allowed me to get 100mm of drop without ever having a tire strike.  I can tell you what kit choice I made that was horribly bad!  I bought lightweight rain pants and jacket just before the trip. ( I will leave out brand names)  I was soaked through almost immediately and my pants ripped less then 24hrs from the start leaving me with nothing better then a pair of wind chaps…

Any amusing anecdotes from this edition? 
Oh Boy! Sooooo many.  I guess one really funny one is how I started to refer to myself as though I was another person I was riding with.  I was so tired and at times slightly hallucinating.  When I would have a part of my body start to hurt or ache I would say something to myself similar to this “His knee is really hurting him. What do you think we should do?  I think he will be fine, just tell him to keep going!”  Ha, I constantly was having conversations about me with myself.  Strait lunacy in any other setting.


Hmm…we’re not sure that any of that is making us rush out and sign up for anything similar. Although no one has mentioned midges. Maybe they were all washed away? Midges or rain…it’s a touch choice. Chapeau to all those who lined up at the start, and an extra warm chapeau with fleecy lining for those who made it all the way round.


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