A last cyclocross and a first reccie

A few weeks ago I did my last cyclocross of the season- Dig in at the Dock. Pancake flat and windy, it was never going to be my favourite sort of course. One for the roadies. And, when I started training for the HT550 at the start of January, I knew I would have to be kind to myself – that I would struggle to balance an increasing volume of training with keeping my speed and feeling well-rested for both the higher intensity training sessions and also short cross races.  But even despite telling myself all of this, my tiredness on race day was tough to deal with. Mentally more than physically. It had been building up.

Instead of a rest day the Friday before I’d taken a day’s holiday and done a beautiful training ride in the snow and sunshine in New Galloway. A big day out – what biking is all about for me. But you need the rest days more than the training. I’d told myself I was doing this as I’d be at a mountain bike leadership course all weekend and not really riding. Which was essentially true but the travelling meant I got very little rest and there was still some riding to be done, alongside the hours in the cold, looking at maps and talking about group leading strategies.

Follow this with a busy work week and a couple of evening events where I missed dinner. By the time of Friday’s yoga class I couldn’t get through the whole hour. Just. Too. Tired. I sat most of it out in child’s pose, marvelling at just how tired I could feel.

On Saturday, I went to a cross clinic at Bo’ness run by Stef and Helen Wyman. It was great and I really felt it improved my skills. But all that leaping up on bikes drained everything out of me, coupled with a ride to and from the train station 6 miles away at Polmont.  By the time of Sunday’s race I was gubbed and I knew it. I had a desperate start and then got slower and slower. Every lap, wishing the hour would finish. Until eventually I had the worst finish of my season.

Photo: Hannah Kemlo

So what I’ve learnt from this experience is that sometimes you just need the recovery more than anything else. If you miss meals and work late or have other stuff at the weekend, you can’t always squeeze in extra training to make up. Patience. Sigh.

But apart from those blips (I took a few days off to recover) I’m pleased with how I’ve stuck to the plan. I’m keeping up the yoga (even though it drags a bit) and I’m actually starting to enjoy the visits to the uni gym.  I find it interesting to see not only what I can do myself but also to watch people from completely different sports and see some of the things they can do with their bodies, that me and my triathlete friends can’t even imagine. The Uni gym seems to have its fair share of elite athletes, dedicated to those tiny gains to be had from focussed training. Managing to fit a gym session into a lunchbreak definitely inspires me and makes me feel like I’m making progress. The HT550 is going to be such a full-body event – not just about the legs but also all that carrying and pushing and the core strength that I’ll need so I don’t get injured.

Last weekend feels like something of a landmark. My first reccie out on the HT550 route. I teamed up with Lucy, who has also entered, and we decided to head for the most Northern part of the trail – a 110 mile loop North of Oykel Bridge.  I hadn’t met Lucy before but when she suggested we meet up at the Mountain CafĂ© in Aviemore, I had a suspicion we were going to get on well.  I love meeting other adventurers and almost 24 hours of cycling together over the next two days gave us plenty of opportunity to discover all the things (and friends) we have in common. We’d actually been at several of the same events in the past year so it’s actually surprising we haven’t met.

Panic shopping at Tiso

Makeshift bar bag
As with all good adventures, we experienced a little bit of everything over those two days. Every kind of weather, trail and emotion.  Glorious sunshine and fast downhills, bringing huge grins to our faces. I love being out in the wilds, especially if it’s somewhere completely new, where you don’t see another soul for hours.   And then we had the bad bits –not so many of them really, but with the thought lurking in the back of my mind of what it will be like in the HT550. If it’s like this now, how will it be with 200 miles in my legs already? Or when the midgies are out? Best not to think of it really. I’m just telling myself it’s not going to be winter at the end of May. Which could well come back to haunt me (we’ve probably all experienced the delights of Scottish summer) but at least we’ll have daylight!

The route starts off with fast tracks and road so it was a fun day for hours. We reached the stiff push up the Bealach Horn just as it was getting darker and starting to rain. I trailed at the back feeling envious of Lucy's long legs striding up the hill, used to the carrying a heavy mountain rescue pack.  I was glad to be rewarded with some fun downhill.

Being unsuccessful in our search for a B&B at Achfary, we decided to push on over the hill to Kylesku, through the dark and the pouring rain. Already soaked to the skin, we climbed up out of Achfary eventually resorting to pushing our bikes. The rain turned to snow, starting to pile up on my bar bag in front of me. I switched on my helmet light but, with 40mph winds blowing snow straight into my eyes, it felt a bit redundant. Even the descent was going to be slow going, blinded as we were. And so cold. I had thought about getting a fleece out of my saddle bag an hour before but by now my hands were so cold they’d never have been able to do the straps. Next time I won’t keep my warm layers anywhere difficult to get to. And I stopped eating for the same reason. It was just too difficult to want to stop and get something out. I’d have had to take my big lobster mittens off to unwrap it. So I just went hungry. That’s not something I can afford to do in the HT550.

The cold pain in my hands was overwhelming and I found myself fighting to keep my breathing under control. I was glad Lucy was there. I didn't want to think about being out there in the dark on my own,  With relief, we saw the lights of the Kylesku hotel up ahead. We’d brought sleeping bags and tents but there was no question about it - we needed to be indoors in that weather. Just as well really, as unwrapping my dirty kit from my bike two days later, I found that my sleeping bag was completely soaked through. Another good lesson to learn on the reccie instead of the real thing on how not to pack.

Speeding excitedly towards the hotel, I was confronted by a giant puddle. Then suddenly realised we were on a slipway, and the hotel was directly across the loch.  Yet another lesson about reading the map (or not giving up on it too early) as we had to backtrack and carry on to a bridge.  Eventually we reached the hotel and the warm welcome was enough to make me cry.  They asked whether we were ok with sharing a double bed –  we thought about showing them the mountain marathon tent we’d been proposing to share. Anything will be fine. They asked if we were wet (!) and suggested we take off our wet things in the hallway to be hung up. I had to point out that would make me naked. I was cold enough to be ok about that but not sure it’s the thing in these sorts of establishments.
Sometimes the best thing about an adventure is the moment where you put on a warm pair of socks

Early morning in Kyelsku. Sharp eyed Lucy had spotted a seal moments before.
A hot shower, dry clothes and a great burger was all we needed to transform our freezing hideous bike ride to a rare adventure. The navigation problems were brushed aside – next time I will actually have my map loaded on my garmin (no idea why that hadn’t worked) and Lucy had saved the day anyway where we were about to go wrong in Glen Golly, having missed a very un-obvious turn-off from the main track. The hotel assured us that we were welcome to come back anytime day or night during the HT550 and they’d not let anyone go hungry. They made us feel like heroes and opened their breakfast early so we could get off early.

The next day was one of those days that makes you fall in love with Scotland over and over again. Every rise or corner I wanted to stop and take a picture. It was a leisurely stroll round to Lochinver’s famous pie shop.

The coastal road from Drumbeg to Lochinver. One of Scotland's most beautiful


That valley in between the two peaks in the distance. Yup. That's where we're going!

I'm told people plan their entire HT550 round the pie shop opening hours. Mushroom and Chestnut.

I’m not normally great with proper food like that during bike rides but agreed that it was worth it and we would ride slowly on the way out, so that we could digest!!  Steve (an HT550 veteran) had told us not to underestimate the next bit of track going through between Suliven and Canisp. So we were pleasantly surprised to find so much of the wide path was rideable. And stunning. We had plenty of time for photos of one of Scotland’s finest mountains.

Until we had to push. And push some more. You push up and then you push along and then down and along some more. Every now and then you think ‘maybe I can get back on my bike?’ but it’s an illusion. The ‘only 10km’ to the road seemed to take forever.  I’d been a bit optmistic about how long it would take and how much food I would need. So the last few hours were a bit lean as I rationed out my cereal bars and haribo. Never underestimate a path in Scotland. Especially when someone who has been there gives you that specific instruction!!


Finally back on the road, it was easy rolling for 1.5hr back to Oykel Bridge.  I felt like it had been hours since I’d been on my bike so my legs felt fresh and I enjoyed the pedal back to the car in the dark.  Definitely a successful reccie in my view. I experienced problems with navigation, garmin, food, water, packing and underestimating the hardcore nature of the Scottish wilds. What more could you want on a reccie really, where it’s all about the learning? Luckily my wildcat frame bag, bar bag and top tube bag will arrive this weekend, so that should fix some of my issues. And it was great to meet my fellow adventurer Lucy. I’m sure we’ll be out for a few more reccies in the near future!


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