Highland Trail 550

Looking Northwards down the Glen towards Cannich, I knew that I was going to continue with the HT550. It was beautiful and new and it was an adventure. Feeling hungry somehow seemed to become irrelevant. I realised that, up until then, I hadn't fully committed to it in my head. I knew there were still bailout options. Trains. And reasonable excuses. Who would blame me for pulling out after I had missed both dinner and breakfast and only had a Tracker bar for that 5hr ride to the next available food? 

The point where it just felt better. I can't really explain why.

The Highland Trail 550 is an off-road bikepacking adventure route round wild and beautiful parts of Scotland. I'd first heard of this a couple of years ago and thought the idea was nuts. Why drag a bike weighed down by tent and sleeping bag around the country and (badly) ride technical trails when you're knackered? Yet somehow I found myself captivated by the idea and unable to quite let it go. So here I was, laden bike and empty stomach, heading northwards. 

The HT550 route, starting and finishing at Tyndrum

A few hours earlier, being savaged by midgies in rainy Invermoriston, I had rung Neil to tell him my woes and that I wasn't going to continue. 'Being hungry is a bad place to be' he said 'Been there. But this isn't a decision and you don't need to stick to it. Never make decisions on an empty stomach'

Sound advice, to be adopted for the rest of the week.

I knew Cannich wasn't far off the HT550 route and remembered a cheery campsite and cafe owner from previous trips. Choking back the tears I agreed I would make for at least there. And maybe even on to Contin, before turning right towards Inverness for a train home.

The day before, the first day of the ‘race’, I’d been caught up in the idea of racing, without even thinking about it, I was responding like I would in a xc or cyclocross event. I didn’t enjoy the pressure of moving to someone else's timetable and it took some soul searching on the second day to realise that I just needed to focus on my own adventure and my own reasons for being there, which weren’t necessarily going to be the same as other people’s. There were points in that first day where I’d enjoyed the camaraderie of seeing the other riders (including a couple on a tandem, nuts!). However, a humid day followed by a wet evening had left me drained, dehydrated and hungry as I crawled into my tent in Fort Augustus.  The skin was literally coming off my soggy hands in chunks.  100 off-road miles would sound good any other day but I knew these were the 'easy' miles of the HT550 and the test was yet to come. 

Riding to Cannich on that second morning seemed to take forever. I pushed up an interminable fire road and then pushed my bike along a rocky shoreline. But looking at that view north, something changed for me. I got that buzz of being somewhere new and exciting, where not so many people go. And a new downhill to enjoy.  Finally I got a warm welcome in the cafe for beans on toast, more toast, rocky road and sandwiches for the road. Anita caught me up at this point, having stopped for breakfast in Invermoriston (which would have been sensible for me to have done). As we rode north together, chatting about everything, the sun came out and I took a few pictures. Maybe this would be a good trip after all.   

Great company from Anita on the trails north of Cannich

Next stop Contin to fill every bag with food. From then onwards it was all about the eating and I knew this would be the last proper shop for at least 24hr.  I never wanted to be so miserably hungry again! And with more sunshine and plenty of snacks my bike just seemed to fly along those flat and friendly land rover tracks. Coming into Oykel Bridge felt so different to the previous night. More like I was on a summer evening ride with my local club. Bliss.

I'd missed last dinner orders for the second night in a row but was pleased to see Lucy and Chris. The chef agreed to make me some sandwiches so I wouldn't go hungry, with thick slices of roast beef. This meant dinner and breakfast were sorted so I knew the next day was going to be a good one. I'd already decided that I wanted to sleep indoors that night. I had been looking forward to the luxury of a shower, a bed away from the midgies and being able to wash my shorts and charge my power pack and Garmin. I always find it tough getting out a wet tent in the mornings but a good night’s sleep meant I was up and leaving for Glen Cassely by 5.30am. Late by many people's HT550 standards but I was on my own timetable by then, not anybody else's.  

This day on the Northern Loop passed by relatively smoothly. After doing the reccie of it in winter, with snow piling up on my bar bag, it was always going to feel easier than that! It was a special moment when I rounded the top of the Bealach Horn and started heading southwards. I met the three Danish guys and then Lucy at the hotel in Kylesku, each of us getting what we needed to continue on the next road session down to Lochinver. The road cruelly turns off 6miles before Lochinver onto some singletrack.  This might be fun for some people but I was tired and it was wet and it just wasn’t appreciated!  I rocked up at the bunkhouse in Lochinver just after 8.30pm, happy about an early night, only to find a sign saying ‘phone this number’ after 8pm. Well that would be great if I had a phone signal… Luckily someone let me in and both myself and Lucy ended up staying there illicitly (going to phone them and apologise now!). This was also the first night I got a proper feed. I found the only pub in Lochinver still serving food with 10min to spare. Quickly scanning the menu I picked the only pasta dish. I was amused later to find that it was with scallops and fresh prawns. Any other time this would have been a real treat. A bit ruined on this hungry cyclist and I felt quite sheepish when the chef came out to enquire how it was. Err, fantastic, obviously, exactly the same as burnt pasta would have been.

I should go back there and taste this!

I was joined here by Lucy and the three Danish guys so it felt like quite a sociable night, recharging physical and metaphorical batteries before the tough sections ahead.
A find to lift the spirits on the way out of Lochinver at 6am

The push through Glen Canisp was actually quite enjoyable the next day. Not midgie (my biggest fear) but beautiful and the gpx track took me on a slightly easier path than when we’d reccied it. As was becoming common, Lucy dropped me pretty quickly on the pushing bit and I didn’t see her again for a few days. 
Ladies do brunch. Anita had done an epic shift the previous day and slept outside in nasty weather after Lochinver. She was in need of some major refuelling now at O.B. Hotel and joined a few HT550 riders for breakfast or brunch.

A quick stop in Oykel Bridge for beans and toast with a rather tired but still chirpy Anita and then onwards on some nice trails towards Ullapool, which I reached just as a big storm blew in.  A bit indecisive (should I stay the night here? Get dinner? Stock up on food?) I meandered round town before homing in on Tesco and buying a huge amount of everything. Especially carrot and hummus, which I’d been thinking about for a while. A mother pulled her child away from me and I looked down to find my legs covered in blood. They were really superficial scratches, probably from the gorse bushes on the descent into Ullapool, but I imagine I looked a bit scary.

As I sat outside Tesco wolfing down food I read all the texts and messages that were coming in. I’d texted a few people to say I wasn’t sure about going back out and fighting the high winds and was amused at the range of responses from ‘that sounds a bit dangerous’ to ‘well I certainly wouldn’t but, knowing you, you probably will’ and (from my parents) ‘have a good meal, gather your thoughts’.  Even better, I had a great coffee in the Ceilidh place. 
Determined face on the ride out of Ullapool. 

This warmed up my soul as well as body and I set out on the next section feeling happy, bags rammed with food and blueberries strapped onto my bar bag – a wee treat for the tent that night. I pushed up and over the coffin road over to Dundonnell, which felt like some sort of gladiator activity, sliding backwards in the mud as my feet struggled to find any grip. I lost the blueberries on one of the rougher sections. Anita tells me she found them a day later and gobbled them down. Of course she did. This is the girl who managed to get by the first day without any food (she’d forgotten to bring any…!!!!) and existed on a pork pie and a jelly baby dropped on the trail by other riders. Sharp eyes and good luck!

Bags rammed to the gunnels with food. Those poor doomed blueberries! Glad Anita got the benefit!
I’d thought about visiting the Dundonnell Hotel for some dinner but it was a bit off route and I was feeling good, with nice weather so I turned off the road onto the Anschellach path and reached Shenavall bothy in the last of the sunset.  
The most beautiful point of the whole ride

The bothy was full but it was great to see so many other HT550 bikes (and some of the riders not yet in their tents) as I pitched my own.  I worried about the high winds and my poor tent pitching skills so while it wasn’t a night’s sleep to write home about it was in one of the most beautiful locations of the entire trip.

The next morning I could hear wheels rolling shortly after first light. HT550 riders rise early. Eventually I dragged myself up and had packed up my tent to be going by 5.30am. But it was slow going. Sometimes riding, sometimes pushing, falling off into bogs and submerging some of my precious cakes. But the most difficult things are also sometimes the most worthwhile and I was never expecting it to be easy. The much talked about river crossing turned out to be running low and I was through it without really noticing, onto the hard push up hill. One step at a time, I remembered all that training I’d done in the gym. It seemed like a world away. 

A few hours later I wondered whether my friends and colleagues would be waking up to and checking my tracker over breakfast. I gave it a little wave just in case and continued on up to the plateau.  A day of splendid solitude. I would never have thought to take a bike into this wild and beautiful part of Scotland. Too remote. Too hard.  I was glad to have it all to myself to enjoy, while at the same time being reassured by the occasional bike tracks. Other HT550 riders are out there.  

When I was done procrastinating with suncream, chain lube and checking old text messages, I would take pictures of my bike leaned up against gates.

The day passed quickly and slowly at the same time.  I hadn’t slept enough and lay down on the trail a couple of times to shut my eyes. Countering it afterwards with teeth-rotting quantities of fudge and a few tunes on my phone to bring me back to life. I’m sure any dot watchers out there probably thought I was doing something much more productive than just lying around waiting for someone to ride over me.  

That whole stage took me over 9hr to get me all the way through from Shenavall to Kinlochewe. An experience well worthy of the HT550 and a day I’ll remember. Somehow, despite the blogs I’d read, I had expected it to be more rideable after the rocky causeway at Carnmore bothy. I was wrong but I’m not sure I was entirely disappointed either. I'd come here for something difficult and it's not an adventure if you know you'll succeed. 

The causeway after Carnmore. One of just a few rideable sections in 25miles!
I most definitely deserved my breakfast with chips at the whistlestop café.  And my spirits soared at seeing some dirty pack-laden bikes leaned up outside and getting to spend time with some of the other riders – Alistair, Matt, the Danish and the other European trio - hearing their tales of the Fisherfields and how far they planned to travel that night.

Adventures and racing have always been about the people for me.  I get my energy and motivation from being out there with others. I once did a Belbin personality test at work and it said 
'Elizabeth does not work well in long periods of isolation' 
 This had been my biggest worry - that I wouldn't cope on those long solitary miles. But even just knowing that my dotwatchers were out there, and the other riders (somewhere) really helped.  And the excitement when I saw a walker out on the trail! Those poor people that I waylaid on the Postman's path into Kinlochewe and forced to talk to me... 

I’d been expecting to spend the night in Kinlochewe so it was a surprise to find myself heading over the Coulin pass and down a familiar Torridon descent towards Achnashellach. I was sad to do it such poor justice but my preferred riding style down there involves kneepads, flats and a dropped saddle. Not a fully loaded hardtail with a zombie as a rider. I met a man who had lost his dog. In my slightly tired and emotional state my heart broke for him. I tried not to cry as I made my way down the hillside (looking out for a wee black dog) and pedalling along the road, eventually opting to camp near Attadale at 9pm.  An early night after an epic day. 

I remembered this area well from Elspeth’s watershed run a few years back. Anytime I was struggling with sections in the HT550 I just needed to think about Elspeth’s watershed achievements in the foulest weather. Or Marie with her crazy fast Celtman times. Or any of my other hardcore and inspiring friends, who I knew would be willing me on.

(Or failing that, I’d just be grateful I wasn’t doing it on a tandem!!)

Just as I was fastening up my handlebar bag, getting more frantic by the minute due to the midgies, Lucy rolled up. It turns out she’d been camping just a couple of hundred metres away, after an epic ride the day before.  We set out together, catching up on each other’s adventures on the way to Dornie, where we stocked up at the food shop and I changed my brake pads. It was a beautiful morning and I felt as though we were getting through it now. Just one more hard bit to go in Glen Affric, which I remember from years before on my first ever bike packing trip (where we basically went from Dornie to Fort Augustus over two days  -far less than we were planning for that one day). I remember a lot of whingeing about the pushing up towards the hostel in Glen Affric but surely I’m more hardcore now?

Not so much it turns out!

We seemed to have barely reached the rocky steps when Lucy started to disappear off into the distance. How is she this strong?

My very occasional riding buddy. Heaven forbid she learns to go downhills or I'll never be able to catch her again!

I just kept stopping to eat, breathe and chat to some runners who were sailing past, unhampered by clunky bike and luggage. I told them to tell Lucy I was still smiling. Although we were well-matched in terms of overall pace, we were very different on the ups and the downs and I knew there was no point trying to keep up with her. I stayed cheerful and settled into the ride, as it transitioned into the wide land-rover track that I know well from previous trips up there.  The hardest bit had to be over by now. Yet somehow the plain sailing section was harder than I imagined. Some other cyclists passed going the other direction and I summoned up all my positivity to give them a cheerful wave. And then promptly burst into tears. It was as if I’d run out of mental toughness in that last hard push. Time for emergency strategies – food and music weren’t working so it had to be alphabet games. This was something I learned during the long kayak stages in our races in Portugal so many years ago. When in doubt, name a vegetable, a city, a country, an animal ANYTHING AT ALL starting with each letter of the alphabet.

15km was over in no time and I was speeding my way down to the café at Tomich, where I got an hour of sandwiches, coffee and therapy with cake and tablet take away with me. That nice lady in the café was so understanding of all my woes and made very appropriate ‘aren’t you so brave’ sounds the whole time. I felt 10 feet tall by the time I left and the hills over to Fort Augustus were nothing at all to me. Suddenly I was looking for a quick coffee and instead found a Lucy, taking advantage of a triple carb dinner in the café. I hadn’t expected to see her again and we were really excited to see each other. This time we knew we really had turned a corner in the route and it was starting to feel like we were really going to make it.  I joined her for some chips then a pleasant cycle down the canal to a lovely wee camp-spot, where we agreed we’d go our separate ways the next day.  I was keen to get finished while Lucy knew she’d have to wait until 9am in Fort William for the bike shop to open so she could get new brake pads and a tyre.

I woke early the next day and pedalled off, fired up with a petrol station coffee and croissant in Fort William and confident with the familiar West Highland Way. All my tiredness from the previous days was gone and nothing was stopping me. I felt like I was in a dream as I rolled through to Kinlochleven, passing hundreds of walkers with backpacks that looked heavier than my bike, stopping for a toastie and coffee in the Ice Factor and then up over the Devil’s staircase. Compared with the Fisherfields, this barely rated as a hike a bike. I chatted to some other mountain bikers, who knew about the HT550.  I hadn’t thought I’d do it, but here I was, telling people about how I was actually going to finish.

Less than 2hr later I was rolling down the hill into Tyndrum, welcomed by the cheers from a group of other HT550 riders, the organiser Alan and his family. I’d thought about the finishline and thought I’d probably cry or else be cheering. But instead I was quite quietly happy and I suppose I knew that it was an experience that would take a while to sink in.
Nearly a week later, I’m still pouring over blogs, photos and the the bearbones forum, hearing other accounts and talking about it to anyone who will listen. 550 miles, with 13,000m of height gain*.  So many highs and lows. So many packets of crisps and jelly babies. So many memories. I think this is the sort of thing that gets under your skin. I agreed with Lucy on that ride to Glen Affric that I absolutely wouldn’t be doing it again but now I’m not so sure.

Happy smiles at the finish. 
*I'm not big on strava or gadgets and it was only through Paula's patient tuition that I even managed to have a Garmin computer at all to do the route finding for me. That said, it's so foolproof that even a zombie version of myself could work it all week so the distances, for those of you interested were:
Saturday: 96miles
Sunday: 104miles
Monday: 90miles
Tuesday: 62miles
Wednesday: 50miles (but the first 25 took over 9hr and included 1000m of height gain!)
Thursday: 76miles (I'm already thinking I could have done more). 
Friday: 65miles of floating to the finish


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