This is the beginning of a series of posts about my experience on the Highland Trail Race. In simple terms, it was a 430 mile off road self supported bike race around a predetermined route. No entry fee, no prize and certainly no support. If you’re wondering why it will be spread over so many posts, its because it was singularly the most difficult thing I have ever done on a bike. This bland statement does little to conjure up an image of what the race delivered. The fact is, half the field didn’t finish at all. Those that did endured an almost unbelievable level of physical exertion and mental pressure simply to complete the route. At this stage, I’m not even sure how I’ll tell my story, but for now lets start a week last Friday.
I arrived in Tyndrum on Friday evening, 24 May, less than 18 hours away from the biggest, longest and potentially most dangerous race of my life. The following morning marked the start of the Highland Trail Race, the UK’s first proper multiday bikepacking event. Such events are more common in the US, such as the Colorado Trail Race (CTR), Tour Divide (TD) and so on. In fact this route was born out of one man’s desire to create a training route for the CTR: Alan Goldsmith, a veteran at the ultra endurance races and successful finisher to some of the big US races. Alan rode the route last year as a reconnaissance tour in 5 days, 4 hours 20 minutes. They rode only in the daylight hours, and that alone gave an indication of the relative difficulty in covering the ground in substantially less time than that. The route took in some of the finest terrain of the highlands, and offered 28 competitors 430 miles ( 700 km) of riding and 12,000 metres of climbing.
My whole year had been geared towards the event; repeated long rides of 100 miles or more. Hills? The more the better, and by way of final preparation, the first passage of the Trans Cambrian Way Double. Off the bike, hours and hours had been spent studying maps, planning daily riding schedules, resupply points and working out what gear to take, how to pack it and when to use it. I tested myself earlier in the year on some deliberately difficult overnight trips in harsh conditions to ensure my skills were suitably honed for the event.
On the journey up north, which was nearly as far to drive from Brecon, as it was to race the Highland Trail, I felt apprehensive despite the thorough preparation and usual my attention to detail. Upon my first sight of the area around Tyndrum, it all seemed rather big. The hills were steeper, higher and more frequent than the Brecon Beacons, which for themselves aren’t known for their gentle gradients. I had a sense akin to buying a piece of furniture out of a catalogue. You’d studied the pictures, checked all the dimensions and were content you knew what to expect. But when you got it in your living room, it was a lot bigger than you thought it would be.
Saturday morning saw the gathering of 28 riders at the Real Food Cafe in Tyndrum. There was a friendly atmosphere, with an underlying sense of apprehension from other riders too. This was going to be a serious undertaking. The distance was long, the terrain committing and resupply points infrequent. It was therefore an interesting, although desperately late, opportunity to size up everyone else and see how much they’d packed for the event. A few minutes before 10:00 am, we rolled up the road, past the Green Welly Stop, to the start of the route. I had the opportunity to have a quick word with Aidan Harding, the undoubted favourite in my mind, but who might see some competition from Phil Simcock. I commented on Aidan’s gear as he seemed to be carrying a bit more than I was, which was both surprising and a little worrying. Aidan replied “The overnight temperatures are going down to well below freezing”. A feeling of unpreparedness came over me, and there seemed to be a pause where the unspoken words
You’re going to die
would have easily fitted in. Thankfully, Alan Goldsmith called a 1 minute warning for the start and I didn’t have any longer to consider my fate in the days ahead. For now at least, it was beautifully sunny, and I was prepared for that.