After last year’s Highland Trail Race, one of my overriding feelings after completing it was that once was enough – I was not going to go through all that again. It was by far the hardest thing I’d ever done on a bike, and it pushed my physical and mental limits far beyond those I’d encountered in a “normal” 24 hr solo race.
Time is a good healer, it seems. My mind had shuffled all the gruelling bits to the back, and memories of good trails and heroic efforts combined to form a comparatively enjoyable experience, albeit one that didn’t involve a lot of sleep. The addition of another 120 miles for the route this year in the form of a northern loop around the Assynt placed it well and truly into the realms of Epic (a much overused words, but in this context it most definitely deserves the capitalisation), and this tantalisingly difficult section on top of what I already knew to be a tough route made it difficult to resist.
My final preparation was less than perfect, and nearly didn’t happen at all if it weren’t for the support of Shand Cycles. High drama even continued up to the day before the race when my bike came loose on the bike rack while driving to the train station, ruining a Jones H-Bar in the process. I boarded the train anyway, and set about trying to source a replacement while en route. Keep Pedalling in Manchester came up trumps with a new bar, even going as far as meeting me at the train station to hand it over so I could continue my journey north to Scotland with as little disruption as possible.
Race day dawned cloudy with a cool breeze from the North-east. It looked like a good day for getting the miles down, and with the 1 hour earlier start this year we would have a little less pressure to get to Fort Augustus before everything shut. I settled into a rhythm reasonably well on the opening section, but clearly not able to match the pace of some of the front runners. This was a long race, and I wasn’t about to blow up on the first day.
It was never meant to be like this.
A fraught week gathering kit together in preparation for the Cairngorms Loop 300km ITT suddenly got a whole lot worse when on Wednesday night I discovered a problem with my “race bike” that I wasn’t going to be able to get fixed. Casting an eye around the garage revealed a cyclocross bike with 8 gears and a fat bike with one gear. I dusted off the 10sp clutch mech I bought last year, but had not got round to using and stripped the 8sp cassette off the cyclocross bike, mated the bar-end shifter to a Paul Components clamp and set about fitting it all to the fat-bike. If only it was that simple.
The air was cold rolling down the road out of Tyndrum. The Highland Trail Race was done, but the riding wasn’t over until I’d got myself back to Ewich House. Having the prospect of a bed for the night was useful incentive to finish the race that evening.
I was too late for food in Tyndrum so had to make do with what I had left in my bags and whatever I could scavenge from the car. Half a packet of crisps, two pieces of stale malt loaf, one flapjack and a large supermarket cookie. Not quite the reward I was hoping for, but together with 120g of Torq Recovery powder, it was going to have to do.
I woke up with a jolt. I fumbled for my phone, the only means I had of telling the time with my GPS switched off. It was 5:15 am and very light. I got up quickly to see if Mark’s bike was still in the bothy, and it was. I gathered my kit together in a matter of minutes and was on my way by 5:25 am.
Knowing that Mark was a stronger and faster rider than me, I knew that I needed to get a few miles down the road to give myself a cushion for the rest of the race. The only reason I was in this position was because I’d slept less than he had. I’ve just done three of the hardest days riding of my life, covering 530 km, and I now had to race another 160 km to the finish. And I’ve just had 1.5 hours sleep. No pressure.
I opened my eyes just enough to assess that it was now daylight and closed them again. The rain pounded on the tin roof of the emergency shelter. I was still on my own, so whoever it was out on the mountain last night, they either stayed in Shenavall or stopped somewhere else. It was 6.30 am. I got up and put my damp cycling clothes back on, and then put my goretex jacket and shorts over the top. My legs weren’t feeling brilliant, but then yesterday was a 194 km day. Maybe they’d loosen up.
I think it got light before 4:00 am, but it wasn’t until 6.30 am that I hauled myself out of my sleeping bag and got my kit back together. It was a tidy bothy, one I’d be given the details of by a friend via the Bear Bones Bikepacking forum. It was worth having ridden the extra distance to and I felt fairly refreshed even if by only 4 hours sleep. I’d saved a couple of pieces of pizza from the night before, one of which served nicely as breakfast.
At the shout of “Go”, at precisely 10:00 am, we tore off up the stone track ahead of us. The first part of the route followed the West Highland Way to Kinlochleven, the major difficulty in this section being the Devil’s Staircase. The initial miles were much more straight forward, and for the most part completed at a brisk pace that just allowed for conversation while we still rode as a group. The pace up the first long climb to the Glencoe Ski Station was beginning to put me outside my comfort zone, so I backed off a bit and watched the leading group of 5 riders edge away (Aidan Harding, Phil Simcock, Mark Goldie, Phil Richmond, James Gillies). The descent that followed to King’s House was fun, but it only served as short respite before we got onto the Devil’s Staircase. The first long push of the day followed, which I enjoyed in the company of Rob Wixey and Alan Goldsmith. The moderately technical descent brought Rob and I into Kinlochleven, at which point we left the West Highland Way and heading North-east towards Loch Elide Mor.
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.
After an amazing run of weather for the Welsh Divide trip, I couldn’t believe my luck that the forecast was generally dry and sunny for the event. This played in my favour a bit as there were certain things I was prepared to sacrifice in terms of kit. However, clear sunny days also tend to turn into cold nights, so a couple of last minute changes were made to the gear list that looks like this:
- Terra Nova Moonlight bivvy bag
- Balloon Bed Mark 2
- PHD Minim Ultra sleeping bag
- PHD Ultra 900 vest
- Small first aid kit
- Endura arm warmers
- Assos leg warmers
- Medium weight merino long sleeved top
- Extremities fleece hat
- Gil eVent waterproof jacket
- SPOT satalite tracker
- Wildcat Clouded Leopard frame bag
- Wildcat Mountain Lion handlebar harness
Gear weight came in at around 1.9kg before I added tools (500g), food and two water bottles on the bike. I had a Exposure Enduro on the bars, along with a GPS and back-up paper maps stuffed into a jersey pocket with some more food. The bike weighed about 34 lbs or so with food and water on board, which I was pretty pleased with.
We rolled out from the start just after 10am, and I found myself at the front and setting the pace almost immediately. The first climb up through the forest was long and a shock to legs that had neither warmed up properly or turned the cranks since the Welsh Divide. Once out of the forest there was little respite as route required a long push up a steep grassy bridleway. Eventually, I reached a short linking piece of tarmac before heading off along more bridleway towards Hafren. This was varied in nature, sometimes rideable, often not but I knew once I cleared this section the course opened up onto forest road and would allow me to get into a rhythm. At about 30km, I was caught and passed by Kevin Roderick and we exchanged places for a good while as the terrain favoured either geared or singlespeed.
With Hafren dispatched, followed by the section past Nant Rhys bothy, I arrived at the first long road section into the Elan Valley. It was uphill and into the wind. Kevin was a good way off in front of me, but with a long road climb I managed to reel him in just as we turned off road again. At this point I noted I was one quarter of the way through, in a bit over four hours. At the five hour mark we were nearing Claerwen Dam. It was time to stop for a bit of food, as up to this point my GPS was saying my total time and moving time differed by only ten minutes. At the food stop, I looked south into the hills to see where the return route came over the top – this is a notorious bit of bridleway that degenerates into bog quickly if you stray off the correct line. But, I had a long way to go before I would get to the other side of it.
Claerwen Reservoir track is long and twisting. It is also rough and punishing on the upper body and my legs were still coming to terms with the severity of the opening sections of the route. I struggled to match Kevin’s pace along here, where gears and suspension allowed him a slight advantage on the rough slightly downwards gradient.
The first food stop was at Pontrhydfendigaid, and the clock was ticking if we were to get there before it shut at 5pm. It turns out that rushing to get there early was a waste of time – it shut at 2pm. Whilst I had food with me, I had dreamt of milkshake, a can of Coke and a pastie of some sort. The Red Lion in the village was open, filled with glum faces from Wales’ earlier defeat in the RWC semi-final at the hands of France. I got my Coke, some crisps, nuts and a sandwich. I totted up the calories – about 1200.
We left the pub at 5pm after a 30 minute stop and headed into Twyi Forest, where a very long forest road climb lay ahead of us. I’d ridden this on the Welsh Divide on a fresher pair of legs, so was quite pleased to have made it up in one go and, this time, ahead of Kevin. The route stayed in the forest a long while and we generally continued to exchange places from time to time, but usually always remained in sight of each other. Darkness fell as we went through Cwm Berwyn Plantation, and it was fully dark by the time we arrived at Ty’n Cornel hostel. The lights were on and they were too inviting to ride past. We made a domation to the Trust who look after it and the warden there made us a cup of tea.
After another 30 minute break, we tackled another steep push up a gravel track past the top of the Doethie Valley. Any attempt to dry feet out of the hostel were soon undone by the numerous stream crossings and track-wide puddles that appeared on our route. With some relief, we reached another long road section, but this one offered little opportunity for rest as it contained the Devil’s Staircase, with its 25% gradient. I pushed right from the bottom and watched as Kevin’s light faded into the distance. I think at some levels it was less effort and nearly as quick to push and not need a rest at the top than it was to ride, as I soon caught Kevin again on the other side. More favourable road gradients finally brought us to Coed Trallwm. It was decision time: either rest up here and get up early (like, 4am early) for the final leg back to the start to ensure a sub-24 hour finish, or push on through the night and forego sleep entirely.
We decided on the latter. It was clear and cold now, and the clear was in our favour for the next section of open hill or bog I referred to earlier. I’d put on my leg warmers and waterproof to fend off the chill air, and we rode the steep fireroad through the forest and eventually out onto the hill. I found a good line to push up to the cairn, and some bits were occasionally rideable. The line was tight amongst thick grass or scatter rocks and while forward progress was steady, the toll both mentally and physically was high. We made a small navigational error towards the end that cost us 10 minutes or so while we back-tracked.
It was about midnight now, and the effect of the last 14 hours of riding was showing. Physical reactions were slowing, it was difficult to sustain hard effort for any length of time on the climbs. It was also bitterly cold in the valleys. We made a few small stops for food. Both of us could have fallen asleep at any of these if we’d have just laid down. Without knowing how long the final section back through Hafren would take, we were still inclined towards just getting the whole thing done than stopping and having to wake early and cold in a few hours.
The route eases after Rhayader. A long section of lane work followed the river up the valley until we reached Llangurig. Again, Kevin had and edge here. New-found strength or gears or just the desire to get it over with allowed him to cover the ground faster than I did. I caught him again at Llangurig, where I was prepared to forego a rest and get through Hafren: the last section of off road.
My memory is a bit hazy for this bit. I remember lots of gates and a long fireroad climb that I pushed. I was so tired I felt like I could have fallen asleep standing up. Eventually, the road appeared before us and my senses livened up a bit. It was mostly downhill from here. No sting in the tale: the route was hard enough as it was.
Kevin and I arrived at the finish together. The clock said 3:28 AM. Total time of 17 hours 23 minutes.
I awoke at about 9am later that morning. I couldn’t quite believe we’d done it in one go. The terrain was seriously tough in many places, and my choice of singlespeed I felt was not the best at times. We sat and chatted with a few others who’d cut their route short the previous day, and waited for Stuart and Dee, the organisers, to serve up the food.
Finally, after 10am had passed, Stu presented the sub-24 hour finishers with their black Bear Bones 200 badges. There’s only two of these in circulation. Kevin has the other one.