Bikepacking, Races

Highland Trail Race – Day 3


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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 was moving again by 6:50 am. The narrow trail ran upstream very close to the river; it was running full and fast with the nights rain. I rode every ridable looking piece of the trail I was faced with, but all too frequently I would need to dismount to pass over a boggy section or cross through a gully or tributary. The path continued to wind its way out of the valley until it was eventually too steep to ride. The rain had eased at this point, but the clouds still lingered around the tops of the surrounding hills. The valley wasn’t very wide, but the sides rose steeply and gave few clues as to which way I would find my way out of this place. Having made my descent into Fisherfield last night, I was now faced with the challenge of escaping from it.

Escape from Fisherfield
Escape from Fisherfield

After an hour of pushing, I reached the top and I looked back down the valley. My last view of it before and undulating trail leading to the descent to Carnmore. At last, a descent I could ride. It was steep and loose in places, and I could see someone’s fresh tyre marks on the sharper bends. Part way down the Carnmore descent, I glanced down towards my stem to see my GPS was gone. I heaved on the brakes and stopped. Panic beginning to set in. When did I last have it on my bike? I’d been going quite quickly, what were the chances of seeing it again? I had paper maps with me so all was not lost, but it would be a big irritation to loose my GPS. I turned the bike around and started to push back up hill. I tried to think of all the places it might have come off. I remember feeling a rock had bounced off my shoe. Was that my GPS? Had it come off when I dismounted for the last stream crossing? Suddenly, after 100 yards or pushing, there is was face down at the edge of the track. Relief.

Fisherfield Valley
Fisherfield Valley

The descent took me down to Fionn Loch, across a causeway and along the shore before rising again out of the valley, ultimately toward Poolewe. I looked back across the loch – to the right I could see the saddle where the Carnmore descent began. The sheer scale of the place seemed to exert a kind of pressure on me. Everything was further than it looked. How much longer could I keep this up? I sat down for some food.

Fionn Loch & Beinn a Chaisgein Mor
Fionn Loch & Beinn a Chaisgein Mor

In the distance I could see some walkers. I rode on and caught them up. I stopped and asked the first one if he’d seen any other riders. He said one had stayed in Carnmore Bothy last night, so he knew all about the race (and thought I was mad as well). He gave me a description that fitted Mark Goldie, and told me Mark said he’d slept longer than he should have done. I was encouraged that that I might be closing the gap. Up until this point, I wasn’t sure of my position. I think I was still 4th, and I would get the odd indication of tyre marks through mud that seemed to support this. Occasionally I would see a wet tyre mark over a rock and think I couldn’t be more than an hour behind someone.

Eventually, Fisherfield relented and give me a good few kilometers of beautiful singletrack. A sinuous line weaved amongst the heather and small rocks, punctuated by the odd drop or little rocky chute. I rolled into Poolewe at 11:50 am and quickly located the village shop. No pies (damn it), but they did do pasties and a microwave with which to warm it up. Another can of coke, box of Tunnocks and packet of crisps was a nice change from flapjack, peanuts, pepperami and chicken pieces that I had in my bag. The lady in the shop confirmed that another rider had been through not more than an hour ago.

Out of Poolewe the road climbs steeply. I pushed. Where it turned off onto the next trail, the pushing continued. Too steep and too rocky to ride. My feet were starting to hurt. The straps around my winter boots were beginning to rub. The fact that my shoes were soaking wet wasn’t helping. It was probably only a 2 km push, but I was getting weary and progress seemed slow. The descent down the otherside was a disappointment. Very rocky, with large exposed sections of wet rock made line choice difficult. Frequently I would choose a line only to have it run out in 20 yards and have to dismount and pick another. It seemed as difficult to get down as it was to get up.

The trail joined the A892 at Slatterdale, which marked the beginning of a 20 mile road section. 10 miles in was the small village of Kinlochewe. It had a general stores, which I went in to hopeful of a pie. The only other day of the week you can’t get pies in the Highlands of Scotland is Bank Holiday Monday, but the lady did tell me there was a cafe around the corner that did hot food. The Whistle Stop Cafe might not have done pies either, but warm food was warm food. I ordered a large bacon bap and a pot of tea. While I ate the bacon bap, I also had a large ham and cheese toasty on eggy bread on order, which turned out to be magnificent.

I took the opportunity to take stock of the situation. It was about 3:30 pm, I’d been going for over 8 hours and covered only 56 km.  My plan to finish in under 4 days was looking in tatters. The plan was to get over into Glen Affric and as far an toward Fort Augustus as possible, which would have been 200 km. I flipped through my paper maps; pages and pages of the route lay strewn across the table. I still had an awfully long to go. I got a few texts from Beth to update me on my position. Phil Simcock had scratched due to a broken rear mech. I was still 4th, but Alan Sheldon had passed me early in the morning in Fisherfield. This was becoming a recurring problem – I would ride longer than Alan each day, but then have to play catch up as he started earlier than I did. The only way around this that I could see was to ride right through the night. Could I even do that?

The road down to Torridon was a fairly easy spin and gave me a good opportunity to consider my strategy. I felt considerably better with a stomach full of food and over the next 10 miles, convinced myself that if I was going to finish in under 4 days that a) I needed to get a move on and b) I had cut any stoppages to a minimum. It seemed OK in principle.

The climb from Torridon (Annat) to Strathcarron was my first test; 10 km of more rocky singletrack that I hoped would be more rideable than the terrain I’d struggled over earlier in the day. Thankfully it was. Fuelled with eggy bread, cheese, ham and tea, my legs felt new again as I powered myself up and over huge slabs of rock and around the tight rocky singletrack lines. The descent was as enjoyable; a steep dive into the valley the other side by tight rocky switchbacks and flowing loose singletrack. Beyond Strathcarron the trail climbed again to link Attadale with Glen Ling. The descent into Glen Ling was bland in comparison with the last one, but progress was being made. I kept seeing the now familiar tyre tracks of those in front of me. Maxxis Ikon’s I thought were Aidan and Mark, and Crossmark’s were Alan’s. It was getting on for 10.30 pm, and the last of the light was fading as I fought me way out of the bottom of Glen Ling. This was another Glen that didn’t want to let go, and felt like it took longer to find my way out that I expected. I stopped for some more food. Now was a good time to have some Pro Plus. I needed something to try and keep me awake – sheer will-power wasn’t going to be enough.

When I’ve had Pro Plus in the past, I’ve experienced the sensation akin to switching a light on, usually after about 15 minutes. As I cruised down the road toward Dornie tiredness began to grab hold. I was sure 15 minutes had elapsed since the first tablet, so I stopped to take another. I chewed this one to try and absorb it more quickly. I got a strange feeling, a bit like the lightbulb coming on but quickly followed by a fizzle and it going out again.

I carried on down the road anyway. It was here that the hallucinations started. Small black spots on the road would appear to scatter as I rode toward them. The lights of Dornie in the distance appeared to morph with a nearby Passing Place sign to reveal a phone box. I joined the A87 and turned left toward Dornie. The road lead down the hill and across the bridge over the end of the loch, Eilean Donan Castle lay flood-lit just beyond it. My head nodded and I had a major wobble on the bike which jolted me awake. Boy, did I need some sleep. I saw a sign for a car park, and turned in to find somewhere to bivvy down for a couple of hours. While scouting for a suitable spot, I saw a van drive over the bridge out of Dornie, signal to turn into the car park and drive across towards me. I was just getting ready to say leave me alone, I’m just trying to get some sleep, when the passager got out and said “Is that Ian?”. I was confused. How did you know my name?

It was Steve and Andy Heading. Out for the night watching the lead riders go through. I was the last one of four they were  expecting to come through that night, but giving me a chair to sit on, told me they’d seen Mark and Alan already and roughly how far ahead they were. I ate some food and had a good drink and told them about my plan. A bit of social interaction really woke me up. As I talked, my plan seemed to consolidate in my head. I could still do this. I would ride over the top from Glen Lichd to the Camban bothy at the top of Glen Affric. My motivation for this section was to see it through to dawn. I figured if I could stay awake and in one piece until it got light again, my body would go through its normal restart cycle and I’d be OK.

I left Steve and Andy at midnight. The next chunk was road, and that was straight forward even if it was uphill initially. Beyond Morvich, the tarmac ended and a stone track followed its way up Glen Lichd. At the lodge, the rideable trail ended and the push began. Up and up the trail climbed, and as pushes go, this one wasn’t too difficult. There was enough light in the sky for me to be able to see the skyline around me. I reached a point where the trail levelled out and turned a sharp corner.

I stopped in my tracks. I found myself surrounded by towering hills. Their sharp ridges crisp against the dark blue of the night sky. All around this great amphitheater the faces of the hills were near black, rising up above me as if to form an impenetrable fortress. The skyline seemed so high above me, it seemed impossible that the path I was on would exit somewhere along the ridge. The whole atmosphere in this place felt very  intimidating. I edged my way round until I met a large waterfall. I peered over the edge; the tumbling water briefly illuminated in my lights before seeming to disappear into an abyss.

I continued to follow the line on the GPS, all the while carefully trying to observe that subtle change in the light that indicated that dawn was on the way. I arrived at Camban at 3:40 am, nearly 21 hours since starting out from Fisherfield. I looked through the window of the bothy and saw Mark’s bike. I’d caught 2nd place. My mind raced. What do I do now?

I’m so tired. I should sleep. Two hours should do it. Rather than wake Mark up and risk him packing up and riding out there and then, I elected to bivvy outside. I unrolled my sleeping mat, though didn’t inflate it and got my bivvy bag out. I lay across the trail. If Mark or Alan were going to get an early start, they was going to have to wake me up doing it. I lay in my sleeping bag, my mind racing for a few minutes battling with the thought of riding on. It had been such an epic day. Then I fell asleep.

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2 Comments

  • Good god matey, what am amazing effort. I rode about 40miles last year in the Cairngorms and ended up in the dark with only my phone to see and that was scary enough, I totally understand what you mean by the skyline and the mountains, the number of steep gravelly climbs is just relentless, one after the next, I bet your shoes are in bits.

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