Bikepacking, Races

Highland Trail Race – The Final Push


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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 took off down the trail, ricocheting off one rock and then another. I needed to calm myself down. Deep breaths. I tried to assess the situation as I made my way down the valley. I was in 2nd place. The man I was racing was still asleep, but as far as I was concerned that was irrelevant in the world of self-supported racing.

Glen Affric was massive. I rode and rode and rode some more. I was still in Glen Affric. It was a two hour ride to get out of the glen. Beautiful though it was, with its natural birch woods and huge areas of undisturbed native pinewoods, I was glad to put it behind me. Once out, I was faced with a long climb along a powerline service road over to Glen Moriston, another 380 metres of ascent. As I rode up the climb I kept seeing two sets of tyre tracks. Aidan’s Ikons were there, but also another set I didn’t recognise. I started to doubt my position. Were the other set Alan’s? I was sure Alan had Crossmarks, but the more I thought about the more I wasn’t sure. Who else would want to follow this exact route, if not to do the Highland Trail Race?

I had another distraction though. In my haste to get out of Glen Affric I hadn’t paid too much attention to my water bottle, or hydration generally. My bottle had the dregs of a recovery drink in it, and on top of the food I’d already eaten, I was starting to get stomach ache – a classic case of too high a carb content in my stomach. Opportunities to fill up had generally been frequent, but now I really needed some all the water courses looked fairly grotty. I struggled over the top of the powerline road and down into Glen Moriston. Up through the next section of woodland I finally came across a watercourse that looked clean. Once I’d had a drink I immediately felt better and pressed on up the climb, onto General Wade’s Military Road and finally over the top into Fort Augustus.

Rolling into Fort Augustus, I spotted a cafe that did takeway food; Scot’s Kitchen. I went straight in and ordered two bacon rolls to go, and gave the girl behind the counter my water bottle and asked her to fill it with coffee. She looked at me rather oddly. I had a couple of messages on my phone from Beth; Mark had quit in Glen Affric with a broken rib sustained on Monday, and was heading out north of the loch toward Cannich. There was some momentary relief, followed by disappoint for him not finishing; he’d ridden very strongly up to that point. Then was the news that Alan Sheldon was less than an hour behind me, apparently working his way up the Military Road just the other side of the hill. I grabbed my two bacon rolls, bottle of coffee and sped off down the Great Glen.

While a long flat section of trail might seem like a good thing at this point, when you’re trying to maintain a gap against someone on a geared bike, its not so good. I span the pedals as fast as I could, while chomping on a bacon roll, sipping coffee and trying not to get indigestion. There were a few gates that I needed to dismount for, and when I did I realised how painful my feet were. The first couple of footsteps went down gingerly until I found a position where the pain was least. Heaven knows what they looked like inside.

When I got to Fort William I decided to find out. The Great Glen had taken me 3 hours to complete, and it was now early-afternoon. The whole thing wasn’t as flat as I expected, and in places I was reduced to a push which served to reinforce the issue with my feet. I was on my spare pair of socks and the others I had were wet too. The next section after Fort William would not only be painfully slow, but down-right painful unless I could get these feet sorted. I nipped into town, and straight to the first outdoor shop I could find. I hobbled through the door and headed straight for the sock stand.

Back outside, I peeled my wet socks off to reveal two huge sore patches on the top of my feet. I applied a plaster to each to reduce rubbing and put my new, clean, dry socks on. New socks never felt so good.

Plasters and new socks required
Plasters and new socks required

It was about 70 km to the finish from here, following the West Highland Way. The starting climb up through the forest was bathed in the afternoon sunshine, and from somewhere, heaven knows where, I managed to summon the strength to ride up it. Some blisteringly fast singletrack followed before I arrived at a set of wooden steps. They were steep, a bit narrow and with my upper body strength failing me, it was a struggle to man-handle my bike to the top.

The route continues along more of the old military road; its loose surface a challenge to ride at times, but generally the gradient was favourable, even in my increasingly tired state. The descent into Kinlochleven was technical and punishing. While I still had some strength in my legs, my neck and shoulders screamed at me in pain.

Kinlochleven was the point that we rejoined the outward route, and where I was reunited with The Devils Staircase. The push up the steep gravel track took nearly an hour. Bits after that were rideable for a while, but there was a small sting in the tail before I finally reached the summit. What took me and hour and a half to climb took less than 15 minutes to descend.

At King’s House, my GPS was calling for new batteries. I stopped for some more to eat; a bounty, some peanuts and the last of my jelly babies. So very nearly done, but I was nearly done mentally and physically too. All thoughts had gone as to where Alan was – I just wanted to finish. The hallucinations where back too. What I thought were sheep frequently turned out to be rocks. Another looked like a man struggling to put a wet suit on and a third like a bike rider waiting to ride with me to the finish. Further along the trail I passed a couple standing by their tent beside the trail eating out of bowls. He was in his underpants and she was in a nightie. They said good evening and I grunted something back. I was pretty sure they were real, but it definitely wasn’t helping my mental state.

The climb from the ski station went on and on. I gave all I had to get up it and still it went on. I stopped and shouted at it. It didn’t help. I shouted at myself too. That didn’t really help either. When was this ride going to end? The top came eventually, and the long fast cobbled descent opened out before me. Boy, it was fast. I rattled over the cobbles trying my best to enjoy the reward for my efforts on the other side, but my body was hurting so much. The pain in my shoulders was nearly unbearable.

There on the left of the trail was a smooth line. Peat gently trodden down by walkers. It was a bit wiggly, but it was so smooth and it eased my pain for a moment. In places grass had grown between the narrow path and the cobbles. Have to be careful I don’t catch a tyre on the edge of one of those.

BANG. I hit the floor hard and slid across the cobbles. Hip, elbow and ribs all making contact with the ground first. I was late turning into one of the peaty sections, and with my weight in the wrong place came out too soon and clipped the grass lip. It all happened too quick, or I was just too slow to put a foot down to break my fall. I did a quick bodily check. Nothing broken, which frankly, I thought was a miracle. I was angry with myself for being so stupid. I’ve been awake for so long, ridden so far and was so close to the finish, what was I thinking of?

Bridge of Orchy followed, and with it the onset of darkness, and with that the onset of tiredness. The last 10 miles were a blur of which I remember very little, until the final gate. Lights of Tyndrum down the hill below me. One last descent to make. Don’t fall off. A small flashing light marked the finishing line. Steve Heading was there to see me in at 11:22 pm.

I’d ridden the last 200 miles of the route in just under 41 hours, and only with 1.5 hours sleep. Even now I can’t properly describe how I felt. Every ounce of physical strength from every part of my body had been used getting here, and every shred of mental substance I had was totally exhausted.

But it was done. The Highland Trail Race completed in 3 days, 13 hours and 22 minutes. I was second. Second to Aidan Harding no less. I couldn’t have been happier with that.

At the Finish
At the Finish
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19 Comments

  • Agreed, great write up and an absolutely barking ride. Shows why you could always ride 24hrs solo and I can’t! I am hoping to do the west highland way in one single blow in August, not the double though, that’s just silly

  • I’ve been loving the write ups. Inspirational stuff to read about happened and what was just dots on a map this time last week. Well done.

  • Great write up ,I enjoyed reading .Brilliant race tactics riding thro night to pass the other 2. I`m doing EWE in July so will be interested to hear what kit you took in your next blog.
    Respect! Dont think many people could do the Highland 400!

  • Kevin, Steve, Phil, Lydia – thanks for the comments – much appreciated. Glad you enjoyed reading – I enjoyed writing 🙂

    Kevin – sorry your HT400 didn’t work out. Will you be back sometime to tour it?
    Steve – good luck for the WHW – keep me posted!
    Lydia – hope the EWE goes well for you. You’ll pass through Brecon, so I’ll try and keep an eye out.

    I’ve got a few more posts to do on this I think; The Aftermath, Gear Selection and Final Thoughts.

  • I’m a friend of Chew’s, he said this was a must read, no kidding… Fantastic write up, a thoroughly enjoyable insight into the race and a well earnt second place. Congrats, and well done! Looking forward to the aftermath…

    • Thanks James. Chew’s intel on the bothies in that area were useful, the first night especially. Bit of a haul getting there, but allowed me to take a good rest before the second day.

  • Great achievement, great write up Ian. A serious physical, mental and logistical accomplishment. Much more impressive than getting a local KOM, though I enjoy our Strava duels. Would love to try something like this but doubt that I can find the time in the next few years

    • Thanks Steve. Funny you should mention Strava, as I got an “uh oh” email on one of “my” segments from you on the Wednesday I think. I remember thinking “I don’t care any more”.

      But I’ll get it back one day 😉

  • Fantastic achievement. Having known you for so long and knowing your drive and determination, it comes as little surprise. Great result coming in second too!

    • Cheers Wayne. I’ve been known to fail on lesser things than this, but there comes a point when you’re in it so deep you haven’t got any choice to but to finish it.

  • Congrats to this big achievement!
    Though, I never did this race I exactly know how you have felt during the race and especially during the night rides. I made the same experiences during the annually Tour Divide.
    I am thinking about joining the HLT next year, but when I read your report I am painful reminded to my darkest hours. And there were a lot of them. I guess, I need some more weeks or better months until I am ready for a similar event like the TD.

    • Thanks Michael. I’ve yet to do the TD, which I’m sure is a different undertaking due to the extra distance. The HTR is just so intense and sustained in its difficulty. Good luck if you go for it next year.

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