‘The Highland Trail is a long distance self-supported mountain bike time-trail route through the Scottish Highlands. There is no entry fee, no prize money, and definitely no support.’
Race Distance: 536 miles
As we awaited the start of the 2016 Highland Trail Race Alan Goldsmith (event organiser) beckoned me to the front of the group, “Come on, you’re one of the fast ones” he informed me and told me to get to the front. I laughed and obliged, but was highly doubtful that would prove to be the case. Certainly I may be quite experienced in shorter XC events or Enduro events, but over 550 miles? No way. The Highland Trail Race would be my first bike packing event and my first attempt at any multi day ultra-endurance event and I saw it is a chance to really truly test myself and possibly to find my limit.
Months of planning, blog reading and packing had got me here, time to start pedalling. I resisted the urge to join any of the front runners and eased off the line as a few chose to burn some early matches and start with more of a sprint. Up the first technical climb on the WHW I found myself track standing behind other riders who failed to make the climb before riding up behind them and then passing them on the following brief descent. The first section was punctuated by a number of water crossings all of which were noticeably lower than when I had ridden the section the weekend before on a reconnaissance ride and because of this I was hopeful for dry trail conditions! I eased through the first part of the morning, eating and drinking often and picked off riders as best I could, careful to keep my effort in check. On the first tarmac section I chatted briefly with Ian Barrington, whose blogs of the HTR had been highly informative to me prior to my ride but then edged away on the next climb.
For a while I had been able to see Lee Craigie up ahead and was keen to catch her and catch up, having not seen her to talk to before the event. Lee and I are both former XC racers (Lee a significantly more successful one than me), and had both been part of the Scottish XC Programme, her as an elite and me as an under 16. It was fantastic to catch up with her, and along with Lars Henning we passed an enjoyable period chatting about everything from the state of Scottish XC racing just now (very good!) to what to expect from the trail.
It was around this point that I noticed I was feeling a little dehydrated, the discussion having distracted me from staying on top of drinking and now the sun was beating down. We stopped to fill up at a river and I felt slightly, but not entirely, better. Along the next section Lars dropped off and Lee and I were joined by Alan G; Alan admired my socks as I admired his route. He informed me he would “DQ anyone not wearing wool socks”, so I was understandably thankful for the contribution of the merino sheep to my ride! We passed the Ben Alder Cottage bothy and I marvelled at how on my reconnaissance ride this was where I stopped for the night, about 50 miles in, a good ride by normal standards, but barely half a day in the HTR. Up the next climb I really started feeling the heat, and stopped to dunk my head in any water source that I could find. The descent from the Bealach Dubh was a familiar one to me, and as such I rode it with confidence, enjoying the water bar hops and perfect conditions, I passed both Alan and Lee in the process. However on the next section I started feeling really quite unwell with the early signs of heatstroke and the two of them quickly passed and dropped me. I decided that I would take a longer break at Laggan. With my head thumping and stomach churning I arrived at Wolftrax and attempted to drink a coke and eat a piece of cake. Lee, who was just leaving as I arrived, advised me to take it easy for a bit as did Lars who arrived just after me. I must have looked quite unwell! I sat in the shade with my eyes closed for 20 minutes and started to feel better with my headache lifting.
I rolled out of Laggan with jelly legs and forced myself to sip water; each mouthful required me to suppress a wretch and was accompanied by a fresh wave of nausea as each mouthful hit my stomach. SHIT I thought to myself, having flashbacks to a similar ride last year I had been on with James from Pedals Bike Care when dehydration and overheating had left me in quite an unpleasant state. Mercifully, after consuming 1 litre of water in this uncomfortable fashion, I started to feel better and ascended the Corrieyairack pass and rolled down into Fort Augustus. Again not entirely without issue as a guy in a range rover angrily shouted at me for accidentally going through the wrong gate and onto ‘private property’. He videoed me on his phone saying he was going to phone the police, whilst I apologised and said I was trying to leave the property now. I wondered if he would understand if I told him I had been blinded by pizza goggles and was somewhat delirious from the heat but decided a repetition of “I’m sorry sir” would suffice.
Arriving in Fort Augustus I rolled into the famous pizza restaurant and sat with Alan and Lars, Alan wearing a similar expression to the one I imagine I had been wearing at Laggan. I ate half my pizza as he pushed his around his plate, then I rolled out of Fort Augustus with the other half in my frame bag. My best case scenario going into this event was to make it to the bothy at approx. 115 miles on the first day. However, I ended up getting there in daylight so I carried on catching Andy Laycock and we discussed the problems of the first day, he said he had been suffering with cramp. As I chatted with Andy I suddenly realised how positive I was feeling and it was with joy that I finally switched on my lights as the sun went down. Even after all these years of riding I still get a special buzz from riding at night, following a beam of light allowed for a more focussed mood and I zipped along enjoying the night time bonus miles. I had moved past the heatstroke and could not really believe the mileage I had managed to put in at this point. The next hour or two were punctuated by spotting other riders bivvied off the road and I eventually decided to stop at 130 miles, just before midnight.
Unfortunately, if the heatstroke represented my first mistake in the race, this was the second. I slept quite poorly, jumping at little noises and struggling to actually fall asleep as I was feeling so excited and wired. I later learnt the race leaders continued to another bothy further down the trail which on reflection I could have easily made that night as I was not feeling especially tired when I bedded down. This may have offered me a better sleep but I did not know of its existence. In my defence I had never considered I would cover so much ground on day one so had not researched any other bothy options on this section of trail.
Eventually at 4am I decided to get up and get going again as there did not seem any chance of getting more sleep. After a bit of faffing to pack I ate a slice of pizza on the move but I struggled to get into my groove. It seemed like there was an awful lot of riding ahead of me that day! Indeed on each of the following mornings I had a spell where the idea that I had started riding already and likely would continue to ride until midnight seemed obscene and caused me initially to feel a little apprehension but also often to feel giddy with excitement. Eventually I rolled into Contin and suddenly I was passed a huge moral gift package as I spotted Lee. She was sitting on a bench outside the Contin store which had opened early for riders. A brief chat with Lee, a coffee and a tasty sandwich and suddenly I was back feeling positive and was more optimistic for the day’s riding.
The section from Contin to Oykell Bridge was defined by two pairs, the first of which was a pair of geese that tried to attack me, forcing me to double back then sprint full gas past to avoid their snapping beaks. Obviously the guard geese had not been told I was a vegetarian and as such should possibly be given a little slack compared to the other competitors. The second pair was a pair of riders I would later learn were Stuart and Phil, the overnight leaders, who had enjoyed a lie in. They passed me riding side by side and at the time I did not recognise them, but as they went by I assumed my pace must be slowing and I was therefore probably slipping down the field. At this point I roughly thought I was around the top 10 but was not really sure.
Upon arriving at Oykell Bridge I was pleased to see a few bikes outside including Lee’s and I sat at a table with her and enquired about how we were getting on in the race and who was ahead. I was totally shocked to find out that just shy of 200 miles I was actually sitting in a room with the front group. “Shit, I am not supposed to be here” I laughed, with texts from my girlfriend, dad and James at Pedals all questioning whether I had started too fast. I vowed to try to ride the afternoon more steadily. As Lee and the leaders left I took things more slowly. It would be the last I would see of the front of the race.
In Oykell Bridge I struggled to eat the meal set out before me and left feeling a little sick once again (likely the after effects of my heatstroke and a lack of any real quality sleep). Whilst riding in heavy rain I felt my moral dipping slightly. Over the next section a number of riders came by including Andy, Fraser Macbeath and also an unidentified rider who once again passed me like I was standing still. I would later find out this had been Liam Glen, the eventual winner who had started 2 hours after the main group on day one after an issue with his car. As I passed through Glen Golly my nausea meant I was struggling to eat and I felt like my progress was slow as I did not feel like I had very much energy.
This marked my first real low point of the race. Although I had felt unwell the day before and sluggish in the morning I had not really struggled to keep going. However now, the remoteness and exposure was starting to get to me and I began to question, for the only time during the event, whether I was really up to the task. I started to doubt myself quite deeply and I began to feel slightly afraid.
Perhaps I should explain. The fear I was feeling was more than a fear of remoteness and of a weakness in my resolve. A number of issues had caused a negative spiral for me that was compounded by my dislike of riding exposed sections of descent and through this section there was exposure in abundance. This is because last year, whilst racing in the Enduro World Series in Les Samoans in France, I had suffered an extremely bad crash. During a race stage I had fallen and rolled around 30 feet into a ravine knocking myself out, I was eventually airlifted from the scene on a spine board, falling in and out of consciousness. Miraculously I had suffered no broken bones, the X-Ray and CT scans had confirmed my back was not broken and the CT scan on my head also revealed no bleeds or abnormalities. Despite this good news, the crash did leave me suffering with various concussion symptoms and it took me around 4 months from the date of the crash to fully return to normal. Throughout the period I had problems with my concentration, short term memory loss, suffering mood swings and also developing obsessive tendencies. It was a difficult period for me, my family and loved ones.
So perhaps it was justifiable that riding the northern loop of the HTR on my own in thick cloud was making me a little frightened. However I knew that if I kept going things would get better again. I spied Andy up ahead, but unfortunately could not catch him. After eating two slices of leftover pizza, I ascended the Bealach horn and was extremely surprised to see James Robertson, the event photographer. He snapped a few shots and I continued struggling with the descent down to Achfary as my wrists ached. Suddenly my phone pinged to life as I had phone signal for the first time in hours and messages from my dad, girlfriend and James, “it’s all downhill from here” being sent presumably as I had hit the northern most point, these all lifted my moral. I decided that I needed a better sleep tonight so bedded down on the climb out of Achfary just as it was getting dark. I drifted off more quickly, happy I had made it through my first real test on the route. Tomorrow would be better.
I opened my eyes and could not entirely decide whether I was seeing what I thought I was. It appeared like a dark blanket was pulsing just on the other side of my midge net. As I blinked sleep from my eyes I began to see a little more clearly and realised that the blanket was in fact not a solid mass but instead the most midges I have ever seen in my life. Like a giant Alpkit branded caterpillar I wiggled my riding kit on careful to not let a millimetre of skin show outside of my bivvy sack and packed up as quick as I could before putting in my contact lenses and eating a sandwich when I found somewhere with a little breeze up the hill that was free of midges.
I climbed and descended a number of brutal bumps in the famous road between Kylesku and Drumbeg and planned how best to ration my food to get to Lochinver when suddenly a man in a car at Drumbeg shouted to me and offered my second major moral gift package of the ride, “Are you one of those riders? We’ve opened the store early for you” he informed me. I could have hugged him. I rolled along to Drumbeg stores and the owner prepared me a cup of coffee, and I ate a warm slice of pizza and two chocolate pastries. I also managed to stock up on baby wipes and some germoline to attend to my saddle sores. Suddenly the world seemed rosier. The next section passed uneventfully and I once again was hugely enjoying myself. I bought pies in Lochinver, chatted with a lovely couple on the hike a bike that followed and then with two more folk as I joined the road section before Oykell Bridge. I also vaguely remember telling a sheep that it had a very nice coat. Brown wool I believe, very stylish.
I arrived in Oykell Bridge and noticed a bike I did not recognise outside. I went in and introduced myself to a tired looking gentleman by the name of Ian Fitz who I quickly found out was the supplier of my paper maps via the Bear Bones Forum. Thanks again Ian! I learnt it was Ian’s birthday and we both discussed how we were surprised how far round the route we already were. Ian left slightly before me. After struggling with my first real test the day before, I was delighted to have other riders to occasionally converse with again and hugely benefitted from the chat with Ian. I was hopeful I would catch him up later. Phil Fraser Thomson arrived and I laughed when I realised he had been behind me having been convinced when he’d left Oykell Bridge the day before ahead of me that I was slipping rapidly down the field. It was an important lesson about how riders ebb and flow may vary and I marvelled at how one minute a rider may seem to have twice your strength and the next you may find yourself ahead of them. On the section to Ullapool my appetite finally returned after a day of occasional nausea and I ate my final Lochinver Pie and two snickers bars. When I arrived in Ullapool I phoned my dad and told him of my plans to reach the Shenavaill bothy that night. I later would find out he stayed up to midnight to watch me get to the bothy on track leaders! The dot watchers are a valuable asset to any riders moral as it’s such a benefit to know people are willing you on and rooting for you.
The next section featured two huge hike a bikes which were passed in the company of Ian Fitz and Phil FT, both of whom I caught during the section. It was an absolute pleasure to share the section with them and I chatted relentlessly like an excited child about everything that popped into my head. I was happy to pass this section in the company of other riders. I marvelled at Ian’s experience in remote riding and long distance events and at how positive he was about really cracking on and his master plan to stop sleeping at some point. Whilst chatting with Phil he disclosed this was his third attempt at the route. I again was left feeling astounded at his tenacity to keep returning to attempt the ride. It was quite humbling to see how much he wanted to finish it and it left a lasting impression on me about what sort of attitude it took to take on and finish a route of this nature. Phil would finish the ride ahead of me in the end and his successful completion offered me almost as much satisfaction as my own.
Whilst riding with these two I noticed how my interest in racing as I conventionally saw it was waning. I was motivated to finish the route as quickly as possible, but any interest in beating other riders or getting one up on them had all but disappeared. These two during this section were my companions through a period of adventure, and I saw that we were each racing the HTR route but not each other. We rode the last section in the dark together before reaching the bothy and all falling asleep rapidly in the company of an already asleep Fraser. It had been a considerably better day than the one before as I had hugely enjoyed the riding both on my own and in the company of others.
I awoke to the noise of other riders packing up and rolled over but I couldn’t get back to sleep. I snapped myself out of it reminding myself I was in a race. My morning routine seemed to take longer than everyone else’s and after using the bothy facilities (shovel) I was on the move about an hour after I woke up. It is definitely something I’ll look to improve on in future events as I had far too much faffing to do when I woke up each morning; putting contact lenses into my eyes after 4 hours sleep being particularly difficult. I rolled away from the bothy and quickly entered what can only be described as “the zone”. Suddenly everything flowed smoothly as I pedalled and pushed my bike across this awe inspiring terrain. I occasionally glanced around to marvel at the beauty of my surroundings. THIS is what this race is about I thought, me and my bike against the route. I decided to utilise some music through this section and with some progressive metal blaring I floated up the hike a bike. One of the things I had learned to love about long rides on my own over the past year was the feeling of quiet mediation which made hours turn into minutes and miles disappear seemingly without effort. “A long slow meditation under duress” was how one ultra-athlete in an interview had described the process of racing one of these events, but this was more than that, this was pure elation, pinch yourself to check you’re not dreaming, type 1 fun.
I caught and passed Andy Laycock who had passed me during my morning’s faffing, he had bivvied just short of the bothy the night before. Suddenly I was loch-side and beginning the much talked about postman’s path which only heightened my mood as I caught Ian Fitz again along the narrow ribbon of singletrack. Little did I know the rude awakening I was about to receive. Suddenly as we dismounted to descend into a gully we were met at the bottom with a hike-a-bike-double-black-diamond-difficulty obstacle course: a number of trees down across a stream. Ian appeared to effortlessly dispatch the section and quickly ascended out the other side. I heaved my bike onto my back and clambered through with all the grace of a tap dancing hippo. I dropped my bike off my back and just before taking my first step up the gully was hit with a crushing wave of tiredness. The inevitable heart rate spike of lifting my bike taking me out of the “the zone” and probably up into zone 5! Ian quickly disappeared as I seemed to be unable to shake my lethargy over the next section. Thankfully I somehow caught Phil FT just as he was back tracking after missing a turn and we rolled into Kinlochewe together as I tried to find some flow again.
After dispatching a bowl of quinoa and eggs (accidental but delicious order), a coffee and a huge scone I felt noticeably better. I also quizzed Phil on the social implications of rinsing grit out of my disgusting socks in the bathroom. Socially acceptable he ruled. My feet were noticeably more comfortable after too. Result. The temperature was very high again as I headed for the Torridon section. For some reason I suddenly felt extremely strong and wanted to crack on to ensure I got to Dornie with plenty time for dinner. I dispatched Torridon and the famous Achnashellach descent, riding a surprising amount considering my bike setup and motored along the road and the next section probably riding far too fast but I couldn’t stop myself. I passed Phil and Fraser in the process.
Before I knew it I was following tarmac again and entering Dornie. I headed straight for the shop. Closed. Shit. Suddenly I realised how little eat on the bike food I had with me and I knew I would have to ask for extra food to take away from the pub. I stepped into the Clachan and ended up generally making a fool of myself: ordering too much food, falling asleep, spilling things, spreading out all my smelly kit and generally causing a lot of concerned looks from the staff and other customers. “I’m in a race” I remember feebly apologising. I tagged Phil in just as I left and was hopeful that the establishment’s opinion of cyclists had not been lessened because of me. On the next section I had phone signal so called my dad and girlfriend confirming with them that I was on track to finish under 5 days. Suddenly it hit me, UNDER 5 DAYS! I was still on track for my best case scenario target, I just had to make it to the Camban Bothy tonight then I’d have one last day of riding to go. The next section and long hike a bike took longer than expected. Notable activities include trying to scribble the word ‘bothy’ onto a rock with an arrow beside as a message to Phil. It seemed worthwhile at the time… I arrived at the bothy around midnight, briefly chatted with Fraser (during the race I constantly was surprised who I would bump into as I thought Fraser was still behind at this point) but he fell asleep whilst I got some stuff from my bike. I ate a portion of sticky toffee pudding I had carried from the Clachan and went to sleep having set two alarms. 1 day to go!!!
Where the hell am I? *Rubs eyes* Seriously. Where the hell am I? Oh right racing.
Fraser had gone, and I check my watch. 6.20am. Oh shit!!!!! I’d slept in. It was the final day of the race and somehow I had managed to sleep through Fraser’s alarm, Fraser leaving and my own two alarms to wake up extremely dazed and confused. After much faffing, shovel use and extreme sleepiness I rolled out of the bothy before 7.00am. Dot watchers later pointed out to me how silly the fly by is as everyone in the race apparently started quite a bit before me that morning. Doh.
The next section was testing again. I kept the sleepiness and dazed feeling and added the bonk as I was mostly out of food. Occasionally I would notice I was not moving and just sort of standing and staring. Come on Scott you’re racing?! Somehow I blew straight through a resupply opportunity at Tomich despite being out of food so I had to make it to Fort Augustus to eat. I was going super slowly and I knew it. I phoned my dad and told him I may not be able to finish today. He told me to speak to him after I’d eaten. After what seemed like forever I finally I begin the descent into Fort Augustus and spotted a figure that looks different to the usual tourists. Someone with a bike and a similarly haggard look – Andy! Again I resisted the urge to hug someone who may not want a hug. We chatted about the tough morning. Andy, for the second night in a row, bivvied less than an hour before the bothy then had passed me as I had slept. He left Fort Augustus a little before me. After a good feed courtesy of the store I started to finally feel awake. I had been craving yoghurt all morning and somehow bought a 90 calorie diet yoghurt. I had to laugh. My motivation was back as I knew I was on familiar ground from here until the finish. I text dad, “I can do this. See you tonight!!” I re-enter “the zone” and with the help of The Red Hot Chilli Peppers, fly along the Great Glen Way and catch Andy up.
On this section my niggly Achilles really started to hurt, but before I knew it we were in Fort William where I strapped it the best I could and enjoyed some more food. During this section I also noticed that my arms were extremely sunburnt and I had no sun cream so on went the arm warmers. Suddenly Bryan Singleton arrived and informed us that he had seen Alan Goldsmith earlier on too. It was strange meeting up with other racers who I had not seen in days! One look at Bryan confirmed to me I would not be able to keep up with him over the next section as he looked like he is out for a spin, but somehow I dropped Andy on the first section of the West Highland Way singletrack. I was in my own world and loving it when I heard a shout of “hello” from behind. Hike a bike master, race organiser extraordinaire and general chat merchant Alan Goldsmith had caught me up. I was delighted and was feeling reflective. I told him about how I have felt about racing this route and how I was happy with how it has gone but knew I could ride it faster. I dropped Alan on the descent into Kinlochleven and then dropped it myself on a water bar hop. In Kinlochleven I stuffed my face and responded to text messages. One last push!
Ascending the Devils Staircase was like a dream. I was initially in shadow but ascended into the light. It was perfect. I reached the top and before me was Glencoe and the final miles of the event. I finally acknowledged I was going to finish this. No matter what. I amused myself thinking of various catastrophes and how I would overcome them. For some reason I wondered if I was to break my collarbone or similar and walk to the end would I have to drag my bike with me too or would it just be me who would have to cross the line? Such morbid thoughts made me laugh at the time. As the sun set I stopped occasionally to add layers and eat macaroons.
Before I knew it I was on the tarmac to Bridge of Orchy and I tried my best to stop my head drooping. I felt very sleepy but any progress is good progress. I walked some of the uphill sections. On my GPS I see a little special line: the line that indicates where I’ve already ridden. I re-join the route I used to leave Tyndrum a life time ago. One last climb and descent then I would have done it. I slowly made the ascent and promise myself I won’t pedal again unless I have to. I have to a few times.
Then there was clapping. I see a group of people. Alan is there having finished a little before me. My dad hugged me and I shook hands with Alan. Suddenly my girlfriend Isla appeared and she hugs me too. As she stepped away I almost fell over. I really wanted to sleep. My twin brother Stuart is there too. Everything is a blur and I ate some food in the car then quickly fell asleep (apparently mid conversation with Stuart).
It has taken me a while to write about the Highland Trail Race and even reading over what I have written I cannot do the route, the experiences or what the race has meant to me justice. The ending of day 5 seems a little abrupt, but when the ending of this experience happened that was how it felt. In an instance I was transported from one world to another when I stepped off my bike for the final time. Others in their reflections have described it as ‘life-changing’. For me it was life-affirming. I have overcome adversity but also enjoyed and thrived on the trials of the event. Isla described it as being something I felt like I ‘needed’ to do. I think this is accurate as after the head injury last year and the difficult period that followed it I needed a new focus and a goal. Completing the HTR marks the end of my recovery. I went into the race interested to find my limit, and have found I still have no idea where my limit is, a very exciting prospect indeed. As a racer I know I can do better: I stopped too often, slept too much and aspects of my kit, pacing and preparation could be improved. I will return to the HTR and I plan to ride it faster in the future. Hopefully when I next sit with the leaders at a resupply I will be confident I belong there. At 22 years old I know I have a lot of head room in the ultra-endurance/bike packing racing scene and cannot wait for the events to come. But the 2016 HTR was more than a race for me; it was a truly liberating experience and I feel I understand myself much better because of it. In the modern world it is a rare opportunity indeed to have so singular and simple a focus for so long, it is a simple but wonderful existence when you are out there. It was a privilege to share the trail and experience with so many people. Thank you to everyone who supported me, there are too many people to mention but you know who you are.
4 days 16 hours 5 minutes