Ever looked skeptically at someone who told you this experience or that event changed their life? Me too. It’s not that I didn’t believe they thought that, but I guess I’d never experienced something so fundamentally altering that I could relate. That is until now.
I started racing MTB in my 40s. Not having grown up around the sport or competitions, and being an inherently introverted person, the idea of putting myself out there in front of others to do something I could fail at was a huge deal for me. Perhaps unfortunately for me, I seemed to actually be good at the whole racing thing. I came 3rd in my first 24 hour race and very quickly followed that up by winning the Strathpuffer in 2016.
What then followed for me was a whirlwind 4 years of winning every race that I entered including 3 UK and one European titles. Why unfortunately? Obviously I am massively thrilled to have done so well, but this placed so much expectation on me that every race I entered became more high stakes and more stressful. Perhaps more importantly though, I didn’t know how I would take a loss. Unused to competing from an early age and therefore learning to deal with a bad race and move on was a challenge that haunted me.
In 2018 I entered my first bikepacking race, the Silk Road Mountain Race in Kyrgyzstan. It was ill-fated from the start, with my bike not arriving until 2 days after the grand depart. Add to that my inexperience and the lack of availability of gluten-free food options and I got to day 3 and I scratched. A whole host of other bad experiences haunted me from that trip and I took this as a major failure for me and questioned my ability and credibility. Was I an impostor? Was I fooling myself?
After the pandemic, the next opportunity I had to try a self-supported race was GBDURO last year. In what has to be record wet weather for the south of England, this time I lasted 5 days and rode over 1100 kilometers, but scratched before the second checkpoint, this time with a whole host of physical (saddle sore extraordinaire) and technical (my GPX device stopped functioning) issues. This hit me hard and my depression spiraled for weeks.
So, when I decided to enter the Highland Trail 550 in a year when the race organiser, Alan Goldsmith was trying to get a 50/50 split of men and women entrants, I did so with enormous trepidation. I’d been wanting to race this route for as long as I’d been mountain biking, but I also knew how much another scratch would hurt me and I just wasn’t sure I could put myself out there again.
Four weeks before the race started and life was in turmoil. I’d caught Covid the week before at a funeral, then started a new and exceptionally intense job. Charlie was away travelling a lot, my daughter was in the middle of her exams and I was burning the candle at both ends trying to keep life on an even keel while training and preparing for the race all at the same time. Not the ideal prep, and the little voice in my head was telling me it would be fine to pull out.
Thankfully, my amazing friend Eliza Sampey was travelling over from the US to race as well and would be staying with us before and afterwards. She’s been recovering from a bad brain trauma for 2 years and was coming over to race this as a test to see if she was able to race hard again. I could write a whole book on the time we shared together, how incredibly real and open we have always been with one another and how privileged I feel to have Eliza as a friend. That’s for another blog and hopefully another adventure together. Suffice to say, it was with her calming influence that I turned up on the start line, ready for an experience like no other.
And so it begins
In a beautifully understated start we gathered early at The Real Food Café for a pre-race photo then pootled on up to a small carpark at he foot of the first climb out of Tyndrum on the West Highland Way. Hearing last year’s winners Annie Lloyd Evans and Liam Glen talk about their own experiences sent shivers through me with excitement. I knew the reputation this race had for the spectacular scenery and having ridden some of the route as part of An Turas Mor I also had some understanding of just how difficult it could be. Nothing can really prepare you for it though.
The northbound route is reputed to lull you into a false sense of security. After a small and fun technical descent under the railway bridge on the WHW we quickly turned off onto new (to me) terrain and the access roads around Loch Lyon. It was here, merely 20kms in, that I slid on a wet wooden bridge and broke my front brake lever. Instant mind gremlins started wheedling their way in… “here’s something that you can scratch over. It would be totally justified”. I quietened the voice and puzzled this one out. Right now the lever was still attached (just) and so I strengthened it with a folded over cable tie and wrapped it tightly with electrical tape. It wasn’t going to withstand a lot of force but it would get me out if I didn’t brake too hard. I got back on the bike and cursed myself for fixating on the number of places I’d already dropped. This was an ultra-marathon, not a sprint!
Towards the evening I hit the foot of the Corrieyairack pass. I’ve ridden it twice from the north and it’s a beast, but wasn’t sure what to expect from the far looser switchbacks on the South. Thankfully my legs were pretty fresh and I managed to get mostly to the top where I met Rob Waller, a former Edinburghonian (is that a word). He’d had Covid around the same time as me and was definitely feeling the after effects in his lungs. We chatted a bit on the final push up and then played tag all the way down the other side, hitting Fort Augustus just in time for chips at the Richmond House Chinese takeaway. Rob opted for a bed there to see if he could give his body a boost and keep going the next day and I took my chips (and 2 cans of coke) to go and headed off along the Great Glen Way and up to where I bivvied for the night, next to Bhlaraidh Reservoir.
Sleep was not elusive. I had a solid 4 hours, disturbed only by the rain starting and the need to close over my hood. I woke to the sound of bikes riding past and knew it was time to get up and move on. My bag was pretty damp from condensation, partly from having my damp clothes in with me and partly from having to close over the hood in the rain. I shook it off as best I could and hoped that the dampness wouldn’t be an issue that night.
Day 2 was a day of MANY showers, some prolonged, punctuated by sunshine, and so I got used to stopping and putting on/removing my waterproofs. I was back on familiar trails again, first up the path of a thousand puddles into Contin where I met a few other riders at the last store for 200km! Resupply had been stressing me out because of SRMR and the lack of coeliac options there and so I braced myself for some imaginative shopping. 4 yoghurts, a block of cheese, two packets of ready cooked rice, some snickers bars, flapjacks and a packet of skittles later and I felt like that plus the food I still had would get me round the top of the course and into Drumbeg. I left about 15 minutes after Gail Brown and as I did I heard someone say that she was currently in the lead. That made me second, which I was astounded about! No sooner had I heard about places than my racing brain kicked in and I found myself working out how I could chase the lead. As I rode through the trails at Contin, the site of my first 24 hour win, I reminded myself that my main goal for this was to finish. It was far more important that I rode my own race.
On the way up to Rosehall I caught up with Daniel Gona who I would share a few parts of the ride with over the next few days. He’d just had a little cat nap at the side of the trail and I wondered how long it would be before I’d need to adopt the same technique. Daniel and I did the familiar ultra leapfrogging, pausing briefly together to catch the Achness Hotel kitchen before it closed for some takeaway chips (and to see Gail leaving, having just done the same), all the way to the start of the climb to Beallach Horn where we camped in close enough proximity that I would hear him leave in the morning as I was waking up! Another night with rain and my bivvy bag and sleeping bag were now quite damp. As I was rolling them up to get going again I worried for the next night.
The route up around and off the Beallach Horn is renowned for being tough and in many places unrideable. Steep and loose sections of pushing open out onto marginally less steep sections and then just when you think you might ride a bit, you head off the main track into what was effectively a swamp. This year the trails were apparently the most waterlogged they have ever been. Not great news for someone who has entirely rubbish feet and a tendency to roll her ankles. And so I set about slipping and sliding down to the beautiful An Dubh-loch where Annie was waiting to capture the comic attempts to traverse a terrain comprised of peat shelves, bog pits and streams. Quite how she missed me falling into the river is beyond me. I sat down at the other side of the crossing and ate some lunch in what were stunning surroundings.
Then I pushed back out the other side! That descent tho!!!
The ride to Drumbeg stores was actually much further than I’d realised, skirting the coast on a very rollercoaster-y section of the NC500 route. Thankfully I’d had the good fortune to cross paths with Daniel again on hitting the road after the decent, and when he pulled into the Rock Shop café I followed suit. I inhaled a bowl of soup and an egg mayo and salad gf wrap (mmmm… salad!), took another for the road and set back off in the rain. Yep, another on again off again day for the waterproofs. At Drumbeg store the sun had finally emerged and like every other visitor I marveled at the delicious choice of resupply, skillfully wedging a pack of cheese oatcakes, a block of cheese, four flapjacks, a packet of dried mango, a family bag of crisps crunched up and mixed with salted peanuts, two pouches of ready cooked rice (this had been going down well mixed with the sachets of tuna I’d packed) into my bags and ordered a cup of tea to drink while I packed. I would regret that tea for the rest of the race.
The coastal path ride into Lochinver was idyllic in the evening sun and I vowed to return at another time and camp there in the green dunes with views out over the sea. For now I had a date with the path behind Suliven. Not a hot date though. It was cold, and wet.
One costly mistake
Lee Craigie had this to say about this section “begin your meditation on acceptance and gratitude as the track around Suliven gets worse and worse. There’s no point in assuming the path must get better as it approaches the A835 back to Oykel Bridge. It doesn’t. There is no reason to ever be in this place on a bike. It’s just Alan being naughty.”
Four long, wet hours into the push and I’d reached the path that approaches the A835. Another hour of pushing and I made exactly this realisation. It was well after midnight and I’d been over on my ankles more times than I could count. I needed sleep. I looked at the route file and it said the road was still 3km away. That could be at least another 2 hours. in my state of exhaustion the wheels started to come off the cart. That cup of tea had made my tiny pea bladder overactive and now, in the wet, wearing all my waterproofs I’d been putting off stopping again but I knew this was a stupid idea. Skip this next bit if you don’t want the gory details.
I have hypermobility disorder, a condition which, along with hyper-extending joints, risk of dislocation and yep, weak ankles, also boasts urge incontinence as one of its delightful “features”. If I think about needing to go, I can’t stop the going process, and so my urinary regime needs to be pretty strict and timely. I had been thinking I should stop for a while. When I finally did, I’d left it too long and couldn’t remove the million layers I had on because of the rain. Yes folks, I, a 47 year old grown adult, wet myself. And every single layer of clothing I had with me. In the dark, and rain, hours from anywhere dry. This was a low point.
I slopped on for a little longer but by now my saddlesore was really chaffing and I couldn’t see past getting out of my wet clothes and into my bivvy for a short sleep. So I found a rock slab among the bog and boulders and went through my sleep routine. My bag and bivvy were really damp from the morning so I threw on my waterproofs over my dry sleep clothes and hoped for the best.
An hour and a half later I woke myself up shivering. At first, my sleep deprived brain tried to force my body to relax and go back to sleep. Then I realised that actually I was becoming hypothermic. I lay there for 5 minutes shivering and puzzling out what I should do. If I put on all my clothes and push on, I can get to the Schoolhouse bothy in a couple of hours, hopefully for when other riders are leaving, dry out my kit, clean up, rest another 2 hours and then push on. I couldn’t face putting my wet shorts back on so I threw on my dry emergency puffer on under my jacket and started the long push out.
After only an hour of pushing I reach the road and curse myself for not keeping going. 2 minutes along the road I see another rider taking a comfort break (damn their functioning bladder) and slow to say hi. It’s Gail, and she’s just slept in a shed. I curse again! We ride together to Oykel Bridge, sharing a beautiful conversation and some very real vulnerability, then she slows to repack something. I tell her my plans and push on to the bothy. As I’m bringing in the last of my stuff to hang it out she passes. For all of 15 minutes I was in the lead!
The bothy is warm and inviting and I sleep deeply. I wake, turn off my alarm and accidentally sleep for another hour. I cry putting on my still very soggy and smelly shorts and socks and Rona and Isla, who I shared the room with, give me sympathetic looks. I linger a little too long in the warm, knowing that today I face Fisherfield. I’m pretty sure I’ve lost another place during my sleep but right now I’m focusing on finishing and to do that I know drying out was imperative.
I refuel at the service station in Ullapool. I don’t risk going in to the town to the supermarket. I know the risks of civilisation on an already exhausted body. I inhale a pack of cold stovies and pack in more rice, cheese and flapjacks to my bags. I devour an apple. Man, I miss fruit and vegetables.
The coffin road is suitably evil. And on the steep, technical descent my brake bodge finally fails. I’m going to need something more substantial fix-wise for Fisherfield, so I stop at the foot of the climb to An Teallach and deploy my rusty nail solution. I’d been carrying it since I saw it sticking out of a defunct piece of bridge back on day 1, holding it in reserve for if the inevitable happened, hoping rather naively that it wouldn’t. And so I faced the midges and implemented Brake Bodge 2.0 (TM). As I push off my phone drops from where I’d rested it on the front roll and lands screen down on a pointy stone. The subsequent smash is enough to make it impossible to unlock. What does this mean? No outgoing communication, no access to my resupply notes (I curse this rookie mistake), no alarm. Nothing to be done, I push on.
At the foot of the descent I pull on the front brake to avoid hitting a drainage bar and it doesn’t work. As I’m flying over my bars, all I can think is “please don’t puncture”. I land on my wrist hard and the bruising and swelling is instant. I sit, dazed for a moment, assessing my body and bike for any further damage. I pump my brake and it seems to be ok again. Hopefully just a bubble.
The wade through the mouth of the river at Loch na Sealga is refreshing and (I hope) cleans my chamois a little. I know I will pay for it being damp. The push up through Fisherfield gets exponentially harder, and my bruised wrist complains loudly the entire way. I wonder if it is broken, then add it to the ever growing worry-about-it-later pile.
And here everything changed
Fisherfield! As I ride along the plateau and drop down the most incredible descent to a perfectly circular loch in the amber sunset, I feel like I finally get it. All the pushing, all the bog and boulders, the river crossings and mountain passes have all led to this one, exquisite moment. My heart explodes with the privilege I feel from this singularly life-changing experience. Alone, I marvel at just how easily the beauty of nature can completely eradicate any tiredness, pain and bad mood. I smile for the remaining 2 hours as I wind my way through to Poolewe in the fading light, soul refreshed and feeling like I can conquer anything. I find a barn to sleep in and hope that the other rider in there will be noisy enough to wake me without my alarm.
He is not. I wake with a start as the light streams in. I check my watch and it is 8am! Another long sleep and I curse my mistake. I decide that I should capitalise on my rest and try to ride through the night tonight. With a good wind and rested legs I may be able to get home in one long stint.
It’s a hot day already. The stench of ammonia is suffocating (if you skipped the gory bit earlier, use your imagination). The Tollie Path is challenging in the growing heat. Another nearly unrideable path which sucks because there are some truly incredible bits of descending on it, if you could just get up enough momentum to enjoy them. As it is I mostly push because getting on and off the bike is starting to really hurt my saddlesore. Of course, my feet off the bike are suffering too but I’m used to ignoring that kind of pain.
I eventually get to Kinlochewe where I buy 3 toasties. By now the racer in me has well and truly left the building and I sit on the forecourt and devour two in the sun, taking the third with me. I know the climb and descent over to Achnashellach well, and I need to have my wits about me. As I ride into the Coulin Estate, my body decides it won’t play ball. My saddlesore worsens to the point where sitting feels like my saddle is made from white hot razorblades covered in acid. I know I need to do something about this sooner rather than later. I have to think this one through. I strip off my shorts and plunge them and me into a stream for a thorough wash then fashion myself a skirt out of my jersey, apply Doublebase cream and allow everything to air while I push up to the top of the climb. I know I’m losing time but I’m still moving forward which is better than stopping. GBDURO and scratching because of saddlesore is firmly at the forefront of my mind. I scream at the top of my lungs ‘I will not scratch because of this’.
I clock some guys further down the descent as I round the top and decide shorts on is the better way to not get done for indecent exposure or shock the locals. They’ve mostly dried, but I’m still not comfortable. The descent, one of the best in Scotland, is challenging with a fully laden hardtail, but I grin the entire way down. That is until my front brake fails again. I’m off over my bars with a big scrape on my elbow and knee. I limp the rest of the way down the hill pushing, the walk of shame thankfully not witnessed by anyone but my own ego. On the road I prepare for the next, longer road section but I just can’t sit comfortably. Every pedal stroke I’m wincing. I’m sobbing now, desperate not to scratch, incapable of riding without searing pain. I finally arrive in Strathcarron and pull in at the hotel. I see signs for the train station. It would be so easy to scratch right now. My front brake has given up, my saddlesore is crippling, my phone is broken. I go into the bar at the hotel and ask for change so I can use the payphone outside. The kind lady lets me use their phone and I call Charlie. I cry a bit, then talk through the issues and make a plan. They have a room, I’ll stay the night, try to get myself comfortable enough to ride, see if I can fix the brake somehow and try again in the morning. This has become about finishing the thing, nothing more. I know how much I need this.
I eat a delicious veggie chilli, shower and go to sleep. 10 hours later I wake, my alarm still not working and my head not working enough to have asked for a wakeup call! At breakfast I learn that another girl has passed. I don’t know how many that is now. And right now I’m pleased. Pleased that there are so many strong women out there riding and showing that we can. Pleased that there are other women our there inspiring me to keep going. I check my brake over and it seems to be fine again, pack up the chips they make me to take away and head off. Yesterday’s plan to ride through the night didn’t pan out. Today I would try again.
The final push(es)
The ride through to Dornie is glorious. I’m making good time and stop at the service station to stock up on yoghurt. 4 ought to do it! I take a coke for the middle of the night and push on. So far so comfortable. The ride alongside the River Croe lulls me into a false sense of security. Then I see the next section of hike-a-bike. There is no reason why you would take a fully laden bike up the path round Beinn Fhada to Glen Affric. On one particularly big heave I pull hard on my brake lever and it finally snaps off completely. I quietly (or maybe not so quietly) curse, then find the most idyllic spot at the very top of the push to sit, eat some food and repair the lever for a third time. This repair is one to be proud of, and rather than lament my luck any further, I am overjoyed at just how well I’ve coped with the whole situation. Brake level bodge 3.0 (TM) implemented, I get my stuff together and start the fantastic descent into Glen Affric just as the rain picks up. Even having to put my smelly waterproofs back on doesn’t dent my spirits.
The next two climbs over into Fort Augustus are familiar to me, having ridden them as part of An Turas Mor, and they are so much fun. I arrive in Fort Augustus after everywhere has shut, fill my bladder at the outdoor tap in the petrol station and push on along the Great Glen Way to Fort William. I’m smiling the entire way. This is the home straight, and despite knowing there are still a couple of pushes to get over, I am starting to believe I will finish.
Lairigmor is longer than I remember and by the time I reach Kinlochleven it is properly daylight again. My feet are in bits now, making any hike a bike a slow endeavor. And I know there is still a lot to come. I grab a 20 minute snooze on a park bench and push on. The climb up to the top of the devil’s staircase is as gruelling as I anticipate, and yet I am in this trance-like state, putting one foot in front of the other, ever moving closer to my goal. Close to the top I bump into Pete McNeil who is recording audio from riders, exploring what people experience from riding HT550. He asks some really searching questions and it all makes sense. He asks if it was important to me that this was a race. I tell him that it was at the start, but as time has gone on, and I have faced my own very private and personal battles, the racer in me had stepped aside, and it became all about the journey. What a precious gift.
I walk a bit, ride a bit down the devil’s staircase and fly through Rannoch Moor. By now it hurts to sit and it hurts to stand. There is no comfortable way to get to the end. This will be a trial to the finish. The tiny push up from the tunnel under the railway on the last stretch into Tyndrum is my final challenge. In tears I roar, exhausted, as I push my bike up the short, rocky climb, oblivious to (or at least ambivalent of) the stares from passing walkers. And as I make my way down the final straight to that unassuming car park behind the convenience store that marked both the start and the end to this incredible journey, this wave of contentment washes over me. Not the transient thrill of a race finish, but this deep sense of self appreciation and peace.
Against many odds, I have finished. And it feels good.
And now my thanks. To Mason Cycles, for believing in me and for creating the ultimate HT550 machine in the RAW. To Eliza Sampey for her company and inspiration before and after the race. To Charlie, for the incredible messages of support that I didn’t get to read because of my phone breaking, and for suffering with Covid in silence so I had one less thing to worry about. To Ross from Straight Cut Designs for the load on his prototype bags – perfect for what I needed. To Helen and Ingrid who were there waiting for me at the end, to share my joy (and celebratory chips) and to shuttle me safely home. To all the riders on the course who took the time to chat, especially Daniel Gona whose timely cafe stop saved me from bonking before Drumbeg and who also waited to see me in at the finish. And to Alan, who has created a beautiful thing. A terrible thing too, but like childbirth, that beauty is what remains, the terribleness forgotten.
Until the next time.