Sunday, 5 June 2016

Highland Trail 2016 - Indescribable

I got to the end.

After two previous failed attempts in 2013 and 2014, I have managed to complete Alan Goldsmith's Highland Trail 550 mountain bike route.

I finished two days ago, and am still buzzing. I have been trying to put into words what it feels like, what it was, what happened, how hard it was, how amazing it was. I have talked to friends, family, and strangers, but not managed to convey even 10% of the feeling.

Maybe one of the very few pics I took conveys it better?

Looking back to Fishefield from the climb to the plateau. Shadows can move faster than the speed of light, I was going considerably slower.
After all the physical training that is needed, all the obsessive gear selection, all the worrying about food supplies and the weather, once I was rolling, all that fell away. What is left are the senses and emotions.

The emotions can be extreme. Keeping them in check, whist acknowledging them and enjoying them, seemed to be a big part of it for me. The fear of doing another attempt that could easily end up in another failure. The impatience of the final week before the start. At the start line, everything was strangely familiar yet different. The first few hours of feeling strong, but knowing that will fall away.

Further in, there are moments of utter joy mixed with exhaustion. For me, it is like an overwhelming sentimental happiness of 'being there', of being alive and able to attempt this. Of thinking of my friends and family rooting for me. I am almost in tears in these moments, overcome with it all. I savor this.

The hike-a-bike sections come with their own emotional challenges, and I know them only too well. It is so easy to descend into a pit of negativity and self-loathing, cursing the route, hating it. I had made a conscious decision this time to avoid this if at all possible. It makes it so much easier! The realization that I can refuse to be annoyed or frustrated. It seems like a psychological game, and one that is truly worth playing in order to get the most out of things. During the Glen Golly section, I found myself looking at the steep climb up Creag Dubh, knowing all the hike-a-bike ahead, and smiling. This is a good thing!

Another thing I noticed I fell into were little rules and rituals that appeared out of thin air. "No running over slugs" was one. Not that I make a point of running over them usually, but I went out my way to avoid them - and there were a lot!

I also developed a 9am celebration ritual. I'd stop and have a can of fizzy juice to celebrate a day on the trail;

Sunday: Glen Orrin Shelter (after "road of 1000 puddles") - Tango Orange
Monday: Lochan Sgeireach (plateau after Glen Golly) - Coke Cola
Tuesday: Mullach a' Bhreun-Leitir (singletrack between Oykel Bridge and Ullapool) - Orangina
Wednesday: Smiorasair (postie path) - Fanta
Thursday: Beinn Bhàn (climb after Tomich) - Cherry Coke

There is no doubt that 2016 was a charmed year for this route. The weather was amazing, making it so much easier to go far and not worry about where one ended up. This was truly a gift, and I loved spending every night in my tent, sometimes high in the mountains, always in a random spot. 6 days in a row under canvas in Scotland is something I have never done before, and I doubt would be possible in bad weather for most mortals.

I have so much more I could write. I get the feeling I am going to talk everyone's heads off about this ride in the weeks to come. Little did I know that when I emailed Alan in 2013 about doing the route because it looked interesting, it would have such an impact on my life. Topping this is going to be hard.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Highland Trail 2016 Recce

So I am getting to the conclusion of my training for the Highland Trail 550 this year. I have kinda been a bit more flexible with things this time round, and not planned that far ahead for what my exact training is, apart from obviously getting the miles in. So, with an awesome forecast plus a desire to check out some of the sections of the route I haven't been on, I decided to ride some of the HT550 last weekend.

I first thought about the Fisherfield section, but it is hard to get a decent loop up there without a bunch of road miles, plus I wasn't sure I'd get enough riding in. So my thoughts turned to the new opening section. I wasn't sure about any of it, Alan had said it was an improvement, but I was interested to know myself. I know psychologically for me, any route is easier if you have ridden it already, and the opening 70 miles seemed kinda important!

So, at 10am on Saturday, I set off from Tyndrum. I did think about an earlier start, but I was definitely planning on camping out, and wanted a reasonable sleep the night before. I decided I wanted to  'tour' it rather than heads down try to set a time.

To that end, I also took a camera, my Panasonic GM5 with a Leica 25mm f1.4 lens, in a newly acquired Lowepro Dashpoint 30 pouch that attached to one of my shoulder straps down low. This was a success (I hope the pics below prove that) with me taking over 450 pictures on the ride, it being easy to stop and take some snaps. I'm not sure how much this really slowed me down, and it really helped the enjoyment of the route. Jury is out as to whether I take the camera or not for the main event!

Before I get to the pics, I will say the new route is awesome! It is a massive improvement on the old one IMHO, especially avoiding the outward West Highland Way section, that is really not my favorite. The new section is 99% on the bike riding, a really good 70 mile warm up for sure, and the scenery is better I think. You decide...

When the 1st mile starts like this, you know you are going to have a good mountain bike ride!

Looking back up Loch Lyon. Lots of nice good quality landrover track on this one, easy riding for miles!
Onto some lovely single track road in Glen Lyon, another 14 miles in the bag, scenery is breathtaking!

Looking back along the road. Scotland at it's finest.

At this point, I can into Bridge Of Balgie /  Innerwick. There is a shop / post office here that sells cake and coffee, and is very popular with cyclists. Alan has asked me to check out the coffee there, and although it is quite early in the ride, I obliged.

To start with, a warning. I barrelled down the hill into Bridge Of Balgie fairly fast. There is a car park close by the cafe. A car almost wiped me out by reversing onto the road with me doing 25mph. My skid made them look and stop. Take care here, it is busy and you'll be going fast!

The coffee was average, the cake was good. This stop is going to be a temptation for the field. Cake and a warm beverage, or keep riding onto the next harder section? Hmmm....

Off the road after Innerwick straight onto a reasonable climb. I cleared it, but it was loose and steep in some sections. Worth pushing some parts to conserve energy?

The climb flattens out and rewards you with this view. Those mountains way way WAY in the distance are where we are heading to, Ben Alder!

Getting closer to the Ben Alder range, a lot of nice fast landrover track.

Looks not that fast to ride on, but is yet more awesome groomed landrover track propelling us onward!

Loch Ericht before the Ben Alder section. Scotland again looking magnificent.

Loch Ericht, almost the end of the road before the reasonably short boggy push to the start of the Ben Alder section. Scenery still to die for.

The Ben Alder singletrack. Whoever made this created a masterpiece! Just be careful of the multitude of stone drainage ditches peppering the route.

The top of the Ben Alder descent. Looks great, but the top section is quite steep with more drainage ditches. I walked down the steepest section, not wanting to mess up my rims! The rest was good.

"Character" bridge, water not troubled

Almost at the road

That was the 70 mile new section done! I have already ridden the route to Fort Augustus via the Corrieyairack Pass, so my plan was to take the easy 30 mile downhill road trundle to Fort William, and pick up the last 45 miles of West Highland Way, which I hadn't done in that direction before...

On the road section to Fort William

Sunset from the road

I got to Fort William about 10:30pm on Saturday night. I rolled into the center, expecting the local pubs and clubs to be in full swing. They were. I didn't care, surely there was a fish and chip shop open. There was. I ordered, with my unlocked bike outside the window, and a friendly local talking my head off about selling a crazy expensive carbon bike to someone then them breaking it, whilst I kept an eye on my bike, almost sprinting for the door when I thought I saw someone making off with it. Being tired can to strange things! 

I got the fish and chips and retired to a quiet park bench some way off to scoff the lot. I put on every item of clothing I had to keep the night chill at bay, then started cycling. I got lost and confused, and had to stop and down the can of Fanta I had bought. All better, I figured out the route and set off into the night, up the climb out of the town. This is the reason doing a recce is good!

Fort William from the West Highland Way section, 11pm

After 14 hours riding, 2 hours after sunset, with only a single AA torch to see with, things get a bit weird! Maybe time to camp...

Just after 12 midnight, I decided i wasn't making quick enough headway and was likely to fall over myself, so I set up camp. All my gear was working well, I was under cover within 10 minutes, comfortable and bug free...

Morning by the West Highland Way

I knew this return section  wasn't going to be the most enjoyable, and I wasn't disappointed. The West Highland Way sees a lot of traffic, and so a lot of the route is eroded and loose. I plugged on.

Sunrise on the way to Kinlochleven

Kinlochleven, Spar calling!

This is the kind of wheel eating drainage ditch that I brake and get off the bike for!

The sun splitting the trees just before Kinlochleven. The track is rough here, and most of the way from Ft William to the end of the Devils Staircase.
At Kinlochleven, I got some pastry and Pepsi in the local store, 7am! 

The climb up to the Devils Staircase wasn't that enjoyable. Not my favorite section to be honest, but still...

Looking from the top of the Devil's Staircase. The view is the best bit of this route IMHO, the riding is very hard and slow.
 The last few miles finally allow some smooth cycling, it was 12 noon and it was getting very warm (for Scotland). 

The end. I haven't seen it from this direction yet, looks nice!

That was it done, 148 miles in the bag in 26 hours, including a bunch of photo stops, chatting with some friends I met on the way (hi Andy and Dougie!), and general relaxed riding. All in all not a bad route in of itself, if anyone fancies it. If you are thinking of doing the HT550 this is a good taster, although I'd recommend including the Corrieyairack section for a full 2 day route to get the full flavor.

Now all I have is a mixture of dread and fear. 12 days and counting. There are only three things that can go wrong:

* The bike breaks
* I break (physically)
* I break (mentally)

On the bright side, the bike doesn't have feelings, so I can't break the bike's mental balance, no matter what I throw at it!

Wish me luck.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Capital Trail ITT 23rd April 2016

I decided to  do the 150 mile Capital Trail route by Markus Stitz round Edinburgh as a training route for the Cairngorm Loop, which itself is a training route for the Highland Trail Race! I did the 148 miles in 22 hrs 48 mins, with 3 hours of stopped time (I was taking it somewhat easy). 5270 meters (17291 feet) of ascent, avg heart rate was 109!

Ride Notes

I got to sleep 1am and woke 3am. Set off at 4am. More sleep would have been an improvement, but I was preparing the seaming endless amount of things needed to do a ride like this. The early start was good, and sunrise was only about 1 1/2 hours into ride, and meant I was at Peebles for supper time. I got back about 3am.

* It is easy to get lost in Carberry woods!

* Lauder and Galashiels are lovely! There was some kind of event on in Lauder when I passed through, and half the town were out lining the pavements. I felt like they were there to cheer me on my solo ride! Just outside of Lauder, on the quiet country road in the sunshine, a green SWB Landrover bumbled along. You couldn't get any more 'British summer stereotypes' if you tried! It was very pleasant, like I was in an episode of All Creatures Great And Small.

* The route seems to climb forever from Galashiels to Minch Moor, but good riding.

* Birkscairn Hill / Kirkhope Law have a lot of pushing unless you are a very strong rider. This is the hardest part of the route, and will drain your energy easily, especially due to where it is in the ride.

* Make sure you know the route through Glentress. It is obvious if you know the place, basically Janet's Brae, up to Spooky Wood Climb, Spooky Wood, Super G, up to the Blue then all blue till last section of Red and done. If you set off very early and / or are very fast, you could catch the cafe, but don't plan on it.

* The old drove road from Peebles to West Linton is lovely, old bedded in track, soft short grass. Overall route from Peebles to end is 'only' 45 miles but don't underestimate it. Monks Rig is a long push unless you are very strong and up to it at that stage in proceedings.

* Final route through Edinburgh near Holyrood Park has climbing and some quirky sections across grass (no trail) and through cheeky trails in woods. Pay attention to your GPS!

The 1 day version of this ride is the furthest I have ever cycled in 24 hours so far. It is quite tough, but doable if you have trained / are experienced enough to do long mileages.

A 2 day ride would IMHO best split would be at Peebles prior to Glentress section. A "gentleman's ride" would be early start to get to Glentress hotel for a shower, evening meal, and refreshments at the bar! Tweed riding jacket optional.

A 3 day ride split into 3 x approx 8 hour days would also be most civilized.

There are a lot of gates en route. Figure out your quickest way through / over them.


Being Scotland, I had various combinations of cold clear frost, rolling mist, sharp northerly wind, warm settled sunshine, overcast cloud, light snow / hail, and a sprinkle of rain! All in all though a good days weather, with nothing being a barrier to the ride, and mostly dry and fine. The weather had been quite dry the preceding week, so the going was good.


Given the forecast predicted most of the above, with both freezing wind chill and full sunshine, I decided to go far a versatile combination tending toward ventilated warmth.

Boots were my new Lake MXZ303 with Wollie Bollie socks, very comfortable although I did get sore spots under the cleats after about 80 miles. I have Sorbathane insoles in them at the moment, I may look to changing them or carving out some relief above the cleat.

Fleece legwarmers, Gore lycra shorts with Goretex shorts over them, all held up with elastic suspenders with plastic fittings.

Long sleeved Rapha merino baselayer with a Gore windstopper soft shell jacket with removable sleeves.

Gloves were a pair of Gore winter gloves (need replaced!) and a pair of thin Northwave MTB gloves.

Headwear was a merino Buff.

This was all a good combination. I needed the winter gloves for the morning and evening sections, and changed to the thinner gloves for daytime, well worth it IMO. The jacket sleeves also came off, and the base layer sleeves rolled up as needed. The buff was also doubled up / singled / removed as needed.

I think regulating temperature is important, and didn't want to freeze, but also didn't want to break a sweat - sweating makes you need more fluids, which means you have to carry more.


Santa Cruz carbon Highball, bunch of light carbon bits, rims etc. Rigid Salsa Firestarter forks. 1 x 10 speed. Continental X-Kings 2.4 protection tyres.

I took sleep kit, although I was planning not to use it. Wildcat handlebar sling and bag, and seat harness. Tarptent Moment DW with solid inner, Thermarest Neo mat, custom Nunatak quilt.

The bike is 8 kilos on its own. Loaded with sleep kit, handle bar, and saddle harness it is 11.1 kilos.

Everything worked fine. My jury is still out on whether the rigid fork is worth the 1kg weight saving, but the bike does feel sharp, responsive, and light! At a certain (albeit rare) point with the rigid fork, when things get rough, it is hold on for dear life as your eyeballs get rattled about in your skull, or slow the heck down!

Food I took and ate

1 piece baguette with brie
1 cheese + tomato roll
1 marmalade roll

1/3 bag Sainsburrys mixed nuts

3 Cadburys fudge fingers
1 small Twix

1.2 litres Lucozade sport blackcurrant

Food I bought en route and ate

1 Cadburys chocolate covered ice cream (Abbey Mill Tearoom, Melrose)
1 500ml bottle coke (Abbey Mill Tearoom, Melrose)

1 portion chips (Peebles Chippie)
1 portion onion rings (Peebles Chippie)

1/3 500ml bottle Lucozade orig (Peebles Petrol Station)

1 cafe late (Peebles Petrol Station Costa machine)