Not the HT550…
Prologue – A nice rider get-together, we stood where the river ‘should be’ the evening before – at the end of a dry spell!
A short shake-down and spin out up the trail
The Highland Trail 550 2019 – a really ‘buzzing’ start line, new faces and old timers. A bunch of riders with ambitions of conquering the mighty HT550. Alan Goldsmith the route creator and the organiser does a splendid job of building up the atmosphere, it may be a low key event, but the undertaking, passion and commitment to do this is massive. There is no other race as long, as tough or as rough as this on the UK calendar, entry is restricted to around 60 participants with just under half of the riders travelling from overseas and always over-subscribed.
Start-line – Gentlemen (& Ladies) Start Your Engines!
Everyone rider has ‘worries’ before the race, but this year the collective and most immediate worry was about the weather, it would rain – but by how much and for quite how long…? Well we’d just have to see as the forecasts were all saying different things…
Most people seemed to account for the weather factor, it’s a long race and the conditions will be tough and with bad weather in the mix it will be even tougher. As a precaution to this I put in some new heavy duty trekking type waterproofs and two primalofts as well the base layers – which I thought should be enough for May time in Scotland… So the rain started late morning, about two hours after we were rolling, it got colder and an easterly wind picked up. Coming off the Corriairack Pass into Fort Augustus was not a pleasant experience – wet and getting numb to the bone! I soon got to the chippy and ate my food as near to the fryer as possible. It was hard work for me getting going again after the 20 min stop and I was not enjoying things as well as feeling pretty exhausted and not particularly keen to get back on the ‘ride’. I succumbed to it and once back on the trail I was a little happier, but was not looking forward to the next couple of mountain sections.
The early part of the ride I was leap-frogging with Scot Lyndsay and enjoying some general chit-chat with him which helped pass some time, unfortunately an earlier side-wall tear fix, popped open and he had to stop and fix it, so I lost my ‘company’. James Hayden came along shortly after and again it was nice to ride the short road section with him before the tough climb up to Loch na Stac. James was a young and already accomplished endurance rider, keen to make the transition from road based adventures to off-road adventures, he admitted he was in at the deep-end and on a big learning curve, I admired his courage and told him he would not regret a switch to the trails.
The next mountain section, past Loch na Stac and its spooky house was cold and gloomy, but I did enjoy riding the rocks along the shoreline. Coming back down off the hill was another chilling and unpleasant experience just like the last one. Despite new waterproofs, I was riding ‘wetted’ out and only just keeping warm by the heat generated from propelling myself along. I had decided that I would kip somewhere in the glen below (nr Struy) and before the next mountain section, as I was cold and tired and did not feel up to another 20km of tough mountain trail in the dark and wet, to get to the Hydro Bothy (a very basic concrete shelter, not a warm place or nice place – but better than a puddle outside!). I came across an empty lean-to and snook inside it, it was just after midnight and I needed to sleep and recover ready for a another tough day tomorrow. All the wet stuff apart from shorts came off, as these were just damp, I hung it all up in the vain hope that it may dry a little… I had a good sleeping bag, a good mat, and a spare primaloft to put on, so despite the general grimness of the place I should be cosy. And I was.
The loud and cheerful birdsong (don’t know why with all the wet weather) woke me up at 4am, it took me longer than usual to dress, pack, eat and get going, normally a 20min operation, it took me nearly 40. I was not ‘on it’ and the rain was lashing down loudly on the tin roof, so I had no motivation to get out and ride and nothing to look forward to in the next part of the journey. They call it the ‘road of a thousand puddles’, and it was more like just one continuous puddle in both track ruts. 10km in and you come to the first river, normally a water splash, today a raging torrent. I was on my own it was 5.30am and I did question my sanity, but it was not wide and the depth was not enough to sweep me over, the only thing was I had to carry the bike, as it was not possible to roll it through without it being dragged down stream. Made it through okay – just wet to the top of the legs. I soon discovered that that this one was the ‘tester’, another river crossing loomed further on, wider this time. Same as last time bike on head and head across diagonally down stream, so the current would help progress, only this time I lost my steady and dropped the bike as I started for the opposite bank, I caught hold of the bars in shallower water and retrieved it. I was now much wetter and a little un-nerved, but okay. On my bike and rolling again I was trying to re-count all the up-coming crossings in the mountain section over to Croik. I passed the Hydro and 3 bikes were outside, not quite sure who’s, I did not plan to stop as I was cold and keen to get off the mountain.
The tester! (photo credit – another rider)
At the bottom I stopped before the village of Contin, it was 7.30 am and knowing the shop was not open until 9 am I was left in a quandary – I needed to warm up and I needed a coffee and some hot food, a passer-by suggested I go to the garage 5km down the road (off-route) at Muir of Ord, so that’s what did. The garage was great, albeit no café, but good coffee and bacon sandwiches. The girl in there was interested in the ride and happy for me to make an ever bigger puddle of water as I stood an inch from the pie-warmer – she said if I got any closer I would be in it! It was good to have this bit of humour, as it was the first thing that had brought a smile to my face for a long while! Once I got my hands warmed up I made a call home, the first since riding, I had made up my mind and decided to bail and did not want to keep pushing further north in the bad weather. In my mind I had decided to enjoy a touring route back to Tyndrum, stopping at a couple of friends and taking in some new routes and POIs. In retrospect this nearby comfort of friends being relatively close to hand was the main reason I bailed, also I decided that I did not want to batter myself or my bike or my kit by pushing on, I was already feeling pretty exhausted and I was happy with the decision and keen to spend the next two days exploring and getting dried out and fed. There will be another HT550 next year!
Better weather for my ‘tour’ back to Tyndrum, with the WHW inglorious splendor!
The ride back to Tyndrum took me 2 ½ days and another 300km, it took me to some new places that I had previously by-passed (like the impressive Plodda Falls). The weather improved for the ride back and I really enjoyed the WHW route back from Fort William to Tyndrum it was in the day light and with a fresh (ish) mind and body. At Tyndrum on the Tuesday night we enjoyed a ‘Scratchers Party’ and it was interesting to hear the take from other riders; my heart went out to Liam Glen, who pushed hard from the start and built up a big lead, the conditions got to him eventually and he had to withdraw at Dundonell, similarly for Bergen de Cane (the Belgian!) he was determined to complete but had to withdraw at Kinlochleven as he had a ferry to catch…! The winner was an Alaskan chappy – Dustin Eroh in something like 4 days 3hrs – not bad considering the poor conditions! Also interesting to note that out of the 60ish starters only about 20 completed the full course. A big thanks as ever to Alan Goldsmith for organising the group ride.Dustin recounting his ride with Alan. It was nice to see him come in.