This is not a story of overcoming the odds and fighting through pain to show supreme levels of endurance. Nor is it a story of personal discovery, a life changed by a series of events that apply perspective to the modern angst. It’s not even a decent travelogue and would struggle to fit into any genre that cyclists would recognise as their own. Unless it was decided to create a new one and I suspect that commissioning editors would steer well away from a category labelled “near 50 year old men who should know better“.
But as I sit down to write this, that classification is what I would scrawl upon the filing cabinet drawer that contains most of my cycling articles. And this is yet another piece about me, my ambition and the clear fact that I really *should* know better by now. Just in case I’m about to lose a few potential readers I should add that it also contains some stuff about the Highland Trail 550. And if you’ve read my previous piece about the ride, you can skip most of this article in the knowledge that the end is almost identical as the last.
Ever since I was a child I’ve never let a complete lack of track record or ability get in the way of ambition. From the age of 8, I was definitely the most enthusiastic and least talented football player upon all of the fields I trod wearing studded shoes. Last to be picked every time, I still gave it my all. My eyes convinced my nervous system that I was playing like Ardilles even though the physical manifestations were enough to leave my team mates inscribing the ball with “don’t give it to Barter“. It’s been the same with everything else since. Climbing, I’m visualising Jonny Dawes whilst my second furiously fills in life insurance forms. I’ve never even managed to stand up waterskiing despite trying for hours and I’m banned from discos by my entire family.
Cycling has allowed me to get somewhere close to the athlete I’d always visualised, I’ve raced and done OK even winning on the odd occasion when my mum has been able to afford the bungs. I’ve ridden the length of Great Britain unsupported and in 2013 staked my claim as the first man ever to take his bike to the top of the UK’s three highest peaks. Through all of these rides I’ve visualised Jens Voigt whilst actualising slightly shonky cycle-bloke, but each one has led to a will to try something harder. I cannot for the life of me fathom “why?” but it’s definitely a trait of that 8 year old lad, led by ambition and prepared to forsake talent in the name of “having-a-go”.
This is why I’ve lined up twice to have a go at the Highland Trail 550, and it’s probably why I’ve failed to make it round twice. Oops, there’s the spoiler. The thought process that should rationally weigh up the physical and metal skills necessary to make it round are overruled by a childhood trait that has never been shed. I can’t help thinking to myself “I wonder if I could do that?” a question that always leads to me having a go.
So it’s 22nd May 2015 and I roll up in Tyndrum with a car stuffed full of bike and a mind visualising a glorious finish some five days later having nailed 100 miles per day over some of the UK’s most difficult terrain. The pain of the previous year has dissipated completely, all I can remember is a pretty sore arse and this year I’ve brought cream. Other riders are beginning to appear and we nervously prod each other with pre-race chat. There’s a few veterans of the trail who know what everyone’s in for and some HTR virgins who are shortly to have their maidenhoods torn across the Scottish wilds. I’m somewhere in between, only ever made it to first base, reminds me of my early teenage years.
I met Scott from the USA who’s never ridden on British soil before, this is his introduction to “type 2” fun. I don’t envy him, I still cross myself when leaving the house and I’ve been riding here for 20+ years. I chat to a few old acquaintances and finally met Alan Goldsmith whose trail had led to my downfall the year before. He’s clearly worried about my track record as he asks me where I’m staying four times that evening and once the day after. It’s either concern for my well-being or more likely early onset Alzheimers as he celebrates his 51st birthday the day of the race.
We end up in the cafe trading modest plans like students before a tough exam. None of us have revised enough, all of us jokingly predict disaster and for many of us we’ve clearly seen into the future. I’m tapped on the shoulder by Andy who asks if I can help a French guy with his GPS maps. Fabian and I fiddle around with his Mio but it resolutely refuses to display any form of map. I’d packed a spare Garmin in my rucksack and this starts to eat at my conscience. I know he has poor paper maps and equally how tough the route would be to follow without satellite guidance, but it’s MY GPS and what if my other one goes wrong? However, the camaraderie around me is infectious and I traipse back to the car to retrieve the GPS. Surely loaning it to Fabian will bestow me with enough karma to see me round the course? Even if I never see the unit again it was worth lending it for the sheer look of relief upon his face. Although as he too was a virgin to the Scottish MTB scene I was worried that I’d handed him a key to disaster rather then redemption.
Sometime around 9pm we dispersed to various tents, vans or accommodation. My bed for the night was a roll mat in the boot of my car and so I walked over to the pub for a pint of “sleeping pill”. It had the opposite affect.
Now, I’m no stranger to insomnia. I was a chronic sufferer many years back and did the usual rounds of doctors, hypnotists, herbal remedies and neat spirits in order to seek out a cure. It took many many years of developing a proper sleep ritual to put right and even now I dream of an unbroken period of seven hours snooze. Alcohol never helps, in my case it often has the opposite affect when taken in moderation. The only way I can get some proper sleep is to get properly pissed and this has it’s own implications upon waking. That one pint combined with a degree of anxiety completely did for my night’s sleep. Normally, I’ll toss and turn until about 2pm before sparking out. I was still staring at the car roof gone 5am and think I might have sneaked an hour somewhere between 5.30 – 6.30am. My alarm went off at 7am just as I felt ready to drop off again.
I sought solace in breakfast from the Green Welly Cafe. Solace was not forthcoming. What was forthcoming was the worst bacon and sausage roll I have ever swapped for money in my life. The bacon was passable but the sausage was simply fat wrapped up in digestive tract. I nearly gagged after the first bite but was forced to persevere, otherwise I’d have to break into the dehydrated breakfasts packed on my bike.
As you can see I’m getting the excuses in early. Shite breakfast and a lack of sleep, you know already that this is not going to end well. All that’s needed now is some properly crap weather to see us off, but that didn’t happen. In fact the sun shone on Tyndrum as some 40 mountain-bikey-bike-packy types fettled around with luggage and sprayed the place with Dunkirk spirit. I sorted myself out without further incident and rolled down to the Real Food Cafe. Sitting at a bench I watched Chris tuck into a proper breakfast that they were serving up. He couldn’t finish it all and I held myself back from plate scavenging the rest. He then weighed my loaded bike and I was pleased to see a figure around 37lbs, some 6lbs lighter than my first ever weigh-in at the Welsh Ride Thing, I was getting better at this packing lark.
And so 9am arrived, as did I at the West Highland Way leading out of Tyndrum. We sang “Happy Birthday” to Alan Goldsmith, I was the bloke who injected “you bastard” instead of Alan at the required point. I had prior qualifications to do so, as did a few others around me. Iona, the lady-hero of the year before saw us off before continuing her brave fight against Hodgkins Lymphoma (breaking news, it’s gone!! another battle well fought). A few minutes later we were at the base of the Devil’s Staircase.
OK, I exaggerated. It was a few hours but there was not a lot of hanging about. Last time I’d bimbled along on my own ITT. This time there wasn’t a huge amount of chatting as everybody “took on their own personal challenge against the clock”, because we’re not racing are we?
I pushed up the steep climb with fifteen or so riders in front of me and descended carefully to Kinlochleven making sure to throw a quick “V” sign at the rock that made me crash the year before. Unlike most others I then went into the shop and did some extra miles circuiting the place looking for a sandwich and some chocolate milk. So far all was well, there was a niggle of tiredness eating at me but I felt more spaced out than fatigued. Which explains why I went the wrong way climbing out of the village but does not give Ricki an excuse as I found her a bit lost up the same trail. After some faffing I remembered the steep road climb up to the lodge and got on with it. Ricki dropped back to cheerfully chat with some others as they made gestures from the haze of their lactate threshold. I passed a few other riders on the way to Abhainn Rath where Ricki, Amanda and Darren caught me, or so they thought. I cunningly pretended to video them making the river crossing with them unaware that they’d become walking depth gauges for me to plan my route across. It turned out to be no issue at all as the water was only ankle deep. The trail to Loch Trieg proved a minor inconvenience, it was drier than the last time I’d thrutched across it and I was able to ride a fair few bits. I arrived at the bridge, cursed the climb to Loch Ossian and settled into a rhythm of not caring about much at all really apart from pedalling and wondering if there was a business opportunity for me to create maps with place names spelt phonetically? This thought had occurred as I looked up at Garbh Chnapan which is no doubt pronounced “FAY WILLTERGIBBET” or something completely unrepresentative of the letters that define its name.
I caught up with Ricki, Amanda, Darren and James near the Corrour Lodge. I think Darren had punctured. James was having rear mech issues and Ricki was just generally chatting in her unconcerned friendly way. I rode and conversed with her for a while during which she reminded me that I was the “bloke who makes videos swearing on the internet”. I’ve subsequently rewritten my will and included a new gravestone clause if this is to be the legacy of my various adventures. Javier the Spanish rider had introduced himself in a similar manner, “Hi Dave, I recognised the bike .. and the swearing”. After A while I could not take the high pitched squealing anymore. I hasted to add that was not Ricki, it was my drivetrain that was in desperate need of lube so I stopped to grease up and then spent a long period of the ride on my own.
Something odd happened between here and Lochan Na Hearba. Up until this point my legs and everything else had been mostly OK. But by the Lochan I had completely drained of everything. Now, I know myself as a rider and whilst I’m not fast I can usually go all day as long as I eat and drink. I’m sure I had been doing these things but they had not worked. I passed Karl filling his bladder in a stream (the Camelback type not the one holding his pee) and grunted on for a few miles but Karl quickly caught and zoomed past. On reaching Laggan Wolftrax I knew all was not well so stuffed in a pasty and some chocolate. They didn’t work either. This meant that the ride to Garva Bridge was a bit of a grovel, made worse knowing that the Corrieyairack Pass was yet to come. Last year I’d mostly ridden to the top. But this time I just did not have the energy to manage a continuous spin and ended up walking a few easy gradients in an almost-bonked state.
I made the climb with Giaccamo and Ed. None of us were feeling the love as the weather had drawn in and cloud dropped so we were taking on our unfair share of excess water. At the top we encountered a patch of snow to push our bikes through and then began the cheery spin down to Fort Augustus.
Except it wasn’t a cheery spin.
My selective memory had chosen to retain the downhill bits whilst neglecting to remember some sections of uphill. It also reminded me to go right at the quarry, conveniently forgetting that this was the wrong way and I’d have to ride all the way back up a hill for 1/2 a kilometre and then go left. Giaccamo and Ed were long gone as I finally reached the gate announcing the advent of a proper road and were halfway into their dinners as I crashed into the pizza restaurant and sat shivering in a bit of a daze. I was properly fatigued and glad of an attentive waiter who sprang immediately to my side. I asked for 3 Fantas and a pizza, he said “which one”, I asked for a list and then for some reason that I cannot fathom ordered seafood.
Seafood pizza. After 100 miles and 8,000ft of climbing who in their right mind would order seafood pizza? It’s as if I’d not quite had my fill of pain and wanted the torture to continue. A cuisine based reminder of the fact that things actually can get worse. In my tired, shivering state I bravely attempted to eat and digest this mussel topped behemoth. I now had additional bragging rights to the other riders who surrounded me, for sure they’d suffered equally on the trail but look at them now basked in the comfort of their Margheritas. I was manfully ploughing through something much less appetising simply to prolong the pain. I managed half of it and declined the offer of a box for the rest lest it attract sharks to my camping spot for the night. I paid and forlornly pedalled the bike to a local campsite. The lack of sleep was really hurting me now and I resolved to forget any alarms and let my nervous system decided upon my waking hour.
At least 8 of us had made the campsite decision and gave their showers a right hammering. I did a double take on walking into the men’s block thinking I’d strayed into a steam room instead. A proper camper had left a bottle of shower gel in one of the cubicles and by eleven o’clock 7 male riders were safely tucked up in bivys/tents smelling nicely of Lynx.
I wandered over to the bar and asked if I could buy a bottle of something with a wide opening. The barmaid sold me some iced tea with a puzzled smile, not realising that they was no way on earth I was leaving my sleeping bag that night. I nearly had to as it was only 350ml and I appeared to have 249ml left in me.
At 4.30am I heard the sounds of the others leaving. I rolled over and managed another hour or so before getting up some time near 6am and managing to roll out of the campsite around 7 – 7.30’ish after another shite breakfast of rehydrated hamster bedding, or Adventure Food Expedition Breakfast to call it by its rightful name. I left Andy brewing up in the laundry room but he soon caught me on the forest track and sped off into the distance with the help of some digital maps that I’d created. Yet again I was handing the advantage to other riders.
The climb to Loch Liath went “oooff” and I passed the Italian rider Enrico spinning merrily away on an impossibly low gear. I scratched around faded memories of Italian holidays for a decent linguistic greeting but barely managed to grunt a “ciao” as the steepness continued. The beach walk of Loch ma Stac was as frustrating as ever with its stop-start riding but after a push up the steep doubletrack at the end I was able to ride most of the paths to Corrimony followed by some easy roads to the Cnoc Hotel for a coke and crisps.
Next on the agenda was a climb through the Erchless Forest which I did solo followed by some puddle strewn track across the moors and down to the Orrin Reservoir. I rode a section of this with Amanda and Darren, they were far too cheerful at this point, chatting away amiably and asking me questions about rides near my house. I think we might even have covered New Zealand punk bands at one point before they left me and headed into the distance. Clearly this was down to the lesser circumference of my 27.5” wheels. I saw them stop at a building and chat with two riders for a while. I did not recognise their apparel from a distance and wondered who these mystery mountain bikers were in the middle of nowhere?
Ten minutes later my question was answered as I caught up with Rich and Tom making their own attempt upon the 550 route. This on its own was remarkable, more-so was the fact that Tom is ten. His Dad Rich had agreed to accompany him round the trail having knocked it off himself in last year’s race. Yet again I had the “this-is-Dave-who-swears-on-the-internet” introduction and we chatted for a few minutes with the two of them in fantastic spirits causing “some dust” to enter my eyes. Later that evening I discussed this meeting with other riders and we singularly agreed it was inspirational to see them out on the route. That is apart from the one wag who quipped “child abuse”. I’ll not name names.
I left them both at the next climb and finally enjoyed handing back all my height to the road screaming down to the infamous locked gate. It was summited using the Goldsmith “pedal hang” technique and a short road spin later I was emptying the Contin Village shop of energy bars. A few riders were gathered here and many more had been through evidenced by the overflowing bin and overflowing cash register. It was nice to sit and chat for a while and even nicer of the one nameless rider who left almost two kilos of fruit and nut for “anyone that wants it”. Had he really carried it all the way there only to leave it for the birds?
The weather had not been great to this point but all was saved with the arrival of a rider who’s name I did not catch but shall forever in my mind be known as “Ms Michael Fish”. She cheerily told us that the forecast was looking much better and we had some mildness to look forward to. The nearest thing to mild I saw over the next two days was the Guinness pump in the Oykel Bridge hotel. Almost from the point of those words leaving her mouth, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. I wasn’t so bothered riding over Strath Rannoch as the wind was almost helping but as the route turned west at the Amat Forest I slipped into a mini-fit of despair.
The wind was really strong now and I weigh the sum total of fuck all. Physics says that this is not a very balanced equation as the wind is pushing against something it finds easy to move. The thing then has to push back a lot harder to make forward progress and at this point the thing was me and I had ridden some 90 odd miles that day. The track from Croick will remain littered in my swear words forever as I struggled hard to make forward progress. Why was this happening now when the Oykel Bridge Hotel was so tantalisingly close. At points I looked ahead desperately for a wild cow to draft but none were willing.
After an age I descended a track to the hotel and used my last reserves of energy to push open the bar door. About 6 other riders were sat round empty plates discussing a bloke who’d taken the wrong track through a series of bushes last year. That’ll be me then.
The landlord handed me a menu and then told me that every pasta dish was gone. That’ll teach me for lying in. I ordered a curry and sat down next to Giacamo who was not looking happy. He was suffering with achilles problems and contemplating a scratch. It was hard to know what to say, urge him on to do further damage or offer a sympathy vote. Instead I tried to eat the curry but the digestive system decided to close before half of the plate was empty. Learning from the day before I’d eaten plenty out on the trail.
Four of us then set out to find a bivy. The landlord told us of a place called Castley Rock apparently a great site that the fishermen use just outside of Rosehall. I though this was some Game of Thrones based wind up so remained cynical but needs got desperate as it began to utterly piss it down just as we left the hotel. The pissing it down continued all the way to the mythical bivy site which really did exist and was populated by at least four more riders. As we arrived the rain stopped. Brilliant. A complete all body soaking just before bedtime. I found a quiet spot and fumbled the tent into some sort of resemblance of a shelter. I then bared myself to the attendant wildlife and attempted to get slightly dry before diving into my sleeping bag, needing a piss, diving out again , thrilling a passing crow, then finally falling into another deep sleep.
I’d set an alarm for 5.30am and got up to find everyone bar Giacomo gone. Bloody hell they were keen, this was my first experience of competitive sleeping. I was packed and away by 6.30am and headed on the road along Glen Asley, directly into the westerly wind which had decided not to abate. I hated it so much that the steep climb east from the power station was a relief. My right knee was beginning to give some pain and climbing eased it as I could get out of the saddle.
The wind was relentless onto West Merkland, a brief skit north eased the pain for a while until I headed into Glen Golly with ever worsening weather. The track conditions were best described as fucking dreadful, chewed up, muddy wet, rollercoastering horror. I ground on into the wind desperate to get to the steep climb up to Bealach Horn where it was legal to get of and push. This took an age to arrive and then had the temerity to be steeper than I’d remembered it made worse by the wind.
Push, push,push,hold the brakes, swear, push,push,push,hold the brakes, swear.
At the top I was buffeted by high winds, rain and the wrapper of my egg sandwich. All I had to do now was descend the crappy singletrack that had done for me the year before and climb out the other side. Strangely I quite enjoyed the descent, making no attempt to ride at all, simply bouncing the bike from bog to bog. The river crossing was a little hairy with a decent flow trying to nick my bike and fence it to the sea. The climb out the other side was best forgotten about as lots and lots of things hurt but eventually I made the top and had overcome my previous nemesis.
I got on the bike and tried to ride the track that traverses the top. The pain in my right knee had gone from dull to sharp and I was quickly dissuaded from continuing, I hoped this was temporary so decided to push a bit more, recover on the descent to Loch Stack and then take it easy.
Trouble is knee pain is rarely temporary. Just before Achfary is a small ramp, some 30 yards long and not very steep. I’d coasted down to this point and then applied a little more power to make the climb. My right knee exploded into a super-nova of pain. This was not your normal niggle, it was full on ”stop what your doing and never do it to me again” type sensation. I stopped immediately, gasped then tried again. Same result. I had to push up a tiny ramp then select the lowest gear and spin the pedals in order to move forward. Any modicum of pressure on the right foot caused the pain.
Someone asked me afterwards “How easy was it to decide to scratch”. In my case, simple. I went from “thank fuck I’ve made it over that” to “I’m going home” in about 30 minutes. A simple forward projection of the pain I was feeling verses what I had to climb made it an easy decision. I’m prepared to put myself through a lot, remember I’ve eaten seafood pizza, but there was no way I wanted the route enough to go through four more days of that.
Once again I turned left at Achfary and kept going. The same place as before. The same frustration at not being able to see what would come next. I’ve never cared about position or time in the HTR, I’ve only ever wanted to suffer the mythical beatings of Glen Canisp and Fisherfield. Here I was yet again woefully grovelling my way to Lairg. Maybe they’ll put a sign up especially for me pointing the way home.
Those thirty miles hurt as much as the last two days, I had to unclip my right foot a lot and mess about with position to stop the hurtiness. I met James near West Merkland and he tried to persuade me back with an offer of a bacon and sausage roll. I declined and then spent the next hour wondering just how he was planning to create this roll?
Finally, Lairg came and I managed to get a hotel room. I undressed in the shower cubicle and then looked around for a packet of seeds to plant in the filth on the floor. After a long shower I inspected the knee. It was swollen and creaking like a horror movie soundtrack. Ligaments. More than likely caused by pushing too hard a gear for too long in the wrong position. More than likely my fault.
I sent Greg my scratch text (naked, now he knows) and retired to the restaurant for a lot of wine accompanied by some food. I managed to get connected to the wifi and could see the rest of the race unfolding without me. Initially, I’d decided that I was done with the HTR550, to bale out at the same place twice was surely sending a clear message that this route was beyond me and I should look elsewhere. But I kept watching the dots, kept thinking “I wish one of them was me” and kept wondering just where I’d be now and what I’d be looking at were I still to be in the race. I feel that now as I type this. I’ve ridden my bike twice since I scratched and all is still not right. Yet I’m still obsessed with the route, still curious as to what lies beyond Achfary and still glowing with the camaraderie of one that marched to the trenches, went over the top only to be shot before reaching the barbed wire. Soldiers don’t usually get another chance in battle, HTR riders do. I don’t doubt that I’ll be grovelling to Alan to let me have another go next year and equally don’t doubt that I’ll be turning left at Achfary for some other reason on day three. And I’ll keep doing it until one day I’ll turn right.
ps. As an afterthought. I beat myself up a lot for not making it this year and I’m sure others did especially those who were let down by their equipment rather than their bodies. The results went up last week and appeared under the categories of “Completions”, “DNF’.
I’d rename them and add a third:-
People who nailed it
People who stepped up
Everyone else in the world