I sat at the Real Food Cafe with a handful of the racers after the 2017 Highland Trail Race. We talked about Rich and Tom pedaling the week prior, time spent sleeping, how team tandem went and how our bikes held up among other things. We sipped on coffee, stuffed our faces with helpings after helpings of delicious breakfast, lunch, and dinner and just talked. It’s post race therapy.
Initially, I thought I had figured out the race after I finished, but it now seems like a blur after a few days of sleeping. I can’t remember town names like others, or that crazy hike-a-bike section that I endured at one point. Maybe it’s a good thing, but I think there is something to be said about going fast and not having proper memories on route. It’s kind of sad at times to think about, but it’s what I signed up for. It’s what my goals were, and it’s what happened, so why dwell.
In reality, I had just accomplished something awesome. I pedaled a route I had no knowledge of outside of the minor research I did prior to the race. I traveled here with my bike and a few essentials to race with like-minded individuals from all over Europe and the UK. The initial feeling I got was that this race was not like many others in the stacked category of bikepack racing. It’s a ‘trail race’, which means there’s some chunk, some hike-a-bike, and some difficult stretches between resupply points. I would consider this to be the perfect race for me. Similar to the Colorado and Arizona trails.
When I arrived in Tyndrum, the gateway town of the Scottish Highlands, there was a general sense of badass in the air. Many racers had plans of riding in sub 4 days, and it was intimidating being a rookie. I still knew my ultimate goal; to finish and ride my own race. If I did that without making mistakes, and being careful on the bike, I figured I could put in a race around the 4 day mark, too.
I ended up finishing in 3 days, 10 hours and 22 minutes. So how the heck did it go so well? Well, there was a lot that didn’t go right, but let’s rewind and talk about my experience, because there is something to be said about a good event, and the Highland Trail 550 is just that.
This may have been the best vibe of any bikepacking event I have attended. Loop races tend to do this as you can ditch your gear for a few days, start the race, and finish in the same spot days later. It allows for racers to get to know each other pre and post ride, and with Tyndrum being the size it is, it’s hard to miss any bikepackers. You can typically find someone at the Real Food Cafe, a delicious spot that serves amazing food and drinks with a relaxing vibe, or By The Way, the hostel/camping facility where many of the racers stayed including myself.
The evening before race day the crew, maybe 30 or so of us, got together and pedaled to a beautiful spot south of Tyndrum along the Cornish River. It was in celebration of Mike Hall, a toast to the race, and a little meet and greet. I love our community. Being together was so important and created a good vibe for the event. I got a sense that these folks, or what I call friends now, are generally good people, and it was a treat to spend time with them.
The following morning after a restless night of sleep, we all lined up for the start just before 9am. Lee Cragie gave a little speech in memory of Mike Hall, and Tom Seipp sent us off. Tom is 12 and he finished the route with his dad, Rich, the evening before we left. Mind boggling.
Day 1 – Tyndrum to Inchbae Lodge – 165 Miles (265km)
What can I say? The start was blazing fast. I kept thinking, “No way could these guys keep this pace up”. In order to not give anyone a mental advantage so early, I made sure I kept up with the pack, even if I was never really leading. The weather was hot, unseasonably so, and humid which was new to me. It made for a premature loss of fluids in the form of sweat.
Temperatures in Scotland in the spring are similar to Colorado, but with the moist air, temperature variations seem even more extreme. Like when the sun goes behind the a cloud.
As the morning grew into the afternoon, the lead pack started to fade. I found myself pedaling with or near Phillip Addyman, Chris Hope, and Florian Ponzio. The pace settled a bit, which I was thankful for, and we started to chat.
Riding conditions up to this point were not bad at all. Some gravel roads and pavement (tarmac) dominated the route. Not knowing exactly what to expect as far as surface conditions, I took everything as it came, knowing there could be hike-a-bike or difficult riding at any moment. That is what happened at Loch Ericht with the bogs. The best way to explain it was walking on an already saturated sponge filled with mud, peat, and grass with sudden sink holes. It’s a challenge to stay on the bike, and very difficult to gage how deep each section is. Many times my front tire would sink up to my hub.
These bogs run the length of the entire route. While I always tried to stay on the bike, it may be just as efficient to get off and walk it. Many times I found myself nearly going over the handlebars from my tire sinking in and getting stuck. It can be dangerous, so be cautious. They also leave your bike a mess. I found myself scraping “bog juice” off my bike as it certainly can add weight.
After finally exiting the bog, we jumped on the Ben Alder singletrack, and man was it good. The only down side is the ridiculous amounts of drainage ditches, which are much more exaggerated in Scotland due to their significant rain. Descending Ben Alder was by far the highlight of day one, if not the entire trip.
These drainage ditches can be anywhere from a few inches in length, to over 3 feet. Many racers have bad encounters with these ditches by pinching their rear tire. I tried to bunny hop all of them as best as I could, but sometimes they are just too wide and too deep to risk, so dismounting is a smart decision. I didn’t make very many smart decisions with these ditches, but I never had any issues. Call it luck.
Reaching Laggan Wolftracks on pavement was another nice surprise. There was more pavement on day one up to this point than I would imagine, and we would get even more over the course of the next few days. That being said, I felt like it was a proper balance with all types of riding surfaces, not too difficult but certainly not easy.
I had no intention of stopping at Laggan Wolftracks, but if I didn’t, I would have been out in front, and likely would want to red line to create a gap. It was far to early for that, so in hindsight I was glad I stopped with Phillip and Chris briefly. Besides, who couldn’t use a Coke and Snickers before the big climb up Correyairack Pass.
As we climbed the narrow paved singletrack up to the start of the pass Chris and I chatted about his recent trip on this section a few weeks before hand, and if he cleared Correyairack Pass. He said he hadn’t, and you wouldn’t think now would be the time with a load bike, but sure enough he did it. A slip up by me on a rock led him to cleaning the crazy switchback just before I arrived up top. It was clear Chris was here to play.
Sidewalk – pavement
Single carriageway – one lane each way
Singletrack (road) – those fun ones with the passing places!
Gravel – estate track, forestry track, access track, double track
Fort Augustus was our first real resupply location at roughly 100 miles in, and it felt good to get this mental checkpoint out of the way unharmed and feeling rather fresh. I quickly got a few items at the Landos petrol station with Chris. We were there for no more than 20 minutes, leaving as ominous clouds moved overhead. Weather was expected for the afternoon, and right on cue, it showed up. Starting slowly but becoming more steady until the rain saturated the road.
Chris and I eventually started a rather big climb out of Invermoriston, which started on pavement, moved to gravel and finished with hiking on the rocky side of Loch ma Stac. It was ridiculous because there was no trail, just way too many large wet rocks that made it nearly impossible to pedal. These sections were few and far between, but when they came, you thought, “Why in the world would Alan (route creator) make us go over this?”
I wasn’t paying too close of attention to mileage, I never do, nor was I paying attention to where we were. It was difficult as I was in unfamiliar terrain. I just knew we were making good time, and Chris also mentioned this. By now Phillip was likely close, but we had not seen him since Correyairack Pass. It made me feel good about our pace, yet I knew I still had more in the legs if need be.
Let’s talk about Chris a little bit. He is rather new to this type of riding, but not to the adventure part of it. He has been in adventure racing for a while, and has even partnered with one of my local team mates, Jari Kirkland. When Alan Goldsmith picked me up at the airport, one of the first things we talked about was Chris, and how he expected him to win or be up front. So it got me thinking, how strong is he actually, and if I ride my own race, will it be enough? Or will I need to pull out all stops.
As we pedaled, Chris and I spoke about our families and life for a lot of that evening. We got to know one another, and that’s the beauty of these events. You find someone at your own pace, and you can chat about life. You could tell Chris was getting a little tired, or at least knew he needed to sleep a bit, and I too wanted to get an hour of rest that evening, so we put down just pass Inchbae Lodge, for 1hour and 15 minutes. I never feel asleep that night, but it was not all bad. I got to rest my eyes and elevate my legs.
Day 2 – Inchbae Lodge to Leckmelm – 173 Miles (278KM)
The alarm sounded and we quickly packed up as the midges were starting to invade our space, or, maybe us theirs. In any case, we were up and moving by 2:45am. The extreme exhaustion had yet to creep in, as did the really sore arse, so getting back on the bike was relatively painless.
We made decent time on the bike as morning started to creep in. I noticed that Chris was a bit slower during the nighttime hours, maybe because he was only carrying one Exposure Joystick on his helmet? I was carrying two lights, a Fenix UC 35 and an Exposure Diablo. I only used one light the first night to be cautious and save the energy.
Nights in Scotland during early summer are pretty nice. The sun sets sometime around 11pm and rises around the 4am hour. The further north you go the more light you’ll have. Unlike other races I have done, this made some of my light logistics a bit easier.
The sun rose and we were faced with a ridiculous headwind. I had many tail and headwinds throughout the trip, but that was the worse one I would encounter. What seemed like a slow trudge to the Oykle Bridge still got us there at 6:30, and to our surprise, the door of the hotel was open. Were they watching our dot to serve us early? Nope.
The door was apparently left open from an early departing guest. Both Chris and I took a quick breather in the lobby until we were kicked out abruptly from a lady who slammed the door shut on us. Chris and I both looked at each other thinking the same thought, she was not happy we were there.
In past years the Oykle Bridge Hotel was a haven for bikepackers in the race, but unfortunately, ownership recently changed hands, and it was clear things were not the same.
I had planned all along that I would miss this stop anyways, so I was set on food, and ready to take on the northern loop of the route. The sun was out, but it was hidden behind the thick coat of clouds overhead. Temperatures were chilly and it was an overall gloomy morning, a big change from hot and humid the previous day.
We eventually hit a stout climb off the River Cassley, a steep, cold and windy climb. Eventually hitting the top, we screamed down the other side of the hill. When I descend roads like this in these temperatures and conditions, I tend to get really tired. If it’s not singletrack, my adrenaline does not pump in, so these descents are a real struggle for me. It’s all about getting down so I can start pedaling, as crazy as that sounds.
Before I knew it, Chris was no longer in sight. I thought it was a good opportunity to finally put my rain jacket on, something I was holding off for far too long. He caught back up and mentioned that he was having tire issues. I knew this already, but I didn’t know the severity of it. Apparently he had to put a tube in on day one early on after dealing with a pinch from one of those nasty drainages.
Every so often he needed to take his pump out and inflate the tire. After the race, he told me that he had to do this to both tires, something that would have frustrated the heck out of me, but he seemed to take it in stride.
As the day moved along, the clouds started to break, and we found ourselves at the northern part of the loop. As I looked west I saw a steep road thinking this was the start of the difficult portion, and I was right, but for some reason I didn’t mind the hike. It was nice to get off and walk. It allowed me to soak in the beauty of the area, with stunning waterfalls at every turn, rushing like a spring runoff in Colorado.
The next few hours would take Chris and I 3 hours and 40 minutes to travel 24 miles. It was a slog filled with bogs, steep hike-a-bike, and eventually a fast descent down into Kylesku. This was a huge mental hurdle; we were on our way back south. We both decided that going off route to the hotel in Kylesku was not the best decision so we pushed on towards the Drumbeg Stores.
One thing that should not be underestimated is the singletrack road between Kylesku and Drumbeg. It hurt so badly. I was whining like a little baby wanting the short but steep climbs to end. They did but not after a lot of pain.
As we approached the Drumbeg Stores, the sign said closed. I had totally forgot it was a Sunday. At this point I needed calories pretty bad. I had reserves, but no way could I make it much further without stocking up. To my surprise, the owner came out when we arrived with a handful of food for us to throw down our throats, he was over accommodating, and I was over indulging, but it was ok. I needed the calories; it was my first real sit down meal of the race.
We were there for 50 minutes, a bit too long for my liking. The owner told us that Phillip was only 12 miles away, I thought to myself “That’s it? How could that be, only 12, surely we had put more mileage on him”, but apparently not. From there on out, my mindset changed a bit.
I was in hustle mode for the first time all race. Chris and I punched it to Lochinver in an hour and a half. It felt good, but we had work to do to put a big gap on him. Ahead of us was a tough hike-a-bike though the Suilven trail, that if we did at night, would really slow us down. I kept putting food in my body, drinking water, and attempting to ride every bit I could in a very heavy hike-a-bike section.
Resupply locations are pretty easy to come by on this route, and if you don’t hit it right, carrying enough food will suffice. That’s what I did. Chris kept up but he probably thought I was going crazy or something. If Phillip caught us, that would be a huge mental boost for him, and frankly a big hurdle for us to overcome.
In a race like this, all it takes is one bit of positivity to change the dynamic. I was happy with where I was, and I assumed Chris was also. We ended up making it to Ledmore Junction as the sun set, and it was a sight to be seen. The sky was being painted before our eyes, and even with the sense of urgency, we both stopped to take a quick photo.
As we rode the tarmac back to finish out the upper loop of the route, the sun set, and the lights came back on. I felt like I got to Oykle Bridge as fast as I could, and felt good about the time I made to that point. If Phillip caught me that night, it would be because he was the stronger rider. There was nothing else I could do.
Things got a bit interesting as we turned off the Tarmac towards Ullapool. I remember Chris saying, “the track is not matching up,” I assured him we were on track, but he must have been having some temporary GPS issues. Before I knew it, I was alone. According to Trackleaders, Chris went to sleep for roughly 4 hours starting at 12am. I knew this was my opportunity to put in a gap, so I ate some caffeine, and pedaled as quick as I could, this time with both of my lights, what a difference that makes.
I told myself I wanted to reach Ullapool, and maybe beyond before I stopped. I had the tough Fisher Field ahead of me, so if I reached Coffin Road I would be set up for the morning.
Day 3 – Leckmelm to Camban Bothy – 94 Miles (151Km)
I wish I could say I got a good night sleep, but in reality it was horrible yet again. I ended up finding a small driveway with a grassy spot on the side of road A835. I didn’t get there until about 3am and once I got there, I regretted choosing spot. The sheep were loud, I was too close to a high traffic road and the sun was rising. All of these factors led to maybe 20 minutes of sleep that evening, but again, I was resting my eyes, and legs, so it was not the worse case.
That morning, my legs felt instantly dead. They were heavy, my feet were swollen, and so wet. Trench foot was setting in. I was familiar with the feeling from the 2014 Colorado Trail Race.
Symptoms of trench foot include a tingling and/or itching sensation, pain, swelling, cold and blotchy skin, numbness, and a prickly or heavy feeling in the foot. It was full on, and there was nothing I could do about it. If you race the Highland Trail, be prepared, it’s nearly unavoidable.
At the time I didn’t know it, but I had started the hardest stretch of the race, roughly 37 miles of technical riding from the Coffin Road to Postman’s Path. Coming into it blind made things a little worse, but when it got real bad, frustration set in. More bogs, more rain, and more hike-a-bike. These are times that make or break these bikepacking races, and remaining as positive as you can is important, so that’s what I thought about – being positive!
I could talk a lot about this section. How it was rugged, that it reminded me of climbing in segments 22 and 23 of the Colorado Trail, the river crossing, the epic descent, and the ridiculous trail into Kinlochewe, but I’ll leave it out, because it’s more special going into it a little blind like I did. It’s the heart and soul of the route, the crux, and I was happy to get through it rather unscathed.
I will say this, the postman path is crap trail, thin, narrow, and off camber. I also ran across a lot of backpackers in this section. It’s funny the way they look at you, and the way we look at them. While they don’t know what I have been through, or how long I have been out, there is a common appreciation amongst us user groups in that we are out here for the same reason, to be one with nature, to build ourselves, and to escape the daily world.
I was amazed at how many backpackers I saw. Much of the race follows popular backpacking routes, and the last section from Fort Bill to Tyndrum follows the West Highland Way, an extremely popular route during the spring, especially during the time of the Highland Trail Race.
Once I finally reached Kinlochewe, I needed the goods once again. I stopped at the local store and again at the Whistle Stop Cafe for a take-away sandwich, just to eat it right then and there. Another round of afternoon rain had just ramped up, which was not at an ideal time. The singletrack section out of Kinlochewe was filled with rocks, many of them slippery, this made me cautious, and with me being cautious, I was vulnerable to being caught.
I was cold, wet, and exhausted as I stumbled upon the Strathcarron Hotel, and it seemed like a great place to stop to warm up quick. I grabbed some peanuts and chugged a coffee, an odd combo, but nothing is that odd when you are bikepack racing.
From here I had some quality time on the tarmac before some more bogs. I figured if I could crush the road as hard as I could, I would retain time on the field, and so that’s what I did, maybe everyone else did the same, but that coffee really made me feel fast that afternoon.
I slowly made my way towards Dornie. It was a nice and easy ride in after I got off the singletrack road, and wow, what a beautiful village. If you asked me what village I would re-visit after the route, it would be Dornie. There were many beautiful places filled with history and beauty, but Dornie stood out with the Eilean Donan Castle. It was dusk, the ocean was foggy, and the scene could have easily been apart of a medieval movie.
After hauling as fast as I could on more road, taking advantage of the speed that was given to me, I started what would be the last truly remote section of the route. The route was filled with long stretches between resupply points, but that was coming to an end.
From Dorny to Fort Augustus it was about 54 miles. The sun was setting, yet it appeared that I was in for so more hike-a-bike. I eeked out all of my strength to power up the River Croe Valley so I could I could make it through the hiking in the day light. It worked, and I basically completed the difficult section as the sun set. I continued on a few miles longer until I stumbled upon the Camban Bothy, It seemed like a good place to rest for an hour, so I entered and had the place to myself.
I got going sometime around 1:30am, and had to push through one of the most difficult sleepy moments I have ever encountered. My sleep to this point was basically nothing, even if I put down for 4+ hours though the race, I couldn’t actually sleep until my 3rd night. So I found myself extremely tired from the Camban Bothy to Fort Augustus, not to mention the rain had started to make a presence. It may have been my most frustrating moment of the race.
I quit taking my rain jacket off on that last day simply because it was a waste of time. So I started un-zipping it almost all the way, but keeping the zipper connected so I could zip it up quickly when it started to rain again. As the morning grew on, the rain started to fall steadier and steadier before I was drenched again.
Alas, Fort Augustus. I made it before everything had opened, but lucky for me the bathroom was 24 hours as I needed to do some business. I also checked to see if I had service, again. No service. I checked my phone a few times throughout the race, but I could never find a signal. This made me uneasy, but in reality was good as it powered me forward.
Public restrooms in Scotland, and the UK in general are not uncommon, many of them are open 24 hours. There were rumblings after the race of a few people sleeping in these, a great idea, until a drunk stumbles in a wakes you up.
The store opened at 8am so my next resupply location would be Fort William, a big town filled with shops and food. The upside, it was nearly flat the entire way there, the downside, I was dealing with a quality headwind that was frustrating to say the least. After nearly 4 hours, I made it to Fort Bill, got as far as I could to the next segment and stopped for the last time at the Highland Centre for some fish and chips, and a few take-away items. Before I left, I turned on my phone and noticed I had service. I quickly glanced at the tracker, Chris was still in Fort Augustus, which put a huge smile on my face. If I rode smart the remaining way, there was no way he could put 4 hours on me.
I left just in time for the rain to pick up again, a reoccurring theme. This time, it was maybe the worst downpour of the trip. To top it off, hundreds, seriously, hundreds of backpackers were coming the opposite direction on the West Highland Way. Most people were miserable, while I was bundled up in all my rain gear with a grin on my face, because the riding was quite fun.
After a rather fast section with a very memorable descent, I arrived in Kinlochleven. I quickly stopped at the bathroom, and made my way towards the Devil’s Staircase. It’s a pretty steep pitch up the actual trail, but once you get to the staircase, I found that I could ride in-between technical bits. I ran into an American backpacker who had a Whitesox hat on, so naturally, we chatted about our rebuilding club for a few minutes. After I reached the top, I encountered another top-notch descent. The dropper post was a huge bonus in these descents, and I’m extremely happy I went with it. I didn’t ride smart like I should have on those two final descents, but who cares; I was having the time of my life.
I made it to and finally across A82, and had one small climb and a cobble road descent before reaching Bridge of Orchy. Alan and I had pedaled to Bridge of Orchy a few days before the race, so I was now on familiar territory. As I pedaled back to Tyndrum, I reflected on the past 3.5 days, It was a stunning route, difficult and frustrating at times, but it was a clean run, a successful pedal of 550 miles, and I was pretty darn excited from the experience. I glanced back for Chris once more before that last hike-a-bike. I knew it was official. I had pedaled the 541 or so miles in 3 days, 10, hours, and 22 minutes. Stamping my name in the history books, for now.
Chris showed up roughly 4 hours later, followed by Rich, Phillip and Huw. I was asked how I do it after the race, and my general responses is “the same as you,” I pedaled my bike from a to b, set checkpoints for myself, ate food, slept a little and made it to the finish. We are all here to do the same thing, and many of us completed the goal this year. Some do it faster than others, but in the end, you and I are no different. We are here because we want to ride our bikes in the beauty of the Scottish highlands
The Highland Trail Race, a badass 550 mile route that circumnavigates the best of the Scottish Highlands. Plan on getting wet, dirty, sweaty, and bloody. Your ass will hurt, your feet will be in pain, and your legs will ach. In exchange, you will be graced with views of beautiful mountains, valley filled lochs, some wildlife, and memories that will last a lifetime.