Content by Phil Simcock Part 3 of 3 Part 1

Part 2


Day Four

After two and a half hours of broken sleep, I decided to just push on. The short rest allowed me to recover a little and the food I had eaten in Poolewe had done me a world of good. I think I started the climb at about four thirty in the morning. It was a glorious morning with a blue sky and little wind. The climb was long and hard and at times near impossible with a heavy bike, tired legs and inappropriate footwear. It was worth it, the view at the top was incredible and was the only time in the whole race where I stopped and took a picture.  I looked down into the sun drenched valley with the singletrack snaking off into the distance and disappearing into the cloud that hugged the bottom of the valley. This downhill was going to be special.

Highland Trail 550 Report

Looking down into Coire Lair

It was rocky, steep and very technical and I was loving it. I forgot that I had been riding my bike for near 60 hours over the last three days and just enjoyed the adrenaline as it surged through my body. I was taking a risk here, but I didn’t care. I had trained hard for this race and I was going to enjoy these moments. This is what mountain biking is all about. Being in an amazing place, pushing your body and bike to the limit. The only thing that was missing were my mates. I passed through the cloud and reached the valley bottom. My arms and hands were nearly numb but the smile on my face made up for it and made the next few miles a lot easier.

It was now mid morning and my mind drifted towards the next food stop. I passed a perfectly nice cafe in Strathcarron and decided to get to Dornie before I stopped. There was only one reasonable size hill separating me from my next food experience. However, I was now realising that none of this route is straight forward. The climb was an easy fire road and not too steep, however the track along the other side was a mixture of double track and singletrack that was overgrown in parts and boggy. Probably because I was hungry, but it just seemed to go on and on.

Eventually, I made it to Dornie and started my search for food. I was too early for the pub and had to head to the Castle. The cafe at the castle was packed full of tourists who didn’t appreciate a dirty, sweaty biker turning up and eating like a barbarian. I treated myself to carrot and coriander soup and a chicken salad wrap. The queue for the coffee was far too long, so I didn’t hang about and headed back into the village as I had noticed a quaint little coffee shop/gallery. There was no one else there so they didn’t mind me bringing the tone of the place down. Their coffee was amazing, so I treated myself to two cups and a large piece of carrot cake – very civilised. I then stocked up with food at the shop and pushed on into the sunshine, knowing only Glen Affric lay between me and Fort Augustus.

Glen Affric was beautiful but very, very long. Again I hadn’t expected the climb and push at the start of the valley, as I hadn’t looked at the map in detail. During the ride along the valley I decided that I would ride on through the night. I wasn’t sure how far Andrew, Steve or Tom were behind me, but the wifi in Dornie allowed me to figure out they were somewhere between four and six hours. If I stopped for the night and they didn’t, then I could potentially lose my lead. I made the decision to keep riding whilst I had a full stomach and was full of caffeine, as I knew that trying to make the decision once it had gone dark would only have meant one answer. So this was it, just one night and about 90 miles of riding separated me from my family!

Having made this decision, it seemed to spur me on and once over the climb I kept the pace high. I stopped off at the youth hostel on the way out of the valley to freshen up, take a caffeine turbo gel and check the place out for a potential family adventure next year. I then rode out of the valley and turned south towards Fort Augustus. There were two big hills to summit first and both of these were just frustratingly in the way of my next food stop. The first was a tedious climb along fire roads that formed a large construction site for the replacement of existing electricity pylons. The second was another drag up a forest fire road, which again finished along another area of construction. Not the nicest of sections but they all got me closer to the finish.

The downhill into Fort Augustus was a nice surprise, a long swoopy singletrack through the forest that helped me forget the tedium of the last few miles. I made it into Fort Augustus and made the first mistake of the race. It was now near ten o’clock and everywhere in Fort Augustus was closed and the only place for food that was still open was the chippy. Gazing at the menu, I blocked off any sensible thoughts of buying anything low fat and ordered fish and chips, a steak and kidney pie, mushy peas and a coffee. I sat down on the pavement outside, guzzling in the food as every passerby made comment!

Now all I had to do was ride twenty five easy miles to Fort William and finish off with half the West Highland Way – easy. I pushed off and started to go hard along the flat trail alongside the Caledonian Canal. This is when I realised my mistake of eating copious amounts of fatty food. My body started to really struggle to break down the food, which made me even more tired than I already was. It felt as if my body was going to shut down. At times I could only manage just over ten miles an hour on a flat trail!. It had now also started to go dark, which didn’t help and my head was dropping and I was swerving across the track. Not a good idea next to a canal. I kept on going, hoping that I would come round soon, but it just didn’t happen. At one point I swerved off a section of tarmac, got caught in a rut and came of the bike. I was unhurt but very lucky.

This is where the mind tricks started to kick in. I was convinced that I had been going too slow and thought I was going to be caught, so I gave myself no choice but to carry on. This was my second mistake. I did, however, stop for a power nap. I set my alarm for fifteen minutes and then lay down to try and get at least some sleep. I managed ten minutes, woke and then carried on. This rejuvenated me for about 20 minutes and then I was struggling again. Somehow I managed to make my way through to Fort William and headed straight to the 24 hour garage.

I wasn’t going to stop now. A coffee, some chocolate and crack on. I knew the West Highland Way very well and I had rode the northern section at night before, so I felt comforted by that. The climb out of Fort William is a long fire road that is all rideable. Once on the old military rode, it is mostly rideable and not too steep. My tiredness was getting worse and I had to stop three or four times for a power nap. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. I pushed on until the light started to break and hoped this would spur me on. I now also started to lose my mind a little. I was convinced that I was riding with someone who was feeding me advice and reminding me how far and how long I had to go. Every now and again I would come around and realise I was on my own before drifting off again into this sleep deprived stupor.

The downhill into Kinlochleven is great fun, but it wasn’t this time. I was struggling to steer the bike and maintain balance and ended up walking most of the trail. However, one last effort up the other side to Devil’s Staircase and I would nearly be home. The last time I rode this route, I did it in about forth five minutes. This time it took me over one and a half hours. It was the hardest miles of any ride or race I have ever experienced. It was a mixture of short bursts on the bike, pushing, dragging and constantly looking over my shoulder expecting Andrew or Steve or Tom to come over the horizon after a good night’s sleep. At this point I realised I should have slept, even for a couple of hours, as this would have helped me recover a little and see me through to the end.

It was too late now. I was far too paranoid to stop. I eventually made it to the top of Devil’s Staircase with a huge sense of relief until I remembered that I had to descend the other side. I was running out of food and what I did have wasn’t working. On top of the tiredness, my body was now starting to struggle to find any useful source of immediate energy. I minced down Devil’s Staircase and as I reached the bottom, I heard a signal from my phone that I had received a text. I must have left it switched on when I was in Fort Augustus. It was my mate Jase and it read ‘Easy from now on. Brilliant mate’. I knew from this text that I must have a healthy lead and that I just needed to be sensible for the rest of the route. A sense of relief washed over me as I realised that a rider wasn’t about to catch me. I immediately relaxed and then started to realise that I was in a bit of a bad way.

I made it to Kings House and hobbled in to the hotel. They had started to serve breakfast and were happy to take my custom. One of the staff saw that I was in a bad way and immediately brought me a bowl of porridge. Once demolished, he then brought me another bowl and then a continental breakfast. It was just what I needed. I started to come round and feel a bit better, however I didn’t hang around as I didn’t want to put the other customers off their breakfast. It had started to rain heavily outside, but I didn’t care. I started to ride up past the Glencoe Ski Lodge knowing this was the last reasonable uphill of the race. The pile of food I had just ate had now hit my stomach and another wave of tiredness swept over me. I stopped riding and lay down on the trail in the pouring rain. The next thing I remember was a lady shouting out her dogs name nearby. I looked at my watch and I had been asleep for an hour, lay next to my bike, on my back, in the pouring rain. It must have looked as if I had been shot. I was a bit dazed and confused. I got back on the bike and rode across Rannoch Moor. I couldn’t remember whether I had finished the race or it was still going on. I just knew I had to keep pedalling.

These last few miles just seemed to take forever. I made it to Bridge of Orchy, filled my water bottle for the last time and headed to the finish. I knew there would be no fanfare or grandstand finish. I just wanted to see my family. As I came down the trail towards Tyndrum, I saw my two daughters playing on their scooters and my wife soaking up the morning sun. I had ridden in some amazing places for the last four days, but this was the most beautiful sight of the whole trip. I reached the finish, climbed of the bike and straight away received my prize – a big family bear hug. The pain and suffering was all worth it!

Highland Trail 550 Report

Finished!

Competing in a race of this length is easier with support and I have been lucky to be helped by a few people. A big thank you to Team JMC, for support throughout the year and just being a good bunch of people. Thanks to USE for supplying the fantastic lights, Mt Zoom for lots of lightweight stuff, Maxxis (One Industry) for the rubber and Keep Pedalling for building my wheels and sorting my last minute panics. The most important support was from my family. Thanks for putting up with my obsession for this race, allowing me to put in some long, daft training rides and being there for me at the finish!

The links below will fill you in on the rest of the story.

Part 1

Part 2

3 Comments

  1. John Goodwin

    What an amazing ride Phil, I find it unbelievable that you can push yourself to such limits, both mentally and physically. A truly inspiring story for all of us. Well done !

    John

  2. Pingback: Highland Trail 550 Report Pt.2 - Bikepackers Magazine

  3. Philip Addyman

    I think I’ve read all the HT reports out there and this is the best because the writer names all the place he is passing through. Great stuff!

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