Sunday 9 June 2024

Highland Trail 2024


“but what if your Garmin fails?”

“oh I’ll just navigate from my phone” I said,

Little thinking there was any chance of this event actually occurring.


This is the tale of my 2024 Highland Trail


Nervous at before the start!

Saturday morning saw 64 nervous riders lined up at the start in Tyndrum. I’ve come to realise I hate the start lines of ultras. Everyone looks faster, fitter and more confident than me. I’m convinced I’ve got more stuff on my bike than anyone else but also worried I’ve not packed enough stuff. 


The start - so many people

After what felt like an eternity Alan said “go” and we all started rolling forwards. The first 30 mins we’re all packed in together, but by the time we’d got to Loch Lyon things had started to space out. I settled into pace somewhere towards the back of the pack and got chatting to some lovely women riding at about the same pace.


Halfway round the loch I rode through the first river crossing, and got my feet wet. I sighed inwardly, aware that my shoes would like remain wet for the next 6 or so days. Exiting Loch Lyon I looked around there was no-one to be seen ahead or behind and I relaxed into riding in my happy place.


Arriving at the bridge by ben Alder both another rider offer to help me get my bike on the bridge. I thanked him but pointed out the race was self-support so I’d better figure it out on my own. Any other day I wouldn’t have hesitated to accept assistance, wrestling a loaded bike over my head onto that bridge is a fraught task.


The single track off Ben Alder always put a smile on my face (even if I can’t hop all the water bars), I just love it. The boggy track  along side the Pattack not so much.

By the time I got to Melgarve I was 30 mins down on last year, I put it down to the wetter trail conditions, tried not to be disappointed and kept riding. Unlike last year I was able to get to the start of the switchbacks on Corrieyairack before getting off to push, I’ll put this down to eating a lot more food during the day. At the top I checked the time I was well ahead of last years time, and just maybe, possibly,  able to reach the Chinese in Fort Augustus before closing.

I set off down Corrieyairack as fast as I dared, after fish tailing my back wheel a couple of times I backed off a bit. Constantly checking the remaining time and distance I realised it’d  be more like 10:05 by the time I hit the Chinese. I recalled Jade had told me they would stay open past 10 if there were people coming through. Keeping everything crossing I kept pedalling  until I saw a couple of bikes piled up against a brightly lit window. An immense feeling of joy and relief when I discovered they were still serving food.  One Chicken fired rice and a couple of cokes later I was on my way onto the great glen way looking for a place to camp for the night.

Fort Augustus Chinese, I made it!

 Sunday was all about getting to Contin before the village stores closed at 5pm, I didn’t make it last year so I was nervous about this. Alarm went off at 4am,  I downed  a can of Starbucks Coffee Milk  and set about packing up and pulling on my wet socks. Side note – nobody else likes Starbacks coffee milk but I think it’s brilliant. I used to drink it when I had to catch red flights for work and it’s just as effective for bikepacking races. 

Sunrise over Loch Ness

Passing the turn to Cannich I kept riding, confident if I kept moving I’d be able to get myself to Contin. The Path of 1000 puddles lived up to it’s name and eventually I passed the Orrin dam shooting down a fast decent to get to the road to Contin, arriving at the shop just after 3pm. Result. this was the moment I really started to think I might be able to do it if I just kept moving.  Two other riders were there are the same time – Jackie and Rach, we exchanged notes they were hoping to get to Oykel bridge that night I wasn’t so sure.

Contin Stores - this was a milestone for me


A little after Contin I saw a figure in purple riding towards me. Dawn! How lovely to see her come out to dotwatch. We rode together for about half a mile – my all day pace about as fast as long covid legs can go for a short distance. Dawn’s 2022 completion was one of about half a dozen women whose rides I’d studied in my nerdy spreadsheets to figure out how far it was reasonable to go each day and how long people stopped overnight. It’s shocking to see how long covid can suddenly turn a super fit person into someone who has to carefully ration energy expenditure. Life doesn’t always go how we plan, so it’s important to appreciate the now. I thought about that a lot on my ride.


Dotwatcher Dawn!

 I’d noted Inchbae Lodge on the map about 20km on from Contin, which looked like it could be an option to get some food. The washed out signs didn’t give me hope when I passed, but I popped my head in anyway. A bunch of Eastern Europeans were in there I wasn’t quite sure if they were running the place or not, I asked about food anyway they said no and offered me a bottle of highland spring to fill my water bottles as they weren’t sure about the tap water. It was all abit strange.

I pedalled on into the evening getting a bit slower as the day wore on, all I wanted was to get past the Croik junction where I’d scratched last year.  It was a big relief to get beyond Croik, anything after this would be a bonus. I could feel myself getting tired started debating where to stop for the night when Rach appeared out of nowhere behind me. OhmygoodnessIjusthad a massivemechnaicaland Imanaged tofixitmyself and Ijustneedto tellsomonewho wouldunderstand. We rode on together while she recounted an alarming story of dodgy mech and wheel alignment. Riding with another person gave me renewed energy and we missioned on determined to reach Oykel Bridge. 

Rach and Rach in Oykel Bridge Hotel

In the end we arrived just after the bar had closed, but tapping lightly on the window the lovely bar lady took pity on us and let us use the toilets and get some drinks. I ordered a pint of milk and quickly downed it. The bar lady offered me another and I downed that to queasy stomach settled I took, taking a can of coke for the next day.

Pitching my tent in a midge infeseted spot just down from the hotel I realised I had made an enormous mistake. Drinking 2 pints of milk might have settled my dodgy stomach but it’s now bed time and I’m going to be up all night needing to pee. To add insult to injury the midgies were fierce that night and every time I got up to pee more came inside the tent. I ended up sleeping with my head net and gloves on, that was a low moment.

The state of my midgey legs several days later


Monday I put my alarm back to 430 hoping to gain a little extra sleep after being up all night. Rach was leaving just as I started packing up, I caught her up at little later eating brekkie on the road. This was fortunate as she turned intowards Achness I carried straight on looking closer at my Garmin I realised it had crashed. Dammit. Not to worry I thought as I turned around and fired after Rach, I’ll just turn it off and on again and that’ll fix it. No dice.


Oh Garmin Why don't you work?

For the next several hours I fruitlessly stabbed at buttons on the Garmin, every time it showed a glimmer of life, it proceeded to crash again. And again. and again. OK,  I thought, these events are all about how you problem solve, so how am I going to fix this. I needed information and that meant mobile internet reception. I pedalled on every time I reached a high point I took the phone off of airplane mode to see if there was interent – eventually bingo! I googled away and found some information on the garmin forums, I found the sequence of buttons to perform a full factory reset.  So I did that. Still nothing. Bother. Now what?


Glen Golly Peat Hags

Fortunately, having been obsessed with highland trail for a number of years, I’ve recce’d the whole route. The trip round the north loopwith Caroline in atrocious conditions was particularly memorable. I visulaised the next bits in my head: pass the pipe where we sheltered from the rain, turn off the road at the little building where we took a sad face photo, left just before the creepy house, push up then down the peat hags, crossed the river where it hailed again, push up down past the split rock, and up again to Kylesku where I cried about the lack of dinner, keep on the road to Drumbeg … etc etc… yep I reckoned I could visulise my way round the route, at least until Ullapool and I could probably purchase a new Garmin there.

The split rock leaving Bealach Hourn section

On I went, checking on my phone every so often that I was on route. [for anyone interested I used OsmAnd app, I’ve used it in the past for bikepacking abroad, it works well in flight mode. It’s got a fairly steep learning curve to figure out, but it loads super fast (I’m looking at you OSMaps), doesn’t use much battery and it has all the contours and POIs downloaded for offline]. By the time I’d passed Bealach Hourn I was feeling confident my system was working.


The Approach to Kylesku

I didn’t bother to stop at Kylesku hotel, after a poor experience there previously, and kept pedalling on to get to Drumbeg stores. The owners dotwatch the race and stay open late if there’s riders coming through, sure enough at 830pm I pulled up to see a cluster of bikes outside the store. They were out of filled rolls, so I bough a pack of 4 rolls and some fancy cheese and quickly made up some sandwiches in the tea hut while drinking my coffee (no coffee milk though – alas!)


Woohoo Drumbeg stores


Katie and Rach were just about leaving Drumbeg as I arrived and said they were heading to a nearby campsite for the night. I pedalled on and joined them at about 11pm leaving at the crack of dawn.

Tuesday - Rach and I pedalled into Loch inver too early int eh morning for anything no be open (no pie for me). I had hoped to use the public toilets in Lochinver, but they were closed for maintenance, disaster. I hung around in Lochinver for about 20 mins waiting for the last few days rides to upload from my watch, since this was now my only source of recording the journey I did not want to lose those files!

The Ledmore traverse came and went (eventually). I passed a man hiking in the opposite direction, he’d obviously spoken to a couple of other riders that morning. ‘Is this a women only event’ he asked, I assured him it was a 50/50 gender split on the start.

The first Glimpse of Suliven


And I hurried along the road to Oykel Bridge, catching up with Rach and Katie who were just finishing up their meals. I got a speedy jacket potato and set off towards Ullapool and the big tesco of dreams.


By this point I realised I was quite comfortable with my navigation system of  my memories + confirming on my phone to get me round, so no need to spend £££ on a new Garmin in the outdoor shop in Ullapool.  

In the lead up to highland trail I’d been a bit embarrassed Alan had put a route veteran symbol by my name. I’d scratched so early on last year, I felt I didn’t deserve it. Navigating the route largely from memory, I realised I deserved every single pixel of that (rv).


Things were starting to hurt on the journey into Ullapool, knees, hands, feet and a tiny persistant nose bleed. One close encounter with a cow later and I’d finally arrived at Tescos.

I have never been happier to arrive at a Tescos


It was awesome to see a few dotwatchers there as well as catching up with Rach and Katie. I bought as much food as I could fit on my bike (including more coffee milk – of course). Together the three of us rolled out of Ullapool heading towards the infamous coffin road hike a bike. Reaching the summit just before sunset I elected to keep going aiming to camp just before Dundonnell.

My Tesco Haul - yes that is smoked salmon - it was delicious.


The decent into the valley was spectacular with the sun setting behind the mountains, they were illuminated with a pinkish orange glow. I bounced my way down the decent a massive grin on my face.

Sunset decent into Dundonell, it was amazing


Wednesday started out feeling very lethargic, Rach shot past me as I was packing up looking really strong. I pushed my way out of Dundonnell, feeling sure I ought to be riding, but just not able to. At least I was still moving forward. Katie bumped into me at the estate building before Shenevall and we set off to get to the river crossing. Fortunately it was only knee deep when we went through, I took the opportunity to wash my chamois and set off up the hike a bike in baggies.


The clouds had come in when I reached the top and the FIsherfield ‘money shot’ was almost obscured by clouds. I carefully descended, a mixture of walking and riding – this is no place to push your technical ability and have an accident. Eventaully I was over the causeway on the way to the next resupply in Poolewe, I tried not to look at my watch and see how few kms I’d covered that day. Even knowing this part of the route is the slowest, I still felt a bit demoralised.

Fisherfield Money Shot, sort of.


By the time I got to Poolewe the sun was out, and my mood improved immensely. I met some more dotwatchers at the carpark, bought some icecream and stocked up for the next section.

Next up was the Toile path – the less said about that the better. By the time I got to Kinlochewe, I realised everything would be closed. Doing a mental food inventory I realised I had less food than I’d like to get me to the next resupply in Dornie, tomorrow morning would be a tough shift.


I overnighted in Teahouse bothy, grateful not to be in my now rather damp tent. Just as I was settling down for the night I heard someone fiddling with the bothy door. I jumped up and called out ‘don’t let the midges in!’. Kirsty let herself in a moment later.

Achnashellac descent


Thursday – if Kirsty hadn’t started getting up when my alarm went off I might have slept for a bit longer. Fortunately hearing someone else get moving was the motivation I needed to get myself together. Achnashellac descent was awesome but the next bit over to Dornie was an absolute slog that felt like it took forever. 

But why are you closed ??


Arriving in Dornie the bakery by the roadside was closed and the pubs didn’t open til dinner so I set off for the Jet garage shop down the road. (note for next time, I should have gone to the Eileen Donnan visitor centre for a good feed). I bough as much food as I could carry in Jet, (mostly pies and flapjack), decanted some coffee milk from a glass bottle into a plastic one.  


Summoning every once of willpower I posses I ventured into Glen Affric. The Morvich hike a bike is tough. I picked up my loaded bike and settled it on my back for a few sections, its much faster this way but it takes an awful amount of effort, and probably didn’t help my already aching knees. The singletrack at the top being a frustrating on again off again  - it looks ridabale but it’s not. Eventually I passed Camban bothy and ridability increased significantly relieved I pedalled my way along the Affric Kintail way, checking my phone every so often to make sure I didn’t miss the turning for Tomich.


I set camp just before the village telling myself this would be the last camp, everything had gotten a bit damp by this point. Fortunately the spot was windy enough to ward off midges, and I said a quick Hello to Katie as she sailed past also looking for a camp spot.


Morning Coffee Milk decanted into a plastic bottle, I am obsessed with this stuff. I make no apologies

Friday morning was a bit cold, I put on all my layers and headed up over the hills to Fort Augustus. Arriving at the public toilets I bumped into Saz, part of a group out riding the Badge Divide, we exchanged hugs before I thought about how much I must smell. “you’re nearly there”.

I pondered the relative meaning of ‘nearly there’ when I still had about 15 hours of riding to go. A few minutes later I set off down the Calidonian Canal. The great glen way connection between Fort Augustus and Fort William is, on paper, one of the easiest segments of the route. Relatively flat and all ridable.  Yet I know I’m not alone in finding this one of the toughest sections. In the end I lay down on a bench for 10min and took some paracetamol to ease the ache in my knees.

Saz and crew in Fort Augustus


After what seemed like forever I got to Fort William, absolutely desperate for a poo – there are far to many people on the GGW to dig a quick hole. I shot in to costa to make use of their facilities before getting a coffee and sandwich to help fuel the last part of the route.


The sun was beating down as I inched my way up the West Highland Way. Walkers of every description passed me in the other direction, some limping miserablely while others skipped along excited to be finishing their journey.  Eliza sailed past me on the way into Kinlochleven, clearly enjoying the technical sections, and I bumped into Kirsty again outside the public toilets (closed ).

looking in Glen Coe

 Pushing up the Devils Staircase I could smell home. It was really feeling close looking down into Glen Coe, I carefully began the decent – now would be a terrible time to crash. I was pleased to reach the bottom with enough daylight. Onwards to Kingshouse and make the most of the public toilets, (open – phew). Then over the road to the ski centre, it was starting to get dark now so I fired up my night lights. My helmet light flashed letting me know the battery was low, and sure enough, it died a few mins later. Not sure what happened there, I’d hardly used my light so far, perhaps it’d turned itself on in my bags? No matter  my bar light was more than bright enough to light the way.

Starting the night shift

When I hit the road I started to slow down a little – I know theres a turning onto the final hike a bike hill somewhere around here but I was quite sure where it was. I kept checking my phone to make sure I hadn’t passed the turning. Suddenly a pedestrian appeared on the road walking towards me waving their arms. I was a bit confused, were they in trouble? Angry about too bright lights? Why would anyone be walking down a remote dead end road at nearly midnight? I slowed down. Eventually the penny dropped – Dawn!  


The final hike a bike hill was about as hard as expected, but the final final push up after crossing under the railway was a struggle. It’s quite short, but without a helmet light I couldn’t see where I was putting my feet, I inched up feeling for foot holds each time. Eventually getting to the top.  The final section was long steady uphill before finally shooting down into Tyndrum.

 1:40 am and we're done


It was a classic ultra cycling finish. Alone. In a carpark. In the dark.

I set a timer to make sure I hung about long enough for my tracker to ping at the finish. I Checked tracked leaders to make sure my dot was bounicing and stumbled off to find my van. Crawling into the back I felt my knees seizing up, it’s amazing how the mind can stop the body from breaking until it’s all over.  At 3:30 am I woke up with a jolt. Time to get moving! Oh wait,  I rolled over and went back to sleep. Several hours later I woke up and hobbled my way to real food café for the most satisfying free breakfast I have ever earned.

Free Brekkie in RFC


Since finishing people have asked, how was the Highland Trail?

I’m not really sure what to say… It passed like dream. Don’t get me wrong I felt every one of those 6 days and 17 hours,  but also it felt like the blink of an eye.

I am beyond happy with my ride and so proud to have finished. But one thought remains: Could I have gone faster …


Recovery Swims the day after

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