It's the day after the HT550 and I feel like I have just now woken up from a dream. A four-day adventure of moving through the most elaborate of film sets, the most magical of dream worlds. While riding this trail that stretches the length of the Scottish Highlands, I feel like I've been flying with the birds who would call to me each morning or bounding like the deer that watched me quizzically from hilltops. I've been changed by this. Unquestionably, mind-alteringly changed. To live like this and to move like this, to manage my body and mind like this has taught me more about myself in four days than an entire career of elite level racing ever did. And the thing is, it was easy. Not the pushing of the pedals or the carrying of the fully loaded bike over col after col or the three hours of sleep a night or the managing of my food and equipment. Of course that felt hard. What was easy was the simplicity of the doing and being. Despite the discomfort, tiredness and hunger, the miles slipped effortlessly away. Hours disappeared in the changing of the light. At no point was I bored or desperate for it all to stop in the way I can be towards the end of a day ride. Because when the ride just becomes life and your only objective is to keep moving forwards through it then it becomes very simple. Nothing hurts. Not really. The painful points come and go like the weather and in the end, like the weather, are neither good or bad. Today I can't walk easily but of course I can. The midges are unbearable but of course they're not. I'm exhausted and I MUST sleep but I can stay awake if I have to. I'm very hungry but a few more moments of feeling this way won't kill me. Everything feels possible and every feeling is a privilege. Nothing feels impossible, boring or unsatisfying unless I choose it to be. This was just a big bike ride but I find as a result of riding 550 miles in four days and six hours, I am quite changed.
I was supposed to be racing the Tour Divide this year. That's how this started. Three thousand miles off-road from Canada to Mexico, fully self-supported, as fast as you can. But in the end, I was too daunted. I wanted to test myself on more familiar soil first and the Highland Trail 550 is about as familiar as it gets for me. I've lived in Inverness for 12 years now and many of the trails that make up this 550-mile mountain bike route are my weekend conquerings. This was good and bad. Yes, the way would be familiar, but it also meant I knew just how hard the stagger up certain cols would be at 4am when I was sleep-deprived and calorie-deficient. In the end, it turns out I had no idea what was in store for me.
Two days before we were due to depart from Tyndrum, I still didn't have a bike. The craftsmen at Shand Cycles in Livingston were building me a custom Bahookie with a rigid fork and plus-sized wheels, but had been working to my Tour Divide deadline. When I brought the goalposts forward by two weeks the kind fellows at Shand rose to the challenge but not in a hurried way. Hence my slight clenching of jaw at night the week before. But I needn't have worried. They produced Jimmy the Shand just in time and, although he had to be modified for this ride (29-inch Halo Wheels and a SID fork because the plus-sized fork hadn't arrived in time), I was delighted with him. He was finished off with a rather lovely set of Jones H Bars, carbon cranks and an XTR drive. I'd never ridden Jones bars before but thought I might as well give them a go. In for a penny etc.
So against all the odds Jimmy and I made it to the start line for 9am on the 28th May.
I've stood on a few start lines in my time but never one like this. All around me were beards and bags and big tyres but the atmosphere was electric. We were lined up in our ranks to go into battle and the nervous energy snapped and crackled between us as we jostled about with last minute kit and clothing tweaks. And then we were off, at a speed I was also familiar with from XC World Cup starts. Racing up the hill on the West Highland Way before swinging due east over to Loch Rannoch.
Things settled down a little and I found myself riding with Javier, a wiry and powerful singlespeeder on a Lynskey. His Spanish accent was so heavy and his beard so thick that his words struggled to reach me as we both barrelled down the double track towards the foot of our first big climb around Ben Alder. I didn't know it then but Javi and I were limbering up to be as close as siblings over the next few days and possibly for the rest of our lives.
We sped on unsustainably fast up the singletrack climb over Ben Alder at the same time as the sun rolled its sleeves up and began goading some riders towards heat exhaustion. Matt Orton from MBUK was one of these. Matt would arrive back in Tyndrum at roughly the same time as me, four days from this point - only poor Matt would have got there via the most convoluted train route imaginable. Scott Lindsey also pulled up alongside me that afternoon. It was lovely to ride with someone I had last spoken to as a kid racing in the Scottish MTB Cross Country Series. Now he was a grown man with quality conversation and incredible descending skills. I rode behind him following his neat line as we dropped off Ben Alder and marvelled at what the passing of time does to us all.
Having eaten on the move all day in an effort to keep my average speed up, I felt it was time to stop and refuel properly if I were to make it over the Corrieyairack Pass comfortably. I pulled into the café at Laggan Wolftrax around 4pm and met the race leaders as they did the same. Stuart Copperthwaite and Philip Addyman were moving fast together at the front of the race and were the favourites to win. I will never forget the look of utter incredulity on Philip's face when he saw me level with them that day. He couldn't hide his astonishment that a woman could be matching his pace, and stood staring at me for quite a long time before recovering his manners and attempting some conversation which I politely returned between mouthfuls of Coke and cake. Race founder Alan Goldsmith joined us soon after and sat down heavily with a pot of tea and an armful of calories announcing that this was the last time he wanted to see any of us. I think he meant it in a nice way.
I took the lead as I left the cafe at Laggan with just enough time to hurl a few motherly words at Scott who I passed at the entrance complaining of heat exhaustion ("Drink lots! Sit down!") but Stuart and Philip wrestled it back, leaving me to settle into my own rhythm up Strathmashie. The sun had by now lost its ferocity but the effects of its earlier brutality were still hovering about. I knocked the pace back further and inched up the steep col at the same rate as the sun sank in the sky, entertaining the curious fantasy that I was it’s counterweight.
At 6.30pm, eyes still watering from the warp speed descent, I popped out in Fort Augustus. I rolled along the street towards the edge of town, passing Philip who hollered questioningly why I was not stopping for food at the main eatery. I did, of course, have every intention of stopping for food but there was a psychological advantage to be had here. "Nah, don't fancy it" I said, rolling on. Thus began the rumour that she never eats and rarely sleeps. Truth was, I just did it all a bit faster than them and out of sight.
I pressed on out of Fort Augustus after fish and chips and pints of milk. I didn't have an objective for the day; I just wanted to fill all the daylights hours with forward motion. I still had about four of those left, so found the Great Glen Way and started climbing. The first part was easy: fuelled on fat and sugar, I reached Glen Moriston in no time, then began the drag up and over to Glen Cannich. This was harder and steeper and eventually ended at a lochan around which I had to pick my way. Lars Henning powered up behind me. We had last ridden together in Wales and it was lovely to see him again but it didn't last long. Lars was on a mission and his big-wheeled bike munched up the kilometres over the rough moor. As dusk settled on our first day high on the moor above Glen Cannich, Javi caught up with me and, in turn, we caught Lars. We rode three abreast on this most familiar of quietroads that I must have ridden hundreds of times before in a different world on my Sunday runs. I was only 30 minutes from my home near Inverness, but I was operating in a parallel universe. Even when I saw my name, chalked on the tarmac by an encouraging local, the road remained strangely altered in my mind in the same way a childhood holiday destination can once grown up. We lost Lars who disappeared off to find wifi so he could fix a Garmin problem. I continued on until midnight before collapsing in my bivvy near a spring high on the rough track over Corriehallie to Contin.
Up at 3.30am and moving with a mouthful of oatcake, I felt energised and happy after a bout of intense sleep. I moved through the cool morning lightly and with ease. A herd of deer stood high on the ridge I had to gain straight above and ahead of me. One by one they dropped off the far side. All except the biggest one. He stood unfalteringly, majestically backlight by the rising sun, and drew me to him. He might have been an anchor point around which I had lassooed a rope. Traversing round to the dam and dropping down to Contin for 6.30am felt great until I realised there was no way Contin Village Stores were going to be open at this time on a Sunday morning. My heart sank as I stopped outside and pulled out my soggy, crumbling rye bread and paté, doing calorie calculations in my head. If I couldn't resupply here I would have to rely on the generosity of the Oykel Bridge Hotel 50 miles away, as there would be no shops now before Lochinver. I calculated I could do it on the oatcakes, peanuts, peanut butter and chocolate I had in my frame bag but it would be stressful and tight. I got up to go from outside the closed store at 6.50am when the deer that had hauled me up the previous col presented itself as the Contin Stores shopkeeper, arriving for her unfeasibly early Sunday morning shift. I could have kissed her but I showed some self restraint and bought the contents of her store instead, something I am quite sure she would have felt more grateful for.
Just before I left, the lovely Scott and sparkling Javi turned up. I tagged them in and rolled north oblivious to the storm this would later cause on Trackleaders as my pink dot put increasing distance between itself and all the blue ones. A woman leading the Highland Trail Race! But why not? To my mind there is no reason why a women cannot compete with a man in this category of racing. Our strength-to-weight ratio can prove optimal, our metabolism beneficial, and our strength of character and ability to suffer can stand us in excellent stead. Our flexibility, creativity and patience can save us bucketloads of energy. We can learn to ride just as technical terrain as men can. Of course we are typically less strong and explosively powerful than men but I see even this as an advantage. Use these systems to outstrip an adversary and you won't last long and you certainly won't feel great. No. A race like this is ultimately won or lost in the mind and in our minds, we are all who we choose to be. Interestingly this meant that I had another psychological advantage over the guys. I could choose to be in their race but they couldn't choose to be in mine. I could concern myself with leading the women's race and remain separate from theirs if I wanted to but they couldn't do the same. I think it will be an interesting day when an ultra-endurance mixed competition is won by a woman but the first man still gets to call himself the winner of his category! It's only a matter of time.
The next 50 miles were a blur of fast landrover track and darkening skies. The whole morning would have passed unremarkably enough had two things not happened. I saw what Javi could do on hills and I had a spectacular crash. These were not linked but were equally impactful. Javier must weight nine stone but all of that is muscle. He tickles his way up steep loose climbs on his singlespeed like a magician. Watching him overtake me and perform this feat of athleticism was spellbinding but it wasn't the reason I crashed. I clipped a raised wooden track on a bridge I was crossing at high speed and sailed unceremoniously over my bars before landing heavily a long long way away. But a crash is instantly kept in perspective if the mission is of significant importance. I've always loved this about racing. I was up and rolling again in seconds with a bit of a sore leg. If this had been a day ride with mates, I might to this day still be rolling around in the high grass, moaning and worrying about how my injury was going to affect the rest of my season. As is was, the biggest casualty was my stomach, as I lost 1000 calories' worth of Mrs Crimble's macaroons in the process.
On to the Oykel Bridge Hotel, where the attentive staff made us very welcome indeed. A lunchtime truce was called as Stuart, Philip, Javi and I ate and introduced ourselves to each other properly for the first time. Philip had been doing some rationalising while he rode and concluded that the reason I was able to keep up with them was because I was an "exceptional woman". I was not usual. I was extraordinary. I wanted to reel off a list of all the other exceptional women I knew in an effort to make him realise that if I alone knew so many of them then surely I can't be that exceptional in the grand scheme of things. But I could see this argument, in his current state of stress, would have rocked his world too much, and so I left him to think what he had to think in order to make sense of me. I was not going to give up on Philip though. I could tell he had a good heart and, at the right moment in time, a Craigie crowbar might open his mind.
Scott arrived, ordered food and slumped in the chair opposite me.
"Lee. Who's up ahead?"
"Eh...Scott..(gesturing round the room)...this is it. We are the lead group"
"Ah shit! I'd better slow down. I'm not supposed to be up here!"
It was the last I saw of Scott in the race but he was never far behind. I was sorry. His company was excellent.
Philip, Stuart, Javi and I left together and made a beeline due east, into treacherous angry clouds which enveloped us a couple of miles down the road. The rain fell from the sky and bounced off the road, soaking us twice until we reached saturation point and it no longer mattered. We climbed all afternoon in warm wet kit out of Glen Cassley until we had gained the exposed first summit on the northern loop above the power station. Lightening split the sky and thunder bowled into us like audible battering rams. I was scared. I have a bit of a thing about lightning. I used to work as a technical mountaineering guide in the Colorado Rockies and every afternoon we had to ensure we were off our peak before 3pm to avoid the risk of electrical storms. Once, a combination of inexperience, bravado and bad luck meant I found myself atop the highest peak in the area with a bunch of students whose safety I was responsible for. I watched a student's short blond hair stand on end and blue sparks fly between the metal clips on my climbing harness before bundling everyone off the top in a risky scree run to get us out of trouble. These experiences stay with you and can catapult you to unhelpful emotional places in an instant but with each one I survive, I think it takes less time for me to get over and back onto an even keel.
The cold and discomfort I felt as a result of descending wet helped take my mind off the recent trauma and a couple of hours later I was climbing again. I was flying that evening. Up out of the saddle and powering through a sparkling high glen, rimmed with still wet granite slabs reflecting the weak evening sun that was now emerging sheepishly from behind the remaining clouds. It was as though the slabs were grabbing all the sun's energy like the petals of winter flowers might, and funnelling it into my cold, wet form. The heat and wind I generated as I motored along dried out my clothes and topped me up with as much fuel as if I had stopped and eaten a three-course meal. I continued on this wave of energy to the foot of Glen Golly before swinging west and beginning the traverse across the most northerly section of the route. This remote inaccessible section that begins at 50m and climbs to 500m over the infamous Bealach Horn demands respect. The going is steep and conditions underfoot usually boggy and slow but, despite the afternoon of torrential rain, the previous week of dry weather meant there was none of the usual sinking of wheels. But these favourable ground conditions didn't affect the steepness. We pushed our bikes above our heads upwards out of the craggy bowl while all around us the deafening roar of what until a few hours before had been meandering streams but were now rushing torrents made their frenzied way to the sea.
Far in the distance I could see the tiny forms of Stuart and Philip on the skyline before the technical, peaty singletrack descent to the final climb before the Bealach Horn. Javi had also now passed me and could be seen levitating up the sheer climb that hurt my neck to look up at. As I followed his tracks through the enormous piles of hailstones that had fallen here while we were drenched a few hundred feet below by their warmer, wetter equivalent, I noticed that to one side of his telltale Maxxis Icon tyre tread were the neat prints of cloven hooves. I chuckled to myself at the vision my mind concocted of this little bearded mountain goat up on his hind legs pushing his bike up the bealach.
We topped out the northern loop in glorious evening sunshine and contoured around Foinavan and Arkle on a teeth-rattling fast track before dropping to the road. It was 8pm on Day Two of the HT550 and I felt the happiest I had in a long time. Distracted by the surreal, luminous way mountains can look after a rain storm is quickly superseded by slanting sunshine, I was able to push away that niggling concern I'd had all along about changing the map file on my Garmin. There was no reason for it to be a problem so why should I be worried? I rolled along the landrover track round Loch Stack eating a pork pie and pressing the buttons that would take me to my new return journey GPX track. Then, meltdown. My Etrex 30 swooned like a bad actor and stared back at me empty and dull of screen.
To be continued...