"Oh no. No, no no, no." I frantically stabbed at buttons. The unit would raise a theatrical eyebrow then swoon again. I kept stabbing and hoping. I changed batteries, removed SD cards. Deactivated and reactivated maps and tracks in all the different orders I could think of. The Garmin initially responded as though it might deign to comply and then... nothing. I was losing time. I had to act. I got my iPhone out and switched it on. I had downloaded the GPX file to my Memory Map app as a backup but with the phone's infamous battery life and passcode to bypass, not to mention constantly having to get it in and out of my waterproof holder and pocket, I didn't foresee this as a long-term solution. I still had 285 miles to navigate to Tyndrum. If I couldn't convince my Garmin it wanted to live, I was in deep do do. My good mood imploded.
I used the phone to find my way over the next hill and dropped down to Kylestome around 10pm. As darkness gathered I fiddled with the charging unit on my dynamo hub until I had hooked up the iPhone to it. There followed another heart-sinking moment when I realised the dynamo would not charge the phone unless I was whipping along at a steady speed on tarmac. I was at 13% battery. I took a detour to the Kylesku hotel, wild from two days of feral bikepacking, sharpened by technological disasters. I entered the bar to find Javi smeared in fish soup and smiling at me through his beard.
"I jus' remember. I 'av to pay my rent!". We sat side by side while he completed his internet banking and I looked up YouTube clips on how to reset a Garmin. His endeavour was more successful that mine and he left with a full belly and a job done. I continued to try everything I could find online to reset the unit. I would lose the maps but at least I'd have a functioning unit I could then download them to again. Nothing. The Garmin was now not even flickering its vague intention to switch on or reset. It was time for Plan B. I stared hard at the GPX file on my phone and committed to memory the next few miles that rolled around the rollercoaster road to Lochinver. It would be ok. I was on familiar ground; I just had to spend a few minutes visualising where the route went before switching my phone off to preserve its battery. I remembered my friend Evan suggesting just as I was leaving for Tyndrum that a cache battery might work well with the dynamo under erratic load. I had popped in a cheap single recharge stick as an afterthought and I now dug it out from the depths of my frame bag.
By now riders I hadn't seen since Tyndrum had started to catch me and I exchanged a few words with my friend Fraser McBeath on my way out of Kylesku. Fraser had dropped the hammer in appalling conditions the previous year and ridden through the final night into third place, earning himself the admiration of many. This year he was still battling hard, despite setting out with a horrible cold. He looked spent and gaunt when I saw him outside the hotel that night, his dark eyes tracking nothing in particular while he took a disarming extra beat before answering any of my questions. I let him go in search of sustenance and hoped he would be ok. It was an uncomfortable feeling letting someone you care about go and fend for themselves when they were so obviously in a sorry state but there was also something honest and liberating about it. We were all out here under our own steam and responsible for ourselves. Not for the first time I drew a parallel between the HT550 and the Hunger Games. You could make allies and enjoy the company of whoever you want but ultimately this was a personal battle within a war of attrition.
I put my cache battery on to charge and set out once more into the cold dark night. After a surprisingly restful bivvy in a midge festival a few feet from the road, I was up and moving again at 3.45am. Passing the Drumbeg stores around 5am Javi and I exchanged cheery waves while he shovelled something green into his mouth from a collapsable bowl. My breakfast that morning had been a Snickers bar wrapped in a slice of white bread that the hotel had given me the night before. It might not have been very good for me but it could be eaten on the move and that outweighed the lack of nutrients as far as I was concerned. I was still in the blissful state of being able to eat whatever I liked, oblivious to the fact that 24 hours later my stomach would be in a nauseous knot and unwilling to accept anything freely. But for now, I was really enjoying my adolescent breakfast on the move as I bowled downhill, trying to keep my momentum for the inevitable climb that followed. The dawn caught up with me and the day broke into a lazy grey calm.
I didn’t vary my speed past the Lochinver Pie shop. I had long ago reconciled myself to the fact it would be shut as I passed it at 6am but I couldn’t stop myself from casting a longing sideways glance at it as I sped past. I wasn’t much looking forward to the next section around Suillven. Years also Charlotte, Ferga, Digger the dog and I had ridden this route and it stuck in my memory as being painfully slow. A good, fast track gradually disappears into the bog and in the bog it remains until you stagger out onto the welcome tarmac at Ledmore junction some 20+kms away. It was on this ride that the overly optimistic catchphrase “It’s all rideable from here!” became forever associated with me. Back then I had a bit more enthusiasm for hike-a-bike than the friends I rode with and, on this route in particular, spent the entire day shouting this over my shoulder at Ferga and Charlotte. I never turned around to see but I could feel their scowls burning the back of my neck. Today, in the cold dawn, I felt very alone but the memory of time spent here with friends and my beloved dog (now gone) was a real comfort. I rode and pushed and consulted my phone regularly to make sure I was still on course. I had by now disabled the passcode (amazing what three hours of sleep will allow you to think of) which was saving me valuable seconds every time I had to consult the map. I had also recovered 70% of my battery, using the charge I’d harnessed from my dynamo and was getting good at taking it in and out of my pocket while riding. This small mastery was making me ridiculously happy and I marvelled for a moment at how quickly we adapt to difficult situations if we don’t dwell on what might have been.
The shove around Suilven was unremarkable. I followed some tyre marks ahead of me but wasn’t sure to whom they belonged. Maybe Stuart? I had stopped early the night before and had no idea how many people had sped past me in the early hours to bivvy further along the Lochinver road. When I eventually navigated out of the bog and onto the road around 9am I closed the gate behind me and ackowledged that I felt in no hurry to return to that route by bike but that one day it might be nice to run it. I opened the phone one last time to get the road section in my mind then plugged it back in and put my head down into the wind. I had breakfast on the brain.
Stuart was just finishing his fry-up at the Oykel Bridge Hotel when I arrived, windswept and shaking from a fast time trial effort tucked low on my Jones bars, powered purely by white bread and chocolate. The lovely staff were outside to receive me, having followed my dot all morning. I was seated in their lounge and had tea and toast before me within the blink of a sleep-encrusted eye. I explained to a sympathetic Stuart (who was stretching tight IT bands and eating at the same time – impressive) what was going on with my Garmin and had another go at button stabbing. Shaun, the hotel manager, let me borrow his PC to see if plugging it into a power source would help with the reset. Still nothing. The hotel staff offered all sorts of suggestions, including parcel tape and plastic bags to turn my phone into a bar mounted GPS unit. I fiddled about for a while between mouthfuls of fried food but in the end put the phone on charge back in my pocket. It was what it was. I had to stop spending unnecessary energy on it. My one last chance was the outdoor shop in Ullapool who might have units for hire or sale. I stuffed the useless little block of plastic into my frame bag, swung my leg over my saddle and was off again.
The dull morning was brightening into a blazing hot day. It wasn’t yet midday but I was sweating and uncomfortably hot as I climbed up through the forestry plantation on one of the two sections of the route that crossed each other on outward and inward legs. Javi came up alongside me and for the longest time since Tyndrum we rode together in companionable silence. I felt comfortable with Javi around. His iconic tyre marks made it easy to follow the route, which may or may not have been a breach of race rules but I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to stop seeing them, short of riding with closed eyes. We traversed a couple of remote hillsides, at times picking our way along trackless terrain before gaining an estate landrover track which delivered me back to familiar territory above Ullapool. Javi and I leapfrogged each other all morning before dropping down into Ullapool on gorse-strewn fast singletrack. It was so bright and hot by now, and my senses were so sharpened by isolation, that the bright yellow coconut-smelling gorse was overwhelming. As was Tesco. Take a perfectly sane adult woman, put her on a bike for 20 hours a day under the open sky, deprive her of any quality nutrients or food choice by having her pass all resupply points out of hours, then let her loose in a large Tesco full of normal people. The result is ugly and a little embarrassing. And unluckily for me I had witnesses too. Gary Tompsett was on his way south after his Cape Wrath Trail adventure and had stopped at the shop by coincedence. His enthusiasm bowled me over into the vegetables and I stared uncomprehendingly at him for quite some time. I know this happened because he took a selfie with me and posted it online. I think I held a conversation with him. He’s been in touch since and not sounded offended so I must have carried it off.
Javi and I sprawled smashed outside Tesco on the hot pavement stuffing fresh vegetables into our mouths. We said very little too each to each other but there rested between us a companionable, comforting, mutual understanding of this incredible journey we were sharing a brief reprieve from. A quick visit to the local outdoor shop and last attempt at Garmin resurrection met with failure. I had also planned to buy new wool socks here but I was so thrown by civilisation that I forgot. I had meant to change out of my cheap acrylic socks into lovely Rapha woollen ones at the start of the ride two days ago but had forgotten and my feet were suffering from my mistake.
I watched briefly as Javi continued to roll about on the floor trying to fit various unreasonably sized foodstuffs into his bags then pressed on out of Ullapool alone.
I’ve said before there were no lows on this trip, but there was discomfort and nothing was more uncomfortable for me than this afternoon in the heat on the road out of this lovely familiar seaside town that held such happy, sociable memories for me. I felt sick with tiredness and wanted nothing more than to climb off my bike and lie down. I felt sleep prick at my eyes and extend its powerful grip over my head, neck and shoulders. I was tucked low on my Jones bars with my forearms resting along their comfortable length when “nod…bop” I had swerved off the road in a micro doze and had woken myself back up again by headbutting my bar bag. I don’t know how I remained upright. Maybe this is a technique worth perfecting. If I can sleep while riding then there are some serious time gains to be had here.
My phone told me how to find the start of the Coffin Road at the end of Loch Broom but nothing could have prepared me for the hot steep discomfort of it. I was off and pushing from the first gate. Push a wheel length, brakes on, step one, step two, push a wheel length… I inched straight up the near-vertical hillside at a torturously slow speed. Later Javi told me he could see how much I was struggling here. He had left Ullapool 15 minutes after me, but had caught and passed me easily. I didn’t see him again that day. Push, shuffle, inch, for minutes, hours, maybe days, until eventually it was over and I was energised and powerful again. What had been a sweltering hellish climb now became an effortless swooping descent on a balmy summer's evening. Keep inching forward and nothing stays the same.
Down to Dundonnell and back up another familiar climb. When I first started mountain biking the big stuff 12 years ago with my riding buddy and good friend Tony Hocking, he showed me this route and it blew my mind. Dundonell to Poolewe was an adventure of epic proportions back then and here I was squeezing it into an evening. More proof of the powerful reshaping the passing of time can have on our perceptions of things.
This is the section of trail Liam Glen caught me on. Liam had at one point been favourite to win this race but just before the start he had locked his keys in his car. Two and a half hours and one smashed rear window later, Liam was back on course and working his way steadily into the race. His tall willowy figure drew up alongside me on the loose climb around An Teallach.
“I hear your Garmin is down. How are you navigating?”
“Oh you know, the stars. And my iPhone.”
“You’ll need maps going into Fisherfield.”
“Thanks Liam. I can’t take them from you and anyway I know this area well. My phone has the 1:50000 Landranger series on it and about 50% charge should I need to switch it on. I feel pretty happy. Don’t worry about me.”
He rode off effortlessly over the horizon, pausing briefly to chat with a group of walkers making their way off the hill for the evening. As they passed me a few minutes later they bundled some paper maps in a plastic folder in my direction.
“The guy on the bike up there told us to give you these.”
I thanked them and smiled at Liam’s caring reasoning. He knew I couldn’t accept his direct assistance for fear of breaching race rules but he also knew I couldn’t litter the hillside with unwanted maps. I shoved them into my seat pack and rode on.
I reached the much-talked-of Fisherfield river crossing at around 8pm. This was where I had feared for the lives of my shortarse friends Jenny Graham and Rickie Cotter the previous year, as I watched their vulnerable pink dots edge precariously across what must have been waist-deep water. I’ve done this crossing myself several times and never had it been easier than now. Still, I took the time to put my precious phone in plastic before returning it to my pocket - then plunged into the water which came to only halfway up my calves. I found myself on the other side of the glen in no time and rode around to the beginning of the climb up Glen Muice Beag. Here, in the gathering gloom, a walker stumbled towards me. He was dressed in all the right gear and carried a substantial rucksack on his back. Round his neck hung a map case with a 1:25000 map inside but still, something about the way he was walking caused me concern.
“Oh hello I wonder if you can help me. I’m a little disorientated. How far from the road am I?”
I explained to him he was about as far from the road as it was possible to get right now and tried to ascertain how he had got himself into this difficulty. Through slurred speech he explained he had completed the Fisherfield Five (a massive day in the hills) but had become separated from his walking partner and was now lost. I asked if he had eaten recently and tried to show him where he was on his map, only the 1:25000 slung around his neck didn’t cover the area we were now in. I dug about in my seatpack and pulled out Liam’s paper maps. After much protestation, he finally conceded to taking the map, eating something and following my instructions on how to reach the safety of Sheneval bothy. I watched him go and hoped, in the same slightly removed way I had for Fraser in Kylesku, that he would be ok. The following day I would be informed by Ian Fitz, who stayed at Sheneval Bothy that night, that Mountain Rescue had turned up in the early hours of the morning and walked him to safety.
I turned into the mass of mountains on a surprisingly rideable bit of trail and rode upwards into the sky. There are only a handful of times on this route it is necessary to shoulder your bike but the over Clach na Frithealaidh is one of them. It was almost a relief to take the pressure off my bum and hands and place it on my feet and shoulders for a while, and I found my climbing legs felt strong and rested. I topped out onto the barren, windswept plateau at about 10.30pm. The evening was quiet and calm and golden light was falling in corpuscular rays under the remaining clouds. I paused to breathe and listen to nothing, then caught motion out of the corner of my eye. I turned, and not more than ten metres away stood four young deer. They stared at me with enormous doleful eyes and sniffed the air. I spoke to them softly (something about how I must smell pretty bad if I recall), and they waggled their ears as if in amused reply. We stood smiling at each other and then the strangest thing happened. The deer with the slightly moulting coat stepped through the tiny herd and walked towards me. I can only assume they were curious about this calm, feral creature accompanied by her weird contraption, that had happened upon them just before their bedtime. I must have exuded the opposite of a threat. Maybe the grand master stag back in Corriehallie, who had drawn me up the hill on day two, had been in touch with them and they were keeping an eye out for me. I don’t know; I can only guess, but for me, standing there in that grand natural amphitheatre on top of the world, it felt like the most obvious and natural thing to spend a moment communing with these wild creatures. In the end it was I who turned and left them to sniff the air some more before padding off down our respective hillsides to sleep beside the water.
To be continued...