It was getting dark but I didn’t want to break the spell by putting any lights on. I was carrying two Exposure Joysticks and one Diablo that I had charged at home and had so far used only about 20 minutes worth of low light charge. I reached the edge of the plateau high above the causeway in the last of the light, and the vastness of it took my breath away. I’d been here before but this evening it was all different. I paused again to listen to my heartbeat and feel the expanse of open space all around me and below me, before tipping off the edge of the world and freefalling on contouring singletrack all the way to the valley floor, 500m metres below. Ian Fitz explains in his own account that a few hours later in the morning light he happened upon my tell tale tyres tracks below Sgurr na Laocainn. It’s true that there is a tight switch back turn near the top of this descent with fatal repercussions for a wrong move. This did register vaguely as I slid the back end of my fully laden bike around the second turn but I was moving so effortlessly that night despite my tired body that getting off to walk did not feature as an option then. In another time and place, I might have climbed off and probably will again. You don’t attain levels of technical riding ability and remain at that level always. You swing about depending on environment, current state of mental and physical health, what bike you’re on, what tyres you’re running. But tonight, Jimmy the Shand and I might as well have been co joined like a centaur. Maybe a bike-woman centaur were who those young deer back on the dusky plateau had been trying to communicate with.
After a brief detour to Carnmore Bothy reassured me that it was the foulest place I could be on a beautiful summer evening, I resumed the trail and bedded down in my bivvy by the water's edge. I was asleep in seconds.
Four hours later I was moving again but only after a full ten minutes of toppling over like a drunk woman with sore feet as I tried to climb back into my tight, damp lycra. Every morning I would wake and be out of my bivvy within a minute of the alarm going off. I would shiver uncontrollably for two or three minutes, then resume composure once I had dressed myself properly. More than once I jumped on my bike and fell straight off again. I’d like to think I got better at managing my early morning enthusiasm but I’m not sure I ever did.
Up and over the Strathan Buidhe and into new territory for me. I caught sight of Liam up ahead on the climb but sleep demons made a grab at me and forced me to lie down on the most comfortable looking bridge I’ve ever seen. Three minutes of sleep and my body temperature in the cold morning air hit my alarm. Much more effective than an iPhone alarm and less battery required. I got up feeling much better and continued over the pass.
I’d never ridden the Postman's Path on the east side of Loch Maree but I was prepared for it being a push fest. I’d heard it was 50% rideable so in my mind I reduced the figure to 20%, in order to manage my own expectations. I dropped down to Letterewe Lodge to begin the long traverse out along the lochside and almost literally bumped into Stuart and Philip emerging from a woodshed on the estate. Fatigue had caught up with Philip and he could no longer censor his frustration at my rude and blatant pursuit of him through the highlands. Before he could catch himself he tipped his head back and blurted out:
“Oh for God’s sake will you give it a rest!”
My first instinct was to apologise, but that was quickly replaced with indigence. Why the hell not? I stopped my bike and smiled at him. These guys were really fast. Finely tuned athletes who were emptying themselves to get to the finish line first. It was an honour to be up here in the mix with them, but at no point did I feel I didn’t deserve to be. They covered the ground faster than me but my stops were more efficient. I was conserving energy by genuinely loving the ride while it looked very much like they were in constant battle with the terrain they were moving through. What they considered hostile, I thought wild and beautiful. While they put the power down to get somewhere they could replenish their depleted metabolism, I could cruise steadily, enjoying the privilege of being here. Much of the time, running my fuel tank just above empty was when I was most alert and sharp on the bike, whereas for them, with their lower percentage of body fat, it must have felt like running the gauntlet between food outlets. I exchanged a few words with them before the midges forced us apart then carried on ahead.
During the two-day aftermath and post mortem in Tyndrum’s Real Food Café, the Postman’s Path took on a Marmite-like quality. People had either loved it or hated it. I was very much in the former camp. After a vague start, this remote path developed into precariously carved singletrack, through bluebells, on a steep hillside high above the sparkling loch. It wandered in and out of young deciduous woodland that felt almost prehistoric, dipped through gorges that could have been lost in time and teetered over the staggered pools of waterfalls in wide basins below craggy outcrops. It did beg the question of why in the world the postman had not just got a boat and paddled over Loch Maree from the main road, but then maybe, like me, he loved this hillside and spinning out his deliveries by walking 12kms round from Kinlochewe was the best part of his week.
That said, I was ready for it to be over when I dropped down to the road and was filled with joy at the sight of Javi, Philip and Stuart’s bikes strewn across the piece of grass outside the Whistle Stop Café. I entered, ordered and whooped with mutual recognition at my fellow travellers. Any animosity felt at the start of the day had evaporated and we all exchanged genuine delight at being here in this magical café, having successfully navigated the Postman’s Path. We ate and chatted and drank endless cups of tea together while piecing together our different strategies and bivvy spots of the previous night. Liam had ridden on. The pull of breakfast had been too great for the others though and so it was a welcome truce that saw us enjoying each other’s company that morning. It was just gone 10am. I’d woken that morning with the causeway lapping at my feet deep in the Fisherfield massif, then negotiated the land that time forgot. I’d been riding since 3.30am and yet I felt fresh as a daisy.
We all left the café together along the road that snakes through Glen Torridon, but by the time we reached the turning to Loch Clair, all three of the guys were out of sight. I reminded myself to play the long game. Go slow and steady and keep enjoying the ride and all would be well. It was. Up and over the Achnashellach descent. This is my favourite section of trail anywhere in the world and I was delighted to introduce Jimmy Shand to it (he felt the same way incidentally). On summer evenings my Inverness MTB chums and I can nip out around this classic route after work and still be home before midnight. Knowing this gave me the psychological edge over the others who I thought might wrestle with the technicality of the riding. Jimmy and I swooped and sailed our way over the familiar slabs and rock gardens before popping out on the Strathcarron road elated and wide-eyed with the feeling of having just survived something we probably shouldn’t have.
The rhododendron-lined road to Lochcarron reflected the heat of the now midday sun, and caused me to sweat out fluid I could ill afford to lose. I drained my bottle at the same time as a excited figure emerged from the shadows by the roadside, waving a handwritten sign and chanting my name. My friend Andrea had followed my dot until I was near her family home, then bundled her granny into the car and driven out to intercept me. I pulled on the brakes and she gave me a hard kiss on the cheek before resuming her jumping up and down on the spot and sign waving. From the shadows, Granny looked on amused. Andrea is fuelled by an enthusiasm for life that is infectious and I became filled with it before riding away from her towards the bar at the foot of the climb where I knew I could refill my empty bottle. Philip and Stuart were there, still scowling over the treacherous Achnashellach descent. I bowled past them and refilled my bottle, before swinging my bike back out onto the road and getting my phone out of my pocket. I wasn’t sure of this next section through Glen Ling so I switched the phone on and turned it to flight mode to preserve battery life. The boys rode past me again on the steep road climb while I, filled with temporary shame, got off and pushed my bike. More than anything else it felt great to not be sitting on my painful arse for a while and it also meant I could study the route on the phone more easily while I inched forward. With the ground so dry the usually boggy Glen Ling was a delight and before long I was over the hill and following the meandering trail along the riverside back to the road and the beginning of the Kintail mountains.
I was so hot I thought I might pass out. I had decided not to take suncream so any exposed skin was getting rather burnt. All I wanted to do was put down my bike and collapse into the bubbling river to my left. In the end I contented myself with soaking my arm warmers in a muddy puddle on the path and putting them back on. In my racing days, British Cycling taught me to be efficient with my race cooling strategies. I would come into a feed zone part-way through a lap, be handed up a 500ml bottle of water and in five squirts (one on each wrist, one on each ankle and the rest over my head) be almost completely revived. But today I found this didn't have quite the same effect, and I started running through a mental checklist as to why. It had been a 14-hour day already and I had eaten an Eccles cake in Fisherfield and some eggs on toast in Kinlochewe. I was a drilled athlete whose most basic of requirements had gone completely out the window with fatigue.
And so it was that I arrived in Dornie in quite a state. Dropping my bike on some grass and weaving into the tiny local shop, I stood swaying slightly while looking cross-eyed at all the things I could buy. Paralyzed by choice and indecision I made myself pick things up: some sandwiches, custard, cupcakes, milk, coke and sardines (sardines?) I then staggered outside, where I emptied my framebag onto the grass to find something (I can’t remember what) and buried myself in calories. When I emerged a few minutes later and stood up to survey the scene I was shocked at the carnage I had created. The quiet village green with its newly cut grass and neat rows of flowers was strewn with wrappers, tools, clothing and half-eaten cans of fish. I had grass in my teeth and hair and was giggling uncontrollably. A local man was standing outside his house, keeping a safe distance but obviously curious. I raised a hand in salutation and he turned quickly and went back inside. I returned to the shop in a slightly more composed state to buy food for my onward journey. The kind woman behind the counter pretended to ignore the grass and the memory of the wild beast that has visited her just moments before. I behaved impeccably this time, but still felt a bit like a drunk teenager who was trying to buy her second bottle of Thunderbird.
Now significantly revived, I checked my map and headed out of town again towards the beginning of the next long hill section. I was on the west coast but about to start my journey inland through Glen Affric on a trail that, if followed to its natural conclusion, would take me to within three miles of my house. I could tell from the tyre marks on the ground as I spun up the Glen Lichd to the first climb that all three of the lead bunch were ahead of me. My calorie meltdown in Dornie had haemorrhaged time and I was officially on the back foot. Glen Affric with its mature native Scots Pine and loch-filled valley floor is beautiful and tonight it was especially so. I took another rare moment to stop and appreciate it before getting stuck into the long jeep track that would eventually deliver me to Tomich. I spent a few moments checking over Jimmy. His shifting had been getting louder and louder since I caught his rear mech on a rock towards the end of the Postman’s Path that morning and now I took the time to give him a little love. I found in doing so that his mech had begun to unwind and what I thought was a bent hanger cage was a soon-to-be-snapped-off mech. While eating oatcakes and cheese, I guddled about for my tool with my free hand and nipped it up.
People reported this next section as mindless and dull. But after the little lift the oatcakes, cheese and mechanical success had offered I was restored and full of energy again. I rode along completely content in my own skin and company and allowed myself for the first time to entertain the fantasy of what it would be like to finish. I imagined being in the arms of someone who loved me and instantly began to cry. Not a quiet demure wee tear but a breath-catching, heaving, deep-down sob of a cry. It shook me to my core and I realised that although I might feel ok physically (pretty good in fact) I was on the edge of an emotional trough. I needed to make contact with my people. I hadn’t switched my phone on for communication purposes since Kylesku, for fear of depleting its battery life. I flicked off flight mode and waited for reception. I had no idea what was happening in the rest of the race or the outside world. Little did I know that Ferga was only metres away in the hotel in Tomich, and would be involved in the mission to rescue Stuart who, unbeknownst to me, had just scratched from the race in the valley floor. I climbed unsuspectingly away from Stuart and Ferga, out of Tomich and over the exposed moorland that Jenny Graham and I had first ridden together in knee-deep snow earlier that year. The day had ended but I kept going until I reached the barren summit above Glen Moriston, now in total darkness. I stopped to check my phone and put on some lights, and two days worth of text messages and emails met me. My tired brain could make no sense of them, but seeing the names of people I loved gave me all I needed up there in the darkness with the wind whipping at my face. I put the phone back in my pocket and started the cold run off the hill top.
I knew from our chat a lifetime ago at the Whistle Stop Café that the lead riders were planning to push through the night for Tyndrum and that they were all ahead of me. I didn’t feel sleepy but I was moving slowly. It was 11.30pm and I couldn’t think straight to make a plan. Somewhere from the survival part of my brain came the reasoned argument that if I couldn’t think straight I should probably stop and hit reset. Yes, it meant the others would get further away but the risky alternative was to try and push through the fatigue into unchartered territory. I’d carried on through the night before but not after four days of intense, sleep-deprived riding, and it didn’t feel like a great time to experiment. I rolled out my bivvy on a patch of grass by the roadside in Glen Moriston, took my shorts and socks off and clambered into my sleeping bag. I’m not sure I even slept that night but for two hours I remained horizontal and let my body and mind shake down.
I am now intrigued by what might have happened if I had pushed on. I think in that moment, based on past experience, that I did the right thing, but I also think that in understanding the minimum amount of time you can spend resting lies the secret to this kind of racing. There is work to be done here for the future. But for now, my tactical reset worked a little too well. I sprang up at 2.30am and hit the trail like I was back XC racing. I felt incredible. I couldn’t go slow. Nothing hurt (not even my arse – a state I’d not been in since halfway through the first day). I was over the final climb and cruising along the Great Glen Way with the dawn chorus ringing in my sensitive ears by 4am. I knew I was going too fast. I was flying along the canal towpath at a speed that was unsustainable even to someone out on a two-hour training ride. It felt reckless, especially as I hadn’t eaten since cheese and oatcakes over bike fettling in Glen Affric the previous evening, but my stomach had cramped into a tight unyielding ball and the thought of solid food made me retch. Instead I had filled my bottle with the remaining protein powder I had been taking before sleep, hoping I could squeeze enough energy from that. But it wasn’t enough. I hit the first hills on the banks of Loch Lochy and wound my neck in rapidly. I swallowed more sugar and protein powder while willing my legs round and eventually, like a rusty old engine, the cogs began to imperceptibly engage and I regained a little momentum.
I rounded the bay before Gairlochy, catching my bars on a bridge and waking myself up a little, then felt someone behind me. I turned but couldn’t make sense of what I saw. I had ridden the entire race with only four other faces to relate to (five if you count Fraser’s briefly in Kylesku) but this was a new face and a new bike. This man looked feral enough to be a HT550 rider but I had no idea who he was or where he had come from. He joined me and I battled with this new reality. It was Ian Fitz. He had ridden two uncomprehendingly long days on a total of two hours' sleep to catch the lead riders. He admitted that moments ago he had been yelping in pain and feeling sorry as hell for himself, then spotted me and sensed an opportunity. I immediately warmed to whom I should have considering a threat to my position in the race and admitted to myself that I was glad of the company. Ian’s conversation would be what nursed me to the end of this ride and it quickly became apparent that the race was off between us. We would ride together and match each other’s pace in an effort to reach the finish in the fastest possible time. I was still harbouring some unrealistic hopes that I might finish this ride in less than four days. I think this is what Ian had been pressing for too but now it didn’t matter. We would squeeze the last remaining efforts out of each other and get to Tyndrum faster than we would have alone. Of this we were both sure.
Through Fort William and Kinlochleven we discussed gender politics, attachment theory and feminism. The riding was getting sore. My stomach, bum, hands and feet were screaming louder and louder but the conversation continued to flow and we generated a different energy from camaraderie. The sun rose higher in the sky until it was dead above us and concentrating its might directly on our heads. Ian was getting text notifications from frustrated dot-watcher friends. My tracker wasn’t uploading and his was being erratic, Trackleaders was making out that we were having a ding dong battle, exchanging the lead every few minutes and casting visions of tooth-clenched, elbow-sharpened angst, when the amusing truth was that we were cruising along side by side, amiably chatting about the state of the world and our place within it.
Somewhere just north of the Kingshouse, Javi caught us up.
“Hey! Can I ride with you guys?”
Trackleaders now showed a gritty battle for third place between three fierce warriors, when in fact Javi had so naturally fallen into line and we were so pleased to have him alongside that it gave the last few miles of the ride a party-like atmosphere. Javier, the wee mountain goat, could have ridden away from us on every climb, Ian could have dropped the hammer on every flat and I could have created a gap on every descent, and yet an unspoken rhythm was established between us as we waited for each other all along the remaining miles to Tyndrum. It felt like the perfect end to this magical solo adventure. One where, until now, companionship had been with my other more connected spiritual self, the dawn chorus and the hill deer. Now, as we approached reality again we formed a tighter unit with each other in the hope we might be able to take what we had found out there back with us between the bonds of our friendship.
As we rounded the last corner and Ian opened the gate. Javi and I waited until he was back on his bike before rolling down the hill towards the finish line. We got ourselves level, three abreast and finished the ride side by side in four days, five hours and 50 minutes.
My sister was there with my nephew and they scooped me up in a bundle of love and plopped me in the shade with a smoothie and a bucket of water for my damaged feet. Lying abandoned on the ground, along with Javi and Ian’s steeds, Jimmy the Shand breathed a shuddering sigh of relief, his back tyre gently deflated and the damaged pin of one of his pedals that I had been nursing since Ullapool dropped comically onto the ground.
Liam and Philip emerged and hugs were exchanged all round. I looked around at the people who had shared my journey with me - my sister Kim, Beth from Wildcat, James the photographer, and my fellow riders - and was filled with a satisfaction so profound it felt as though I didn’t even need air to breathe. Beer had never tasted so good as it did that night, and the days that followed (three of them to be exact) spent in the Real Food Café welcoming people home were among the most fun I’ve ever had. But underneath it all, there was a seriousness to every finisher. In everyone's eye was the same story: “I’ve been changed by this. Unquestioningly, mind-alteringly changed”. I can’t explain it better than that. If you truly want to know what I mean, you are going to have to get out there and ride the HT550 yourself. You won’t regret it if you do.
Three days after I finished, I spoke with Rickie Cotter, the women’s record holder on the HT550. She had been following me on Trackleaders and wanted to know the full story. I lay outside the Real Food Café in the sunshine and gave her a blow-by-blow account. Then she asked me “What happened at Lochinver?” I thought she was asking why had I retired to the Kylesku Hotel for so long so I explained about the Garmin meltdown and left it at that. Later, Ian Barrington was showing us some photos he took and said “…this is the bit you didn’t do, Lee”. The conversation moved on quickly and even then it didn’t compute but later that day something sunk in and I consulted the GPX file on my phone. Sure enough in black and white was 8km of trail I should have followed into Lochinver instead of taking the road. My stomach hit the floor. I put the realisation to one side. I wasn’t ready to deal with the possible repercussions of such a stupid navigational error but I knew in my heart what it meant. My time had to be disqualified and I would be left feeling empty and hollow.
A week later and the same instincts that got me through the hard parts of the ride have come to my rescue. Of course I’m gutted that my time doesn’t stand but I’m also proud of and delighted with my performance. It matters not one bit that I have been disqualified. Everyone I rode with and who followed me online knows what I did. I was still there with the birds and the deer, shivering in the cold dawn and sweating in the midday sun. I still went to places inconceivable to me two weeks ago and have learnt more about myself and my ability to tolerate, no thrive, under adverse conditions than any other life experience to date. I remain quite changed. The integrity of the HT550 remains intact. A goal and a record remains for taking. What’s not to be grateful for?
The Adventure Syndicate Women's Bikepacking Course at Glenmore Lodge in the Scottish Highlands.