Strathpuffer 2019

Strathpuffer Checklist:

  • Taking gulps of partially frozen water and crunching through the sharp shards of ice to be able to swallow.
  • ‘Tripoding’* down steep frozen rock slabs with a planned bail out into the bushes.
  • Wearing shorts in minus temperatures through ice, snow and 16 hours of darkness.
  • Repeating every hour on a bike with only 1 gear for 24 hours.

This was a proper ‘Puffer.

They don’t come around every year but I was lucky enough to be at the 2019 edition of the Strathpuffer.

*’Tripoding’ – Two wheels, one leg. A controlled-ish slide.

For the last few years other commitments have limited bike riding to the occasional blast around the local woods or a quick spin on the roads. To keep my mind happy i’ve tried to fit in at least 1 long race per year. My thinking is that i’m just packing a month or so of riding into 1 ride. 2019 was going to start with the Strathpuffer again, which I hadn’t done since 2015. I was treating it as a long challenging ride rather than a race. Going into a race like this without the training but with high hopes of succeeding is a recipe for an unhappy ending.

The bike

As of October 2018 my Puffer/Highland Trail race bike, the Singular Swift, was still going strong although now as a rigid 6-speed bike rather than a singlespeed hardtail. I fully intended to use this bike, it was bombproof, or so I thought, and I had done many miles on it. One morning I was trying to locate the source of an ominous creak from the front end when I noticed a large crack on the underside of the top tube where it met the steerer tube. Not quite as bombproof as I had thought.

Cracked Frame!

Needless to say, this was a bit of a blow only 3 months before the race. I hadn’t intended to spend much money on the Puffer given I wasn’t aiming to really race it. I began looking at new dream bikes, mid-range new bikes, and replacement frames/using most the parts off the old bike. The most realistic option of course being a new or second hand frame.

Replacing the frame had it’s own issues. It turns out a lot has changed since my old Swift was built. I needed a 1 1/8th steerer and a quick release sized rear end if I didn’t want to get a whole new wheelset/forks.  I spent every evening browsing many 2nd hand options, nearly buying a whole new bike a few times and eventually getting hold of a 2nd hand On One Inbred frame at some point in November.

Everything transferred nicely onto this bike with only 1 issue. It now had to be singlespeed specific as it has horizontal dropouts. I hadn’t ridden a singlespeed for any length of time in a few years. The bike felt great to ride though and I decided to get some suspension up front to make the ride a bit more forgiving.

The training

Training isn’t as rewarding as racing. So it was that with very little training and suddenly riding a singlespeed I found myself getting ready for the Strathpuffer again. This time round I also didn’t have any support team. I was riding solo, singlespeed and unsupported. I couldn’t wait.

Training at the end of 2018…

 

The Race

I snuck my way up the fireroad looking for a spot to squeeze in my car. I was late to the party and it was pretty full already. I really needed to be on the track so I didn’t have to leave the route to get to my ‘support’, which was just the boot of the car. I found a spot near the top of the first section of fireroad and bumped the car off the trail with the boot facing the fireroad. I was not sure the car would get back out but that was a problem for another day.

In the morning I got everything ready in the boot so it was easy to access and left some food and water outside next to it to save some time in the early stages of the race. I rolled down to the start and plonked my bike down behind the rows of people holding bikes for other competitors. It was beginnning to feel a bit lonely, I didn’t know anyone else at this race.

After a bit of nervous chat and shuffling about the crowd started moving and we all trotted along the road to our bikes. I politely parted the line of people holding up bikes to retrieve my bike from behind them and then made my way up the fireroad. This was by far the most relaxed start to a race i’ve ever had, I usually charge off round the first lap as though i’m going to win it and then regret it later.

My main goal was to achieve consistent lap times. It’s is very common to have fast laps at the beginnning and then lose lots of time just trying to keep going at the end. I wanted to see if I could still be pushing a decent pace by the end of the 24 hours.

I was relearning how to ride a singlespeed. You spend a huge amount of time standing to pedal and this makes eating while riding difficult, and stopping to eat is just wasting time. You need just the right gradient that you can sit while riding and it needs to be smooth enough and long enough to actually have time to get something out of a pocket and into your mouth. With the current route at the Strathpuffer this turned out to be the fireroad section from the start line up to the top of the fireroad, although every so often on this stretch I still had to stand. This meant whenever I stopped to pick up food and water I had to predict how much/what I would want to eat in nearly an hours time. Numerous times I ended up carrying lots of food for a few laps and other times I found myself desperately trying to shove food in on a short ‘sitting’ section soon after my pit stop as I was ravenous.

The route itself is brilliant. I really enjoy that it has changed a bit as I have ridden the route far too many times.  The route now veers towards the left after Old Bill the skeleton and the frozen rock slabs. It tackles 2 steep climbs that were in the very earliest Strathpuffer route. These are steeper and longer than the rest of the route and after a couple of laps there was no way I could tackle them without gears. So it was for the first time ever I had a mandatory walking section every lap.

Part of the beauty of singlespeeding is the attitude it instills in you out of necessity. I have found when riding with gears at some point I will start blaming the bike. “If only I had a few more gears” “What is that clicking sound…” “Agh I just got the wrong gear there I will have to slow down a bit to get up this hill”. With a singlespeed this negative thinking doesn’t happen. You don’t have a choice, you don’t have any options. You have your bike and your body and you want to achieve continuous forward motion. It’s beautifully simple. It’s meditative. It takes all thoughts away from the bike and lets your mind be free. If you can’t ride it then you walk. If you are walking then you are walking. You don’t jump off and have a quick moan about “if I only had gears”. You just walk. When you are done walking you get back on and ride, you can rest on the bike.

The hours ticked by and I kept moving forward. Aside from the rare brief chat with other riders, I was interacting with no one (I was singlespeed, we travel at a completely different pace on each section of track). Every time I needed to stop, I changed my water bottle, grabbed some food out of the boot of the car and kept moving. Mentally I found the lack of support team a great way to keep moving. There were no comforts at my car. There were no reasons to stop longer than absoloutely necessary. Actually it was way more pleasant to be moving. It was cold at the car, very cold.

At some point during the night I discovered I had a blocked water bottle. I thought it must have been so muddy and slightly frozen that it was just blocked. I didn’t think too much about it and swapped it when I got back to the car. I had a few water bottles just sitting on the ground next to the car for quick turnarounds. I soon realised this next one was blocked too, it was completely frozen. When I got back to the car next time I opened up the boot, downed a lot of partially frozen water, it must have been slightly warmer in the car, grabbed a bottle from inside and then kept going. The bottle froze before the end of the first section of singletrack.

From then on I had to stop every lap, down some water and crunch through the shards of ice and then keep going. I stopped taking a water bottle, there was not much point carrying a block of ice. It was tough, I was always very thirsty well before the hour of riding was up and I could drink again. I was limited to how much I could drink in one go because if I stood still for a few minutes drinking frozen water I quickly started to feel very cold.

I never really fully acknowledged the cold, sure my water was frozen and the track was an ice rink but it’s been like that at the Strathpuffer before and as long as I kept moving I felt ok. I put a fleece on over my other fleece (pro cycle kit here) at some point and changed my socks and gloves at another. Other than that I felt fine. In the early hours a few people commented on the fact I still had shorts on. It never occurred to me to stop and change them, my legs must have been too numb to tell.

Puffer

At no point during any of the race did I know how I was doing, I lost count of laps around 8 and I couldn’t tell if I was racing any of the riders I saw during my laps. I found this a really nice way to race. It kept my mind clear of any external pressures, all forward movement came from internal motivation. Sure if you are actually racing it really helps to get a boost by knowing where someone is ahead or behind you but it can be equally demoralising when you are struggling. I pushed a consistent pace for the whole ride, I maintained a decent level of motivation and really enjoyed it, all of it. Well, nearly all of it.

After a long dark night the much anticipated sunrise lap came around eventually in the most dissapointing fashion possible. It was dull and grey and drizzling. The course that had nearly thawed out with all the wheels passing over it suddenly turned to sheet ice again. The last 2 laps were the worst laps ever, the usual morning boost was crushed by the horrendous conditions. I was flying high and loving it right up until the last 2 laps when I was suddenly hating it and just wanting it to be over.

By the time I finished I was completely finished. I had a look at how many laps I had done (somehow thought I had done 22 at this point, it was actually 21) and was very happy with that. I saw that I was in 6th place and hobbled up the fireroad, content and exhausted. A top 10 finish is always my goal at the back of mind and I have achieved it in all the solo endurance events I have done. I was pleased not to break that streak. I bumped my car out of the ditch successfully and drove away for a sleep. Another Puffer complete!

I later found out my name had been called as 1st place Singlespeeder. I had forgotten they give a shout out to that at the Puffer. In all other races, singlespeed is either a different category with a full podium or it’s just not. I’m not sure why they just give a prize to 1st place singlespeeder. I was 3rd place Singlespeeder in 2015 but it’s not a different category so it made no difference. Both times I was racing the overall in my mind. Interestingly I was 6th overal in 2015 and 2019 but 3rd singlespeeder in 2015 and 1st singlespeeder in 2019. The good singlespeeders must have not shown up this year!

Looking back I am very happy with my performance. I had very little training, I was recently converted to singlespeed and I had no support crew. I managed to get 6th place purely by minimising stop time and maintaining consistent lap times throughout. I achieved my goal of consistent lap times way better than I thought I would. Now having done that I’m really looking forward to having another shot at a 24 hour with a decent training block before it, or even just riding my bike.

Strathpuffer Lap Times

Why write about this 5 months after the event? Well I have a big race coming up which I have also done minimal training for. I know I have the underlying fitness to complete the race but I still want to compete at whatever level I am at.

Fitness is completed before you get to the event, you can’t do anything about it at that stage. What you can do is ensure your head is in the game. I’ve analysed my performance at the Puffer and i’m pretty content with how I did. I intend to use the same tactics I did at the Puffer. Don’t look at how everyone else is doing or where you are. Ride your own ride and don’t ride too hard. Consistency is key.

Strathpuffer 2015

11041920_10153141419203944_2748122483719942397_oI bumped and bounced down the trail and across the narrow bridge above an icy stream. I felt slightly dazed and out of control. The darkness seemed to be closing in, enveloping me, deepening in the already black night. I began to wonder if I’d hit my head when I flew over the bars down a steep icy rock slab just moments ago. This was the Strathpuffer. This was a proper ‘puffer. Snow, ice and 17 hours of cold, dark nighttime in the Highlands of Scotland.

I was always going to race singlespeed. The Highland Trail success had already decided that. Singlespeeders seem to excel at the ‘puffer course as well. The only change came from reading one of Jason Miles‘ past blogs. He mentioned he rode a 34:17 gear set up. I had only ridden 32:18 previously which is a bit easier but decided to change that to 32:16. Jason had won multiple times so if I wanted to compete it made sense to use the same gearing. Little did I know how much I would regret that decision.

I knew from the start that I wouldn’t be competing at the front of the race, the training just hadn’t happened for that. I was still hopeful I could finish in the top 10 though. The first lap was a lot of fun, it always is. I forced myself to hold back from the all out sprint I usually do at the start of these races and found myself riding just behind Jason and Guy Martin, seems this was the right pace then. Near the end of the first lap and I was still feeling strong when I suddenly had a horrible thought. I checked my wrist and I was right, my dibber was still in my jacket pocket in the car! I took a detour down the fireroad right near the end, dug out the dibber and zip tied it to my wrist. By the time I backtracked to where I left the trail and continued down to the finish I had lost quite a few places but these are long races and it had only just begun. I had asked Sarah not to tell me how well I was doing for the whole race. It’s difficult to pace yourself in this length of race anyway but even harder when you push yourself too hard for a couple of laps trying to get away from someone breathing down your neck. I’ve done that before at a race and just found it frustrating. That said, looking back now I feel I could have done more during this ‘puffer, perhaps a mix of the two tactics is best.

It quickly became a case of grinding away up the slippy fireroad in too hard a gear and then trying to make some time back on the singletrack. And repeat. It wasn’t long before I was regretting the gearing choice. The fireroad became painfully slow and sections of it had to be walked when it properly froze in the night. Ice tyres would have helped of course but I find it hard to justify the cost of them for one race a year! Before everything froze over though I noticed riders slipping around on the rocks in the singletrack with ice tyres on so I’m not sure how much of an advantage I would have gained over the course of the whole race. They certainly would have been useful however when I plummeted into the darkness down the icy rock slab in the middle of the night. After that fall I continued down the trail and across the bridge then started up the hill on the other side before I began to wonder why it seemed to be getting darker. Eventually, just before the switchback climb I stopped to check my light. Sure enough, the cable had been pulled out of the dynamo hub and my main front light had been gradually dimming. I was relieved at least that it wasn’t just shear exhaustion or that i’d hit my head and I was hallucinating.

After grinding my way round the course for the full 24 hours, repeatedly wondering why I’d chosen such a difficult gear, I finally finished with 24 laps and still not a clue as to where I was positioned. Sarah met me at the finish and told me how i’d done. 6th place overall and 3rd place singlespeed. I was very pleased with this result, 3 more laps than I had managed last time and on a ridiculous geared singlespeed!

Thanks to my girlfriend Sarah for the amazing support. Thanks also to Jason Miles for influencing my gear choice! Although I believe he struggled with the gearing this time as well, read his blog here.

BUCS XC MTB Championship

The whole team. It was very muddy!
The whole team. It was very muddy!

The rain cascaded off the roof outside. The ominous grey sky threatened to bring back the thunder of the morning. A group of us were huddled in the doorway of the run down old golf clubhouse.  We were watching the sodden riders from the first race strip back layers of thick, claggy mud from bike frames and bodies. We were wondering what we were doing here. We were wondering why we had made a 5 hour journey to race our mountain bikes around a very muddy old golf course in the pouring rain. We were wondering why we were waiting till 1 o’clock for our race to start.

A lot of this didn’t make sense. We had come to race in the British University Cross Country Mountain Bike Championship. A grand title for not so grand a race. A 2 mile course had been marked out around an old golf course. There was a brief section of downhill singletrack at the end of a grassy slog up the hill. Then heavy rain was forecast and the organisers were forced to reverse the course in order that it was safe enough in the slippery mud. We were left with a steep, slimy ascent which mostly had to be walked and then a nice wet roll down a grassy slope. As far as we were concerned, there wasn’t really any mountain biking involved. There were a lot of negative feelings leading up to the start of the race.

This was the first time I had ever been to a race where the journey took longer than the racing. A 10 hour round trip for a 1 hour race? You don’t get much for your time and money in XC racing! Having just ridden the Highland Trail Race a week and a half before, I wasn’t all too impressed by the course either.

The race was brilliant.

When 1 o’clock finally came around we made our way to the start line. I ended up in the mid-pack of around 80 riders, I was forgetting that there wasn’t enough time to catch a lot of riders in such a short race. I also had 560 miles in my legs though that were telling me this was going to hurt. The organisers shouted out that there were 6 laps instead of 5 as we had thought and then ‘Go!’.

And we were off, an all out slow sprint through the thick, sticky mud. I went as hard as I could from the start, that’s what you do in such short races right? The course went straight into a fairly tight hairpin corner and we all fought for positions. A fast spin along a brief section of hardpack followed as I tried to keep pace with the geared riders and then into the muddy hill. I pedalled hard, throwing everything I had at this hill. Pick off one rider at a time, reel them in and overtake. As soon as I lost too much grip I was off and running, slipping and sliding up the hill. My legs were screaming and my lungs were on fire by the top of the first climb on lap one. I pushed harder to take the next rider. It was a short race, the pain couldn’t last long could it? By the end of lap one I was gasping for breath and gulping down water. I’m not used to the hard efforts of short races.

Each lap I got stuck behind the same rider for the brief descent, I overtook him on the flat at the bottom of the course and then he passed me on the way up the hill again just in time to be in the way for the descent. I took great pleasure in watching him try to pass a girl racer a while before the descent on lap 4. He called out 4 times ‘on the left’ or something akin to that and then tried to pass but he could never quite make it. It got even better when, having finally passed her, she ripped up the descent and overtook him on the outside of a muddy slippery corner! I was grinning at my competitor getting showed up.

I pushed hard on lap 5, briefly forgetting the call of ‘6 laps’ at the start of the race. I ran the full climb, telling my protesting legs ‘just one last time!’ It wasn’t the last lap of course and this left me struggling for the final lap, my competitor took the lead on the climb and I had nothing left to reel him back in. I crossed the line not far behind, still grinning, pleased I had managed to race at all with so little recovery from the last big ride. The race may not have been very mountainbikey but it was a lot of fun all the same. All out head to head racing whilst messing about in serious amounts of mud has a strange appeal to it. It was really hard and really messy.

I finished in 15th place and 2nd within the Glasgow Uni team. Being a university event, the times of the top 3 racers from each uni are added together to give an overall team standing. Scott Lindsay, Ross Green and myself placed well enough to get the bronze team medal. Good results all round.

Bronze team medal
Bronze team medal

Highland Trail Race 2014 – Day 5

DSC00104
Flying along the track to Tyndrum. (photo: Steve Large)

I awoke to a cloud of midges and my alarm drilling through my head. I was using my Garmin as an alarm and had left it on the bike, way out of reach. I climbed out of the bivvy a little way, reached over and pressed snooze. I was asleep again almost instantly. I repeated this twice, both times still leaving it on the bike. Finally I removed it but couldn’t bring myself to get up. I set the alarm for another 40 minutes sleep.

This time when I woke I forced myself up. It was still dark but I was imagining Tom and Steve having rode through the night and passing me while I slept so I got up and got going. It was very thick cloud which meant my lights were not much use. I pressed on up and over both hills on the way to Fort Augustus, somehow managing to pedal up most of them. I rolled through Fort Augustus with clearly no chance of getting breakfast this early and pressed on down the Great Glen Way heading for Fort William. I wasn’t moving very fast by this stage and I was running low on food so this section seemed to take forever. 10 miles out of Fort William and I had no food left, those last miles were quite a struggle. I stumbled into the shop and tried to get everything I needed, my mind was not working very well. After scoffing down some food outside the shop I felt a bit better and it began to dawn on me there was not much left to go. It was just the West Highland Way back to Tyndrum from here.

With bike and body reloaded I set off for the final stretch that I knew well. The West Highland Way from Fort William to Kinlochleven is a good section of trail and I enjoyed riding it, the descent into Kinlochleven is great fun. I pushed on through Kinlochleven but felt really drained on the climb, it was just a case of putting one foot in front of the other. I tore down the Devils Staircase trying to enjoy the last big descent as best I could. I was enjoying some of the fresh faced walkers saying “good morning” as I went by, I had been riding for 8 hours already, I could barely believe it was still the morning. Another walker called out “and I thought we had it hard”. At first I disagreed with him since it is much more fun by bike but then I realised I had cycled over 500 miles to get there.

I rode as fast as I could manage all the way from here. Desperately looking forward to the finish and yet still enjoying some of the last stretches of trail. As I neared Tyndrum I heard a shout of “Go Andy!” from the road, I cheered something incomprehensible back and pedalled the final stretch even harder.

I had somehow timed a 560 mile ride perfectly and my girlfriend Sarah had driven straight from work in Glasgow to meet me, she arrived in Tyndrum just 10 minutes before I did. Steve Large, who had shouted from the road was also at the finish. I was overjoyed and could barely believe I had come in 2nd place. Pictures were taken and a few race stories were shared with Steve, he was a strong rider but had to drop out cause of knee troubles, yet he still cycled all the way back along the road from the Dundonnell area! It was then off to the Real Food Café for dinner where I kept falling asleep. It was a brilliant finish to a brilliant race.

IMG_4710
Still standing!

Reflecting back on the race it’s hard to believe how much I enjoyed it. At no point did I not want to continue on the trail. Mentally I thought this race was easier than 24 hour races. You’ve always got the next section of trail to look forward to, not just the same track you’ve ridden countless times. I finished the race happy, not saying “I would never do that again”. It was by far the best adventure I’ve ever been on and I can’t wait to plan the next one.

IMG_4727
Final stats.

Strava: Day 1, Day 2, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5

Also check out Ian Barringtons excellent video of the race:

Highland Trail Race 2014 – Day 4

The only photo I took during the race. Probably looking for a distraction from the Tollie Path
The only photo I took during the race. Probably looking for a distraction from the Tollie Path

I awoke a while after 4am and found my way through a cloud of midges to get up and ready. I was back on the trail by 4.30 and made my way through the cow dung bog to the road at Kernsary. It was a bit of a crap and pest infested wake up really. Straight through Poolewe, nothing available at this time, and onto the Tollie Path. The Tollie Path is difficult and most of the descent is unrideable. All in all, not a great mornings riding! Finally onto the road to Kinlochewe, however, and excited by the prospect of the Torridons next, in my opinion the highlight of the whole route. I needed to restock and had to wait 10 minutes in Kinlochewe for the shop to open. Checking my phone again I learnt that Tom and Steve were still behind me, the tyre tracks last night must have been from other people.

There was some more road before the start of the big climb. The climb is mostly pushing punctuated by a few sections of fun rideable trail. The morning sun was warming up and it was blue skies all round, what better way to experience the Torridons. I kept glancing down at the road far below trying to spot any riders but never saw any. Still, with all the pushing I expected Tom to catch me at some point. Near the top the trail becomes very steep with huge boulders and it was very difficult to wrestle a loaded bike up it. As I neared the top I looked back down the trail and saw 2 riders at the base of the climb. I couldn’t believe it, they had caught me up! I pushed on hard and tore off down the trail into Coire Lair. I was riding way, way faster than I should have but hey, I was in a race and this was meant to be the best descent of the whole ride, right? It truly was. It goes on and on, bouldery loose scree up the top and then hard-pack singletrack with big rock slabs as you get lower down.

With aching hands and a big grin on my face I continued a fast pace along the road, still convinced they were right behind me. It wasn’t till after the race looking back at the tracker I realise the 2 riders clearly weren’t Tom and Steve. Whoever they were, I have to thank them for a great boost and making an already fun descent even better. From here to Fort Augustus was all entirely new to me so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. The road was fast with one very steep part which I barely managed to get up, zigzagging all the way. The trail up the next hill was similar and the descent turned into a tricky hike-a-bike along the side of the hill. Eventually I reached the road after going right through the middle of a farm. I pressed on to Dornie and restocked quickly in the shop. For some reason I had the impression that Camban Bothy was not far into the next section of trail. It was a lot further than expected. I was never intending on stopping there, it was just a milestone I had in my mind but it made this section seem very long. The road turned to a track and the track became an unrideable steep trail at the head of Glen Lichd, the push seemed relentless. Again I was checking over my shoulder constantly, expecting to be caught at any moment. Finally I reached the bothy and stopped to look around and have a quick bite to eat. It was about 8pm and I was having thoughts of making it to Fort Augustus today, just Glen Affric and 2 hills to go right?

Glen Affric was all rideable but it was long, very long. By the time I reached the end it was getting dark and I was running low on motivation. I tried to keep pushing on but ended up falling asleep briefly while riding. I pushed a short way up the next hill and set up a bivvy on the comfiest looking bit of gravel track, I was too tired to care. I set my alarm for 1.20am, an ambitious 1 hours sleep. Day 4 had been 105 miles and a 16 hour day.

Day 5

Highland Trail Race 2014 – Day 3

The descent to Carnmore. Picture taken last summer. Imagine it darker and wetter for this year.
The descent to Carnmore. Picture taken last summer. Imagine it darker, wetter and more atmospheric for this year.

I struggle to remove the tiny pin holding in my worn-to-the-metal brake pads under the light of my headtorch. It’s 11pm, getting dark and I’ve been riding for 19 hours. I’m 1,600ft up a mountain at the top of a steep descent right in the middle of one of the remotest parts of the Highlands and I’m questioning my logic at changing the pads now. In my exhausted state it is very frustrating and takes much longer than it would otherwise. Once finished I take a moment, looking out past Carnmore, across Fionn Loch and out towards Poolewe in the rapidly fading light. I love this place. I knew of the fantastic singletrack down to Carnmore and then out to Poolewe that I was about to ride and in that moment I couldn’t be happier. This was it. This was why I was here.

The day started with the discovery of a slug in my open packet of oatcakes that I had been too tired to put back in a bag the night before. I picked off the top oatcake with slug attached and threw it into the bushes. I didn’t have enough food to get to Ullapool without the rest of them. I was back on the bike around 4am pedalling along the empty coast road. I missed a turning again for the singletrack into Lochinver and told myself I needed to pay more attention. I half expected to meet Tom when I got back on the right route. Some of the singletrack was quite fun but on my way out of Lochinver I noticed I had left the feed bag on my top tube open and a whole pack of caffeine ShotBloks was gone. Now I had even less resources to get to Ullapool. Small things like that can deal quite a blow to your morale.

The track from Lochinver to Ledmore quickly became mostly unrideable, rocky hike-a-bike. This was by far the hardest part of the route for me and it seemed to go on forever. I stopped at what appeared to be the high point and ate a load of food whilst dreaming of a nice descent back to the road from there. It wasn’t to be, it only got harder with plenty of the descent being too tricky to ride. I imagine the views whilst passing between Suilven and Canisp were fantastic but I was too busy not enjoying myself to take any notice.

It’s amazing how quickly you forget about the hardships though, even during the race. I eventually got to the road and turned my phone on whilst cycling. I learnt, by texts from my girlfriend, that Tom was behind but gaining and that Steve was quite far behind Tom. This was surprising since I had not seen Steve at any point and fully expected him to be up ahead of me. It was good news though since it now put me in 2nd place and it gave me the boost I needed. I pedalled hard along the rest of the road to try and put some pressure on Tom and also excited by the prospects of the rest of the day: good trails, food in Ullapool and then into Fisherfield.

I barely managed to resist the temptation of the Oykel Bridge Hotel again but I continued on even though I was running low on food. I had ridden the track to Ullapool before and from memory it didn’t seem too long. It is mostly good tracks with a brief singletrack section in the middle and then a road down to Ullapool from Loch Achall. I clearly hadn’t studied the route closely enough as I very nearly continued on down the road until I realised we went off up a singletrack walkers path to get to Ullapool. By this point I was hungry and looking forward to the Tesco in Ullapool so I didn’t appreciate the surprise singletrack much. I pulled into Tescos with a plan in my mind of what I needed to grab and get out. Kid in a candy shop syndrome set in however and I ended up with none of what I had planned, it’s strange how the mind starts struggling as exhaustion sets in. I also underestimated how hungry I was at that point. I ate lots on the road section out of Ullapool leaving me with not as much food as I would have liked.

Worries of not enough food, a full on thunderstorm and a very steep, long hill climb did nothing to dampen my spirits at this stage though. I had a full stomach, I was in 2nd place and I was on my way to the Fisherfield mountains. I had been looking forward to this section along with the Torridons for the whole trip, in fact, for months leading up to the race. After passing 2 tents right at the top looking very out of place in heavy rain, on an uninteresting hill and in a very exposed position, I tore down the soaking wet descent. My front brake was beginning to fade but I didn’t want to stop to change the pads so I just continued on.

The next climb was long but easy enough followed by a fast descent and singletrack along to Shenavall bothy. The bothy looked very tempting in the fading light and it had started raining again. I persuaded myself to at least push on to the shelter at Larachantivore on the other side of the river crossing. At this stage I was seeing quite a few sets of tyre tracks and I was convinced Tom and Steve must have passed me, maybe whilst I was in Tescos? The track down to the river becomes indistinct and difficult and I was reduced to stumbling across a bog. The river is always surprisingly wide (about 50m) and looks very daunting in the half light. I walked out about 10m with the bike on my back and stopped in my tracks. The water was just about to go over my knees and I began to worry there may be a deep channel in the middle. When I had last crossed here the water had barely touched my shins. I stood there uncomfortably for what seemed like ages fighting a mental battle, backtracking to the bothy was a very appealing prospect. I managed to push on and thankfully it stayed around knee deep. Somehow I summoned the courage (or madness) to bypass the shelter with the plan to try and make it to Carnmore Bothy. This involved a fairly serious hill to climb and descend, without much light, in the rain and after 17 hours of riding. I wasn’t confident it was a good decision to say the least.

The path soon became too steep to ride as it wound it’s way up to 1,700ft. My mind was beginning to play tricks, parts of the landscape appeared to be moving around me, stones on the track seemed to scuttle away. The climb went on forever, I was stopping frequently, each step seemed like a dream. Finally the trail levelled off and became a fun rideable singletrack across the top of this mountain pass. My front brake was having very little effect by this stage and eventually I decided it couldn’t wait till the morning, the descent down to Carnmore would be dangerous without it. I stopped right as the path steepened downwards and began the long and slow process of changing a set of brake pads whilst exhausted. I glanced at the back brakes as well, the entire caliper was covered by a thick crust of mud, this seemed fairly good protection from further mud and water so I left it as it was.

As I readied myself to continue I realised how much I was enjoying this. The whole situation seemed perfect. The mountains, me and my bike, the fact that I was in control. I had everything I needed to survive out here on my own. I decided there that I wasn’t going to stop at Carnmore. I had the whole of the fantastic singletrack out to Poolewe laid out before me and I was loving it. I tore off down the trail, dynamo light clearly showing the way forward. With the front brake biting well again and my mind awake the singletrack was a joy to ride in the dark.

The singletrack comes to an end in a forest a while before Poolewe. I set up my bivvy on the first nice looking patch of pine needles. 21 hours and 110 miles, it had been a good day.

Day 4

Highland Trail Race 2014 – Day 2

Riding away from the start line.
Riding away from the start line.

It’s barely turned 8.30am, I’ve been riding for over 3 hours in heavy rain after 4 hours sleep and I’m shivering uncontrollably outside the shop in Contin. My mind is racing with thoughts of my parents house with a fire, a warm shower, hot food and bed just 2 miles away in Strathpeffer.

I awoke to my alarm and immediately started getting ready. Getting dressed, packing up the bike and hitting the road. I don’t like to hang around to eat and be eaten (by midges!). I was back on the bike by 5am and hoped I hadn’t slept longer than the other racers. After stopping to refill my empty water bottle I took a drink and began to feel refreshed and more awake. As I pedalled along the road through Struy I spot Steve Heading packing up his bivvy on a small side track. I didn’t think he saw me so I kept on riding. The route leaves the road and climbs steeply out of the Glen. I wasn’t feeling strong after the previous days ride and Steve soon caught and overtook me fairly easily. He mentioned that Phil Simcock was the only rider ahead of us, it wasn’t until that point I realised I was so near the front of the race. I hadn’t kept track of how many riders were ahead the previous day. I felt pleased that I had maintained a good position from day 1 but I wasn’t confident I could keep it for the next few days.

Thick cloud, heavy rain and a cold wind accompanied me along the soggy landrover track to Orrin Reservoir. There were big puddles that could be deceiving, some you could ride straight through the middle raised section, others looked similar but would quickly swallow your wheels up to the hub or stop you dead in thick mud. This was a testing section and I was freezing cold descending the fast road from Orrin down to Fairburn, through Marybank and into Contin. I knew this area well and had been looking forward to it.

I pulled into the shop in Contin to stock up. “We don’t serve hot food on Sundays” was the answer I got when I asked the shopkeeper. I grabbed a cornish pasty for breakfast and a hot coffee from the machine. Tom appeared as I was paying and Steve Large and Gary Tompsett arrived whilst I ate under the shelter outside the shop. Some company really helped boost my spirits as I realised everyone else was struggling too, we were all shivering. Gary and Steve came out of the shop with hot burgers and pasties (it was 4 hours into a ride, it didn’t feel like breakfast!), apparently you had to ask to use the microwave rather than for hot food. I was thinking through the next section of trail as we ate and talked. I knew the first part to Oykel bridge well and I was really looking forward to the wilderness of the northern loop. The rain was also beginning to fade and I soon summoned up the courage to get back on the bike, just ahead of the others.

I pedalled hard through the woods of my old local trails and the Strathpuffer and soon warmed up. The days riding was beginning to look more appealing and I was feeling strong after a good feed. Past Garve, up Strath Rannoch and down into Strath Vaich. At this point I stopped briefly and as soon as I did I felt very drained, I had just ‘hit the wall’. Tom caught me at the same time and as we rounded a corner to a steep climb he shot off up it and I was reduced to walking with no energy left. I pushed on anyway and ate sugary food all the way up the climb. I began to feel a little bit better on the fast descent down to Loch Vaich and continued to eat all the way along the edge of the Loch. By the time I got to the climb out of Strath Vaich I was feeling better and Tom was still in my sights. I’m still amazed at how quickly I hit the wall and how quickly I got out of it. Highs and lows come about increasingly quickly the more exhausted you are. I think the lack of any sugary food in the morning was the reason for the sudden crash.

The next section was an enjoyable ride on fast trails and I kept Tom just within view. I had no need to look down at my Garmin, I knew these trails well. I caught Tom as we got to Alladale and we rode a lot of the rest of the day together. As we pulled into Oykel Bridge Tom was going to try and find hot food at the Hotel. This was too tempting to resist and going against my plans of keeping stop time to a minimum I joined him for my only hot food of the race. It was well worth it after a cold, wet morning. A bacon roll and chips was a fantastic morale boost in the warm and dry. I also took the opportunity to stock up on some Creme Eggs and Yorkies, yum!

There was a lot of road from Oykel Bridge all the way up to Loch Merkland punctuated by a steep road climb and very fast descent from Glen Cassley over to Loch Shin. It was pleasant riding but I was happy to get back onto rougher trails and I rode hard along the track to Gobernuisgeach Lodge. Tom began to catch me again on a steep hike up the next hill but I was still feeling good and tore along the rideable track at the top. The track was very obvious and nice to ride, what could go wrong? I glanced down at the Garmin as a quick check and suddenly hauled on the brakes. There was no purple line. The line I had been following for 2 days was not even visible on the screen. I quickly zoomed out until I could see where I went wrong. I was at least a mile off course. I about turned and retraced my steps, constantly looking at the Garmin. I was annoyed with myself, how could I be so stupid? Eventually I found the right track, an indistinct boggy mess. It looked horrendous. I followed it for a while and caught up with Tom again, he had taken the right turning and passed me when I went wrong. We battled on, often having to walk down the very boggy trail to the next low point and a small river crossing. We saw Steve Heading pushing up the hill ahead of us and Tom shot off in pursuit. There was no chance I could keep up and they were both soon gone from view. I pushed on anyway whilst thinking about the race as a whole. Tom and Steve were strong riders who seemed to be able to push on quite hard and I couldn’t do much to keep pace. If that continued I would be in 4th place by the end of the race. I was very content with that, I had come into the race with little experience, poor training and high hopes of making it into the top 10.

I reached the high point of the trail and began the descent. I had not done much research into the northern loop and this descent from Bealach Horn was a very nice surprise. A short way down Tom was fixing a puncture, I stopped briefly then continued on, “I’ll see you down the trail”. I was feeling very tired and thought he would catch me quite quick. The descent was brilliant and made the whole northern section well worth it: http://www.strava.com/segments/7316138 By the time I got to the bottom I had no intention of stopping, this was too much fun. I cruised through Achfary, stopping only to change the GPS track to HT550_Back, it felt like I was on the home straight. In reality, I was not even halfway, 305 miles left to go.

It was mostly a push up the hill from Achfary. I was constantly checking over my shoulder expecting Tom to be walking up behind me. The descent was fast and made interesting by the fading half light. Dark enough for lights or not? When I reached the road I stopped for a bite to eat and considered bivvying right there. In the end I decided to continue up the road for a bit with the logic that a road can’t be too hard to ride in a very tired state. It turns out it is quite hard, with nothing to occupy your mind all thoughts are of sleep. Eventually I pulled up in a tourist viewpoint and set up my bivvy on the soft grass right behind the information sign. It had been a 140 mile, 16 hour day. Sleep came easily.

Day 3

Highland Trail Race 2014 – Day 1

The Swift loaded up and ready to go.
The Swift loaded up and ready to go.

62 riders signed up in November. 36 riders rolled across the start line in May and 12 riders made it to the finish. This is not an easy race. 560 miles of some of the toughest trails the Highlands has to offer.

We rolled up to the start line after a nice birthday celebration for race organiser, Alan Goldsmith, of cake and bagpipes at the Real Food Café. My Garmin was refusing to turn on when Alan called ’30 seconds’ which was not helping settle my pre-race nerves. Thoughts of riding the whole route with the basic paper maps I had or trying to keep pace with someone for the whole ride were flying through my head. It finally turned on though and seconds later Alan’s voice was heard, “Go”. There was a slight pause, not the all out sprint across the start that is typical of shorter races, and then we hit the trail.

Finally. I instantly felt a huge wave of relief. Months of thinking about this race had got me to the start line feeling very nervous. Now at least, all there was left to do was ride, eat and sleep.

The first section of the West Highland Way is a nice introduction, easy pedalling and chatting with other riders. The pace was not too fast but I watched a few riders pull away along the brief road section after Bridge of Orchy, I was spinning away on my 32:18 gearing and couldn’t keep up with the geared riders, was singlespeed the right choice? I had converted my bike to singlespeed just 2 weeks before the race in order to make it much lighter (I had an Alfine hub before that was 1.3kg heavier!), more fun to ride and of course, much simpler with less to go wrong.

I had started the race with too many layers on for what was turning out to be a nice warm day. I was desperate not to stop and be passed by other riders but just after Kingshouse Hotel I decided that it needed to be done before the hike up the Devils Staircase. Sure enough, Steve Large, Gary Tompsett and Tom Rowntree passed me while I was stopped. In such a long race riders can pass each other often when one or the other stops so this was little to worry about so early on but it did make it clear to me that stop time plays a major part in these races.

At the base of the Devils Staircase I caught up with Tom Rowntree and we got talking while pushing up and passing walkers (some didn’t seem impressed to be overtaken by heavily laden cyclists!). We were both riding singlespeed with the same gearing and our pace was often well matched over the first 2 days. Tom was a strong rider and faster than me at walking, he pulled away from me near the top of the climb and I could do little to keep up. I decided I was going to have to ride fast when I could and just maintain a good pace for the rest. I tore down the hill to Kinlochleven, perhaps a bit too fast but thoroughly enjoying it, passing Tom when he had stopped and catching Gary and Steve in the process. Boosted on adrenaline I attacked the steep tarmac climb out of Kinlochleven and tried to work out how you rode these hills on a singlespeed (I’d not had much practice!). It’s just a case of keeping the pedals turning which with only one gear means you ride at a certain pace or you walk. I was beginning to see how singlespeed could work out faster than gears, you can’t spin slowly up hills!

The next section began to feel like the real ‘Highland’ Trail Race, the West Highland Way is too busy with walkers compared to the Highlands I’m used to. I was very much looking forward to the wilderness of the northern loop and the Fisherfield section for a proper taste of that ‘out there’ feeling. The river crossing and bog trot after Meanach is a tough hike-a-bike section and marks the end of any riding with dry feet! Many fairly easy miles followed on nice tracks, with good views and weather, time passed quickly as Tom and I rode together.

The Corrieyairack Pass came and went, a big hill but with a good track up and a fast, chilling descent into Fort Augustus. We arrived just in time for the shop to still be open and I restocked my food whilst Tom went off in search of something hot. I got back on the trail as soon as I could. A brief section of forest tracks with some good views of Loch Ness in the evening light and then the final hill for the day. Light was fading as I made my way round the rocky shore of Loch na Stac. I don’t remember much of the descent apart from taking a quick look in the bothy which I later learnt was where a few riders behind me took shelter. A hard concrete floor with no sleeping mat did not look very appealing so I continued down to the road and pedalled a little way along Strath Glass to find somewhere softer. A landrover track with grass verges leading down to the river looked very appealing and I quickly got set up on a patch just big enough to bivvy.

Stopping at around midnight seemed a little early since I knew Aidan Harding and Phil Simcock had continued to 4am last year but I was exhausted and content with 125 miles on day 1. I just hoped the bothy would be too tempting and no one would continue into the night and pass me while I slept. With the alarm set I quickly fell asleep.

Day 2