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.