Monday, 8 June 2015

Highland 550

A wild beast of a race that can't be tamed.

At 550 miles it's not the longest race, but every single one of those miles is hard fought. Throughout this race I was taken to the edge of my technical ability; the edge of my psychological ability to suffer and physically to the edge. "She doesn't care" - Mother Nature, the mountain. You're in her world and sometimes she doesn't want you there. These parts of Scotland bear very few scars of our influence.
It's still truly wild, its beauty is unimaginable until you're there living it, breathing it, surviving through it. My eyes, through cowering eyelids hiding from driving rain, still could hardly believe what they saw.
This right here is freedom and most people will never get off their arse and see it and the truth be told I'm glad because this place will forever be wild just how it's supposed to be.

Leaving Tyndrum we all knew the weather was going to close in and this race was going to have a high drop out rate. I did not want a DNF but how far could I go - can I handle this?
On the first day it's essential to get to Fort Augustas before 9 or 9:30 pm at the latest, otherwise you're going hungry and will have to wait to resupply in the morning, wasting too much time. As I approached the Corrieyairack Pass, which is the final climb before dropping into FA, I realised that time was getting tight.
I pushed on - even waddling over a patch of snow - bursting through the doors of the chippy at 8:55pm, last person in. I tied my chips to my bag knowing I had more in my legs and that the rain was settling in I just wanted to keep moving. Note - chips are not ideal trail snacks: soggy when wet.
In the darkness of the night wading through a bog I then had to climb down to the loch edge. I went for the sit on your arse and fall off edge approach. I wasn't going to get any wetter so it was a good move. Skirting around the loch edge I found a ruin with a roof, relative luxury and respite from the howling wind. Bivvy, bed, chips, 4 am alarm, chips, go.

Haunted ruin, first night's stop. Photo credit Markus Stitz.

When I awoke Mother Nature was still beating her rain drum and the sky was black. I passed the bothy where I bumped into Steve Large, I couldn't keep up with him - he'd obviously had his Weetabix.
My next hurdle, literally, was a deer fence. Seeing as I could barely climb over it without a bike - never mind a fully loaded one - this was not going to be very elegant. Much swearing and shorts snagging later I made it over. I stood and cursed Alan Goldsmith.
Considering that the first part of the race was meant to be easier than the northern loop - dududuuuuu - I was already finding the wind and rain a challenge and wondering how the hell I was going to survive the river crossing. Inner tubes could make a rubber ring in desperate times...

Food supplies are sparse so when a tiny village shop appeared we would all bombard the poor  cashier (normally an old lady) with the same requests: Can you heat my pasty up? Can you fill my water bottles? Coffee? Then we would all promptly spend £15 on anything that wouldn't disintegrate into mush in the rain. Who needs a coffee table when you can sit on the forecourt of a petrol station with a handful of other stinky cyclists, while comsuming an unhealthy amount of E numbers and cross referencing where the next pig out would occur?

Oykel Bridge was the last food stop in a while and - lucky for us - they have become blue dot watchers. They quite often stay open late if they see an approaching dot and welcomed us in regardless of our appearance. At this point in the race people start dropping like wet flies. The approaching nitty gritty section is intimidating and claims its victims purely by reputation.

Light was fading and Mother Nature had taken a deep breath and was about to release an almighty roar. As the wind raged down on us the rain became blinding and I was climbing higher and colder with Dutch Steven. We crested the top together and rode through the saddle of the mountain alongside a loch. Descending through the puddles, I lead us down to a lodge in the middle of nowhere.
I tried the first door of an outbuilding and we bailed inside at top speed. Dutch Steven was polite and was going to head back to camp out in the raging storm. "Don't worry, there's room for two, this is no time to be shy." I quickly came to the realisation that the saw hanging from the hooks on the ceiling must mean we were in an abattoir. And the sticky stuff I had just stood in - in bare feet - was a pool of blood. Not to worry, it was shelter and sometimes you just have to clear your mind of logic and do what you have to to survive. I didn't look in the bin for fear of finding a head.

Photo credit Markus Stitz

The next morning I squelched back into my muddy socks and headed out. She was still raging. The path became so steep that I had to walk with my head down, I just marched on. "Must keep moving to survive, keep on keeping on". Even descending I was on foot. The tussocks were interspersed with deep marshy puddles which swallowed my wheels whole. 
My first river crossing and I could feel the power of the swollen river. Above the loch I could see a majestic waterfall hammering down tons of water which was heading my way. With each steep I could feel the power of the water pushing against my thighs. It was like an arm wrestle I could feel myself losing, then that one final step and I scrambled to safety. I cursed Alan Goldsmith.

As I rode along into Kylesku, shaking violently, I found a scarf on the floor - again desperation won over pride. On closer inspection I realised that it was cashmere, "Darling oh how lavish I'm wiping my nose in cashmere."
It was smart dress only at the fish restaurant - I think the scarf got me in. I joined Mike and Javier. I ordered 3 cappuccinos and 2 egg buttys and they clearly felt sorry for me as I got a double egg in each one! When asked if I would like cutlery, Mike kindly pointed out that I hadn't used any for a while so I'd probably manage.

Photo credit Markus Stitz

The next section was rolling and then we were greeted by an almighty view of the ocean. Mountains leading into the sea is always pretty cool. I spied some excellent secret beaches which looked like romatic bivvy spots, perfect on a warm summer evening as opposed to a wet summer evening. I saw a mum with her tiny son making a sand castle, alone on the beach, his face glowing in the wind and a beaming smile. I really felt the magic of the place and it made my pain go away. Learning to take pleasure in the simple things in life is something we should all do.

After Lochinver things got tough, after eventually reaching Cam Loch the hike alongside it was hideously long and rough.  In all honesty I nearly had an accident because I didn't want to undo my bibs in the biting cold. It was a close call and I am glad no one was around, it was however very unfortunate that there were no trees along this section, you could say I was truly exposed!

Passing Oykel Bridge for the second time meant a chance to get a well earned meal, although again the clock was ticking. Last service 9pm and Dutch Steven and I were 5km away. Heads down and we buried ourselves to get there. My face exploded and had the start of what became a three day nosebleed. Now was not the time to faff with a nosebleed so I decided to ignore it and just spit like a camel when it dripped down the back of my throat. Poor Steven must think all Welsh girls are a bit rough. I bolted through the door and forgot about my face. Luckily the owner was putting a boat on the loch and had rung ahead saying that there were two cyclists going hell for leather towards the pub. I tried to do conversation with the lovely staff between shovelling in some sort of chicken dish while sticking a napkin edge up my nostril.
It was time to find shelter from the rain, while sprinting to the pub I had noticed a stable quite close by. I introduced Dutch Steven to breaking-and-entering. In my defence, I didn't actually break anything. I peeled up the edge of corrugated iron sheet, took off all my expensive Gore-tex, sucked everything in and shimmied myself in. I stood on a petrol can, opened the window and told Steven, "Climb in then," head first he came - all 6ft of him. He cracked me up by saying, "I'm too old for this!" We chuckled together.
We left it as we found it and began a wet slog to Ullapool.

In these races the rule is: if you feel good go and you'll meet again on the trail or at the end. It's your own battle against yourself and the clock, sometimes you need to just be alone and work through your own pain, sometimes you need the distraction of others maybe even sometimes you need to know you're not alone. In the vastness of this wild back country there's some comfort in knowing another cyclist will trip over your corpse if anything does happen.
In Ullapool I bumped into Dutchy at the tea room before heading over another mountain. Then I had the ultimate pleasure of meeting Rich and his son Mini Pips, who is a little superhero. Ten years old and out here tackling this terrain - I'm in awe.

Then came the infamous Fisherfield. It takes hours to even get to the river crossing but then a vast expanse of water spreads out before you. I distinctly remember Alan saying, "The line is good," meaning the GPS track is accurate. I looked up and down the edges for tyre tracks but there were none. High winds and rising water levels had washed away any sign of the riders ahead . I made a quick assessment and was prepared to take the risk. My other options would cost time and energy, both of which I had little of.

Fisherfield crossing

I lifted my bike across my shoulders and took the first cold, tentative step into the dark water. The wind was whipping up spray into my face but my only focus was the distant shore. I was frightened. The water rose past my knees and I wasn't even in the middle yet. I was now fully committed. If I fell here or slipped on the rocks below I'd be in deep trouble. Even activating the emergency spot tracker would just mean they'd be fishing for me. I wished in that moment that I was Moses and I could part the waves and stroll on through, with dry SPDs.
With each step it rose, past my thighs, past my waist and at this point my wheels were floating perilously on the water's surface. When my jersey got wet I totally locked my mind into getting to the other side. "You've got this, you're good, nearly there, easy easy, no drama." As the water peaked around my belly button I knew the next few steps were critical and to my relief my pockets started to drain and could see my legs again - I made it!
One final look and I told myself, "what a stupid thing to do that was". I rolled the dice and got a six.
To exit this vast landscape meant a steep narrow hike-a-bike. There's no room to push and walk so it's an over the shoulder hump to the top. One false summit after another, I was cursing Alan Goldsmith, but then before me lay a feast for the eyes, I nearly cried, the view was mind-blowing. Towering giants surrounded a set of lochs with tiny islands within them. The dark, wild weather was punctuated with a few stray rays of light that glowed on the water's surface. Rolling dark clouds were making there presence felt.
I was ready to drop in. Tight rocky switchbacks stole my attention from the view. Picking my way down and trying to be swift but safe - this was a hoot. As I reached the bottom I saw Javier with two inner tubes in his hand and a flat tyre, it was so windy and cold. After much swearing he was back-tracking to a barn so he could dry the tyre and fix it - I name him the Spanish mountain goat, his enthusiasm and strength are infectious - and he was single speed! I felt for him, although I had found his arm warmers on the trail so that was a bit of good news for him.

Nighttime was arriving and I was still soaked through, then I noticed my front tyre was deflating - bollocks. I wanted to get to Poolewe to get some food and time was running out.
At 8:55 I just about got to the Poolewe Hotel in time. After some very unappetising food I retired to a public toilet. The ensuite facilities were excellent and I had enough room to fix my tyre with a old toothpaste tube. I could just about lie down with my head at an acceptable distance from the loo... only just.

Photo credit Markus Stitz

In the morning I rose at 4am and packed my kit, as I tried to stand I fell straight to the floor. I looked down and my ankles had swollen right up. I forced on my left shoe but my right shoe would not swallow my foot. "I'll ride with no shoe, that's a great plan" - quickly I realised that a woollen sock was just not going to get me very far so I did what any sensible person would do and that's have a really good cry, I mean a really good wail. I phoned the other half (I momentarily forgot it was 4am) and wailed down the phone. I wasn't ready to quit just because of kankles. I had no option but to lie down in a pooey sheep barn and wait for a 2cm reduction. I'd ran out of food so waiting for the shop to open was another reason to wait it out.
In a way, although I lost time it did mean I got to meet Fat Phil - fat bike not a fat Phil - and that was a real pleasure. I introduced myself with a hug - sorry about that. 

At the tiny tea shop a women from California came in and asked for an americano. I held in my laugh as the sweet old dear working there had no clue what she was talking about. After eating all her eggs and getting a blow-by-blow account of her operation on her arthritic joints, it was time to face the almighty headwind and rain to begin the beast of a climb from Torridon. 
The weather was kicking my butt and my feet were unbearably sore but I just couldn't quit. I looked up through the storm and saw Phil's silhouette. Across his shoulders, a beast of burden, he was climbing with a fully loaded fat bike up a very steep rock face. Then the stark realisation that I too would have to scramble my way up set in. I let out a roar and began dragging myself towards the sky, giving myself a good talking to with each laboured step, telling the rain to fuck off! Phil and I met at the top and all I could see was rock. Wet, tyre-slicing rock. No time to mess around up here, we had to get off this mountain sharpish. Making each split second line choice while under such pressure was intense. I tried to stay relaxed and then I saw Phil glance back and I knew he was keeping an eye out. In that moment I felt so touched that a guy I'd met in the morning just gave me a knowing glance that meant so much, a look that said a thousands words.
The violent shakes appeared again, my eyes were vibrating in my head and I still had the nosebleed. Luckily the Strathcarron pub was close and we arrived to find a collection of other quivering riders: Dutch Steven, Javier, Alan, Andy. We all immediately tried booking rooms. Being cold and wet for so long took hours to recover from, that night I had my only wash of the whole race. We told the landlord that we would all be off by 4am so he packed us all a goodie bag for breakfast. At 4am Phil and I sat on the floor eating chocolate muffins listening to the ongoing rain on the window. I then remembered it was my birthday - excellent, I'll celebrate with a climb or two. I mustered up my motivation, had a sip of MTFU juice and just cracked on.
Dornie seemed like a nice place, shame we had to ride on through. By pure coincidence, or not given that it was the only place that served coffee, nearly all of us crossed paths at the petrol station obviously we were there to fill up on our second breakfasts. Javier was now also sporting a fine pair of kankles.

Glen Affric was the first time the wind blew us along and I was exceptionaly glad of it given that this valley is incredibly long. Brief glimpses of the sun were followed by sharp downpours but regardless of the weather there was no denying this valley is stunning. For me, getting to Fort Augustus was a big moment. I was a little more familiar with the route and I knew my feet would hold out. Javier was outside the Londis dressing himself in bin bags seeing as his waterproof shorts looked like a flapping sail. He even wore a PVC hat - still smiling.

Photo credit Markus Stitz

I was hoping the Caledonian canal would be easy but Mr Windy decided otherwise. After 30km I bid farewell to Phil and passed out in a Forestry Commission shed with a nest of swallows for company. Regardless of the pain, I was looking forward to riding the next day.
I worked hard on the West Highland Way and aimed for breakfast in Kinlochleven, where I ate five croissants in a row. As I headed towards round two of the Devil's Staircase I met Alan at the bottom. We set a good pace but I couldn't keep up when we had to do footwork. I enjoyed ascending the final big climb, I wanted to soak up every sense I could. I noticed walkers, which there hadn't been many of on the northern loop, I also noticed how clean they smelled.

I've never felt more alive. I was going to make it, I knew I could walk back from here if anything went wrong. The longer I rode the route the more anxiety I felt about finishing, I didn't want to be beaten by weather or mechanicals - things that are often out of your control.

I expected nothing and no one at the finish. I expected to just bask in the glory of a completed challenge and many lessons learnt. I know that to be the ultimate racer in these events there's only one thing that will make you the best and that's experience, so I'm just going to keep on experiencing until I get really good.
To my surprise Alan, Phil, Mike, Dutchy, Jessie and Sarah were waiting at the finish. I had to hold in my inner girliness and avoid a tear. I was given some lovely balloons and a very special hand drawn picture from little Jessie and inside the picture was a pink flipping rabbit. I also got a lovely carrot cake, complete with candles. Jessie and I blew out the candles together - as I'd ran out of puff - and then the cake went in one go.

Photo credit Sarah

Never in my life have I dug so deep and taken so many risks. To complete this I sailed close to the wind and got pushed right out my comfort zone. This is the toughest event I've ever done. It's everything an adventure should be - unpredictable, wild, beautiful and, dare I say it, life-changing. I walk away (well, hobble) feeling stronger knowing that there are still wild places and warm-hearted people and that together in tough scenarios we show humanity to each other and battle on. Not forgetting the riding - frikin awesome.

I thank Alan Goldsmith.


  1. Great write up Rickie.You are awesome.

  2. Awesome write up, and great to meet you.

    Rich and Tom

  3. Congratulations Rickie! Great read, sounds like a proper tough ride.

  4. Rickie - you are a legend. What an excellent write up. Hilarious, I laughed out loud a number of times. Happy memories.

    What an amazing accomplishment in truly epic conditions. You are a star

  5. When I was young I used to read comic books with super heroes... now I read these stories and realize that super heroes really exist!
    Congrats! Loved to read this!