Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Highland T-Reccie - a Trail of Human Stories

After a failure to finish - nay, properly get going on the Highland Trail this year, I decided to take a long weekend off work with the days of holiday saved and attempt the second of three "loops" of the course.  On Wednesday evening I drove to Scotland, driving through rain in Glasgow, past Crianlarich into rain in Tyndrum.  I had eaten on the way so carried on in to Fort William, seeing where I'd get to before I got tired of driving.  It was lashing it down in Fort Bill, the petrol station attendee pittied me as I rushed in to buy porridge sachets to keep me going through this mini "holiday".

I carried on through Fort Augustus into Invermorriston.  I thought of stopping in the carpark and pulled in to check for, "NO OVERNIGHT PARKING" signs.  They were everywhere although there were a glut of people obviously overnight parking including a car with two mountain bikes locked to the front grille.

I decided to carry on up to Cannich and camp there, hoping to persuade the campsite to look after my van for a few days in exchange for a few coins.  Unfortunately road closures on the A82 put paid to that idea (explaining the overnight camping rash in Invermorriston) and I scrummed down in a layby.  By power-lifting EmVee onto one side of the van, I managed to climb into the back without putting my nose outside and crawl into the sleeping bag in about 10 minutes.  Result.  Fleece hat over my eyes, I mostly slept through the occasional passing vehicle.

At 5am I woke up to the sound of moving traffic.  I was stiff from a night in a narrow space and the thought of climbing out of Invermorriston to Loch Na Stac for the second time in two months filled me with dread so I drove on up to Cannich and headed for the Corrimony Cairn car park where there were no "NO OVERNIGHT PARKING" signs.  I set off on my ride with a belly full of Cream Crunch biscuits and strawberries.  The good stuff was packed in my bags and I consumed everything I was carrying on the ride over to Contin.

The scenery was big, wide and open, the trails were in a similar condition.  I was enjoying myself and making progress.  The few remaining showers didn't bother me much.

In the stores, I took the time for a chat with the owner over coffee machine cleaning then sat outside and scoffed sausage roll and a chicken sandwich whilst watching a clueless bufoon nearly mow into a family turning off the road before aggressively challenging some motorcyclists on their riding technique.  He was brusquely sent on his way by the Glaswegian biker who was then immensely civil to me as he popped into the store for supplies.

I now understand the "Road of a Thousand Puddles" nickname and appreciated the Hydrobothy's shelter, initially from the breeze which had gotten rather stiff and battering and then from the rain which hammered down for around 10 minutes - just long enough for me to cool down properly after my packet of crisps shelter feed.  Hopes raised for a bit of speedy road riding at the sight of a little white van but it was just a long way away and finally a large, lumbering toyota Hilux came into view - two Scottish Hydro workers made me realise they were the only people I'd seen on the trail all day.

I envied their work then continued on my way.

Through sqally showers and a stiff breeze, I stoically pushed through towards Oykel Bridge, focussed on getting there within the day, thanks to Karl Brooks putting the idea in my head that it was achievable.  I still saw no-one and chatted to the cows instead in between battling the breeze and enjoying the sunny spells.

This blonde was a bit pretty

Cute little bear

I got a bit tired, (or was it a bit cocky?) when I spied a big old building by a road and got quite excited that I'd made it to Oykel Bridge by 4pm.  Could I, in fact, conceive of riding the top loop too?  When I realised it was only the Alladale reserve, I was put back in my place.  An eerily empty building (though obviously used by school and scout groups) in the middle of nowhere.

When I did finally reach Oykel Bridge after 11 hours riding and 13 hours outdoors, it was 7:30pm and time for dinner.  After race reports of a poor welcome at the hotel, I decided to save myself the descent and climb back out and cut the corner off to rejoin the return route at the Schoolhouse bothy.  In race mode I wouldn't have stopped the night but with heavy rain forecast between 9pm and 11pm, I decided not to get soaked on the first night and take my rest when the opportunity presented itself.

A rather luxurious bivi
'Twas the night before solstice in the highlands

I shared the building with Paul (a quiet student) and Dave and Caroline from Sheffield (no really).  When they asked me a few questions about how far I was going and where I was going, I was ashamed to admit that, although I had a vague idea, I didn't really know how long loop 2 was or, after Oykel Bridge, what my next moves were.

 I put my dinner on and pulled out my cheat-sheets to figure it out. 30km then 70km were the order of the next day, to Ullapool then to Kinlochewe, then Torridon and Glen Affric.

I cooked my dehydrated food sachet in the stone grate and snuggled up on the wooden bench, a little annoyed that the promised rain hadn't materialised to justify my early night.  Just as I pulled my hat over my eyes again to keep out the persistently illuminated grey sky and dozed off, the rain started to sheet on the tin roof.  Rather than keep me awake, it lulled me to sleep.

I was up with the dawn but took the time to holiday on porridge and coffee, still making it out the door by 7:30 and polishing off a lot more food on my way to Ullapool - my first opportunity to check in on the phone with loved ones. I was hiding under the trees on the edge of town whilst a wall of rain made its way through the valley.  Sure enough, as soon as I saw the other side of the bay the rain had cleared and I found my way to the cafe to share lunch with another couple from Sheffield - this time from Sheffield, Tazmania.  I listened with sympathy to their ageing stories of not being able to sleep on camp matresses anymore despite their love of remote places.  I sewed the thought in their minds that thermarest has come along somewhat over the last few years and empathised with their pillow woes in rented accommodation, admitting that I have travelled for work with two pillows in the car.

Next it was time for the tescos trip.  Suitable Macarons sourced as well as sweeties and crisps for the road ahead and a pair of waterproof gloves from the outdoor shop, to guarantee good weather for the rest of the trip (the marigolds got a pinhole between two fingers and sadly started to let water in).

On the road out of town, an unidentified vehicle overtook me, hands waving out of the window, I was pleased to see two brand new pillows pressed against the rear window of the hire car.  The couple from Tazmania had taken my advice.

And so to the Coffin Road where, thanks to rest and much faff in Ullapool I was feeling relatively fresh.  I enjoyed the breeze and the rest at the top of the climb, looking over the meadows below.  On the ride over to the Dundonnel Road I particularly enjoyed picking my choice of Highland Trail route-finding around the bogs - convinced I could tell whose line belonged to who - at least it was fairly obvious which tracks had the bog-hopping skills and I chose those tracks to follow.
Top of Coffin

The descent was another matter.  I enjoyed single track, cursed single track and felt a little sad to be leaving some of the hanging valleys behind with their tempting looking boathouses.

From the Dundonnel Road I was momentarily joined by around 10 hikers in different groups, setting out for An Teallach and beyond for the solstice weekend.  They warned of busy bothies and I wasn't bothered.  A clear forecast and a tent was all I needed.  I stopped part way and brewed up some food, letting the hoardes subside and fuelling on one of them Macarons.  Bloody hell they're sweet!

By the time I was back on the trail, the majority of hikers had turned off for their bothies and I enjoyed the ride to Sheneval alone with the deer and highland coo again.
Deer on the river crossing 
The An Teallach slabs glistened in the still high sun, then after the descent the puddles turned silver, then gold, finally dazzling me to a level I couldn't complain about as I witnessed the most incredible sunset I have ever experienced.  Not sun-dipping-in-the-sea incredible but, "I've always wanted to come here and now I'm here on the solstice and the sun is *actually* shining" incredible.

The bothy was heaving.  At least 10 people were milling around outside watching the sunset and a small tent farm was springing up.  I pushed my bike on by and talked to a young mountain leader out for the Fisherfield 6 tomorow.

I explained my nervousness for the route ahead but also that I had my shelter in tow.

The whole crossing went as intended and I pushed through the bogs until I found a patch of dry-ish flat-ish grass by the river to perch my tent on and somewhere to lean the bike up.  Navigating by torch light had just gotten difficult - though the remaining daylight made it possible wihtout a head light - it was just slow.  My feet were pretty wet from bog hopping and I reminded myself I was OK as I peeled off into something dry.  I really was very OK but somehow my excitement levels were too high to be conducive to effective sleeping and calm.

I was having a minor wobble that my battery had not charged all day (loose connector) and I was already onto my second, spare Garmin as my highly efficient model had too little battery (and an erroneous charge reading) when I left the car.  I sucked what remaining battery power I had into the GPS and hoarded all my electronics in my coat.

At 3am I woke up shivering but chocolate put paid to that and I went back to sleep until the much more appropriate 6am when some hikers walked past my head.

I had a nosey at the other bothies then crossed the beautiful Causeway which I'd been looking forwards to since I checked the route out, years ago.

 I was very jealous of the fellow bike packers camped at the edge of the causeway though I figured their view had not been as spectactular last night.  That said, the sense of awe for the place had not waned although it felt a little less intimidating now that I had crossed it... though there was the slight reluctance to leave.

The sun was beating down by the time I started the long and relentless climb out to Letterewe and I was down to just my bib shorts.  I didn't think I'd be sleeveless for long so I wouldn't get burned.  More Macaroon got me through the rest of the day, as well as some chocolate also bought in Ullapool. 

Briefly, Letterewe was like civilisation - Scottish Hipsters in full tweed, waistcoated and flat capped strutted around the main house, looking like they were doing gardening chores and American tourists scattered, calling "biiiiyek" at eachother, not knowing which way I was turning on the postie path, then horrified at my choices.  Alan had warned me that it would be bracken bound and unrideable by summer but I chanced it as it was only just sumer and the chance paid off, with most of it only being 6 inch tall and the worst only just below handlebar height.
Bracken baby

Cross this

At the river gully, an exposed boulder caused me to drop the full weight of the bike unluckily and uncomfortably onto my helmet, writing it off (as I later discovered) with a hairline fracture at the forehead and a large chainring bite in the back but at least it wasn't my head sandwiched between bike and boulder.

I had little food left and one packet of tictacs was set to last me the whole length of the Postie path. I find it incredble what can be achieved on a packet of tictacs.

With the heat belting down, I was back to taking frequent breaks and gathering water wherever I could get it.  Some rivers were less savoury than others - just below houses - though none of them actually seem to have caused me any issues.

When I got to loch level, where the sun was most captive and reflective, I suffered wearing my jersey to stop my shoulders burning - just in case the factor 50 suncream was insufficient. It was 4pm. 6 hours since I had told myself then sun would go in soon.

Despite the delays, I couldn't bring myself to panic too much about missing the shop until I finally got to Kinlochewe and realised that 34km had taken me almost 9 hours.  The pub was still open and I sat indoors, in the shade, consdering my options.

With a 3 course meal at my table, the situation improved.  When the waiter agreed to charge my battery, the situation improved further.  When I went to pay the bill and discovered the stash of cakes and crisps / peanuts, the situation became salvageable.  Torridon was on!

Some of the other guests called me brave for continuing after dinner and I did contest that brave / stupid are sometimes inseparable but as I cycled past the sterile environment of the Kinlochewe Caravan and Camping club site, I realised that I was the clever one.  For the first time this week I was starting to behave like a racer (give or take the patience for a 3-course meal).  I ploughed on down the road and easy trail well into Torridonian Sandstone (though pausing for plenty of photos) and started the long toil over the mountain towards Attadale - the Ironman route I never got to run in 2014.
Rainbow clouds over Ben Eighe 

Behind me I watched the sun set over the Fisherfield 6 and took regulr breaks to feed my brain which was starting to get annoyed by drains on the path.
Fisherfield sunset from Torridon

These were soon replaced by exciting slabs though, which - with my new tyres on - I enjoyed riding right up until the point they got so steep that my arse regularly kept trying to overtake my head.
Sorry for your cake Margaret, Torridon happened.

Eventually, the helmet light had to go on to help define the trail features ahead and to help me identify a spot to bivi as I got more sweary and sleepy.  A waterfall provided just enough breeze to keep the biting midges at bay and I found a reasonbaly dry 4 x 7 foot stretch of spagnum moss on which to pitch.  The Garmin went back on charge and so did I when I woke at 3am with hunger pangs again.

Another hot day in Paradise, looking back to my bivi spot from Attadale

It was a difficult morning next day but again, 7am walkers provided stimulus and honey-roast peanuts provided breakfast.  I hadn't stopped far from Attadale station but missed the opportunity to visit it as I missed a turn - at least I know for next time.

The Strathcarron Hotel provided breakfast in the form of haggis in a bun and polystyrene tray.  The new owners made me feel very welcome so I'll be back there if I need to. They're open from 9am.  I took my leave of them and the german tourist and enjoyed the ciruit of Attadlae gardens before the final leg to Dornie - back to the seaside.

I don't remember much of this bit.  I was getting a little tired but I had a fair ammount of food to keep me going.  I was glad, briefly to be back down the other side and onto the road for some speed but drivers soon started to get annoying.  I arrived in time for the bakery and had a double helping of iced coffee shake, cake, supplies and a can of cold sugary drink before deciding I had time to go a couple of miles off-course to visit my parents, staying at Glen Shiel on a walking holiday.

I sneaked a little shower whilst waiting for the olds to show, washing 3 days of factor 50 and sweat off, drying myself with my shirt and sitting in the sun to dry.  It was briefly like a different world before continuing on my journey.  My dad and I talked about mountaineering for a while then his only warning was to make sure I sleep before driving home.  No warnings abnout riding my bike in the munros in the dark.  I love him.

I figured 6 hours before dark to do 55km on reasonable trails was do-able-to-ambitous but acknowledged that I still had Monday to work with and could just concentrate on getting as far back as possible on Sunday night.

Glen Affric was everything I expected and more.  I pretty much knew what the trail would be like even though I've not travelled all of it before.  The mountains and hidden valleys however were another matter.  They just went on and on, overlapping, ever-climbing.

I stopped part way up as the rain passed over, brewing up my dinner in full water proofs in anticipation of a storm that never came. In the end I stuck with the coat but removed the leggings and continued in shorts through the evening.

The lights of the youth hostel were moderately tempting but I remembered my promise to cover as much ground as possible.  The summit bothy would have been single occupancy and whilst tempting, was also a little spooky and far from home.

I tried to look over my shoulder for the sunset but it never came.  We had reverted to normal Scottish conditions and there was just a gradual greying of the sky.  The track out of Glen Affric was so wet I started to wonder if I'd got the "Road of a Thousand Puddles" a bit wrong.  Some could have drowned a small child.  I poked my way around anything I couldn't see the bottom of which took some time, so down at the final bit of accommodation (private University club bothy), it was already dim enough to warrant lights for the section along the Loch shore.

Tents came and went in the darkness, abandoned piles of pots and pans where people had rushed indoors away from midges.  I continued in search of the Shangri-La of flat, shelter with just enough breeze but none was forthcoming so I went for the carpark at the end of the Affric road and spent too much time pitching on a (too) carefully selected flat spot and tying my guy ropes to a bench because I couln't find anywhere to get my 8th peg in.

Because I thought I could quickly get my tent up I hadnt worn leggings or a midge net and had been eaten alive.

Right next to the river again, I spent a whole 4 hours sleeping soundly before the alarm clock went off again. Remarkably (not) there are no pictures of this bivi spot as I threw everything (I wasn't wearing) into the bike bags willy-nilly as quickly as possible and started riding into a breeze until I could at least take my oh-shit coat off. The weather obliged to let me keep my other waterproof layers on, nodding in shared recognition at 7am to a fisherman walking through Tomich in full waders.

The climb out of Tomich was on the road but without any breakfast, the slowest of my life. I gritted my teeth and slogged it out despite a growing desire to hide my bags in the bushes and ride to the van unloaded to drive back for my gear.

The greatest relief was the van still being there when I returned and as I disassembled my bike to give myself space to sleep in the van, I didn't even care that a coach load of old-lady tourists had turned up to visit the cairn and, now, watch a lady mountain biker get quickly naked.

For the first time in my life I drove away from my wheels, leaning against the back of the van but thankfully realised after a couple of miles and headed back. After I finished Friday's packet of biscuits my lunch stop turned into a long and sleepy one before the rest of a VERY self-satisfied drive home.

Thursday, June 13, 2019

Rehab and Mastery

I went out on EmVee, my Highland Trail race bike on Sunday - fully loaded - and just rode it.  No plan, no agenda, just fun.

Within 20 minutes I reached for my phone (camera) and realised I didn't have it with me.  It made for a satisfying day of just riding.  No need to record anything.  I left the Garmin running but ignored it and otherwise, just observed and rode.

As I dropped down to Bingley Lane, a bunch of Roadies were going up.  We turned down the same junction, me whooshing by with, "I'm really not racing you but I DO have more momentum" as I span past on my 23kg loaded bike.  They rode alongside the rest of the climb, quizzing me on my bags, their content and my gearing.

I turned off to rejoin the A57 from a farm track and they raced off.

At the top of Wyming Brook I ate crisps and started phase 1 of project bike fix - tighten them dam brakes again.  When these pads are done, sintered is back!

Stanage was bright and breezy, the descent all the better for brakes.  It still wasn't too busy.  I was hungry so I took the road to Hope (call myself a mountain biker!) and sat with a solo roadie.  I think I persuaded him to take on an Audax and to ride home to Glossop via Mam Nick.  We left together then I side-saddled Win Hill on the bridlepath with a boy on a bouncy yellow bike and a couple riding together.  We swapped gate-holding duties all the way to the top.  Hikers at the top were confused as bikers all scattered in different directions but us four, we stayed together.  I didn't really know where I was going but followed the craic and enjoyed myself for it.  I talked with the lady of the couple then forged ahead after the bouncer down the descent.  I passed another couple too.

Instead of going straight up to the A57 to cross over to Hagg farm, I decided to see the track to its end as I'd never done that before.  It was interesting, and a nicer way to see out the climb up to the Snake road but I'd now have to retrace the valley to Hagg farm.

I joined a line of traffic I'd seen from above and remember thinking there were traffic lights on the road.  I had a faff with my front wheel which had been making clicking noises on the descent then got off and checked the back wheel then got on and waited a bit longer.  I'd been snootily thinking the roadies pushing their way to the front were being a bit cheeky but we'd been stopped for a while now with nothing happening and nothing was coming the other way.  I headed to the front where two fire engines were parked at 90 degrees to the road, blocking off an accident.  I could see the blades of the rescue helicopter gently turning over in the breeze in the field adjacent.  Oh.

Whilst the roadies peered around the edge of the fire engine to see if they could sneak by, I really didn't even want to look and decided to respect the person's privacy.  Besides, the day was still young.  At worst I could retrace my steps, at best I could go towards Glossop and see what else there was in store for me.  I had options.  In fact, I said to a motorcyclist, I had my options packed with me.  If this turned into a long ride, I could make it into quite the comfy night.

With the road closed, I now had the Snake Pass all to myself - give or take an occasional U-turner.  Now I'm a bit of a stickler for the rules so I didn't' take any of the trails off the Snake pass which are footpaths or unmarked tracks but stuck religiously to the road until near the top where a guy taking bikers' pics then alerted me to the existence of the "Old woman stones" bridlepath from almost the top of the Snake down to Glossop.  It was to live up to its name.  There were many stones and man! did it make me feel old!  I picked my way foot-over-foot on the narrow lead out trail then bounced down some steep, rutted stuff before it was back on to rocks.

I warned a few folk about the closed road as they'd all be heading back to their cars but then a big slug of traffic came through - I'd made it off the main road just in time.

At the top of the valley, Glossop and Manchester opened up before me, as did the rain clouds.  The coat went on - upgraded from my commuter roadie coat to one without armpit holes and with a hood.  Still a running jacket but a little smaller than my big winter bike coat which (if I'm wearing it) I rarely take off as it's so un-packable.  I've carried the running coat out to see how much better it is to have a coat with a hood and no pit ventilation to let the water in to my body.

The weather gave the coat a proper testing.  Nothing got through that thing.

At the top of the steeps it was time to address the next of my Highland Trail anxieties - I had absolutely no idea how I was going to carry my loaded bike.  Obviously I've spent years shouldering a 'cross bike but a fully bagged mountain bike is a very different beast - 10-12 kgs heavier and bags in all the places I'd usually put parts of my body.  I'd tried to carry it before and found myself either beating myself soundly over the  head with my forks / wheel / handlebar or toppling over backwards into the heather where I beetled until realising that all I needed to do to be able to get up was to let go of my bike.

In Scotland though, I'd watched someone else to it properly - possibly Sean - and thought, I can do that!  I put all my confidence into lifting the bike over my head, setting it onto my back and across both shoulders.  It was amazingly comfy.  I clung on for life and edged my way down the steep, rocky hillside.  One slip would have hurt a lot, dumping me on my coxcyc, still hurting from Scotland.  Something uncomfortable dug into my neck and I remembered the massage my wonderful Physio Pete had given my neck, gradually manipulating each vertebrae to free it up, despite the fact that it was still a bit bruised.  Now it was my pedal shoving in my neck.

  A runner passed, giving me some acknowledgement as I unseaded my bike from my shoulders and lowered it back to terra-boggy with some level of decorum as mud dripped off the wheel, just missing my head.  He proper held the gate open for me after that.

I went on to lift my bike twice more on the descent, feeling increasingly pleased with myself.  Eventually I passed the runner back again when we hit the double-track and the usual citizens of Glossop started to appear in white coats, doc Martens and a grumpy dog lady who bitchily said I should use my bell despite looking straight at me as she threw the dog ball across my path... because the sound of a bell is so much less scary than the sound of jiggling bike luggage at 50metres.  Not only did I assume she'd seen me, I was more concerned with steering around the border collie than adjusting my hands to ding a bell.

I didn't let her bug the wonderful experience I'd just had descending the A57 off-route.  A wide Clough with only 4 other people and a lot of sheep, the rain to wash the heather clean then the sunshine taking over, all witness to me conquering the fear of carrying my bike.

Time for coffee where I peeled off coat and waterproof shorts to avoid getting the upholstery filthy and ate sandwiches whilst watching the bike in the sun.

I had another chat with a fellow cyclist outside and gave directions to motorcyclists, frustrated at crossing the Snake in post-accident traffic had returned to Glossop for a run at the Woodhead pass.  Next for me was Chunnal.  Call myself a mountain biker?  I just wanted to get up to the off road around Kinder and not dick about trying to find a more sustainable way out of Charlesworth so I rode up the main road in sunshine.  Peewits circled over their nests or searched for what had been their nests before the bracken was burned back.  Cows eyed me vigilantly alongside their young and a few still-very-young lambs skipped about over the gritstone lumps.

I dropped down to Kinder reservoir, holding the gate for walkers at the bottom then spinning up the other side towards Kinder top and the Hope valley, past where TSK and I did our first bivi under the Manchester airport flightpath, a reminder not to make that mistake again passed overhead.  They don't sound so close when you're not trying to sleep through it.  The noise was totally alien to the otherwise remote and picturesque landscape, even if the belvedere windows of the old filter house are now shattered and starting to ruin, looking more like an old greenhouse than a water treatment works.  I guess Hayfield takes its treated water from elsewhere now.

As I skirted around the side of the tops, effectively crossing into the next watershed, it was apparent that I was in for another soaking. My track crossed a Mountain Rescue Landrover below.  I struggled into my coat in the onsetting weather, carrying surely on and using a stile as another opportunity to practice my carry.  I'm sure it was a bridlepath yer honor.

The rain came down hard as I passed a group of DofE students with a resignation of, "here we go again".  I struggled to free my hood as it really started pelting down and regretted not bringing my Scottish glove set (marigolds).  We were back to Scottish conditions.  The streams meant nothing to me now and I skittered down Jacobs ladder in the wet.

I tried not to clatter gates too loudly in Barber Booth, some people were just sitting down to their dinner.  I was hungry but not ready for shortcuts so I set off up towards Mam Tor, stopping at the end of the road to eat a cereal bar as I pushed the steepest and slippiest section.  I need better mud tyres back on for Scotland.  I know this now... I knew it in Scotland.

At Hope cross I dropped my bike in the heather and walked up to the ridge to say hello to the one other walker up there whilst I looked into the Hope valley and across to Mam Nick then I descended the hillside in full sun to the sounds of an Indian wedding marquee drifting up from the Edale valley below.  Rainbows splintered down from the clouds.  My brakes were screaming so hard I started to plot a route home in my head that involved the minimum amount of braking.  I decided I could get one more climb and descent in before I had to get on the A57 and freewheel all the way home, saving my last braking for the turning at the bottom of our road - besides, it was already gone dinner time.

I crossed the road and climbed the side of Win Hill from Combe farm, eventually passing the ridge path I took 6 hours ago to drop to the A57 on my original route.  That had been quite the detour.

My battery flashed low on the Garmin so I plugged it in for the second time that day and hung the battery in my nosebag.  Much to my delight, I found my Scotland bombay mix in the bottom, now tastily mingled with a bag of pecans.  I pushed up to Hagg farm and on to my usual stopping point, pouring Bombay mix and pecans into my mouth as I walked.  I drew a line at eating the duck wrap that had clearly fallen out of someone's rucsac a few hours ago (maybe days?) but left it where it was in case it was a careful food stash.  DO pick it up if it's still there next time you pass.

Sheep lined up in the berms where they'd been sheltering from the rain.  They were my only witnesses to my passage along Bridge-End Pasture and I gave up trying to find the line of least disturbance through all the slumbering lambs and adults there were so many.  This bit of track is one of my favourite places to be in an evening and this evening was no disappointment.  No-one on it.  Bright sunshine, showers playing over distant hills.  The crags defined by rain and sun.  I dropped down to the road, easy on the brakes as much as possible.

I belted across the bridge, chasing a pb for the segment - childish but fun - but then had to slam the brakes on for the traffic lights.  Bugger.  At least I'd recovered for the off-road climb past the Ladybower pub - a bit more pushing and some twiddling.  I'd spent the whole day getting further up everything before my legs burned out and this one was no different.  I had to rush past to avoid falling into the pub for beer and dinner when there was a husband and free beer and dinner at home.

When I got to the end of the flat run-out before the rocky descent to Devils Bridge I indulged myself in one more hike a bike from the rock step down to the road - to show of my new skill to myself and to save my brakes in case I needed them on the road.  It was the comfiest carry yet although I was a little graceless putting the poor thing down.

I stuck on the back light and set about eating pecans again.  Traffic passed too close and too fast on the road but I didn't give a shit.  I was too busy enjoying food, thinking about not spoiling my tea but also thinking about refuelling as early as possible so I kept on eating until there were none left.

The descent down the road was exhilarating, if a little dull and no close-passes was a result.  I didn't need to use the brakes.  I did need to hike up my own road I was so tired.

I'd learned so much today and gained so much more in active retrospection than I did sat on the sofa thinking about what might have been.

There's probably a metaphor for life in there.

Sunday, June 02, 2019

HT Angst. Put to bed.

With friends like these, what could go wrong.

Glorious information-gathering failure - The Highland Trail 2019 write up

The start of the ride was quite serene for me for once.  My friends in no short order had lost their GPX files and their pod keys and I was confused about what I was missing out on.  I flitted amongst the pack wishing others a good ride.  The mens’ field soon rushed off and a few women and occasional guy left behind picked our way through the remaining open gates and walkers who, having waited for an entire peloton to pass were now reluctant to step out of the way of one or two stragglers.
Foto (c): Mike Clarke

I got to the bottom of the hill. At Easter I’d already stopped 5 times to eat food and remove layers.  The trek around Loch Long started.  Already we saw a few riders turning back the other way.

A number of times I thought to check that my spot was on but then waited till the top of the hill where I forgot… and repeat.  It was only on reaching the reservoir dam where my Garmin GPS always screws up that I thought to check.  It was off.  I started it going and swore a bit.  At least I had the GPX to verify my route.  I thought several times about saving the file – just to make sure I had it – but didn’t want to screw up the math.  It didn't feel like a good start but it kind of took my mind off the first 40km (I later discovered it was on all the way). 

At Bridge of Balgie, I tried to persuade Alan P to come in for lunch but he refused, citing guilt for stopping so early.  I gorged on soup and wondered why I’d carried so much food when I could buy stuff here.  I’d pretty much packed my bags at home then added more at Tyndrum through habit.

I hadn’t remembered the next turn well but soon remembered the long climb and the descent to Rannoch, now soggy.  The brakes were already a little sketchy.  Balloons hung on the fence post in the rain and I felt welcomed. This sensation spread as Isla Rowntree cheered us through.  Now the start of the road to Ben Alder.

All the memories were swathed in grey.  I had no-one to describe the non-existent view to so I pedalled furiously over to the end of the trail then started the slow bump over bog and broken branches.  I was with Steven – of the big rucsac – and Cath W was behind me as I passed her having a faff on the trail. 

Steven was keen for water from the bothy but I explained the process for sourcing water.  He was happy to follow me over the moor – probably because he was too far ahead to hear me having a conversation with the tree who protected me from the evening breeze last time I was here.  It was 4pm, not 7pm when we passed the bothy.  Steven waited whilst I manhandled my bike up onto the bridge and was kind enough not to laugh when the wheel flopped over to one side and the saddle pack smacked me in the face, leaving a muddy war-paint smear on me to carry up the hill.

We caught up to Nick Bubb and John Beckley(SA) as we made our way up.  They were taking care on the drains.  My training 1 month earlier meant I had good technique sorted though I mis-judged a few.  I was running high tyre pressure just for this section and I came away puncture-free.  At the point where I bivied in the snow in April, I stopped to munch on Bombay mix in the rain.  Not wanting to remove my hand from my glove I held the bag like an apple and scoffed straight from the wrapper.

Nick grinned at me as he passed.  A few metres later he was stopped by the trail, hydrating a food sachet.  I made him realise how hungry he was.

I made a fun descent of Ben Alder.  All going swimmingly till my front wheel lodged in a rut as my body was trying to do something completely different.  As soon as the wheel hit a rock I was off and flying through the air towards another large rock in the path.

Development on the bruises 2 days later

My elbow and knee impacted the ground first followed by my back and then the back of my head or my helmet on the rock.  I was OK to get up.  I checked the bike over then we had a little walk as the stinging pain subsided and all muscles returned to normal.

We rode it out to the other bothy where, despite asbestos warnings, 3 bikes were lined up outside.  It was too early to stop and too risky to get cold.  Besides I didn’t fancy waking up in such a remote location, stiffened from my fall.  I rode on.  As I descended to some semblance of community, I remembered my brakes were shot – possibly a contributing factor to the crash.  The rain was pouring now and I was cold from the descent.  I needed somewhere warm to fix the brakes up.

I rode on across forest-covered moorland until, descending to Kinlochlaggan, I found a farmyard with a shed and a very comfy – looking haybail.  I was considering asking about sleeping in the hay when I noticed caged dogs alongside and concluded it would not be a restful night, even if they said yes. 

Thankfully just around the corner was a tree, offering what seemed like the last bit of shelter in Scotland.  I donned the Rapha vest I almost didn’t bring and the fleece from my bar bag.  Both were already wet. 

By swinging my arms I managed to get enough dexterity into my fingers to adjust my brakes and made the remainder of the descent. 

A handy-looking log hut was bypassed.  I’d got this far and Fort Augustus still felt feasible.  Maybe not for the pizza shop but I had campsite food with me.

When I reached the trail turn off the road, two other dishevelled-looking riders were retracing.  I assumed I looked as rough but I was still riding.  I guessed they were headed to the log cabin but later, I found, it could have been Lucy and Jill heading to a sound night in the local village hall.

The next section was new to us.  Instead of the main road, a pretty climb lined with lush green grass and wild orchids led to a moorland double-track.  Kudos to the organiser, it was beautiful.

The track looked suspiciously like the Corrieyairak pass and I briefly allowed myself to believe I was going to pop out any moment at 1000m elevation with nothing left to Fort Augustus except a ripping descent.  Sadly it wasn’t to be (I knew deep down I hadn’t suffered enough Up yet) and a short descent brought us out at the canal / drainage channel at the bottom of General Wade’s military road, which  I recognised from my reccee.  The Corrieyairak lay ahead.  As the rain pelted down, I easily climbed the road where I’d had to take two cool-off stops in Easter.

I did have to get off and walk the steeper sections.  As I rolled down the other side.  I approached an odd sight, a man walking with an umbrella in a kilt, dead creatures hanging from his waist. 

As I got nearer the kilt turned to shorts, the umbrella was made of Cuban fibre.  The shoes were expensive La Sportiva trail shoes and the dead animals were his sun-hat.  We waved to eachother.

The cold of the descent combined with the pouring rain and the forecast from the Mountain Weather Information Services threat of sleet at high elevations put me off the pass.  I didn’t need to get that cold.  My hopes turned to finding the Melgarve Bothy – was it that locked building I saw last time?

I propped up my soaking bike, overjoyed to find the door at the front of the building opened and the glorious smell of wood smoke filled the air.  My gamble had paid off – I assumed anyone who got there earlier than me (in the fading light) would have gone over to Fort Augustus.  Anyone behind me would have stopped already.  There were no bikes outside.  Thinking I was alone I took the bike in the porch and stripped it of what I needed.  Inside though, a gruff Glaswegian accent answered me back with a Hello.  He sat in the corner of the dark musty room wearing an actual kilt and sporran and a black teeshirt stretched over his belly like a cross between Highlander and Rab C Nesbit. 

I wasn’t sure if I’d found the bothy or accidentally walked into his home.  The bothy didn’t look like a home it looked like a bothy – damp, no power or running water, pokey rubbish windows and very simple utilitarian furniture but then there were sofas and this guy who seemed as much a part of the bothy as the damp and the flaking windows.  I held out my hand to show I was friendly and introduced myself.  Presumably if I had invaded his home, he’d chuck me out but he responded with, “Hello Andrea, I’m Colin”, then pulled my hand towards him and went in for a kiss.  I reeled back quick enough but gently so as not to cause offence.  5 empty cans of Stella and an un-labelled wine bottle sat on the table. 

I didn’t particularly want to share the bothy for a night on my own with Colin but I did desperately want to stop.  I decided to stay long enough to cook up some dinner and only longer if someone else arrived.  I didn’t need to add drunken gropes to my already traumatic day.

Once Colin had asked me 4 times my name and where I was from I realised I was probably safe but I was still relieved when the American hiker, Nathan, arrived to join in Colin’s repetitive quiz.  I pointed out what a great job Colin had done of building a fire and was still slightly un-nerved by his “Aye, I've done you a favour alright", implying we somehow owed him one... something.  As more people joined,  the “party”, chances were I wouldn’t need to move on and Colin wouldn't be collecting payment.

None of the clothes on the drying rack above the fire got really dry but I took most items to my sleeping bag to finish off the drying process and hung my bib shorts on a hook on the wall – partly for drying and partly to ensure my most valuable (useful) items didn’t end up on the fire if Colin decided he needed a bit more warmth in the night.

Someone snored soundly for a person who didn’t feel tired and it was me who stayed awake late, my body recovering, not too many aches except for a lot of pillow (dry bag) stuffing required to support my whiplash.  It was my brain that was wide awake, telling me I was thirsty.  I hoped I’d sleep anyway but at 2am I had to sneak into Colin’s room to recover my water bottle.  He had passed out on the sofa, not quite making it *into* his sleeping bag.

Rehydrated, I fell sound asleep until Nick’s 5:30am wake up call.  I couldn’t be arsed to cook but ate one of the many flapjacks I'd packed.  Last night’s whiplash was OK and nothing else really ached badly.  The guys got away first as I tidied up my kit from the night before. 

Outside, my food bags were filled with water, the food still inside.  Raisins had turned back into grapes and the apricots had rehydrated nicely, though I suspected they would soon start to turn into Schnapps.  The cereal bars were mostly unscathed – good wrappers and stuff in ziplok bags seemed OK.  I was just a little disappointed in myself for carrying so much over the hill and not eating it yet.  I turned the bags upside down and squeezed over a pint of water out.

Up on the pass, Nick and John waved happily to me from above and I eventually caught them on the way down the descent as they were taking care with drains again.  The snow had receded to a few dirty slithers in north-facing gullies.

As I descended the rain got harder and the rivers deeper.  I moved through each or balanced my way over rocks until all the rocks started to disappear.  At the ford, the bottom of the crossing was invisible and the flow was moving fast.  I walked up and down the stream looking for somewhere narrower with rocks for me to cross but all of the rocks were submerged by at least 8 inches by water moving a 2m/s or more.  It would be impossible to put my foot on one, never mind stand on it or trust it to stay put. 

Eventually I returned to the ford and decided to take it one step at a time.  Every time I lifted a leg up to step, the free leg was dragged sideways by the flow but I managed to plant it somewhere carefully.  The water was above my knees and every so often the back of the bike also set off at 90 degrees to my direction of travel but I managed to drag it back down to earth. Gone was the drive to keep the dynamo hub dry, maintaining ground contact was priority.  It was pretty unnerving but I survived and on-balance my gear did remarkably well as my feet remained warm.  It didn’t seem like any new water had got past my OMM trousers and into my waterproof socks.  The dynamo hub survived to charge another battery.

The further I messed about pausing for crossings, the worse my brakes got, Jesus I just tightened them up!  I’d buried my tool bag but dodgy brakes weren’t a part of the plan.  I got out of the wind in the ditch where I could prop up the bike and pulled the cables through tight.  Fiona had caught me up from the Corriarack bothy – she’d left Colin early in the evening and moved over the hill.  She’d been in that bothy for 12 hours, not wishing to brave the weather at all.

The guys caught me up again, offering help which I passed-on.  I was a little pissed off I hadn’t done this last night because of the pissy rain and the cold.  Fuck, I was very pissed off I hadn’t done this at home last week!... but otherwise knew what I was doing.

From then on I held my breath at all river crossings as I had to estimate the depth and hope I wouldn’t hit a big rock.  It all went OK.  There were a few more short climbs than I remembered but I welcomed them as an excuse to have a jog to pump blood into my fingers and toes.  I still reached Fort Augustus pretty tired, wet and frazzled. 

I parked my bike at the same caf as everyone else and ordered exactly what I wanted followed by another dose of exactly what I wanted.  Two  breakfasts and two coffees in an hour – my first coffees in 3 weeks.

(c): Lucy Noble.  Me and Jill contemplating Scratchville
 Over a 2 hour period I held court with an unknown scratcher, a non-rider, Jill and Lucy, Nick and John (SA) and Cath.  I just couldn’t decide whether to quit or not.  The reports were coming in of danger, many scratches, the organiser advising that everyone should think seriously about continuing.  My biggest concern was for my injuries as well as the rising water levels and recalling a lot of rivulets and gullies across or under the road after Invermoriston… and there was that awful reservoir to come.  My nemesis.  Beyond that, I didn’t know but it would be nice to find out.

Cannich, beyond Invermoriston, where my forest bivi was at Easter, would no longer be dry and pillowy but spongey and wet.  I had no rescuers to call this time but I wasn’t ready to quit so I carried on up to Invermoriston to see how I felt.  Within 10 minutes of leaving, the sky brightened but on the well-managed Great Glen Way, torrents of water raged beneath.  I momentarily cheered up at the thought that this was doable and now my brakes were working too.  I was soon at the steep descent to Invermoriston, looking forwards to another (third) meal.  Another bike was already outside, the owner’s tent splayed out to dry on the picnic table outside but it had started raining again.

I went inside to call out to the owner, only to see nothing more than civilian clothed people staring back at me.  The waitress took the message that the tent was getting wet again and I went out side to lock up.  And that’s how I met the race organiser properly.  After he bundled his mostly dry tent back into its bag, I joined him at his table and ordered more food.  We stewed over pictures of waterfalls and rivers – young men staring at the torrents.  Angry foam, boulders of bitter beer-coloured water.  Someone had rescued someone else and fallen in upto his neck.   
(c) Lars Henning
Alan worried that the only people left on the course were Rookies but then there was the argument that anyone with a fast time to beat was not carrying enough kit and no longer interested in the race.

Alan worried that someone would misjudge it, take one risk too many and die on his watch.  As an RO it’s understandable. 

Given my unsure health, the lack of confidence in my helmet and the creeping feeling that I might not finish this, I agreed to head back to Fort Augustus with Alan.  What would happen if I got ¾  of the way around and then no-one could get across Fisherfield?  I’d almost rather quit after 3 days than quit after 6.  I was prepared to get stuck out on a hill but I wasn’t prepared to get swept off a cliff or stuck in a landslide.  It was the kind of day that, if you were making your own decisions, you wouldn’t go out because if you came to harm, mountain rescue would tell you you’d been a dick.  No-one wants a Darwin award.

So Alan and I left Invermoriston and headed back to Fort Augustus.  The trail was light and flowy and we were there in no time.  We talked of Wiltshire and all the things we could do now we weren’t racing – drinking beer being at the top of the list.

At the woods, we met Michelle with her bike.  We exchanged pleasantries and warnings and she continued on regardless.  I envied her a little but not enough to stop the quitting.  I didn’t want to ride any more.

In a wooded section of single track, Alan left me for dead. Suddenly I didn’t want to rush back to the finish. My legs were empty, my head and whiplash ached and I had pangs of back pain too.  I bumbled along the river side, listening to birdsong and smelling woodsmoke from campers with nothing better to do.  It was good to be alone for a while but Alan was waiting for me at Laggan Locks.  I pointed enthusiastically to the Eagle Barge, “I’m getting beer in there” I shouted over the wind that was now whipping up the canal.  I was showing the organiser bits of Scotland he didn’t know about. 

Pic (c): Alan Goldsmith - Me propping up the bar.

I didn’t really know what meal this was but Lasagne seemed the thing to eat.  We were soon joined by others – a stream of dripping wet riders in for a pint, in for a scratch.  We loitered near the stairs so as not to drip too much on the carpet.  One by one we all drifted off to find accommodation or lifts, waiting for trains in the morning.  I joked with Alan that I might ride through the night to get back to Tyndrum on the road but he seemed genuinely concerned that I shouldn’t.  For now the Great Glen Way was the best route anyway.  I sent him on his way so he didn’t get cold whilst I faffed with layers and electronics.

It was a long way compared to what I remember.  I attempted to stay at the Gairlochy hotel but they were full. The station didn’t offer enough cover for me to check my phone for bookings – I started to shiver and I was too exposed.  I rode on to Fort William, pouring over the seething river via the railway footbridge and climbing out of the estate I mashed my gears into the wheel for about the fifth time that day.  My bloody back wheel was loose.  Tightened up, everything seemed to be working again.  It was another problem that contributed to my scratch that was now working again.  I grumped at myself. Not impressed.

At Nevis Cycles, I pulled into the phone box to use its cover whilst I hunted for a room.  One check of the rear light indicated it was dead and that I wouldn’t be riding back to Tyndrum on the road in this fading light.  Besides which, it was a long way and I wouldn’t have enjoyed it.  My watch was long dead so I was pretty surprised when I checked my phone to realise it was 10pm.  I’d thought it was 5pm!   I’d lost some serious hours to the excitement of the day.

Nothing that involved interaction with other human beings or losing sight of my bike or removing anything from my bike, actually appealed to me.  I kind of hoped to get a campsite pod but of course the office was closed.  Still, the rain had stopped and I could at least get a warm shower, dry hair, use the hand drier to dry out some clothes and stuff my shoes with toilet paper.   I pitched my tent next to a table and locked my bike to it.

As I rung my sodden gloves under the shower to remove the grit and sweat, the waterproof membrane popped through the seam and then burst, overcome by my carelessness, conditions and a hard 15 months use.  I dried them out for the next day but stocked up on a pair of wool gloves from the shop and some marigolds instead.  So long Evans Cycles friends – you were good in your day.

The alarms were off – this was non race mode.  Still, I was awoken early by someone walking swiftly away from the bike.  Peering under the canvas, the bike was at least still there.

Breakfast and coffee got me out of the valley and onto the route.  I’d not done this section yet and decided not to bail out on a recce since I’d come all the way here.  I climbed sharply to the hill above the campsite and stopped to eat the bag of jelly beans bought from the shop. It occurred to me I was about to take on a long ride with nothing more than jelly beans, chocolate and some not-so-dry but not-so-palatable fruit from two days ago.  Perfect training then.

A bear bones jersey made sure I was OK and reassured me that a bunch were meeting up at the Kingshouse hotel to camp / van back down to Tyndrum in the morning.

The first of many hikers lined up to tell me it’s “not far now”.  Seriously, you have no idea, it could be miles.  You’re wrong and untrue.  Stop wishing your lives away. Stop wishing my life away.

The doubletrack road narrowed through sheep pens and streaked out across forests, tree rooted and rocky. I could see the orange Bear Bones jersey bouncing over the rocks below.  The increased flow of walkers became apparent - a MacMillan Cancer walk overlapping with the English bank holiday.  I said a cheery hello to volunteers at the aid station.  I hunted for an elevated spot to eat a cereal bar and exposed my legs to the sun, considering wearing thin socks and suncream.  I managed to stay midge free in the breeze only.


Legs out.

Wonderful remoteness

Finally, the descent to Kinlochleven presented at 2:30pm and I squirrelled between the bar (coffee) and the Co-op before pressing on.  The Hydro pipes were putting on an impressive shower at a leaky flange and the culvert into the river bellowed out peaty water.  I chatted to walkers as they reassured me with lies that I hadn’t got far to go.  At least one lady asked for my reassurance that Kinlochleven was in the bottom of the valley.


I don't think it's normally like that

Minor leak.

Stepping out of the forest and onto the bare hillside, the pedestrian traffic faded with the light and the thickening cloud.  It was getting too late to be out without kit.  At 6pm the rain restarted although it halted a little on the Kinlochleven side, stuck in the valley.  I reached the top 90 minutes after the last walker told me it wasn’t far. 

I knew I’d reached the top due to the presence of a French lady wearing pumps and a fashion coat and carrying a leather hand bag.  She was looking for a Cairn that wasn’t on the OS map.  Sure enough, they’d not walked far from the A84.  I rode most of the Devil’s staircase except for being overtaken by a fit guy who wanted a race update.  I got out of his way and let him carry on being unladen and fully suspended… and tried to follow his local-knowledge line.  He was polite enough to explain that the local rivers dry quickly whilst the Northern will probably remain wet for some days.

I was unaware until now that there was a bike route / West Highland Way alongside the A84.  I dropped my front wheel in some loose gravel again, the bike ditching me unceremoniously into the heather and bog.  At least there were no rocks this time, just a soggy arse.  I got up quickly to minimise the wet. 

The Kingshouse Hotel with en-suite deer

The gradual climb to the Kingshouse passed without incident and bear bones came out to meet me at the hotel.  I’d already made my mind up to carry on past – at least once I’d decided that I didn’t want to spend £165 on a room without my bike.  The campsite looked midgey and the vague odour of sewage hung in the air.  I topped up my water bottles for cooking and used the loo before heading over to the ski hill, not before readjusting the front wheel to cope with the constant dink dink of a spoke on the brake caliper.  So that wheel was loose too.

In the carpark at the ski resort I bumped into an ex-work colleague returning from a sportive.  We shook hands before I carried on past, heading out on to the moor.  There were no pods available so I took to the wild for a night under the setting sun (impending showers) and somewhere in the breeze to escape the midges.  Just as the rain got close, I found a flat piece of grass next to a stream to roll out my tent and brew up.  

Glen Etive

A timely camp stop

The final few pics of the day were amazing.  The sound of rain on my tent were even more satisfying.  I was in my sleeping bag and had dinner and a brew without setting fire to the tent or myself.  Gold.   

Gold digga

I slept soundly until 2:45 am when the sound of a passing vehicle and footsteps in the grass outside had me completely beside myself with fear – mostly that my bike was going to get nicked and partly for the violence that would ensue if I put up a fight.  The vehicle drove away though and I was glad I’d immobilised the bike with its lock and fastened it to my tent using a peg and the pole.

I was too petrified of a return visit and too high on adrenaline to do anything other than pack up my stuff and move on.  I did so with the knife on my pliers drawn and held between my teeth then sat (alone thankfully) on the bridge in pre-dawn light eating a Mars bar.  Once I'd calmed down I opted to continue with my reccee rather than run away down the road.  I'm so glad I did.

The burning pink sunrise over Rannoch and the Black Mountain made everything worthwhile.  The trail was empty as tens of hikers camped along the side of the Way slumbered in their tents.  Deer scattered across my path.  Pushing over the “big” climb after Inveroran hotel I got very hungry very soon.  It didn’t matter that the Bridge of Orchy hotel was the other side, I had run out of energy.  I brewed up water and made porridge and coffee in a mild breeze to keep midges off, with a view looking out over posh Castle-dwellers' houses.  Deer barked at me, disgruntled by me sitting on their trail.  When I looked up they backed away to wait for another moment to cough at me rudely.

The breakfast got me moving again and I dropped my bike in the heather whilst I walked to the summit cairn, looking across the Black Mount to the tourist trap that is the A84, already heaving with motorists and HGVs.  I could almost hear the piper on piper’s corner but it was too early for him to be working.

Timing couldn’t have been better.  The Bridge of Orchy Hotel had just started serving and the staff seemed delighted that I wanted to hide my sweaty bedraggled self in the corner of the bar with a direct view of my bike.  2 Irish hikers joined me and we talked midges.  I left them with some midge coil to burn in their tent on the last night of their trip. 

The last run at the trail was a little sad.  I was riding relatively well and couldn’t help wonder if earlier carelessness and pain was down to my wheels being all over the place.  My improved performance being brought on by solid wheels.  Just as quickly, thoughts turned to a comfy bed as my right knee folded with every step and my coccyx rattled with every pebble I rode over.  3 hours sleep and early morning paranoia were never going to be a great motivator. 

Back in Tyndrum I booked a camp spot early then, whilst I waited for them to do their cleaning rounds, I took to the big comfy camp chair at the back of my van and fell asleep in the mid day sun, getting sunburn for the first time on the ride.

I spent the next 2 days catching up on sleep, walking, running and welcoming some of the other riders home, including Dusty (winner) and John – one of the most lovely people I’ve met in this game – unexpectedly since he’d left his tracker off for about 5 hours.  I set a 5:20am alarm to meet Javi but he sneaked in at 4:50.  Joint 2nd place riders also finished in darkness.
John at the bottom of the last climb.

Of course my emotions are still mixed and on balance I regret my scratch.  It may have come later anyway due to continuing on an injured body but I do regret stopping where I did.  I could have camped out at Fort Augustus or anywhere on the Cannich trail for half a day to let the water levels subside.  I probably did have the time.

When I quit I was worried about my head – which is sensible really.  Of the women who kept going beyond day 2, Jenny graham scratched from a frustrating attack by the puncture fairy which she largely tackled in pouring rain.  There’s only 1 woman left on the course who, when I scratched, was around 5 hours behind me.  It could have resulted in an interesting (potentially out-of-time) race, had my body held up.  Update: Michelle has now scratched too after the official Completion time passed.

I’ve teased my brain with ideas of returning to do an ITT this year all on my own but the idea of starting out on the Southern loop AGAIN this year and potentially not getting any further AGAIN is too much to bear.  Instead I have decided to do something more constructive and reccee the Northern loops (one or both) over time.  I got so much benefit on race day from knowing the Southern route and would have been so much more comfortable knowing the terrain.  For all that people painted me verbal descriptive pictures of life beyond Fort Augustus, it’s not the same as seeing it for myself.  So therein lays one of my targets for the rest of the year.

First finisher with a flourish
Despite the occasional dark moment, I loved the ride every much as I expected to – even the wet bits.  Obviously the crash was shit but getting up again was nothing short of a massive feeling of getting-away-with-it.  With less layers on, I’d probably have been a darker shade of red.   

The feeling of being dot-watched added-to and strained the experience in equal measure.  If I’d been alone I’d have carried on into potentially worse situations but then, my "If only I had..." solution - to stop in Fort Augustus - wasn't, in retrospect very feasible  Isla had the same thought, but really? Could I / Would I have stopped at 3pm?

Next year I need to go into it with more and less behind me – more training, more belief, probably not so much food… or kit.  One thing's for sure, if I get in, I’ll look forward to it – now more than ever before.  Probability says it’ll be drier right?