Highland Trail 550 2023

This hurt. Physically and mentally.

The Highland Trail 550 was my big event of the year, and I’d been readying myself with equal measures of fear and excitement. I’d devoured every blog post written by previous participants, watched every YouTube video available to learn more about how it may play out, got my bike set-up dialled, and perhaps most importantly had got lots of endurance training in together with hike-a-bike heavy days out. But, try as I did to make a go of the race, it just wasn’t to be … 

I arrived in Tyndrum the night before the race, later than I’d hoped thanks to a shed load of offal on the M6!?! I parked up at the Green Welly, and set to work readying my bike so I could get a good night’s rest before the off. I got chatting to Stephen Wikeley who seemed incredibly chilled as I faffed and pondered last minute changes of kit due to the surprisingly warm weather that seemed to have settled in for the week.

The midges were out in force and so with frame and top tube bag laced back into place I called it a night and set my alarm for 7am so as to finish packing and be ready to roll an hour and half later. I woke, dressed, faffed, finished loading up my bike, faffed some more, then got myself across to the Read Food Café, which was the muster point for the race. The place was buzzing with riders and those there to watch, and the queue for coffee was long, but I joined it behind Angus Young. I guessed if he was confident of being on the start line on time then I didn’t need to worry. I wolfed down a bacon butty, necked a coffee, then joined the group photo in front of the Cafe’s HT550 LED message. The owner talked of being pleased to be part of the event, and Alan Goldsmith, the guy behind the whole thing understandably big-upped the male/female split of racers: not quite 50/50 as he’d aimed for, but not far off.

With that done we rolled up the road to the official start point and soon after we were off. Some of the fast kids do go off fast, but the majority of us eased into riding and over the first few kilometers there was time to chat to others and it was good to reacquaint myself with people I’d met before or introduce myself to riders I’d heard of or knew via blogs, videos, or the like, and articles like bikepacking.com’s ‘Rigs of …’ helped put names to bikes to faces.

riders along side a loch on a gravelly trail

There was a little moisture in the air, but it was warm, there was a tailwind and I was making good progress. “Have you done this before?” was the usual opener once any introductions had been made, and on announcing myself as a rookie was told of the first section of bog was due before too long by one route veteran. And sure enough as I rode Rannoch Forest on the approach to Loch Ericht I found myself off the bike and trying to pick a line through myriad boggy patches. When my front wheel dug in and I needed to pull the bike to get moving again I immediately felt pain in my right shoulder blade. I’d half expected this, but this was immediately a 6 or 7 out of 10 on the pain scale, and upon being caught and rapidly passed by local-to-me-in-Cumbria, Mike Toyn and soon-to-be-neighbour, Rob Waller, quickly realised that in looking to manage this pain I was moving far slower than those around me.

By way of a backstory to this pain, I had a big off a few weeks before the start: An ‘over-the-bars’ while coming down Three Rivers towards Staveley while on a social gravel ride. I landed heavily on my face and required surgery on mouth and tongue. My face had healed well but I’d also strained my rotator cuffs. I’ve been undergoing physio since, and having done a handful of rides since felt things would be ok. 90% of motion in my shoulder is pain free, it transpires that the exact movement required to manhandle a bike when things get rough falls into that other 10%.

tree and gorse near a loch

At the foot of Ben Alder, I lifted my bike up onto a raised bridge over a burn and let out a scream: 10/10 pain and nigh-on impossible to move my bike. I dropped off the other side of the bridge then stopped to fill my bottles in the fast moving burn. The current took one out my hand and as I surveyed the pools looking for it Lorah Pierre and Tom Hall caught up with me. I retrieved my bottle and we started the climb up the most incredible singletrack trail ever.

cyclist on a singletrack climb

Phil from the Bear Bones Bikepacking forum caught me up and I let him pass as I’d encountered another problem: I just couldn’t lift my front wheel at all. I didn’t have enough strength in my shoulder to do so. This made for a clumsy ascent but became a real problem on the descent. I was hitting water bars when I ought to have been hopping over them. Trying to lift wasn’t working, and if they were too wide to ride, then stopping and hauling the bike over hurt like hell. If my front wheel was forced one way or the other by the terrain it was excruciating and I found myself slumped over the handlebars near-winded by the pain on more than one occasion.

looking up a singletrack descent, with rocky stream and pointed mountain in background

Lorah, Tom, and Phil were nowhere to be seen. I was losing time on anything technical up or down, just as I had in the first bog. Just being slower may have been an option, but I’d only be going slower in an attempt to manage any pain and I was failing to do even that. There and then I realised I shouldn’t carry on beyond Fort Augustus. The outbound leg is meant to the easier one, and it would be reckless to carry on. While my physio had said I was unlikely to make things worse, if the lack of strength had got me somehow stranded and needing external assistance that would have been unforgivable.

Towards the foot of the stop-start descent I met film maker Catherine Dunn and a photographer. I told them of my plan to bail (and also showed them my holed tongue for good measure), they suggested riding out via Dalwhinnie, but I’d already come up with an escape plan. Knowing I was going to stop there encouraged me to get to Fort Augustus, and as part of my prep for the race I knew that grabbing a pizza there was de rigueur for HT550 riders. I also knew the descent from the highest point on the route, the Corrieyairack Pass was a good and smooth(ish) one, so it all sounded doable. From there I’d plot a tamer route back to Tyndrum.

looking down a trail across a wide open glen

Between Ben Alder and Kinloch Laggan as the terrain eased, I caught up with Lorah and Tom again. This oddly encouraged me that my decision to stop was the right one, as it highlighted just how off kilter my on and off-road riding capabilities were at present. I’ve no doubt they’re faster riders than I am anyway, but as we hit another off road section they vanished into the distance as I winced my way up another lumpy ascent.

Corrieyairack Pass was as majestic as I’d hoped, the zig zags on the way up just as err, zig zaggy as they appeared on the map, and the descent an absolute joy. I arrived in Fort Augustus just after 8. Too late for the shop, but more importantly in plenty of time for Pizza. Lorah and Tom were there too, Mike was just leaving and Phil was about as well. I ordered my pizza, took my time eating it as the others headed off, let Alan know I was scratching by text, then with a heavy heart headed off-route down the Great Glen towards Fort William to find somewhere to camp for the night.

In riding just a day of the HT550 group start I still feel fortunate to have experienced it. Given I only got to see a fraction of it, it’s evident that Alan has devised the most incredible route and I’m dead set on giving it a go next time round when back to full strength.

bike laying next to a small tent in a grassy plot

Riding #partyPace I stopped in Fort William for a late breakfast before taking the road route up to the West Highland Way to stop with friends in Kinlochleven. I bypassed Devil’s Staircase, but caught the WHW again at the top of Glen Coe pass and took that all the way back to Tyndrum. Riding along I did wonder if I’d have been ok carrying on, but a run of water bars while descending towards King’s House Hotel painfully brought me to my senses once more.

gravel track weaving down a glen

I’d made a considered decision to start. I really thought it’d be ok and so was gutted it didn’t work out, but I know I made the right decision to scratch. In the words of Butthole Surfers and as sampled by Orbital:

“Well, son, a funny thing about regret is that it’s better to regret something you have done than to regret something you haven’t done.”

HT550 finishers get a complimentary meal at the Real Food Café. I paid for one. Fingers crossed that’ll be just this time … 

chicken burger