Rise up.

2 05 2014

Out of sync, here. It has (rather happily) been a struggle to find time to write things up contemporaneously. Anyhoo. Last week, I took in the top loop of the HTR 550. It is a little under a month until the start of the race: a race that has consumed my time, efforts, worries and thoughts for some months now. Trina has been incredibly supportive of my preparation, such as it has been. I have slowly and surely ramped up the mileage, though I have way less in the bank than would be prudent.

Regardless, I decided to strip everything down to ‘race weight’ (a separate post on weights and measures is long overdue…) and commenced pedaling from Square Wheels in Strathpeffer, relatively early in the morning. The aim was to complete the ~160km/100 miles to the end of the ‘out loop’ that passes Gobernuisgach Lodge and then follows the Abhainn an Loin to pop out at Achfary, just around the very northern most point on day 1.

I would then follow the ‘back loop’, through Assynt – via Kylesku and Lochinver, round Suilven – back to Oykel bridge and from there, with the offroad sections completed, take a decision on whether to take the road to Ullapool and back to Strathpeffer or re-do the off road section, in essence retracing my outward route. Another ~160km/100 miles. The wind would be a factor in this decision.

The track was easy riding for the first 90km to Oykel bridge (other than a brief, boggy, interlude and a trail nearly grown over with gorse) and from there a relatively high proportion of sealed road ensued until you leave the side of Loch Merkland to climb up to the Lodge.

The sun was setting on a gorgeous, warm day as I reached this point and the views were stunning in the gloaming. Unfortunately, not long after the Lodge the trail deteriorates to a total bog fest. You descend for a long time over very broken peat hags. I hyperextended my right knee as some ground gave way and in all honesty I was both concerned about my safety way, way out in the hills there and also extremely keen to start covering ground with slightly less effort.

After a steep trudge up from a river, the rocky trail descended to a bank of trees, above some farm buildings at Lone, a little north of where I wanted to end up for the day, but it was a good bivi spot and I was cold and exhausted after a 14 hour day. In total, I covered 170km.

After 4 hours sleep I woke up and got rolling. It was not warm, but the day was clear again and after the sun came up properly on the steep, forestry trail drag up from Achfary, I took the swooping trail, stopping to UV some water once, to Kylesku. I was hoping to find a store or a coffee place open but it was too early. There had been zero opportunity to re-stock at any stage the day prior and I was yearning after a hot cup of coffee and maybe a bacon roll. No such luck!


The B869 road around to Nedd and Drumbeg (where again, a shop may be open) was brutal. Up to 25% gradients with a head wind to boot. Nevertheless, I was too early for the shop in Drumbeg, so I was counting on a stop in Lochinver.

After a broken trail down past an ancient mill prior to Achmelvich, it dawned on me I was having precious little fun. Not type II fun. Maybe not even type III fun.

After Lochinver, where I only stopped for 2 cans of coke and an OJ, I took the trail behind Suilven. At first it was good going and my black mood began to lift. The views of the mountains here are spectacular. Truly unbelievable and hard-fought mountain magic.

However, the trail past Glencanisp Lodge soon deteriorated again around Lochan Fada into a jumble of rocks and bogs that was impassable by bike – it was a case of dragging, lifting and carrying. The average speed was so low I barely registered forward progress. Again, anger began to replace the wonder at the views I had witnessed.

Around this time, I began to realise that coming after ~250 miles of racing, this northern section would likely be the crux of the whole race, despite the prospect of Fisherfield and Torridon to come. As I eventually descended out of the hills to the road between Elphin and Ledmore, the boggy trail proved home to mosquitoes and I made a decision to pull from the HTR 550 race.

Sitting down by the road, scraping peaty crap from my bike, draining a water bottle I looked back at Suilven and knew that I had made the right choice. It felt like I was relaxed for the first time in months. I never wanted to cover the majority of the ground I had just passed ever again. Once was fine. I wanted to consider things for 24 hours before contacting Alan Goldsmith, but something had changed for me in my willingness, my drive, to complete the race. Admittedly, I am mildly intolerant of HAB, bogs and prolonged, loose rock sections that require portage, but I am far from being a stranger to this on back country rides in Scotland. It wasn’t this single factor. Was it the need to get back on and push the pace after so little sleep? again, with a 3 year old, and my job, broken sleep is hardly a barrier. Who knows?

I found a couple of daisies in the grass and thought of my wee girl, smiling and laughing and got back in the saddle, desperately hopeful of getting home to share dinner with my girls.

Over the long 100km of road back to my starting point I examined my reaction to this section. I had committed a lot of time, thought, effort and money to maximising the feasibility of my completing the race loop. Despite this – indeed, perhaps the real point of these wild, self supported races – I estimated my chances of finishing, in the cold light of day, at 50%. I wanted, no, required from myself a certain speed in doing so. Not because I wanted to finish high in the rankings, more that I wanted to be done with it in a certain timescale. I had hoped for as near to 160km average per day and physically I felt I might well have been capable of this.

What I was clearly *not* going to be capable of was meeting this challenge whilst retaining any reasonable disposition given the extremely difficult ground to be covered, perhaps in considerably worse weather conditions than I had benefited from over those 2 days. Basically, I was hating being on the bike. I didn’t want to *be* on the bike.

So why couldn’t I rise to this challenge? I tried to convince myself at times that it was just the once in my life: why not just suck it up? surely the reward and satisfaction of completing the route would be worth it? the views were amazing and the race concept had taken me into the wildernesses of Scotland, to areas I had no idea about previously. I had enjoyed optimising my kit and felt I had reached a truly excellent point at which I was safe but the bike was as un-encumbering as practicable: this meant I could tackle difficult or technical terrain in the best style possible. It was a release, perhaps even a sublimation, to be able to cover such huge tracts of land so fast while touching the ground so lightly.

But, in truth, I did not *want* to suffer the lows to encounter the highs, for prolonged periods of time, when I would be missing my family and could, in truth, be doing something just as rewarding with less brutality.

So: thank you for following this. It has been a steep and enjoyable learning curve for me. I feel I have benefitted greatly and had fun (type I and II?) getting to this point. But from here, my path has diverged.

It will be interesting to revisit this in the near future.




14 responses

2 05 2014

A really interesting examination of motivation – with no correct answer. I’ve always shied away from racing – for similar reasons to your description, though I’ve done things that require quite enough sheer bloody mindedness – but somehow the lack of ambivalence about internal vs external oomph allows some clarity…

2 05 2014

That’s it exactly….the difference between doing it as a race on a course, compared to an exploration of a kind. … i need to ponder this more….thanks!

2 05 2014

Well written…. and it definitely enlarges the growing question mark in my mind about my ability to finish this year. Given the task it’s been for me to get the my bike and equipment together (the most difficult ever) as well as the lack of training, I might make the same choice but it’ll be on route as I have to at least make an effort to try it.. I have little to no experience with backcountry riding in Scotland but if you find it difficult, I’m curious how I/we will find it.

I was looking forward to chatting with you but I completely understand where you’re coming from. Thanks a bunch for sharing your thoughts and I always enjoy reading what you have to say.

2 05 2014

Michael: thanks! Oddly once you are on this loop, the best way out is to finish it! As long as you aren’t trying to cover too much ground too fast I’m sure it will be fine! Tough going for sure, but do-able! It is a tough loop… All in all, really tough! But stunning. I think if I was able to conceive of being out on it for a week or so, it would be a different ball game. For many reasons, I don’t want to be taking that long about it! Quid pro quo!

2 05 2014

I gave up on my [modest] randonneur aspirations last year to focus on riding my mountain bike and to get more bikepacking in. The rando thing is as laidback as a long distance event can be while still having a clock ticking.

It’s a decision I don’t regret.

Even in the bikepacking world it’s easy to get caught up in mileage or time goals and lose track of the fact that stopping to sit by the side of a lake enroute is a valuable part of the experience – despite not contributing to some arbitrary numeric target.

That said I like a challenging bike ride, but the key [for me anyways] is to be able to set that challenge on a whim and adjust as necessary. Day 1 might be all about my fastest time to the top of a pass and Day 2 could be riding 20kms off route for a couple tasty pints and some wings.

Not participating in events other people are putting on means I can do whatever makes sense to me on the day.

Given that the only thing I can’t get more of is time – spending it the way I want to as much as I can is important.

You are a strong rider with a great bike and some amazing country to explore. Doing one event or skipping it is not important. Turn the pedals in which ever direction makes you happy.

2 05 2014
Jamie Fraser

I enjoyed your write up. I rode just the short 30mile North section in a loop from Achfary to accompany a pal who is doing the Highland trail. I think I get why they included this -for the splendour of the mountains here and wilderness. It was very tough going and that was with fresh legs. Too hard for me!

2 05 2014


Echoes my thoughts almost completely. Having done the very northernmost section of the trail in December, I recognise many of the conditions you describe. I thought that I’d be more prepared come May but after a recent ride around some of the southern sections I have found, like you, that the prospect of riding with one eye on the map and one on the clock for up to eight days is not one I’d describe as any sort of fun.


4 05 2014

Jon – sorry to hear you aren’t riding the HTR – for entirely selfish reasons… I enjoy your writing, and was looking forward to reading about the adventures. I reckon in many ways, it takes more guts to pull out now that would be to turn up on the start line without the required commitment.

After finding out I wouldn’t be rolling out from Tyndrum this year, the odd rides that I’ve been out on have taken an entirely different form. There hasn’t been a nagging feeling in the back of my head that I should be getting a few more miles in, or reccy-ing the route. I’ve enjoyed each ride for what they were, rather as part of a bigger story. I think I still want to ride the race one day, but I’m happy to save it for a time I feel the need to.

Riding is too important to not enjoy it. Look forward to reading about some more modest, but hopefully more fun adventures.


6 05 2014
reverend dick

My motto is “might as well suffer.” I also have “whatever’s funnest” as a motto, and it is really the decider. If it ain’t fun (at all, in any sense of the word) it’s worthless.

7 05 2014

Hi Jon

Eloquently put with some stunning photos to boot. I’m sorry you aren’t doing it purely from a selfish persepctive of wanting to read your blog about the event ! I completely understand and recognise your thought process though. For me, riding is about having fun – not racing the clock. I also recognise the wanting to be at home with family feeling too. I’ve experienced that many times when the going on a big ride has gone to crap along with the weather! I suspect that if you were to do the route unencumbered by the time limit, you would enjoy it more with the added bonus of selecting route sections that hopefully avoid sloughs of despond!



12 05 2014

Sorry to hear you’ve pulled out for the similarly selfish reason that I was looking forward to your write up. Would be interested to hear what kit you trimmed down to for the race though, even just to see what you thought was “safe lightweight”.


25 05 2014
While Out Riding

Totally get what you are saying Jon.

Great pics and write up. Would love to ride it at half the pace… or slower!

16 06 2014

Totally empathy with this piece. I started the race and was not enjoying it much on the northern loop, especially the long hike-a-bike from Lochinver. That dislocation of expectation just cracked me, especially with the Fisherfield section still looming! I hated it so much I scratched at Ullapool. Interestingly every report I have read also states the Glen Canisp slog was the low point for everybody else! Perhaps if I had known this it may have motivated me to continue, and I am already thinking next year, with better preps, I can crack it!just why we revel in suffering is hard to fathom, but I don’t think I’d be interested in riding this other than in a mass start race.

20 06 2016
A different tack. | drj0nswanderings

[…] little while ago, I tried to do the Highland Trail Race. Tried and failed. I still have very mixed feelings about the whole thing. This year, with stellar weather, I enjoyed […]

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