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.