An Account of the 2018 Highland Trail 550 – Alex Pilkington

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Pre-Start at the Real Food Café – Tyndrum

In the beginning…

The Highland Trial 550 race has been on my radar for some time, previous years I have been committed to a team on the Three Peaks Yacht Race, a different sort of endurance adventure race, I had done this four times and was ready for a change, I am always keen to try new things and I soon get bored of doing the same event. I emailed the creator of the HT550 – Alan Goldsmith last November and he asked me to send in a resume of my rides, in it went and that was it, he said I was in! – it was six months to go to the event… I was already apprehensive of the undertaking, not having mtb’ed so far before in one go; also my concern for the reliance on technology was my biggest worry. All my previous ‘expedition style’ races were Adventure Races (ARs) with traditional paper maps, where proper ‘navigation’ and good route choice is the key. I had not really entered the world of GPS apart from using my iphone maps – call me a Luddite!

I was lacking my ‘race head’ this year, having taken a step back from the AR and MTBO circuit, but I had enjoyed a year that was made up of long, hard touring style adventures; so having to ‘bury’ myself in ‘race mode’ was another minor worry, also I wanted to enjoy the journey and quite often it is not always appreciated when your head is down and racing. As such I was keen to do some reccies at a ‘touring’ pace and to soak it all up beforehand. The reccies were all ‘opportunist’ based on the weather, fortunately this year my work has been quiet, so getting a ‘long weekend’ was not a problem and my family is very understanding to my needs! What was a problem was the long winter that the UK has had this year, this meant carefully checking on which sections to reccie.

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The HT550 Route

In February I did most of the northern loop in dry and super cold conditions, the highlight was crossing Fisherfield – I did not see a person from entry to exit, the solitude was almost overwhelming, I stayed in Shenaval Bothy and even had to break the ice in bare feet to cross the river, it was no place or time to have a problem! That was about 170 miles of the actual HT route reccied. Next reccie was a month later, more snow cover this time meant a more limited reccie of the middle section, the highlight was the frozen tundra of Loch na Stac. That was about another 80 miles of the actual route reccied. Final reccie came at the end of a week of family holiday on Mull in April, feeling slightly warmer now, but still in winter kit I joined a bike-pack buddy and we did the first section from Tyndrum to Melgarve Bothy, so that was another 70 miles done. With these three reccies I had started to feel that I had just ‘touched the sides’ of the whole HT thing. I had enjoyed every minute of each reccie and was blessed by lovely weather each time.

In the months running up to May I started to hone my kit and get new stuff and properly test it, so again more excuses for bike-pack bivvies in my local area of the Lakes and Dales, each week I’d try to spend a night out under the stars, so much so it now feels like my life norm – something that I plan to carry on for the rest of the year! Half of the fun of these ‘expeditions’ goes into the preparation and in the absence of multi-day bike-packing experience, good preparation was the best thing I thought. A little bit about ‘the’ bike… for the last couple of years I have been given a Trek Stache to test ride around on. The 29+ tyres seemed a gimmick to me at first, however as my rides on the bike progressed, as did my love for it – it was a comfy, capable, reliable and fast old stead – I loved riding it and it soon became my Mtb of choice – I recommend that you try one!. It did have some niggles though; the 1×11 gearing was limited – meaning easy to spin out, it was also quite a chunk heavier than my previous endurance Mtbs (Chiru Pulse), the Stache was around 13kg. Over the winter months I got the funding permission to build my own new 29+ bike. It soon started to take shape, most of it from China – Frame, Rims, the group-set was the super-sexy Sram X0 Eagle – engineering excellence! I loved sourcing and building it all up, even spoking up the wheels. In January the ‘Fatster’ was born a superlight 29er+ weighing in at 9.8Kg – even with the volumous Chupacabra 3” tyres!

Pre Race Countdown…

The year rattled past quickly and soon the month of May arrived, it was now countdown time to the race… I learnt that Rich Rothwell would not be racing as he had the Colorado Trail race to attend and also the Phil Addyman had decided not to race after having had 3 HT550 races in him already, this was a bit of shame as I was keen to meet those guys and enjoy the journey and race with them. Having read their HT blogs from last year I felt like I already knew them, I also enjoyed reading Neil and Chris’s accounts; they were all so well written and gave a good insight into all aspects of the race. So I hope that my account can do similar!

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Pre-race Social – enjoying a HT550 beer down by the river

I travelled up to Tyndrum with Stuart Cowperthwaite another race veteran and it was a good opportunity to pick his brains on the little things that were still bugging me. I had never used a ‘Spot’ tracker before and had hired one from ‘No Worries’, so after a bit of guidance on how to make it work I was okay with this bit of kit. I considered buying one, but for the amount of use the hire option from ‘No Worries’ was ideal and I would recommend them. Tyndrum was nicer than I had remembered, with a lovely camp site and a small selection of places to eat, but mainly the ‘Real Food Café’, arriving on Friday afternoon we prepared the bikes, because of the dry and warm forecast some kit was ditched – out went the lightweight duvet jacket and other such stuff (I have done my kit list at the bottom of this account). We then had a lovely evening group ride down the valley to a river; some special HT550 beers were provided by Stu Taylor of Kirby Lonsdale brewery – another local to me rider / bike-packer. It was a great prologue to the race and the beer would be my last for a few days. The weather was warm and dry, as was the forecast for the week ahead and as had been the previous few weeks weather, the trails would be dry and fast, however the heat could be a problem as could finding ‘good water’.

Day 1 – Tyndrum to Garve. 157miles. 16,000ft. 17.00hrs riding.

Race-day dawned, I had had a mediocre sleep, the bunkroom had been quite noisy all night. I stuffed down a mammoth 6 Weetabix, Stuart out-gunned me having a whopping 8 Weetabix. We were good to go and rolled around to the café for a strong coffee, with riders all congregating and chatting about the journey ahead, it was warm and shorts and top would be the norm. I was fascinated by all the different bike set-ups and rigs – stuff attached to the bike in all sorts of odd places! At the start line by the cemetery Alan called five riders forward to start – I was one of them. I had met Alan the night before for the first time. I liked him, he was a bit of a comedian and it seemed he liked to ‘big up’ the competition in the race and apparently I was told I was one of the race favourites. I was not overly welcoming of that, but I did know I could ride a Mtb bike quite well for a long time and was good with dealing with ‘shit’ and all the pressures of multiday races. I have a strong view that a long race is won on efficiency in the second half rather than speed in the first half. I was keen to set off at my own pace and ‘cruise’ – racing would come later on day 3 and day 4 perhaps.

As expected it was a pretty fast start and I settled nicely into a group of 4-5 riders. Stu Cowperthwaite edged away and was soon out of sight – I’m sure that was not the ‘game-plan’ he described to me on the way up…. A fast pace I thought, no one put up chase. Glen Lyon soon came and soon went, then a big climb over to Loch Rannoch. I found a nice Exposure Diablo light on the trail, I assumed it to be Stu’s – he might be needing that I thought! Soon across the ‘bog of doom’ under the majestic Ben Alder, the bog was in fact okay and could almost have been ridden, but I choose to push – save the quads and a helpful opportunity for a leg stretch. For some reason along here I got really bad cramps down the inner quads, really painful and worrying at this stage – just 50 miles in, perhaps the heat had caused it, but I had been having plenty of electrolyte.

Soon on the Ben Alder single track which is mostly all ridable, but the going was tough under the unusual and intense heat, Lee Cragie rattled past me up here. A quick word about Lee… I had not met her before, but I certainly knew of her, it was nice to have a girl with us at the sharp end; she was a pedigree rider and was here to ride hard. She had done the race in 2016, but due to GPS failure had missed out a short section of route and the ride time was DQ’ed, a tough nut to have to swallow! A couple of other riders came past on this single track Huw Oliver another strong contender and previous race veteran; and then the incredible single-speed legend Javier Simon, who I was told was a ‘postie’ from Spain – so I thought the ‘Post mans’ path down Loch Maree must be his favourite section! Ben Alder was hot going, it was my first time in the heat this year, so I was not yet conditioned to it – I was keen not to push it into the ‘red zone’. Not long after and with the fast decent we soon arrived at Laggan Wolftrax, a cold coke and ice cream was much needed, I caught up with Stu here and gave him back his Diablo in return for said coke and ice cream – it was lush! Stu and I then rode together over the massive Corrieyairack Pass into Fort Augustus – 95 miles ridden it was 18:30 and time to re-stock at the garage (also on offer was Pizza or Chip Shop). Not keen to pig-out too much I settled with food from the shop. It was 10 degrees colder in Fort Augustus, with a strong north-easterly blowing and I was keen to eat-up and get going again to warm-up.

Stu was looking cold, I urged him to get going and I set-off. That was the last I saw of him in the race, sadly he scratched as he discovered an issue with his front wheel axle rattling. Two riders were ahead – Javi and Huw.

I was ready for the evening-into-night section, there would be two big climbs and about 40 miles of trail and 20 miles of road ahead, my plan for the night was to get to the ‘lean-to’ shed that Phil had used last year near to Garve village. The darkening evening was cooler, which was good as it meant the pace could be ‘upped’ a little and not risk over-heating. The hike-a-bike (HaB) around Loch na Stac was spooky in the evening mist but it was good to test the bike a bit on the rough lake shore path, the soft tyres allowed it to roll-through the rough going terrain and it was good fun. I came across Huw by the spooky old house, so we rode together and it was nice to chat and get to know each other a little, I left him at the road where he was ’layering-up for the night section. The 10 miles or so of road where a welcome respitr as you can just press the pedals and relax a little, also the ‘tri-bar’ set-up on my bike allows a rest of the hands – it works well for me, despite the laughs it gets! I rode past the ‘Hydro’ bothy without even noticing it in the thick hill fog, but no intention to stay there, I wanted to be off the mountain and through Contin, ready for the next day. The lean-to soon appeared and it was full of roof insulation packs, these where perfect and I fashioned a nice bed, ate some food, sorted some stuff and went to sleep. I went to sleep very quickly – it was 02:20. I wanted 3hrs of sleep, this is usually a good minimum and from the research and practice from in our previous ARs, 3hrs is sufficient for the to reset the mind and rest the body.

Day 2 Garve to Suilven. 136mile. 16,000ft. 19hrs riding.

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Early Morning Day 2 – Inchbae Forest

I awoke naturally at 05.10, a rider had just sped past, I think it was Javi. I had some more nosh – like a quick porridge (aka Breakfast Bomb), packed my stuff up and was off quickly by 05.25. I felt refreshed with the short sleep and it was good to be back rolling along. The next sections where nice fast trails and would take us back into the wilds, I saw a deer and was aware of the back-ground melody of the Cuckoo, also the sweet smell of the Silver Birches was noticed, it seemed that my senses where hyper-real. 40 miles to Oykel Bridge. I was not sure if the hotel there was amenable to racers and decided not to stop, besides I was good for food and drink. I caught Javi just after Oykel he was ‘spinning away’, a brief chat and I pressed-on. It was quite a bit of fast road over to Loch Shin and so to the start of the top Bealach Horn section, Huw soon appeared in the distance and 30min later we were riding together and chatting again.

These social interludes were a pleasant interruption to the solitary riding. The weather was clear skies and warming up, I had sun creamed-up already, but was keen to have a short break and power-nap before the big Bealach Horn climb. I found a nice flat shady spot, ate some food, watched Huw disappear up the long slope, got my feet out and closed my eyes – 10 minutes should do me.
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Day 2 – Dusty trails en-route to Bealach Horn

Javi cluttered past on the rocky track 15min later and triggered me to get going, so I 5 min I was rolling and it was about 13:00. Normally a ‘power-nap’ is a great way of getting a ‘waning’ pace back up again, not on this occasion though, I felt really ‘flat’, no leg power and a general willingness to get off and push. So that it was. The climb went on and on, Javi soon disappeared, but no one behind yet, the heat was intense and the sweat was causing additional chaffing – my backside was a bit sore and a slapped on some Sudocrem which eased things greatly. It’s a tough trail up to the back of the Bealach Horn, mainly all HaB and it must have taken 2hrs to do the 5 miles, ahead I saw Huw’s distinctive blue top, I was surprised to see him. I stopped for few moments before him, the scenery at this point was mind-blowing – a rocky amphitheatre with lochans at different levels – it was Eagle country for sure. Eventually I caught Huw and he said he was rough, I assumed he’d over-cooked it on the climb and told him to get his face in the next stream. He started moving again, so I also carried on assuming he’d pull-through.

I later found out he had a gotten a stomach upset, presumably contaminated water, from somewhere lower down…? Having had a bad stomach in previous races from consuming dodgy water, I was treating my water with an iodine dripper to sterilise it. It makes the water taste unpleasant, but it does do the job. Huw was assisted off the Bealach by a fellow racer / friend (Scott Lyndsay) and then decided to scratch from the race, which was a real shame.

The long descent off the Beallach Horn was dry, dusty rock-spitting fun – something more like in the south of France and not Scotland. Soon at the start of the next climb, I asked at a house for some water and got a bottle filled, the young guy there was interested in our journey and I told him he could watch it all on Trackleaders, I was super-thirsty and it was nice to have a big swig of drink. The next climb almost broke me, the heat was over-bearing and I eventually summited after a hard 45min push. On the summit I felt nauseous and seeing me wobble around a bit some campers came to me, sitting me down in the shade of a shieling, I soon started to feel better and we chatted, I appreciated their assistance, they were doing the Cape Wrath Trail. After a 10min rest I was okay to get going again, Kylesku Bridge and hotel was about 10 miles away. Some real food and a cold coke were on the mind.

Traversing the Loch and who should come past, but Lee, it was nice to see another racer, but she wasn’t for slowing to my pace and was soon disappearing into the distance. We caught up again at the hotel and had a nice ‘fast-tracked’ meal together, some soup, bread and salad, could not stomach much more. The staff at the hotel where ace. 30 min in there and it was time to hit the ’roller-coaster’’ road to Drumbeg and so on to Loch Inver. I stopped at Drumbeg Store and got more coke, some fudge packs and a couple of yoghurts. Again another example of race solidarity, Steve from the store was happy doing night shift and welcomed me by name as he was following the race on the tracker. The food was good and I was starting to feel a little ‘more me’, I had been off form all the afternoon. My sleep plan was to get past Loch Inver and bivvy on the trail side somewhere by Suilven at the end of the rideable track and before the Assynt HaB. I had hoped to be nearer to end of the HaB or even Oykel Bridge, but I was grateful for just feeling better.

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Day 2 – Loch Inver Sunset

The moon which was almost a full one, hung in the sky above the mountain, a warm easterly wind was blowing, it was almost midnight and still 17 degrees. I could not believe that this was Scotland! I soon found a good spot on a glacial slab, the usually routine started – food down me – bike check and prep – bed prep – teeth – treat any sores / abrasions and clean myself with a baby wipe. I even rinsed my socks as well and hung them on the bike. I led down watched some stars and was soon fast asleep in no time. I did not set an alarm as I would wake at first light around 4ish.

Day 3 (which merged into Day 4).  Suilven to Tyndrum. 257miles. 24,000ft. 45hrs riding.

A awoke with a midge nibbling my face, it was 4.05, no time to soak up the nature, there was a job to be done and the midge was present. I was packed up and rolling at 04:25, I had plugged in some tunes and it felt really good to be moving, the best bit was that my socks had dried out! The Assynt trod is a good quality HaB, some sections are okay to ride, but not much. I even had a spring in my step and enjoyed running with my bike, the sun had not yet appeared but the skies were clear. Am I really in Scotland? Arriving at the end of Cam Loch was a photo opportunity, not much of a ‘selfie’ fan it had to be the bike with the mirrored loch and Suilven behind. Soon I was on to the long road section from Ledmore Junction to Oykel Bridge and I had a big fat breakfast on my mind…

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Early Morning Day 3 – End of the Assynt HaB

I was feeling really good today, the bike was flying and I was thinking that this would be ‘race day’ perhaps…?

I arrived at the hotel at 08:30 and was surprised to see Lee, she was finishing her breakfast, we chatted a bit before she packed and I also had a ‘job’ to do while a loo was nearby – it was good to get sorted and cleaned up a bit before my hotel breakfast – us hobo-like racers were in the bar with no other guests nearby so it was okay! The owner lady was following the race and keen to provide a fill. The breakfast and coffee was eagerly consumed – my body was hungry for calories in any form! The lady informed me that the rivers were so low the fishermen were unhappy as the fishing was poor – I privately laughed at them, they were there in the mountains surely they could do something else…? Outside was parked my bike and then a line of ‘Range Rovers’ with their rods attached. Some people have more money than sense – I was glad to be a hobo bike-packer! I was soon rolling again up the long Strath Mulzie, the song of the Cuckoo and the Sweet smell of the trees was back – it was another gobsmackingly nice day! It was going to be hot, hot, hot. I sun creamed up before I left.

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Day 3 – Oykel Bridge Hotel – A Good Breakfast!

I did not want to put an effort in to catch Lee, I had another much bigger plan hatching… The Oykel to Ullapool crossing went well and I was riding strong, eating lots and enjoying the moment, highlights of this section being the technical single track and Broom descent to Ullapool. While going along here thoughts of an old friend – Mike, who past-away this time last year came in to my mind, I felt quite emotional, but I could feel his good vibes encouraging me along. I was so lucky to be doing this great adventure!

My body was beginning to feel that it had gone through a ‘Change Curve’

Day 1 – Shock

Day 2 – Rejection

Day 3 – Acceptance

Day 4 – Normalisation

Once in town I decided that Tesco’s would suffice, I had a fair bit of stuff to get, that I had been thinking about on the way in, I used a handy little draw-cord bag to carry it all in – so into the basket went fresh fruit, milkshakes, juice, ice creams (Solaroes), chicken slices, packs of sandwiches, baby bels, meat sticks, crisps, fudge, sweets. I ate the ice creams and gave one to a chap (can’t recall his name) who had just done the HT550 the previous week from Ullapool where he lived, he filled me in on the race, it was good to know what was happening. Lee 15 min up front, Javi 120min up front, Fraser 90min behind. The food was good and I must of looked a bit wild eating it all so quickly while sat in the shade next to the parking drop-off. The Coffin Road loomed!

Before the start of the infamous ‘hill’ I decided to park the bike at the river bridge and go for a cooling dip in the water – air cooling was no longer enough, we needed water cooling! It felt beautiful and I was looking forward to the big hill. Sure enough it was despatched quickly and I was then down at the bottom of An Tealach – time for another swim before the next climb. I enjoyed the fruit that I had got; it was good to eat something healthy and real! The Fisherfield section is next and possibly my favourite of the ride, it is about 33 miles between entry and exit, on a good ride it is about 8hrs to cross it, it was 14:40.

The music was playing some nice tunes, I especially enjoyed Avicii and the words to the songs were very clever, it’s sad such a talent has now gone… I rode most of the hill, while the water was cooling me. Soon arriving at the ‘crossing’, which was pedalled easily through, I met a friend – Jim who I knew as race marshal from the ‘Open Adventure’ races, it was nice to see another face and one that was familiar, I was happy to chat for 5 min, he was on a wild camp with some friends. Jim had had a bad fall on a Welsh fell Race 5-6 weeks ago and required many stiches to the head, so it was nice to see him back in action. I was not envious of their camp, in fact quite the opposite; I was still loving my ride and LIVING THE DREAM!

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Day 3 – In the middle of Fisherfield and fancy bumping into Jim and Hilary…

Near Carnmore Lodge I stopped for my Chicken Dinner, which I knew would be a winner! I also dried and talc’d my feet which made them feel much more comfortable. Despite the holiday weekend and the lovely weather the place was still empty in the early evening sun. The single track to Letterewe was good going and almost all rideable. It was nice to get to Loch Maree and the start of the Postie’s Path. I put on some compression socks to protect my legs from the brush and also from ‘pedal bites’. I really enjoyed this section and my biking skill on the narrow off-cambered trail was super precise and sharp – better than I have known before. Next up on my mind, I was wanting to get a coke at the next hotel, it would be close call for last orders, but was not going to bust-it to get there.

I got there at 22:55 and went in the landlord was clearing up saying that last orders was 5min ago, after pestering him and the offer of just leaving two quid for him, he just gave me a can. I was happy, but I did not want to upset him; however I did think he should make the most of the trade while he can – I would have done. I was surprised to see that Javi was still at the hotel – odd..? I found out he was having problems with his rear axle, he’d been there a while, maybe 2hrs. He said he was scratching from the race, but then a short while after he changed his mind and started down the route again. He passed me while I was getting my lights and night time kit sorted – I was getting eaten alive it was a horrible midge experience. Javi has a lovely riding style, it seems like a constant cadence he pedals, I have immense respect for him. We headed into the night and into Torridon…

My planned night stop was the Tea House Bothy, it sounds romantic, but it is at best a 6’ x 8’ shed sleeping 3 at squeeze, so by my reckoning it would be Lee, Javi and me, however it may already have guests…?

The night was warm, clear and it was a FULL MOON. Never waste a full moon I thought!

Arriving at the Tea House stood three bikes and Javi who had just ‘pipped’ me there. ‘Awesome’ I thought – a good excuse not to stop, lets push on through, no way was I spooning a hairy Spaniard (as cuddly as he was) in a hot shed, nor was I going to get eaten alive by bivvying outside! I told Javi I was going to ride on a bit, and set off up the Achnashellach single track.

I put on some Armin van Burren and turned the music up, there was a party in my head and the mountains where my dancefloor! Off I flew into the night and it was the best nights riding I’ve ever experienced.

Not sure if it was me but everything was flying past, I had a lot of lighting power – an Exposure Toro and Petzl NAO, the slabby decent was great fun, as was the road section and steep climb out of Glen Attadale – which I even managed to ride. The legs were just not for tiring! Riding down Strath Carron I was aware of smelling wood smoke, I kept expecting to pass a little camp fire. Something caught my eye above me on the left and on the skyline the mountain was a blaze – this was bizarre sight and I thought it can’t be happening – it all added to the moment, which will never ever be repeated I’m sure.

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Night 3 – The Burning Mountains of Attadale Estate

The track down to Glen Ling is okay, but the bit along the river is rough, I was having problems with my right thumb, changing ‘up’ gear was hard, my thumb was stopping working, legacy of a previous injury, it was messing up my shifting and my riding was ragg’ed. I had a small ‘off’ over the bars here, but was okay and gave myself a talking too – to take more care! I lost one of my phone power packs here I think, but I had a backup one, I did not want my phone to die, I was using it for everything – in particular my music! Dornie Castle was reached at sunrise and was looking surreal. The little back road out of the village up the hill side was cycled, it did not feel too bad, despite its 180m sea level climb – but I was now wanting to get to Camban Bothy for a rest!

However, it was a hard climb up the back of Kintail range and the weather had changed to a cold easterly wind and a strange mountain mist was present. With the waterfalls up there it felt un-welcoming and cold, in this unchartered territory I was now tiring and the wind was pushing me back on the steep climb, in a gust of wind my headphones ripped out and stopped working, which was most annoying, but it was good to give my ears a rest! At 07:30 I arrived at the bothy, I went in, one room full and people all asleep and snoring, I went into the other – empty, so shoes and socks off and a porridge breakfast made.

I had ridden hard for 27hrs, I was going to have an hour shut eye, no sleeping bag, I would wake up shivering and set off quickly to get warm again – I didn’t want to get comfy. I guessed I was an hour ahead of the other two after my rest.

Glen Affiric, although very picturesque, was hard for me, I kept getting the ‘sleepies’ and needed to ride quicker, I also needed proper food and Fort Augustus was 35 miles away. I was now paying the price for the fun in the night…

I have been ‘here’ before and knew how to deal with it; it is best to keep thinking good things and not letting the mind wander or feel negative.

Tomich Forest was beautiful in the warm morning sunlight, another place that I had not before visited and I pledged to return and enjoy the trees sometime. I ate the last of my sweets and half of the last bar. I had some biltong, but was not enjoying that. On the second big hill I took a wrong turn and pedalled a mile up hill, sensing I was wrong I checked my phone – DAMN my ‘dot’ was off the line, back down I whizzed. The error maybe cost 20min, but I think that it was a good thing as it woke me up and got me racing again, an hour later, around 14:30 I was back at the filling station in FA. More sandwiches, ice creams, gold bars, pies and fruit. My feet where killing me after the bumpy descent and needed to be aired – I headed up the locks and de-gunged myself there, I had fancied a rest, but now that I was in 4G land I checked the tracker, it looked like Lee was about 80min behind, which sounds like quite a lot, but can soon disappear at this fatigued stage of the race.

The Great Glen route was a pleasure to ride, we had a north easterly wind helping things, and it was nice to get down on the tri-bars and spin a bit. Fort William was about 32 miles away, may be 2.30hr if all goes well…? We followed the vast canal on shady paths, there was some sections of single track, to break up the easy bits – I was happy with ‘easy’, but had to follow the route line. The route line was my life and I was in my race ‘bubble’. I stopped at Coop just before Fort William, it was just after 17:00, more ice creams, coke, sandwiches, chicken and Friji. I afforded myself a 10min rest and de-socked again. This was a ‘scuriest’ moment of the race, at the back of the Coop in the shade, I sat – a pile of dried vomit one side and a small drunk man the other. He pestered me for money to buy a tin of Tenants beer. I check the tracker again and it looks like Lee is 20 mile back and Javi 25 mile back, you have to be a little wary of the trackers as the updates aren’t always at 5 min intervals.

For once in this the race the end now felt in sight, but that was still 40 miles and 6-7hrs of hard riding away.

I was happy with things and set-off through the suburbs of the town. Turning off up the ‘Glen’ a roving reporter ambushed me for a chat, it was quite nice she wanted to get some of my insights to the race – it wasn’t easy for me and I think I strung together some garbled nonsense… It was very welcoming to get out of the vast metropolis and be back on the forested trail, the climb was steady away and my legs where still happy pedalling – I can’t believe how well this day had gone! – which was now a merge of day 3 and day 4 into one!

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Day 4 – WHW The back of the Devils Staircase …enroute to the finish!

The West Highland Way is a popular trail but at 18:00 it was now empty and fun to travel along. The fat tyres soaked up the bumpy terrain – the bike had been faultless. A lovely long valley lay before me and a steady climb before the steep drop into Kinlochleven, it was another stunning evening. Soon the descent arrived, another fast rock-spitter. On the descent I missed a turn and had to back track up again to re-join the WHW – my second navigation mistake, but not too bad – some walkers had been stood blocking the way marker!

Kinlochleven looked interesting and very industrial with the big black pipes and the big buildings – no time to sight see though! Very quickly it was back climbing again and surprisingly rideable, apart from the steep start, this section leads up high and on to the ‘Devils Staircase’. The going was slower especially with tired legs, I was keen to progress over the mountain and get to easier terrain before darkness. I managed the decent without lights it was around 22:30 and it was pretty rough going, I aired on the side of caution and pushed down some bits – no time for a stupid prang. I did not realise the King House Hotel was shut and being refurbished as I had banked on getting a coke there. Not so. I was super thirsty and Rannoch Moor was inhospitable – even with a big bright moon, with the dry weather there was no healthy looking water around, I passed some campers having a fire and sing along – it looked so nice to crash and joint their party, they afforded me a bit of water and said there was tap back down at King House – I had no intention of going BACK!

I was getting lazy and not being bothered to look at the map I did not realise how long that cobbled road went on for, at least after a short climb from the Glen Coe Ski Station it seemed to be a slight downhill for a long while. I had to wrap up as it had got cold on parts of the moor; so on went the hat, waterproof and thick gloves. I eventually found a good mountain river and filled my bottle; this was just before the last HaB section which was a ‘new’ addition to the HT over previous years. I prayed that the decent was rideable, fortunately it was and I was in Bridge of Orchy soon after, at about 01:00. I was starting to ‘shut down’, I had pushed myself to the limit and I remembered the pictures in Phil’s blog of him wrapping up in a space sheet and taking on the look of an alien at this point in the race – at least it was warmer tonight – I could have just slept anywhere I recon. I rang Kerry saying I was about 30 min away – it was about 5 ½ miles and actually took 52 min – the last push up through the railway cutting was a ball-buster. It felt good to be finishing and return to ‘normal’ life. A lot of emotion passed through my mind as I rolled into the village. The route was magical, the weather was perfect (if a little hot) and I had raced the best that I had ever done. I was elated – I’m pretty certain all this will not happen again. Scotland was so, so good to me, I simply loved it!

At the finish Kerry was there and the boys and a couple of photographers, it was a minimalist and sweet finish. Kerry was expecting me to look worse I think, we hugged, she said I smelt, which I was surprised about given all the swims that I had! After a couple of pictures later and we rolled back down to the camping. I was craving food and beer, so had a quick feed and crashed into a deep snoring sleep…

The morning after it was sunny (yet again) and I met Stu and his family and we walked up to the café and then met Lee and Javi who had arrived not long since. Breakfast was SO good.

Times for top 5 finishers (Trackleaders times):-

Alex Pilkington – 3:16:52

Lee Craigie – 3:20:59

Javier Simon – 3:22:00

Nelson Trees – 4:04:00

Pete McNeil – 4:06:31

This year’s race had claimed a higher rate of attrition than previous rides, probably due to the heat and also drinking untreated water.

Post race

Almost a week after finishing and I’m still feeling a little tired, my sleep pattern is not the normal circadian rhythm yet. My hands and backside are okay and my thumb is starting to work again, my feet now have leather skin on them and where it is cracked it is a little painful, but they are healing. I went into the race at 76.5kg and came out at 73.5kg. My ideal race weight is 75.0kg and I’m loving the eating! The extra weight is no bad thing in these long races, especially if it is colder conditions, as it makes you far more robust than a skinny speedster. The bike just needed a quick dust-off; nothing was too trashed apart from the saddle that had cracked in half – the third saddle I have broken on long rides – do other folk have problems with saddles breaking in half or is it my skinny hard arse that does it?, the other thing was my soft soled, lightweight North Wave cycle shoes – these where practically new on at the start and the front of the right shoe is now separating!

My next big ride is the Trans Pyrenees as an Independent Time Trial (ITT) in August. The question is will I be back again for the HT550…? Maybe – I loved this one, but I may go and try something bigger… I know I won’t get a ride quite like this one again – everything seemed to align so perfectly! I would like to say a massive thanks to Alan Goldsmith – he is a legend and should be so proud to be the creator of this iconic race – I got him a bottle of Whisky as a token of my gratitude. My family have been unbelievably supportive and I felt them willing me along during the race, as have all my ‘dot-watching’ supporters, wider family and friends – I hope I put on a good show! Also to all the fellow competitors, you’re all nuts and some of you have the most intimidating beards ever – but you are a new circle of wilderness loving folk that I now have the pleasure of knowing, so please keep up the exploring and adventures!

HT550 – Alex Pilkington

Kit List:

‘Fatster’ 29er+ Bike Lavender-oil (antiseptic and bug repellent)
Alpkit Food Caddy Foot-powder
Topeak 10l Seat Post Bag Sudocrem
Alpkit 8l Bar Bag Caffine Pills
Topeak Top Tube Bag Multi-Vits
Drawstring bag (packed away) Mountain Hardware (MHW) Water-proof Top
750ml bottles x2 Montane Featherlight bottoms
Spokes x2 North Wave light weight Shoes
Tubes x2 Mavic Windproof
Chain Links & Spare Rear Hanger MHW Base-Layer
Puncture Kit MHW Arm Warmers
Zip-ties Short Sleeve Top
Gorrilla Tape Assos Bib-Shorts
Multitool Compression Socks
Pump Leyzne High Vol Gore Fingerless gloves
Bungs & Plastic for tyre repairs MHW Warmer gloves
Chain Oil MHW Hat
Suunto Ambit+bar-mount (route logging) Buff
Iphone (navigation, camera, music) Giro Helmet
Spot-tracker + batteries Rudy Photo Chromatic Glasses
Charger-pack (x2) + leads Alpkit Bivvy-bag
Petzl Nao Head torch MHW Hydrophobic Down Sleeping-back
Exposure Toro light Inertia Sleep Mat
A4 Back-up Maps Midge-net
Earphones Biltong x4
Sun-cream For Goodness Shakes powders x4
Bum-cream Bacon Strips x2
Toothpaste + brush Flapjack x4
Wipes & Tissue Chocolate / Granola / Paleo Bars x8
Comprehensive 1st Aid Sweets
Iodine (water treatment and for wound treatment) Nuun Electrolytes
Breakfast Bomb x3 (porridge/protein stuff)

…quite a lot of stuff – but a lot less than I would have taken if the forecast was not so good!