A patch of grass next to the trail at Loch Affric. In three times racing the Highland Trail, this was the first time I was able to rest here. Normally this would be one of the worst sections of the route for midges. This year they were still absent, much to my surprise. Half an hour ago I had dinner, potato salad and a sandwich, enjoying the tranquillity of the evening and the last dry hours. Soon the skies would open again as they did on the first two days of the race. Two hours ago I briefly stopped at the hostel, bought some supplies and pushed on. I had almost entirely eaten my supplies for the night on the push up to the Camban Bothy. The hostel, just a few miles further down the valley, was a welcome resupply stop. While a warm bed was tempting, I decided against sleep and for pushing on.
While I was lying in the undergrowth, tucked up in my down jacket, I was able to relax for ten minutes. The last light was fading away. I put on Tiki Tanee’s ‘Nana’s Song’, featuring the wonderful voice of Ria Hall. A song that I rediscovered while searching for music to get me through the night. Lying there motionless I stared blankly into the sky. Slowly reality faded away. This was the first time in the race that I felt the pressure off my shoulders. The crowns of the trees merged with the shimmering light. Memories from the past year passed in front of my eyes. While lying down, I remembered the starlit sky on a cold November’s night in the Atacama Desert in Chile. While there were no stars to see now, I simply imagined them. Just minutes later I could feel the first raindrops on my face and was gently forced to push on.
I was tired, my feet were aching, but I was the happiest I had been for months. I didn’t care much about the physical pain. My life since last May had been an emotional rollercoaster. I was fighting anxiety, which slowly took over my life while my self-confidence, which had me enabled to discover the world on my own account, was at the lowest it had ever been. It was a downward spiral, a fight mostly fought in bitter and lonely silence. The Highland Trail introduced me to bikepacking in 2014 and it gave me the final kick to go around the world in 2015. When I applied for a space in November I didn’t have a clue how testing the upcoming months would be. Looking back it was one of the best decisions I made in that time. I went to the start this year with no plan other than to finish. I needed a success to get me out of the downward spiral of anxiety, sleep deprivation and self-doubt, and this was the best opportunity to get there. Bikepacking and racing my bike in the beautiful Scottish wilderness. With every meter I rode, I slowly regained my confidence.
Tears were running down my cheeks while I remembered the last night I had been content and happy: that night I stared at the sky in the Atacama Desert. Now I was lying here tired, but I didn’t feel overwhelmed. For the first time in months I felt I can win this battle against myself.
When I woke up to a tent covered with ice this morning I was already concerned by the state of my feet. For days they had been wet and contained in ankle high cycling shoes. The conditions were too much for any waterproof shoes to keep the water out. In reverse the shoes were still waterproof enough to contain the water inside once it found its way in, and there was no way I could get them dry with three to four hours of sleep in bothies, wood shelters and other random places. On top of that the constant pushing and walking had done their bit to leave my feet in a dire state, swelling up overnight. The last thing I wanted was to scratch due to unsuitable footwear. The decision was an easy one. Instead of stopping one more time for sleep I would have to ride the remaining 272km to the finish line without a proper overnight stop, depriving my feet of any opportunity to swell even more and risking not getting back into my shoes.
While fighting anxiety I unwillingly spent weeks without proper sleep, sometimes functioning on less than two hours a night. Some nights I couldn’t sleep at all while my heart was racing. While staying up for more than 40 hours was not what I was really looking forward to, I knew that it was certainly not out of my ability. In January I had ridden Strathpuffer, a 24hr race in the middle of winter in the Scottish Highlands, almost entirely on decaffeinated coffee without sleeping for about 40 hours. While months ago I felt that many decisions were taken out of my hands due to sleep deprivation and anxiety, this time there were good people, hopefully fresh food and beer to look forward to. I made a conscious decision to ride 40 hours to finish the race. I felt my life was back in my own hands.
Up next on my Tiki Tanee playlist was ‘Tangaroa’, which includes tribal elements with a haka performed by Taane’s father on top. This was the right tune to wake me up from my short power nap, and send me out into the night again.
The rain steadily got heavier. While the weather on day three and four had remained largely dry but cold, the start of the Highland Trail was the wettest I had experienced so far. The rain started on the climb past Ben Alder, and it didn’t really stop raining until I reached the top of Bealach Horn on Monday morning. I was surprised how Scottish I had become on day one, riding until Fort Augustus without waterproofs. Alan Goldsmith, who organises the race unpaid each year with great passion, caught up with me on the climb up the Corrieyarick Pass. ‘You are wearing very little Markus.’ I indeed was, but this was part of my strategy and I took it as a compliment.
I remembered my first Highland Trail. Back then I could tell by the look of Alan’s face that he, and most of the more seasoned bikepackers, weren’t expecting me to finish. My packing skills and judgement of the weather conditions have greatly improved since the first bikepacking race five years ago, and for this year’s Highland Trail I took exactly enough to get me through the fickle weather conditions. The only thing I didn’t take were waterproof shorts, and while the temperatures were hovering around the 14 degree celsius mark, I decided to keep my waterproof top layer dry as long as I could before the night ride after the pizza stop in Fort Augustus.
The first night in the bothy was a wet affair. Half an hour after pumping up my mattress at 3am I found myself surrounded by water. The rain got heavier during the night and we were forced to regroup so I could move away from the water coming in through the sidewalls of this rather basic shelter. The last thing I needed was a soggy down sleeping bag. At the end of day one I teamed up with Nelson shortly after Loch ma Stac, carrying on through the rain to Hydro Bothy, and avoiding the hairy river crossings that riders behind us were facing the next day. Twice we were tempted to stop: the first time at a bus shelter and the second time at a small shelter before the last climb to the bothy. Stopping there would have meant that one of us would have had to carry on due to the lack of space, so in the end camaraderie won and we stopped at a place suitable for both of us to rest.
While often described as one of the toughest bikepacking races in the world, the Highland Trail is not short of camaraderie. After collectively convincing ourselves to get up after only a few hours sleep, Nelson and James, who had arrived at the bothy earlier than us, joined Jenny on the ride to Contin, while I was taking my time to get ready. Jenny had bivved in a shed further down the track, and it was her enthusiasm that got us all back on the route on day two. The rain continued during the day, turning most rivers into fast-flowing beasts. While I coped well with the conditions most of the day, the combination of cold easterly winds and torrential rain on the descent to Loch Shin almost finished me off. I stopped at the barrier at the end of the road, relentlessly shaking and shivering. It was only 8pm, and there were a few hours left to ride, but I was bitterly cold and hypothermic. The hotel two kilometres in the opposite direction was full, so my options were limited to either pitching the tent in high winds or finding some alternative shelter to get out of the cold wind.
Shortly after continuing I spotted a wooden shed just off the road. To my surprise someone else had already claimed that. And as there was no sufficient space for two, I carried on. Still shaking, I knew that I had to stop immediately and found another shelter next to a private house after a few minutes. I tried to notify the owners of the property of my presence. But despite the lights on and the television running no one was around. And as the downpours and gales continued, I made myself as comfortable as I could get for a few hours.
It was still raining when I woke up dizzy on the morning of day three. In my dire state I had ignored two things in the shed: I had slept right next to a huge petrol tank, and most importantly, tucked away in the corner, was a tumble dryer. While I was still content with my decision not to take any waterproof shorts, I was disgusted and worried by the amount of sand that was covering the chamois in my bibs. All my clothes were still as wet as when I hung them up a few hours ago, and the tumble dryer could have made a huge difference. Not being able to face the agony of putting on cold, wet and muddy bibs and socks, I decided to use my spare dry bibs and socks instead, knowing that I had to stop somewhere to dry them along the route.
Up until now I had kept my phone safely in the back pocket of my jersey, but when the first rays of sun struck me on the morning of day three entering the Northern Loop, I stopped, took in the view and enjoyed a few minutes of sunshine. While only lasting very briefly, the sunshine was a sign that the worst had possibly been past me by now. The hope didn’t last, as shortly afterwards the weather turned foul again, but the few minutes of sunshine had lifted my spirits significantly.
Since the early days ‘dotwatching’ has become an ever-increasing part in bikepacking races. While I only briefly checked my progress along the route, tucked away in my sleeping bag the night before, I could clearly tell that the weather conditions had thinned out the field of riders significantly. This was Scotland at its most brutal, most heartbreaking condition. And while everyone thought that the challenging weather conditions of 2015 made that year’s Highland Trail the hardest so far, this year’s conditions were much worse. On the flipside this made the dotwatching even more tempting, and I started receiving nice messages from friends. While my life in the last months felt like a lonely battle, the encouraging messages from friends made me feel that while I am out riding by myself, I am certainly not alone.
The decision to pull a massive 223km on day one and and other 144km on day two, despite the early finish, meant that I was now well in reach of a top ten finish overall. While I started paying the toll for that physically, mentally it gave me a huge boost. I came to this race with no other plan than to finish, but I was also hoping to do much better than before, and I was clearly on the best way to get there. Between the last Highland Trail for me in 2015 and now I had gained a massive chunk of experience by cycling around the world on a singlespeed bike. Bikepacking has not only been a passion, but also a source of income for me, by developing new routes and sharing my experiences in talks and articles. Professionally I was doing very well, but on the personal side the last three years were an ongoing rollercoaster with constant highs and lows.
Just before I reached the Drumbeg store the sun finally came out and stayed. It was a very welcome sight. I used the opportunity to wash my bibs and socks in the public toilet, fill myself with brownies and coffee and continue in wet bibs and socks, which would soon be dry. While I had been on my own for most of the time since I left the Hydro Bothy, it was a welcome change to ride with John over the next day from here. A great sunset made the challenging crossing to Ledmore Junction as enjoyable as it gets, and shortly afterwards we were greeted by two dotwatchers, running a small restaurant on the road to Oykel Bridge. It was not only the camaraderie inside the field of racers that makes the Highland Trail a hard, but enjoyable race. It is also the spirit that surrounds it now that stands out. Although I have forgotten their names, the couple running the place had followed our dots that evening, and while the kitchen was already closed, their offer of chips, white bread with butter and a can of coke lifted our spirits significantly.
After a night in the Old Schoolhouse Bothy John and I parted ways in Ullapool, after I tried to get my back brake back to life, totally decimating the brake pads on the descent into Ullapool. It turned out not to be as straightforward as I thought, and I was back on my own. Contributing to my anxiety over the last year was a shoulder injury which I have carried for a long time now. Due to an accident years ago my right shoulder dislocates on a regular basis. While I would have loved to take up other activities other than cycling and bikepacking, the unpredictability of the shoulder accidents in recent years have made me become more careful then I wish to be at times.
So far the shoulder had played ball. On the push up the old coffin road towards Dundonnell I suddenly felt a sharp pain. My arm was hanging in the wrong angle. I found a stable position, supported my upper body by leaning over the frame, and shortly afterwards managed to pop the shoulder back in. The pain stayed for a while, and the same happened again an hour later when I tried to open a gate with my right arm. I had to remind myself to swap to the left when pushing and opening gates from now on.
I met James on the climb into Fisherfield, and bumped into Karl and him again at the bothy. One of the friendly hill walkers made a cup of tea. He would have done the same for everyone else arriving here, so I wasn’t too worried about breaking the ethos of unsupported races. While I had the river crossing to be the biggest challenge of the race, compared to the first two days it turned out to be relatively easy. My recent shoulder incidents and the weight of my ECR forced me to push the bike across rather than glamorously carrying it on my shoulders, but the plus tires almost made it float across the river. The riding through Fisherfield was very enjoyable. Martin had caught up with me at the river, and we cycled in each others sight for a while, but it soon became clear that he was much faster through here than me.
On the last morning I woke up to the squealing of brakes. Believing that Martin must have been well ahead of me by now, I thought that Jenny had just passed me. I was camping somewhere on the Postman’s Path, which was in most parts unrideable. I had to stop around midnight after I had slipped of the narrow trail in the darkness, tumbling and stopping a few metres further down the slope. I was ok and the bike was too, but this surely wasn’t the best place for mistakes. While I had planned to arrive in the hostel in Kinlochewe that night, the reality was different. I finally got there by 8am the next morning.
24 hours later I found myself just outside on Fort William next to the Caledonian Canal. The only short sleep I had was the 10 minute nap on Loch Affric, followed by a 20 minute nap next to the urinals in the public toilet in Fort Augustus. I was soaked from another night riding in the rain, my feet were hurting and I hardly managed to stand up after the nap. Finding food at 5am in Fort Augustus was impossible, so I had to wait for another 4 hours till I made it to Fort William.
With my body in rapid decline, my mental condition was much better than I had imagined. I had gotten this far. I had a plan and I stuck to it. And while there were distractions along the way, I always managed to get myself back on track very soon. If possible with my own ability, if needed with the encouragement of others. I never once thought about quitting. The only thing between me and the finish line were another 10 hours of riding.
By now my will to finish had overshadowed the ever increasing pain in my feet and the deteriorating weather conditions. I can’t remember much from crossing the old military road over Rannoch Moor. My feet were so swollen that they rubbed on the inside of the shoes, which slowly but surely took the skin off the top of my toes (I discovered that later). Riding into a headwind and torrential rain (again) with the pain from my feet made me cry my heart out. Pushing up the last hill before Bridge of Orchy I was reminded once again to push with my left, not my right arm.
But those were minor obstacles. It was the end of a race, but also the start of a new chapter of my life. Physically I had paid a high price, as it took me weeks to get my body back to normal. My feet took a while to recover, my fingertips were numb for a number of weeks and the pain in my shoulder lingered longer than expected. It was a price worth paying to regain my self-confidence. A high level of self-control was the key to succeed in the Highland Trail, especially in conditions as brutal as they were this year. Racing and completing the Highland Trail had restored my sense of self-worth. Much more than any cycling event has done so far.
More information about the Highland Trail 550 can be found at highlandtrail.net.
My pictures can be found on Flickr here.