HTR550 2015 attempt day 3

By this point I’d got quite good at setting up camp and putting it back down again. Not quite as good as my fellow riders though, merely unrolling a bivi bag, climbing in and then doing the reverse the following morning.
I was still up by a reasonable hour though, and on my way after a couple of porridge bars. Not so for Giacomo, who remained in his tent as I pressed on. 

Glen Cassley, another headwind. Mapping out the route for some respite from the wind, hoping that a corner rounded would take the wind out of my face for a while. Sadly this was not meant to be. The dam was reached quicker than I’d imagined it would be, perhaps the early hour contributing to an increase pace. The climb from hell last year, the roadies’ paradise, was easier too, with the headwind interspersed with the luxury of a tailwind or the compromise of a crosswind.

Up at the top of the climb, things changed again. Last year’s hoot of a descent, best described as “whee!!” was now a downhill slog into the wind. Sunshine last year was now mist and clouds.

I reached the bottom of the descent and turned back on myself to traverse a short section of Loch Shin. The road section to the Bealach Horn turnoff seemed fine by this stage, not too tough going.

Last year I walked this entire climb, this year I rode most of it. A small victory in the dreich conditions. Pushing up Glen Golly into a headwind felt a lot worse than before, the ground far wetter and going a lot slower. By this point I was tiring, the wind in my face and intermittent rain showers. I hit the Bealach eventually, after much more pushing and swearing, and once again saw the horrible descent and climb ahead of me. It’s one of the sections I didn’t enjoy both times, but both times I knew it needed to be done. 

I think when you get into this style of riding, you push through anything knowing it’s a means to an end. There’s always something on the next hill worth riding, or if there’s not you hang on to the belief that there might just be something on the one after.

Anyway, the peat hag descent came and went, the river crossing not overly memorable, and the push up the other side just as horrible as expected. 

I hit the end of the climb, the metres counting down on the GPS, and began the fast descent to Achfary. I was feeling pretty burst by this point, the early stages of a bonk setting in. A fun descent though, especially the technical section at the entrance to the forest. Into Achfary, nothing of note. No pay phone, no food supplies. No matter, Kylesku was just over the next pass…

The next pass was the site of a legendary bonk for me. I’d been eating all day but clearly, with hindsight, not enough. I felt all my energy, and then my motivation ebb out of me. I slowed to a near crawling pace, each step a mere shuffle, the temptation to curl up into a ball and cry particularly strong. Emergency food time, more Stoats bars and probably four gels, plus a bottle of Coke. I think dipping this deep into my reserves at this point set me up to fail the following day, truly a horrible feeling.

It was mid afternoon, and I hit the top of the climb, with a sum total of zero pedal revolutions. Back on the bike, a bit of the descent, and then some further gorilla tape clothing repair attempts. The rest of the descent was a blur, not through pace though. 

Kylesku did not look too inviting for food, so I kept going. At this point last year it was around 10pm, whereas it must have been around 5pm. I decided to press on, with the intention of stopping at a B&B on the Drumbeg road somewhere. I knew this was going to be horrible, but my 2015 motto “make hay while the sun shines” was fresh in my mind. Every mile today is one less tomorrow.

Drumbeg arrived, nothing was open. 7pm this year, 9:30am the next morning in 2014. Things were looking up, I was well ahead of time. No room at the inn, anywhere. A flushing toilet though so a luxurious visit to the loo was in order.

Achmelvich next, via some lovely singletrack that I only remembered when the turnoff for it arrived. Only a couple of miles from Lochinver though, and at this rate I might make the Pie Larder. I sprinted on, another gel in the tank. Sadly arriving at Lochinver just before 9, I found the Pie Larder closed. As was everything else. No rooms in any hotels, even the completely empty one by the end of the front. Nothing for it but to continue…

Suileaig bothy was the next place of interest on the map. I knew that getting there would make sense, as my food options were zero anyway. No point in a bivi on the front either as it would be hours lost. With hindsight I should have stopped for a proper feed. However, the climb into Suileaig wasn’t too bad, easy trail so I knew the crap would be ahead of me at some point.

I arrived at the bothy, four bikes outside – a fat bike and a Camber so I knew I’d caught up with Phil and Alan at least. Not wanting to make any noise as everyone else had bedded down, I ate what savoury food I had outside (two bags of cashews and half a chorizo) and snuck inside to fall asleep.

A 90 mile day after two back to back centuries – tough going.

HTR550 2015 attempt epilogue

I woke on the morning of the 5th day to a good breakfast. It wasn’t enough, I still felt rubbish. I had realised I had three options: 

  1. Carry on the race – no chance!
  2. Wait in Ullapool for the postbus – I don’t think there’s a day’s worth of things to do there!
  3. Ride out to the nearest train station

The third option won, so I started on the road to Garve. I met Steve Large on the road, he’d had an enforced day in Ullapool after a mechanical. He soon shot off into the distance, and I carried on the road out to Garve. A massive burger at the great roadside cafe and on the train home.

I had time to think about this year’s attempt. Nothing went spectacularly wrong, just my ability to refuel. I think I pushed too far each day, slowly chipping away at the reserves. However, I know now I’ve got it in me to push those sorts of distances so I just need some consistency and I’ll be set for my future challenges.

HTR550 2015 attempt day 4 – the final day

Everyone else had left the bothy by the time I got up at 7. I think they were desperate to get the horribly shit trail ahead done and out the way as soon as possible. I don’t blame them, it’s awful. 

Anyone who moans about the Loch Lomond carry on the West Highland Way clearly hasn’t tried this one. Four or five hours to do ten miles, it’s as tough as it gets. Uneven trail that you need to push up, along and down. Some carrying, a vague trail in places that you need to keep hunting for. More wind, this time enough to make cycling impossible in the brief sections of rideable trail.

I’m always reminded by the part in Robon Hood Prince of Thieves where a bemulleted Kevin Costner leaps from his boat at the shore and kisses the ground on his arrival in Britain. I wanted to do this when I got to the road. I settled for squeezing out my waterlogged socks and eating more porridge bars.

Next stop Oykel Bridge, although the motel en route seemed to be serving food. Oh well, Oykel Bridge was a known quantity. I arrived, and started stocking up on food and caffeine. A vague conversation with a local, and it was clear to all in the bar that I was exhausted. However, it was lunchtime and only the easy roll into Ullapool remained.

I stopped at the Duag Bridge schoolhouse for a quick look around, and pressed on towards Ullapool on a good trail. The trail soon deteriorated, as did my condition. 

Another bonk less than an hour after lunch – this wasn’t good. Three bacon rolls and a dessert yet my energy levels were low. Something had gone seriously awry with my ability to digest food and get energy from it. I couldn’t pile in any more calories, and knowing I’d taken in so much recently I knew that something was wrong. I could tell the warning signs, the negative outlook, walking on perfectly good trails. Simple sugars would be my only way out of this situation. A can of Coke and then I started on the Sports Mixtures. A bag of these always lives in my pack on biking trips for emergencies such as these, but rarely do they get used. I rationed these out slowly, riding slowly to Ullapool. At times the combination of the headwind and my energy levels meant I had to walk on flat Tarmac. Pretty poor going but I knew things were slowly coming to an end for me.

I arrived in Ullapool around 6pm, my lead over my 2014 pace reduced from 8hrs at its peak to half that. I was lucky enough to find a great B&B so checked in there and started contemplating my fate.

I knew it was game over, I just could not continue. My knee was hurting, and I felt completely broken. This race had broken me, I had pushed too far and my body had said enough was enough. Aside from my knee and my food problem, I was on great form, riding strong but I had nothing to prove which made the decision easier. I had my HTR finish, I didn’t need to risk breaking myself further, going into worsening conditions not feeling my best.