The Highland Trail (or HT550) is a Scottish cycling event described by DotWatcher as "one of the original European bikepacking races and notoriously one of the hardest on the calendar".  This is the story of my 2024 attempt - like riding the event itself, it's pretty long, self-indulgent and introspective, so grab yourself a cuppa.  And probably some snacks.


A tiny bit of my mind is still riding the Highland Trail, or at least it wishes it was.   

I don’t usually linger in the past so it feels strange leaving this bit of my mind behind in the bog, rock, pride and purpose of this bike ride.

I started writing in an attempt to recapture this fragment, to focus it back on today and tomorrow… and out flowed this - a sprawling love letter to Scotland and her wild places, to Alan Goldsmith and his masterpiece and maybe to my own mind and body too.

I’m not sure I even need it to be read - the catharsis was in the writing.  It’s long, unedited and probably quite a lot like everyone else's stories, but it’s also raw and honest and mine.  

And I’ve learned that there’s a hunger for more than “how far did you ride”, “how fast did you go” and “did you win”... I’ve had deep, meaningful, beautiful conversations about it with people I didn’t even think would care.  But there’s a limit to what I’ve been able to convey, inhibited by my own tendency to deflect attention, to downplay my emotions and to understate the work and effort that I quietly invest in my passion.

So this story is for my friends left hungry for more, and for myself, and for someone just like me (or nothing at all like me) next year, who wonders what they’re capable of and whether they even belong here at all.  You do.

I am where I want to be (photo by Neil Henderson)


I keep revisiting a conversation in the Real Food Café the night before the Highland Trail started.  My friend Ric, a HT veteran who wasn’t riding this year but stopped by to impart some wisdom and good vibes, was recounting his approach to Fisherfield in 2022.  He described the level of intimidation he felt, an imposter craving company and moral support, actually slowing down to ride into this apparently hostile environment with another rider.

What struck me is that I’ve never felt like this about Scotland’s mountains and wild places, and maybe this makes me a bit… unusual.  It’s not that I’m “braver” than Ric and I’m certainly not more capable on a bike than him, but for me these environments elicit a sense of calm and a quiet mind.  I often crave the solace that comes from long rides in solitude - the inward focus on my immediate needs - a tonic for an otherwise all-too-chaotic existence.  What’s more, the more challenging the ride and conditions, the greater the opportunity for indulging this primal, selfish, comforting introspection.

I know I’m not alone in this mindset, but it often seems at odds with much of the prevailing bikepacking vernacular.  I feel numb to this seemingly macho, commercially-driven scene of suffering and bravery and gnarly-ultra-epicness.  I just don’t subscribe to that… Don’t get me wrong, these places can certainly harm those who enter without the requisite respect and equipment, but there’s something so human-centric and extractive about thinking these places exist to challenge us, as fodder for our stories of suffering and collateral for our commercial interests.

But portrayals of adventure are evolving, spearheaded by so many strong, diverse role models now getting the limelight they richly deserve, and by events like the Highland Trail – Alan, the organiser, could not be less like the archetypal race director if he tried.  His famed commitment to a 50:50 gender split almost overshadows his more subtle commitments to creating an inclusive, welcoming and sustainable event.  When we met that evening, he was more interested in my partner and daughter and whether they might like to start the following morning than he was in any of the participants and what bike they were riding or kit they were carrying.  His complete disinterest in capitalising on the commercial potential of the event is a thing of beauty, preferring instead to encourage participants to donate to a local environmental charity.  The route is undoubtedly challenging, but Alan never labours this – anyone can do this route, just some people will take longer than others.  

I’ve not even started yet, but already I don’t think I’ve ever encountered something that resonates so deeply with all of my passions, values and quirks.  Sitting in the Real Food Café with my little family effortlessly integrated into the Highland Trail scene, catching up with old friends and already making new ones I felt a level of calm, belonging and confidence I normally only feel once the race has started and I’m pedalling to my own narratives of adventure.

Grace and Rach were embraced into the Highland Trail scene (photo by Alan Goldsmith)


In stubbornly resilient folks, nothing focuses the mind like rejection.  

I had applied to ride the 2022 Highland Trail and been rightly rejected.  Whilst I thought I was capable of it; at the time I simply didn’t have the evidence to convince Alan I was worthy of a place in a heavily oversubscribed year.  Thus began a slow but steady build towards May 2024, over two years where the Highland Trail was the ultimate goal.  I built up a bike specifically with this event in mind, I tested kit and even had items custom made.  To guarantee my entry I rattled off a series of big rides on established routes and some credible results in other Scottish races.  With six months to go and my place confirmed, I was thinking about the Highland Trail at least once every day.  I was optimising my physiology, lifting weights for the first time since parenthood dropped that off the priority list, putting in long slow rides to boost endurance, swapping evening socialising for pre-dawn yoga and turbo sessions.  

At times the Highland Trail could feel like the most important thing in my life, but it obviously wasn’t – I’m a present dad, an enabling partner, a small business owner, a part-time student, the keeper of a manic collie dog… I couldn’t and wouldn’t let a bike ride compromise these other, vastly more real priorities and my commitment to them.  For months I managed to exist in some kind of “life-priority flow state”, no time wasted, no values or commitments compromised.  Helpfully, rather than resent it and the impact on her own athletic and social ambitions, my partner Rach engaged fully too – she’s probably more knowledgeable and passionate about the Highland Trail than some people who have ridden it.

As the event neared, I spent every spare minute researching – reading blogs, watching YouTube videos, looking at maps and absorbing every bit of knowledge I could get hold of.  Some people can wing these things, but for me knowledge is power.  Huw Oliver, Annie Lloyd-Evans, Lee Craigie, Angus Young – I don’t actually know these people but I’m indebted to them all the same.  People blessed with both the capacity to achieve inspiring athletic feats and the generosity to share their experiences so eloquently and honestly with others.  

From this research a goal began to emerge and quickly crystalised itself at the forefront of my planning – sub-4-days.  Not many people have managed this – an average of four or so each year in recent events.  I don’t know whether it was humility or the sense that I might be perceived as arrogant that stopped me from sharing this, but right up to the start line it was a goal shared only between me and the meticulously prepared route cards in my pocket.  Deep down I know the sub-4-day target isn’t just ambitious guesswork - it’s a pragmatic goal based on an acute understanding of my own capabilities in this environment. 


I sleep well despite sharing a camping pod with a six-year-old who snores like an elephant.  

Everything is pretty much ready and aside from a 10-minute period of focused prep I can engage fully with a fun family morning.  We ride up to the start together, Grace racing me on her Frog bike.  

We bump into Miron who gives off a super-chilled and friendly vibe despite being one of the favourites.  Thomas, another race favourite, had been in the pod beside and only too happy to stop, chat and share stories.  

A warm excitement glows from the Real Food Café as riders gather and catch up.  Group photos and hugs.  Rach cries, not out anxiety she says, these are happy tears - it’s just such a special atmosphere, an event like no other, and she’s proud - she knows how much work I’ve (we’ve) put in to be here.  I chat to a few folks and the time passes easily, quickly. 

Ready to race (to the start-line)

Up to the official start and Grace rides beside me.  The tension builds slightly and we see a rider stop abruptly and decide she doesn’t want to do this anymore – I hope she overcame this moment of doubt and started.  Looking after Grace keeps me calm – she chats to Sofiane Sehili as I give her a helping hand up the hill – “Are you racing?” he asks playfully.  She thinks about it – Alan has asked her to start so she feels like she is a racer too, “yep” she says.  “Where are your bags for your sleep stuff?” he asks.  Grace tells him she can just sleep in her jacket.  Too cool, I hope she holds on to this unabashed confidence as she grows.

I’ve never liked race starts, and I think I’m drawn to these longer events because they really don’t matter.  I have my mantras for today – “miles for free” and “finish the day with body and bike as fresh as they started”.  I start slow, patient, way down the field.  I still take some interesting lines through the first technical sections to avoid stopping in traffic, placating my addiction to momentum.  Once the pace settles, I know I’ll be overtaking people for a while and we can boost each other’s energy with snippets of trail chat.  

Quick last pic with the Highland Trail's youngest ever starter

Not everyone wants to talk, but I have some fun chatting to Jamie about the virtues of big bikes and 28 tooth chainrings, Kirsten tells me not to ride near her unless I can handle her karaoke – I embrace her Will Smith renditions as she’s too strong to ride away from anyway.  I manage to scare the shit out of Laurens with a story about the depth and flow of one of the river crossings, only to find it benign and rideable… oh crap yeah sorry, that was December when I rode it last.

Then all too soon I’m on my own.  The fast folks have gone already and anyone with more modest ambitions has started to take their first breaks or ease into their own rhythm.  I’m deliriously happy, stoked even – the bike feels great, the legs even better, the mind focused.  Ben Alder is more fun than I had anticipated having last ridden through there on a gravel bike.  The Corrieyairack Pass is a tailwind-assisted breeze – I decline the offer of whisky at the bottom but allow my heart rate to go higher than it has all day before ultimately deciding to manage my effort and walk the last hairpin or two.  It facilitates a nice summit chat with Alan, usually a participant, a dog-bite forcing him to spectate this year.

Bike, body and mind doing what I want them to (photo by Neil Henderson)

In Fort Augustus some of the fast folks are packing up as I arrive.  I don’t rush though, I’m up on schedule.  The Londis is horrendous – an absolute shit-show of crap food and queueing tourists.  But I source what I need to get me to Ullapool (at least 40 hours away) and enjoy some chips (some whilst packing, the rest eaten from my shorts pocket over the next couple of hours… hygiene is overrated).

Only wind-turbines for company between Invermoriston and Loch ma Stac.

Into the evening still on mostly familiar trails, ticking off sections and summits, seeing no one until I see Calum trailside on the Path of 1000 Puddles.  Seems a strange place and time to be setting up camp for the night.  It transpires he has crashed and has a badly cut arm – one of those annoying crashes that sneaks up on you when you least expect it.  I have steri-strips and search everywhere for them but can’t find them (I would find them later and carry the guilt of not being able to help for the rest of the ride).  I abandon him to his fate in the way that can only be justified in these races and minutes later almost crash myself, slipping on an innocuous-looking surface.  I dab a foot, stay tyre-side-down, and not for the last time on this trip I thank the biking gods for the years of cyclocross.

In my plan I had identified three potential bivvy spots – I settle for the middle one, under a bridge just outside Contin.  It’s surprisingly warm, sheltered and midge free, and even has struts to hang clothing overnight.  A five-star bivvy option for anyone on a similar pace.  I never resent my brain the half-hour it takes to calm down on the first night of a ride – out of nowhere you’ve exposed it to so much stimulus that it just needs time to process.  I close my eyes for the inevitable eyelid-projected highlights reel of my first day and drift off easily after that – a solid three or more hours.

Five-star bivvy - so chuffed with myself I took a pic of it.


When I wake up, I look at the tracking website for the first time.  I don’t really have a sense of racing anyone else, especially this early in the route, but I had clocked Calum, Marcus and Kerry as people I had raced against before and who would likely have similar ambitions.  Calum was ultimately forced to scratch, but from here, Marcus and Kerry became reference points alongside my forecast times.  I wasn’t sure how engaging this next section was going to be and I’d hoped to have someone to at least aim for to keep me focused, but it seems I slept too well and all the people ahead of me are already on the move. 

I underestimated the stoke-potential in the upcoming trail – the section from Strath Vaich and through the Alladale estate is magical in the morning light and soon I’m rolling past Oykel Bridge and onto the Northern Loop.  At some point this morning I pass Max seemingly hopping around every puddle in an ultimately futile effort to keep his shoes dry – I’d see him so many times over the next 24 hours that I was convinced there must be two Max’s riding.  In reality a dislocated thumb (courtesy of a bog-induced crash) makes his progress erratic and limits him from putting down his best ride.

Stoked on Strath Vaich

There’s something slightly bizarre about the road climb that drags you out of Glen Cassley.  It’s consistent and pristinely surfaced, but somehow seems unnecessarily… big and difficult.  As I climb it, I’m joined by a local cyclist, slightly aloof at first but quickly fully engaged in what I’m up to and where I’m from.  He’s still reeling from the shock of how quickly he’d been overtaken by a “woman on a mission” earlier that day.  The Highland Trail opening his mind to accommodate the idea that women can ride bicycles quickly.  He does his best to help me through a gate and then I’m almost relieved to be on my own again, heading towards Bealach Horn.

I’ll whisper it quietly, but I don’t think this bit is that hard.  It’s a gentle meander to the top of Glen Golly, from where it’s merely a 10km scenic-mystery-bog-tour until you’re out the other side.  It is however bloody incredible, otherworldly even, and the sense of scale makes you feel much higher than 400 metres up.  It was genuinely over all-too-quickly, and as the mist blurs the trail, I set out towards what I assume must be another hike-a-bike climb.  Instead I find myself already on the rocky, steep descent away from Bealach Horn.  It’s so unexpected that I sort of crash the bike into the side of the trail to stop, bending the front brake lever in the process.  It still works, but could easily have ended my ride. I admonish myself for disobeying my mantras of efficiency and care, now expanded to include “the Highland Trail starts in Ullapool”.

I take the first of a few mini-breaks on the shore of Loch More.  I air my feet and change my socks, eat and update my maps for the return leg.  Bliss - it’s still a holiday after all.  The next item on the agenda is Drumbeg Stores.  I don’t need supplies but it feels like a rite of passage to stop here and as long as I’m there by 10pm they’ve promised to be open.  The climbs on the coast road are famously steep but it’s the descents that are scary – you can pick up so much speed - every bit of you wants to let the bike go and capitalise on the miles-for-free but at the same time you’re terrified of a car coming the other way.  Take it easy, adrenaline is wasted energy and crashing on these roads is a horrendous prospect.

Drumbeg Stores is everything I want it to be – a lovely cup of sugary tea and the most amazing smoked salmon rolls.  I tear my already sugar-sore mouth to pieces eating a bag of crisps too fast – I’ll regret that for the rest of the trip, but not as much as I regretted leaving behind the lemon drizzle cake I bought.  I’ve caught up with Marcus here but he rolls off before Neil and Joergen rock up in their media van exuding a vibrancy and cleanliness that contrasts with my already feral state.  I leave before I get too comfortable in their company, confident I might catch Marcus and have a buddy as we head inland towards Suileag Bothy.  Marcus is strong but he’s not had much time on his beautiful tropicana-yellow Rothair bike.  I notice he’s cautious on the technical sections, of which there will be ever-more as the route progresses.

Already looking tired and feral, especially in contrast to Neil and Joergen (photo by Neil Henderson)

Suileag bothy, what a gift.  I squeeze into the front room behind Marcus and don’t immediately see any space on the bed platforms, but I do see a Niall-sized space right beside the embers of a dying fire – the perfect spot for drying kit and sleeping with my damp feet out in the open.  It’s roasting but it’s idyllic.  In the morning I realise the second room was all but empty, but I have no regrets after my crowded fireside slumber.

I’d brought two massive freezer bag portions of oats, protein powder and mixed fruit/nuts.  Add water for 800 or so calories of what felt like rocket fuel at 4 in the morning.  I feel euphoric starting the Ledmore traverse on another good sleep, a full stomach and still fresh legs.  Everyone tells you this bit is hard – I think it’s Lee Craigie who says “there is no reason to ever be in this place on a bike”.  But no-one had told me that there’s actually some great riding in there too – some really fun descents scattered amongst the bog and rock.  I love this kind of low exposure but ultra-technical, fiddly, patient riding.  Loch ma Stac on the first night was the same – more rideable than it looks if you take your time, trust your skills and keep your body relaxed and balanced.

Blink (admittedly for two hours), and it’s done.  Another big segment ticked off the trail notes.  The Joergen and Neil media team are at the end - I know I’m nearing completion when I hear their drone.  On the beach Joergen subtly alludes to where the trail might go next.  Shit, is that cheating?  Did I get help there?  Oh shut up Niall.  Another micro-break as I join the road and then I’m off to close the Northern loop and get down to Ullapool.  

I learn a lesson here that I think every HT novice needs to learn.  You’ve ticked off Ledmore, closed the first loop and Ullapool with all of its enticing resupply options is just down the road.  Nope – it’s still far enough that you need to pace yourself and remember to eat.  I pass Andrew who I’ve not seen yet but I gather also stayed in Suileag bothy (in the big room pretty much to himself) – he’s taking it really easy, stopping to chat to Alan who’s out on the trail again.  Interesting… turns out he’s done this route twice and knows better than most to keep the powder dry for what’s on the menu this afternoon. 

In a rush to get to Ullapool - it's still pretty far (photo by Neil Henderson)

There’s nothing I love more than a big-dirty-bike-touring-picnic in a supermarket carpark.  Like feeding time at the zoo, literally nothing is off limits – a pack of four croissants, merely a snack.  A pint of yoghurt, I’ll just drink that like it’s juice.  Two meal-deals, well I couldn’t decide between them so I had to get both.  I have to put my pocketed gilet on just to carry the food I’ve bought as I don’t plan to stop again until Fort Augustus (30+ hours away).  

There was a bit of a party atmosphere at the Ullapool Tesco – Andrew, Marcus, Max and me.  A previous participant and local stops to tell us the leader, Alex, only stopped for nine minutes and we’re all far too relaxed… me especially as I was first in and last out, but that’s ok – there’s some demanding segments coming up and I can see I bought and ate the most – I’ve worked hard to get digestion and exertion to work in harmony, so my body can tolerate the intake required for these things.  I know I’ll have to take it super-easy for the next hour to allow my system to process those calories.  I remember my mantra – the Highland Trail starts at Ullapool.  Guess we better get started then.

Nothing says HT550 like gross feet and a dirty big Tesco picnic

The Coffin Road.  Fucking beautiful.  I stayed in a cabin on the South side of Loch Broom years ago and looked up at the trail wondering what it would be like to “ride”.  My brain is a network of trails I’ve ridden and those I’m yet to explore and I’m delighted to finally get up this one, even if it’s all walking.  I pass Marcus on the climb but barely exchange a word.  Something about his body language tells me that’s the last time I’ll see him until the finish.  I couldn’t have known then that it’s the last time I’ll see any rider until Tyndrum. 

Fisherfield – YES!!  I’ve been dreaming of this section ever since I first thought of riding this route.  But my early enthusiasm is tempered by a viscerally upsetting scene of cattle being violently walloped and abused by a couple of sturdy local farmers.  It seems excessive but maybe it was just relative to my sense of calm.  What do I know.  I pass a few walkers on the steady climb up – they’re fresh-faced and happy as they exit this wilderness cauldron, so how bad can it be.

Finally I see the iconic Loch na Sealga – if one image could symbolise the whole Highland Trail for me it’s the stunningly atmospheric shot by James Robertson of someone calmly crossing the Abhainn Strath na Sealga, chest deep in the water with their bike on their shoulders.  Thankfully today it’s just a knee-deep paddle and my shoes and socks are so wet I don’t bother taking them off.  Another micro-break on the beach, shoes off now, breathing it in and feeling grateful to be here. 

But it’s a wild place after all and soon the weather tells me I’ve outstayed my welcome, chasing me up and over the the Clach na Frithealaidh and battering me on the exposed descent towards Poolewe.  With all this chat of calm and solace in these places, I’ll not pretend I wasn’t a bit intimidated on this descent – it was wet, cold, windy and exposed, with the actual rivers bursting out of their channels and new flows emerging and dancing over the rocks.  But I tell myself I am the master of my mind and I channel my focus towards forwards momentum, walking the uppermost switchbacks and some later sections, my brakes squealing through the rest as I battle to keep the speed down with limited traction.  Randomly I think of “Blue Lights”, a TV show Rach and I watched a few nights prior, where a brooding ex-military type kept saying “this too shall pass” – it’s a good mantra to add to my growing collection.  

Beach-side calm before the storm in Fisherfield

And so it does pass – I note the turnoff to Carnmore Bothy – I’ve never been but I know it’s a low point in life when you need to use that one.  If you haven’t watched Matthew Fairbrother’s HT550 attempt spectacularly unravel at this point I’d recommend looking it up (I didn’t share that one with Rach until after I had ridden it).  

The causeway at Dubh Loch.  I’m probably meant to stop and take a picture here but I just don’t want to – movement keeps the cold at bay and anyway, I have a date with the Tollie Path.  My friend Mike Dennison, a two-time HT550 finisher tells me this bit is a drag, good to do “when you’re tired or in the dark” – a big tick beside both of these as the sun slowly sets behind me and I feel the fatigue of the first “real” day on the trail.  A wise person once shared the quote with me “your body won’t go where your mind hasn’t been before it” and I’ve already walked this path in my head – it’s another one that’s less than 10km so don’t let it dominate your thoughts too much.  It’s slippy, rocky, overgrown, physical and then it's done.  Between intense bouts of focus I loved watching the last of the sun setting on all of Loch Maree’s little islands, and then the dark solitude where the only artificial light is my own. 

I assume Kerry and Andrew (who I have adopted as a new reference point) can’t be too far ahead but I don’t see any evidence of them in the expanse below.  I’m not prone to loneliness but towards the end of day three I start to feel it – even the A832, gateway to the North West and part of the immense traffic-funnel that is the North Coast 500 is silent at 1am.  Again, I have three bivvy options earmarked, and again I settle for the middle one – a shelter in the Beinn Eighe carpark.  The campervans scattered nearby give some sense of company even if there’s no signs of life.


I wake up cold and earlier than intended, chilled by the breeze coming off Loch Maree.  Best way to warm up is to start riding and I’m on the move by 4:13am – the earliest I’ve managed yet.

Torridon at sunrise is perfect.  The eastern faces of the Torridon Munros literally glow bright red as the first sun hits them.  There’s at least a couple of “red” hills or Beinn Deargs in the area, maybe that’s why.  Torridon is another area revered for its spectacular scenery and probably the most demanding, technical riding on the trail, but I’m far from intimidated given a previous encounter with this place.  In what was in hindsight an act of pure stupidity, a friend and I embarked on this very section from Loch Clair on road bikes in the middle of winter.  I have no idea why, but inevitably it was a puncture-fest and resulted in us walking out and along the road from Achnashellach to Lochcarron knocking on doors and asking for a puncture repair kit.  

I efficiently clear the section this morning with significantly less drama than that day, and smile as I pass the house that eventually welcomed us in, gave us a repair kit and filled us with home-baking and coffee whilst we fixed tubes in their conservatory.  I wonder if they would be as hospitable if I knocked now, before 7am, but I resist the temptation.

Up through Attadale and down through Glen Ling passes slowly but without incident.  I pick up a pair of discarded cycling sunglasses – thinking maybe I’ll catch up with the owner later and can give them back.  Or maybe that’s cheating too – I hate these rules about not helping each other but it’s a moot point given I don’t see anyone anyway. 

Down to Dornie and there’s some fighter jets doing flybys.  I’m not as into it as the people who seem to have set up camp for the day to watch, but it’s quite spectacular as they shake the world around me.  Nowhere near as spectacular as the microwaved Scotch pie from Inverinate Petrol Station – the first warm food I’ve had in almost three days.  I caught a glimpse of a rider, I assume Kerry, leaving here as I was descending from the Eilean Donan lookout point, but again I take my time topping up my calories.  I’m sure the top riders are more clinical with their stops but they can’t possibly get as much restorative pleasure from eating their food on the go as I am from sitting on the cold, concrete forecourt with a pie and an ice cream.

I don’t know why but my mindset changed as I left Inverinate.  Maybe I thought the rider in front would be in view, a carrot on a string as I rode up the River Croe to the steep climb up to Glen Affric.  I’d only been 20 minutes and I was feeling good for the break so maybe I could speed up a little and catch them?  Was I “racing” all of a sudden or just excited by the prospect of company for the inevitable headwind coming later?  Was I particularly focused on catching the rider I assumed was Kerry out of some sub-conscious, chauvinistic sentiment that I could or should be in front of her?  I'm reminded of the ever-more exasperated Philip as his worldview is upended in Joining the Dots.  Exhaustion drags out our true colours after all, but I don't think I'm that guy.  Maybe I’d just gone too far into myself and wanted some chat.

Whatever it was, my urge to “catch up” with the rider I had glimpsed ahead clouded my judgement.  I fought the terrain instead of working in harmony with it, my bike became a hindrance rather than an extra source of balance and support.  I tried too hard to go fast and burned so much energy for no actual gain in speed. I slipped and banged my knee on a rock. I got frustrated for the first time this ride. I'd ridden this section the other way and underestimated how hard it would be.  I knew I should have practiced carrying my bike instead of pushing it, but I hadn’t, and now I was in no mood to start experimenting.  I questioned what the fuck I was doing out here, some idiot dad pretending I was a bikepacking racer.

Memories of an easier time on the trail to Morvich, heading West

You need to get your mind back under control Niall.  

I decide to start this day again, with Camban bothy the perfect scene for a reset - a 20-minute power nap soothes my fraying mind and a slice of cake gets the energy back up for the Loch Affric headwind.  

Forget catching people, the goal is and always was sub-4-days, and you’ve just put that in jeopardy for the first time in 700km by letting your mind run riot.  

Back at it, disciplined, calm, confident, with about 20 hours and 180km to go until my self-imposed deadline in Tyndrum. 

My message in the book marks the "turning point"

It bloody worked too – I loved the next section and even relished the huge Pylon Climb up from Tomich.  The trail over from Glen Moriston was sublime and I was buzzing as I headed towards the close of the middle loop.  As if trying to atone for its earlier misdemeanours, my mind orchestrates the smartest, most pro thing I've ever done - I phone ahead from the top of the hill outside Fort Augustus to order a Chinese - "could I have that beef noodle thing that's really salty, yep, 30 minutes".  I raid the Londis again just before closing, collect and smugly inhale my Chinese and I’m back on the road in less than 15 minutes.  I'd phoned Rach too, only to find I'd forgotten how to speak when she answered.  I mumbled something about noodles and 4 days and hung up - my attempt to reassure more likely to have raised her concern.  I already know in the back of my mind that after 16 hours of riding so far today, I’ll be riding through the night. 

I roll smoothly along the Great Glen Way, at about 10pm I suddenly think I better check my Wahoo battery. 1%. Fuck. Idiot. I save the ride so far whilst I faff with a battery pack. The rest of the ride is a mismatch of recordings across phone and Wahoo - Alan may choose to just disqualify me rather than try and decipher it. 

With darkness comes seriously unknown territory for mind and body – now approaching 20 hours into the 4th day of riding with a cumulative total of less than eight hours sleep.  Having tethered my mind in Glen Affric it was time to set it free again, and it concocted the most incredible scenes.  

For a while I rode as a family and I was different members of the family at different points – sometimes the mother or father, shepherding the others and confidently leading the way, sometimes one of the children merely following blindly with total, meek trust in the vision of the adult ahead.  I spent a lot of time riding just with one other person, but the person seemed to constantly morph between different friends, riding pals and family members.  Sometimes I was one of those loved ones, riding along looking at Niall, willing him forwards.  In my more lucid moments I would reflect on the sections we had just ridden, then catch myself… I’m the only one here.  

I wondered if this was a construction or manifestation of everyone who supported me, cared about me or who had been texting, watching my dot and willing me on.  Or just insanity.  Either way, these experiences were far from traumatic or unnerving – they were comforting and made me feel safe and content despite clearly being in a vulnerable state. 

I thought about my daughter a lot. I remembered when we first brought her home and she would only sleep on one of our chests - we'd do shifts, two hours each. It felt like the most important job in the world to stay awake when it was my turn. I could feel her on me as I was riding, keeping me awake.  Later, I was annoyed with a woman who wouldn’t leave me alone. I don't know who she was but she designed the West Highland Way to be all uphill and bumpy and was revelling in my inability to ride it, ridiculing me. 

At Kinlochleven I realised I might not make 4 days. I'd been struggling to ride anything technical in the dark in my fatigued state and had made a few mistakes.  I felt like I was riding around with the brakes on bumping into things, moving so slowly I was struggling to orient myself on the line on the map.  The devil's staircase climb went on forever. At the top I had a nosebleed and less than three hours left.

But with the morning sun comes a kind of renewal.  I throw myself and my bike down the notorious last real descent then blast the last two climbs as though it is an XC race. My heart rate won't go over 130 and I can't eat or drink but I’m flying. No idea where the power came from.

Dawn atop the Devil's Staircase brings a kind of renewal

I finished with 14 minutes to spare.

Alan was waiting to welcome me at the finish.  He talks with the coherence of a person who has slept last night (and the three nights prior) and asks complicated questions like how am I feeling.  Thankfully Kerry was there too, 25 minutes further into same acclimatisation and overwhelming realisation of what we had just done.  She generously coaxes me towards reality whilst I work out how to stand up straight again and give all my focus to trying to get off my bike.  

She describes how an image of me had been taunting her as her own mind unravelled on the run in to Tyndrum – in Kerry’s version of near-insanity I was sitting on her shoulder just waiting to sprint past her at the finish.  

It's a mad thing we've just done to ourselves.

Kerry looking ready to go again, me wondering how the fuck I get off this thing (photo by Alan Goldsmith)

Back to Alan, he called me "a dark horse", then apologised if that suggested he had underestimated me.  It summed up why this race has captivated me - it's the humble masterpiece of a man with an infectious passion for biking in Scotland.  No egos, no brands.  It's the recognition that anyone can turn up and put down a ride on this but at the same time, the best riders in the world are just happy to finish.  Just look to Miron Golfman's collapse with 10 miles to go to see how hard they push.  

Andrew returned to the finish area shortly after, two hours into his reintegration to reality and looking as fresh as the day he started after a shower and change of clothes; he’d been slower than his previous efforts but exuded a deep contentedness nonetheless.  Third time is a charm, clearly.

Your body, like your mind, begins to unravel in these events.  I finish with swollen feet, horrendous cankles, weird big knobbly knees, a painfully ulcered mouth and I can’t feel most of my fingers.  My face is bloated and one eye seems to be infected (not helped by the presence of a contact lens I thought I had removed two nights prior).  To steal a quote from a friend that made me smile a few times on the trail, by the finish your undercarriage may resemble a chorizo omelette (boke). 

A final, self-indulgent nod to the chip on my shoulder.  As a keen reader I’m often drawn to stories of historical hardship, overcoming adversity and the incredible human capacity for endurance and survival.  But this is so far from those stories that it’s almost offensive to share the same terminology.  This isn’t suffering, I chose to do this to myself.  It’s the absolute pinnacle of privilege to engage with something difficult, safe in the knowledge that you either complete it or choose to give up and just return to your regular, happy life either way.  We spend thousands of pounds on equipment and thousands of leisure-hours practicing our hobby so that we can engage in this folly and it’s all, ultimately, just biking, camping and eating a lot.  People have asked me if it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever done, but it can’t be, because at no point in those four days did I wish to be doing anything other than riding the Highland Trail.  For me, turning up to a job you hate, or a social event you’re dreading, or even putting the bins out when you’re totally knackered are all vastly more difficult than the Highland Trail.

Still, what a journey it was, the (mostly) calm, understated execution of an ambitious plan.

I’m fucking stoked.

Tyndrum Fashion Week with Andrew and Ben (who I never saw on the trail but finished just behind) 

(photo by Alan Goldsmith)

Finisher's meal courtesy of the Real Food Cafe - Inside I'm dancing, I just don't have the energy to show it!

(photo by Alan Goldsmith)