Jade is BACK with her Highland Trail 550 journey, no spoilers, but this is worth a read! Find out how she faired on this intrepid adventure as one of only a handful of people to have ever finished the HT550 on a Gravel bike!
Words by Jade Field and Pictures by Annie LE.
It took me over five hours to limp down from Fisherfields to Poolewe, and as I hobbled along, pushing my bike and barely able to put any weight on my left ankle, between heavy bouts of tears I decided that I would give up cycling. I was tired and hormonal and it seemed completely logical at that moment that I couldn’t finish the Highland Trail, and therefore I should just give up cycling because I was rubbish. The tears were not due to the shooting pain in my ankle anytime I put weight on it, they were because I was utterly convinced I was going to have to scratch. I had spent the months since signing up hoping I would finish, and not feeling very sure I could, but it wasn’t until that moment that I realised how much finishing actually meant to me. On that painful and slow descent I realised that I really, really wanted it. I have never felt like I am good enough to be on the start line of anything, and I wasn’t sure if I could cope with those feelings been proved right.
The first four days of the race had passed in a blur of beautiful views, incredible trails and exceptional village stores and cafe stops. The journey north had been very enjoyable and mostly rideable, and I had happily bumped into other racers every few hours or so. I made it to Fort Augustus on the first night just in time for dinner at the Chinese Restaurant. Spotting all the bikes piled outside and realising I would be getting a hot meal after all was a real high point! The Ben Alder climb and descent on day one was incredible and I actually quite enjoyed the path of 1000 puddles on day two.
I rolled into Contin Stores on day two to find Annie (2021’s winner and the only person to have ridden the Highland Trail in winter, with her camera – she’s making a Women of HT550 22 film!), Steezy’s very own Taylor and Vedangi (a bikepacking legend who I’d been following on instagram and was very happy to meet in person) along with some other dot watchers, and gave them all a long and impassioned speech about how I’d just bought the last two macaroni pies and how macaroni pies were the absolute best, to find on my first bite that they were actually scotch pies. I just about managed to force them both down and headed back into the shop for some extra snacks where I immediately found that the macaroni pies had been restocked. On the Highland Trail the highs are very high, and the lows are very low!
Bealach Horn was another literal and figurative high point – I couldn’t believe how stunning the views were, every direction was spectacular although the bog I had to wade through was less than ideal. It was certainly worth the hikeabike! I encountered my first proper river crossing at the top, and had quite a panic over it. I spent a good amount of time walking up and down trying to decide where would be safest to cross, and nearly slipped in a few times while crossing. I was later assured by the locals that the river wasn’t high or dangerous at all. We don’t get much practise with river crossings in Yorkshire!
The rollercoaster costal road took me to Drumbeg Stores, where I enjoyed a cup of tea, lots of cake and a resupply, as well as the company of quite a few other racers. The owner of Drumbeg Stores very kindly opens up out of hours for Highland Trail racers, one of many things which makes the race so magical. Sadly I did not make it to Lochinver during opening hours of the pie shop. The route winds its way through some of the more remote areas of Scotland, so shops, pubs and cafes were in short supply throughout. Whenever there was an opportunity to stop inside and get hot food I jumped on it, regardless of what time of day it was.
Heading South the route gets much more technical and un-ridable, especially with the ground being exceptionally wet this year. I’d been pre-warned about the unrideable Ledmore Traverse, but quite enjoyed it first thing in the morning after camping next to the Suileag Bothy. I had popped my head in at 11pm but decided to camp outside rather than disturb the two people sleeping inside – I assumed they were other racers and didn’t want to ruin the little amount of sleep they’d probably be getting. After four hours of walking I washed the bog off my sandals, sped (sort of) along the road to Oykel Bridge and enjoyed the beautiful and rideable stretch of offroad to Ullapool. On the single track into Ullapool I managed to fall off my bike into a gorse bush and get thoroughly spiked, right in front of a lovely lady who assured me I had very luckily fallen into the softer species of gorse! I rewarded myself with a huge dinner at the pub and lots of faffing time while chatting with some lads doing the NC500.
That afternoon saw me tackling the coffin road. On the initial grassy climb I was genuinely worried about falling back all the way down to the bottom if I slipped, it was that steep! But it was a good section of hikeabike and I experimented with walking barefoot and gripping on with my toes on some of the more muddy and slippery sections. Unfortunately the top was very boggy and the hikeabike continued for a lot of the descent, but I was soon pedalling again as I made my way to Loch Na Sheallag.
I made it to the Loch just as the sun set, and bumped into fellow racers Loreto and Brian. I saw Loreto on and off most days until she sadly had to scratch, even though we didn’t really ride together it was nice knowing she was about and occasionally overtaking her or being overtaken. I’d been really worrying about the Loch crossing after hearing that sometimes it’s chest height, so I was happy to watch Brian cross first and have some company just in case I did fall in. He assured me it was only crotch deep, so I swapped my bib shorts for knickers and took my bags and bike across in two trips before stripping off completely for a quick swim/wash. I camped on the beach that night and it was idyllic.
The next morning the trail soon became too boggy to ride before turning into single track which was too steep to ride, and the pain in my ankle started, bringing me to the five hours of misery and my decision to give up cycling for good.
I was having such a low moment (can a moment last hours?) I couldn’t even enjoy the absolutely stunning scenery, but on the way down from Fisherfields I spotted Annie with her camera. She asked how I was, and in response to my quite grumpy ‘my ankle has gone, I can’t walk and I can’t really ride’ she responded ‘oh, do you have some painkillers?’. I had completely catastrophised my situation to be the end of my race and Annie’s response helped realign my thoughts onto a different track – maybe this was not the end after all. I manged to ride some of the single track and all of the road into Poolewe and headed straight to the cafe, where I found my friend Carl. He had been struggling all race with charging issues and the after effects of Covid and I’d managed to catch him up. I had not been expecting to see him after the start line as he is usually way faster than me! A few hours and lots of tea and food later, we got back on the bikes and continued onwards. My ankle still hurt, but nowhere near as bad after the rest, and mentally I was quickly heading back up to the high I’d been on up until that morning.
Having the company of my usual riding buddy really helped, especially as we were both suffering from swollen feet and sore ankles, and we cheered each other up as we struggled around the Tollie Path moaning about how much walking hurt. I decided to stop early for the night at Kinlochewe so I could rest my ankles, and Carl decided to do the same to try and get his electronics charged. It was really hard to force myself to stop rather than push on, but I was hoping that the enforced stop would result in enough recovery that I could finish the route before Sunday. Luckily my body decided to go along with this, and after a long and relaxed meal at the pub, a very needed shower and an early night with some extra sleep, I felt quite improved. Unfortunately Carl’s feet had gotten worse overnight, and he had left his helmet at the pub, so I left him in the morning to wait for the pub to open without a second thought. Sorry Carl!
The Torridon singletrack was perfect, and as everything became more rideable and the day heated up I felt so happy to be riding my bike. A few hours later Carl sped past me, also in very high spirits. He had perked up considerably, retrieved his helmet, and was going to crack on to Fort Augustus. Again I thought that’d be the last I saw of him till the finish. I bumped into Cat at the Inverinate petrol station and we sat on the ground and enjoyed a late lunch in the shade. We spent the afternoon and evening riding and hiking just in sight of each other as we made our way up Glen Affric, occasionally pulling alongside each other for a chat before separating out again. The rideable but long climbs before Fort Augustus tired me out, but I had ticked off enough mileage that as I wiggled into my sleeping bag I felt confident that I could finish the next day, as long as my ankle held up!
I rolled into Fort Augustus the next morning to find Carl sitting on a bench, waiting for the shop to open, so he could buy a battery bank! I left him again, and really struggled with the next section of the route. The canal path to Fort William was so incredibly boring I actually started feeling like I might not be able to finish. This section of the route was probably the easiest 30 miles physically, but mentally it really wore me down. And there wasn’t even a headwind! I spent most of the race thinking about a mythical ‘next time’, but Alan, I’m begging you, if I sign up again please send the route anywhere but along that canal! What felt like a lifetime later I pulled into the Costa in Inverlochy and bought an obscene amount of food to revive myself.
Cat rolled up as I was enjoying my third or fourth course, and we soon headed out to join the West Highland Way together, hoping that it wouldn’t be much over 8 hours till we were finishing. As we started the climb Carl caught up to us and said that everything he had was out of battery so could he ride with us to the finish. The West Highland Way between Fort William and Kinlochleven was beautiful, the sun was shining, and the hikers heading in the opposite direction were very kindly happy to say hello and let us pass. With every pedal stroke I could feel myself inching closer to that elusive emotional high that I get when I realise I am actually going to finish something really difficult, and I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in that feeling and ride it all the way to the end.
We had a really good pavement picnic in Kinlochleven before climbing up to the top of the Devil’s Staircase and revelling in the view over Glen Coe. The end was well and truly in sight and the aforementioned emotional high had well and truly kicked in. I was also starting to feel a little sad that it would soon be over, I hadn’t experienced the post-adventure blues starting mid-adventure before!
We bumped into Gail and Bruce at Kingshouse, who had very kindly come to cheer us on till the end, and Annie who was filming on the climb after Glen Coe Ski Resort. Just as we were discussing the possibility of finishing before dark I realised that pedalling my bike wasn’t doing anything for me. The spring in my freehub had broken and it had stopped engaging. I was 10 miles from the finish.
I’m not a runner, but 10 miles is run-able.
I could not believe how lucky I was! This could have happened to me at any point on the race, and would have completely ruined my chances of finishing, but I was only 10 miles from the finish! I could limp and hobble and drag my bike 10 miles to get over that finish line, and have plenty of time to spare before the cut off. A look at the remaining elevation profile confirmed my optimism – just less than half was downhill, so I could roll no problem, and the last big climb looked steep enough I’d have been walking anyway. So less than 10 miles of walking. I told Cat and Carl to press on and I’d see them at the finish, but Carl was DNF’d anyway by then and Cat was worried about the sounds her bike had started making, so we slowly made our way to the finish together. I alternated between jogging while pushing my bike and perfecting my scooting technique.
The sun set as we rejoined the gravel path to Tyndrum that we had started our journeys on six and a bit days ago, and Chief Dotwatcher Andy popped up on his bike as he’d decided to ride up and see what was taking us so long. As we descended to the finish (it truly was all downhill from that point) a car stopped on the road across the valley, and cheers, whoops and shouts of encouragement followed us to the end. Incredibly embarrassingly this turned out to be my parents, who had driven up from Cambridge as a surprise to see me finish, and had spent the day hanging out at the Real Food Cafe chatting to everyone and being told by Alan that they needed to get me a full-sus for my birthday!
Despite the time there was a crowd of supporters and riders at the finish, and the enormity of what I had done slowly sunk in as I received hugs and well-wishes and we excitedly talked about the race until the midges became unbearable. Annie and Huw very kindly (and I’m going to assume regrettably for them) offered me and Carl their spare van to sleep in, and soon we were asleep, having not had the energy to sort out any of our stuff or find a shower (I’m sure we smelt disgusting and I really hope they managed to air out the van!).
The next morning, after finding a shower and putting on clean clothes for the first time in a week, I found myself sitting in the sun outside the Real Junk Food Cafe, scoffing my free finishers breakfast and chatting with the other finished riders. I felt a kinship with these people, most of whom I’d only met the week before. We shared something special. Although everyone had experienced their own unique ride, with different challenges and rewards, we had chosen to push out of our comfort zones and test ourselves against the epic adventure that is the Highland Trail. It wasn’t really about racing each other, it was about exceeding our own limits, overcoming our own mental challenges and getting the best personal time possible. I’m hoping to ride with some of the incredible women I raced against soon, either at another race or for fun.
The Highland Trail is truly exceptional, I read so many blogs pre-race that described it as lifechanging, and they were right. I think I will be back for more someday. I didn’t really think I was a serious enough cyclist to be racing the Highland Trail, and I felt like I didn’t deserve to be on the start line when I got there, but I managed it, and now I have to come to terms with seeing myself differently. I finished one of the hardest self-supported off-road bikepacking races in the world, in a pretty decent time, and I need to learn to remember that when the imposter syndrome kicks in.
P.S – Notes on controversial kit choice
I was the third person ever to finish the Highland Trail race on a gravel bike. When I signed up for the Highland Trail Alan advised me to do it on a mountain bike, but at the time my mountain bike was really cheap, rubbish and old, gave me back pain after 15-ish miles and I wasn’t at all confident riding it or that it could make it all the way round. I felt a lot more confident about giving it a go on my gravel bike, and I rode a lot of gnarly technical singletrack and mountain bike trails, including the Lakeland 200 and the Peaks 200, as training. I also made my gravel bike as mountain-bikey as possible with the biggest tires and lowest gearing I could get. If you are a competent mountain biker, a mountain bike is absolutely the better option for racing the Highland Trail. I’m not a competent mountain biker, so I figured I’d be walking loads of the ascents and descents anyway, regardless of what bike I was on, and it worked out okay for me!
I may or may not be the only person ever to race the Highland Trail wearing sandals, and they were a massive sucess! Unlike my choice in bike I would definitely recommend anyone doing any sort of off road race to join me in Sandal Club. But I will say that I wore them for loads of bikepacking trips and practised hikeabike-ing in them to make sure they would be comfy, not cause me any issues and that I’d stay warm. I had some waterproof socks to wear with them when the weather turned, and my feet always stay pretty warm even when soaked. I happily rode and hiked through any streams, rivers, lochs, bog, mud and puddles. I could easily rinse off the bog and mud and they dried really quick, so my feet didn’t have to stay in wet shoes and socks for six days straight. 10/10 would recommend!
A fantastic write up that seems to be a true reflection of your experiences. I completed the HT550 in 2021 and your story put me right back there, with the highs, lows and the extreme sense of achievement, even though there was nobody at the finish (it was 03.45) I smiled to myself, Job done.
I hope to read about your next challenges, but I’m not so sure about the sandals….. 😉👍
Great read Jade and well done for finishing this tough race
I’m really glad you keep doing really awesome rad things that I can live vicariously through.
I read it to Edie has a bedtime story so she has some awesome women to look up to.