Phil Simcock won the Highland Trail 550 race a few weeks ago. The 550 in the title refers to the length of the race, in miles (it’s more like 570 anyway). And it’s entirely off-road. Not all of it is rideable either. So as you can imagine, it’s taken him a long time to get these words down and there’s a lot of them, so we’ll be publishing his epic story in chapters.

Take it away Phil….

Day One

’Thirty second warning’ shouted out Alan Goldsmith, the event founder and organiser. This focused my attention as I stood at the start line of the Highland Trail 550. Best turn my Garmin on and load up the 560 mile route, although I knew the way for the first few hundred miles having taken part in the inaugural race last year. I was surrounded by 37 other competitors, who were all loaded and ready to go. I always find it interesting at the start of a bikepacking race, looking at the bikes and kit of other competitors, weighing up how much stuff everybody has and how they have strapped it to their bikes. This can be unnerving as you start to worry whether you are carrying too much or too little compared to everyone else. However, as I stood on the start line gazing around, I was confident that I had the right kit with me and the right amount of food.

The confidence was falsely provided by the simple fact that I was carrying more than last year. Whether that was right, I would soon find out. This year’s event has been extended by 120 miles to travel further north and into an area not blessed with many supermarkets, petrol stations or cafes. Carrying more food was the only way you could be confident that you could get round without going hungry.

The thirty seconds was up and everybody moved forward on Alan’s command, heading off on what promised to be 38 individual adventures. My intention was to take it easy for the first section, at least until Devils Staircase and hopefully catch up and have a natter with fellow competitors – 570 miles lay ahead of us, so I knew there was no need to rush. The initial few miles passes quickly enough and as we started the climb across Rannoch Moor Phil Clarke started to push ahead. I could see from his riding style that he was putting in some effort and he started to create a gap. There goes my easy start! I pushed on and decided to keep pace with Phil but didn’t feel the need to catch him as we still had over 550 miles to go. Steve Heading matched my pace as we started to pull away from the rest of the field. We climbed over Rannoch and down the fast rocky track into the Glencoe Valley. By the time we reached Devil’s Staircase, Steve and I were riding together and Phil was about 100 metres ahead. This was turning out to be a tough start to the race. The top of the staircase, which is a reasonable hike, came quicker than I expected and I was soon enjoying the fast rocky descent down into Kinlochleven. Last year I remember riding this section at high speed with Mark Goldie, as if we were in a downhill race. This year I decided to be a little more cautious – it must be my age.

The descent was over quick enough and then the route rises eastwards out of Kinlochleven staying reasonably flat as it follows a double track along Loch Eilde Mor, until you reach the first river crossing. Phil had continued to push hard up the climb and I decided that the pace was too high, so eased up and let the gap extend. If anyone could keep that pace going over 570 miles, then it would be an outstanding performance. As I reached the river crossing, I caught up to Phil as he was negotiating his way across. I decided to try and keep my socks and shoes dry for as long as I could, so  started to cross the river in bare foot. It isn’t a deep or long crossing, but it is full of rocks and quite slippy.

I had made it safely across and still had dry shoes and socks – result.  However, the dry feet lasted five minutes as on the other side of the river, there is a vague singletrack that crosses marshland with numerous streams that cut across the path that make continuous riding impossible. This is a frustrating section as no sooner are you on the bike riding, when you have to dismount to cross a stream or bog. Surprisingly after Phil’s strong start, he decided to rest at the river crossing and take on some food. Steve and I pushed on as quick as we could over this frustrating terrain. The route eventually turns into a double track making the miles easier to cover. Steve and I were generally riding together, with one person moving ahead and then be caught and passed by the other as we progressed.

Speed was still reasonably high and by the time we reached the Corrieyairack Pass I had pulled away from Steve. The majority of the climb up to the pass is not too steep, with lots of water bars across the track which needed to be negotiated carefully to avoid rear wheel punctures. At the head of the pass the track rises steeply with a number of switchbacks. At this point I realised that I had not been eating or drinking nearly enough, as I was keeping food back for the next day. This was now affecting my performance. I stopped to have a gel and a drink and noticed that Steve had now caught me up. We reached the summit of the pass together and then descended towards Fort Augustus at high speed, trying not to be thrown off the bike by drainage channels that just seemed to appear from nowhere.

Fort Augustus could possibly be the only place that I could stock up on food until day 3, so on the approach to the town I thought carefully what I wanted to eat and buy. Last year I spent too much time here and also ate too much, making the next hour or so quite uncomfortable. I headed straight for the local mini market whilst Steve headed off for some fish and chips. I was sensible and purchased a chicken wrap, chocolate milk shake, chocolate covered peanuts and a bottle of water – all good protein and carb food with a bit of sugar. I also loaded up with a chicken sandwich that I intended to have for breakfast and some flapjacks to replace the ones I has eaten on the way.

As I was about to head off, I bumped in to Phil Clarke, who had just arrived. We had a brief chat and he was planning to stay in Fort Augustus. This surprised me as he was riding quite strong at the start of the race, however I assumed that the quick tempo had taken more out of him that he expected. I wished him good luck and headed off. Little did I realise that the rest of the race would be ridden alone.

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Strath Rannoch (Photo courtesy of Rich Seipp)

My plan was to get as far as Contin, which was 150 miles in and about 50 miles from Fort Augustus. It was now about 8 o’ clock so I expected to reach Contin at about 1am. The route takes in a number of steep climbs that are all rideable, with some sections of road. The only hike a bike section expected was along Loch Ma Stac, where the route follows the shore of the Loch and is covered in large rocks and boulders. However, the water level this year was very low and the exposed base of the loch edge was less rocky making the majority of the traverse rideable.

As I approached Contin, a light shower started  and I hoped that this wasn’t going to turn into a heavy downpour. Having to bivvy in the rain on the first night wasn’t part of the plan! I headed in to the forest next to Strathpeffer and bivvyed in the same place as last year, which was also the same place we had set up the Team JMC pits for the Strathpuffer 24 hour race, for the past two years. This year I remembered to remove the pine cones from where I slept!

TO BE CONTINUED….