The Inaugural Highland Trail Race
At 10.00am on 25th May, riders taking part in the inaugural Highland Trail Race rolled off the start in Tyndrum, Scotland, ready to tackle 430 miles of West Highland Way; a route that would see them passing through a shopping list of Scottish trail riding fixtures, from estate tracks, singletrack & heather, to river crossings, bogs and bothies.
The race was the brainchild of mtb endurance racer Alan Goldsmith, who had used the trails in preparation for his successful attempt at the Colorado Trail race in 2012, having decided it was simply too good a route to keep to himself. With an eye for minimising impact to the local environment, Alan set an entrant limit of around 25, with each rider to be entirely self supported with no outside assistance allowed. Under these rules, entrants were only allowed to purchase from normally open establishments, so for example, should a rider be lucky enough to pedal past home, there would be no chance of popping in for a sleep or cup of tea! With all but one racer carrying GPS SPOT devices the race could be tracked on www.trackleaders.com/highland13 allowing race supporters to see where riders were at all times.
On the appointed day, 28 mostly nervous racers set off from the village hall in Tyndrum for 27 miles of the West Highland Way to Kinlochleven in glorious sunshine. From near the back I could see eventual race winner Aidan Harding (London) disappear around the first corner with Phil Simcock (Ramsbottom) right behind. I was not to see them again! The first two hours passed by easily, and I spent time riding with Arno Minner (Germany) to Kings House and onto the first big climb of the Devil's Staircase. The trail was very busy with day walkers and more laden walkers who were walking the whole 95 miles to Fort William, so care was needed.
Descending the Devil's Staircase was not much quicker than climbing, the water bars always looked the right size to grab my wheel and send me over the handlebars. Towards the bottom I was caught by Bryan Dawson (Glasgow) who had lost his GPS in the first few miles and returned to find it. In Kinlochleven a number of riders were sitting on the ground in the sunshine consuming their purchases from the local Co-Op. I was not rushing to stay with these riders as I had a slipping seatpost issue and an increasingly vocal niggling knee problem. Riding up a steep climb immediately after leaving Kinlochleven took me up to Mamore Lodge and onto Loch Eilde Mor along pleasantly improving tracks, where, 36 miles in, a knee deep river crossing allowed the chance for a welcome cool-down.
The next 4 miles mostly consisted of bog and bothies (is that a Scottish folk band name waiting to happen?), but thankfully the trail returned to good tracks after reaching Loch Treig and fairly quickly I was up at Corrour and onto the SYHA hostel at Loch Ossian. Unfortunately neither seatpost nor knee issues were getting better, so in the knowledge that it was a long way to the next realistic stopping place I decided to stay the night and bail. The hostel was full but I was lent a tent by the kindly warden and managed to catch up with fellow competitor Oliver Webb who was already there and settled in. Oliver is the brains behind DMO Frameworks and had built his own singlespeed frame which he was riding. Having already met Oliver at Bespoked Bristol on recently, it was certainly a serendipitous catch-up.
While we were talking to the excellent warden (she did not charge us for camping or the loan of the tent, and she gave us a brandy!) another rider Andy Farish (Denver CO) showed up. He had ridden 8 miles following the route in the wrong direction before realising his error. The figure of 8 course splits and meets up at Kinlochleven and he had continued towards Fort William losing 2 hours.
Andy had an early night and was up at 4.30 on Sunday to chase down the other riders over the Corrieyairick Pass, which is the highest point on the route. Oliver had a steadier start and retired the following day in Fort Augustus. I returned to Tyndrum by train to discover a second retiree of Steve Wilkinson (Newcastle) who had a bad fall on a descent and was also out of the race. Steve hiked out of the valley and hitched a lift to Inverness where he needed 2 hours of facial surgery and stitches to repair the damage. Heal quickly Steve.
Checking as best I could on a dodgy wi-fi reception I found out that Aidan Harding and Phil Simcock were already near Ullapool and almost half way round the course with Mark Goldie (Benson, Oxfordshire) in pursuit and the rest of the field scattered across the Highlands. Phil’s race was about to come to an end with rear derailleur problems and a malfunctioning GPS leaving Aidan in a strong lead. A number of other riders also retired between Fort Augustus and Strathpeffer near Inverness for various mechanical or body failures.
The run into Ullapool followed by the Fisherfield crossing into Torridon was billed as some of the hardest terrain the race would cover. Mark Goldie had a fall leading to his eventual retirement and Ian Barrington (Brecon) reported "Fisherfield was utterly punishing. A vast nothingness filled with rocks, pain and suffering" on his Twitter account. This may have been tough, but Ian who was running 6th in the early stages rode strongly and long into the night to climb to 4th, graduating to second after Mark’s retirement thanks to a 41.5 hour stint with just 1.5 hours of sleep outside Camban bothy. Hard man!!
Aidan Harding did not sleep in the last 31 hours of his ride finishing in a time of 3 days, 2 hours and 20 minutes, followed by Ian Barrington over 11 hours later. Both Aidan and Ian were riding single-speed bikes, quite remarkable over this distance and the rough nature of the course to beat geared riders so convincingly (Mark Goldie was also on a single-speed). Just after midnight Alan Sheldon (Matlock) rolled in 3rd. These three were the only riders to break 4 days.
As Tuesday rolled on 5 more riders arrived at the finish and approaching 2am on Wednesday morning Greg May, Tom Sap and Arno Minner arrived in Tyndrum having covered over 100 miles from Camban bothy. The final finisher was Andy Farish at just before 10am on Friday to break 6 days. Of the 28 starters only 15 completed the route and subsequently finishers and non finishers alike have been on social media saying just how tough, and how beautiful, this race has been. Many thanks to Alan Goldsmith for arranging this excellent ride.
1 Aidan Harding London 3d2h15m 2 Ian Barrington Brecon 3d13h22m 3 Alan Sheldon Matlock 3d14h06m 4 Rob Wixey Chepstow 4d0h39m =5 Mike Toyn Staveley 4d3h45m =5 Alan Goldsmith Swindon 4d3h45m 7 Philip Richmond Sheffield 4d9h10 est. 8 Daniel Jessee Atlanta, USA 4d10h40m =9 Greg May Manchester 4d15h50m =9 Tom Sap Brussels, Belgium 4d15h50m =9 Arno Minner Munich, Germany 4d15h50m 12 Gian Liesch Konolfingen, Switzerland 5d0h10m 13 Dave Kane Glossop 5d0h17m 14 Gareth Clutton Blyth 5d0h55m 15 Andy Farish Denver, USA 5d23h46m