Friday, April 7, 2017

Day 5 (slow drag)

Shortly after I got going on the morning of day 5 I tipped over and hit the ground pretty hard.  Knowing that I was not going to make my self-imposed finish time goal, hurting a bit and surprised from the crash and just general exhaustion I now lowered my expectations and mentally let go of the race.  In retrospect this was the end of my ‘race’.  My sense of urgency to push on moderated from high to medium.  From this point onward I didn’t take as many pictures, I stopped more and more, and in short I was cooked and just riding out the miles to the finish.  The weather was perfect, the scenery fantastic and basically I took a mental deep breath and transitioned to a ‘I-am-on-vacation’ mode and proceeded to enjoy the remaining miles from a more relaxed perspective.

I soon arrived at Kinlochewe and kicked myself once again for pulling up short the night before as I realized I could have spent the night at the small Kinlochewe Hotel. 

Gurr, Missed staying in this cool little hotel by about 2 hours…..

On the other hand I had gotten a fairly good night, under the stars in the Highlands, so maybe that was better.  

Took a rest inside this little bothy, and unlike in this web pic, the sun was out, the day presently warm, the legs tired and even though it was only 9:00am I actually took a short nap on the floor of this cute little bothy.  Its more of a day rest hut than sleeping hut. The sun and big windows had warmed up the small room, I easily could have stayed 2 hours but after 30 min I still had enough ‘race’ in me to move on.  

Soon I was riding again with Karl Booth (he had gotten a room that night at the Kinlochewe Hotel, slept in a bit and seemed to be pretty chipper) across the fast & fun Achnashellach singletrack.  Once again wishing I had bigger tires with a bit more traction.  By the gate at the end of the steep technical section Karl was gone and I made no attempt to catch back up.

The next 10 or so miles to Strathcarron were flat and easy pedaling along a sealed country road. Many times I find these type sections 'easy road riding' the hardest going as I tend to let up, relax, get sleepy, start to feel each ache and pain etc.  By the time I rolled up to the intersection at Strathcarron I needed a break. Got a nice lunch, one of my few real meals, even had pie for desert.  I tried to sit off by myself as I am sure I stank a bit but was treated nicely and left refueled from a meal and the little post office, I was now somewhat refreshed.

Strathcarron Hote & Restaurant

I leisurely made my way on to Dornie arriving about 4:30.  Took pictures of the 'tourist' castle and then sat next to water and ate some snacks from the post office. I remember being tired, content and in no hurry to get anywhere, yup I was feeling the vacation mode….

The route passes by the Eilean Donan Castle

Soon after leaving Dornie the route returned to the backcountry and does so with a steep sharp hike-a-bike climb.  The climb got me going again plus I wanted to finish off any singletrack before dark.

Cool ruin right before the hike-a-bike begins.

I passed by the Camban bothy around 8:40 pm but couldn’t quite bring myself to stop.  There was still daylight and I pressed on for 3 more hours.. At 12pm shart I camped up right next to the road in some lonely pine trees.  It had been a long, slow 20 hour day with only 75 miles to show for it.  At this point in the race I was still putting in the hours but really just riding out the remaining miles and taking in the sights.  A little disappointment going from a 'race' perspective but 100% satisfied from a vacation point of view.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

Day 4 (short, strikingly beautiful & very hard)

The 4th day was overall probably the most spectacular day from a constant WOW factor.  But was also one of the hardest days from a motivation point of view.  Up and going by 4:30 am, it had been a less than restful night, buggy, interruptions from other racers, little recovery, just a bad night overall.  And to rub salt in the wound about 2.5 miles into day 4 I pass by a nice modern Bothy with a bikepacking bike leaning up against the wall.  Later I would learn I had this bothy pegged once in my pre-race prep as a potential stop but had lost track of it and neglected to place it on my final cheat sheet map.  Ahh, if I had only rode out my planned 100 miles for day 3 I would have stumbled upon it and had a perfect camp with 1 fellow racer—if I ever get a re-do I hope the route and timing takes me to this specific bothy (humm, does this sound like good excuse, I mean reason to go again?).

Schoolhouse Bothy (lifted this pic from the web)

Side note; I never hit a bothy at the right time to spend the night, always to early or to slow to reach one.  I did spend about 30 min in one the following day, took a short nap under a sunny window all the while wishing I could stay much much longer….

Shortly after I the missed Bothy I was joined by the occupant who had the good fortune to spend a solo night there, Karl Booth.  Karl was back to finish the HT 550 in 2016 after a missed attempt the yr before.  Karl is a younger, stronger rider but we did spend some time together working our way thru some tricky sidehill tracks and on to Ullapool.  A late grocery store breakfast and full re-supply in Ullapool and back on the route about 1 hour later.  After stopping for 1 hour, eating and drinking all I could get down, I could tell that I was not fully recovered.  Normally this would have been upsetting but I was still taking in all the fantastic Highland scenery, enjoying unusually good weather and basically was quite content to ride along in a ‘fast tour’ frame of mind.  

A long steep climb and I had a reached this high point with great view.  I tried to take a quick 360 deg video but had the start/stop settings backwards and shot 30 sec of my feet—but you get the idea with this still shot.

The route drops down and across the Dundonnell River then up and back down to the head valley above Loch na Sealga.  Again I was being wow’ed, almost overwhelmed by the terrain.

Old cottage on the way to Loch na Sealga

I rolled by the Shenevall Bothy at 3pm, again wishing my timing was different, although this particular bothy was busy with backpackers

Inside of Shenevall Bothy

Moving on after a quick tour of Shenevall I arrived at the “potentially dangerous river crossing” mentioned in the route discretion, the same one that in other years proved a huge stumbling block with high dangerous water.  I had been stressing about this river crossing ever since I began serious HT 550 prep. 

Well for my HT 550 it was all cake, ha a sunny day, shallow, still water, maybe almost knee deep at best  

On the far side, putting the socks and shoes back on

Pushing the bike across the rock, on route along the beach at the tip of Loch na Sealga.

Around 4pm I was climbing away from Loch na Sealga and starting to mentally drag a bit.  There was a bit of hike-a-bike, trackleader says about 30 min for me, before the drop back down to the Duba Lock Causeway.

Nice trail after some hike-a-bike.  Plus size tires would have been way more fun in these type sections….

Causeway can be seen in the upper left

Causeway, after which the route heads to the far right and then hooks left and up a valley

Around 8:40pm I topped out above Letterewe Estate (

Looking down on Letterewe.  The route comes up the now closed road that was cut in just to build this estate. So this building now only has access by foot or boat if I understand correctly.

Hum, I wonder if they drove that truck on the left in or ferried it in.

The route skirts along the edge of the main buildings and shoots off to some tricky sidehill singletrack.  Once I reached this section, apparently an old ‘walking postman path’ dark was closing in and I became a bit concerned about crashing and walked the bike more and more.  This was also one of the few times I got ‘bogged’ with a bad line choice and had to wade thru some mucky muck to get back on track.  The hope was to reach the end of this 'postman path' before camping but it was not to be. 

Only 60 miles in a long 18 hour day I was cooked and found a small hill top with a light breeze to keep the pesky Midges mostly at bay.  A short, hard day but in the end a very rewarding day….but I did sleep good this time.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Day 3 (HT 500 starts to bite back)

Day 3, have left planet earth for a few hours......

It was cold and damp when I woke the morning of day 3.  I had slept on the steps of a small building, wasn’t my best ever choice for stealth camp spot but got the job done. Heading out thru the mist and fog I felt lots of solitude even knowing other racers must be nearby.  The sealed road turned to dirt then to a rough two track.  Soon I was riding next to then above the Glen Golly River. 

Foot bridge across a tributary of the Geln Golly

A racer just a tad faster than I was could do a lot worse that to set up a 2nd day camp down in the shelter of a low meadow area, where route gets near this river.  

Above the Glen Golly, heading into the remotest (coolest?) part of the route

As I slowly climbed up to Lochan Segreach the going got steep, other racers began to roll by and the terrain and trail became single track to bushwhacking.  Not a section to attempt at night unless you like wasting massive amount of time and energy.  During the day this section is great fun as even in light mist and fog you can see enough to pick a reasonable line to follow, riding or hiking.  This section like many others is now deeply embedded in my ‘western US cowboy county memory’ as truly other-worldly. 

For a short time I felt I was on a different planet, ahh such memories….

After some hike-a-bike I shot down out of the rough backcontry, back down to rural highlands.

Once you pass thur these gate rocks you have returned to planet earth

In a couple of miles the route has passed me by the few homes and buildings of Achfary and up a steep climb, up to some unnamed saddle and on towards the coastline and Kylestrome then Drumbeg (got a snack there) and on along the coast to Lochinver (lots of resupply choices here)

Fun singletrack next to the Atlantic Ocean (when I at this picture I again realize I was not in peak race condition, carring about 10 extra lbs--and on day 3 I started paying the price)

As I moved along the coast line other racers came and went and for the first time since the start I talked and chatted with the few that were close to my pace. 

Singletrack that drops you right into Lochinver

After a fast resupply I was back by myself and found smooth sailing till just before Lochan Fada.  The trail hear was chunky and beyond my tired legs to ride.  I pushed my hardtail for what seemed like hours (Trackleaders says it was 3 hours) till I hit A835 and could remount and ride.  It was about 10pm and for the day I had around 77 miles and 17hr behind me.   

9:40pm, I had just finished pushing my rig down that shoreline,

I was now about spent and found it hard to fully appreciate the spectacular view, it had been frustratingly slow going the last 3 hours…..

The plan was to push on till I hit 100 miles for the day and then camp up.  At 92 miles I gave up and called it a day.  I picked what I thought would be a great camp spot but soon was fighting off Midges as I ate, cleaned up etc.  The next morning, in only 2.5 more miles, I would learn I had made a truly major blunder in not staying on plan and going for the full planned 100 miles…….as I write this report this gaff still bugs me almost a year later...ahhhhhhhh......

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Mike Hall

A few days ago Mike Hall died during the inaugural Indian Pacific Wheel Race in Australia.

We never met, we never raced at the same time but we raced some of the same events and exchanged a bit of forum talk.  I studied his bike prep intently and tried to emulate in my own way his hard core race strategies. Mike was a front runner and I mid pack at best. Once when Mike wrote some unexpectedly complimentary remarks about one of my upcoming races it made my day.

I don’t write this lightly but Mike was one of my few multi-day racer heroes. 

I have been away from this blog, pre-occupied with my current prep for the Tour of Idaho (moto event).  But Mike’s death has really made me reflect on my multi-day racing.  It’s made me realize that while busy with other things I am not done with multi-day bike racing.  Look for me to finish off the Highland race report, and in time post up future multi-day stuff.

Tailwinds forever more Mike.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Highland Trail 550, Day 2

Nice resort (I think), really caught my eye as I passed by on day 2

Day 2

I started my day with a short bit of bonus miles up the paved road I had woke up on, that smooth pave had me zoned out and not watching my GPS track.  Once I got back on route I climbed up to the wide open terrain around Loch ma Stac. 
There was some hike-a-bike across some marshy areas and along the shore line. 
Other than this I remember the rest of day 2 terrain as being roads, two track and quite a few short climbs, seems like only one required some pushing. Alan Goldsmith, the event organizer spent a few minutes riding and chatting with me as he passed by.  Alan was making up time after a too fast 1st day followed by a long sleep in.  Thanks once again Alan for a great route, one of the best multi-day races around, one that should be on everyone’s bucket list.

After some fast food resupply from the Contin Filling Station I got rained/hailed on.  I was ‘expecting’ to get rain during the race so I simply suited up and kept going.  Had I been a bit more in tune with the local weather I might have realized it was just a passing storm and not anything long lasting.  But rather than shelter up I just but my head down and paced on. 
The entire day was one long slow easy pace.  I did some extra miles by initially missing the café at the Oykel Bridge Hotel, needed to turn left after the bridge. 

I wasted some time getting a real meal at Oykel but enjoyed listing to all the other racers milling about.  The café is very in tune with the race and had set up the bar area to dine in for all of us stinky dirty racers.  Worked out good, when I left I could see the normal clientele watching us come and go out the main dining room windows.  I wonder what they thought of all the crazy bikepackers, hopefully one or two saw we were all having a good time…..
I finished up the second day after dark at tip of Loch Shin.  I was 220 miles into it and had made up some of my hoped for miles but not enough.  I was still about 15-20 miles shy of where had I hoped to be.  Also at 220 miles in I was basically done with the easy miles.  Up till now it had been relatively easy and fast, at least in comparison to what was coming.  Day 3 would be quite a bit more strenuous.  If I were to ever run this race again I would push much much harder on days 1 and 2.  I think for a ‘average’ racer like myself days 1 and 2 are where one should burn some matches and gain as many miles as possible. 

Monday, August 29, 2016

HT 550 Ride Report, Day 1

It begins...

The start was typical for a multi-day.  Low key, everyone checking out bikes and gear, riders and friends gathering at the start, lots of pictures, last minute questions, jokes about last year’s follies and then off we roll with some low key jockeying for position up the first hill. 

Within a few miles everyone will find their pace and settle in.  It’s always interesting how within the first few hours you can tell who you will most likely be seeing and possible riding with over next few days. 

I really enjoyed the first several hours, unlike many multi-days I was not really focused on my pace or effort.  Rather I just could not drink in enough of the scenery.  Every cottage, lake, stream, stone wall, old arched bridge made me think I had stepped into a post card.  I was giddy like a child on their birthday with lots of cake, ice cream and big boxes of presents.

Race wise day one is a ‘make miles’ day over mild, mixed terrain.  The first 100+ miles consist of rocky two track (everything is rocky in the Highlands), gravel roads,
some sweet bikeable flowy single track but no technical riding, that would come later.  Strategically there was only one objective on day 1.  I wanted to reach Fort Augustus (95 miles) in time to get some re-supply.  Other than that is was just ride steady and long, enjoy and get as far as I could go.

If I was to make notes to and comments to myself for a future race day 1 was like this:
·         First extended climb at mile 26 (a non-technical but steep gravel road climb from the valley floor up into the hills). This 1st real climb was where I realized my poor shifting was not just my imagination but really had gone south.  Once up the climb I remember being surprised to see small logging operations & trucks in the area.
·         Soft marshy area with disappearing trail as you approach and skirt the edge of Loch Ericht around mile 49.  Route stays above, to left of Benalder Cottage/bothy (I lost some time and effort thinking the trail would go to and on past the bothy)

·         Closed Café around 72 miles at Laggan Wolf Tracks Mountain Bike parking lot TH.  Closes at 5pm and I did not roll by till 6pm.  Might have possibly made the Café if I knew it was there and hadn’t stopped several times and adjusted [make worse] my derailleur.

·         The steep approach to Correyairack Pass about mile 86 was a huge surprise.  It shouldn’t have been as this is our Check Point 1 on Trackleaders.  But for some reason I had not picked up on it in my pre-race prep and was not expecting it till I saw it.  One of the few roads that had switchbacks vs a straight up is better approach.  Ha , still had to walk some of it. Anyway it’s quite an eye full on the approach and very intimidating when you are a bit tired and trying to make a re-supply cut off time.  This pass (not really that long) was particularly hard for me because I was mis-reading the time on my GPS clock by 1 or 2 hours and thought I was going to miss making the re-supply at Ft Augustus.  I had fiddled with my GPS and got it on 24 hr instead of 12 hr time.  I did not want to fiddle again and dump my track so the 24 hr clock threw me off several times on day 1 and again on the last day when I was really tired.
·         Ft Augustus at 95 miles.  I made the cut off, barely, and proceeded to made what I consider to be one of my biggest mistakes of the entire race.  I got to the only open restaurant a few minutes before closing and ordered a pizza.  Mistake you think?  Well a couple that was picking up their earlier order collected two trays of fish & chips.  I wanted to just reach out and snag their order it looked so good. Ahh, huge crispy golden fish fillets and perfect chips.  But my mind was locked into ordering a pizza and so I did.  Mostly because that’s what all the race reports had mentioned so it was in my mind to do so and also so I planned to eat some on the spot and slip the rest into a zip lock for a late night snack.  The pizza was not very good, never order a pizza right before closing, and even if it had been I can still see to this day that tray of perfect fish & chips…yes this mistake will be a lifelong regret……..If you do the race, order the F&C and let me know how they were.....

I wrapped up my 1st day at midnight with a bivy in the weeds on the side of the road, around 110 miles.  I had hoped to get 10-15 miles farther but considering my middling training effort that had produced a slightly overweight race engine, one with some extra padding around the middle I had no room to complain.  And it HAD been such a wonderful ride across the Highlands I was stoked for more.

Saturday, August 13, 2016

Highland Trail 550

Highland Trail 550 (My Birthday Present)

When I found out the 2016 Highland Trail 550 (HT) started on my 60th birthday and had scrutinized lots of the Scottish Highland pictures the die was cast, I was going.  Before I dive into my short, typically boring day-by-day account of my race let me detour and comment a bit on the HT verses some other multi-day races (CTR, AZT 300/750, Stagecoach 400 and TDR) I have had the pleasure of competing in.  The idea here is to encourage any US multi-day racers to add the HT to their bucket list!

Number one:
All told compared to the other major multi-day routes the HT probably has the most technical sections. Ha, I think it’s against Scottish nature to construct trails with mild grades, probably have to pay a tax or fine if a trail or old cart path has one to may switchbacks in it, straight up and straight down 'over the rocks we go' seems to be the required construction routine.  Actually I think Alan, the event organizer, simply went looking for fun, long descents and then figured a way to string them together regardless of required hike-a-bike in between. 
No this is not a technical section, just a pretty one.  Funny how the camera stayed tucked away when the pucker factor was in play...
Anyway all joking aside there are lots of hike-a-bike sections going both up, down and even flat plus many many rocky, semi-challenging descents, ie: lots of technical riding on this route.  But there are also miles and miles of mild Tour Divide type sections, paved sections and bike path cursing.  In the end, if you are inclined to some semi-‘enduro’ style sections the HT route will probably put the big smile on your face.  I should point out I am a technically modest rider at best and what is challenging for me will be much less so for many. Also you can look at pictures of my bike you will see that it is more of a TDR set up.  In retrospect I personally would have been a lot more confident on a light FS bike with larger tires and some of my gear carried in a backpack for a lighter front end, better balance and less seatbag sway in the back. 

Number two:
The Highlands are truly stunningly beautiful to this American bikepacker. 
The terrain and scenery was simply beyond expectations. I should point out that this was my first trip to Scotland and the weather was basically perfect.  Also what will be routine to many locals was utterly new and somewhat exotic to my eyes.  On the other hand backpackers and day walkers come from all over England and Europe to experience parts of the Highlands so it’s not just me being ‘new’ to the area.  You decide but just take a look at my typical tourist snapshots but also google up some better pictures and see for yourself.  If you have never been there and think you might want to do the HT, the scenery alone makes it worth the trip.

Number three:
The HT was easy for me to to finish compared to the say the AZT or CTR. 
Ha before all the HT naysayers jump in let me clarify.  The ‘2016’ HT was easy to finish because we had truly perfect conditions.  Just read the 2015 accounts to get a feel for how tough this exact same route is with more typical weather. Plus I rode a hard but not true 'race-pace' as I was simply not in shape to do so.

Anyway, every multi-day route has its challenges, from my mid-pack perspective:
The TDR is all easy resupply, non-technical but so so very long and so easy to go so very hard……beautiful in a different way from all the single track races………….
The AZT 300 has average to difficult resupply points, rocks, hike-a-bike, sometimes cold/snow and almost always sun/heat.  The 750 has the 300 plus 450 more miles of mostly high desert the dreaded Highline trail and for desert the Grand Canyon on foot.  All in all the 750 is probably the hardest route overall I have done.
The CTR single track is ‘mostly’ fast and flowy (Sergeants Mesa 2-track excepted) it has average resupply (with a one rather key ‘no-resupply’ section) and many times has afternoon lightning strikes and sometimes serious rain plus lots of high altitude climbing.  Rain and high altitude temps are one of my personal worry points.
The SC 400 has good re-supply, snow, sea, desert, wind, rain, sand plus interesting urban night life.  Such a unusual little fun route, I have done this one three years running……
The HT has plentiful resupply (at least during 9-5 hours), ridiculous easy easy easy water re-supply, lots of bothy’s to sleep in (if needed) and low elevation with mild temperatures overall.  If the rain is out of the picture like this year all that’s really left is how hard and fast you can push though the constant punchy steep climbs, the numerous hike-a-bike sections and how fast you can or are are willing to descend.  In short in 2016 with good weather the HT was all about pure/fun basic mountain bike skills and strength. Note: even with little to no rain there is still water everywhere by US standards, stream crossings, constant puddles, marshy areas etc so your feet could be wet much or most of the time.  And again least you think I don’t get-- it I did read the 2015 accounts—so if the HT route is on your radar screen-- for a more typical, 180 degree opposite, picture just read those 2015 accounts, anyone who finished in 2015 was hard core.
The upcoming Black HillsExpedition (a 430-mile Bikepacking Race through the Black Hills of South Dakota).  Check back—it’s on the list for Sept.  But I already know it’s likely to be a tough one, at least the Centennial trail single track section is hard from 1st hand experience—that trail put in the hospital with an IV drip due to mild heat exhaustion a few years back……

Number four:
The base speed and technical riding skill of the average HT racer is a notch above what you might see at the SC 400, AZT or CTR. 
Alan, the event organizer is limiting the participants to roughly 40. As this event gains in reputation he said he must pick between potential participants.  If I understand correctly he is picking mostly those who have some base level of racing and or bikepacking qualifications. 
So here is a call out to all the top CTR, AZT and TDR finishers (and/or the not so fast yet experienced multi-day racers like me)—take the HT challenge, get your name down on that start list.  Ha, in a wet year the HT will be one of the toughest, most challenging routes you can finish.  And in a picture perfect dry year its pure unadulterated mountain bike fun for hundreds of miles mixed in with plenty of friendly, skilled, fast competitors, from the front of the pack down to the not so back backmarkers.

Number five:
From the US perspective Scotland is a fantastically easy place to vacation for a multi-day.  Glasgow is easy to fly into from the US.  A mid-size airport with all the convenience needed but not the size/hassle of a huge airport.  English makes it easy to navigate, both from a verbal and written point of view.  So if you screw something up its easy to ask for forgiveness and get things right. For me this kept the stress down as I did not have to worry about or contend with any major or minor communication snafus.  The race itself is a loop vs a point to point so you start/finish at the same location.  You can arrange to store some stuff at a campground, hotel or bed & breakfast etc near the start/finish. Minus the plane ticket the overall cost is similar to doing a US event, ie: food, accommodations etc are similar to US costs.  Plus after the race you can play tourist as see castles and stone rings and and.....
You do have to drive and ride on the left side of the road.  And the back roads are truly one lane with motorized traffic taking turns. On the bike my rule was to simply keep my ‘left hand’ always on the left side of the road or trail.  I only messed up twice (once, because even knowing it was wrong, I followed a local who cheated a corner and the other time because I was tired and briefly forgot my rule)

I could go on but you get the idea.  The HT is a fun challenging event, ideal for the experienced US multi-day racer.  So go do it!!

On the flip side any UK or Europe HT racers looking to come to the US there is a whole list  of routes and races to pick from, including the ones above,
even the non technical routes can be hard sometimes...
all ‘hard’ yet appealing in their own way.