DAY 1 • Tyndrum to Invermoriston • 173km • 3000m ascent  • 15hrs  • avg speed 11.6km/hr

It had finally arrived. The Highland Trail 550. After months of training, preparation and obsessing - over kit, bike setup, the route, potential stops, how much food to carry, what to drink, what to eat, you name it, I obsessed about it.

Tyndrum. On the verge of starting the legendary Highland Trail 550. My nerves were shot to bits. Ariane arriving unexpected, to see me off, immediately reduced me to tears.

Straddling my bike at the start line, looking around it was incredible to see all the strong resilient female riders. Alan (Goldsmith, the evil genius whose brainchild this crazy race is). had this year committed to a 50/50 gender split. 6 of the women I knew from Dirt Divas. Kerry, Sam, Flo, Ellie & Rachy. To know that they would be going through the same as me was a real comfort.
One last hug from Andy who told me that I “absolutely belonged here” (wiping away more tears) and we were off. I knew that as soon as I started turning those pedals the nerves would melt away.

The start was low key. Relieved to finally be moving, I deliberately hung back as I did not want to be part of the initial sprint.

I found myself pedalling with Lou and Flo, shouting and laughing in amazement that we were finally doing it. Laughing that we had ALL been completely horrific to our partners, and fallen out with them the day before.

Glen Lyon passed in a flash. The section along Loch Ericht, that was bog doom last time I had ridden it, was firm and rideable. Ben Alder was incredible, exactly the sort of riding I love. Perfect! I was in my element.

I found myself riding with Emma Robson, with Sam Kerr leapfrogging us. What I did not know at this point was that Emma and I would keep a similar pace for much of the days to come.

At the bottom of the Corrieyairack climb, I noticed a random bottle of whisky next to the track... Then another. These preceded a group of “dotwatchers”, who were standing either side of the track offering a wee (not so wee…) dram to all passing riders. I thought ach, why not, downed it in one, and instantly regretted it. I later found this to be a massive fib, , they had convinced me that all the other riders had also imbibed. I particularly regretted it, on the switchbacks close to the summit!

Descending into Fort Augustus I was on a high. I had felt strong all day, was making it in time to get hot food, and knew that I would be able to ride further before I stopped for the day.

The Chinese restaurant was busy, mainly with riders coming and going. Dinner was the best tasting chicken chow mien of my life, washed down with my first, but by no means last, Coca Cola of the ride. Coke was a bad decision at this point, as I basically would not sleep that night, but later proved to be a lifesaver. I ate my food as fast as I could, and remounted, aiming to ride until dark, and then find a bivvy spot.

Emma was close behind as we climbed up onto the Great Glen Way. At some point Emma realised that she had left her hip pack and waterproof jacket in the restaurant. Totally unflappable, she decided it was too far to go back and just kept riding. I am not sure I would have been so chilled, given that a waterproof is an essential piece of kit for day rides in Scotland, let alone the HT550!
I bivvied for the night just above Invermoriston. Set my alarm for 3:30. No point in being on the mass start and not giving this race everything. Pre-race, a further obsession was sleep. And wondering if I could get round on 4hrs sleep a night…

DAY 2 • Invermoriston to Glen Cassley • 193km • 3287m ascent  • 18hrs  • avg speed 10.7km/hr

Determined to stave off the counter productivity of procrastination, I sprang into action as soon as the alarm rang. I felt rested, although completely unsure if I actually slept, and promised myself no more Coke before stopping for the night.

The midges were out in force as I packed. Colin Baird came past on his ITT having ridden through the night - ‘mental’ I thought. 

Pedalling up through the windfarms I was amazed at how good I felt. The sun rose, and Emma was close by. We spent the morning leapfrogging Rob Waller and Gary Whitehead.  Loch Ma Stac was much more rideable than I expected, although the  Path of a Thousand Puddles lived, every bit, up to its name.  I gave up thinking that my feet would ever be dry again.

The rain set in as I reached Contin stores and my first  resupply. I was having trouble working out how much food to buy. Running out of food before the next supply point - over 100 miles away at Drumbeg Stores -  could be disastrous.  I settled on what I thought would be  a day's worth of food. From previous experience I knew that I needed  around 300 calories per hour. This, my body would match with a further 300 calories by burning body fat, and, unless I fed myself and managed my effort well,  muscle… Eek!  This combined fuel supply - food and body fat - would make up the  600ish calories per hour that I would be burning on average. Multiply that out over an 18hour day on the bike, and I was looking at needing to buy, and carry somehow, around 5000 calories of food - yikes! 

It was great to see Phillipa Battye at Contin for a hug and laughs. A cameraman was fascinated by the scene of me pouring Coke into my water bottle. 2 lasagne pies safely stowed in my frame bag, and I was off. Mission: to reach Oykel Bridge Hotel in time for dinner. Emma was by this point wearing a doctored bin bag, as a surprisingly good stand-in for her waterproof jacket!

The scenery on this day wasn’t my favourite. The highlight was flying through Glen Alladale on the way to steak pie at Oykel Bridge. Somewhere that I will definitely return to.

The Oykel Bridge Hotel was a very welcome sight. The whisky toting lunatics were enjoying a meal in the bar, as was Alan and numerous other riders. The bar staff looked at me as if I was mad when I ordered a pint of full fat milk with my pie - no more Coke mistakes for me!

The midges were ferocious as I left the hotel, with the aim again of bivvying as it got dark. 

Pedalling up Glen Cassley in the fading light, the enormity of the Highland Trail really began to sink in. I knew  that the outward leg, heading north,  was generally rideable. But, that the return leg  was when the real work, the “hike-a-bike”, started. To finish the race in a “good” time would require constant speed, efficiency at stops,  constant, CONSTANT eating. None of this could let up until the finish.

I bivvied just before the power station at the top of the glen.  Emma was close by. Louise Humphries came past.  Lynne Davies and Cat Magill not long after. I saw  Lynn and Cat’s lights stop just a wee bit further up the climb.

I went to sleep  thinking “Wow I am on the Northern Loop. Who knows where I will be tomorrow tonight!”

DAY 3 • Glen Cassley to Glen Einig • 182km • 4095m ascent  • 21hrs  • avg speed 7.8km/hr

My alarm woke me after 4hrs. This time from the most fabulous sleep. I felt refreshed and raring to go, this took me by surprise.

Yet again the midges were swarming, I packed my kit away as quickly as possible. Made a wee tweak to my saddle, cleaned and lubed my chain. The only bike maintenance I did all trip was to religiously clean my chain and jockey wheels with a rag every day and lube the chain.

Climbing up the road Lynn and Cat appeared through the mist. Emma was close by once again. The 4 of us hurtled down to the head of Loch Shin letting the early morning sun envigorate us. I had heard so many stories of the Bealach Horn, all in bad weather. Horrific push up and unrideable down due to wet bog. My experience was completely the opposite. This day would be without doubt my favourite of the whole race. I think I even remember exclaiming out loud for all around me to hear that “this is the best day on a bike I have ever had”.

The sun was shining, there wasn’t a breath of wind. I climbed up Glen Golly, heading towards the most northern point of the race. It was stunning. I didn’t care that I had to push my bike almost above my head on the first steep climb. Summiting the first climb, Sutherland opened up in front of me. It was awe inspiring. The techy singletrack descent was dry, rideable and a lot of fun. The wet bog I had been dreading was not to be. How lucky was I. I paused at the bottom to collect water and eat a sandwich before pushing up the final climb to the top of the Bealach Horn. Fionaven and Arkle looked utterly majestic. The descent to Lock Stack was epic. Wowee this route is phenomenal.

At Achfary it was time to load the “BACK” route onto my Etrex. I had a quick word with myself. I may have rounded the top but the out route was 415km and the back was 485km and was renowned for being much much harder. Don’t get over excited Em, although I couldn’t resist a wee hi five to myself.

Climbing up away from Achfary, I was excited to be getting close to the infamous Drumbeg Stores. Another fabulous descent brought me to the road at Kylestrome.

Not long after came the 9 longest road miles of my life. Drumbeg Stores were so close but the coast road was unforgiving, winding up and down and up and down, caught in between NC500 traffic a few hairy close passes later and finally I rolled into Drumbeg.

One of the last things Andy had said to me was eat fruit and veg whenever you can. Drumbeg has a wee fruit and veg hut. I added apples, a carrot and a pepper to my haul. I wolfed down calories as fast as I could, including a tin of mandarin segments (that hurt my mouth). I was made a very welcome cup of tea. A coronation chicken sandwich was kindly double wrapped and my pepper deseeded, chopped into 4 and put in a bag. Drumbeg was a wee slice of resupply heaven.

Back on the road and moving fast towards Lochinver. The singletrack at Achmelvich took longer than expected but it was nice to be off the road again. Rolling into Lochinver past a closed pie shop was very sad. But Delilahs produced chips with mayonnaise (an adequate alternative), washed down with a coke and I was ready to tackle the famous Ledmore traverse.

As I climbed up Glen Canisp I found myself paces with Emma, Cat, Lynn and Rob Waller. The fast rolling track soon turned into a boggy rocky uphill struggle. I made the decision to conserve energy and walk the traverse. The difference between walking and Rob hopping on and off was negligible. Rob stopped for the night at Cam Loch, there was no way I was stopping with another 2km of bog hopping to do before the road. 

One of the lasting images of the race for me came next. At the top of Cam Loch I looked back at Suilven. The night was perfectly still. there was still a bit of light in the sky, it was one of those take your breath away moments. I took a photo, it does not do the scene any justice. 

A few minutes later and we had reached the road. It was midnight and the lure of completing the Northern loop was too great. A time trial to Oykle Bridge ensued. Followed by a tough final few kms into Glen Einig to find School House Bothy. I loved seeing the bothy surrounded by loaded bikes, numerous HT550 riders all converging on the same spot.

I had made it, the Northern Loop in a day. I never in my wildest dreams thought that I would have made it this far on the third day. Elation quickly put to bed by grumpy bothy residents clearly not happy at having been woken throughout the night by riders arriving at different times.

DAY 4 • Glen Einig to Poolewe • 91km • 2367m ascent  • 17hrs  • average speed 5.4km/hr

Schoolhouse Bothy, 5.30am. Packing as quietly as I could, I was confronted with an extremely angry bothy resident. Ok, it was early, and we had arrived late. But the level of anger and abuse was way over the top. Laced with most of the profanities that I know, and a few, to me,  new ones, this guy absolutely let rip at several riders. I have never before encountered such disgusting behaviour in a bothy. Too tired and shocked to think of a comeback, I simply apologised, and continued tying my shoelaces. 

As you are probably aware, bothies are mountain refuges, intended to provide shelter for mountain travellers. When I stay in one, I do not expect to have an amazing night's sleep. Other residents may arrive late after a big day, or leave early. Much whisky is drunk; merriment is had; people snore loudly.  They are not, as I surmised they were being used as in this case, free private holiday homes; the two cars parked outside suggested that Mr Angry and his mates had not had quite the trip in that the riders had endured....  I heard that other riders suffered similar experiences the following night.

Fleeing the whole midge army / angry idiot scene, I headed up the inevitable climb, and down into Glen Achall. Catching Lynn, and with Emma not far behind we made good time to Ullapool. A lovely section of singletrack brought me down to the town. As I was closing a gate Emma appeared, saddle bag over her shoulder. The rail that attached the bag had failed, so she sped off in search of an outdoor shop. She shortly appeared at the café where I was happily shovelling down a full Scottish  breakfast, (yes it does include Haggis, Tattie Scone and Black Pudding – food of Champions!), with a sparkling new waterproof jacked and rucksack. Nothing phases that girl!

Long ago, trekking in Nepal, Andy and I established that it is quite possible to have a full shower, including hair wash,  with a 1 litre bottle of hot water. Now, I found the world`s tiniest sink, had a wonderful all over wash, and felt on top of the world.

Breakfast devoured, we descended like a rampaging horde on Tesco.  Alan was  outside, photographing riders and listening to stories of  cycling derring-do.  It is amazing how many madeline cakes, sandwiches and dairy milk bars can be crammed into a small frame bag!

After Ullapool this route really starts to chews you up. 

After a few kilometers on the road I turned right to tackle the first brutal push of the day. The Coffin Road. Coffin Roads can be found all over Scotland. The incline was so steep at times that I felt as though I was pushing my bike above my head. This was the first of many sections of the “BACK” route which is made for walking not bike riding!

We have a saying in our house: “Ride like Harris!”. Harris (my son) just tries to ride everything and anything, and he generally succeeds. Riding across the top boggy plateau I was trying to be a hero and ‘ride like Harris’ with a 50/50 success rate. It caused great hilarity for Lynne and Emma, but just served to use up unnecessary energy which I would pay for later in the day.

A fast fun descent to Dundonnell, and a chat with a dot watching postie brought me to the start of the Fisherfield traverse. With the majestic An Teallach to my right, the climb was much easier than I expected. Descending to the valley floor it was very cool to see a herd of Belted Galloways (cows...). Making my way to Sheneval bothy we were a group of 6 riders keeping similar pace with each other. Lynne, Emma, Cat, Gary and Shell.

After the river crossing at the outflow from Loch Na Sealga the going became tough. On the bike, off the bike, rideable, not rideable, and repeat. And again.. 

I was feeling pretty wobbly. I hadn’t got my eating quite right, and it was proving difficult to pull it back. I think the earlier silly exertion was also starting to show. The climb out of the glen was brutal. I had completely forgotten about my hike-a-bike harness- designed to carry the bike like a rucksac - and so didn’t use it. Instead I heaved and pushed my bike up and over rocks and boulders. Exhausting.

I have to mention Shell here. With the Transcontinental, Silk Road and numerous other ultra cycling events to his name, Shell is a legend of the sport. Listening to his stories was utterly wonderful, and without doubt helped me through some of my darkest moments. I truly hope I cross paths with Shell in the future, somewhere on the trail.

So tired I didn’t trust myself on the techy parts of the descent, I just continued to walk. I had my sights on stopping for the night at Carnmore , but on close inspection I rejected that idea.  Carnmore  being barely fit  for the sheep that normally inhabit it... The weather had turned for the worse; the idea of bivying high up was really unattractive, and so, despite feeling utterly exhaused after pushing and carrying across Fisherfield, with the sun setting over Fionn Loch, I decided to press on to Poolewe.  Wow! It was a loooooong way in the fading light. I was going way slower than my normal pace, and my balance was all over the place. Eat, and concentrate on turning the pedals without falling off.! That was all I had to do. The view of the sun setting over the loch helped lift my spirits. No matter how hard things got it really was a magical route. Going around in my head the whole time, when things got tough, was the mantra,  ‘This will end’ - it served me well.

I had called Andy at Carnmore, and could hear the concern in his voice when I said I was carrying on. I discovered later that Andy would not sleep each night until he could see my dot stopped, and knew that I was safely camped. 

Back at home Andy was spearheading an enthusiastic  team of committed dot watchers, and a WhatsApp group of 65 friends that were active for almost as long as I was riding each day. Productivity at work was, apparently, very low; they were all addicted.

The endless trail finally started to descend towards Poolewe, and I moved faster. Trail became double track, became tarmac. Completely worn out I camped beside a gaggle of tents and bivvies, on a flat grassy pull-in just before Poolewe. Wow! That had been a serious shift. I set up my bivvy, ignoring the swarms of midges above my head, and fell asleep immediately. 

DAY 5 • Poolewe to Glen Affric • 114 km • 2400m ascent  • 18hrs  • avg speed 6.3km/hr

Emma. Friendships forged in the fire of adversity.

Waking on day 5 was hard. It had rained overnight, and the midges were enjoying their morning feast. My feet had swollen badly. Everything seemed much harder, and took longer. Packing up as fast as I could I noticed Emma moving slowly. Her knee and back had become increasingly painful over the efforts of the previous day. When I was packed and ready to move off, Emma was still moving slowly about.

Until now we had moved naturally at the same pace; riding together had just happened, without either of us having to compromise. Until now... We had already had the conversation about what would happen if one of us couldn’t keep up, for whatever reason. Recognising that this race was ‘self-supported’. We had both come to the Highland Trail to do the very best that we possibly could, and nothing was going to get in the way of that... Nevertheless, when it actually happened, it was heartbreaking to leave her at Poolewe, knowing that she was struggling. I also knew that she was incredibly strong and resilient and hoped she would take time to have a decent rest before carrying on.

I was delighted to find the rumour, that the Poolewe toilets had hot water,  to be true. It is amazing how good  a bit of hot water can make you feel. Refreshed from a wash and an almond croissant for breakfast, I was ready to give the Tollie path everything I had. It’s funny how you can be dreading something, and find the reality to be quite different. Maybe because I had resigned myself to walking this part,  the Tollie path, after what had come previously, was a walk in the park. It was a real boost to see fellow MTB tutor Emma Holgate cycling towards me near Kinlochewe. Her Dad lives in the village, and she had been enjoying the dot watching. I told her my plans/hopes of where I wanted to reach that night. Her wise response was ‘Listen to your body.’ I gave her my word.

Kinlochewe is another oasis of resupply heaven. Whilst waiting for my breakfast roll and cup of tea, I unpacked my wet kit and spread it out to dry. I carefully considered what to buy for the next stretch. There would be no resupply until Fort Augustus – over 24 hours away. By now I was getting used to what 5000 per day calories looked like.  I added mini cheddars and cheese rolls to my haul, and a Magnum (Classic obviously…)  for breakfast pudding. I would not repeat the previous day’s mistake of under-eating, and was determined to get the calories into me by hook or by crook.

Leaving Kinlochewe I felt like a new woman. About to enter Torridon, one of my favourite parts of  Scotland, and part of the route I knew well. The sun was shining.  I was paces with Lynn and Cat;  we caught Shell at the bottom of the climb. The sole of his shoe was coming loose and he had a zip tie keeping it together. What a Legend.  My feet and ankles were swollen ,and I was finding walking much harder than previously due to having to cram my swollen feet into my shoes. I made a mental note to, if I ever do another ultra,  buy shoes a size bigger. Torridon was majestic as always. I knew the descent. I also knew I was a tired rider on a fully loaded bike, and I needed to make sensible decisions. Making a mistake, and falling at this point was not worth it. So, I took my time, and walked sections that on a “normal” day I would ride without hesitation.

Hitting the road at Achnaschellach, and making good time to Strathcarron I passed a dotwatcher friend Graham. Morale was high. We stopped for what was now the essential quick pint of Coke in the hotel and then it was time to tackle the Attadale climb. Which was Horrid!…

Glen Ling was stunning, which made up for the fact that it was mostly unrideable.  A fast roll into Dornie and straight to Manuelas Wee Bakery for pizza. If you have never Been, it is a must visit, even if just to use the toilet – like a magical, crazy Pixie house. I’m pretty sure I wasn’t yet hallucinating… ! I was however struggling badly to eat; the pizza was delicious but made me feel sick. The wonderful owners very kindly wrapped the remaining three slices individually for me to take away. 

It was here, checking my messages that learned that Emma had scratched. She had rested before attempting the Tollie path, but her back and knee pain were just too much. I felt completely gutted for her. However,  I have a feeling this race has not seen the last of Emma Robson!

I was set on getting to Camban Bothy at the top of Glen Affric that night. I could feel my stomach going into knots. Dairy milk seemed to still be going down well at least, and luckily I had enough to see me to the end of the day. Heading up to the viewpoint past Eilean Donan castle and Loch Duich was tough, but at least rideable. I was close to Lynn and Cat, and we passed many people out for an evening walk giving us strange looks. Little did they know!

Turning off the road at Morvich and heading up Glen Licht on the Affric-Kintail way was another highlight. The evening light was stunning. It was dry and still. The Five Sisters of Kintail rose above me to my right. Wow! There was nowhere else I would have rather been at that moment.

Determined to use my hike-a-bike-harness, I put my bike on my back at the bottom of the climb. What a difference it made to pushing. The difference in energy required between pushing and carrying was huge. I lamented the fact I had not put it to use previously. As it got dark it started to drizzle.  I steadily climbed up and up. I am not sure how many times I imagined Camban Bothy appearing in front of me, thinking the white rocks to be the longed for shelter. When it finally appeared I almost couldn’t believe my eyes. It was midnight, and the unrelenting midges had been partying  hard for some time...  Cat had arrived first and Lynne was somewhere behind. We found whole upper platform bed of the bothy to be free – Winner! I got my sleep kit out and put all my lights on charge, as I would need them the following night. I think I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.

DAY 6 • Glen Affric to Tyndrum • 184km • 4300m ascent  • 24hrs  • avg speed 7.7km/hr

4hrs later I was awake. Leaping from the platform, I barely had enough time to shove my swollen feet into shoes, before sprinting to the “long drop”. I was over the moon to discover that there was also loo roll – it’s the small things!. I wish I could have enjoyed that loo a wee bit more, as the view is something else.

Forcing down cold pizza, it was time for the final, big push. I planned to ride to the end, at Tyndrum, if my body would allow. Among many long, hard days – from Welbeck College, to Sandhurst, Mountain Marathons and 24hour MTB racing, this day would turn out to be the longest, hardest day of my life.

Riding down Glen Affric was glorious; it was raining but that didn’t seem to matter. I was on familiar ground and buoyed by the thought of an egg roll and a cup of tea at the Tomich Hotel. There was to be no such luck, however. Despite them being in the middle of serving breakfast, and despite us practically begging for just a cup of tea, they refused to serve us anything, as we weren’t residents. Mega disappointed, but determined not to let that bother me, I finished the cold pizza, put what recovery powder I had remaining into my water bottle, and left.

The last day, yet the end seemed further away than ever. Throughout the ride I had never allowed myself to think about the end. Instead, I was determined to always be in the moment. Never was it more important to keep that in my head than on this last day. Long, draggy fire road climbs ahead, I put my music on, zoned out and pedalled away. Each point I had in my head to tick off took an age to reach. The descent to Glen Morriston was fast and fun, although I had seen the climb out of the glen the other side, which took the edge off the fun. I resigned myself to climbing again. Would I ever reach Fort Augustus?

Fort Augustus was heaving. It was surreal being back in civilisation. I made a quick stop at the supermarket to find liquid calories, before heading to the chippy. I was really struggling to eat at this point. I forced down chips and curry sauce, rice pudding and chocolate milk. Felt good. Next stop Fort William.

Lynn sped away, and I would not see her again until the finish. If you can keep eating during a race like this then you have it sorted. Lynn was incredible; she ate everything, and fast - it is a special skill, and one I really envied.

Heading out onto the Great Glen Way I enjoyed a few easy miles along the Caledonian Canal in the sunshine before climbing up and down in the forest next to Loch Lochy. Going was tough. Reaching the end of the Loch I could see Ben Nevis, but Fort William seemed so far away. Almost inevitably given my inability to eat, the proverbial wheels fell off on the canal path a few kms from Fort William). I sat on a bench to try and eat. I felt completely done in. A bite of an egg sandwich made me want to barf. My stomach was churning. I managed to eat a yoghurt sachet that I had picked up in Fort Augustus; it went down OK and more importantly stayed down. I fed the ducks with my inedible trail mix, while on the phone to Andy, in floods of tears. Up to this point I had found no need for the bladder that I carried on my back. Since Day 1 it had remained empty, with me happily using my single water bottle, never feeling I was going to run out of water. I was now very happy of the bladder. I had a plan, to fill it with 2 litres of Coca Cola!.

Arriving at the Coop in Caol, my mission was Coke and Haribo. All my body needed was glucose, and I didn’t care in what form. I still hadn’t pulled back the energy deficit. Picking up three bottles of water, and struggling to locate Coke and sweets, I was very wobbly. When I came to pay, the lady at the till told me I couldn’t buy the bottlers of water, as they were from a multi pack, and couldn’t be sold singly. I just stood there, pathetic, struggling to comprehend why she wouldn’t sell me what I needed, not knowing what to do. All I wanted was some water. In the end I went back and found the multipack the three bottles must have come from. Told her I would just buy the lot, but would leave the pack, as I just wanted the three bottles. Understanding my plight she looked at me and said “Would you like some water?” I burst into tears replying “Yes”. Despite the growing queue behind me, she rose from her seat and kindly showed me where the big bottles of water were.

Sitting outside I filled my bladder and jettisoned all the food I couldn’t face eating. Made a young boy’s day when I gave him four bars of dairy milk - I did ask his Dad who he was with! What food was still intact I left in the food bank at the coop.

I called Andy again to say I was OK, except I was still in floods of tears. Never in my life have I had to dig this deep. Each day of the Highland Trail you have to find a bit more than the day before, until you have to dig deeper than you ever thought you could. I left a very emotional video message to my family, which Andy shared with my closest friends.

Sugar finally starting to take effect. Cat and I left Fort William on the West Highland Way, just a matter of half the West Highland Way to complete! I had a game plan. My Garmin InReach was attached to my handlebars, and I had set it so that I could see every time it pinged my location, which was every ten minutes. Each ping, I would eat a few Haribo and have a drink of Coke. I repeated this to the end.

Eventually, mainlining sugar, I started to feel like I was in control again. Back to loving riding. It was a stunning evening, still and dry, and the West Highland Way walkers had stopped and camped for the night. The riding was fun, and I was back in the groove. 

Descending into Kinlochleven I had a bit of a hilarious, but very lucky incident. I had decided against riding across a particular water-bar (small but vicious drainage ditch across the track, notorious for causing punctures), as the angle of the rocks looked severe. Unclipped my left foot, but my right foot wouldn’t come out. I exclaimed! Tried again. Exclaimed again. There was a single tent close by, I could hear someone quickly unzipping and coming to my aid. It was a young man on his own. I said that he couldn’t help me. I had to sort it out for myself. With Midge feasting on me, one foot on the ground, straddling my bike, I somehow managed to undo the shoelaces of my right shoe and take my foot out without falling over. Yanking the shoe off the pedal I discovered that a cleat bolt had worked itself out, and was wedged between my cleat and shoe. It didn’t take long to sort out and I was off on my way again. Having had a wonderful chat with Mr Tent.:)

I stopped next to Cat at the bottom of the climb up towards the Devils staircase. Called Andy to say I had done a regain. Andy was having his own rollercoaster of emotions listening to me, knowing how far I still had to go and not being able to help. My previous emotional video had spurred friends to send messages of support; reading them was a massive boost. Knowing that so many friends were following my progress was amazing. I was imagining all these text bubbles above me, willing me forward. 

I won’t forget this night as long as I live. The last time I had taken a bike up and over the Devils Staircase, I was battered by driving wind and rain. The conditions could not have been more different. It was getting dark, the night was still and warm, and going was easy compared to pushing into a howling gale. I knew the end was getting close, all I had to do was keep moving forward. I decided to walk most of the descent, not wanting to risk a crash so close to the end.

What came next is hard to explain but I will try and put it into words. I felt a hyper focus. I felt strong and powerful. I was on my own, pedalling up the Black Mount, feeling at one with my bike. The moon was a huge orange semicircle in the sky to my left. Although, I did spend quite a bit of time thinking it was a hallucination as part of what I was feeling felt quite ‘out of body’.

Fred Again playing in my ears, I powered my way along. I felt incredible. 

I stopped as I crossed Rannoch Moor. It was all about to end. I wanted to reach the finish so much, but also at that moment I never wanted it to end. I needed to stand there for a moment, looking out over Lochan Mhic Pheadair Ruaidh, and take it all in, let the dawn, the view, wash over me.

By the time I reached Victoria Bridge it was light. I had previously thought that I would hate the climb up Mam Carraigh but instead I didn’t mind it at all. I managed to ride most of it, and the techy descent was a real reward. I met, unexpectedly, a very early West Highland Way walker, whilst hooning my way over the boulders.

Reaching Bridge of Orchy the end felt tantalisingly close, but oh my gosh this route just keeps on giving, right to the very end. Climbing again, I eventually passed the turn to Glen Lyon, that I had made nearly 6 days before, that felt like years ago. I struggled through the most awkward gate and pushed my bike steeply up under the railway tunnel, the bike almost over my head again. Of course reaching the end was not going to be easy!

I knew that Andy and the kids would be expecting me to burst into tears as I finished. I let those tears out over Rannoch Moor. All I felt now was excitement. I couldn’t wait to see my family; this was as much their race as it was mine. I had been training all year, riding my bike all weekend, every weekend, not being present. They had sacrificed a lot for me to do this.

Flying down the hill I could see a crowd. Andy, Jas, Harris. Henrietta. Barry, Matt. Carol and Dave. They had all made the effort to come and see me finish. Andy and the kids had deliberately arrived a few hours before to see Lynn finish.

And then it was over. It was surreal. I was finished. And I had done it in under 6 days. I left everything out there.

My Highland Trail 550 was the ride of my life. The route was phenomenal. My bike was perfect. My amazing human body did things that I would never have believed possible. But for me it was the human connections I made out there that truly made my ride.

I have made friends for life in Emma, Lynn and Cat. Such strong inspiring women who, only days before, were complete strangers. We had ridden, pushed and carried our bikes over the same terrain. Slept together. My constant companions, leapfrogging along the trail. Each knowing what the other had endured to get there.

Lee Craigie is right, there are other ways to win.

June 12, 2024 — Emily Greaves