I wanted to break my number one rule: Don’t quit! I have a theory about doing races similar to the Highland 550. Race the route, but when I get to a point where I risking dropping out or getting hurt, I stop for 8 hours or so and I feel better. The hopeful outcome is crossing the finish line. I may not win, but I sure try my hardest to finish. If it’s a race and I have to stop for 12 hours to make it to the finish, I stack it up to a tour. I’ve found it’s still rewarding and I learn a lot along the way. That said, sometimes a major mechanical malfunction decides fate for you. This time, all systems were go.
Holding its reputation up, Scotland provided some of the worst weather I’ve ever experienced on my bike. My choice of rain gear left much to be desired and I definitely pushed my sleep deprivation to the limits. Despite sleeping more than I intended in the first bit of the race due to the soggy conditions, resting provided an opportunity to dry out a few articles of clothing, I slept less and less as the race continued. At one point I bivied for a 35 minute snooze in the women’s side of a public restroom (unoccupied). This seemed to be enough to fight the sleepiness and got me going again. Sometimes I wonder if I go faster when I am completely blasted out of my gourd from lack of sleep.
In the last couple weeks I have been trying to wrap my head around the whole experience and how to best share it with others. The conclusion I’ve come to is that I will never be able to really describe to anyone precisely how I was feeling during the whole event. After all, sometimes I still wonder if it actually happened and if I was actually riding my bike in a foreign land filled with castles and dragons… I may have been hallucinating the dragons, but I sure saw them!
What I can describe coherently are some lows and some highs. We’ll start with…
There were two distinctive low points, the first was when I decided I was going to quit. I was freezing after a 45 minute descent into the town of Contin, I was very cold and unable to warm myself up. This decent came after a three hour bivy in a small damp bothy. Putting on my soaking wet riding attire. I forced myself back out into the inky black downpour. Soaked to the bone and not a climb in site to warm my core, I quickly plummeted into a mild state of hypothermia.
I had so much going on in my head but unable to think coherently. Throwing in the towel when I made it to the next town seemed like a reasonable option. With no cell coverage in Scotland, I was limited to the maps I had downloaded before the race. I made my way around to every hotel and B&B I could find on the map trying to find a place to warm up. Not much was open in the little town at 5 am on a Sunday! I found a hotel lobby that was open and was able to escape the rain. I stripped down and put some of my wet clothes on the radiator. This had a very bad effect as it set the fire alarm off and the staff promptly kicked me back out into the cold rain.
I attempted the general store again, still not open. I continued to wander around the town in the rain for another few hours until the store opened. While in the store Javier and Tom, other riders on the route, caught up with me. Convincing me to ride a little longer before dropping out, Javiar, Tom, and I continued on the route. I ended up riding with Tom for the next 24 hours or so until he stopped for some warm food. At this point the feeling of defeat had passed and I decided to continue on in the quest to catch the leader, whom I had been told was about an hour ahead. I owe Javier and Tom a good deal of thanks for lifting my spirits and giving me the nudge I needed to keep going.
The second low point came at 12:30 am on the third night and into early morning. I had been pushing hard since a bivy just after the Bealach Horn section on the northernmost part of the route. That was 120 miles ago and I was eager to have a bit of rest. As I was descending into what I thought was a road about 6 miles from the town of Kinlochewe I decided just to put my head down and go. I was terribly mistaken. This turned into about 3 hours of hike-a-bike and stumbling trying to find what little remnants of the trail there was. At times I was bushwhacking, following the little line on my Etrex GPS. It was just me and the deer out there. I later found out this section of trail was referred to as the “Postman’s Path”. The lore goes that the postman used this trail to delivered mail to a single farm house at the end of the trail. He must have been a tough Postman.
Finishing the Postman’s Path, I arrived in the town at 3:30 am. By dawn the rain was starting to subside and I was ready for a bit of rest. I found a public restroom and decided this was a good place to lie down. Finding more room in the women’s side, I wheeled my bike in and laid my bivy out on the floor. Sometimes you just need to lay down and close your eyes. Feeling as though I was wasting the daylight, after 35 minutes I got up and pressed on.
The biggest high of the trip was meeting all of the other riders. Everyone was so nice during the ride and supportive of each other to keep moving. I meet so many amazing people on the route and got a chance to ride with them for small sections of the course. The camaraderie on the trail really lifts your spirits when you are down. Tom and Javier kept me going when I was cold, wet, and wearing only the remnants of my rain pants that failed after a short time. My lowest low point turned into the greatest high as I left the Contin general store. Thanks guys!
I think the other significant highpoint was when I got to Devil’s Staircase. Close to the end of the route, this is a massive climb up from the town of Kinlochleven. This was hands down the best single track of the entire route. Even though I was climbing, there where just fantastically exceptional views and it was almost entirely rideable (with fresh legs of course)! Followed by a completely mind-blowing descent into the next valley, it provided a single track descent on rocky loose granite at its best. Rolling with all the singletrack, I misread my map and thought it was the last climb. That might have something to do with why I was so excited about it and giving it my all. I still had another 15 miles to go. Exhausted, but I was close to the finish and was ever growing happy to finish this thing out strong.
In the end 50 of the 72 riders scratched out of the race, but I plowed through the 16,000 meters of climbing in 4 days, 2 hours and 45 minutes. I meet so many friends on this trip and feel super privileged to have gotten to ride through such an amazing country. After a long distance race like this your body does not know what to do with itself. A week after the race I still felt tired, but the memories of Scotland already feel further in the past.
Thanks to everyone who I rode with for the great conversation and company. Special thanks to Alan Goldsmith for putting this route and race together and allowing us to have this great experience in Scotland.
Dustin Eroh has been a product designer and gear tester at Revelate Designs for nearly a decade. Though his roots are in alpine climbing, these days you’ll pretty exclusively find him on a bike. When he’s not at Revelate you can find him on any number of singletrack trails from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula.