Highland Trail 550 - 2019

By Stu Taylor

If you’ve heard anything about the Highland Trail this year you will know it was the toughest to date due to the adverse weather conditions and more riders scratching than ever before, forty-nine in total for which I was one of those.

So, what happened?

Well basically after the first few hours of riding the heavens truly opened and it didn’t stop raining for the around thirty-six hours, even with the wet weather forecast I don’t think anyone expected it to be that wet so soon into the event. In my pre-race report I put it out there that this year was to be an out and out race to beat my time from the previous year with an aim of completing in under four days. I also mentioned it was a very fine line in racing and completing an event of this nature as I discovered.

Packing light was a risk but so was chasing the goal, sometimes the case can the bigger the risk the greater the reward, either way, you have to finish. This was a time to be packed for completion, I wasn’t. After seven hours of riding in persistent rain my body, all my clothes, two pairs of gloves were cold and saturated, I had resorted to changing gear with the palms of my hand as I could no longer feel my thumb coming off the Corrieyairack Pass as the temperature dropped.

Arriving at the iconic pizzeria in Fort Augustus I was freezing in a mild hypothermic state with my whole body was uncontrollably shaking and shivering, inside the pizzeria other riders gathered all looking in similar states trying to refuel, get warm and decide on the next step off their own journey looking round to see what others were doing. For myself it was simple I needed to find warm accommodation and try to dry kit ready for the next day, it wasn’t an option to head back out on the trail in my current state with the forecast getting worse would have been plain foolish, I booked a hotel for the night along with some fellow riders in hope of a warm bed and drying kit.

The next morning the forecast was true to its word and the rain continued to fall, scratching was well and truly at the forefront of my mind, after the first day I was 8 hours behind my previous years’ time with no realistic chance of making that back. We fuelled up with a full Scottish breakfast before summoning up the motivation to get back out there.

At this point I was riding with others who were also unsure really what to do so we just rode on, not long into the morning checking track leaders we became aware lots of riders were scratching and fast experienced ones at that. Reaching Cannich café, we learnt of some dangerous situations ahead with someone having to be pulled from a river, coupled with the fact that event organiser and race director Alan Goldsmith himself had scratched posting on social media “the trails are running a bit wet this year! It’s not that safe out here, the rivers are getting dangerous. Stay safe folks” this finalised the decision to scratch and join back onto the return loop whilst we could before committing to the point of no return further north past Oykel Bridge. Although at this point I hadn’t officially scratched as I hadn’t sent the dreaded text it was obvious for dot watchers what was happening, a small group of us were heading back.

How did I feel about it?

Sh*t to be honest, disappointed, frustrated, my mind full of what if’s. Now I have had a few weeks to let it all sink in, at the time it was the right decision to make I wasn’t prepared to deal with the conditions, it was dangerous and with being so far behind time trying to chase the impossible led to losing all motivation to carry on, I scratched. Looking back now I do wish that I had packed differently with an aim of completing the hardest Highland Trail to date by taking a tent, warmer sleeping bag, spare clothes, a stove to name a few items. Slightly cliché but I have learnt a lot my motto of “don’t pack your fears” doesn’t mean don’t be prepared and with the Silk Road Mountain Race only a couple of months away, the experiences of this year's Highland Trail could prove invaluable.

Hat off to all that rolled the dice in the first couple of days and managed to finish the event but also to everyone who rode and scratched, see you all next year!

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