Scotduro

Following on from our adventures along the West highland way Nat and I were after another adventure. Riding the high of completing our first off road bike packing trip we looked for something bigger and more challenging. I stumbled across the racing collective’s website. They were running a race from Inverness to Glasgow – 200miles following the badger divide route, off road, 5500m of climbing, unsupported – in hindsight I have no idea what I was thinking but I sent the link to Nat and gradually the plan spiralled out of control.

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The race came round quickly and before I knew it I was frantically stuffing a sleeping bag into the “black pudding” dry bag ready for a practice run. The week before the event we decided to do a shake down ride with all the kit to ensure everything worked. Specialized had kitted us out with two snazzy fuse mountain bikes. These are fairly slack 29er hard tail mountain bikes that will pretty much do anything. We had front and rear packs. We hoped this would give us enough carrying capacity to take bivvy kit and sleeping bag, warm kit, stove and food for 48h and enough snacks to fuel a large army. We just about crammed it all in. Being a medic I love to consider all the potential disasters we could encounter and we wanted to be prepared. We were worried we might not make the distance and so we wanted to be able to stop, bivvy and have a hot meal if disaster did strike. We hadn’t been quite on the ball enough to book a bed in the hostel at the overnight stop at Loch Ossian but had been told we could bivvy outside and use their facilities. We needed to be prepared for a cold night on the ground.

The shakedown ride took the form of 100km round the peaks – it ended with a 3.5hour session in the pub. The next day we rode the Hope mtb marathon in memory of Charlie Craig. I suffered for 5.5hours and it was only 65km long. The Scotduro race was going to be a real challenge. It was slowly starting to dawn on me what we had agreed to do.

Nat and I decided to try and allay our fears we would consider all the things we were worried about and what we could do to avoid them. We both agreed our main concern was being hungry. Nat and I have bonded many times over our need for food. Nat made a spreadsheet of all the places we could potentially get food on the route, we planned our snacks, we packed freeze dried meals and super noodles. Thank goodness we did because on the middle 100miles of this route there is almost nowhere to buy food.

The weekend of the race arrived. We drove up to Scotland and left the van with our superb and wonderful fellow Specialized ambassador Gilly in Glasgow and then jumped on the train to Inverness. This proved slightly trying with no room for the bikes on the stint from Perth to Inverness, we ended up barricading in the customers in first class carriage much to their displeasure. We were of course delayed at some point and had to do a mad sprint across the station pushing the bikes like crazed triathletes stumbling through transition. Naturally Nat made friends with every random passing stranger and was extremely excited by all the men wearing Kilts. She only nearly got caught trying to upskirt one or two.

Arriving in Inverness we checked into the Hostel. I’ve stayed in a lot of hostels this year and I’ve really enjoyed the experience. The inverness one was pretty comfortable. We set out to forage for an evening meal. We were looking for something wholesome and full of carbs. We settled on a Turkish restaurant because it looked good through the window and there seemed to be lots of options to have chips and rice. We enjoyed an absolute feast washed down with a few beers. Despite the lure of the nightlife in Inverness we trudged back to our bunk beds, for once trying to be sensible, we hit the sack for an early night.

Day 1 – Inverness to Loch Ossian – 89miles 3000m climbing 9 hours riding 12h total

We rolled down to the start at Inverness Castle after forcing down a full Scottish breakfast (no can of iron bru though). My stomach was in knots with nerves and there weren’t too many jokes that morning. I wasn’t nervous for the “race” aspect I was nervous of the pain. I knew we were going to get to a stage where maybe I couldn’t pedal any more, maybe I’d have to give up, maybe I wouldn’t be strong enough mentally to finish this challenge and that fear of failure really bothered me.

At 9am after saying a brief hello to the other riders and being given a badger divide sticker we set off. The other riders seemed to be going fairly fast and we were soon jostling along some single track feeling like we were in an XC race. As the route climbed and the terrain became tougher we all spread out and before we knew it, it was just Nat and I spinning along the hills above Loch Ness. The view was breath taking, we stood and took photos , the thought of racing already washed from our minds with the breath taking vista. We rolled along forest road and tracks for hours, nibbling snacks and chatting about the usual rubbish we like to talk about, mainly me moaning about the fact we could be at Nessie land right now. Despite all the snacks, hunger set in and we were very glad to arrive in Fort Augustus our first and last sign of real civilisation before our overnight stop. We rolled into the town to see many bikes outside a shop and riders feasting on a picnic on the pavement. This was not how we rolled, we love a café stop and I’d been dreaming about real food for the past 3hours. We parked up, sat down in the sunshine and demolished couple of ham and cheese paninis. We knew what lay ahead of us and the next section of route would be the toughest part of the day.06f5e8ae-c4c4-4acf-b899-349ea24f3175

Refuelled and spirits high, we rolled on to General Wade’s Military road. Spirits soon faded. I’d written on the OS map for this section, follow the pylons and you’ll be on the right track. The Pylons stretched into the distance on a never ending dusty loose track, it went on for miles, as we reached the crest of each lump the track rose up further. We started to pass riders sitting by the side, pouring water over themselves, it was hot. The panini was sitting half way down my chest. Three quarters of the way up I started to crack, I could feel the doubt starting to set in, I was never going to make it. The bike felt like it was being dragged backwards by the weight on it. My legs were stiffening, I felt physically sick. I couldn’t spin and recover, the hill was too hard, hunched over the handlebars willing the back wheel not to skid I tried to push on. I failed, I wobbled to a stop. I could see Nat up ahead tapping out a rhythm. And shaking my head, thinking I was hallucinating I realised she’d made another bloody friend. There she was with some Scottish bloke on a mountain bike tapping it out, churning those legs like butter, chatting away. Urgh I was in hell. I threw my leg back on the bike and tried to keep going. Then the tears came, rolling off my chin I questioned over and over why I was doing this to myself. As I reached the top, there was Nat fresh as daisy chatting away to her new best mate. She asked him if he would take a photo of us at the top. She put her arm round me giving a big smile, I think I must have looked like I was ready to commit a murder because the bloke hastily retreated and disappeared over the ridgeline. As he was leaving he left us with a throw away comment “ take it steady on the descent its a bit fruity” because yeah that was all I needed a massive long technical descent. And man was it fruity, big drainage ditches, boulders, steep, switch backs, it had it all. The only thing that kept me bobbling down it was that I wanted to get as far away from that climb as humanly possible. And the sight of a couple more riders up a head on gravel bikes walking. Now was our time to shine, the mountain bikes were finally in their natural habitat and despite a distinct lack of skill we overtook them.

With the worst of the day’s riding behind us, morale lifted, we rolled into the most stunning scenery I have ever enjoyed. Spinning along well surfaced tarmac my eyes welled with tears of joy. It was a beautiful summers evening. Riding along we named every song we could think of with a military reference and we plotted every which way we would torture and kill General Wade. Nat you are definitely not having a point for “Mr Boombastic”!IMG_2705

As the sun began to set we rolled along the side of mirror like Lochs. The light faded and the legs started to as well. 70miles in fatigue was taking its toll. It was time to crack out the big guns. Lights and jackets on I hit the gels. I was resuscitated. On the front I felt like I was flying, Nat tucked in behind we caught a couple more riders – these were suffering, shivering from following the route through a loch due to some navigational issues. As the darkness fell the moon shone on Loch Ossian, the hostel was within reach. We should be able to see it on the south side of the Loch. I kept saying this to Nat who was suffering the result of a slow puncture on her rear tyre. “Keep going we are nearly there”. The darkness stretched on for what felt like hours. Then in the distance a tiny light flickered, perhaps other riders. Hitting each rolling sectiIMG_2712on of track, dragging my bum out of the saddle we pressed on and then we saw it. Proper lights, a building, bikes outside. We’d bloody made it. Highfiving up the drive we rolled into Loch Ossian Hostel.

The warm glow of the hostel has never been more appealing. We were greeted with the news there might be beds spare and we wouldn’t have to bivvy outside. The temperature was dropping rapidly and I was feeling distinctly apprehensive about sleeping on the ground. Great news, there were beds available, bad news there was only one female bed left. We looked at each other, both too polite to say we wanted the bed. We’d suffered today, together, each looking after the other at our respective low points. I made a joke about us sharing the bed, apparently they are very narrow. No we decided, we are hardcore, we carried the bivvy kit, we’d bivvy, let one of the guys have the bed, some of them were in worse shape than us. We heated up our supernoodles and freeze dried mystery meat. I had beef stroganoff and it was bloody tasty. We swilled it down with sloe gin and I had a portion of porridge for good measure. Chatting with the other riders and laughing

IMG_2716 at some their unusual food choices (fresh spinach, pakoras, jars of peanut butter) we collectively decided maybe the hosts of the hostel would let us sleep on the floor in the warmth. For a small donation it was agreed, we could each sleep under the tables in the dinning area in front of the log burner. Despite the warmth it was a fitful nights sleep, many riders left at 2am to make the next days cut off and catch trains home. We had no such plans, perhaps we were foolish.

 

 

 

Day 2 Loch Ossian to Glasgow 185km 2500m climbing 11hours riding 14hours total

Rising at 6am we heated our porridge and chatted to the riders that were left, many of whom had taken such a battering the day before they were considering the train home from Curorur. This was not an option for us. Believing that if we could conquer General Bastard Wade’s military road we could do anything, we rolled out. The air was thick with scotch mist, the cloud inversion as we climbed renewed our vigour for the race. We were going to smash this. This feeling lasted about 1.5h before hunger set in again. We knew it would be a further 60km before we would find food and even then we weren’t sure if the “post office that might be a café” would even be open. We discussed all the things we would give for a bacon sandwich. We distracted ourselves from hunger with further games of shag, marry, kill. We sang songs relating to topics picked out of the mist. And finally just as I was wondering what one of Nat’s calves would taste like if I had a bit of nibble we rolled into the Bridge of Balgie and we saw the café. Yet again we decided to stop as other riders rolled past, I’d eaten constantly since breakfast and I still had that sick empty feeling in the pit of my stomach. I craved a hot brew. So tea, sandwiches and bags of crisps were requested and we refuelled.IMG_2728

The terrain of the second day seemed more forgiving, our average speed was higher, we were making good progress despite stops for punctures and frequents toilet breaks. On the whole I felt better than the day before. However the constant pedalling started to take its toll. After a stop in Killin for more food I started to think of all the things I looked forward to – stopping for a wee, stopping to take my jacket off, stopping to put my jacket on, stopping for Nat to go for a wee, stopping to check the map, stopping to open the gates, mainly just stopping. For what felt like days we rolled on and on, the miles ticking down so slowly. We eventually made it to Aberfoyle having been rerouted to avoid clashing with the Duke’s Weekender, the irony of it being that by the time we got there everyone had packed up and gone home. The alternative route involved less climbing and we were quietly chuckling thinking it would be easier, except it wasn’t. It involved pushing up hill through a thick bog, morale yet again took a turn for the worst. Hitting Aberfoyle we decided that even if it took till midnight to get to Glasgow we needed to stop and eat. We raided the petrol station and loaded up sitting slumped on the forecourt, the feeling that we were so close and yet still so far away.IMG_2735

We climbed out of Aberfoyle making good progress, Nat had a serious second wind and hit the front. The light died around us and the bats started to dive bomb us. We had to be nearly there. The last section of this route took me to one of my lowest moments of the whole trip. Convinced that once we hit the suburbs of Glasgow we would be rolling along lit roads, we held onto the fact we were nearly there. We were so so wrong. The route suddenly switched off road, the rain came, the pitch blackness of the night surrounded us and in every direction there was no sign of the ambient light that might hint of the promise of the finish in Glasgow. We hit the west highland way, the track became rockier and more slippery. We were met with a wall of wet slippery rock in pitch blackness, I let out a whimper and ground to a halt. Pushing the bike my shoulders and back were burning, my right knee had stiffened up so much I was hobbling using the bike to lean on. Nat, also struggling with knee pain was quiet. Softly she said, over the next hill I’m sure we will see the lights of Glasgow. On and on we said this with each slippery climb and on and on the inky blackness of night continued. On road, off road, through gates, we stopped, we started, soaked to the skin every bit of me aching I was done, we just needed to see the finish. Finally we reached the main road of Glasgow. We stopped at the traffic lights and the sign said “Glasgow 7”. The tears came again, I could feel the warmth of them joining the cold rain on my face, I choked to Nat, I don’t think I can do 7 more miles. Nat turned to me and said “ come on we can do this, think about that cheerfulness in the face adversity saying you love so much” The lights turned green, we clipped in and put one pedal in front of another. The last section of the route runs through many bike paths and parks in Glasgow, in the dark even with the wahoo roam it was slow going to navigate and we both became increasingly frustrated. Under spooky bridges and underpasses we rode, I said to Nat “do you think we might get mugged? Its pretty scary round here”. She replied that the mere stench of us would be enough to put off any potential attackers. I’m sure she was right.

As we neared Glasgow city centre we passed more and more drinking establishments but none of them seemed to be the finish line. I was deeply disappointed we weren’t to finish at a bar called NiceNSleazy, but alas we pedalled on. When I finally felt I could pedal no more and I’d been overtaken by countless deliveroo riders the finish appeared on the wahoo map. As we rolled into the bar car park at 11pm at night in the pouring rain we heard a shriek and out ran Gilly. I have never been so pleased to see someone. Wrapped in a massive group hug we had made it. High fivers, fist pumps all round. Gilly’s wonderful husband Ross chucked the bikes in the back of the van and off we went in search of chips. Soon we would be tucked up in Gilly’s dressing gowns drinking whisky. Ross and Gilly’s kindness and hospitality is something I will never forget and I hope I can repay the favour one day soon.82b44495-218c-4ab3-8f2a-161578252e35

Reflecting on this trip has been hard. I never ever thought I could achieve something like this. I’m not a great mountain biker, I’m not even a great cyclist. It just shows that with the right frame of mind and some seriously good friends anyone can ride a really long way over really tough terrain. When I felt at my lowest ebb I tried hard to hold on to the fact that there would be peaks and troughs, with the lows would come the highs and I would at some point feel better. Nothing lasts forever and if you keep moving forward the pain and suffering will end, and if all else fails a packet of Rowntree’s raw raspberry jelly and a rousing rendition of “4 and 20 virgins came down from Inverness” will get you through just about anything.

All future bike packing trips will not involve racing and will involve countless stops at pubs and distilleries.6f57835c-73df-4fe9-8a23-02c8dfb39af2

Results and more info can be found at http://www.theracingcollective.com

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