All At Once: Vignettes from the 2023 Highland Trail 550 (Film)
“All At Once” is a new film from Catherine Dunn, the Steezy Collective, and Alt. Film House that follows seven women as they endeavor to complete the most grueling bikepacking race in the UK, the esteemed Highland Trail 550. Find the 17-minute film with behind-the-scenes photos by James Robertson and a written introduction from director Catherine Dunn here…
This year, the Highland Trail had more women participating in the annual mass start than ever before, largely down to the efforts of route creator Alan Goldsmith. There has been a groundswell of women participating in ultra-distance cycling events in the UK in the last number of years, and the 2023 edition of the 550-mile self-supported Highland Trail seemed to represent a major milestone.
The route consists of three unique loops stretching across the Scottish Highlands and is seen by many as one of the most challenging routes on the bikepacking calendar. With a near 50/50 gender split for the 2023 mass start, it was a great opportunity to make a film about this famous route from a female perspective.
Making a film is often a linear process of preparation, production, and post-production. But, as with many adventurous stories, this film did not lend itself to a linear process. The conventional story arc that we’ve seen so many times (the “hero’s journey”) no longer feels fit for purpose; taking on a difficult challenge and overcoming adversity is a black-and-white take on adventure and doesn’t necessarily reflect the wider breadth of experiences. For this film, we started out by seeking volunteers—women who would be riding the Highland Trail 550 and were keen to share their story.
Our final lineup of seven women was Cat Magill, Jade Field, Jaimi Wilson, Lynne Davies, Molly Weaver, Peg Leyland, and Philippa Battye. First-hand filming is so important in this kind of film; taking on a long-distance bike ride is such a personal experience, so it felt right that outside filming did not intrude on rider experience. Each rider was given a small action-cam and a filming brief, but each rider’s story was left to them to craft. As a filmmaker, it can be scary to go into a project without an idea of what the final outcome will look like, but in this instance, it felt like the most genuine approach.
As the riders left Tyndrum on the Saturday May 27th, it was important to let go of any narrative control of the project. The riders would capture diary-style content of their experiences, whatever they may be, and it would be my job to capture snapshots of the route from a distance to provide broader context. I always remember James Robertson, ultra-cycling photographer extraordinaire, saying how “uncoverable” a lot of ultra-cycling races are—and so they should be.
Authentic snapshots are the most we can realistically aspire to gather, and even those can be tricky to capture. For a rider who hasn’t seen another human for several days, smiling and waving when they see a familiar face (a photographer or filmmaker) is almost an instinctive reaction. But, as soon as they have acknowledged your presence, you’re not authentically capturing their experience of the ride. Thankfully, I had James with me to guide me through some of the best spots to uniquely capture this enigmatic route.
We began at the start line, where nervous excitement lay heavy in the air. Despite our seven volunteers being the focus of the film, the additional material I would be gathering would focus on the whole field of riders. The place of media in ultra-races has come under scrutiny in recent years as people have debated whether riders can gain a notable advantage from knowing that a friendly face may be around the corner.
As a filmmaker, the last thing I want to do is influence the race, not just because I wouldn’t want to give an unfair advantage to those participating in the project, but because I want to capture the riders without filter, in their most candid moments as they are truly experiencing the race. This is a tough ask, especially as a large portion of the Highland Trail is on open and exposed terrain.
Getting creative with hiding places or using the drone to capture riders from above is often the best option, but there are also times when you can’t avoid being seen and, whilst it’s not necessarily a true representation of the rider’s experience of the Highland Trail, their reaction can give an intriguing insight into their mental state.
As we worked our way round the Highland Trail route, we were constantly engaged in a balancing act of work and energy conservation; being awake and ready for the most spectacular moments of a ride that reaches some of the most remote areas of Scotland is no easy feat. Ensuring you’re ready for those chance encounters during a 20-hour day can be challenging, but the high you can get from capturing a completely unique moment is a total joy.
Editing a film is by far my favourite part of the process, and it’s where the final narrative is crafted. This one was a difficult edit, not least because I was working with organic stories that hadn’t been planned out, but because each rider’s personal and unique story needed to be faithfully represented—all in the space of around 15 minutes!
The majority of editing time consisted of watching and rewatching rider’s videos, drawing links between experiences, and creating a story arch that fundamentally explored why people take part in the Highland Trail 550. The question I found most intrigue in asking was, “How can someone feel such intense discomfort or pain whilst experiencing such a profound sense of joy and happiness?” I hope this film goes some way to answering this question. My thanks to Ortlieb Waterproof and Mason for their support.
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