Despite putting in the training and doing his homework, RJ Sauer had to contend with an unexpected challenge when he took on Scotland’s infamous Highland Trail 550: He only managed to sleep a few hours in five days, and not for lack of trying. Here’s his story of trying to keep it together while battling insomnia and delirium along the trail…
It’s midnight and I lie mummified in my bivy sack. I stare wide-eyed and restless into the milky night fog. Beneath me, loamy Highland moss. Nature’s perfect air mattress.
Nothing is happening.
I was never a gifted sleeper. Nap time was not my moment to excel. As a child, my preschool classmates would take to their cots like cream cheese to a bagel. I could only lie there and wait for the torture to end. Stare at the ceiling. Aimless wondering. Motionless wandering. Straight As but never straight Zs.
What is the point of this? We’re wasting time.
Nap time was a conspiracy to me. An unjust ritual to pacify the young. My mind buzzed, mimicking the hum of the now silent fluorescent lights blankly staring down at me. Inevitably, my cot and I were relegated to the toilets so I didn’t disrupt my gifted classmates.
Sleepers. The lot of them.
So, there I was. Forty-two years old. Me and my old demons. The skeletons of preschool insomnia. For all those sheep I counted across the Scottish Highlands, I couldn’t find a wink of sleep.
Tyndrum. KM 0. Day 1. Sleep: 0.
Never had the promise of pizza motivated so many.
‘Five minute warning’.
Highland 550 organizer Alan Goldsmith calls out from the makeshift start line. A gravel parking lot. The dull din of nerves hangs like a morning fog, sweating from the pores of the anxious group. And yet a relative calm and camaraderie exudes from the gathered crowd. Mostly racers. Close to 50 of us. Chatter of the 10:00 PM closing time of the coveted pizza joint in Fort Augustus – some 150 miles from the start line – ripples from rider to rider. Seems like fair motivation. If I have a strength, it’s eating. Dangle a carrot, I’ll follow.
I feel ready enough. I signed up for this year’s race well in advance. Did the training. Did the homework. But these events are more colossal pop quiz than year-end exam. No matter how hard you study. No matter how much you cram. You simply can’t have all of the answers. The question of my success was out there along the trail. Steep grades. No recess. I pass through it or I fail.
But for all my preparation, I’m a little concerned with my lack of sleep leading up to the start. That has not gone to plan. I’d had four or five hours in the last three days since arriving in Scotland from Vancouver, Canada. Including no sleep the night before. Full-fledged jet lag. I haven’t made up the eight hour time difference yet.
I guess active sleep recovery, then. Not ideal in the middle of an 850-kilometer ride over more than 15,000 meters of elevation gain. Up and down the equivalent of Everest twice. Self supported. Across new and foreign terrain.
The crack of the starter’s pistol. In this case, a casual cry of ‘go.’ The informal and unceremonious departure speaks to the alluring simplicity of the contest. An anxious clutter of over-scrutinized hubs, handlebars, cranksets, and wheelsets scrambles up the steep gravel path. Each minute and mile was precious terrain between us and the pie shop closing time.
The race within a race was on.
Correyairack Pass. Km 138. Day 1. Sleep: 0.
There’s far too much time to think. I ride through a wave of physical, geological, and emotional ups and downs. The first eight hours are frustrating. I can’t seem to find my stride. Or cadence, as it were. My power. My legs. I feel a sense of doubt.
Is it the sleep? Am I doomed already? Am I a fraud?
The earliest stages always offer a disproportionate level of anxiety. Inevitably, things fall into place. Time has a way of sorting things out. The frenetic adrenaline of preparation and the start line wash away.
I make up ground. Accumulating miles like interest in a savings account. This isn’t some aggressive stock exchange. Steady investment. Time and patience. It will all pay off in the long run. I catch other riders and feel a little more at ease. A sense of belonging. I start to look outward rather than inward. The Highland landscape wraps its arms around me. Invites me in. Its beauty is staggering. Disarming.
‘Just wait. Just wait.’
Those who have ridden the route before grin at my excitement. They know something I don’t. They know what’s coming. They know what’s in store. This is what I came for. It’s about the experience. Finding something new. Inside and out.
But for fuck’s sake, do better at the same time, you idiot.
There is far too much time to think.
In entering the Highland 550 my goals were simple.
Goal One: Get to the start line.
Often overlooked. This is the biggest challenge on so many levels. I had to make the commitment. Do the hard work. The homework. Stay healthy. Show up. Sacrifice time and money. The race was always the tip of the iceberg. All those hours of training behind me.
Goal Two: Finish.
There are so many variables from year to year that conspire against participants in a long-distance, self-supported endurance race. Some self-inflicted. Others inflicted by relentless exposure to fate. Bike mechanicals. Body mechanicals. Mental mechanicals. Any and all of these can strike at a moment’s notice.
Goal Three: Five days something.
Perhaps not a classic, inspirational maxim found in most top-selling, self-help books, but I just wanted a five at the front of my final time. Five something. Felt right.
Goal Four: Be competitive.
Not with anyone else. With myself. I wanted to push and challenge myself. Not just cruise through the course. Honour all those training hours. The investment. I owed that to the dedication of my past self. He had done all of the dirty work. The thankless preparation. Countless perspiration. Sacrifices. My present self was the benefactor. Carrying the baton. Relishing in the experience. Bringing it home. All of this for my future self. The spoiled asshole. The reveler. He could do whatever the hell he wanted. Eat. Drink. Rejoice. All on the weary shoulders of the past and present.
Fort Augustus. KM 150. Day 1 – 8:00 PM. Sleep: 0.
An edible armistice as waves of riders pile in and out of the restaurant. A safe house. The Fort Augustus pizza stop doesn’t disappoint. One hundred and fifty kilometres for a large Hawaiian. Never considered if they deliver. Those who are here are relieved they beat the self-prescribed cut-off. Where gas stations are the waypoints for a road trip, food stops are the waypoints for the bike trip.
Fully fueled, I push on with others to make extra miles before dark. Sunset comes late in the Scottish Highlands this time of the year. Riders disappear from the trail as they seek an idyllic camp for the first night. I stop at midnight. Roughly 175 kilometres total. I don’t even realize I’ve been riding along Loch Ness the past hour. No mythical beast in sight. How should I know?
I feel better. Settling in. This was where I hoped to reach on day one. A little flag noted on the Garmin eTrex GPS from the comfort of my sofa back home. Once a dot on a two-dimensional survey map. Now all too real. Tangible.
I bivy on the soft, mossy ground at the side of a service road with three other racers. Fast friends. Strangers at the start line. Now comrades in arms. These aren’t enemies. They’re allies. On a course like this, any contest is with the elements. The landscape. Ourselves. The results are a product of the final standing with myself. No one else.
I fidget. Can’t sleep. How is this possible? I’m working on a sleepless night and just rode for 15 hours. This all feels like recipe for a kip. I’m now psychologically conscious of the fact I’m not sleeping. It gets in my head.
Just sleep. Shut up. You sleep. No, you sleep.
Nothing is happening.
I decide to get up.
Loch Ma Stac. KM 180. Day 1. Sleep: 0.
It’s 3:00 AM and I have tossed and turned for a few hours. Sleep purgatory.
I skulk away from the makeshift camp while the others are cocooned in their bivy bags. They stir. I want to say something. Assure them this wasn’t some dubious strategy. Trick everyone into thinking I am sleeping then bust away in the night. Allies. Not enemies.
The night is beautiful. Or is it early morning? The world is still. The time when even the birds are silent. A magical glow from a sharp crescent moon reflects off the waters of a nearby loch. I am reminded of where I am. Scotland. The Highlands. A place I have wanted to explore for so long. Since I was a kid. Not sleepwalk through.
The experience is surreal. To land in a new place. A bubble where the world seems to simultaneously stand still and buzz by. I have been dropped suddenly into an unknown world. I’m at once hyper aware and oblivious. Intimately connected to it, but a total stranger. A first date and I have already moved in and married this place. A shotgun wedding.
My pace is slow. I stumble about. Struggle to find a path in the darkness. Not exactly breaking records. I finally find the makings of a trail. Or more the faint, occasional tracks of those ahead of me. Learning fast that the trail isn’t always something marked or visible. I make a better pace. False invigoration. Like a shot of caffeine.
But the sleep. Or lack thereof. It’s already an issue.
The sun creeps over the horizon with an incredible purple glow. I pass lumps of humans and abandoned bikes along the trail.
Sleepers. The lot of them. I resent their recovery.
A hare darts onto the road. He races frantically in front of me. His legs whirl in a mad cadence, kicking up a comical trail of dust. I assume I have startled him in the early hours. But there are too many options. He could have run anywhere. Why run out right in front of me? No. This hare isn’t startled. He was waiting. Races me. A ritual I am sure he has played out with all the riders who passed before me.
The hare swerves off the road into the fields and morning mist, circling back to reset his game. The symbolism isn’t lost on me. Surely I am the tortoise.
Sure enough, I feel my pace falter. I have ridden alone for five or six hours. I look around at the soft, sunny meadows. Pillowy duvets. Consider trying to sleep. Each grassy knoll a seductive siesta. A fellow racer pushes his bike up the steep pitch behind me. One of my bivy-mates the night before. I wait. His presence encourages me to keep riding. The dread of being left behind propping up my heavy eyelids.
Contin. KM 248. Day 2. Sleep: 0.
We stick together and arrive in the small village of Contin by midday. Hit the shop for food and supplies. Chocolate milk. Chips. Canned pears. A coffee. Yeah. Good one. Just what the doctor ordered.
I’m still concerned about my lack of sleep. Other riders arrive with at least five hours under them. Impromptu junk food picnics pop up everywhere. I feel good about my position. Or at least I did. Until I decide to try to get my first bout of sleep. I feel it isn’t realistic to maintain my pace. I have already noticed my speed and focus dropping with about 48 hours since my last sleep. I see a nice patch of grass calling out to me so I decide to give it a go. To sleep for an hour.
Nothing happens. Tossing. Turning.
I’ll have to find sleep elsewhere. Somewhere. Out there. It must be waiting for me.
The rain persists throughout the day. It rejuvenates me. A distraction. This is the weather I expected. Prepared for. It seems to complement this place. A well-tailored suit of drizzle and fog.
A group of us coagulate at the inn at Oykel Bridge. This is one of two places where the race route loops back on itself. A proverbial checkpoint and crossroads. There are no official stages. No real support or organized stations. This is it. A place to refuel. Commiserate. Laugh. File away a section of the race. We rely on the opening hours and goodwill of small local businesses.
From here, we embark in staggered waves to put a dent in the northernmost loop. A mysterious section that promises remote landscapes and rugged terrain. And lots of pushing.
By 11:00 PM, I bivy out with another rider. Manage to scrape out about an hour of sleep from five hours of trying. A terrible ratio. Self-inflicted torture.
KM 356. Day 2. Sleep: 1 hour.
We set out in a dense morning fog and immediately begin climbing. Within the milky shroud, the silhouetted spectres of fellow bikepackers prep and load their bikes. They emerge and join the procession. A slow slog to the height of another summit. We crest and quickly drop into the void of misty clouds. Screaming blindly. A rocket ship soaring through space.
I glance down at my Garmin eTrex mounted to my handlebars. The Oracle. The GPS fortune teller. Staring into the future terrain. The carefully crafted route provided months before the start is loaded and displayed on my screen, represented by a distinct magenta line. It is our responsibility to follow that line with the expectation that upon completion we will hand over our files as proof we adhered to the route. There was some debate on just how much precision is required. Many riders wouldn’t dare stray a millimetre off the virtual course, often leading people to wander aimlessly across fields when a clear trail vanishes.
I remain loyal to my virtual escort even when the magenta line seemed to lead me astray. Although sometimes it’s a dangerous trust. A blind faith.
In the end, I come to realize the navigation is actually quite easy. The common knowledge is that if there is a fork in the road, go up. Never down. It’s sound logic that fails me only once or twice. In the thick fog of Bealach Horn I have gone up too far. A redundant summit. I retrace my tracks. Reminded once again that the race route isn’t always a trail at all. In the magenta line we trust.
I drop down into a cradle of quintessential Scottish scenery. Or at least the picture I had painted in my mind when I dreamed of this place. A childish cliche. Forged from fairy tales and Hollywood fables. A mist hangs in the air. A silky white comb over on the head of the mountain tops. My imagination conjures a stereotypical pack of kilted Highlanders running bravely through the mud. Weaving like ghosts between rocks and lochs.
The surrounding hills are ever watchful. Silent sentries. Guarding for centuries. They peer momentarily from behind their curtains of fog. Suspicious neighbours secretly glancing out their windows. Cynical. They know I’m not from here. A trespasser. Just passing through.
Lochinver. KM 490. Day 2. Sleep: 1 hour.
The final push down the northern loop is just that. A push. The boulders on the trail seem strategically placed. Just enough to knock us off the bike every time we feel confident enough to clip in. But the disadvantage of walking affords us the opportunity to appreciate the beauty around us. To soak it in. Talk. Laugh. We are lucky to be here.
Four of us race the fading light, our heads buried in our Garmin screens, trying to ensure we are following the right path. We fan out and crisscross through the rocks and the grass. A sort of search party looking for an invisible needle in a haystack. Our fear of not sticking precisely to the virtual trail is getting the better of us as each Garmin seems to have a mind of its own. Or they have simply conspired together to prey on our vulnerable minds in an AI takeover. We have officially become sheep, like so many of the herds we pass throughout the fields.
We have come full circle and arrive back in Oykel Bridge in the darkness. Two of my fellow riders have already stopped to bivy out. Another rider and I whizz past the Inn, our previous resting spot on our way heading north.
We are surprised to see a light on. Bodies moving inside. We stop. Tentatively approach and stare through the window. There’s simultaneous gawking back through the glass. Spectators looking in. Spectators looking out. A sort of two-way exhibit on the contrasts of humanity. The haves and the have nots. One caked in grime, fatigue, and desperation. One with cake.
We apprehensively twist the knob to the entrance. As if testing newly grown opposable thumbs. Skeptical. Not wanting to shatter the hope. The mirage of this Highland oasis. The knob turns. The door opens. The dry, warm air blazes past like a fiery backdraft.
‘Would you like a chicken curry or veal stew?’
Not the sort of choices I had expected to end my evening. The crowd is a few pints in. We are all intoxicated. Stupefied. Only slightly different vices.
Yes. Whatever you are asking me. Yes. With a side of Ambien.
Oykel Bridge. KM 512. Day 2. Sleep: 1 hour.
I lie sleepless by the river outside the Inn. Miserable. I have come to dread the night. I should be at rest. Instead, I am stressed. Now it’s a thing. A self-induced “condition”.
I watch the midges swarm outside my netting. Midges are the Highland brethren of the mosquito. A mob of buzzing laughter. They gather to watch the spectacle of sleeplessness. My traveling sideshow in lethargy. As the audience continues to grow, I appreciate why midges are referred to only in the plural. There is no midge. Only midges.
I feel achy. Nauseous. So stupid. Six hours pass with maybe a few minutes here and there of partial dozing. Each second I believe the next will bring an activity-induced coma. My sleeping bag has turned on me. Falsely advertised. A hypocrite. A complete waste of time. I can’t take it any longer. I might as well be moving. I try to wake my fellow racer, mummified in silence. I feel a fierce loyalty to the people I camp with. Perhaps a race weakness. Allies. Comrades. Fast friends.
Shit… What’s his name?
We first met on the trail days ago. Names shared in passing without the context or forewarning of this moment. Like a true modern explorer, I pull out my iPhone. My priorities momentarily skewed. I manage to find a participant list and peruse it. Matt? No. Nick? No. I lob a few designations at his tent. Silence. A sleeper.
I slip from my bivy. The sack of suffering. The body bag. The midge paparazzi immediately converges. Swarms. Bites. Microscopic aerial piranha.
I pack my bike. Swat. Wave. The dance of insect insanity. I continue through the race list. Pacing manically in the darkness. My tone more desperate. Louder. Neil. It’s Neil! My psychotic cry snaps him from his slumber. I’m not sure he appreciates my loyalty. I encourage him to push on. He reluctantly packs up.
Before long, we reach a new and well maintained bothy affectionately known as the “Schoolhouse”. It’s easy to see why. Several of us stop to eat our breakfast, safe from the swarming midges. A greasy cheeseburger has been coagulating in my camelbak for a day now. Delicious.
Ullapool. 550 km. Day 3. Sleep: 1 hour.
We roll through the seaside town of Ullapool. Marauders pillaging the shops and cafes with credit cards. Waving them in the air like pistols. Hoarding the edible spoils of civilization. Whatever we can fit in our shrinking stomachs and bike bags is ripe for the picking.
Perhaps a disproportionately sized morsel of an adventure pie chart, these moments of polarizing joy and triumph seem like worthy recompense. Putting civilian life brunch to sheer, utter shame.
Stuffed and marinated, I leave Ullapool with one other racer to tackle the Queen stage – the hardest, most demanding, and likely most spectacular section of the race.
If nothing else, this will knock some sleep into me, I assume.
Dundonnell Forest. KM 587. Day 3. Sleep: 1 hour.
Both hands grip firmly on the handlebars. Flexed. Fingers on the brakes. I brace the worn, calloused toes squished and burning inside my bikes shoes into the small ruts on the trail. Digging in like a batter in the batter’s box. Throw the front wheel onto the next rock ledge. Snap the brakes hard and the wheels clamp and hold. Step up. Brace. Throw. Step up. Brace. Throw. Like an ice climber with a pick axe. Clambering up one bike length at a time.
The term hike-a-bike takes on a new meaning. I had no false illusion there would be no pushing in the Highland 550. It’s part of most bikepacking races. In fact, getting off the bike was sometimes a psychological break. A chance to change things up. A reprieve for the lacerated, calloused ass. Prior to leaving for Scotland, I had used the metaphor that we would climb and descend the equivalent height of Everest two times over. Perhaps I should have taken heed of my own analogy. Packed crampons instead of clipless pedals.
Before the race, I had studied the grades on the elevation chart. Cross referenced meters in height with distance in kilometres. Drawing comparisons to compartmentalize in my mind. Theoretical topographical tracing paper. The conclusions I had drawn on paper were painted abstract by the reality of the Scottish Highlands. Surreal when met with fatigue. Perhaps when you live in a smaller country you need to be economical in how you carve your roads. I contemplated if there was a Scottish word for switchback. Maybe there was a stubborn disdain for the concept. A straight line, no matter the grade, is a perfectly good solution up a hill. Get on with it.
We pass a lone fisherman at a loch. He is clearly confused. ‘I’ve never seen bikes up here. I’ve seen ten go by this morning’. His confusion is founded. It’s not a daily ritual. More an annual migration. Herds of bikepackers pushing upstream. Fish out of water.
I race the sun to the top as it inches toward the horizon. It pulls me to the summit of the climb as if we are two opposing sides of a scale. Each weighing the other’s stubborn perseverance. I bonked ages ago. Determined not to stop and fuel out of fear of whatever views await me at the top.
I finally crest. The sun streaks across plateau. I spin along the narrow single-track and join two Scottish racers. This is their home. They beam with pride. Like tour guides making good on the promise of a trip of a lifetime. This isn’t new to them, but they are no less awe-inspired. None of us take for granted the perfect spectacle of light and landscape we’re immersed in. The perfect tonic for race organizer animosity. Bitterness for the grueling route it took to get here. All is forgiven.
I find a forgotten can of Coke in my seat bag. It isn’t champagne, but it will do. We celebrate the moment. Surely a little caffeinated camaraderie isn’t against race rules?
The show isn’t over. The Highlands always seem to have an encore. A never-ending setlist of scenery. Only a short distance along the trail, the plateau squeezes into a deep valley. I go numb immediately. This can’t be real. Even the sun seems to be taking its time to set, awestruck by its own illumination.
I stop. Perched front and center to a widescreen, panoramic masterpiece. Truly what must be one of the great gems of our world. I’ve never seen anything like it. A place where words and images are powerless. I strain my neck in either direction just to take it all in. It must be fake. Fiction. A fairytale. Am I finally sleeping? Dreaming?
I feel I have benefited from the presence of my Scottish companions, somehow. I have snuck in through the backdoor. Through the wardrobe into another world. As if they have taken my hand and walked me down the Yellow Brick Road. A secret peek behind the curtain never before seen by outsiders. I tighten my helmet. Click my heels into my pedals, drop in, and soar down into Neverland.
Later, I climb into my bivy bag. The masochistic ritual. Houdini performing his nightly trick. How quickly will he manage to extract himself this time? I lie bundled in the damp fog, listening to the derisive snores of my compatriots echo from the din.
I don’t even bother to wake them this time. I let them sleep. I pack my bike and return to the trail. I stumble through the fog. Literally and figuratively. Stags watch stoically as I stagger past. Unafraid and undaunted. My pace is non-threatening. I am no predator. I wallow at the bottom of the food chain.
The path drops down to Loch Maree. I struggle to find the route. Riding in circles. I pass the same grazing horses three times. They finally start to follow me, thinking it is some sort of game or dressage routine. I pass a couple of tents. More sleepers. Garmin, the Oracle, is nauseous from the spinning. I can’t make heads or tails of the trail. It is the fourth day and I’ve had two hours of sleep.
Wester Ross. 610 KM. Day 4. Sleep: 2 hours.
The Postman’s Path is a stuporous journey. The narrow, straight singletrack feels like a flimsy high wire dangling over a bottomless precipice. It taunts me. A perfectly rideable trail reduced to a failed roadside sobriety test. One wobbly foot after the other. I drag my bike. Curse my inebriated form.
My will is tested by a collapsed tree blocking a gully crossing. A breeding ground for midges. I search the woods for the Postman. Lurking. Watching with pleasure. Axe caressed cockily by hand. Snickering. Throwing obstacles in my path. And my path alone. Like somehow no one else is suffering.
No. The Postman is out to get me. Only me.
KM 630. Day 4. Sleep 2 hours.
In the wilds of the Scottish Highlands, the sun is a mythological beast. If encountered, never look it in the eye. Don’t acknowledge its presence. Skittish. Reclusive. Elusive. It will plunge behind the mountains. Scurry into hiding. Lost in the clouds and the mist. Never to be seen again. Today it stalks me. I keep my head down. Refuse to lament the furled rain gear weighing down my seat bag.
Our stop in Kinlochewe is bittersweet. My decision to let a small group of fellow racers carry on without me is pacified only by the incredible baked goods on offer at the local cafe. I nod off at the table as we all work our way through the menu. Delirious laughter bubbles to the surface as we recall the misery of the past day. I finally feel as if my mind and body may be unified in the act of sleeping. I can’t resist.
Two big climbs and the promise of some technical decent loom ahead. I want to ride. A reasonable desire given this bike I’m dragging along. I decide my only hope is to stop and nap.
Goal two: finish.
Six riders push on without me. It’s like saying goodbye to old friends after a surreal, long weekend in the woods. It’s exactly that. Fast friends. We wish each other well. I lumber along the route. A bear meandering in search of the perfect place for hibernation. A random forest ranger or construction worker or messiah appears in the distance. Emerging from a stock of trees. What is he doing here?
He calls out, ‘you’re heading to a dead end’.
I can’t be sure how prophetic his warning is. But it suggests I’m heading in the right direction. Sure enough, I come to the end of a dirt road. And there it waits. A Highland sanctuary. If I am hallucinating, I don’t care. I accept any illusion so long as it is cast by the Sandman.
A narrow trail carries on into the Torridon Hills. The utopian cover of a children’s book. A small, tin-clad cabin awaits. I tether my bike like a horse. Lay out my gear to dry. Inside, I curl up in a corner. I find two hours of sleep here. A merciful, mountain hut offering. A package of slumber left like an unwanted can of sardines or a half-used propane canister gifted to me by a previous tenant, now just a signed name in the cabin journal.
I am grateful for the sleep scraped from the shelter cabin. Even if only two more hours. My first back to back, consecutive hour in more than five days. I can almost see the blurry image of my preschool teachers looking down at me. Smiling. ‘Thank god he’s finally asleep’.
I regain enough cohesiveness and coordination to actually ride my bike through the incredible terrain of the Torridon Hills. Winding, ascending singletrack. Steep, rocky descents. I am disappointed in having been left behind, but rejuvenated by the exhilaration of the trail. I spend the rest of the day on my own. It’s the first time I feel alone. Not lonely. But a sense that I am truly racing against myself. No one else was trudging along making their way to a finish line.
Dornie. KM 687. Day 4. Sleep: 4 hours.
I miss the shops in Dornie, but enjoy an extra big meal at the pub before they close. Not sure when I will get more food again. I have to ask my servers to open my sauce packets. My fingers are locked in permanent atrophy. A side effect of the arms and body locked into handlebars over 15 hours a day.
‘It’s alright dear. I have small kids’. She tears open my ketchup with pity.
The sun sets as I ride out of Dornie. Away from the comforts of human construct. I ride up. There is only one way but up. I glance down at castle Eilean Donan looming over Loch Duich. Its stoic beauty is not lost on me. A Shakespearean backdrop. I am filled with a calm and contentment. I am lucky to be a player.
If ‘all the world’s a stage’, the Highland 550 takes us behind the curtains. Through the private domain and backstage of Scotland. Out of the limelight of the touristic centrepieces and into the play itself.
Last scene of all,
That ends this strange eventful history,
Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.
And most of all sans feeling in the hands.
I race toward Glen Affric. My dull, weary mind dubs it Ben Affleck. Thinks it’s hilarious. Compelled to repeat the joke incessantly like a senile uncle. I humour myself. Alone in the black of night. My tires roll over the bumpy track. A two-wheeled icebreaker barging through an endless sea of slumbering sheep. They scurry to either side. A wake of fluffy white phosphorescence glimmering in the moonlight. I apologize for my late arrival. Count as many as I can. Begging for more sleep. Three bags full. The road ends. A narrow path scales up. Must be the way.
Ha. Ben Affleck.
A deranged giddiness washes over me. I relish in the unique circumstances. This is what it’s all about. Experiences. Moments that can never be planned or replicated. Years of memories stuffed into a time capsule in my brain. Lingering scars are tattoos of past pain. Suffering. But they are superficial compared to soul-filling moments such as these, planted deep inside.
Ha. Ben Affleck.
I climb in complete darkness. A push of faith up an invisible trail. The wise Magenta Line of Garmin illuminating my route into the pass. The wind howls. Scowling at my presence. The projected direction doesn’t make sense in the veil of darkness. Eerie. No sense of depth to the landscape, save a fading glimmer painting waves across the sky. The silhouetted mountain ridges stack into the distance with only subtle changes of grey to differentiate them. Beside me, the mountain drops off into a deep abyss. I shuffle over. Minimize my margin of error. Anticipating a gust of wind to whisk me away. A tired slip. The difficulty and hardship make it tangible. Real. I am altogether exhausted yet wide awake with the acute reality of it all.
Where are you leading me? I continue to trust the battery-powered, energized Garmin. A better bet over the drained, human-powered me.
Shut up. Push.
I laugh. Ha. Ben Affleck.
KM 714. Day 4. Sleep: 4 hours.
It’s 3:00 AM and my headlamp illuminates several bikes leaned against the stone walls of the Camban Bothy. A tiny fortress in the night. The fully loaded bikes, tethered like mules, validate my predetermined choice to attempt a nap inside.
Why bother? Purely ceremonial. Pomp and circumstance. I had yet to truly experience a Bothy. In other words, feign sleeping within its walls. This was on my checklist. And my last chance. Like the Alaskan hunting cabins strung out along the Iditarod trail, the Scottish bothies were romantic little dots connecting my trail. Aside from temporary shelter, they provide a mental assurance of progress and suggest a meaningfulness to the trail. I would lie down. Wait for the first alarm to go off. Follow my fellow rider out onto the trail.
Sleep never comes. A brief hallucination involving freezing to death. Wrong race. A cacophony of snores and restless, unattended alarm clocks seemingly set for every minute of every time zone. Is this a barracks or a bothy? Someone stirs on the wooden bunk below. Wrestles with his bike. His fatigue wafts like the morning mist brewing outside. Time to get up. Another hour and a half well wasted. No. Part of the experience.
He stumbles to his bike. Fumbles with weak hands. Plastic clips like giant iron shackles. Everything a little more difficult. I follow him back on the trail. The lure of the presence of another athlete is intoxicating. Perhaps just a familiarity of smell. Eau de bikepacking.
The sun floods across the valley. I am treated to a spectacle missed by riding through the previous night. Another racer emerges from behind me. I clearly didn’t see him bivied out during the night. Could have pushed right over him. A soft, mossy humanoid. We become silent partners in our mutual goal of Fort Augustus. Our second time through on our journey back south to the finish line.
I am pulled forward by his slipstream of his anxiousness to complete this journey. It is his third attempt and nothing will stop him reaching the finish. I know that. Another ally. Another fast friend. I have come to appreciate the fact that for many this is their second or third attempt to complete this race.
Goal two. Finish.
I feel a deep respect for their commitment. Draft in their resilience. I know the race hasn’t exactly gone to plan for me on this first attempt. Thwarted by a nightly act that seems so natural at home. But three of four goals are still in sight. Perspective.
We misjudge the final distance into town. In our presumption of our imminent arrival, I bonk. Carelessly neglecting to fuel. A careless mistake. It’s easy to get complacent when short-term strategies are muddied by long term goals. I need to stay focused. I think what I really need is to sleep. With a brief wrong turn. Shedding of layers. A crap in the woods. My fast friend is faster than I thought, and he is gone.
Fort William. KM 825. Day 5. Sleep: 4 hours
I roll into town. The most civilization I have seen since starting. I feel like a bandito. A one man, biker gang. Stoically brandishing the Highland 550 coat of arms. Dirt. Grime. Sweat. Stuffed bike bags draped like sacks on a pack mule.
I throw on my brakes. Nik sits on a bus stop bench outside a Fort William food store. He scarfs a small bucket of chocolate ice cream. Shit yeah, that’s what I have been craving for miles. I run inside the store. All other humans are invisible. Normal aisles featuring the usual food groups are dead to me. I pillage the shelves. I’m here for fat. Not the good kind. No avocados and coconut oil. That’s so pre-race. Training food. My stomach is a coal engine. I’m looking for coal.
I take the bench beside Nik. We talk dangerously. Of finish lines and celebration. Too early for that. Still much to do. Still much to climb. Personal goals to meet. A time with a “5” in front of it.
Goal three. Five days something. I can make that.
He rides off. One small bucket of ice-cream ahead of me.
I’m feeling pretty good. Despite another 30-hour stretch of sleeplessness. The a la mode taste of finishing loiters in my mouth. I look over my shoulder. Search for disaster. I have a little discussion with my bike. Negotiate some deals. Essentially, sell my soul to avoid puncture or mechanical. A little short-term karma withdrawal. All but guaranteeing a future bike calamity.
I start the first of the final four steep bumps on the elevation chart. In truth, mountains. I reach the top of a service road climb. Check the Oracle. Wait. The Magenta Line on the Garmin display plays tricks with me. My blue line track doesn’t match. I realize I rode past two short, divergent paths. Short cuts turned long cuts that make the defined route. Seriously? The Oracle might have spoken. Thanks Garmin. No need to argue. The Magenta Line is king. It dictates all. I turn around. Bomb down the road and pick up the trail where I missed it. Retrace the climb. What’s a little extra climbing? This isn’t a 100-meter dash. It’s a marathon.
An hour later, I reach the height of a munro. A summit. Is it a summit? Is it the top of a hill? A sub-summit of a larger summit? A middle summit between the actual summit? What constitutes a summit? I’m fixated on the topographical bumps I must overcome before starting the final climb up the backside of the Devil’s Staircase. Have I done one? Two? Is this the third? Wait, this had stairs. Was this the Devil’s Staircase. No, you idiot. This is not the Devil’s Staircase. Too much time to think.
Mentally compartmentalizing time and distance is always the most difficult part in long-distance events. If you start thinking too far ahead, the landscape stretches into an insurmountable universe. You wallow. Swallowed into the blackhole of the infinite trail. The distance must be broken down into bite-sized chunks.
I see a sign. It points to a path to the Devil’s Staircase. My pace quickens. I’m suddenly feeling a strange stress. The sun is dropping. Darkness is rolling in fast. What is this staircase? I glance up the switchbacks. See figures move in the distance. A wild beast. Handlebars for antlers. It stares back down at me. A glimmer of light from its helmet. A glimmer of hope. It spurs me on. The appearance of another from our migrating herd assures me I’m not the only one slogging across this trail. Others suffer, too. Validation. Suffering is best shared.
I push harder. Trapped in the purgatory of endless switchbacks. As if somehow my fate is in the balance. If last over the top, I will be sacrificed to the Gods. Garmin dies. I reboot. The batteries die. I replace them. Must record proof of my passage. Night has fallen. I still manage to climb within reach of other racers.
I dive down the loose, rocky trail with reckless abandon. My second commandment, “finish”, scratched off my tome. Screw finishing. The adrenalin of the downhill poisons my brain as we thrash through the darkness. Blurry boulders. Cliff edges. Gaps. Everything whisks by like a dream. I pass comrades like a raging avalanche. Storming forward from one trench to the next. Little fireflies weaving through the night into the unseen valley below. Its reckless. And exhilarating.
The final stretch to the finish line sucks. Straight out of a David Lynch extended director’s cut. A painfully abstract fallacy. The night is impossibly dark. My headlamp casts a dull pool of light. A flickering beam projecting a rocky path in front of me. It whisks past like the sea under the hull of a boat. I only assume I am rushing downhill as my pace quickens without any pedal strokes.
My senses have gone numb. The final phase of sleep deprivation. And I have made the fatal flaw of letting my mind finish before the course has. Whispers from the darkness. I swivel. Look around. Must be the omnipotent viewers following along on Trackleaders speaking through their computer screens. Lording over me. Urging me forward. Playing the home game.
I swear I have been here before. Have I ridden here before? No. You haven’t. Am I going in circles? No. You aren’t. Am I moving forward? Yes. You are. A giant bull suddenly appears in my halo of light. He stands sternly guarding the middle of the road. I slam on the brakes. Skid out. Sliding across the gravel. My helmet and headlamp pop off and into the ditch. Its light shines back on me and the scene.
I lay there for a moment. Searching for the humour in it. Nope. No humour. Chalk out of humour. The bull looms over me. Stares me down. I assure him he does not have to assert his dominance over me. Emasculation complete. I collect my helmet from the gutter. Skulk past. No eye contact. A gored matador.
Where the hell am I? I have lost all perception. I am convinced my Garmin is toying with me. Extending the magenta line endlessly in jest. I whisk past a dead body already wrapped in a body bag lying motionless next to a bike on the side of the cobblestone trail. I assume it is Nik. Crashed out. Gored by a bull. Poor Nik.
I realize it’s Jenny. What the hell? I didn’t even know she was ahead of me. I remember her light had died earlier in the race. She was stranded. Shipwrecked on an island of darkness. Forced to bivy out until sunrise.
I stop. Turn around. Stumble back to wake her.
She stirs. Her head pops out of the bivy and peers through the midge netting. Blinded by my headlamp. Salt in the wound.
‘It’s RJ. I have a light. You can follow me’. A sailor being led ashore by a lighthouse.
I don’t really think about the race rules. It doesn’t dawn on me. It dawns on Jenny. No outside help. She is grateful for the offer but disappears into her cocoon. She’ll wait for dawn. I am envious. I’m not sure which is better. A finish line or sleep. I hope they will soon be one and the same.
A blinking red bike light lies on the ground at the side of the trail. A cheap, ten dollar, omnipotent eye. Watching for finishers. The pomp and circumstance is befitting of the setting. Something about the journey and not the destination.
I look down at my Garmin. Sure enough, the ever-reaching Magenta Line ends. Abruptly severed. A little emoticon checkered flag. I zoom out. Zoom in. Need to be sure. As if the trail was some endless, addictive line of cocaine.
There is nowhere left to go. I’m not sure what to do. Nothing left for me to follow. Servitude completed. I search for the trumpeters. The fireworks. The adoring fans. I find only solitude. Despite my stupor, I can appreciate the moment. Deep down, that’s all I really want. All I need. All I was looking for.
And perhaps just a few more hours of sleep. A little internal ‘fuck yeah’ before rolling off into the darkness with a contorted mix of grin and grimace. A grinace. The visage of a good adventure. The fine line between masochism and rapture.
I find a quiet corner in the world. And I sleep.
876 KM. 5 Days 19 hours. 15,000 Meters. Sleep: 4 hours.
Interested in learning more about the Highland Trail 550? Be sure to check out the Highland Trail 550 route here. You can also find a video we posted about the ride last year, The Fellowship.
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