But quite how I ended up in an en-suite bedroom free of charge takes some explaining.
Last year on the HT550 I finished in 5 days 2 hours and 38 minutes. Not bad, actually now I look at it it's a decent time, but I knew I'd made mistakes and that with very little extra effort I could get under five days. I made a plan.
Then I threw it away and made another. And another. And, yeah, you get the idea. It wasn't until a few days before I was due to head north that I had a lightbulb moment. There was one point where I'd messed up my timings, I just had to get to that point two hours earlier and I'd be fine. What's more I wouldn't actually need to ride any faster than I had last year. I made another plan and went over it in my head again and again. The plan seemed good. I went to sleep. The plan still seemed good the following day and the next. Good!
Leaving the rain of Northern England behind I headed up the M6 and into Scotland with a live version of Led Zeppelin's Trampled Underfoot blasting out of the car stereo. Sunshine, Led Zep, (thinking of) biking, doesn't get much better than that. The plan was still in place.
Familiar faces and new at Tyndrum. We rode over the hill again for a drink and chat by the burn. Back into the village for something to eat then bed.
5am and it's fully light and there's people moving on the campsite fettling their bikes. Eventually I join them then it's time for breakfast.
|Craig Thomson, Matt Mcwhirr and Jenny Graham at the Real Food Cafe|
A bit of milling around, some words were spoken and then Jenny sets us away. Usual plan, let the fast riders head off then ride at my own pace. The advantage of this is that the first technical bit isn't then a crush as you head down to the railway.
I get the correct right turn this time and it's a long drag up and over to Glen Lyon, not helped by a headwind. I'm riding around various riders I know and we chat away - basically if you can chat then you are going at the right pace.
|The track along Loch Lyon|
Past the cafe, a bit early to stop plus I'm drinking and eating OK. I manage the climb out of Glen Lyon in one this time but I notice that I can't get into bottom gear. I'll fix that later. (of course I never did) Alan G passes me at the top of the climb and notes "This heat will cause some riders problems". Whether it was aimed at me or not it was about then that I felt the onset of cramp. After just three hours!
What followed next wasn't pleasant. All power in my legs began to go, even on the flat I was struggling. At the start of the next climb not only were my legs a worry but so was my stomach, I felt distinctly "queasy". A couple of riders pass me, "Are you OK?", "I feel a bit ill and I might pu..." with that I was retching but nothing really came back up.
|Heading to Ben Alder|
So it continued. A bit of riding, a bit of retching, a bit of walking as the cramps were now taking hold. By the time I was crossing the first hike-a-bike (actually mostly ridable this year as it was so dry) to Benalder Cottage my retching was now vomiting. A couple of riders suggest I get into the bothy and out of the sun and have a rest for a while. I'm in a bad way.
|At Benalder Cottage|
A while later I set off on the singletrack around Ben Alder. This is one of the highlights of the first day but I can't do it justice, I've no energy to hop the water bars and soon enough there's a "pssst" as my rear wheel hits a particularly sharp edge. I run tubeless but I've dinged the rim and the tyre isn't holding air. Out with the spare inner tube.
I'm on 29" wheels and the inner tube is 27.5"! Still it will stretch. Except that the sealant makes everything ultra slippy and the exertion makes me want to vomit again. Another rider passes and provides a third hand and the tube and tyre are on. Inflating the tube is another matter, I just want to throw up. Eventually I'm on my way again but it's for all of five minutes as I hit another water bar and the tube goes. Instant thought:
How to get back to Tyndrum? Just over the first bealach is a glen that heads down to Loch Ossian and Corrour station. There's a stalker's track by the burn in the glen. That's plan B, not had one of those before so might as well use it.
I plod on, easing the back wheel of the bike over any rocks or water bars trying not to do any more damage. I rest by a burn and bring up the last of my breakfast. Whatever disagreed with me is now gone and I don't vomit again.
|Ben Alder singletrack|
There's no path down from the bealach it's just plough down through heather and bog and wade across the burn. The path is rough, almost unridable even if the bike had been in good order. Just keep plodding.
After a couple of km there's two women camping by the burn, Munro bagging of course. They offer me a cup of tea and we chat a while. Maybe nine miles to the station they reckon, at the most. A couple more kilometres of the path then it's hydro or estate road.
I plod on, the path ends and I'm on decent track. I get to Loch Ossian and there's a choice of track to either side of the loch. I go left.
I'm out of the woods and a couple of kilometres from the youth hostel when I hear bike wheels rolling along the track behind me.
I turn round, it's Phil Clarke who I'd ridden with on the Highland Trail last year, he's out for a weekend loop taking in part of the old and new HT start sections. He gives me an inner tube so at least I can ride the last bit to the station. We chat away until his route heads towards Rannoch and I try the youth hostel to see if they've any cans of pop (no).
It's only a couple of km now to the station. It's late and I know the cafe will be closed so I'll doss down in the waiting room and get a train in the morning back to Tyndrum. Sure enough the door is locked but the kitchen windows are open so I stick my head inside:
"I know you are shut but do you think I could buy a couple of cans of pop?"
I sit on the bench outside slaking my thirst and I can hear mutterings from the kitchen. A moment later a head leans out:
"Do you want a pie?"
"Err, yes! How much?"
"No charge, it's on us."
|The old signal box|
Wow! Some proper food rather than snacks and sugary stuff. I ferry my bike and kit over to the waiting room on the platform and get my bivy kit out. I take my time and finish the last of the pop and am about to get stripped off and into dry clothing when a bloke appears at the door.
"We've been watching you go back and forth. You look knackered! We are stopping at the old signal box and there's a spare room with en-suite shower you can use"
I did offer a little resistance, honest, but I roll my bike one last time for the day along the platform, get what I need and stagger inside. Bliss!
|Your bed for the night sir!|
One shower later and I'm clean enough to think about getting in to bed. Sleep doesn't come easily, the cramps see to that.
In the morning time to use my luxury item - a shoe horn! Makes getting tight shoes on when you have cramp quite easy. To my suprise there's even breakfast included with the room. I buy a bottle of wine for the kindness of random strangers. The rest of the morning is lots of pots of tea.
The train is at 1230 and I hope that I can get the bike on without a pre-booking, I do and the first thing I notice are three bikes with SPOT trackers. I'm not the only one having problems. Severe cramps, heat exhaustion and a mechanical are their scratch reasons.
So what went wrong?
I think the lack of power has its roots in a chronic fatigue I've felt since last October/November. I've struggled even on my commutes. This meant that my long distance power output was actually very close to my current maximum which then led to the early cramps. Rather than tapping away at 60-70% I was at 90% from the off which is why the cramps started so quickly.
I'm pretty sure that something in my breakfast disagreed with me - as soon as I'd got rid of the last of it whilst I didn't feel "fine" I certainly didn't feel nauseous. Once you start being sick and losing fluids in heat like that there's only one outcome if you carry on.
The plan is still there, I think one or two of this year's successful completions may have implemented it for me. Congratulations to all finishers and commiserations to my fellow scratchers.
That plan is going to bug me now isn't it?