I needed a few days to recover from the Trans Alba Race and really get my thoughts together on the whole experience as I went through so much that there was a lot to process.
Before I left for Edinburgh I reached out to as many ultra cyclists as I could for insight, tips, generally as much information as I possibly could get. Even after countless hours of training and talking I was still flicking back and forth between excitement and gut wrenching fear about what lay ahead. For all the preparation I undertook, it was a leap into the unknown and one I am profoundly happy to have taken.
Before getting into the account, I am not sure I can truly do the experience of this race justice in what I’ve written. I must have gone through it 10-20 times re-editing and chopping and changing and almost inevitably I’ve probably most missed something out or not given enough attention to a particular area. But here it is!
Day 0 was registration day. I’d been staying in Leith with fellow racer Andy Keene who I had met earlier in the year at the Trans Wales Trial and we rolled up to the Citadel Centre at about midday after dropping in to Tiso next door for a couple of last minute purchases – you seemingly never remeber everything you need
What immediately struck me as we walked in was the friendly atmosphere of it all. One of the volunteers asked for my name at the first station of the six and began looking for my cap number on the list in front of him but hadn’t gotten past the first few names when “CAP 17!” was shouted from a few stations down. This was the first time I heard from race director Chris who’d show up throughout the race. There was a really intimate feeling throughout the event and something that stuck with me throughout the race, was that Chris (the race director) and Jack (the media guru) really cared about the event and us as racers. We’d never met but it felt like they already knew us.
We all got given a racer tag and would pass through several stations before we were officially good to go.
After getting our ferry fee, bike checked, insurance checked, cap, racer pack and signed on, we all mulled about and took advantage of the free food and local beer until the safety and race briefing from Chris immediately allowed by long distance legend, Steve Abraham, gave us a talk on his attempts at the annual mileage record.
5pm came around incredibly quickly and then we were back to the hotel for final preparations and the last good night of sleep we’d all get for a while.
Day 1 – Hills and headwinds
The race started off with a neutralised section of about 14km where I milled through the group chatting with a few other riders before the race officially got under way once we’d crossed the Forth bridge.
My initial target for the first day was Grantown-on-Spey which would give me nearly 300km on day one but I was also ready to adapt that plan depending on how my legs felt and how the weather went.
Once underway the field soon stretched out and I found myself tapping along at my own pace which I was content with.
Then at 50km I got my first puncture. No biggie, a quick tube change and on I pushed to St. Andrews where I’d planned on my first lunch stop. Up to this point the route had been fairly sedate, no major climbing and relatively good roads.
From St. Andrews the next target was Dundee and this was the first time I was properly alone on the road. I popped some music on and just went about ticking off kilometres.
Chris and Jack popped up again just before the bridge into Dundee. These guys developed a knack for appearing at random and at times right when you needed to see a friendly face or coinciding with me staring at my Garmin trying to figure out where to go!
After I cleared Dundee I could start to see the Cairngorms looming large knowing I had to tackle the majority of the climbing there before getting my head down for a few hours.
The going was good at this point and I just kept telling myself to be conservative for now. There’s was a lot of riding to be done and I was determined to make it back to Edinburgh in once piece.
As I got further into the Cairngorms I began to see a rider occasionally off in the distance and figured it must be another Trans Alba rider which gave me a target to work towards and I managed to catch up with Andy just before the Glenshee climb, but not before pushing my way up one particularly steep ramp to see Chris dancing away to Africa by Toto in the distance. Another surreal moment of many to come! Jack snapped away whilst Chris danced and sang us off into the evening!
The next climb would take us to one of the highest points on the route where we hit about 680m above sea level. I stopped to eat in a sheltered spot at the ski station with Adrian and Simon, both of whom would later scratch from the race at different times. It was a cold and rain soaked descent into Braemar for the last feed of the night before tackling the Lecht climb.
When I stopped in Braemar for an entire tub of hummus, bread, coconut milk and some crisps, we got chatting with the guy working in the store for some insider info on the coming Lecht climb. His description of “It’s well steep.” didn’t fill me with joy but it was between me and bed so had to be dealt with. I didn’t get any photos of this climb for a number of reasons:
- It was now dark
- It was heaving down with rain
- There was a vicious cross wind
- With gradients passing 20%, it was all I could do to stay on the bike and moving forwards
I knew that Tomintoul was only a few kilometres down the road and whilst it was short of my intended goal, getting there and getting warm and dry was now my focus. I could see a rear bike light flashing in the distance and a look back over my shoulder showed me a few headlamps moving in the sameness direction as me but not quite on the Lecht climb yet. I was in a bubble. Nothing existed beyond the reach of my headlight.
I managed to find a hotel still open and bedded down for the night but not before playing with the pub dog for 10 minutes. It’s the rules.
After 4 hours sleep and a quick shower I was back on the bike and back in the drizzle and rain. I got to Grantown-on-Spey and got my first taste of a hot macaroni pie which was an absolutely amazing way to start the day combined with a coffee and a Belgian bun. The competitive eating was well and truly underway.
The next target was Inverness and as I rolled out of Grantown-on-Spey I came across fellow racer Morton Schroeder who was a little worse for wear having crashed the night before. He was still on the bike and declined an offer of pain killers, more concerned that his Garmin was no longer working. He was looking strong as he rode away from me around Lochindorb and I’d later hear from Jack that Morton bought a new Garmin in Inverness and was back at it shortly after.
I refuelled in Inverness and was looking to make up some ground today having stopped short of my intended target on Day 1. Scourie on the west coast was my aim and it was going to be a tough one with the perpetual headwinds.
At Lairg I caught up once again with Chris and Jack with Chris unable to stay off the bike and riding a few hundred metres with me before peeling off and waiting for the next riders. The Spar in Lairg marked the last shop I was likely to be able to access given the time of day and I caught up with fellow racers Andy and Adrian both refuelling before heading on to the north coast.
After leaving Lairg, it was a tough ride up to Tongue with the relentless headwinds making progress slow, but the views we got in the late afternoon sun were some consolation…
The road from Tongue to Durness was a true highlight of the route. After the initial climb from Tongue the road to Durness was relatively sheltered and made for some stunning evening riding.
Looking back on the race, this stretch of the route from Lairg to Durness was probably my favorite part in terms of just how phenomenally beautiful it was. From Lairg onwards, I barely saw another car let alone another rider except Adrian who was stopping for a break. Riding from Tongue to Durness in particular was breathtaking. There was the odd house right on the shoreline with their fishing boat moored just offshore and aside from the wind and the sea lapping at the shore there wasn’t another sound. These were the moments I had hoped to find during the race and I was privileged enough to have the road all to myself.
I needed a break in Durness having pushed hard to clear the coast and found the Smoo Cave Hotel still open and willing to serve cake and coffee even at 10pm. Also met up with Colin and David who’s not only go on to be the first pair back to Edinburgh but would save my skin on Day 3.
After a few cakes and drinks it was back on the road and the final 44km to Scourie where I’d bed down for some rest. I bivi’d up and got a few hours rest
Day 3 – When the wheels literally came off
My plan for day 3 was to get as close to Applecross as I could and then tackle the ferries but between that and me were a few hundred kilometres starting with the coastal route to Ullapool. This was some seriously beautiful country which I would have savoured a lot more of I hadn’t been chewing my handlebars with the 20%+ gradients on several climbs.
This was all part of the process until just after Drumbeg when I had a catastrophic tyre failure:
This was not good. I was about 20km from Ullapool which would be the next place I’d realistically be able to get a new tyre. I superglued, patched and hoped for the best and rode so gently that any progress was going to be slow.
After a few kilometres and on another of the 20% sections I heard the pop and pssst of the tube going again. The tyre was dead.
There was no way this tyre was getting me to Ullapool.
My hope was to patch it up and pray I got to Ullapool. So it was back to supergluing and patching and hoping for the best.
That was until Colin and David caught me up and had a nose at my handiwork and concurred the tyre was dead. Colin offered me a spare 23mm tyre that got me back en route and held up for the rest of the race as nowhere in Ullapool sold tyres! (Nowhere I found at least).
After sitting down with Jack and Chris to get some food and most importantly coffee, Chris offered me an extra tyre but with Colin’s spare tyre running well I declined, refuelled at Tesco and tried to make some kilometres back after losing a few hours to the tyre related mishaps.
After leaving Ullapool there was a long climb and then possibly the most exposed section of coast of the whole race with block headwinds which just sapped my morale as equally as it drained my energy.
When Applecross became clearly not an option then I had backup stops at Gairloch and Shieldaig but as I worked my way around the coast I was just drained. I had nothing left physically and mentally and I had to keep telling myself “always forwards, never back!” Which ended becoming something of a mantra for the rest of the race. I bivi’d up for the night in Laide. Several hours short of my target feeling pretty dejected by the whole day and just wanting it behind me.
Day 4: Ferries and furious riding
If day 3 was the physical low point then day 4 found my emotional low point.
I was up and riding by 5am and for the first two hours I felt hollow.
The efforts and frustrations of the previous two days caught up with me and just outside Gairloch on what was a none too taxing climb I threw my bike on the floor and sat roadside with my head in my hands wondering “What the f*$k am I doing here?!”.
A lot of blogs I read in the lead up didn’t often go into the mental/emotional side of things that has to be dealt with on these rides. In hindsight, the ability to cope mentally and emotionally is equally as important as your physical fitness in terms of getting you through the race. A lot will tell you about their kit lists but not always about the time the sat on the side of the road ready to give up.
I sent a few texts and just sat there for a few minutes frustrated at the situation, at my tyre issues the day before, at how tired I was, at myself, at everything! I felt overwhelmed with it all and seriously considered scratching from the race.
Eventually, I got myself back on to the bike and found something of a rhythm. I focussed on nothing other than getting to Kinlochewe and finding a cup of coffee. Rule #32 – enjoy the little things.
What I ended up finding was not only coffee and hot food at the service station but texts from a whole bunch of people I had reached out and some I hadn’t, all urging me to keep going and that they were all tracking me and watching each day.
That changed everything. I was back on the road with a new found vigour. Was it raining? Sure! But the road to Torridon was beautiful and the rain wouldn’t last forever!
In fact, it stopped as I got past Torridon and stayed dry until I hit the slopes of Bealach Na Bà. After a quick coffee and sandwich in Applecross I hit the climb and even though it was now heaving down with rain again the texts I’d had earlier stuck with me and kept me moving.
I wanted to make it to the last ferry off Skye. That was my goal and nothing else mattered.
Bealach na Bà was an amazing climb. All the cars and minibuses I encountered gave me tonnes of space and a few people cheered me on with thumbs up and one “Allez!”. The summit was completely covered in cloud to the point I had to switch all my lights on just to make sure I was seen.
A quick descent and I was in Lochcarron for more coffee and some cake and to warm up for a bit after the descent and then straight back on the road to Kyle of Lochash. More refuelling at Coop just before the bridge on to The Isle of Skye and it was going to be close as to whether I made the ferry. I had nearly 200km done and another’s block headwind and just under 25km to the harbour.
I put my head down and dug in. Hard. A few times I felt my phone vibrate with incoming message but it didn’t matter, I had to make that ferry or I had nowhere to stay in Amadale and being soaked through, I REALLY had to make that ferry!
Coming to within 1km of the harbour I could see the ferry steaming towards Armadale and red lined it to the harbour (not even sure my lights were on).
I ignored my Garmin and followed the road signs into the harbour and shot straight into the ticket office as cars and lorries disembarked and made it with perhaps two minutes spare with the man at the ticket office in then process of closing up for the day.
I wasn’t the only one on the ferry either. Andy and Tom were also sat waiting for the ferry and during the trip to Mallaig I opted to stay at the hostel with them rather than pushing on.
Hot food and a dry bed were most welcome.
I’d found my rhythm again. Probably most significantly, I was officially over the half way mark. Day 4 was such a mix of emotions and efforts that’s it’s perhaps the day that has stuck with me the most of all the days of the race. It was only just over 200km done but mentally it might as well have been a 500km ride.
I was soaked through and I was tired; I’d hit a low point emotionally, but I was making progress and that felt good.
Day 5: Puffins, coffee and the mainland.
After a good feed and a sleep I was still feeling a slight sting in the legs from racing to the ferry and by now I was used to it taking a couple of hours for me to settle in mentally and physically each day so I set off about an hour after Tom and took an easy pace. My aim was the 14:45 ferry from Kilchoan to Tobemory and then a ferry from Craignure to Oban before riding to Loch Awe and potentially stopping around there depending on the time and weather.
The ride from Mallaig to Kilchoan wasn’t the most eventful part of the race. I was content to take it easy knowing I’d have to push hard to make an earlier ferry and needed some rest for the rest of the route. Some lovely views around Lochailort.
I got to Kilchoan with time to spare and headed to Puffin Coffee for some shelter from the ever persistent rain.
What happened next was another example of how amazing this race was. I was midway through my favorite coffee of the trip (Puffin Coffee – I will be back!) and toasted sandwich when the owner told me he’d had a text through from the ferry captain telling him to tell the Trans Alba racer he had in the cafe to get to the harbour as they had to leave 30 mins early due to the tidal conditions! The captain had been tracking us all and saw where I was and didn’t want me to miss the crossing. (It would turn out the next crossing was cancelled so I would have lost a significant amount of time.) The captain even greeted me at the ramp on to the ferry! A few of the racer behind me also got the star treatment and joined the captain on the bridge of the ferry for some shelter and warmth.
Another ferry done and I was on to the Isle of Mull, which was beautiful even with the ongoing drizzle and low cloud!
Unfortunately I missed my target ferry by two minutes giving me some time for a relaxed coffee and food before boarding the next ferry which got me into Oban just before 6pm.
Another town, another refuel at Lidl and I was on my way to a hostel in Torran on the shoreside of Loch Awe to get dry again and plan my final 500+ km. The hostel in Torran took some effort to get to with the northern shore road of Loch Awe proving quite lumpy so at 10 pm I opted to bed down and set myself up for a solid finish.
Day 6: Loch and awe tactics
After the brutal up and down road of the northern side of Loch Awe, I was expecting a rough start to Day 6. Even when my first proper view after leaving the hostel was….
The southern side couldn’t have been more different. Gently rolling along I soon got into my groove and ticked off the kilometres until I turned inland for Inveraray. This was another highlight for me. Eating a couple of croissants on the bike and rolling along was easy going and the distance seemed to initially fly by.
I made some good progress to the Rest and be Thankful viewpoint and stopped for a photo and a chat with another cyclist on an audax ride who was also tracking the race and knew our eventual winner, Steve Abraham.
From Arrorchar down to Helensburgh seemed to fly by and before I knew it I was skirting through Glasgow before swinging north towards Aberfoyle. This was probably the most “flat” part of the route I’d experienced and I was nervous about what Chris and Jack had planned to make up for this.
After leaving Aberfoyle full of hummus, fruit and caramel wafers I contemplated going all in and riding overnight to the finish but opted to make a call once I was past Glasgow again. The Caramel Wafer high is real and is known to cause a false sense of ability.
Some of the climbs Chris and Jack put on the route were just brutal whilst others were more fun and some were a mix of both. The climb out of Aberfoyle was the latter, steep ramps with brief recoveries then steep ramps. Climbing in the sun was nice and my legs felt good even after 12 hours ridden with several more to go until I’d make the call on having any sleep.
To be honest, the section around Glasgow before getting into the borders was probably the least memorable part of the route. From talking with Jack at the end of the race it was a necessary evil to get us where they really wanted to go. I’m sure there are plenty of nice parts of Glasgow, I just didn’t see any of them but considering how utterly spectacular the rest of the route had been this in no way spoiled the overall ride.
After navigating several suburbs and enterprise zones around Glasgow the fatigue began to bite. Just before Carluke I jumped into the first easily accessible field and was straight into my bivi bag in full kit and just my Rab insulated jacket and asleep in minutes. I set my alarm for 4am as I knew Donald wasn’t far ahead and Asbjørn was closing in on us both and I had no intention of dropping a place if I could help it.
Day 7: The final suffering
I was up and moving by 4:30. Granted it was slow going whilst I woke up but I had just over 200km to cover and I wanted to make into a quick ride. Chris and Jack, however, had other ideas!
After clearing Carluke and Biggar it was back into some beautiful country again. I felt good, the first 50km seemed to fly by and then I got to the Talla Reservoir. As I glided along the shoreline I couldn’t help but wonder where the hell the road went as all I could see was what looked like a single track going very sharply up the side of a hill.
As I got closer to the end of the reservoir my worst fears were confirmed with the presence of the frequently seen 20% gradient road sign.
A good thing I hadn’t had a massive breakfast as I was firmly chewing on my bars grinding away up the climb towards the Megget Reservoir just over the hill.
I made it, just, and began a welcome descent and flatter section on the run to Selkirk where a proper breakfast would be sought.
About 10km from Selkirk I came up to Donald Munro and rode together for a while trading stories from the road until we got to Selkirk. Donald needed a good feed and went to a cafe but I knew if I sat down now I’d not be in a rush to get up so grabbed a few sandwiches and pressed on.
About 120km to go and still some climbing to be done. I’d scoured the route as well as I could on google maps but there’s only so much you get from those resources. The next 40km after Selkirk rolled fairly gently and then the grind over the final hills began.
People had a knack for texting right when I needed an extra boost. As I was grinding my way over the hills before Edinburgh a few texts from home as well as from Andy Keene (who’d had to scratch the day before) urging me on gave me the boost I needed to get over the final climbs.
Once I got sight of the coast I knew the route was more forgiving to get back into Edinburgh and buoyed by that sight I pushed on. I knew I was getting close and the “Distance to finish” on my Garmin was now under 50km and it began to dawn on me that I was going finish. I’d ridden through winds, rain, exhaustion, the highs and lows, the early mornings and the late nights and I was nearly back in Edinburgh after just under a week.
At about 25km from the end at a fairly innocuous junction there were some of the Trans Alba team, cow bells in hand cheering us home. I am fairly confident that my smile was fixed in place for the rest of the route.
As I rode the final few kilometre through Holyrood park I had a few moments of hysterical laughter combined with a couple of tears as it dawned on me that I was finished. It was over. This ride I’d been preparing for and obsessing over for months, it was all done.
The area around the Scottish Parliament was buzzing with people and as I rounded that final corner there was a familiar sight of Chris with a huge smile and Jack with multiple cameras in hand. There was also a few of the riders who’d had to scratch there as well as the rest of the volunteers to welcome us home.
I got my finishers hug from Chris and was promptly handed a beer and my finishers hip flask of whiskey and I sat down. Exhausted.
6 days 6 Hours 41 Minutes
21,887m of climbing
I reckon I can beat that time…..