The Highland Trail: a shifting perspective

26 05 23

Photos and words by Rich Rothwell

Completing a lap of the Highland Trail 550 is hard and success is not guaranteed. Completing two laps within six weeks is fairly daunting to say the least.

But that is what I will be aiming for when I take to the start line of the mass start race at the end of May.

The thing is though, lap two, despite being in the race and ridden significantly faster, will feel easier. This is because my first 2023 completion was with my 11 year old son, James Rothwell, and the experience has hugely shifted my perspective on endurance riding and the route of the Highland Trail 550 itself.

If you are not familiar with the Highland Trail 550, let me give some background. It’s 556 miles long and includes 18,000m of vertical climbing. It is the brainchild of Alan Goldsmith who also created the infamous Lakeland 200; a qualifying ride for the HT550, (which James and I completed over three days towards the end of 2022 in preparation for our HT550 attempt).  

556 miles is a very long way to ride a bike in any circumstances, and 18,000m of climbing is significant. However, it is not the distance or vertical ascending that defines the HT550. It’s the isolation, the rough ground, and the technical trails. It’s the fickle Scottish weather, and the limited resupply options, to name just a few of the HT550’s defining characteristics.

I knew James was ready. He rode a balance bike soon after he could walk. We didn’t really do the standard kid’s rides. He balance-biked down rocky gullies, along the local singletrack, and even over a Tour de France climb in Yorkshire. As they were growing in that wonderfully naïve head of his, the synapses were rapidly firing to the rhythm of tree roots, undulations, random rocks, and rapid line changes. We’ve bikepacked in the UK and abroad, trail centred, and trail ridden, and even raced as a pair in a 24hr mountain bike race. He has an incredibly natural and flowing riding style, and he really comes into his own when it gets steep and slippery. Perfect for HT550 then.

Of course, there were many more things to consider than bike handling skills and sheer physical resilience. My wife was understandably anxious about the undertaking. I was acutely aware of the often hostile and isolated environment we would be riding into. The HT550 has bitten me before and I have landed myself in some very precarious situations. She knew this (she’s been an anxious dot watcher on several occasions), and I completely understood her concerns.

However, my experiences on the route over years provided me with a very clear strategy and this gave me immense confidence in our attempt. I pored over the route for weeks and months, considering it at the speed of less than half my usual pace. I studied potential bail out options, but perhaps more importantly, I identified stretches that had no easy bail out. These were the crux sections, and they are also a defining aspect of the route.

I drew on all my experiences of staying warm and comfortable, even in terrible conditions. I mulled over calories and resupply options. I went through pretty much every ‘what if?’ scenario I could imagine. Whilst life is never 100% safe, there was no way I would put James at significant risk on this ride.

Our HT550 would become a constant game of Island Hopping, from safe place to safe place, with the added theme of Stick or Twist. As the ride progressed, and James’s appreciation of the wild and isolated environment developed, he morphed from competent passenger to informed decision maker. Our sub 12 day completion was greatly aided by his comprehension and input, but we shall come to that later.

So how did this experience leave me feeling, knowing I was to do it all over again at the end of May?

I can’t wait.

It will be a very different experience that is for sure. There will be a lot less sleep and a lot more night riding. I am glad I saw more of the route in daylight hours, yet I look forward to the hours of night riding to come. People often say, “Why race these things? Why not take your time and enjoy the scenery?”. Well, I’ve done that now.

But more than that, I love the feeling of riding through those mountains at night; dark masses you feel more than see. Incredible moments, like one year when, at 2am, the moon broke through the clouds and along with a sky of stars, for a few brief seconds, reflected back, and sparkled on Loch Affric. Extraordinary and unscripted scenes of beauty which paid me back for hours encased in my headlight beam. The day and the night are like different places, and I enjoy them both.

I will miss riding with James, but he helped change my view on this massive challenge. His movements were purposeful but not hurried. Even when the ground was really steep and rough, his natural inclination was to flow and find the path of least resistance. Never forceful, always moving forward.

This is the way to ride the Highland Trail 550. You must always be able to flow. You must work with the terrain, not against it. You must never be impatient or get frustrated. This will trip you up and you will start smashing into the terrain, rather than sometimes just accepting that some parts are inevitably slow.

This year’s race line up is incredibly competitive. I won’t be racing anybody. I will simply be trying to unlock that most elusive ride; the one where I move as smoothly and efficiently as I can through this beautiful and rugged wilderness.