Highland Trail 550
"894km with 18,420m of climbing through the Scottish highlands, on gravel roads, double track, trails and hiking paths...oh, and Midges from hell!"
The fellowship of the highlands.
When I got asked to write about my Highland Trail 550 experience I wasn’t sure what to write about. I could write about how hard it is; how many hours of hike-a-bike and kilometres the trail has. How much climbing there is, the Scottish weather, the bog, the midges and the constant wet feet. All in trying to explain why it is such a challenge.
And it is hard, a real challenge. Physically and mentally. In the few years I have been riding, this is the hardest challenge I have ever done. Whenever you think you have conquered a certain part of the trail, it throws you a curveball, another surprise. The veterans of the race know well that you have to divide the trail in to sections of hours used, not kilometres. The terrain varies so heavily that the next 10 kilometres can take you anything between 20 minutes and 5 hours… Going up hills that in no way are intended for bicycles, is not only excruciatingly slow, it involves a lot of pushing and carrying of your bike, as well as swearing at God and the world (and Alan, the creator of the Highland Trail)…
But to me the most profound experience was the fellowship it creates.
noun: friendly association, especially with people who share one's interests.
- Synonym: companionship, companionability, sociability, comradeship, fraternization, camaraderie,friendship, mutual support, mutual respect, mutual liking; amiability, amity, affability, geniality, kindliness, cordiality, intimacy; social intercourse, social contact, association, closeness, togetherness, solidarity; informal chumminess, palliness, clubbiness; informal mateyness
The Highland Trail 550 is a race and the guys and girls up front are gunning it out. 60 riders racing along, but no one seems to be fighting. Fighting with themselves, with the other riders or with the trail. It’s the kind of trail you have to embrace. If you treat it like something you have to conquer, it will eat you. You have to work with it, whatever it throws at you. If you can do that, it feeds you and pushes you on. The pain might be real, but suffering is optional.
There is a serious competition going on, but even so, there is no bitterness, no hard rivalry, but support and respect. Nobody rides with their elbows out, which doesn’t make it feel like a race. It is an unsupported event, so no real support among each other is allowed of course.
The support is rather verbal and through non-verbal communication. There is real heartfelt appreciation for anyone attempting to ride this madness of a race and there is a friendly nod or a smile from other riders whenever you cross paths with them. I arrived over two days behind the winner Neil (Beltchenko) and his first words to me were; “Strong riding man. Congrats!” I was surprised by that, because compared to his record breaking ride, mine was, well, mediocre to be honest. And it is then you realize that events like these form a community, a fellowship. You can see it in the way people look at each other, smiling at you in approval and shaking their heads in utter disbelief at what they have just accomplished themselves. These are people I don’t know, but there is a certain understanding and a deep feeling of knowledge of who they are. You look them in the eye and see a part of yourself.
"We are now in the mountains and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us."
When out on the trail it feels like there is a red string between the fastest and the slowest rider, connecting us all. When it gets hard, I try to think of all the other riders out there on the trail and know that others have gone before me and yet others will follow in my tracks. It carries me on and lifts me up as I imagine them coming through this particular stretch, knowing that it is possible to get through it.
My first words after the finish line was; “Never again!”, but as I sit at home writing this, I know I will be back. Not only to ride the trail with more grace, but to reunite with the fellowship.
“Coming in last doesn't mean you lost”