James Hayden at the Highland Trail 550

The weather was doing what it tends to do in the Scottish Highlands: raining sideways. The temperatures had dropped down to single figures, barely above freezing, and the early summer sun hung above the munros behind a curtain of cloud. James Hayden rode down from the empty trails of the Fisherfield Forest towards the village of Kinlochewe. The gloom gave way to darkness and the temperatures continued to fall.

James was soaked to the skin. Earlier that day he had waded across two rivers with his mountain bike and all its packs and bags hoisted high over his head. Should he have removed his dry clothes in the deluge and taken the plunge with as little on as possible in the hope that he could keep some garments dry? Or was he right to carry on in his waterproofs and hope they would provide a barrier between the raging waters and his goose-pimpled skin?

He opted for the latter, but in the end, it didn’t matter. He had ploughed on through the subsequent bogs and trails as hard as he could but couldn’t summon enough warmth into his body to dry his clothes out from the inside. The horizontal sheets of rain had ripped any heat from him. Now came another choice: press on through the night in sopping wet clothes or stop, try to dry out, and resume in the morning? A lot can hinge on such choices; in the midst of an ultra-endurance bike race, even the smallest decisions can have enormous consequences. “Could I have continued with the wet clothes? Yeah, I could. Did I know the consequences of doing that? No.

“It wasn’t worth the risk. Scotland isn’t the place to play around with that.”

He found a bed and breakfast that agreed to wash his sodden outfit and once it was dry, in the early hours of the following morning, he resumed his quest to complete the Highland Trail 550.

The Highland Trail 550 is rightly known as one of the hardest off-road races in the world. It’s not as long as the Tour Divide in the United States, for example, but what it lacks in distance it more than makes up for in sheer Scottish ruggedness. The 550 accounts for the distance, in miles, and within that there is over 16,000m of climbing, all on short, sharp hills. The route is 30 per cent single-track and even the most experienced and capable off-road riders will have to resort to sections of hike-a-bike.

It’s a beautiful piece of torturous brilliance, the work of veteran endurance mountain biker Alan Goldsmith who conceived the route as a training ride for the Tour Divide. The event has a minimal online presence, entries are at the discretion of the organiser, and there is no commercial interest whatsoever.

“It’s a bunch of likeminded people getting together to ride a bike on the toughest terrain. That’s it. The reward is that if you finish, you get personal fulfilment. That’s it,” James says.

“It’s about people having experiences that fundamentally change them, and then sharing those experiences with others. It’s such a genuine and authentic reason to run a race.”

The route traverses some of the UK’s best off-road riding terrain, but it doesn’t offer it up gladly. The old cliché about Scottish weather – you can experience four seasons in one day - rings true, although what it doesn’t mention is that you’ll often be lucky if you get summer at all. Rain is a constant threat and when it does, the paths turn to streams to make the race a trial by water as much as endurance.

“You’re going to get wet, and you will have wet feet for four days,” says James.

“Everyone at the race is humble, and if they’re not humble at the beginning they’ll be humble at the end.”

James Hayden was an expert of ultra-endurance on the road when he first entered the Highland Trail 550 in 2019, but his beginner’s off-road experience led to him finishing the race with a healthy appetite to come back and do better.

“Somehow in 2019 I persuaded Alan to let me in. Maybe he just wanted to be able to laugh at me trying to get round. I did say ‘I’m quite new to this.’ The truth was, I had never really ridden a mountain bike.”

The race he returned to in 2021 was quite different. The global pandemic had forced the cancellation of 2020’s event and in the context of continuing health restrictions, Scotland’s bothies – communal mountain huts – were off limits to racers. The bigger inconvenience, however, for a seasoned ultra-endurance racer was that public toilets were also no longer permissible as overnight stops either. For a very small bunch of people, Covid has meant losing the opportunity to strip off and dangle their damp clothes under a hand-dryer while leaning on the button.

“People mug me off about it but a public toilet has got everything you need!” James says.

It was with grim acceptance, then, that he found himself in a B&B with a kindly host doing it for him. It cost him a bit more money and in the context of the race, it cost him lost hours. As the race wore on his speed dropped and time was not on his side.

“When I got tired, I could still ride uphill as strong as I could at the start. But my mountain bike skill level isn’t that good so it just fell off the radar,” he says.

“I watched a rider called Andrew Hutcheson ride away from me on the Great Glen Way. Maybe he didn’t have the strength in his legs, but he had the skill. If you’re a strong rider and terrible at technical stuff, there aren’t many places where you can excel in that race.”

He finished the race in third place, completing the course a few hours shy of four days. The winner was Liam Glen, who completed the race in three days, 10 hours on a beautifully simple single-speed. But as he cruised past Torridon at dawn and then onto the Ben Nevis range from sunset until the rising of the full moon, the Highlands still had the opportunity to remind James what the point of it all was.

“Sometimes these things happen. I found myself in these incredible places and I didn’t care that I had been delayed because I got to be where I was at the best time of day,” he says.

“If you want to have the highest highs, the only way to measure them is to have the lowest lows. If you don’t have those lows, you don’t deserve the highs. You have to earn them.”

FOOTNOTES  Words by Richard Abraham, Photos by James Robertson. Scotland, UK

© 2021 ENDURA