Each year following the HT550, I like to pick on someone who rode and ask them some questions. This year, that mithering email found its way into Liz Tromans inbox. It was Liz’s first time attempting what many consider to be the UK’s toughest ITT and she finished in 7 days, 9 hours and 9 minutes. Grab yourself a brew and submerge yourself in the splendour and majesty of Scotland for five minutes … and don’t forget your Smidge.
1/ I know you’ve been doing more ITT / challenge / endurance type events and rides over the last few years – was this years HT a planned culmination of those or simply a natural progression?
The HT550 was always in the back of my mind. Reading Lee Craigie’s “Joining the Dots” in 2017 is what started the quest to see what I could do if I really pushed myself. I never thought I’d actually have a go at it myself but last year I began to think it might be possible. I told myself that if I completed the BB300 last October I would enter the HT. I didn’t complete the BB300 but thought, sod it, I’ll enter anyway.
2/ At what point did you ‘know’ you’d finish?
I wasn’t sure I’d actually finish until the top of the final climb about 500metres from the end. I found the final day from Fort Bill to Tyndrum absolutely desperate. Everyone says once you get to Fort Bill you’ve done it, but the biggest climb of the whole route is the one from Kinlochleven to the top of the Devil’s Staircase. I’d reccied this part, luckily, so knew what to expect. But even once I was down the Devil’s Staircase I was so spent I was off and pushing on every incline. I really wasn’t certain I’d finish at all.
3/ What bike did you ride on the HT and would you take it again?
I rode my 2017 carbon full suss Giant Anthem (27.5 inch wheels), no dropper. Yes, I would take it again – it didn’t miss a beat. The only maintenance I had to do was a bit of chain oiling. It was perfect for the terrain – light, nippy and comfortable.
4/ What was your favourite part of the route in terms of landscape or terrain?
I absolutely loved the northern loop. The moorland crossing and drop down to the Bealach Horn was drier than usual so was mostly ridable. Descending into the cirque at the bottom was all absorbing riding and then I realised I was in one of the most spectacular places I’d ever been on a bike. As I sat by the lochan, contemplating the zig-zag path out and the meagre rations I had left to eat, I saw another person coming down and decided to wait to see who it was. An athletic looking woman arrived and thrust out a hand in welcome “I’m Isla, who are you?”. Bloody hell, I thought, Isla? Isla Rowntree? What the f*** am I doing ahead of Isla? I realised then I had gone off too fast in my enthusiasm – I paid for it dearly in the days to come. We had a little chat about the fact that I had food anxiety and wasn’t sure whether to eat what I’d got or save it for later in case I missed the re-supply at Drumbeg. Isla assured me there would be a meal to be had at the Kylesku Hotel before Drumbeg and suggested that I should eat now. She was wrong, the Kylesku Hotel refused serve any food to me at 5pm that afternoon, however, the food I ate and Isla cheering me on at every bend in the path as she disappeared above me got me out of that hole. I didn’t see her again until the end when she was there to clap me in – she admitted then that I looked so bad at the Bealach Horn she thought I was hypoglycaemic and that I would never get out of there!
5/ Anything you didn’t pack but wish you had?
An epi-pen. I woke up on day 4 and could barely open my eyes. Thousands of midges had got into my tent with me the night before and I had developed an allergy to them. I took anti-histamine tablets but the swelling of my face reduced during the day and then came back overnight. This became so bad over the next few days I was struggling to breathe some mornings. This never got so bad that I needed to give up, but an epi-pen would have given me peace of mind.
6/ What (if anything) do you think would encourage more women to bikepack?
Oh dear, don’t get me started on this subject! In my opinion it’s all about upbringing – we need to stop treating our boys and girls differently in childhood. Girls need to be brought up believing they are just as physically capable as boys; boys need to be brought up believing they are just as caring and compassionate as girls.
7/ How did you get on with re-supply? Was your timing impeccable or did you have to carry multi-days worth?
Re-supply was challenging. I carried enough food for the first 2 days as I wasn’t sure I would make it to Fort Augustus in time for a meal on the first day. I actually did make it in time, which was a good job because the Oykel Bridge Hotel wasn’t open the next evening and I was too late at Rosehall for the Ashness Hotel. Although I had bought food at Contin Stores, I hadn’t bought enough, hence my problem at the Bealach Horn. The Drumbeg Stores came to my rescue on the 3rd day and after stuffing my face I filled my rucksack to the brim with supplies. I wasn’t going to make that mistake again! I missed pies at Lochinver (too early) which was disappointing, but again filled my stomach and rucksack at Ullapool Tesco on day 4. Day 5 saw me at Poolewe village store what had limited choice and I was too late at Kinlochewe to find anything open. By day 6 I arrived in Dornie with not much left and was told at the hotel there was no shop. I had a meal there and got them to make me a sandwich to take away, but I was worried about setting off up Glen Affric without enough food. This was a definite low point. Luckily there was a jet garage a few miles up the road, so I needn’t have worried. By this time all I wanted to eat was fat – pies, pasties and sausage rolls were order of the day. My mouth and tongue were so ulcerated I couldn’t cope with sweet carbohydrates. After this food was relatively plentiful. A highlight was a family sized tub of Ben and Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream at 8:30 am in Kinlochleven.
8/ What kind of shelter did you take?
I took a Lanshan 1 single skin tent to seep in. I was very happy with this, although a hoover would have been useful to suck out the midges once I was in. My allergy got so bad, after the 5th night I decided I couldn’t face sleeping out any more. I slept in the bothy in Glen Affric on day 6 and at a bunkhouse in Fort Bill on day 7.
9/ With the benefit of hindsight, if you were to set off tomorrow, is there anything you’d do differently?
I would start slower and carry more food. By the time I got to Fisherfield (the part of the route I was looking forward to most) I was suffering so much from tiredness and calorie deficit I really couldn’t enjoy it fully.
10/ Apart from (I imagine) getting back to Tyndrum, do you have a particular high point?
Arriving at Drumbeg stores absolutely ravenous, being met by Steve, the owner, who was so sweet, kind and encouraging and then finding an idyllic spot to camp on the coast that evening was pretty memorable. Also, weirdly, on day 7, although I felt awful in the morning, I started to feel good and enjoy myself by early afternoon. The Old Military Road over to Fort Augustus was a joy to ride and I actually felt strong and happy again after fish and chips on the ride along the Great Glen Way to Fort Bill, knowing I’d be in time to find accommodation away from the midges.
11/ Did you do any specific training or was it simply a matter of riding lots?
I had found that I’d plateaued in terms of speed and fitness trying to train on my own, so I trained specifically for the HT by employing an online coach who specialises in older female cyclists. She put a programme together for me that included strength and mobility in the gym; speed and hills on a turbo trainer; endurance on outdoor rides and nutrition.
12/ What’s next?
What’s next is another attempt at the BB300 – obviously!
A big thank you to Liz for her words, pictures and honesty.