The Highland Trail holds a special place in the hearts of many and fascinates many more. It can leave an indelible mark that no amount of scrubbing can remove. Andrea Rodgers AKA Trepid Explorer joined this years grand depart and upon returning home, agreed to share her experiences about an itch you can’t scratch. Thank you.
1/ Did you follow any specific training plan or regime in the months prior or was it simply a matter of riding lots?
In my first year of training I did a lot of long rides trying to convince myself I can do the distance and learning lots about my kit – what I will and won’t put up with.
Because I work sat a desk I’m not very strong and tend to lose the strength I gain from long rides quickly. This year I decided to start lifting weights at the gym. I also hear that’s good for old ladies! Unfortunately covid put the gym on hold and I’m not motivated enough to do squats in the garden with water buckets for weights so for 4 weeks of April/May I crammed in as much gym time as I could. I did a 100 + km ride once a month with a camp out as a Bear Bones BAM (bivvy a month) ride and managed to make April’s a 2 nighter.
Before anyone thinks I’m a superhero I really struggled to stay motivated through a lockdown winter and after the initial novelty wore off I got a bit bored of my own back yard. I cut one weekend ride short because I just couldn’t think of anywhere I wanted to go anymore.
I’m in all kinds of awe of people that smashed out the 600km Dales Divide a month before the HT as a training ride but it’s not for everyone & you have to find what’s right for your own physiology
2/ Had you set yourself a goal or target before the start other than ‘finishing’?
I would have loved to finish in 8 days. I’ve reccied most of the course at leisure. Unfortunately every time I tried to piece myself together an 8 day schedule in my head, I found one or more of the stages uncomfortably difficult. I didn’t really know what to expect of myself so targeted the largest day I could muster on day 1 then tried to hit the 110km/ day after that. I fell short from day 3 – Boo.
Otherwise, finishing in time for my lift home on Monday was the primary objective so that’s what kept me going to the end. As my longest, hardest race ever I was learning new things about myself from day 5.
3/ What bike did you ride and what alterations if any would you make to it if you were to ride it again on the same route?
I rode a Trek Pro Caliber. After my DNF in 2019 I needed an upgrade. In 2020 I dithered then ended up rushing into the Trek to get it in time for the Highland Trail because folk couldn’t buy bikes fast enough. I picked her up one week before Lockdown started. I bought a Cotic steel hard tail a month later which I love because I built it myself. When the 2020 race was cancelled I put all my training miles onto the Cotic, saving the Trek for the race.
I got more familiar with the off-the peg bike 2 weeks before the ride by changing out the forks for fox 32 floats and a Crank Brothers Highline 7 dropper post when my trusty Thompson dropper developed some play 9 days before I was due to leave for Scotland. I couldn’t get cable ports for the frame so a bit of bodging was required. She had carbon jones bars from Keep on Pedalling. They also supplied the halo vapour rims which I built into my own Son Dynamo wheelset with a standard Shimano STX rear hub (whatever I could get hold of on the internet) Maxiis Ikon tyres carried the load.
I’m most pleased with the saddle. I forked out excessive cash on a gravel wanker branded saddle. There was a lot of hype that came with it but they had one in my size. It was cushioned enough but didn’t chaffe like a cushioned sofa saddle would, so my tush actually finished the race in good condition.
I had 50/50 pedals and appreciated both the clipless and the flats.
I’m musing on the possibility of full suspension but that would require me to learn more about riding and mechanic-ing and I’m not sure I’d appreciate the extra weight. At the other extreme I wish I’d had my cross bike & no frame bag so I could walk/ run the worst of the hike a bike. Basically my set up was perfect except for the frame – but only because my feet hurt. I guess that’s literally par for the course.
4/ ITT are a roller-coaster of highs and lows – where were you at your lowest point?
Glen Affric. I really do love Glen Affric and had it in my head as the last beautiful hard bit before the final slam-dunk. Instead, thanks to chasing the 8 day target, I hit it the day after an all-nighter. The Up seemed to go on forever. For the Down, my co-ordination was gone. I got wet feet and did a lot of pedalling half asleep then did quite a lot of walking. Eventually I fell asleep lay on my back with my feet on the road and my legs propped up against eachother which was quite nice when it was warm. Then the sun then went down and the chill and trench foot woke me up. I tried to ride on a bit but I felt like I had hedgehogs in my shoes and my left knee screamed with every pedal stroke. I nearly phoned in a scratch but I had no reception. I reinforced my own rules about not quitting before eating and sleeping and camped up. The next day dawned sunny and my body had fixed itself overnight.
I still struggled but I’m always amazed at the body and mind’s ability to repair through sleep.
5/ What were you carrying with regard to overnight / sleeping kit and more importantly, did it work?
Z- Packs solplex cuban fibre tent with Bearbones pole upgrade.
Klymit Ultralight SL sleep mat.
Thermarest Vesper 32 (0 degC rated) quilt and a carefully preserved set of dry baselayer leggings and top.
For months before the race I’d struggled with the shivers at night. I changed the Thermarest Neo Air for the Klymit because bits of me kept falling off the Thermarest. I knew I’d be out for 8 days or more, not 5 or 6 so I don’t regret hauling the tent all that way. I don’t mind climbing into a wet tent as it will dry out around you. I only really carry bivi’s on 1 nighters and when I know the forecast is perfect. I wasn’t going to risk not finishing this year so the tent and stove came along at the expense of weight and speed.
6/ Given the ongoing Covid situation, how did you find re-supply and were you carrying more than you might have otherwise?
It wasn’t covid that led me to take the stove (it was the weather forecast on day 3) but Covid did make me glad I had the stove.
I carried dehydrated food for nights 1&2 and one spare. I added a couple of pot noodles along the way and twice bought porridge pots for wild breakfasts. The cafe in Dornie ground me 2 coffees worth of beans for the tiny filter bags I brought. A mate gave me these Japanese coffee filter bags years ago. They’re super light and work pretty well.
In the end, I didn’t make it to Fort Augustus on day 1 as I expected. I got to Contin about 7pm on day 2 but the shop had closed at 2pm due to covid. Thankfully they opened at 6am so not a terrible overnight wait. I could have continued to be honest but I was glad of the rest and resupply and I just didn’t really trust Oykel Bridge Hotel or my timing to reach it. Tuesday’s lunch of Cheese and Pickle sandwiches represented dog poo by the time the river had finished with it so it was binned. Instead I brewed a pot noodle in Glen Golly. At kylesku Hotel I arrived about 9pm and begged/blagged a cheese board and desert.
At Kinlochewe I couldn’t even get through the hotel door for the masked gatekeeper, so it was pot noodle in the carpark.
The most 5* Meal was 4:30am porridge at the top of Devil’s staircase watching the sunrise over the Mamores.
7/ Anything you wish you’d carried but didn’t?
Sealant in my rear tyre. I was lazy and assumed it’d be reet. I got a puncture on my all nighter in Torridon and bunged a tube in because it was 1am. At 3:30 it went down again and I had to spend a lot of time and effort digging out every spiky thing I’d ever picked up in that tyre so the second tube didn’t go flat. I also forgot pliers to change my brake pads but I picked some up in Ullapool along with some thick socks to give my feet more cushioning.
8/ I know you had an issue with brake rub. Was that your only mechanical misfortune?
I lifted my stem 5mm to try and relieve a tingling muscle in my lower back. After a day the headset was loose again which possibly explains my drunken listing over the bogs in the Northern Loop. Honestly – that will be the reason – not that I was knackered!
I cranked the headset up nice n tight and it’s been groaning at me ever since – but don’t tell Trek!
My Igaro power charger succumbed to the battering or the soaking – I’m not sure which.
9/ In my experience women often seem to possess great mental strength and stamina, so why do you think more women don’t compete in ITT where those traits are vitally important?
I can’t answer this. If loads of other women start showing up I might not get a place! I like being the quirky middle aged one at the back.
I don’t think the “mental strength and resilience” argument is particularly important. Womens’ racing is making all kinds of gains in endurance and shorter speed-based sport, now that we’ve been allowed out. We have centuries to catch up with male sporting achievement now you guys* have started pulling your weight around the house. It would be unfair to overlook all of the improvements coming in womens’ racing.
*if you’re in a lesbian relationship – good for you, you’ve got this! If you’re single – keep lots of pizza in the freezer!
Let’s not forget that plenty of men have struggled on through the HT to the finish and plenty were brave enough to start and do their best.
I think if I weren’t so confident I can fix my bike, my gear or myself I’d find it a hurdle to self-supported racing. I was lucky to have a dad who taught me stuff and there’s no shame to looking it up in a book, watching online videos or asking the lads (pick ones who have good answers). So guys, if you have daughters, teach them to fix things, buy them the good kit and their own tools and don’t use jargon that puts them off. If they don’t like bikes, find a sport they do like – one day they might realise you were right all along.
Other than that we just need to smash our way through gender bias: from media promotions that show pretty pristine girls on upright bikes (always following); teenage magazines and social media that tell girls getting sweaty is bad and the most important thing in life is having a boyfriend. And don’t get me started on the gender stereotyping pink-ification of kids toys.
The only other thought I have on it personally is sleeping cold. A lot of men sleep warm meaning they carry less kit. There is quite an attrition rate in the HT550 when the weather is bad. I’d put my completion this year squarely at the feet of sticking to my own playbook (comfort) and knowing the weather forecast, not stripping down the weight to ride someone else’s race. It’s taken effort, funds and trial and error to hone my kit so I suppose you really have to want it and want to invest in it.
Refer back to my saddle comments too. The fact it’s taken me this race and 33 years of experimentation to get comfy on a bike just shows how poorly women’s physiques are catered for and how long this innovation has taken.
10/ Did you ever doubt that you’d finish?
When I felt ill and had to backtrack to Achness Hotel in Rosehall for the night.
When Fisherfield was so lovely I just wanted to stay the week and climb some Munroes.
When I dropped the bike off the bridge at the bottom of the descent into Kinlochleven (I think we’re both fine).
When a highland cow with a calf got pissed off with everyone and started to level her horns at me before the last climb back to Tyndrum. I hid behind a sign until the farm lad shoed her away!
When I wasn’t sure if I had the strength to lift my bike over the gate under the railway 1km from the finish. Do I need to finish with a bike or can I walk back and get it tomorrow?
Most of all, I’m so relieved it actually went ahead in 2021 as I’m not sure I could have eked out the enthusiasm and hope for another year. All thanks and kudos to Alan for persevering with it.
You can read much more about Andrea’s HT550 HERE