18th May 2023
Philippa Battye - Preparing For The Highland Trail 550
We caught up with Mason Rider Philippa Battye to see how she was preparing for this years infamous Highland Trail 550.
"The Highland Trail is a self-supported mountain bike route 550 miles in length with over 16000m of climbing. It was inspired by events in the US like the Tour Divide and particularly the Colorado Trail Race (CTR). Initially put together as a simple training ride in preparation for the CTR, it became apparent that the great trails, beautiful scenery, remote wilderness, and fickle Scottish weather, offered a world class route for a self-supported challenge right here in UK. The majority of the route is on excellent trails and quiet roads, but includes some boggy and very technical sections. Everyone should expect some extended periods of hike-a-bike, even the best climbers and technical descenders will find plenty of terrain beyond their ability. With the advent of GPS units, navigation is no longer a real challenge should you choose to use one. However if you do not use a GPS, make sure you are competent at navigating. Not all of the route is obvious. Even with a GPS unit you should be prepared for its failure, and carry a paper version of the route. Should you need to keep moving in limited visibility or darkness know how to find your way."
I went up to Scotland in April last year to recce some of the Highland Trail route before racing it in May. However my plans were scuppered by heavy snow/ inadequate kit so I cut the trip short. Then my first attempt at racing the Highland Trail was scuppered by covid just two days before the start. Both a good lesson in not hanging on to tightly to anything and embracing the value in the process instead!
So a year on, the HT550 is still very much at the forefront of my mind and I couldn’t be more excited about it. I headed up to Scotland again this April, firstly for a conservation weekend organized by the racing collective and some work for Hostelling Scotland with the Adventure Syndicate. Between these I had 5 days to meander around the Highlands in what turned out to be the most glorious of weather windows. It couldn’t have contrasted more with the year before, or in fact the week after…a stark reminder of the fickleness of Scottish weather, and how one really does need to be prepared for all seasons and conditions on the Highland Trail. It feels like this is an aspect of the race which can make it truly challenging, and I suspect a lot of success and failure comes down to smart decisions made before the race, and of course decisions made during. 6 weeks out from the highland trail this was the perfect opportunity to familiarize myself with some of the route that was unknown to me, test gear, body and mind, and skills while riding a fully loaded bike over rough unpredictable terrain!
I ended up heading off from Tyndrum on the HT550 route in reverse, as I’d ridden most of the outward section a couple of times during gbduro. For me riding the route is as much about having a picture in my mind of the landscapes I’ll be passing through, potentially in the dark/ a state of exhaustion/ intimidating weather. The fear of the absolute unknown is very much real for me, and even though I know places such as Glen Affrick could feel very different to my experience on a warm sunny blue skied day, having an idea of the terrain pre race will give me some comfort. I don’t tend to ride routes before racing, embracing the sense of discovery and exploration. However the Highland Trail intimidates me like no other … compounded by photos of chest high river crossings, tales of atrocious weather, and endless stories of broken bodies and bikes.
I’m not sure one can ever be fully prepared for such a race, and for me it’s been a long time coming.
All that’s left to do now is do it, and to try and squeeze out as much joy and learning from the experience as possible. After all, these are just big ol’ bike rides which allow us to experiment with ourselves, so what could possibly go wrong...