Here we share a snapshot of Naomi’s HT550 ride, an experience that was so much more than a race. You can read Naomi's full write-up here.

HT550. So much more than a race…

Four weeks before the race started and life was in turmoil. I’d caught Covid the week before at a funeral, then started a new and exceptionally intense job. Charlie was away travelling a lot, my daughter was in the middle of her exams and I was burning the candle at both ends trying to keep life on an even keel while training and preparing for the race all at the same time. Not the ideal prep, and the little voice in my head was telling me it would be fine to pull out.

Thankfully, my amazing friend Eliza Sampey was travelling over from the US to race as well and it was with her calming influence that I turned up at the start line, ready for an experience like no other.

And so it begins

In a beautifully understated start, we gathered early at The Real Food Café for a pre-race photo then pootled on up to a small carpark at the foot of the first climb out of Tyndrum on the West Highland Way. 

The northbound route is reputed to lull you into a false sense of security. After a small and fun technical descent under the railway bridge on the WHW, we quickly turned off onto new (to me) terrain and the access roads around Loch Lyon. It was here, merely 20kms in, that I slid on a wet wooden bridge and broke my front brake lever. The lever was still attached (just) and so I strengthened it with a folded-over cable tie and wrapped it tightly with electrical tape. 

Towards the evening I hit the foot of the Corrieyairack pass. Thankfully my legs were pretty fresh and I managed to get mostly to the top where I met Rob Waller. He’d had Covid around the same time as me and was definitely feeling the after-effects in his lungs. We chatted a bit on the final push-up, hitting Fort Augustus just in time for chips at the Richmond House Chinese takeaway. I took my chips (and 2 cans of coke) to go and headed off along the Great Glen Way and up to where I bivvied for the night.

I was back on familiar trails again, first up the path of a thousand puddles into Contin where I met a few other riders at the last store for 200km! I left about 15 minutes after Gail Brown and as I did I heard someone say that she was currently in the lead. That made me second, which I was astounded about! No sooner had I heard about places than my racing brain kicked in and I found myself working out how I could chase the lead.

On the way up to Rosehall I caught up with Daniel Gona who I would share a few parts of the ride with over the next few days. Daniel and I did the familiar ultra leapfrogging, all the way to the start of the climb to Beallach Horn where we camped in close enough proximity.

The route up around and off the Beallach Horn is renowned for being tough and in many places unrideable. This year the trails were apparently the most waterlogged they have ever been. And so I set about slipping and sliding down to the beautiful An Dubh-loch where Annie was waiting, quite how she missed me falling into the river is beyond me!

The ride to Drumbeg stores was actually much further than I’d realised, skirting the coast on a very rollercoaster-y section of the NC500 route.

The coastal path ride into Lochinver was idyllic in the evening sun and I vowed to return at another time and camp there in the green dunes with views out over the sea. For now, I had a date with the path behind Suliven. Not a hot date though. It was cold and wet.

Four long, wet hours into the push and I’d reached the path that approaches the A835. It was well after midnight and I’d been over on my ankles more times than I could count. I needed sleep. So I found a rock slab among the bog and boulders and went through my sleep routine. My bag and bivvy were really damp from the morning so I threw on my waterproofs over my dry sleep clothes and hoped for the best.

An hour and a half later I woke myself up shivering. At first, my sleep-deprived brain tried to force my body to relax and go back to sleep. Then I realised that actually, I was becoming hypothermic. I couldn’t face putting my wet shorts back on so I threw on my dry emergency puffer on under my jacket and started the long push-out.

After only an hour of pushing, I reach the road and I see another rider it’s Gail. We ride together to Oykel Bridge, sharing a beautiful conversation, and then she slows to repack something. I tell her my plans and push on to the bothy. As I’m bringing in the last of my stuff to hang it out she passes. For all of 15 minutes, I was in the lead!

The coffin road is suitably evil. And on the steep, technical descent my brake bodge finally fails so I stop and deploy my rusty nail solution. As I push off my phone drops from where I’d rested it, the subsequent smash is enough to make it impossible to unlock. What does this mean? No outgoing communication, no access to my resupply notes, no alarm. Nothing to be done, I push on.

At the foot of the descent, I pull on the front brake to avoid hitting a drainage bar and it doesn’t work. As I’m flying over my bars, all I can think is “please don’t puncture”. I land on my wrist hard and the bruising and swelling is instant. I pump my brake and it seems to be ok again. Hopefully just a bubble.

The push-up through Fisherfield gets exponentially harder, and my bruised wrist complains loudly the entire way.

Fisherfield! As I ride along the plateau and drop down the most incredible descent to a perfectly circular loch in the amber sunset, I feel like I finally get it. All the pushing, all the bog and boulders, the river crossings, and mountain passes have all led to this one, exquisite moment. I wind my way through to Poolewe and find a barn to sleep in and hope that the other rider in there will be noisy enough to wake me without my alarm.

It’s a hot day already. On the Tollie Path I mostly push because getting on and off the bike is starting to really hurt my saddlesore. 

I eventually get to Kinlochewe where I buy 3 toasties. I know the climb and descent over to Achnashellach well. As I ride into the Coulin Estate, my body decides it won’t play ball. My saddlesore worsens to the point where sitting feels like my saddle is made from white-hot razorblades covered in acid. I strip off my shorts and plunge them and me into a stream for a thorough wash then fashion myself a skirt out of my jersey, apply Doublebase cream and allow everything to air. I know I’m losing time but I’m still moving forward which is better than stopping. 

I clock some guys further down the descent as I round the top and decide shorts on is the better way to not get done for indecent exposure or shock the locals. The descent is one of the best in Scotland, I grin the entire way down. That is until my front brake fails again. I’m off over my bars with a big scrape on my elbow and knee.

On the road, I prepare for the next, longer road section but I just can’t sit comfortably. Every pedal stroke I’m wincing. I’m sobbing now, desperate not to scratch, I finally arrive in Strathcarron and pull in at the hotel. My saddle sore is crippling and my phone is broken. I’ll stay the night, try to get myself comfortable enough to ride, and see if I can fix the brake somehow.

The final push(es)

The ride through to Dornie is glorious. The ride alongside the River Croe lulls me into a false sense of security. Then I see the next section of hike-a-bike. On one particularly big heave, I pull hard on my brake lever and it finally snaps off completely. This repair is one to be proud of. I get my stuff together and start the fantastic descent into Glen Affric just as the rain picks up.

I arrive in Fort Augustus after everywhere has shut, fill my bladder at the outdoor tap in the petrol station, and push on along the Great Glen Way to Fort William.

Lairigmor is longer than I remember and by the time I reach Kinlochleven it is properly daylight again. The climb up to the top of the devil’s staircase is as gruelling as I anticipate. I walk a bit, ride a bit down the devil’s staircase and fly through Rannoch Moor. The tiny push up from the tunnel under the railway on the last stretch into Tyndrum is my final challenge. And as I make my way down the final straight to that unassuming car park behind the convenience store against many odds, I have finished. And it feels good.

Pop over to Naomi's full write-up for more photos and details about her HT550 experience

Photo credit: Annie Lloyd Evans & Naomi Freireich