Words: Deviation cycles
Embarking on a grueling adventure through rugged terrain, endurance racing has long captured the spirits of individuals looking to push their limits. The Highland Trail 550 (HT550) challenge is a real test of physical and mental endurance. In this blog, we delve into the journey of Matthew Fairbrother, who recently took on the HT550 challenge. Let’s explore the essence of this formidable challenge and the fascinating story of Matthew’s endeavour.
The HT550 challenge in a nutshell:
The HT550 is a grueling, self-supported mountain bike race covering an astonishing 550 miles (885 km) through the stunning scenery of the Scottish Highlands – against the clock. With over 50,000 feet (15,240 M) of elevation gain, this unforgiving route traverses remote areas, ancient forests, and challenging singletrack trails—not to mention a surprising amount of bike hiking. Participants face a series of technical obstacles, unpredictable weather conditions and the complete isolation of the wilderness at their backs, making it a real test of endurance. Due to the remote nature of the trail, riders must carry all necessary gear and supplies for a large portion of the loop. This includes camping equipment, food, water, spare parts and tools for bike repairs. The self-supported nature of the race means that participants must rely on their ingenuity and stamina to overcome any problems that may arise during the journey while racing against the clock. Completion times for the HT550 challenge can vary widely, with the fastest riders finishing in around three to four days on around 10 hours of sleep in total, while others can take over a week to complete the course. It is a true test of a person’s endurance, determination and love of adventure, attracting riders from all over the world looking for a unique and formidable cycling experience in the majestic Scottish Highlands.
Matthew Fairbrother, professional enduro mountain bike racer, decided to take on the HT550 challenge, captivated by the allure of conquering this rugged trail in 4 days, to discover where his limits might lie. As an experienced rider who has taken on monumental endurance feats in the past – like cycling between each round of the EDR and then racing them – Matthew has a deep appreciation for the emotions he experiences when pushing his limits, and the HT550 would be no exception. His preparation and training for this challenge was deliberately limited. This was an attempt to find his true core limits and learn from previous challenges. Unable to take part in the official HT550 challenge due to racing commitments, Matthew took it up a little early with no other riders alongside him.
Day 1 of the Challenge:
With relentless pedaling and determination, Matt covered around 250 KM in 17 hours. From the start point in Tyndrum to the desert part of the trail near the town of Strathpeffer, Matt had a similar pace to last year’s challenge winner. Stocking up on Haribos, Lucozade and chips at Fort Augustus (Matt’s first pit-stop) they kept him spinning all night until he found a place to rest. Matt set aside 4 hours for sleep, but only managed to get 30 minutes rest for his urgent wife as he was caught in bad weather, leaving him cold and wet through the night. Still, the numbers indicated that things were looking promising as Matt headed into Day 2.
Day 2 of the Challenge:
After being caught in torrential rain and howling wind, Matt and his kit had now been wet for about 6 hours. The foot marks were starting to appear and he was losing sensation in both feet as well as severe pain whenever he put weight on both feet. Fueled by Haribos and covered in talcum powder, Matt pushed…
After taking refuge in a disused old telephone box, Matt used this opportunity to warm up and stay away from the battery of weather that had beaten him all morning. This short-lived respite could only comfort him for so long before he was forced to pedal again to maintain his pace. Matt was now rushing towards the northern section of the HT550 loop, often cited as one of the most difficult sections of the trip due to its sheer distance, lack of refueling points and relentless amount of cycling through bogs. beaten path. After conquering most of the northern part of the loop, night began to close in. Matt’s next task was to cycle the northwest section of the loop, from Kylesku to Lochinver, under the cover of night. This route was only 40km in total but started with a 500m climb followed by gentle rolling B-roads. An already exhausted Matt found the ease of this section almost cost him all his effort as he fell asleep on the bike several times only to be woken very close by. On two occasions a deer jumped him where all he could do was hope for the best as he had nothing left in the tank to try and avoid the collision. It was at this point that Matt decided enough was enough and set up ‘camp’ for a few hours where he would try to rest in anticipation of meeting up with his support group in Lochinver early on the morning of day 3.
Days 3 and 4, The Final Push:
After meeting with the Deviate team at 6am. in Lochinver, the decision was made to provide Matt with a cooked meal, meaning his effort was no longer without support. Although difficult, this decision was made collectively as a means to ensure that Matt would not put himself in serious danger as he struggled to keep food down for the past 12 hours. Matt being Matt, he wanted to keep pushing. His next refueling stop was at a large grocery store in Ullapool, about 100km further on the HT550, clocking around 450m of climbing through this section, passing the shores of Loch Borralan, Oykel Bridge and Loch Achall on the way. On arrival at Ullapool at about 3 p.m.
Unforeseen health concerns:
After another excruciating day of biking and pedaling, Matt had another brutal section of trail to overcome heading into the night of day 3. The passes he had to cross were known for a large number of mountain rescue news due to their sheer remoteness and unpredictable conditions. Matt was left with a dilemma, wait until morning? Or continue into the night to keep up. Matt chose the latter. Continuing to soldier on, he crossed the thigh-deep river pass and came face to face with what later became his nemesis – the section of path that crosses the shoulders of Beinn Dearg Mhòr and Beinn a’ Chàisgein Mòr. As night fell, so did the temperature and with it, came wintry conditions coupled with relentless rain – so much so, the ‘trail’ looked more like a flowing river. It was here, in the middle of some of the most remote countryside the UK has to offer, that Matt’s journey took an unexpected turn for the worst. He suffered from trench foot, sleep deprivation, near hypothermia, intermittent nosebleeds and a partially torn Achilles tendon. Amid mounting health concerns, the night had truly fallen. GPS tracking began to have problems, his radio had accidentally been turned off and he had no shelter nearby. After finally getting his GPS to work partially, Matt contacted Josh – a member of his support team – to tell him he was about to give up. Josh informed Matt that there was a man about 6 km ahead of his position and he should take shelter there until morning. Matt then moved on until he found Carnmore and both. Wet, cold and exhausted after the harsh weather conditions that followed, it turned out to be an extremely difficult night. By morning his GPS had completely failed and after not having any contact with Matt for 4 hours, the emergency support team located him and made sure he was in stable condition. Matt, recognizing the importance of prioritizing his well-being, made the difficult decision to withdraw from the HT550 challenge, seeking immediate medical attention and support.
A lesson in resilience and self-care:
Matthew’s experience serves as a poignant reminder that even the most die-hard endurance athletes must recognize their limitations and prioritize their health. In the face of enormous challenges, recognizing when to stop and ask for help was a difficult but necessary decision. While the goal was to try and complete the course, the challenge was both discovering his limits and more importantly, what that means when he faces future challenges.
Matthew Fairbrother’s journey through the HT550 challenge was a testament to his courage and determination. While he may not have made it to the finish line, his choice to prioritize his health served as a powerful reminder of the importance of self-care in pursuit of ambitious goals. The HT550 challenge continues to attract adventurers who seek to conquer its relentless trail, reminding us that sometimes the greatest victories lie in knowing when to step back and reassess our limits. Matthew’s story serves as an inspiration to all, encouraging us to push ourselves harder in pursuit of new experiences. He may have found his limit in this instance, but the lessons learned help him redefine those limits.
– Matthew Fairbrother
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