Monday, August 3, 2015

Will I ever learn?

Three weeks ago, I set out to circumnavigate the Sylan massif on the Swedish-Norwegian border. This is my idea of a perfect training weekend: one part training, two parts adventure. I convinced my boyfriend, Audun, that the route I planned would be fun to ride on a mountain bike, so that I could have company on what would be two very long days.  I reasoned that most of our mountain bike rides ended up being the equivalent of a slow running pace, so even if we didn’t travel together the whole time we could leapfrog each other. 

Our plan was to cover a four-day route between four mountains huts in two days, for a total of just over 80 kilometers. I made reservations at a mountain hut called Sylstationen on the Swedish side of the massif. We packed our backpacks full of warm clothes (this being the mountains) and high-calory snacks, and drove out to Tydal.

Day 1: In which Audun regrets bringing his mountain bike

The first leg of the run was 4 kilometers on forested singletrack to a hut called Storerikvollen. I got a head start on Audun while he adjusted his bike, but was quickly caught again on the rolling, fast terrain.

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Coming into Storerikvollen

It was a truly gorgeous day, and I was already regretting my choice to wear long tights rather than shorts. It’s been such a cold, rainy summer in Trondheim that I didn’t trust the weather forecast! 

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Audun above the mountains

From Storerikvollen, the trail climbed gradually over wet, marshy terrain. The view was expansive, from the Sylane mountains on one side out to the sparkling blue Esandsjøen on the other. On the technical climbs, I was much faster on foot than Audun was on his mountain bike.

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Below the Sylan massif

The trail traversed under Storsylan, the largest mountain in the area, and I reminisced about running up it during the summer I worked at Nedalshytta, one of the huts we would pass through. This year, there was still a far amount of snow still left on the steep scree slope that leads to the top, which would make the already slippery trail difficult going. This area of Norway had a strange snow season this year: very little snow until late in the season, and then such a cold spring that it still hasn’t melted in late July.

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Audun below Storsylan

Another series of boardwalks traversed the wet terrain towards Nedalshytta, and I was glad to be running fleet-footed across them rather than perched precariously on my mountain bike.

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Over the hill and down to Nedalshytta we go!

Finally, the trail did a noise-dive into the trees and down to Nedalshytta, our second hut of the day. We got waffles and ice cream and enjoy a few minutes in the sun. We had done 27 kilometers, and I was feeling fast and good. But we still had 18 kilometers to go, this time crossing a pass at a higher altitude.

After Nedalshytta, the trail climbed steadily towards the Swedish border. The terrain was technical once again, and I quickly gaped Audun, but waited for him on the fence that marks the Swedish border.

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Just casually sitting on the Swedish-Norwegian border.

After crossing into Sweden, we continued to climb, and patches of snow started to appear. They were typically long and perpendicular to the trail, so that you couldn’t go around them. We couldn’t see very far into the distance, so we couldn’t really tell how much snow there was going to be. 

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Crossing a stretch of snow

The snow was much harder on Audun than it was on me. I could have run much more, but decided to keep him company for the long stretches of pushing and carrying his bicycle over soft snow patches, and as a result walked long stretches. As we rounded the corner of the valley we could see the final steep pitch up to the pass, and I crossed my fingers for less snow. There was - at least to begin with. 

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Headed up the pass above Ekorrdören. Pushing a mountain bike through wet snow = no fun

As we crossed over the top of Ekorrdören pass, I thought Audun would be able to start riding and I could run again. I had basically been walking since the Swedish border. Unfortunately, the backside of the pass was north facing, and held even more snow than the side we climbed.

So Audun was stuck postholing while carrying his bike downhill. He was pretty fed up at this point, and I was doing all I could to cheer him up. The snow dissipated as we descended, and there were more and more rideable sections. As Audun could ride more, I gradually started to jog. It felt good. It felt great. Let’s go! 

Before I knew it, I had left Audun, riding the extremely technical trail, in my dust. Or proverbial dust at least. More like mud and lichen. We arrived at Sylstationen, our stop of the evening, after 8 hours elapsed and 46 kilometers. The day was duly celebrated with beer, pizza and ice cream.

Day 2: I wish I had a mountain bike!

I felt worked when I woke up the next morning. I tried to eat as much as I could at breakfast, banking energy for another long day. The trail out of Sylstationen was a long, smooth descent. I put in headphones to try and wake up my positive attitude, and watched as Audun zoom past me on succulently rideable trail. I regretted the choice of heavy brown bread and oatmeal at breakfast, bouncing around in my stomach like a brick. My hips were sore with chaffing from my backpack. Today would be hard.

One foot in front of the other, Bazilchuk.

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Boardwalks across the marsh outside of Sylstationen

After the descent, we got to climb another, small pass. I felt good climbing; I could powerhike instead of run, and my legs were liking that. However sluggish I felt, I was still happy that there was nothing that really hurt. Just a little tired, that was all.

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The rolling terrain was made for much easier riding, and today Audun was waiting for me much more. That felt good though, like I hadn’t just dragged him along on a fruitless bike ride.

Somewhere between Sylstationen and the next hut, Blåhammaren, I started to obsess about wearing shorts. The weather was beautiful again, and I was hot in my rolled up long tights and dark, baggy shirt. I had gone shirtless for a portion the day before but had to surrender when the chaffing from the mesh on my backpack went from irritating to painful. I though about feeling fresh air on my thighs, and imagined myself feeling powerful and strong - in shorts. Next time, I thought, I will always pack shorts!

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Fording the river below Blåhammaren

On the final climb to Blåhammaren, I started to feel a twinge on the outer edge of the sole of my right foot. It felt like a muscle cramp, and I started to look forward to arriving at the hut so I could take off my shoes and stretch out the offended foot. We arrived at Blåhammaren, 18 km into our day in 2:30 elapsed, which was pretty good time all things considered. We sat down outside the hut and I horked down as much trail mix as I could manage while looking at my foot. I probed with my fingers, but it felt fine. Good, I thought, probably just some weird muscles cramp.

Over the course of the next 10 kilometers, my foot started to hurt more and more, and I grew more and more pessimistic. What do you expect?! I shouted at myself, Ridiculously long weekend, of course somethings bound to hurt. Serves you right! You probably broke it.

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Tiny person in a huge landscape as I head for the Swedish border for the second time in so many days.

I deteriorated from running to walking, gingerly trying to avoid rolling through my right foot, which was growing incredibly painful. Every time I had to step in any way so the foot was slanted from side to side, something in there screamed.

Poor Audun tried to cheer me up like I had him the day before, but I was a black polluted cloud of rage and frustration. I used my favorite trick, telling myself that if I just finished this run, I would never have to run again. I would quit this stupidity - as soon as I finished. Some people do endurance sports to dig deep and find there strengths. That day in Sylane, I dug deep, to my core, and found an ocean of weaknesses. My options were: keep moving, or call a helicopter. So I kept moving, because the helicopter option seemed silly.

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Audun’s bike about to reenter Norway from Sweden. Good thing there weren’t any passport checks!

We arrived at the Norwegian border, and I tried to count how many kilometers we had left. 9? Or would it be 11? Screw it. I just wanted to get this over with. I started to experiment with foot placement and realized that if I only placed my weight on the ball of my right foot, I could run. A strange, loopsided gait, but at least faster than walking. That felt good.

Then there was another big uphill, and I could powerhike on the balls on my feet. I was still strong, my muscles weren’t all that fatigued. If it weren’t for my stupid foot though… But my black rage slowly faded, and turned into appreciation. My foot hurt, but I was still moving. It was too hot, but it was so, incredibly beautiful.

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Descent towards Storerikvollen

We stopped at Essandsjøen (the lake) and had a magnificently refreshing swim before travelling the final stretch to Storerikvollen. The final 3-odd kilometers to the car were all that was left. Audun stopped to chat with some kids at the hut (who were admiring his bike) and drink soda, but I just. needed. to keep. moving. The last 3 kilometers felt impossibly long and impossibly hot and I just wanted rest my foot. Don’t think about what you did to it, just move.

The relief of arriving at the car. Sitting down. Driving to the nearest town, buying ice cream a soda. I no longer wanted to quit running forever, but I wasn’t sure what my foot was going to let me do.

Epilogue: a long recovery

One reason I’ve struggling in writing this post is because I have been struggling with whatever I did to my foot for the last three weeks. I’m no longer certain I’ll be running the Ultravasan 90K at the end of August. Whatever I did to my foot isn’t healing quickly, and I’ve been forced to taking a lot more time off running than I like. Luckily, I’ve been able to ride my bikes and even go hiking, but have been really limited in terms of running.

I saw a physiotherapist last week, and most likely I don’t have a stress fracture, which is what I was most afraid of. So it’s some sort of weird soft tissue aggravation, made really bad by the fact that I had to run 15 kilometers after it started hurting. As per the physiotherapists recommendation I’ve started to slowly build up my mileage again, and yesterday I had my first completely pain free run. It was only 5 kilometers, but if felt amazing. But will I be able to run 90 kilometers in three weeks time, with all the missed training? Not so sure.

I definitely tried to go too far without sufficient training, and I’ve resolved to be much stricter with myself in the future about increasing mileage slowly. I’ve had a couple slight injuries in the calves and feet this spring, and they have always come from a sudden increase in running volume. So even though a 85 kilometer weekend, in retrospect, was probably a bad idea, I don’t regret what was a phenomenal weekend in the best weather we’ve had all summer. With patience and dedication, I’ll be back on the trails soon enough.

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

And haggis for breakfast: Scotland part 2

The day after riding half of the West Highland Way in Scotland  in one day, we were understandably a little bike-weary. The weather was uncharacteristically beautiful, though, and I was not prepared to spend a day relaxing in Scotland’s self-proported outdoor capital.

“Let’s just hike up Ben Nevis,” I coaxed Audun, by which I meant Scotland highest mountain, “hiking is easy compared to dragging around a mountain bike!"

And both believing that hiking was, in fact, easy, we set off from the center of Fort William to conquer the mountain.

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The entrance to Glen Nevis

I had forgotten about the almost ruthless manner in which we two tend to hike together. We both have naturally fast walking paces, and since neither of us will tell the other to slow down (because we both find this pace comfortable), our hiking always turns into power hiking. Combine that with my competitive instinct to Pass All The Tourists, and you have us chugging up Ben Nevis like a two-man freight train.

It was hot at the base of the mountain, and Audun didn’t feel so good. I guess I should have put on the brakes, and suggested we find something more relaxing to do. But I had the mountain in my sights, so I just said, “Are you drinking enough water? Let’s just keep going for a little ways and we can turn around later if you want to.” Soon there was no turning around.

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Headed up Ben Nevis on a gorgeous day

We passed literally hundreds of people on the way up the mountain, so I guess Roddy was right when he referred to the mountain as crowded. The ascent starts on rocky switchbacks through farmland, before reaching a saddle near a beautiful loch, and giving way to talus slopes up the rest of the mountain. The trail is broad, although a little rough.

A couple of trail runners were powerhiking up as well, although they were cutting all the switchbacks and going straight up the slope. I couldn’t help thinking that taking the trail must be more efficient, but I guess they were training for the off-trail hill racing events that are typical to Scotland.

The last stretch to the top there were a couple of big snow patches, and we were again ascending into the fog. So all we saw from the top was this:

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Yeah, highest mountain in Scotland!

On the way down, we decided to run (we were, after all, in running shoes), and I felt the pure joy of bounding down a big hill, laser-focused on not misstepping. Eventually we cooled back down to a fast walk, wanting to conserve our quads for the next day.

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Descending below the fog, swaths of tourists headed up behind us.

It was a weary duo, feeling fried by the sun, that plodded back into Fort William that afternoon. Ben Nevis might not have been the ideal choice for a relaxing day, but it was a good hike.The day was rounded off in typical Scottish fashion: with good ale and pub food. For once we didn’t eat fish and chips, but instead indulged a veal burger, a wild boar and haggis burger (only in Scotland) and delicious breading pudding with custard.

The next day we had planned to check out the bike park in Fort William, but Audun woke up not feeling so great. I guess I should have taken a hint when he wasn’t feeling so great at the start of Ben Nevis! We were to pick of a rental car and drive to Skye that afternoon, so we formulated a plan where a leisurely morning would be spent in Fort William, and then I would bike a portion of the Great Glen Way, which stretches north of Fort William.

The Great Glen Way is a 150 km footpath which runs from Fort William to Inverness. Reading about it earlier, I had decided it looked like a lot of dirt roads and not technically challenging. But I decided easy, predictable, well-marked biking was just the ticket if I was heading out alone. We agreed that Audun would pick me up in Fort Augustus, 50-odd kilometers alone the Great Glen Way, and not too much of a detour from our drive to Skye.

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The start of the Great Glen Way in Fort William

It was 2:30pm by the time I set out, my backpack filled with snacks, rain gear, and a map covering the whole Great Glen Way. I was kind of excited to be setting out of a solo adventure, which requires a whole other level of alertness.

The first section of the Great Glen Way follows paved walking paths along the sea shore, before doing a hair pin turn to pick up the Caledonian Canal. I, of course, missed the hair pin turn at first and got to do a little extra sightseeing before finally finding the Way markers again.

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Ben Nevis on the left, Fort William across the bay (center), and an abandoned ship on the beach.

Threateningly grey clouds loomed overhead, and just started to rain as I attacked Neptune’s staircase, a series of locks that allow boats to move vertically in the Caledonian Canal. After reaching the top, the Way was really flat, and actually kind of boring, for a while. You could only see as far as the next bend in the Canal, and the riding was on an easy dirt road. I decided to go hard, assuming that there would be Strava segment here, so I just put my head down and grinded along. I quickly left the rain behind.

After reach Gairlochy, the Way began to climb along of Loch Lochy, an enormous lake, before swooping down to the shore side. The beginning of the section along Loch Lochy was my favorite part of the Great Glen Way. Here the Way was a trail rather than a dirt road, and it twisted through verdant woods spotted with wildflowers.

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Self portrait along Loch Lochy.

Eventually the Way dumped me out on a dirt road again. Luckily there was World War II memorabilia, in this case remnants of the Commando training center used by the Allies, to keep things interesting.

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Commando training camp sightseeing.

After passing several houses, the Way grew more remote again, this time with more sweeping views across the Loch and to the mountains above. There were numerous small ascents and descents, and I found the rhythm of riding dirt roads: pedalling up the hills and cruising on the downhills, an exercise in soaking in the views rather than the laser focus required for technical mountain biking.

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The Way along Loch Lochy

Once the rolling hills along Loch Lochy were finished, the Way crossed the main road again and continued along the shores of Loch Oich. Loch Oich was much narrower than Loch Lochy, and the Way followed abandoned rail road project. 

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At the end of Loch Oich, with just the home stretch to Fort Augustus left.

After Loch Oich, the rest of the Way into Fort Augustus was another long grind along the Caledonian Canal. I mashed out this section, barely looking around, and arrived in Fort Augustus before Audun with the car. So I continued for a couple of bonus kilometers, climbing up above Loch Ness to enjoy the view before soaring back down to the tiny town center.

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My bike, Casper, greeting the Loch Ness moster.

We enjoyed a dinner of pub food in Fort Augustus before making the drive to Skye through spectacular mountain scenery and evening light.

The next morning, the beautiful weather had disappeared and Scotland was once again grey and rainy. I chose our B&B on Skye as an opportunity to try haggis. The haggis was served alongside the typical English breakfast of eggs, sausages, tomatoes, mushrooms and toast. It tasted pretty good, but the flavor was rich and pretty overpowering. Determined to finish my whole portion of haggis, I was stuffed after breakfast.

We drove out to Glen Sligachan, a valley that extends under the Black Cuillin, immortalized in the mountain biking movie “The Ridge”. I had read all about how wildly beautiful this ride was supposed to be; however, the grey day did not allow our expectations to be met.

The trail started with drainage ditch after drainage ditch, and I kept getting off my bike to cross them. I got more and more irritated, and in the end we stopped so I could solve the drainage ditch problem. I manned myself up, and practiced first lifting my front wheel over a rock before attacking the drainage ditches. And contrary to my belief, the ditches did not swallow me whole. In fast, I just rode straight over them! Elated, I pedalled up the trail, practicing my newfound skill. It was like magic, like I could hover over these obstacles I had been so scared of.

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Audun in Glen Sligachan

The clouds grew increasingly thick the further into the valley we pedalled. The trail itself was devilishly difficult, with lots of technical, rocky climbs and extremely wet terrain. The breakfast haggis churned like a partially decomposed brick in my stomach. Audun was still feeling a little under the weather, and I was feeling many days of activity in my legs, so we turned about halfway through Glen Sligachan.

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Headed out of Sligachan, with a spot of sun in the distance

The clouds lifted as we rode out of the valley, although a glance behind told us that they were just as thick further down the valley from where we had just come. The riding was more fun as a descent, and the ride ended on a high note after I rode down an intimidating set of stairs.

The afternoon was spent visiting the Talisker Whisky Distillery (my favorite whisky!), which had been on my todo list. In the end I was glad we cut the ride a little short and had time to go to a distillery - they are pretty cool!

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Our guide explains the malting process.

The next day, Skye decided to show its best side and let the sun out from behind the clouds. We drove to the north of Skye and pedalled off to do the Quiraing loop. It started with a grinding climb on a paved road up to a pass.

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A nice paved road warm-up in beautiful surroundings.

We then turned onto a scenic trail, where a lot of hikers gawked at us - the idiots on mountain bikes!

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The Quiraing trail.

Soon after starting, I got my first (and only) flat tire of the trip, after lifting my wheel over a particularly large drainage ditch (yeah!) only to slam my back wheel far too hard into the ditch. Normally, I have a latex fluid in my tires that seals up any punctures, so I basically can’t flat. However, time and use had transformed the latex fluid into a rubbery, useless clump:

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Dead latex = flat tire

Once Audun put an innertube in my tire, we continued on the trail, which was an exposed piece of singletrack below spectacular rock formations.

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Stunning, but a little scary to bike on!

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I found the exposure unnerving, even though the fall on my right side was only a steep, grassy slope. My riding suffered, and I found myself getting off my bike on technical bits. This slowed our pace to the point that we were leapfrogging hikers, which stressed me even more. I felt like a taught rope, ready to snap, but relaxing slightly every time there were rideable sections.

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This picture gives a really good idea of what exposure felt like.

We took a wrong turn at one point and ended up having to drag our bikes down a 45 degree slope on slippery soil to get back on the main trail. My confidence sank with each dismount of the bike, and my frustration peaked when I fell into a hiker, awkwardly stepping on his foot. By the time we arrived back at the main road, I was tired and fed up, reading for a relaxing afternoon in the car. We drove back to Fort William and returned the car, and the next morning caught an early train towards Glasgow.

The day before, my friend Roddy had texted me, asking if we wanted to join them for the Luss Highland Games. “We’re going to do the hill race (3 km 300+m)!” he exclaimed, and that was all it took to sell me. Highland Games are events that happen every weekend, all summer, somewhere in Scotland. There are strong man events (think people in kilts lobbing rocks around), as well as more informal track and field events. We arrived at the Luss Highland Games in dreary Scottish rain. The parking area was a grassy field that was quickly turning into mud.

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The gang all ready for the Luss Highland Games

In the events tent, we poured over the multitude of different track and field events we could sign up for. In the end I decided everything but the hill race was too short for me, and I would rather take pictures. The others signed up for ominous-sounding things like “90 handicap” and “obstacle race”. Audun, who used to do track and field, got all excited signing up for things like the long jump.

The main problem was then to figure out when each event started. Some of them had nominal starting times; others didn’t. All the events took place on the large field where the Games were being held, so basically you just had to wait around until a guy who looked like he was in charge announced each event. We commenced waiting, and observing the fascinating combination of events taking place simultaneous on the field.

There were men lobbing around enormous poles (’toss the caber’), as the same time as children’s sprint races took place. And in the background, multiple bagpipes serenaded us.

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Only in Scotland.

After some hours of watching the various events, swatting at midges and shivering a bit in the rain, it was time for the 90-meter dash. Roddy and Audun warmed up diligently and then lined up for their respective heats.

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Many of their competitors were fit-looking guys in tights and race spikes. Oh well, at least it will be fun to watch, we all thought. The judges had an unfathomable handicap system, wherby a couple of meters disadvantage were given to sprinters in their spikes whereas the others were allowed to start slightly ahead. Roddy held is own during his heat, but was unsuprisingly beat by the fast-looking sprinters.

Then it was Audun’s turn. Audun in his surfer shorts and Gore-tex shoes. Audun who didn’t look like competition at all, but in truth is a lean, mean, sprinting machine. He won his heat easily, and proceeded to win the finals as well.

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The finals of the 90-meter dash.

We were all in shock, laughing and jumping and hugging each other, when Audun showed us a little piece of paper he had been given, his prize voucher. As we flipped through the program, we suddenly realized that he had actually won quite a lot of money - 90 pounds!

Audun proceeded to destroy the guys in tights and spikes for the rest of the afternoon, and won the long jump, came second in the triple jump, and won the ‘Foreigner’s’ race, where he was given an enormous handicap (like 50-odd meters in a 200 meter race).

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Audun can also fly. Nah, this is just him during the triple jump.

Then it was time for the rest of us to do the hill race, which involved running straight up a hilltop that we could just barely see through the clouds, 300 vertical meters above us. I was nervous, because it was foggy out and people had said you could easily get lost in the bushes out there. There was no trail or course markings, because this is Scotland. And what if I was dead last? It will be fine, I coaxed myself.

We lined up, a bunch of guys in racing singlets and the most grippy trail running shoes Salomon makes, and me, in my biking shorts and city running shoes, and soon we were off. 

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The start of the hill race

It felt great to be running again, and I settled into the middle of the group, following some people who clearly knew were they were going. We had to jump several sheep fences on the way, and I revelled in the novelty of it all. No trail! Straight up the hill! 

As the hill grew steeper, I developed a steady power-hiking pace. Soon we could choose between thrashing through neck-high ferns or sinking into boggy water with each step. But I was gaining on the people ahead of me, and soon I caught Roddy. There was only one woman ahead of me (out of only 4 who started!) - maybe I could catch her?

I was only 10 seconds behind her when we reached the top of the hill, marked with an enormous neon yellow flag. But as soon as the downhill started, the superior grip of everyone else shoes really started to make a difference, and I started falling behind the people I had hiked up with. After doing two full-frontal slides down a 30 degree, marshy slope I decided I needed to be a little careful. Soon I was thrashing through the ferns all alone, trying to go roughly the same direction I had come from. When I exited the ferns, it was clear I was lost. Uh-oh.

I continued on in roughly the direction I thought was correct, and after jumping two barbed wire fences and taking another hideous fall, I finally found some semblance of the trail we had started on. I sprinted back to the stadium, cursing about how much time I must have lost because of slippery shoes and stupidity.

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Final lap around the stadium, soaking wet!

My legs were like lead, but I had taken second woman and had so, so much fun. Strava shows me running 500 meters extra due to my navigational error - oops! And with that we went back to Roddy’s mom’s house for a warm shower, hot food, and goodbyes. Our Scotland trip was over for now, with only travel left, and what fun it had been!

- The Wild Bazilchuk

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Fish and chips: Scotland part 1

The man on the train was wearing a greyish-white suit that matched his face. He was struggling to keep his balance as the train swayed, and holding his hand to his mouth. This was a troubling gesture, given that my bicycle bag and I were between him and the nearest exit. 

Welcome to Scotland! Feel free to read the rest of this post with the corniest Scottish accent you can muster!

Audun and I decided to go on summer vacation to the only place that could possibly be wetter and cold than Norway in late June: the Scottish Highlands. Our first evening in Scotland found us on the second to last train from Edinburgh to Helensburgh outside of Glasgow. Our sober, tired beings significantly reduced the blood alcohol level on the train. We were headed out to visit a friend of mine from my exchange year in France, Roddy (previously featured some of these blog posts).

After a refreshing but short night of sleep, we were on the road to the Highlands, in particular the Arrochar Alps. Roddy was participating in a particularly nasty trail race that climb 4 mountains in 25 km (Arrochar Alps race). I was dying to sign up, but given that the female course record was just shy of four hours and it was still only a week since the marathon, I deemed it prudent not to. Audun and I quickly put together our bikes and head out to spectate on our mountain bikes. 

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Studying the map purchased at the tiny store in Arrochar.

After studying the local Strava heat map, we determined that Ben Ime, the third mountain that the race would be climbing, was rideable. At least 9 other people had gone to the top, so we could too. The start of the climb was nicely graded switchbacks, and we were chugging right past numerous hikers. The trail grew steeper, and I inevitably had to get off and push my bike up the steepest section. Then the hikers started passing me. Turns out I can’t walk that fast while pushing a 12 kg mountain bike.

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Everyone smile!

Once above treeline, the trail grew more technical, and the drainage ditches started. Drainage ditches are channels built across the trail for the purpose of, you guessed it, draining water out of the trail. Most of the ditches could in theory be ridden over if one lifted one’s front wheel over the ditch. Every time I approached one, though, I started to see my front wheel getting stuck and myself collapsing into the ditch. They grew in my mind from small obstacles to gaping holes ready to swallow me. Needless to say, I started getting of my bike to walk over the frequent ditches.

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Audun below the Cobbler, attempting a river crossing.

The trail brought us below a characteristic feature known as the Cobbler, and a side trail funnelled most of the hikers up to that steep, rocky summit. We continued on through a valley between the mountains, relieved to no longer be leapfrogging with hikers. The trail was flatter and more bikeable now, although still scattered with drainage ditches.

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Enjoying a Crunchie below the Cobbler.

We reached the saddle between Ben Ime and Ben Narnain, the neighboring peak and the final peak in the race, to find an orange tent. The race checkpoint! Scottish hillracing is kind of like crude orienteering. There is no marked race course, but the racers are required to cross through a number of checkpoints marked on a map. The route you take between the mountains is entirely up to you. In this race, there were checkpoints on all the mountains the race passed over, and the route between the mountains would be principally off trail.

The remaining climb to Ben Ime was steep, with an undeveloped, loose trail surrounded by marshy grass. We meet the two volunteers bound for the checkpoint tent as they headed down from Ben Ime, and they informed us that the race leaders would be heading off of the summit soon. The volunteers were friendly and chatty, and seemed pretty surprised that we were riding our bikes up the mountain.

We ascended into the fog. If there is one thing I learned on this trip, it is that there is always fog on the tops of Scottish mountains. Soon the first racers passed us, flying down the hill in the shorts and singlets. They seemed to be using the trail as a suggestion only, mostly running on the softer grass parallel to it.

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The third place racer on the chase.

Some of them asked us if we had seen other runners, in an almost desperate tone which made it clear they were afraid they were lost and had gone down the wrong side of the mountain. I laughed and told them, yes, they were on the right trail. 

About 10 runners of the 30 total racing passed us before we reached the summit, only to meet an elderly couple sitting on top, out Munro bagging. It was cold (due to the fog), and we didn’t last long before the lack of a view persuaded us to head down from the summit.

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We came for the view.

On the way down, I discovered that I could use the trick the runners had, and descend on the soft grass next to the trail rather than the loose, steep, rocky trail itself. And the sport of off-piste mountain biking was born. It was great fun.

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The trail is just a suggestion.

Audun chose to follow the trail, and due to its difficulty we were descending at almost the same speed for once.

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Below the fog, there were views!

Off the main slope of Ben Ime, we hung out at the checkpoint for a while watching more racers tick through. Still, unfortunately, no sign of my friend Roddy. I hoped he was OK.

The majority of the remaining descent was marred by the frequent drainage ditches, and feeling stupid when I got off my bike to walk over them. It was refreshing to reach the final section of switchbacks, which was finally all rideable for me. 

When Roddy finally finished the race and arrived back the local community center, he looked like this:

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Clearly someone who has just had a good time! After learning the hard way that you should book your train ticket in advance if you are planning to bring a bike, we caught a bus back to Glasgow and enjoyed some well-deserved fish and chips and beer.

After a leisurely morning in Glasgow, we took the train with our pre-booked bikes to Crianlarich. The village of Crianlarich consists of a train station, a pub and a handful of establishments catering to people walking the West Highland Way, a popular, 150 kilometer footpath between Glasgow and Fort William. I had managed to pick a charming B&B with a talkative proprietor, who apparently had lots of nieces and brothers and things who lived in Norway. After depositing our things, we were sent off on the West Highland Way with the advice of hiking to the next town over, Tyndrum, and then taking the bus back.

Me being me, I insisted that we run. The West Highland Way between Crianlarich and Tyndrum climbed through a verdant forest on double track and swooped above the valley for a time.

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Audun can run too! Imagine that!

After about 5 kilometers, the trail descended to the main road, where it followed dirt roads along the valley bottom parallel to the highway. Less charming maybe, but certainly faster.

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It was still pretty picturesque. 

In Tyndrum, we treated ourselves to more beer, fish and chips, and cake at the Real Food Café before jumping on a bus back to Crianlarich.

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Mmmm carrot cake.

The next morning we got up early and delivered our baggage to the local hotel for transfer to Fort William at the end of the West Highland Way. There was 78 kilometers and 2000 vertical meters between us and Fort William, and I had never intended for us to bike all of it in one day. 

My plan was for us to take a morning bus to Bridge of Orchy, shaving nearly 20 km from the day and giving it a more manageable size. The best laid plans of mice and men...

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So. Many. Midges. Invisible, bloodthirsty creatures.

After 20 minutes of waiting for the (late) bus among midges, which bite like mosquitoes but are so small you can’t see them, the bus driver informed us that he was absolutely, under no circumstances, allowed to take bikes in his luggage bay. Which was strange, because the same bus company had allowed us to do just that the day before. 

Screw it, we said. The train wasn’t for another two hours, and we could easily get to Bridge of Orchy by then, right? We bypassed the first hill above Crianlarich by pedalling down the main road and rejoined the West Highland Way where it parallel the road towards Tyndrum.

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Climbing sheep fences while carrying a bike is a skill we got to work on.

Riding half of the West Highland Way in one day was a daunting prospect. Neither of us had ever ridden that far on the mountain bike before. Usually, we ride technical, slow-going trails. However, if our experience jogging a section of the Way the afternoon before had shown us anything, there would be significant section of faster riding on dirt roads. We hoped.

The almost 20 kilometers to Bridge of Orchy were fast going and only took us a little more than an hour. The Way weaves back and forth through a valley, frequently kissing the highway before climbing up to the other side of the valley and cross through bucolic farmland. I felt myself pushing to keep the pace up. It was going to be a long day no matter what, and I wanted to speed through the easy stuff in case the Way got harder. 

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Underpass.

It was an overcast day, and it started to drizzle as we hit the first really climb out of Bridge of Orchy. The climb was well-graded, and staying on the bike made it pass quickly. From the top of the small pass, we were treated to a zooming descent on rocky double track to Inveroran, where the Way cross the road at a solitary hotel.

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Descending towards Inveroran.

The section between Inveroran and Kingshouse crosses Rannoch moor, which affords expansive views. The Way follows an old military road which is studded with small rocks, lodged firmly into the ground by the passage of time and footsteps. These quasi-cobblestones vibrated our bikes constantly as we pedalled down the road. As the my Garmin ticked towards 35 kilometers, I marvelled that the only thing that hurt was my hands, due to the vibration in the handlebars. I tried to shift my grip around and stretched my fingers out to relax them.

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Audun and the ‘cobblestones’ along Rannoch Moor.

There was another enjoyable descent before the Way crossed the highway again at Kingshouse and dovetailed the road for a stretch. For the first time in forty kilometers, the Way grew technically difficult, crossing areas of wet, loose rocks that had me off my bike a couple of times.

Before we knew it, we were at the base of the Devil’s Staircase, the most dreaded climb of the Way. As we stopped for a snack before heading up, I personally didn’t think it looked too bad. I was imagining the hours of bike pushing I did on the Tour du Mont Blanc. You could see the top of the Devil’s Staircase from the base - no big deal!

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At the base of the Devil’s Staircase (not pictured). The highway kind of ruins the view, but whatever.

As we headed up the hill, we spotted a group of bikers in the distance ahead of us, pushing for the top. Other mountain bikers? Cool! I secretly wondered if we could catch them. Audun keep trying to bike stretches of the steep, winding trail, but I quickly settled into the rhythm of pushing my bike.

Several hikers passed us, and encouraged me. “I read it’s only 30-40 minutes from the base to the top,” one proclaimed, “And we’ve been going for 25 minutes. Not much left now!” I tried to assemble my features into something like grateful relief. Really, I felt very zen. I would keep pushing my bike until the top came. I would keep moving forward until I reached Fort William. It was a simple, explicit goal of the type I love. I could do this.

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On top of the Devil’s Staircase!

We chatted with the other group of Scottish mountain bikers on top of the pass. They were doing the whole Way in 3 days, and raved about how difficult the section along Loch Lomond had been. Apparently it’s 12 miles of straight bike carrying, including climbing a ladder - ouch!

The descent from the pass towards Kinlochleven was the most technical yet, and I was on fire. “Seriously, you don’t get warmed up until you’ve been biking for five hours!” joked Audun as I tore down a rocky section I might have walked down on another day.

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Good fun to the descent to Kinlochleven

Soon the fun part of the descent was over, and we were ripping down dirt roads to Kinlochleven. On the way down, these hilarious signs were observed:

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Diesel smoke, dangerous curves.

Why do I make light of a serious warning sign? Let’s just say that Audun, who was descending much faster than me, didn’t even see the signs until I pointed them out. So who were they actually warning? Also, I was not about to walk down something that was that easy riding. I can descend in a controlled fashion, thank you very much!

In Kinlochleven, we stopped for some much needed lunch at the local pub (there’s always a local pub). We chatted with the Scottish cyclist group, but headed out before them as they were waiting for one of their group who had a flat tire.

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A well-deserved steak-and-ale pie, chips and Coke.

The Way out of Kinlochleven climb steeply on well-built trails, which would have been much more fun to bike down that up. After around 300 vertical meters we were dumped onto yet another undulating dirt road along the bottom of a sweeping valley.

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An abandoned farmhouse and the Way, stretching into the distance.

The road stretched far into the distance around the shoulder of a mountain, and we estimated we had around 15 kilometers to go. The part from Kinlochleven to Fort William was definitely not a victory lap - yet! We were both starting to get saddleworn, and I was excited to get around the mountain and finally see Ben Nevis, Scotlands highest mountain, a sure sign that we were almost in Fort William.

After pedalling around the mountain, the paths splits. The main road continued on the easiest way to Fort William, while the West Highland Way was a smaller, rougher trail. We had not gone all that way to bypass the most likely trail all day. So we took the high road.

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Because nine hours on the bike is not enough of a challenge, Audun decided he would ride up these stairs.

It was great.

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Sweet, sweet trail.

The trail first swooped along a green ridge dotted with sheeps' hair (and the occasional sheep) before dropping into the forest.

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There was one final, steep climb up to a dirt road, and all of a sudden we were flying down dirt roads, then paved roads, to Fort William. It was nearly 9 hours since we left Crianlarich, and I was glad we didn’t have to keep riding.

We congregated around the ‘End of the West Highland Way’ sign for a few minutes with numerous other hikers, before quietly pedalling to our B&B, where there was a welcoming host, our baggage already placed in our rooms, a hot shower and bag of potato chips I had stashed in my bag.

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The end of the West Highland Way, taken the following morning when there were less tourists.

What stupid plan would we cook up for the next day? You’ll have to wait and see!

- The Wild Bazilchuk