Naomi Freireich's FKT attempt at the An Turas Mór didn't quite go as planned, but did it matter? Here's why her against-all-odds ride turned into the ride of a lifetime.
If it’s true that a successful event really begins with the planning, then this was possibly the most and least successful event I’ve ever done. I’d spent weeks learning the route, riding sections, looking at stop points, timings and planning the route for Charlie in the support vehicle. Then things got turned on their head, literally.
An Turas Mór is a long-distance MTB route from Glasgow’s Kelvingrove Art Gallery in the beautiful west end, all the way to Cape Wrath’s remote lighthouse. It uses old drove roads and military roads and new hydro-electric access roads, linked by small sections of minor country road and walking paths to create a 354 mile (562 km in new money) route from Scotland’s largest city to the most westerly part of the north coast. Designed to be ridden over a leisurely 8 days, its inauguration was a race event, which saw the record time being set as 4 and a bit days. At the time of researching the route, the most information I had was something thinking the record was some 3 days. My goal was to go faster.
On Thursday evening we set off in the van to camp out at the starting point at Kelvingrove Gallery so I could get off at 5am the next morning. Crucial to success is a crossing by foot passenger ferry of the inlet at Durness over to the otherwise inaccessible Cape Wrath Road, and this can make or break your attempt. But I woke to a family emergency which, without the rest of the world being up, I had to deal with personally, meaning a drive back home to Edinburgh and loss of time. This was our only window. Cape Wrath is used for military exercises and shut off for larger periods of time over the winter months, starting from the following weekend. Add to that Charlie’s need to be home for clinical duties on Tuesday and the longer I was spending not riding the less likely I was of completing the route. By the time we were finished in Edinburgh the morning was fast disappearing. Something had to change.
Flipping the route on its head was Charlie’s genius idea. Using the remains of the day to make the six-and-a-half-hour drive to Durness would give us another stab at an early start the next day, with the added benefit of me being able to ride on after Charlie had to head home for work and still get home easily enough myself from Glasgow, an option not readily available from Durness! But I hadn’t made plans for that. The timing was all based on a South to North attempt. This really was going to be an unplanned ride. And the impulsiveness excited me.
Four hours into our drive to the other end of the route I checked in with the ferryman. If this was going to work we’d most likely need to get a ferry out with normal running times that evening and I’d already spoken to him about that possibility. Unfortunately, the answer back was far from optimal. Not only would I not be able to get a lift out of hours, but in fact, the ferry wasn’t running at all, nor would it be on Saturday because of high winds. Well, that was quite a blow. Squeezing a 560 km ride into a long weekend was always going to be a challenge, but with changing plans and now this, I knew now that my goal of setting the fastest known time (FKT) was off the table. Without that goal driving me forward, this route became a different challenge entirely.
On the plus side, we got to spend a glorious afternoon and night on the North coast of Scotland. We parked the van next to Ceannabeinne Beach, which was utterly breathtaking. We walked on the sand at low tide, climbed rocks, ate dinner with a view and after a good night’s rest, woke with the sunrise over the bay. As plan-changes go, this one was certainly a winner. All that remained was the small matter of what now.
In the morning (and if I’m honest, from when I found out about the ferry cancellation) I knew what I was going to do. Why did it have to be an FKT to be worth doing? The route begged to be ridden, and I wasn’t going to let 20 small kilometres stop me from enjoying the other 540! We rose with the light, enjoyed a tasty breakfast with our view and headed to the ferry point, the closest I could get to the end to begin my journey. Standing there in the wind and rain, I knew the old me would have been making my excuses already, but at that moment I knew I was ready for this, and I also knew just what completing the journey no matter what now would mean to me.
Day one can be described as incredible remoteness, tough hike-a-bike, rain, wind and stunning landscapes. Little of the north of Scotland is inhabited, either through its unsuitability or because of the devastating Highland clearances of the 1700s. Seeing the remote remains of former settlements really brought home just how much this period changed the landscape of Scotland both physically and emotionally for those families forced out of their homes. It also made me appreciate just how much comfort we have in our lives now, from basic Maslovian needs to our modern living which increases our scope for travel and communication. During this period of uncertainty, it has been nice to return to thinking about our more basic needs, and for me, being warm and dry and knowing I was safe and had food and water simplified the task ahead.
The penultimate section started from Croick Church, possibly one of the most haunting reminders of the clearances, with the names of the families who sheltered there after their houses were burned to remove them etched into the glass windows. I rode through a large estate and then on through spectacular glens, beneath mountains and past solitary dwellings into the growing dusk. Here I met two separate riders going the other way, the first people I’d met on the trails all day. It was lovely to stop and chat to both and hear the stories of their ride.
By the time I reached the road again, it was dark. Rather than stop there at the edge of a busy road I decided to push on to Contin, home of the Strathpuffer 24-hour race, and my first 24-hour title. What looked like a short distance ended up taking a good hour and a half through overgrown paths and by the time I reach Charlie in the trailhead car park I was famished. All in, 175km and 3281m of climbing.
Day two was all about climbing. The day I knew would be tough, with three big climbs before I even got to the biggest of the route, and the highest road pass in Scotland, the Corrieyairack Pass. Thankfully, the first climb started with a smooth hydro access path. The vast uninhabited highlands have been really opened up for exploring by the hydroelectric industry, with the access roads reaching high up into the hills where the dams, along with turbines and solar generate 90% of the energy consumed in Scotland. Beyond the damn, however, the paths became rough and loose and at times very boggy. Nothing the Mason InSearchOf couldn’t handle. And of course, with each climb came an adrenaline-inducing descent. One after another after another.
I stopped for lunch with Charlie after the second of these descents, the climb to which had been on an old and very rocky military road. These incredible roads which quite often just head straight over the tops of mountains (see the Corrieyairack as a case in point) were built in the mid-1700s in a push to get General Wade’s army into the highlands of Scotland to control the Jacobite rebellion. So much history is attached to these roads, and to be able to ride them still is pretty mind-blowing.
Climb three was easy comparatively, which was good because I needed everything I had for the Corrieyairack. From the north, the pass climbs almost 700m over 12km to its highest point, then descends on a majestic but incredibly rough set of switchbacks that keep you on your toes. I’d ridden it once before with Charlie a couple of years ago and knew what was ahead of me. And despite the pain and fatigue I felt, the joy of being there and knowing my body was capable of powering me to the top kept me pushing on and kept me smiling. This was the hardest section of the ride and I was through it. The rest was (almost) downhill.
After checking in with Charlie and deciding on a camping spot for the night, one final small climb of the day was all that remained. A shorter day at 124km, but still over 3000m of climbing.
I woke late on day three. I’d been up in the night needing the toilet and had to hobble. My Achilles tendon at my left heel was really painful and the climbing of the day before was evident in my legs. I really worried that I wouldn’t be able to ride. Accidentally switching off my alarm meant my morning routine was condensed to 15 minutes and a mad panic. Thankfully everything was packed from the day before and that surge of adrenaline meant I wasn’t thinking about the pain. It didn’t seem to hold me back though, and I made it through the Adrverikie estate in record time and heading up to Loch Ossian.
This would be among one of the most beautiful places I passed through on the ride. The nearest access point is Corrour Station, the highest train station in the U.K. and only reachable on foot or on the train itself. Similarly, the Eco youth hostel at Loch Ossian is only accessible by foot and so the whole area has this incredible remote feel to it. Add to that the low lying clouds I was to pass through and that whole section of the trip was shrouded in the air of mystery and wonder. A truly magical place well worth the effort to get to.
From there the path became more familiar to me. Another hydro road climb followed by an incredible switchback descent took me close to Killin and a lunch break. The Killin to Callendar cycle path gave me some easy, flattish kilometres, albeit into a headwind before hitting the three lochs route from Loch Venechar. By the time I popped out in Aberfoyle, the dusk was creeping in and I had around 80km to go until the end. It was here I knew I could do it.
Riding along the familiar West Highland Way, even in the opposite direction to the other times I’ve ridden it, felt like I was home already. It was so dark by now, but my Exposure lights kept me safe and marked the way onward. From the end of the WHW in Milngavie, the section along the rural parts of the Kelvin was definitely experimental and the combination of mud, fallen trees and giant hogweed could have really destroyed my calm were it not for the knowledge that I was mere teens of kilometres from the end. To ride to the end of the trail past my old University haunts, along the Kelvin cycle path, past Maryhill, the Botanical Gardens and through Kelvingrove beneath Glasgow University felt like such a fitting way to end my ride. And to see the Gallery, lit up in all its back-to-front glory, was properly emotional. I’d done it. And not done it all at the same time. But I knew this ride counted more than an FKT would. This was the ride I did against all odds and completed anyway, always with a smile. Day 3 stats: 225km and 3478m of climbing.
Now my thanks. To GORE Wear for having my back (and legs, arms, feet and hands). Your kit is outstanding and kept me comfortable throughout this most Scottish of weekends. To Mason Cycles for loaning my the über-capable InSearchOf; truly a bike for all-terrain (and I checked this was true over the weekend!). Exposure lights for their excellent bike lights keeping me safe on the roads and on the right path off them. Straight Cut Designs for making a custom bag for the InSearchOf which carried everything I needed and worked like a dream. And finally, to Charlie. For the support, the selfless gift of his time and patience, and for the stunning photographs by which to remember a truly unforgettable weekend.
Words: Naomi Freireich