Daniel Groves

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Mind Games

Published: 29 June 2015 · Tags: HT550, ITT, bikepacking

A look at the psychological games attached to endurance racing in preparation for the Highland Trail 550 in 2016.

When my degree was at its peak I came across a race. To the masses it’s completely unknown, but to those within a small backpacking community it carries a reputation as the hardest endurance mountain bike event in the UK. The Highland Trail 550 is a self-supported independent time trail through some of the toughest terrain in Scotland.

The numbers alone are mind-boggling. The 560 mile course features 16,000 meters of climbing; it has to be completed in under eight days without any outside help to count; it covers hiking trails, high passes and deep valleys; it requires crossing waist–deep rivers and carrying your bike through boulder-fields. It requires all of this on little–to–no sleep.

A few ago months I convinced myself that I would take my attempt at this route over the summer. With plans already in place to be in Scotland this summer, and not far from the start point, what’s the harm in having a crack?

The mass start this year made me stop and think; this was the first time I’ve followed the race live. When you follow the race live (twitter is an amazing aid for this, you should follow the Wild Cat Gear and official HT550 accounts) you see the trickle of pictures appearing showing what the course condition are truely like, how hard people are having to push themsleves, and just how much determination is required. Throw on top of this the host of mechanicals which eliminate riders, and you get a picture of how hard this race is; and it’s probably still harder than you think.

This isn’t the sort of event that you can simply have a go at. There’s so much more to it; you need to be prepared, physically and psychologically. The maps need to be studied, and route knowledge gained. You need to set-out your targets, be prepared to function on virtually no sleep, and you need to be determined to finish. If you’re lacking in any one area this is the sort of course that will knock you down and force you to scratch-it. So what? Worst case you come back and try again next year, right?

It’s not that simple.

Let’s break this down further. If I fail I’ll be physically weakened; this isn’t the problem. I’ll recover over the coming weeks and build back up to my prior strength, and then stronger, in relatively little time. The problem with failure is deeper than this. Failure introduces doubt. Doubt makes it hard, not only to commit 100%, but to face repeating everything you’ve gone through again.

Let me paint a picture.

You’re four days in, the sun is setting, the winds are blowing hard enough that you’re struggling to stand and it hasn’t stopped raining since you left. Every joint on your body aches, you’re cold, you’re wet through, you’re utterly exhausted. As you look ahead the power of your light drops indicating it’s only got another few minutes of power left and you watch the river bubble and pulsate like a living thing. You watch the tail-light of another contender disappear into the distance as your light flickers out. Suddenly you feel very alone.

With no lights you stumble back to the bothy you saw a few miles back, falling over several times along the way. On arrival you open up your bag and polish off the remnants of dinner, which now seems like it was a lifetime ago despite only a few hours having passed. You’re utterly crushed, you don’t have the will-power to change to your backup light, let alone go on. You sit and cry to yourself for a few minutes, before picking up the phone and calling the organiser. You scratch-it; it’s over. All that effort, all that pain, all for nothing; you’ve failed.

Stop and think for a minute: imagine how you’d feel about going back and doing all of that again, for the chance that the same may happen again. When you’ve tried once, and failed, the second time is going to be much harder from a psychological point of view. Some people may shine stronger for this; I’m not sure that I’m one of these people.

At this point you may think that I’ve been exaggerating these circumstances. This year one person took 23-hours to find a way through the river I based that story off. Another reported it being waste deep. In previous years we’ve had stories of gear freezing. And the atmosphere?

I stopped in my tracks. I found myself surrounded by towering hills. Their sharp ridges crisp against the dark blue of the night sky. All around this great amphitheater the faces of the hills were near black, rising up above me as if to form an impenetrable fortress. The skyline seemed so high above me, it seemed impossible that the path I was on would exit somewhere along the ridge. The whole atmosphere in this place felt very intimidating. I edged my way round until I met a large waterfall. I peered over the edge; the tumbling water briefly illuminated in my lights before seeming to disappear into an abyss.

Ian Barrington Highland Trail Race – Day 3

All of this is pretty daunting. We’ve established this is a physically and mentally strenuous event which requires a lot of preparation. This is well reflected in the drop-out rates which further reinforce just how big an undertaking it is; this year we’ve seen rates over 50% before its even finished.

The end result of this event may not even be within my own hands. The weather may force a retreat, the fisherfields crossing may be too high to safely pass, or my bike may become damaged in a way that I cannot repair on the trail; this years race leader was forced to drop-out by a broken suspension linkage.


Despite these odds, if I’m going to place myself on the start line next may, now is the time to start getting ready. I was given some brief training advice by one of the contenders, Rickie Cotter.

If all goes to plan I’ll be able to spend the next year preparing myself by researching the route, getting as physically fit as possible, and getting myself in the correct mental place to be able to suffer on very little sleep for days on end.

Now, I’m off for a ride.