Rob Lee's West Highland Way Double attempt

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rob lee


Nothing but the trail awaits

The day was as perfect: clear skies, big hills, a slight breeze and the promise of my love of bikes and trails ahead.

I love the start; no fanfare, no tape, no starter’s gun, just five guys, two cameras, a bike and a sense of adventure.  Then I’m away, winding my way through the parkland on the edge of the city suburb and out towards the waiting clutches of the mountains. I felt great, with my new lightweight bike, lightweight kit, lightweight body and a return to fitness. My coach and my lass have given me such guidance and support for me to feel this good on a bike. After so many years of ‘getting away with it’ and pulling through with mental strength, the contrast couldn’t be greater.

I dusted through the opening miles, then the 20′s, 30′s and into the maze of rocks and barely walkable rocks on the eastern banks of Loch Lomond. I took my time, treading precisely, no hurry, just smooth movement. Legs were fine, arms started to ache. Progress was good, a 24lb bike to carry and I was catching walkers who only had a day sack and poles.

I climbed, descended, and climbed with the big stuff looming closer. One hour up on schedule, then two hours up, I wanted three by Fort William. I knew it wouldn’t continue once sleep deprivation set in and so a buffer is a good thing to have. I stopped at Tyndrum for soup.

As I climbed from Tyndrum it felt like a different day. The sun had dipped below the ridge and the wind picked up. I stopped for my jacket on the trail, and then more clothes as I dropped into Bridge of Orchy. The next climb felt like I’d blown it. One hundred percent power to zero in the blink of an eye. I almost cracked there and then. Cold to my bones, I crawled my way up the climb one step at a time. Breath, step, breath, step, don’t think about the distance, don’t think about the time, don’t think about the weakness washing over your body. The soup began to digest, the blood left my stomach and returned to my muscles, the power came back on!

I opened the gate that signals the stretch through Rannock Moor. I expected a long grind of a climb that I’d struggle to conquer. I found a beautiful twilight wilderness where the deer surveyed my steady progress as I trespassed through their home. It was tough and unforgiving surrounds.

Then suddenly, it was dark. Mark was out on the trail to capture my lights on the next descent; then the multiple flashguns from Andy the photographer as I clattered through the rocks. Devils Staircase loomed ahead concealed by the darkness. I headed up into it.

I can’t remember ever walking so far with my bike, or at least that’s how it seemed. I couldn’t see further that the sphere of my light and it felt like I was on the edge of the world. The descent was mental and I smashed into, over, through, anything and everything. I rode through to Kinlochleven at a relatively fair pace.

From there to Fort William it was tough. Anything over twelve hours is always going to hurt. This hurt, but it was a lot easier to handle than in previous years. Fort William arrived; or rather I arrived in Fort William. 14 hours and 24 minutes so far. I stopped, ate, took photos, spoke to the camera. Pondered the intelligence of heading back into the fray and then did it anyway.

As I headed into those hills again a strange thing happened that has rarely occurred before. I realised that I had a responsibility. I realised the danger involved with this route in this condition. I’d never once really pondered this on any previous adventure. I wasn’t scared, I was just aware of the multiple small errors I was making and the fact that some terrain will forgive you but some quite possibly won’t. I pondered for almost three hours as I fought and wrestled and carried and pushed, and very occasionally rode my bike flat out into blind corners in the pitch black before I descended to Kinlochleven on the very edge of control for the second time. I knew I should stop, but I knew I could still continue, at what point do you say enough is enough and stop rolling the dice?

I tried to be honest with the crew but I couldn’t. It took Clive a good ten or so minutes to say what we were all thinking yet none were wanting to hear. Being a hero is only heroic when you live to tell the tale, being airlifted from a mountain side is not a smart way to go, and this time around I wasn’t strong enough, or fit enough, to safely make the Double. The limit is called the limit for a reason, and finding your own – be it mental or physical – often ends this way. I took of my helmet and let go, for now, of the dream.

At breakfast the next day plans were already on the drawing board. For the first time in years I have a challenge that really will need a serious attack plan and suddenly everything clicks into place with the Seven Deadly Spins. Next, I’ll be attempting the X1 Lands End to John O’Groats off-road. I really can’t wait.

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