Well, not quite the outcome I’d hoped for...
A little over a week ago I returned from a rather miserable attempt at my Highland Traverse Expedition and, for the sake of completeness, here’s a quick account of my falling apart and the lessons learned.
The hail storm that heralded the start of the expedition
THE SHORT STORY
I started out feeling strong, but by a day and a half in I’d developed some serious blisters. This gradually progressed to extreme exhaustion both muscularly and as a whole, laying me out flat by the end of the second day.
I managed another decent distance on day three, but by this point my feet were so painful and legs so ineffective that I had to call it. I hobbled to the nearest road the following morning and hitched back to the closest town.
Overall, I covered about a third of the distance planned: ~105mi (4500m) in 3 days.
A familiar sight—an accurate summary of the vast majority of the hundred miles covered.
THE LONG (THOUGH STILL PRETTY SHORT) STORY
I reached the lighthouse at Cape Wrath on the evening of the 27th, and spent a pleasant evening chatting with a number of people who’d just finished—anything from 14 to 25 days for the ~200mi Cape Wrath Trail (the first ~200mi of my route). I briefly questioned my proposed itinerary of 7 days for that section and then moved on, ever naïve and blissfully optimistic…
DAY 1 | BOGS, BOTHYS AND BOMB CRATERS | 13:40hrs; 37mi; 1300m
I started pretty early—about 4:15am—the sun already beginning to stretch across the horizon. That’s the beauty of being so far north.
I hit the most challenging section first—14 miles of bomb craters and peat hags. Every step I sank to my ankles in wetness and I found myself clawing may way through tussocked ground and chest-deep shell-holes of the MOD firing range. There was certainly no path… I had driving hail and a magnificent sunrise. It was remote and felt it—a wonderful few hours.
Dropping down into Kinlochbervie I felt strong and rapidly chewed up the road to Riconich. Fantasies of heroic final days filled my head, and I pictured myself at the finish in Glasgow 300 miles south.
The next section involved several deep river crossings and many long miles of pathless bog. At one point my walking pole sank up to its hilt—it was all I could do to fall the other direction, away from the swallowing blackness! I sank to mid-thigh many times and it was a struggle to cover ground at any pace.
To finish the day a rocky track wound its way up over a mountain pass and down again, alongside a magnificent sea loch in the blazing afternoon sun. It was a beautiful afternoon, and other than an eccentric Frenchman, Glendhu Bothy was empty. I washed in the river and dried my feet beside a fire of pinewood, gorging myself on sardines and pitta breads. Tired but still strong I fell fast asleep on the floor boards.
What a way to end the day
DAY 2 | MOUNTAIN PASSES AND LOGGING TRACK | 16:20hrs; 37mi; 1700m
I woke pretty stiff but soon loosened up, heading off around 5ish up a beautiful single track that wound high above the edges of the loch. The sun rose behind me, and I descended into a narrow river valley—pathless and tough going. I passed under a couple of spectacular waterfalls and even a beside tent, the occupant yet to wake. He or she had certainly found the camping best spot in the area.
The map sent me up a steep ravine of broken rock, and my pace slowed to a crawl as I ascended hand over foot. I felt good though, and drank as much as I could from the little stream that tumbled down beside as I gained height.
For the next 15 miles or so I might as well have been deep in the Alps at mid-summer. I passed though mountain passes and sun-soaked valleys, across steep boulder fields and past small mountain lakes that fell to mists in the valleys below. It was only me.
Those dreamlike hours were ended abruptly by a rocky path that soon developed into a logging trail and then tarmacked road. In the heat my feet began to feel it almost immediately, and despite efforts to the contrary hot-spots began to appear. My legs tired with the incessant flatness and repetition. I remember being a little surprised at just how much flat track and road there is on Britain’s ‘most remote’ walking route.
The next 15 miles of road and hardpacked logging track destroyed my feet. Meanwhile the sun continued to beat down burning my ears and neck—I hadn’t considered the need for sun cream in northern Scotland…
By the time I got to Oykel Bridge at about 8pm I had developed some serious blisters. Both little toes had become entirely surrounded with blister—something like a fluid-filled thimble—and at the base of each big toe was another that gradually began to extend upward between my toes. I’ve never had serious blisters before, even over multiple days of ultradistance running, so I can only assume that the rolling motion of rapid walking, coupled with the heat and repetition of flat track had challenged my feet in a way they weren’t used to.
I sat down, lanced and drained them—they were becoming excruciating. It didn’t help much, and I was beginning to fall apart otherwise. My left shin was growing more and more painful, and the right hip was beginning to complain. Exhaustion was also on its way and soon came on fast. I stumbled into a mental nothingness and the last couple of flat miles to the bothy took me close on two hours.
I weaved along the track and soon began to slip into a more serious state of exhaustion. Even with the bothy finally in my sights I seriously wondered if I could actually make it. Muscles began to tense up and the shaking began—it was one of those moment where you know that if you stopped you won’t be able to get up again.
I stumbled through the door and fell on a bench inside. The juddering came on full force and I lay there unable to move any muscle, overcome with tremors of some sort of exhaustion shock. I’d felt it before—on the hills of Fiji—and I waited it out. An hour later, as the shaking began to calm, I managed to reach inside my pack and find half a chocolate bar. That steadied me enough to pull out my sleeping bag and crawl inside. My legs coursed with fatigue and pain, and I sweated a fever-like sweat of exhaustion and stress. I resolved to stumble back to Oykel tomorrow and hitch out of there. I knew I was finished.
Scotland or the Alps?
DAY 3 | REMOTE MOORLANDS OF PAIN | 14:20hrs; 29mi; 1500m
I woke at half three desperate for a pee. I tentatively swung my legs over and grabbed my poles, prepared for complete muscle failure. But to my genuine surprise I was able to stand—unsteady and painful, but I could bear my weight. Sleep is an incredible thing. Some instinct made the decision to keep going, at least to see how I went.
I divvied out rations for the day and was out the door by 4am. I washed my teeth and refilled water at a nearby river, escaping the gathering midges in the pre-dawn glow. My blistered feet protested excruciatingly loud at the uneven rocky track. One pole before the other and power on, step after step. Thank god I had the poles to take my weight.
Pain shot through my feet like fire with each step, feeding a psychological struggle between willpower and suffering. I analysed the consequences and implications of failure from every angle. I gave up and began walking back. I re-mustered my resolve and turned south again. This happened at least three times.
Soon I descended into a deep valley of bog and tussocked heather. The going was harder, and I sank on every step, but it was softer on my burning feet and the water that sloshed in my socks cooled the fire. For miles I struggled pathless alongside a river ravine. It was hard going and the heather became knee-deep, but my feet began to numb. It was a short-lived respite. The blisters below my big toes gradually crept between to the top of my foot—I could feel the liquid squeezing and forcing apart the skin. My socks were a mess of bog, blood and blister juice.
I focused on eating and moving. The blisters hurt but they weren’t affecting movement—it’s amazing how effective such objective judgement can be. The river valley was massive, and it is hard to put into the words the feeling of remoteness—alone amidst a vast sea of green that bows upwards to low cloud on all sides. The weather was true Scottish dreich—wet, grey and raining. But even then there was a peace and beauty. The pain was still there and the broken, trackless grass hard work and slow going, but there was a magnificence to its scale and remoteness.
Mist and rain, greyness and an endless sea of grass tussocks. Then up a mountain and over a couple of passes on the dreaded rocky track. I saw no-one all day. Locked in a continuous mental tussle I spiralled between beauty and appreciation-beyond-self; pain and willpower. I didn’t once stop—to do so would have been suicidal to both resolve and progress. And anyway, there was no way out but to walk.
The blisters numbed, but my hip and shin got worse. I began to worry if the shin might be the beginnings of a stress fracture. There was little I could do—I pushed the thought aside.
Dipping down to a road crossing, I contemplated the final six miles to Sheneval bothy. I was moving very slowly, exhausted. It was exposed up there. I didn’t want a repeat of the close shave of yesterday—consequences could be severe this time. I decided I could make it.
The ascent was fine. Uphill was most comfortable anyway, and my poles allowed me to use my arms as much as my legs. They were a state now—not just the blisters, but every time I stopped to refill from the stream, to straighten up became a huge effort and exercise in pain. It would take a good distance before my legs remembered what they were doing and took my weight properly.
Those final three miles over that final mountain pass were as close to a living hell as I’ve ever got. I knew then that I really was done—I had proved I could push through the pain and fatigue, and now just wanted it to be over. What good was there in pushing further and potentially risking longer term injury? I just had to get to the bothy and rest. I would figure out my escape later.
It was growing dark. Not dusk, but an early evening shadow, intensified by the grey cover of cloud and rain. I met a trio of walkers as I summitted the pass and asked them how far. They told me an hour. I held it together, but once they were out of sight I broke down and wept with sheer pain, exhaustion and distress.
I quickly pulled myself back together and began the steep, technical descent to the bothy. The pain was worsening and I moved at less than a mile an hour. Leaning on the poles as if on crutches, every step sent a burst of fire through my feet, a jolt of pain into my aching muscles. One of my little toes became so painful I removed a shoe to inspect it—it had gone purple, and the entire toe-cap had become a loose, soggy glove of blister.
I descended into the final ravine and saw the bothy in the distance. A mere half-mile—it might as well have been ten. I think it was probably the longest half hour I’ve ever endured—and a funny thing began to happen that my mind passed beyond the pain and exhaustion and became acceptant—almost casual once again. I became a psychological mix of light-heartedness and despair. Even in hindsight I don’t know what was going on up there…
I eventually stumbled through the door to a roaring fire and two kindly walkers. It couldn’t have been a better sight. I soon lost the ability to walk and the evening was spent eating, laughing and warming before the fire, before falling asleep late on the floor before the fire. Despite my pathetic state it was really very pleasant. I saw the other side of Scottish hillwalking—the community that does it such credit.
Endless grass and wetness
Once again I woke early barely able to move. I fell back to sleep, waking at around 8am. Again, I was astounded at the fact I could just about walk, albeit in much pain. The capacity of the human body to recover is simply incredible.
I packed my stuff and bid the others farewell—I wanted out. I hobbled back over the mountain pass to the road I had crossed late the day before, the five mile journey taking me well over three hours. It didn’t matter. At the end was rest, and all previous mental struggle to justify my failure was gone. All that mattered now was not walking any more.
To pass time I assessed the damage. My muscles were weak and movement was laboured, yet they were less exhausted than I might have expected. My legs and stamina had more in the tank—not much, but they weren’t quite finished. Structurally however I was falling apart: blisters and a purple toe, a sharp pain in my lower left shin, an extremely tight tendon under my right knee, achy right hip, and various other general degradation—shoulder blisters from the pack, mouth ulcers and peeling sunburn.
Of the 36-hour journey home I slept on bus and train, almost the entire way. And then much of the two days following. I also ate a very large amount. The blisters are deep but they’re healing fast, and the hip and shin are gradually improving. No long-term damage done—though I don’t think I’ll be running for a while!
The world’s best campsite? The tent I passed early on Day 2—about the only person I ‘met’ all day.
FINDING AND DEALING WITH THE CHALLENGE
After the Lost Island Ultra and my Bali 12hr I was a little disappointed at not having found the mental and physical limits I had hoped to meet. In Scotland I certainly found them, and had the opportunity to push through both exhaustion and the mental limits of pain. I think a major factor was that the location of the bothys effectively acted as time-limits and distance requirements on each day (I didn’t much fancy setting up my tarp and bivvy in the state I was in) meaning that slacking off or even moderating my pace just wasn’t an option.
Though it was tainted by a little stupidity, and ultimately the challenge was beyond me and I did fail, in this regard it as a success. Significantly brutal enough to stretch me to my limits it gave me the opportunity to deal with exhaustion, shock, mental refusal and physical breakdown. And I’m happy with how I managed them. In all cases I pushed through, got back up again and put in many more miles. Only when I had already proven I could do so did I entertain the idea of quitting. No doubt I could have pushed on more, but I had redefined a new level of mental strength to myself, and for the time being that was enough.
‘When I hit my absolute limits, and experience difficulties far beyond what can be encountered in everyday life, I learn things about myself that I could have otherwise never discovered. Subtle strengths become towering mountains, weaknesses I would be oblivious to become gaping chasms I’m forced to peer into.’
THE LIMITS OF BASELINE
My 12hr ultra in Bali, back last year, revealed to me just how powerful our baseline capacity is. For all our training and preparation for endurance events it’s worth realising that such training is only the top small percentage of gains in terms of overall performance capacity (albeit the percentage where competitive capacity is created).
Scotland revealed to me the (perhaps obvious) other side of that same coin. Whilst it’s definitely true that a human body of reasonable base fitness can gut out a single big endurance effort on little-to-no training through sheer bloody-mindedness, to attempt to extend that effort over multiple days is frankly naïve, bordering on plain stupid. So I found out.
However mentally strong and baseline fit you are, the body’s level of physical conditioning just won’t be up to the challenge and sooner or later you’ll simply fall apart structurally. Mental drive, smart fuelling and the muscular robusticity to override physiological exhaustion becomes useless—the structural integrity is no longer there to apply it.
Then you’re left with the option to gut out till you drop or cut your losses and avoid risking long term damage. After a significant amount of pain, at the point just being able to still stumble I chose the latter. Such an impromptu and ill-prepared expedition didn’t merit long term damage.
In short: willpower alone isn’t enough. Whilst it can often be harnessed to overcome exhaustion and pain, there’s little it can do to combat structural degradation.
I reached the limits of my baseline capacity, and to go further and achieve greater feats I have to put in the training. You can only blag so far. This also makes the point of just how important an element of training is structural conditioning. Of course we train fitness and muscular endurance, but ultimately, with long endurance ordeals the mind can do much of the job there—indeed my exhaustion levels and muscles (although down at times) were still in reasonable shape, and weren’t at their limits when I eventually finished. Rather it was the lack of conditioning of joints, musculoskeletal integrity and skin that became most relevant.
No-one wants to have to give up as a result of structural failures, and training allows the limits you reach to be those of a purer nature—exhaustion, mental drive and physiological energy systems. Pain and injury limitations are far less fun! Attempting a challenge such as this with better training and conditioning (read physical integrity) would lead to the challenging of new and different boundaries and limitations.
The beautiful single-track that began Day 2
IMPORTANCE OF SELF-MAINTENANCE
During the three days of this ordeal, I was either sleeping, eating or moving. Only on the evening of the first day did I take any time to sit back and sort myself. In order to make the distances required I did everything on the move. I washed myself and my teeth in streams as I crossed them, and ate and drank as I walked.
Consequently, many aspects of basic hygiene and self-consolidation were compromised, and by the end I was beginning to fall apart. I realised that while you can manage fine for a few days, if the ordeal is to extend beyond four or five nights, you need to dedicate more time for sorting self—to wash clothes, periodically dry feet, stretch muscles, and generally attend to yourself—if only for morale’s sake. The military have always stressed the importance of such and I found it to be true here.
Somehow or other, more downtime is needed, or is at least advisable to ensure the sustainability of such an effort. Lesser distances each day would be one option. Running a portion would be another—which with sufficient prior training is probably the solution here—my pack was never over 12kg.
DAMAGE PROFILES OF RUNNING VERSUS WALKING
One thing that really surprised me on this expedition, and I believe was my major downfall, was the capacity of walking to cause physical damage. I had assumed that since I would be walking almost all of the distance, the lesser intensity would mean that my legs were able to cope—after all, they’d managed equivalent distances in the past at the greater impact profile of running.
How wrong I was. Instead, the different stress profile that walking entailed imposed a new challenge—one that my running-conditioned legs and feet couldn’t handle. Most telling was that it was only when I reached the ‘easy’ section—miles of flat track and smooth road—that I really sustained the damage. The skin on my feet and musculoskeletal integrity of my legs couldn’t deal with the repetitive forcing of the speed-hiking. Miles of hands-on-knees climbing and aggressive descents were comparatively easy going.
I actually believe that if I had had the strength and prior conditioning to run this flat section, I may well have avoided (or at least delayed) this damage. Somehow the foot-strike is less abrasive, and the smoother forefoot impact a lesser damage factor than the aggressive roll of a hiking step.
EQUIPMENT AND LOGISTICAL SYSTEMS
Equipment systems were spot on. Everything from clothing to sleeping systems to packing logistics to water purification worked perfectly and efficiently. I was extremely happy with my preparation in that regard.
Fuelling and my food schedule was also perfect. I had just the right amount and a selection that kept me going effectively and without issues or energy fluctuations. Not once did I wish I had anything else, feel nauseous, or struggle to take on the necessary calories.
A bed for the night—the end of Day 1
FINAL THOUGHTS | WAS IT WORTH IT?
It would be easy to argue that this ordeal was a complete waste of time, money and self-abuse. I didn’t get very far and certainly didn’t get anywhere close to a convincing attempt to conquer the challenge. To be honest, I didn’t even enjoy the larger part of it.
In many ways it was an awful waste. But, with perhaps a foolish optimism, or simply through stubborn denial, I maintain that there was something worthwhile in those three ill-fated days.
At the most basic level it did expose me to the beauty of Scotland—the scale, the uncompromising technicality and bog, the bothy life—even if my enjoyment of them was somewhat repressed. And for all my moaning I really did enjoy the experience in its remoteness and simplicity—a definition of Type II fun.
It’s also true that if I’d been more reserved I could have finished the trail, and that my recklessness meant I didn’t get nearly as much out of it.
Maybe not on paper.
Instead what I gained was another level of confidence in myself. I pushed through boundaries those three days beyond those I’ve reached before. The levels of pain tolerance and perseverance beyond fatigue were my new ‘personal bests’. And as masochistic as that sounds it represents valuable new insights of physical and psychological self-awareness—that sort of training is invaluable.
‘I was once told that there are two great risks in life. Risking too much, and risking too little’
Of course this experience does not match the life-threatening risk of ski mountaineering that this quote refers to, but the attitude is relevant, and it is one I wish to aspire to. When Jim Walmsley set out to break the untouchable record for the Western States Endurance Run in 2017 he ran with an intensity others said he could never sustain. They were right—he blew up at mile 78. The following year he returned, setting the intention again with a confidence and surety that bordered on arrogance. This time he never stopped, maintaining a blistering pace of 8:40min/mi for the entire 100 miles, and finished with a course record on the world’s most famous 100 miler. Sometimes big achievements require efforts on the wrong side of sensible; and pushing too far, too hard, too fast is often on the same side of a coin that is success.
‘Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.’
No, my issue was not biting off too much, rather the negligence for proper training—an obvious mistake. But in this case it was a choice of do it anyway or not at all. I’m glad I did.
A challenge of questionable odds should not be considered foolish, for it is not always the completion that counts, nor ever is success that which generates the greatest learning and reward. The fear that comes with an undertaking you know may be beyond you is something well worthwhile.
On the same day that I quit in Scotland, John Kelly, famous for his 2017 finish of the Barkley Marathons, was halfway through his own challenge—one of epic proportions that dwarf my own pathetic complaints of exhaustion. Having completed the Paddy Buckley he was cycling between Snowdonia and the Lake District in a bid to become the first person to complete what he called the Grand Round—to run all three British mountain rounds and cycle between them. In 100 hours. The very notion is incomprehensibly enormous.
As I sat dejected on the MegaBus back from Inverness he completed the second—a Bob Graham Round sub-24hrs. Just let that sink in… But on the way to the Ramsey in Scotland he reached a point of absolute physical failure, and was forced to concede defeat, ‘no longer able to move’.
In his blog, just days before the round John wrote the following:
As mentioned at the outset, I am legitimately terrified of this project. Not in an I might die sort of way, but in a this might be an absolutely epic failure type of way.
But again, I think having that kind of fear every once in a while is healthy. If my goal is to explore my unknown, it would be rather hard to do that if I knew what was going to happen. If failure is not a possibility, then it’s not a challenge, or a goal. It’s just a task.
To bring this (rather longer than expected) article to a close, I’m surprised about just how positively I view the whole experience. I have learnt a huge amount, some of which could perhaps have been realised more easily, but some that only extreme bodily failure and physical breakdown can teach.
It’s true that if I’d spent a day at the bothy I could maybe have pushed through another march or two. But I’d already forced through new boundaries and had nothing left to prove to myself. The risk of more permanent damage in the name of an impromptu and ill-prepped challenge just didn’t make sense.
As I sat on the bus home I vowed to revisit Scotland. Despite a new respect for those remote bogs and endless hills of heather and grass-tussocks, I have unfinished business. For all my failure, I know that the original plan is within reach. With enough preparation and training I know I can conquer it.
The Spine of Scotland isn’t going anywhere, and one day I will be back. Inside me there are deeper limits and further reaches of exhaustion still to be broken.
The lighthouse at Cape Wrath. Someday
Do get in touch if you have any questions or comments - it'd be great to hear from you.