Before I could get started, I had to endure a 13 hour train journey to Thurso, where I refused to let my bike leave my sight for the entire duration. I didn’t mind the journey so much; I think I was just daydreaming and listening to music the entire time. It was a sunny day outside, so the experience was quite pleasant. A sign of things to come no doubt.
One minor hiccup was that I nearly didn’t make it there. On the train between Perth and Inverness, the following calm announcement came over the tannoy – “Apologies for the slight technical delay, but we should only be postponed by about 10 minutes” – Unfortunately, my connection had only a seven minute window, and it was the last one of the day.
Now the logical part of the brain knows that they usually delay the connection trains accordingly, but sadly in times like these, the logical part of the brain gets shut down in favour of the blind panic section. When that train finally stopped, I bolted for the door with some serous “game face”. I dramatically shouted for them to “hold that train!” because that felt like the thing to do. When I did make it safely onto the train, I probably had more time than I realized, but in a bid to make it look dramatic, I tried to grab my bike hat from outside the carriage in the dying seconds before the doors shut, like in a scene from Indiana Jones. In that moment, I felt like a hero! To others, I suspect I looked like a doofus.
I arrived in Thurso at around 22:30 where it promptly started raining. John O’Groats was a cool 20 miles down the road, so didn’t expect to get there until around midnight. Bit of a nuisance, but can’t really complain of an extra 20 miles when the route I have planned is at least 930.
As it happened, it didn’t take me anywhere near that long to cycle to JO’G. The wind was behind me and it was mostly downhill – “brilliant!” I thought, before remembering that I would be going back on myself the following morning, up the hill and into the wind.
The rain was really starting to come down as I arrived, so I quickly threw my bivvi and sleeping bag down and crawled inside. I had no idea where I was in the dark; I just noted that it was somewhere a bit near the coast and the grass seemed particularly long and fuzzy; “it’ll do!” I quickly established and fell asleep.
As I woke up at 7am on this cold and dull Wednesday morning, I deduced the following pieces of information in quick succession, and in the following order: 1) The wind has picked up. 2) It’s still raining. 3) Oh… that thick, fuzzy grass I thought I was sleeping on was in fact a massive nettle patch. I’m in the middle of a giant nettle patch. Excellent.
It was not the best night’s sleep if I’m honest. It was a lot colder than I hoped it would be. Being kept awake by your own shivering is never much fun. Maybe I should have brought a 2-season in hindsight; although that would have required a bigger backpack. Sleeping bag liner maybe? I’ll maybe think about getting one when I’ve eaten some of this ‘Scotland Emergency food’ I have that’s taking up so much space in my bag. Brilliant thinking once again… What a mind I have!
I began cycling and within five minutes, I could no longer feel my fingers or toes. The wind and rain were hitting me straight in the face and the effect was biting! My mood picked up admittedly when I cycled through the village of Dunnet, which apparently has a more northernly point than John O’Groats does, according to the sign I saw; just not as far East. However, it was not from the gleaning of this new information that my mood was picked up… what did that, I’m almost embarrassed to say… As I cycled through the village I suddenly recalled passing through the night before in the dark, and so my brain immediately concocted this line: “Been there, Dunnet.” – A line I deemed so clever, it kept me going for the next 60 miles or so; fuelled on the power of self-satisfaction.
I mentioned in my earlier post about not being a confident cyclist yet. I didn’t have any experience on a road bike and the powerful headwinds were making me quite nervous. I maintained a permanent ‘deathgrip’ on the handlebars and I found myself holding my breath every time a car went past.
On a plus note, even though the conditions were pretty horrific, as far as I knew, this was all completely normal for road cycling. Plus as a regular long-distance runner, I was really enjoying how quickly the miles would pass. I was working really hard on both up and downhill on account of the head-on weather, but I still found myself averaging 4.30/mile ish. When you’re so used to running 9-10 min/miles, this is an exciting development!
At the very first vague opportunity to even ‘possibly’ take a wrong turn, I took a wrong turn. Not a devastating one, but two miles down a steep hill that I then had to grudgingly climb back up. So I stopped in the town of Tongue for some food and thought it would be wise to find someone who could point me in the right direction.
I spoke to a nice old lady in the Post Office to clarify the roads I needed to be on. She asked “Where are you heading towards?” – To which I demonstrated another of my unique skills, pronouncing ‘Everything’ a little bit wrong. I said I was heading “out past Loch Shin towards Lairg” (so far, so good), “and then I’ll be heading to Bonar Bridge” – Here is where I made my first pronunciation error. Apparently, you pronounce this “Bonner”, not “Boner”. Oh well, you live, you learn I thought… “Then where are you heading?” she asked politely, to which I replied was to a place called “Ardgay”, then on to “Muir of Ord” – Apparently, I got these wrong as well. I thought it best to take my leave at this point, as I could see she was having a hard time keeping a straight face, plus I noticed the rain had stopped and the sun had come out to play.
It was about two o clock in the afternoon at this point, so I wasn’t making brilliant progress in all honesty, but it should be easier from here on for two reasons: 1) the rain has finally stopped, and 2) I now start heading South instead of West along the coast, so the headwind shouldn’t be quite so intense.
My headwind theory I soon discovered was very much incorrect; it was now just hitting me head on and a bit to the side. Plus there were some big climbs in this section between Tongue and Lairg that I hadn’t counted on. At least I’d dried off now and it wasn’t raining any more. At least I had that going for me.
I think this golden spell lasted for an entire one hour(s) before the heavens opened up once more. Only this time it started REALLY treacherously raining!
I remember at around 90 miles for the day I had to stop because I was starving and getting a bit weak at the knees. Unfortunately the effect of stopping to eat something had me shivering uncontrollably. My clothes and trainers were now soaked right through and I couldn’t find anywhere to shelter. As it approached 19.00 my mind thought about the prospect of having to camp for the night. Not just any old camping; minimalist camping and in soaking wet clothes… then I remembered how cold it was completely dry last night. The situation didn’t stack up too well.
It was a constant nagging feeling that I might not actually survive a cold night out here with the summer kit I have with me. For five hours without shelter the rain pelted down with alarming accuracy. I eventually made it as far as Bonar Bridge before that nagging feeling got the better of me and decided it wise to dip into the emergency credit card and find a hotel or B&B.
So I bit the bullet and stopped for the day, 116 miles and a dripping, shivering mess. Happy in the knowledge that even though this was going to cripple me financially for later, at least I can get a hot shower, a comfortable bed and the knowledge that there was no way the weather could possibly do that to me again. The worst was DEFINITELY behind me now…