I would cycle 500 miles and I would cycle 500 more: My North Coast 500 Journey.

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His lips are moving, words are being spoken. He’s smiling so I know he’s kind but I just can’t hear what he’s saying. My brain is in survival mode, drowning him out, screaming: “Get In The Shower – NOW!”

I compose myself and return the smile:.

“I wonder if I could have a shower and get warm first and then we can talk about keys?”

I’m getting ahead of myself – that’s day 5, a cold wet Thurso day, on my journey cycling the north coast 500

In the first part of this blog I share why I decided to cycle alone for a week, covering 530 miles, on some of Scotland’s hilliest roads. The second part of the blog is a photo diary with mileage, route and a few of my strongest memories.

Part 1 Why did I cycle 500 miles?

Some of you will look at my cycle trip and think:

“I could never do that”.

Others will look at it and think:

“Hmmm, I could do that in 3 days”.

That doesn’t matter and isn’t what this blog is about.  What I think matters more is the doing of things that stretch and challenge us. The value of doing hard things.

Hard challenges leave an imprint in our memory which serve as a reference point with which we can compare our daily struggles.

When life gets hard I remind myself, “Remember that time you cycled 530 hard miles?”

Challenging situations are unavoidable but when I face them I can remind myself that I’m not quitter and that I’ve vast emotional vaults to draw from. Through difficulty and struggle we can learn who we really are and what we are capable of.

Cycling the North Coast 500 was a physical and mental challenge. There were many times where I was tempted to get off my bike and pushed it up hill. No one would know nor care. But I didn’t because I’d know and I cared. The trip wasn’t about impressing others, it was something I did for me. I wanted to make myself proud – to know that I can trust myself to do what I say I’ll do.

Yet I also hope I can inspire others – maybe you – to do hard things – to have challenging adventures.

When I say the trip showed me that I’m physically and mentally strong, I don’t mean that in comparison to you. I mean it in comparison to how I used to feel. Doing hard things both makes me stronger and shows me that I am.

The outdoor adventure world can feel elitist – a luxury for the middle class who don’t blink at the thought of spending hundreds of pounds in Tiso’s on a a new bike, cleats, bike packs, Garmins etc.

I carried out this trip on a £150 second hand bike with borrowed bike bags and a phone app for navigation. I stayed in budget accommodation, such as Youth Hostels, for much of the trip.

You don’t have to wait till you feel 100% ready mentally, nor until you can afford expensive kit.

I hope the photo journal below will give you more a sense of my lived experience on the  trip – the highs and the lows.

If you’d have any barriers to doing your own ‘hard thing’ I’d love to coach you through this (you can find out more here).

Part 2 My Photo Journal

The Route

Miles: 530

Time Taken: 7 days

Punctures experienced: 0

Fruit scones consumed: 5 minimum

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Preparation

Preparation for this trip involved… cycling, route planning, accommodation booking and packing the bike.

It was all pretty straight forward. I’d chosen to travel in September, off-peak season, so that the roads would be quieter, midges would be fewer and youth hostel accommodation would be available. The weather was always going to be a gamble.

A good friend, Lindsey, cycled the NC500 on a road bike last year and she very kindly gave me lots of tips and lent me her bike bags. I took her advice and went super light.  I packed all bike related tools in the triangle pack on the frame and everything else I carried in the pack at the back or on my person.

During the many hill climbs I was very glad to have minimal weight.

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My road bike, which I bought second-hand for £150.

packing

All my worldly goods for the week, excluding my phone and the clothes I was wearing.

Day 1: Inverness to Applecross, 83.5 miles

It’s Friday,  9am, the day has come. I’m 15 minutes later in leaving than I’d planned due to faffing. I’m both excited and nervous!

My mind oscillates between contentment in the moment and fear of the mighty hill that awaits me.  Just before Applecross I have to climb the notorious Bealach Na Ba, 2053 feet above sea level.

It’s fairly easy cycling but I’m wet as I approach Achnasheen. My friends Laura and Kay have kindly offered to join me for this section of my ride. I’m early to meet them so I stop at the Ledgowan Lodge Hotel for a coffee and dry off.

Thirty minutes later and I’m sitting in the front seat of Laura’s car scoffing a tuna-mayo sandwich while she and Kay get their bikes ready.

We set of on an easy cycle to Lochcarron and then the real journey begins. We are climbing… and climbing…. and climbing..

The Bealach Na Ba is tough.

Especially as there are now cars behind me and I’m on a hair pin bend.

I’m conscious that they’ll be getting impatient so I’ll let them pass. Now I can’t gather enough momentum in my pedalling to get moving, my gear is too high. Frustrating.

I’m now at the top and the view is stunning. I’m ahead of Laura and Kay because I’m on a road bike, their hybrids are heavier. It’s cold.

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The Summit of Bealach Na Ba.

The descent is horrible. I’m scared – the winds are strong and I’m losing control of my steering.

We are at the campsite and are madly trying to get showered and warm.

Over a drink and dinner in The Applecross Inn all those cares dissolve. We are here – safe, warm, well fed and watered. All is well in the world.

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A Kay, Shona, Laura sandwich! Well fed and watered.

Day 0 Applecross Duathlon

I’m calling this Day 0 as it isn’t a NC500 day. Laura and Kay head back East to Inverness and my cousin Rae and I take part in the Applecross Duathlon.

Rae had suggested doing this duathlon a few months ago, whilst I was considering doing the NC500. Being a little bit crazy, I decided that combining the two events would help me decide on a date for the trip and it seemed like a fun challenge.

I won’t write more about the duathlon here as I want to keep this blog NC500 focused. Suffice to say it was a beautiful and well organised event but unfortunately the hill running aggravated an Achilles injury that I thought had healed. Thankfully this didn’t hinder my cycling in anyway.

Applecross is stunning and I’m glad I’ve had more time here. These sunset photos don’t do the light and beauty justice.

Day 2: Applecross to Gairloch, 65 miles

The road from Applecross to Sheildaig is proving more challenging than expected. I’m pulling myself up never-ending hills. The sun is shining, I’m boiling.

Now I’m flying on a rollercoaster descent into Sheildaig.

Rae has driven here and we are now sitting in a pub eating brunch. The scrambled eggs on toast hardly touch the edges of my stomach – I could easily eat the same again.

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Our pod in Applecross

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I wasn’t always alone on the roads!

Rae and I are hugging goodbye and I’m about to start my lone ranger thing as I continue towards Gairloch. Cycling alone is, to my surprise, something I’ve grown to love.

Revived by brunch I feel like the luckiest woman alive as I move this familiar mountain scape of Torridon. The roads are quiet and fairly flat. I feast on the views as I fly along.

I’m passing through Kinochewe, getting closer to my destination.

An acquaintance from my childhood has invited me, via Facebook, to her home for dinner in Gairloch. I check into the Youth Hostel and wait for her to pick me up.

She and her husband are a complete delight, they feed and water (and wine) me. We share life headlines from the last 20 years.

Curious, I ask her why she offered to host me, given that we hardly knew each other. She smiles:

“I’d like to think if I was doing something like you, that people would be kind to me”.

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Youth Hostel just outside Gairloch

Day 3: Gairloch to Achmelvich, 91.5 miles

I’ve had a hostel breakfast and am ready to head north to Achmelvich via Ullapool. It’s the highest mileage day of the trip with some decent elevation so I’m keen to get moving.

It’s a bonnie ride out of Gairloch, I’m feeling good and strong.

I’ve just past Dundonnel and I’m starting to tire. Half way up a hill before the Corrieshalloch Gorge and I’ve stopped to eat a protein bar.

I’m back on the road and my blood sugar is high again – one protein bar become two – I’d been hungrier than I realised.

I’ve just had the most disappointing meal and service of my life in Ullapool.  I was super hungry and tired. The lady in the cafe refused to make eye contact with me and the food she served was arty but bland and unsatisfying. Pretentious food. Next time go for the fish and chips Shona!

I’ve still a long ride ahead so I’m stocking up on sweeties in a corner shop. The warmth from the lady in this shop, and the glucose from the Fruit Pastels, lift my spirits again.

I’m moving through the most stunning land and hill scape yet – the back road though the Inverpolly area. Stac Pollaidh looms above me. The road is a full on roller coaster – I get enough momentum going down that I can free wheel up.

I’m tired. I’ve no Fruit Pastels left! Why haven’t I reached Inverkirkaig yet? Have I got the mileage wrong? Will I make it to the hostel before dark?   I’m over this, I’m not having fun any more.

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Dinner in the Youth Hostel

Eating dinner in the Youth Hostel and all is well in my world again. Kind strangers welcome me and I sink into a warm bunk bed. What an amazing day!

Day 4: Achmelvich to Durness, 59.6 miles

I’m on the beach next to the youth hostel. Last night it was too dark to appreciate the beauty of this place.  I’m look out to the sea-line and I see Dolphins dancing in the morning. Today is going to be a good day.

Whoa! When they said it was going to be hilly I didn’t realise it was going to be THIS hilly.  The coastline is crazy beautiful but this is the hardest cycling I’ve done yet.  My  heart is beating so fast it feels like I may explode.

Now I’m flying down a hill but the road is turning faster than I’m steering.

Panic thoughts:

“It’s game over Shona, you’re going down and it’s gonna hurt”.

“Your bike goes where your eyes go”.

I’m pulling my eyes away from the verge and into the main road. My handlebars and bike follow.

Somehow I avert falling.

I’ve stopped.

I’m shaking.

Relief.

I’m in a cafe in a camp site in Scourie. I’m feeling proud of myself for not stopping in Kylesku as it means I’m now properly hungry and I’m more than half way to my destination.

Yes the cafe is cheap and cheerful but the egg mayo sandwich and butternut squash soup  are the most delicious and satisfying food offering that I’ve ever tasted.

Having faced hill, after hill…, after hill…, I’m now sitting in a booth at the famous Chocolate Mountain Cafe, just outside Durness. I have the luxury of time to savour this hot chocolate. It’s literally like drinking a melted box of chocolates  – warm, rich, sweet – I never want this drink to end.

Sadly the hot chocolate did end but the evening brought me safely to my hostel and to Smoo Cave. Having just witnessed the most beautiful sunset I crawl into bed, tired and content.

Day 5: Durness to Thurso, 74.2 miles

I’m in a cafe drinking coffee and eating ’emergency scones’. As forecast the spate of good  weather has passed and I’ve been travelling with the rain and wind for the last hour. Cold is my biggest fear and I’ll always find ways to fight it.

For the second time on this trip, I feel people are judging me for being a scruffy cyclist. Maybe they are or maybe I’m just making up stories in my head because I feel unattractive in the same lycra clothes that I’ve been wearing for the last 5 days.

I pull myself out of these thoughts. They aren’t serving me and I’ve lots of miles to cover.

His lips are moving, words are being spoken. He’s smiling so I know he’s kind but I just can’t hear what he’s saying. My brain is in survival mode, drowning him out, screaming: “Get In The Shower – NOW!”

I compose myself and return the smile:.

“I wonder if I could have a shower and get warm first and then we can talk about keys?”

I’m in an Air B&B in Thurso and I’m somewhat traumatised and bordering hypothermic having faced a grim cycle between Reay and Thurso. I passed Dounreay about 5pm, the end of the working day, and constantly had traffic piling up behind me whilst I also contended with torrential rain. I’d been cold and frightened.

Having showered and revived myself I meet my hosts. With kindness and care they insist on dropping and picking me up to and from a pub where I get dinner.

Thurso your roads and weather suck but maybe you aren’t so bad after all.

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Day 6 Thurso to Crask Inn, 73.7 miles

I’m in the corner shop, back in the village of Reay: emergency shelter and sweets supplier. I’m soaked to the skin which isn’t great as my cycling day has just begun. I’m scared that I’ll suffer today.

Heading down Strath Halladale the sun makes a hint of an appearance and my spirits lift. I focus my attention on the promised coffee shop in Forsinard.

Leaving Forsinard with dashed hopes. The coffee shop promise turned out to be a lie! The owner has gone shopping. But it’s quite funny I’m finding the cycling easy today as the roads are flatter.

I’m now getting hungry and cold. I’ve worked out that the nearest refreshment is only 10km from my final destination but I need to stop. I’m laughing at this sign. Hope has always felt 21 miles out of reach today.

The Altnaharra Hotel has stopped serving lunch but the chef/ waiter/ manger guy tells me he can serve me coffee and a chocolate brownie. YES please!

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I’m now in the Crask Inn and I’m laughing at the little sheep that’s been left to greet me on my bed. The avocado bathroom suite takes me back in my memory to my Granny’s house. The Crask Inn is now owned by the Episcopal Church and the juxtaposition of the Oor Willie with the Christian poem, Footsprints, tickle me.

I’ve been told to come be ready for dinner at 7pm and that I’ll be dining with the other 6 guests. It feels like I’ve time travelled back 20 years!

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We meet in the bar:

Two middle-aged men (hill climbers), a slightly old gentleman (a photographer), a young American hipster (who is cycling Land’s End to John O’Groats) and a good-looking gamekeeper (who has come on his motorbike and is here to fish).

A hand written menu is passed around and we give our orders.

A few hours later I’m climbing into bed. I’ve had a lovely evening sharing stories, food and wine with these strangers in this very quirky place. [Oh and what evening would be complete with out a very attractive man removing a tic from your arm!]

I’m a bit sad that this adventure ends tomorrow.

Day 7 Crask Inn to Inverness, 74.7 miles

It’s a beautiful morning and the American Hipster guy has just take a photo of me before he heads north and I head South, homeward bound.

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It’s been a fairly easy and fast cycle home punctuated by a chocolate brownie in Ardgay and a cheeky hill climb at Struie.

I’m unlocking my door and I feel a sense of stillness, of anti climax as I enter my empty home.

So much has happened to me in the last 7 days, yet here nothing has changed.

I’m reminded that my home isn’t to be found in these four walls. My home and my life are embodied in me and in the big outdoor world that I’ve had the amazing privilege to move through over the last week.

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As I said at the start of this blog, if you’d have any barriers to doing your own ‘hard thing’ I’d love to coach you through this (you can find out more here).

5 thoughts on “I would cycle 500 miles and I would cycle 500 more: My North Coast 500 Journey.

  1. Kate Bowen-Evans says:

    Wow Shona, I’ve enjoyed reading this honest set of highlights. It looks like such an amazing trip in your spectacular country and as ever your insights into our internal countries of the self are so valuable when shared like this.

    • Shona Macpherson says:

      Hey Kate, Thank you so much for your thoughtful and kind comment! Sorry I missed this comment till now – much appreciated xx

  2. Jennifer says:

    Such a beautiful blog. I am A Scottish born Australian with a wee fishing bothy in Findhorn and have been to many of those places you cycled through.

    It sounds like an incredible journey and one that has also created a new level of resilience. Congratulations.

  3. Pete Drew says:

    Well done Shona. Very impressive.
    I did JoGLE all on my own about 10 years ago and covered some of the roads you used.
    I had bought a heavy city bike thinking it was solid and robust, not realising it must have been built from old scaffolding poles!!
    I remember well the cold and wind and rain. It was the wettest August Scotland had suffered for decades.
    The sense of singular achievement has stayed with me and it’s an adventure I will never forget.
    I wish I had done a blog like yours. I just wrote my experiences in a Word document. Worth a read if you’re interested. Just mail me. pduto20@gmail.com
    Well done on tackling it alone. And well done on completing it.

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