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Mountain biker Kerry MacPhee sets West Highland Way FKT

Written by Fiona

April 22 2021

Kerry MacPhee, the current Scottish mountain biking champion, has set a new fastest female time for the 96-mile West Highland Way. The 34-year-old rode the famous trail in 11 hours 46 minutes, to better the time of 15 hours set by Naomi Freireich. Namoi rode this time as part of a longer route GT24, from Glasgow to Inverness.

Kerry, who is from South Uist in the Outer Hebrides and now lives in Stirling, reveals it was a spontaneous decision to attempt the WHW Fastest Known Time (FKT).

She said: “It was never really on my radar! My friend Stu phoned me on Tuesday night after the announcement of the easing of restrictions had been made. I was mid-ride and I thought he was calling to ask if he could join me even though he doesn’t do road rides.

“He said, ‘Fancy riding the WHW to mark the easing of restrictions on Friday,’ and after a short pause and a long think, I thought, ‘Aye, why not?’

“Stu had been very involved in Rab Wardell’s successful attempt to break the supported record last year and had indeed mentioned a couple of times that he was keen to ride it. We ride a lot together and I knew we were both fit and I guess you could say I’m that friend who isn’t tied by too many responsibilities. I am usually up for some cycling nonsense!”

Kerry and Stu chose Friday because it was the first day of freedom from travel restrictions in Scotland in 2021.

This is what I did on Freedom Friday.

Read about Rab Wardell’s WHW FKT in 9:14:32.

Kerry and Stu.

Who is Kerry MacPhee?

Kerry raced in the mountain biking event at the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. As well as being the Scottish MTB champ, she is a former British MTB Marathon Champion and, in 2019, on her first attempt she won what is arguably the hardest cyclocross event in the world, the 3 Peaks cyclocross. 

The Community Liaison Officer for EDF Renewables was in good shape for the WHW ride. She said: “I train fairly hard anyway but not specifically for the WHW. In fact, I was out riding ‘Wednesday Worlds’ two days before the WHW and even the day before I was out shredding trails with my sister.

“My longest ride before this was probably seven hours or so and I can’t remember when that was, however I know with these types of events. Fitness and strength is important but it’s your head that really matters.”

West Highland Way FKT.
West Highland Way FKT.
Stu on the West Highland Way with Buachaille Etive Mor in the background.

Kerry’ record ride on the West Highland Way

It was Kerry’s first attempt to ride the full WHW. She said: “I guess I rode this pretty blind to what it would be. I had not done any a recce. We did a few map checks along the way and took a couple of wrong turnings. I ride a lot of gravel in Gravelfoyle [as Aberfoyle has been renamed by cyclists] and I had ridden sections of it via my training but nothing specific.”

Kerry rode Milngavie to Fort William and unsupported. Stu and Kerry had backpacks, frame bags and all their food and water. 

Kerry said: “It’s such a cool route and we had a great time. Riding and hike-a-biking along Loch Lomond was beautiful and it didn’t feel possible that it could get better but it did.

“I love that tiny and insignificant feeling you get among the mountains and that feeling just grows as you head towards Fort William.

“At the 10-hour mark I remember thinking geezo, I feel pretty good, but how is that possible? And then a short while later thinking again geezo, we’re riding this in sub-12 hour time, how is that possible?

“It was a really clear day and one of those ‘wow, what a country’ type days. We got really lucky with the weather.”

West Highland Way FKT.
Stu on the West Highland Way FKT.

‘The FKT was a happy accident’

There were some low points among the highlights. Kerry says: “Shortly after thinking that we’re on a sub-12 hour time, we had a really long stretch with a nasty headwind coming out of Kinlochleven. That was quite tough and I was thinking urgh, we just got our hopes up.

“When we reached Kinghouse hotel at Glencoe there was a toilet block with a sign saying ‘drinking water’ and I downed most of my water only to check the door and find it locked. The beauty of cycling right now is you forget you’re still in a pandemic and we’re not operating as normal.

“I could feel dehydration start to set in on that last stretch into Fort William but it was also the home stretch so I internalised it and kept the pegs going.

“I had a couple of nasty crashes, too, when I just got a little over-excited coming off Conic Hill and again down some rocky steps but it was fairly easy to park the discomfort and keep pedalling. 

“Because we paced it really well, kept a lid on the effort early on and ate really well early on, there was never any point where I felt I had to dig really deep or that I had got myself into a hole. I’m actually amazed at how okay I found it.”

Kerry is sure she could go faster. She says: “We had an unnecessarily long stop at The Green Welly with Covid because of queues for toilets etc and we were fairly chilled out a lot of the time as we didn’t know what was ahead of us really.

“The FKT was just a happy accident rather that the point of the ride. I went in thinking I’d like to set myself a personal benchmark for a future ride. I definitely wouldn’t have trained as normal in the fortnight before either and I’d recce sections of it again just so I knew where we were going.

“Also, when you do it unsupported, you’re carrying a lot of extra weight, so a supported attempt would definitely be faster.”

Kerry rode a Genesis Mantle Hardtail. She put Vittoria airliners in her tyres, which are like foam inserts and this avoided puncture.

West Highland Way FKT.
Kerry and Stu at the WHW finish in Fort William.

Pandemic positives for Kerry

Kerry is sure that the pandemic has been an aid to her WHW FKT. she says: ” Normally right now I’d be away racing XC but I haven’t done so in over a year because of travel restrictions and not meeting the requirements to be allowed to do so.

“That was initially tough to deal with, however, as a result, I’ve done a ton more riding around Scotland, a lot more exploring and just cool stuff like the WHW. It’s been a pandemic positive for me to be able to spend a lot of time riding in Aberfoyle, growing my cycling community and creating experiences in other ways. I have loved that.”

Kerry says he has long been fascinated by FKTs. She says: “I know I have a big engine and the type of mindset that can just keep going and I love following endurance feats across the globe.

“FKTs really took off last year with riders seeking other ways to fulfil their adventurous and competitive streaks in lieu of races. My dad always says in Gaidhlig [Scottish gaelic] ‘Cum a’ dol’, which means keep going, and I don’t really have any plans do anything other than that! Perhaps the Badger Divide could be on the cards at some stage but I guess we’ll see.

“Also, of note, I think my buddy Stu, who rode the WHW on a down country bike, which is a fair bit heavier than an XC bike, recorded a self-supported FKT, too.”

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