South Uist marvel Kerry MacPhee scaled double the height of Ben Nevis during record breaking ultra-race on 96-mile West Highland Way

For most people the preparation for an ultra-race or endurance challenge begins months in advance or at least several weeks out.

Wednesday, 28th April 2021, 10:49 am
Kerry enjoying the stunning views on the West Highland Way

Athletes need time to prepare physically with intensive training and mentally to get ready for such a gruelling challenge with a well-timed taper pre event.

But Kerry MacPhee is no ordinary athlete. She is cut from world class cloth, is the first and to date the ONLY Hebridean athlete to ever represent Scotland at the Commonwealth Games, and putting herself through the ringer in the name of sport is something she does almost every single day.

Powering through and not just ignoring and overcoming extreme physical torment, exhaustion and challenges which would make even the most ardent athlete wince in terror.

Kerry MacPhee in cycling action

Last week our Kerry, from Kilphedar, South Uist, was enjoying some of her usual thigh bursting, tarmac scorching training sessions around her current patch of Stirlingshire on her two-wheeled horse when she took a call from a friend.

That call was a passing enquiry on when her next day off work was and whether she fancied pedalling the famously near 100-mile stretch of difficult terrain of the West Highland Way - just for fun.

“I thought about it for five seconds as I was off work and we just went for it,” laughed Kerry warmly as she chatted to the Gazette.

“I have been training really well and feel really fit at the moment and sometimes when you do things last minute it is the best.

Kerry took on the West Highland Way recently and set a new women's record in the process

“If I had planned this more then I’d have been tapering off and resting after preparing for a long time but we just did it.”

The West Highland Way runs from Milngavie to Fort William across 96 brutal miles which connect the Lowlands to the Highlands with most walkers who travel the journey sleeping overnight along the way.

With more than 4000m of climbing along the route - which to put into perspective is more than double the height of Ben Nevis at 1335m - and several long stretches of carrying both her bike and her all food and water supplies and tools on her back, it is staggering but somehow not surprising that Kerry completed the West Highland Way within 12-hours, shredding a whopping 6,000 calories at the same time.

Her official time of 11 hours and 46 minutes is of course a brand-new record by a female rider and the margin wasn’t close as she smashed the previous best by a gigantic 3 hours and 14 minutes.

Thankfully, Kerry wasn't flagging during her record breaking West Highland Way adventure!

“I have no idea how we did it so quickly,” she said. “It was never the intention at all but we had a cracking day, ate loads and it was just amazing.

“I still can’t believe we did it in under 12-hours especially being entirely self-supported and we hadn’t even done a recce on the route or anything.

“When we got to Kinlochleven we knew that someone had done from there to Fort William in an hour and a half and we had two hours to play with to get under the 12-hour mark and we realised we might do this.

“We both felt reasonably fit but overall we felt pretty good and not like we hadn’t overcooked it. ”

Few things in her chequered and glittering sporting career will have been as taxing or as simply plain bonkers, as the demands of conquering the West Highland Way in less than 12-hours.

Propelling herself across 96 miles of rugged terrain, hauling her bike over rocks and climbs with all her own gear strapped to her back.

“Some stretches are just pure hike-a-bike and there was one 90-minute spell where it was just hauling the bikes along the shore of Loch Lomond,” recalled Kerry.

“It can be really steep and hike-a-bike is something you just have to get on with but it's not easy.”

Kerry smashed the 12-hour barrier as she pedalled into Fort William and ticked the West Highland Way off her bucket list but it didn’t take long for the herculean efforts of the last half day to catch up on her - with a vengeance.

“When we got to Fort William I couldn’t believe how ok I felt but that didn't last,” she confessed.

“Within an hour I felt so ill and I spewed everything up. We went to get fish and chips in Fort William but I couldn't face food so I tried an ice cream. That wasn’t a god idea either and within minutes as we began to pull out of Fort William I had to get them to stop the car and it all came flying back out.

“I had a splitting headache as well as I had run out of water earlier too. When we reached a toilet block earlier in the ride I saw a sign for drinking water. I was delighted and downed my water and went to the door just completely forgetting we are in a pandemic and it was of course locked up tight. So I had hardly any water for the last bit so I had to suck it up.”

She went on: “I’m pretty stunned and overwhelmed by the response to doing the West Highland Way I've had as it was something I just did without thinking about it. It's just such a good dose of soul food.”

Kerry has dedicated her life to cycling and - pre pandemic - she of course rode for Scotland at the Commonwealth Games, is a multiple winner of Scottish and British races and titles, has more gold medals than King Midas from star turns at the NatWest Island Games from Bermuda, Jersey and Gotland while she has raced all over Europe in the World Cup.

But the coronavirus pandemic has put a spoke in the wheel of her ability to ride competitively for over a year now both between both the virus and the rules on participation being geared and stacked against athletes without significant financial backing.

“Some of my good friends are still able to race in the World Cup but to be allowed to travel you have to be approved by the governing body which only comes if you earn from than £13,000 a year from your sport which I don’t,” she explained.

“This is especially devastating because the Commonwealth Games qualification comes from participating in the World Cups and I’ve now not raced in over a year.

“It is difficult but there is nothing I can do about it. I was angry at first but now I’ve accepted it is out of my control and maybe I’ll get to a World cup later in the year.

“I have tremendous sponsorship and help from Loch Duart and I have a bike sponsor too and I’m enormously grateful but it's not enough to qualify as a professional athlete so I’ve not been able to go to any World Cups in the last year.”

While chatting happily to the Gazette Kerry explains she is presently litter picking around Aberfoyle as she makes the most of her time which is split between working for EDF and of course putting in the hours and miles on her bike.

“There is a really great movement outdoors here picking up litter and I’ve been so inspired so I’m back at it today,” she said cheerily.

“I’m still riding as much as I can. I am just loving the group I train with in Aberfoyle and enjoying life and doing my best to just focus on the good stuff.”

While athletes, footballers and swimmers have had their ability to train disrupted significantly over the past year cyclists have been relatively unaffected in training terms with no restrictions on a solo rider taking to the roads on their own two wheels.

“I got really lucky with that and riding really is my therapy,” she admits.

“I have also started working as a coach which has been fantastic and really good for my riding too.”

Sport has underpinned Kerry's life since she was a youngster and her dedication to her craft and subsequent hard earned and deserved success has earned her the mantle of an obvious inspiration to aspiring and emerging athletes from the isles who can see the road from this side of the Minch to the top level of international sport can be navigated.

“My one dream as a human is just to be relatable and for people to see me and think she did that so that means I can do that so when people see me that's the thing, I want them to feel,” said Kerry modestly.

“I’m a big believer in ‘you’ve got to see it to be it’ and that rings true for sport so much. Just recently I saw this guy riding a hand bike and he was really good on it.

“We want to do more for inclusivity in Aberfoyle and we were talking about ‘you’ve got to see it to be it’ and for other people with disabilities to see people doing that stuff to know they can do it as well.

“I think in the Hebrides it is the same with our amazing women athletes who see it as normal and they are inspired to try sport and it is paying off with athletes like Kara Hanlon and the footballers at Celtic and Rangers and so many more.”

The career trajectory from the croft in Kilphedar to the Commonwealth Games is, like all sportspeople, on the path of a speedy rollercoaster where emphatic highs are twinned with dips towards the earth with a thump, but that's the life of an elite level sports person or athlete.

“Like my Dad always says to me ‘Cum a dol, cum a dol,’ and I’m like yes that's what I’m doing and I seem to be getting stronger and stronger on the bike which is mad,” said Kerry excitedly.

“I’m so goal driven and I’m not ready to give up yet so I’m curious to see what I can do but it's all good.”

There are of course no NatWest Island Games this year but Guernsey 2023 is already appearing on the horizon but with eight Island Games’ gold medals already on her sideboard at home and having won every single mountain bike race she has entered at that level, will Kerry be back flying the flag for team WIIGA?

“Guernsey?”

“Oh yes definitely. I love it. I wouldn’t miss it for anything, I’ll see you there.”