Prince Edward Island - Confederation Trail - 2002
Prologue To The Prologue
Nearly a year ago, my dear friend John DeGrace started hinting. The Confederation Trail - a rail-trail across Prince Edward Island, Canada and part of the TransCanada Trail - had just been completed. All 180 miles of it. Rising to the occasion, a local actor by the name of Erskine Smith rode the whole trail end-to-end in 23 hours 56 minutes.
John, a Prince Edward Island resident (although even after 20 years he's still what the natives call a CFA or "come from away") started by suggesting that he might ride it. Over the next few months, utilizing a variety of subtle and not-so-subtle techniques, he convinced me that Erskine's record was ripe for breaking, and that we were just the people to do it.
I thought about it for a good long time, and finally decided that I'm an unlikely candidate to be setting any records, but if I could have my name on just one in my life - this was a real possibility. I'd never ridden this far before (my longest ride being my first century ride which was 108 miles because I got lost coming out of the gate). This was a distance almost twice that, not to mention that it was off-road which adds an energy overhead of at least 25-30%, by my humble estimations.
I proposed the idea to my husband, Jeff, who balked with expected drama. We didn't even have mountain bikes. Although I was clear that he was by no means obligated to do this ride with me - - a ride like this is a lot to ask of a spouse - - he eventually warmed to the idea.
On December 21, 2001 I sent John email saying, "Today is the shortest day of the year. We have exactly 6 months to train for our epic journey." I said that fully wondering if any of us had the moxie to complete such a ride. Shortly thereafter, Jeff and I bought mountain bikes. For the next several months, we rode them ever increasing distances.
Prologue - Friday
It is almost 1000 miles to drive from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania to Prince Edward Island (PEI). When we left home on Wednesday it was a raging 95 degrees (it got so hot while we were away that the taper candles on our dining room table melted). After two days of driving north, the local temperature was a comfortable 70 degrees - which is an apparent heat wave for PEI. Tosca the dog was outraged by the heat, while Jeff and I happily donned long sleeves. Perfect riding weather, to us, anyway.
Friday, it rained in the morning and John, Jeff and I went for a tour of the fabulous beaches of Brackley Beach National Park. John, a geologist, had plenty of good information for us. Even in the fog, the tan beaches beneath stunning red cliffs were an awesome sight. While walking through the deep sand dunes, John - who had been rehabbing his knee for several months following a hard to describe wet-tennis-court incident - tripped and fell into the sand. Normally quite proper, he made an exclamation as he fell that was instant cause for alarm. Jeff and I watched as his body twisted in the sand as he tumbled down the slope in apparent slow-motion. When he came to a stop, he looked at us with big, sad, worried eyes. We feared the worst. We helped him up, and he thought maybe it wasn't so bad. We continued our walk - all of us thinking about John's knee. Would we still be able to ride?
Later that afternoon, the rain ceased and the three of us went for a short ride on the Charlottetown part of the trail, near John's house. Jeff and I were anxious to see what the trail conditions would be like, and after a 2 day drive, we were also anxious to stretch our legs. John set out at a good pace, and Jeff and I happily chased. At every intersection there were gates designed to thwart ATV riders. They are only partially successful. To us, the gates were an annoying obstacle to navigate around; 2 parallel gates, a few feet apart, overlapping. The trick was to make a sharp left, and a sharp right, and a sharp left again. Or the other way around, depending on the configuration. I found this to be daunting and I rarely did this successfully. John was masterful and comfortable with this, and not nearly as inconvenienced by them as I was. Jeff was somewhere in between, skill-wise.
Despite our quick pace, John had definitely hurt his knee and let us know as such. He remained optimistic, though, and was insistent that he would be okay for the big ride. Jeff and I so much wanted to hear this news that we didn't question it.
Prologue - Saturday
Saturday morning, we packed for our trip northwest to the starting point of Tignish. Not sure of the weather, I waffled endlessly over which riding clothing to bring. Shortly before we departed, I had a premonition that with all my waffling I might have actually forgotten to pack the most essential piece of clothing - bike shorts. I figured I was probably nervous and over thinking things, but I grabbed a second pair of shorts just in case, and threw them in the car, figuring two was better than none.
We drove from Charlottetown, which is near the center of the island to Tignish which is the farthest point north and west, and quite remote. West of Miscouche we crossed what John referred to as the "Bullrush curtain," after which the character of the landscape and buildings underwent a subtle but definite change, kinda like crossing the Mason-Dixon line. It was a 2 hour drive. We checked into the Tignish Heritage Inn, a convent turned B&B, around 4:00 P.M. and prepared to go for a walk on the North Cape. We passed John in the hallway of the B&B and he muttered something apocalyptic and non-specific. He looked pale and worried. He confessed that he'd forgotten his bike shorts!
John, who has been my Buddhist mentor for many years, was panicked and glum. I was encouraging him to act with calm awareness when Judy, his wife, then informed me that he may be the most uptight Buddhist ever. And now, surely, he had something very real to be uptight about.
I thought that given my earlier premonition I might have packed two pairs of shorts, but upon inspection I had just the one (thus, curiously, I'd come extremely close to being in the same position that John was.) The phone book revealed no bike shops, and with the late hour it seemed the only option was for John to make the 4 hour round trip back to Charlottetown to get his shorts. Gloom was rapidly descending upon us when one of the inn proprietors handed the phone to us saying she'd located a guy nearby who had a few pairs of bike shorts for sale. We got the information, and drove just a few short miles to Paul's Bike Shop which is the kind of place with not many signs, no advertising, and run from Paul Dalton's basement. (Click here to see a newspaper article describing Paul's subsequent success at breaking the Confederation Trail record) It's the kind of place you either know about or don't. Paul qualified for hero status by having exactly 2 pairs of shorts - one with sub-par chamois, and one pair of very nice baggies. John bought the baggies and refused to try them on saying, "They'll fit. They have to fit."
We went for our North Shore walk, enjoyed a nice dinner, and returned to the B&B early. We went to bed while the sun was still in the sky.
The Big Day
Jeff and I were both already awake when only one of our three alarms went off. We showered and met John in the dining room for breakfast. It was self-serve continental type breakfast, but the innkeepers had been kind enough to provide it at this unthinkable hour. We loaded up our bikes in semi-darkness and rode the short distance to the trailhead.
We took commemorative pictures in the darkness.
We assumed a nice pace, and enjoyed the quiet of the morning as the sun rose behind us.
The gravel of the trail made it difficult to have meaningful conversation, but we were all nervous and there was not much to say anyway. We were mostly sizing up ourselves, each other, and the trail.
My assessment at that point was this: I felt strong. John and Jeff seemed strong. The trail was slow, and loud, and the gates at the intersections were really annoying. It was serene in the morning mist, but also mostly devoid of stimulus. It's a narrow green corridor, with occasional stripes of bright red when we crossed a dirt road, then more narrow green. There were few houses or farms in our view. We passed one cyclist, a few large rabbits, and a coyote (which, from my vantage point might as well have been a dog). There was no wind.
We stopped every 30 minutes or at John's request. If nothing else, this was a reminder to make sure we drank and ate enough. Unfortunately, when we stopped, opportunistic mosquitoes feasted on us. John assured me that they'd take a siesta when the sun was fully up. I naively believed him.
We're making good time. We just may be able to pull this off, I think.
We had ridden 50 miles before breakfast, but it was actually a second breakfast (the first was at the B&B). Mona's Place is a cute cafe right along the trail in Richmond. We called Judy, who was our SAG driver. She had slept late at the Inn, but is now on the road and nearby. She joined us for a leisurely and very tasty breakfast.
We pause for photos, take the lights off our bike, give Judy our long sleeve shirts, and returned to the trail.
It was shaping into a beautiful day, with bright sun a temperatures in the low 70's. The marine weather forecast had called for a wind out of the southwest, which would be a good tailwind once we round the bend. Right now, there is virtually no wind, but it would be a headwind now anyway.
As we approached Summerside, we saw many more people on the trail. For awhile, we counted them, but as the numbers climbed, we lost interest. The scenery became more varied as we passed countless farms. We stopped to watch a horse with a newborn foal.
The trail through Summerside is urban, and also partially under construction. We lost the trail, briefly, at several confusing intersections, but always managed to find it again.
John's knee was giving him grief. We stopped every 30 minutes to appease him. After each stop he'd say his knee felt okay for 5 minutes, and then it escalated for the next 25 until he was begging for mercy and we'd stop again to let him recover. I think to myself that faced with that sort of pain - I might have given up earlier. We were no longer making great time, but we were still doing ok.
Now, we had 80 miles behind us. Judy met us at The Country Oven in Kensington where we had a mediocre, time-wasting lunch in the air conditioning, pause for photos again, and then resumed our ride. John briefly experimented with a knee brace, but it was the opposite of helpful.
We grabbed some Fig Newtons from Judy's car, and it was there that I learned that U.S. Newton's are different from Canadian Newtowns. Like so many things, the U.S. version is dumbed down. More lemon, less fig. Of course, I was outraged.
We met Judy at Hunter River, and almost as soon as we get back on the trail, Jeff got a flat tire (rear, of course).
With 100 miles behind us, we entered the Bonshaw Hills. Up until now the trail has had small hills - sometimes so subtle we only knew if we were going up or down by our relative speed. Sometimes we debated whether we were going up or down because we simply couldn't tell.
I jokingly called these hills The Alps, but was pretty sure I was the only one amused. In fact, almost all conversation had diminished as we were saving our energy for riding. Or, maybe we'd just run out of things to say. Or, maybe we'd realized that our frequent stopping and slowed pace had made it very unlikely that we will finish in daylight - and we didn't want to talk about it.
The Bonshaw Hills had a maximum of 4-5% grade, and slowed us only modestly. The friction of the gravel on the down-side meant there was no coasting. We had to keep pedaling even on the downhill.
Two fingers on my left hand kept going numb, and I changed positions frequently to keep the irritation to a minimum. On a long training ride a month prior, I ignored the numbness, and the fingers stayed numb for two days following. I was trying to not make the same mistake again. I was modestly successful this time.
We were definitely getting weary. John, who tends towards being very modest, didn't even wander into the woods anymore to relieve himself. At one point, we were stopped for one of our many rest stops, and I was talking to Jeff with my back to John. John, standing directly behind me, with no warning, liberates his personal plumbing and takes care of business right there. It is only the sound of liquid on leaves that lets me know that I should not under any circumstances turn around.
Back on the trail, we saw a fox, although again from my vantage point it might as well have been a dog.
We are still waiting on that tailwind.
With 125 miles behind us, we met Judy at the Trailside Cafe in Mount Stewart for dinner. This is a quaint restaurant with reasonably good food (except that they consider "Mediterranean vegetables" to mean "olives") and exceptionally slow service. Or, because we had an agenda, we were just itching to go. Daylight was closing in on us fast, and by now we knew there was no way we were finishing in natural light. The hour plus we were wasting for dinner seemed endless.
John was looking exhausted, in part because he was in obvious pain. Jeff and I were in for a longer day than we had planned, and starting to question why we were doing this at all. I was not tired from riding, but the hours of exposure were adding up, and I was having a hard time keeping my blood sugar normal. I would eat, and 30 minutes later, be nauseous again. I was easily able to keep up with our pace, but I didn't feel so hot. I kept drinking sugary Cytomax which helped for the short term, but was probably also part of the problem.
We met Judy again in Morell. It was nearly dark now and recognizing that it could be a long night, we asked Judy to find us extra batteries for our headlights. And we rode on, neither cautiously nor optimistic anymore.
We rode by the beautiful St. Peters Bay, but we were riding as hard as we could with no time for sight-seeing. Plus, it was getting too dark to see much of anything anyway. The lake was glowing in the dusk.
After a brief diversion to the road (because the trail was under construction), we met Judy who gave us extra batteries for our headlights. It was almost completely dark now, and we were all anxious about how this would go. Out there, there was no ambient light from cities. It was really dark - black except for the stars and fireflies. And, apparently, mosquitoes are not afraid of the dark either.
We spend longer than we should at this stop. Judy seemed to be trying to talk John out of this, and Jeff and I were wondering if continuing was really wise. Finally, we flat out asked John if he really wanted to go on - and he was incredulous at the thought of stopping. Of course he wanted to continue - we've come so far already. I was game. So was Jeff. A later recap of this conversation revealed that we were each second-guessing each other - mingling courtesy and bravado into a mess of uncertainty.
Back on the trail, we couldn't see our computers to know how fast (or slow) we were going, but it felt to be about 10 MPH. We couldn't see the mile markers either. In an attempt to maximize our cheap headlights, we rode in a sort of staggered triangle to light as much of the trail as possible. Riding in this formation had the effect of positioning me in the deeper sand in the center of the trail which threw me around a little. We seemed to be going even slower because we couldn't see. I was worried about crashing for awhile, and later I resigned to go-mode and no longer worried. Then, I worried that I must be really crazed to not be worried. A catch-22 so perfect it would make Joseph Heller proud. I still felt nauseated for awhile until I would eat a Powerbar, and then I was back to just being in go-mode for awhile. Riding on and on, not tired, but not altogether alert either.
Enough is enough. I'm sure we were all doing the math. We thought we had 30 more miles, and were riding maybe 10 MPH, plus taking time to stop and let John rest his knee. The gates and intersections were very hazardous in the darkness. There were potential hazards in the dark trail that are too countless to mention. It was becoming a bit of a death march.
Jeff finally called it quits. He was having a hard time seeing the trail, and just keeping his eyes open. Once he said it, I realized I wanted to stop too. Everything felt too dangerous. I seconded his motion, and John, seemingly having no choice, agreed too. Ironically, I think he was the most willing to continue on.
We rode on for awhile (because we couldn't just stop in the middle of nowhere, and our next meeting with Judy wasn't for awhile - and since we couldn't see our computers we don't even know how far). We were all wrestling with our demons. I was thinking it was not fair to Judy to ride this late into the night and ask her to keep meeting us at such remote locations. John was suffering from his knee; Jeff couldn't see; and I was nauseated and worried about not being worried enough.
On the other hand, we had all trained hard for months, and to not finish was a huge disappointment. Especially when I could feel that I had the leg-power to do it. We reminded ourselves that we had in fact gone a very long distance and should be proud of ourselves. But there was still much angst in our decision to stop.
I knew I had the physical strength to finish, but under these conditions I was not sure I could justify why I should have wanted to. In truth, I was relieved that Jeff put a stop to it. Somebody had to.
At the next road crossing, John called Judy and with the last ion of battery shouted the street name 3 times. Then, the phone went dead. This was earlier than our next meeting spot, but, having decided to stop, there was no reason to continue. We waited in darkness hoping that Judy understood the message and would find us here. Around midnight, we saw her car on the horizon. She drove us back to Charlottetown for the night.
In the car, we decided to continue our ride in the morning.
The statistics were like this:
The Small Day
We slept in, ate a nice breakfast, and then drove back to where we left off. We were on the trail slightly before noon.
I was saddle sore, and my quads stung a bit - - but generally okay. I had every reason to believe the soreness would wane once I started riding. John's knee had gotten even worse over night. Jeff, amazingly, said he had no soreness at all.
We rode the remaining miles with a slight headwind. The trail was still sandier than the more western part - difficult even in daylight. At one point, we slowed for a large bird in the trail. Jeff said it was a Ruffed Grouse, and John corrected him - it's a Spruce Hen. At least, from my vantage, it didn't look like a dog.
My soreness went away, and John's knee gots worse. Jeff was chomping at the bit.
We now noticed that the mileages on the map no longer matched the signs on the trail. It turned out that the signs were right, and the trail is several miles shorter than anticipated. Because I'd made a pessimistic guess on trail length, my estimate of 180 miles was high by 10 miles.
We stopped frequently, and reached the terminus of Elmira with no fanfare or celebration. We simply stopped riding. It really was just that anticlimactic. Judy took a few pictures, and we headed back to Charlottetown again.
The final statistics were like this:
The ride was followed by a moderate feast and champagne toast, at which time John presented us with our official "Tip- to-Tip" certificates and pins from the "Island Trails" organization. Kindly, optimistically, and against their normal practice, they had agreed to provide the awards in advance of our attempt, knowing that Jeff and I would be leaving the Island the next day. Anyone interested in trying this trip might want to contact Grace Blackette at Island Trails: firstname.lastname@example.org .
We did it. But we didn't break the record. It'll forever be an asterisk.
Needless to say, after the trip we asked ourselves what we might have done to have completed in one day, as we had hoped. Clearly, if we had to ride in the dark, it would have been best to do this in the early morning, when we would be fresh and keen and have daylight to look forward to. A 3:00 or 3:30 A.M. start would have worked better than after 4:30. That having been said, we also stopped more than was necessary. Specifically, the delay at the Trailside Cafe in Mount Stewart was interminable, amounting to about 1 1/2 hours in the gathering dusk. We would be better off to take our meals (or at least have food available) from the tailgate of the car. It would have been much faster, and likely more nutritious too.
I'd love to have another go at it, but I'm not sure I'll ever try this, or anything like this, again. Although, I should point out, the C&O Canal is roughly the same distance, hint, hint...