Im going to warn you up front… this is a long one, but hey it took me almost 35 hrs to run it so I have a lot to say! And just so we are clear, this was not a race, it was not an organized event just an adventure that Ive been obsessed over for almost a year.
Let me open with when I first heard of this concept, as this story on its own is worth telling. A few years ago when I was training for the Vermont 50 mile race, I was training out at the Cape Chignecto Provincial Park. I had run here a few times previously but this was the first time I had completed a run out to Refugee Cove. A run at the time I was quite proud of. Its a 24k out and back to one of the most spectacular coves. Its a challenging route with roughly 1200m of vertical on some challenging terrain.
I got back from this run exhausted but impressed that I was able to complete it, before lunch no less. I was chatting with one of the Park Rangers when I got back and he was asking me where I had gone this morning. He was impressed and said I had made really good time. He then began to tell me an amazing story about a crazy guy who came to the park and ran 3 loops for his bachelor party. I was just in disbelief that someone would do that or could do that. There was no race, no aid stations, no support, just one crazy guy and his friends for a bachelor party to complete 3 loops. Just insane right?
A crazy guy came to the park and ran 3 loops for his bachelor party, just insane right?
It just seemed right
Over the past few years Ive gotten to know Jodi (the first crazy guy to run 3 loops) pretty well and we have become good friends and he is the one who inspired me to take on this challenge.
As many of you know last year I attempted my first 100 mile race at Bromont ( you can read that race report here: Bromont 100: Race Report ) which ended in a disappointing DNF due to a navigational error among other things. I still have unfinished business with that course but this year it was not meant to be. My brother got married on that weekend this year. So I scoured the race listings for another potential 100 miler for the fall and nothing seemed to line up that sparked excitement. I was out for a run with Jodi at some point I don’t remember exactly when and his triple looper came up again and that’s when I decided that was going to be my “A” goal for this year.
When you decide to take on a goal thats as daunting as something similar to a 100 miler your WHY has to be dialled in. Why do I want to do this?
- It’s my favourite place to run in Nova Scotia
- It’s only been done once before
- I like the idea of the extra challenge of the remote loops
- I wanted a event with lots of climbing (over 7100 m)
- A unique experience where I get to run the whole thing with good friends
- I know that it is at the outer limit of what I could be capable of if I train my butt off…. it will take me beyond my limits
It ticked all the boxes and then some….
For reference here is a map of the loop and the elevation profile of the 3 loops. 142.5 k with 7100m of elevation gain and loss.
Working on Weaknesses
I knew going into this that my weakest link was my stomach. It has always been my limiting factor, and I was determined to get it right this time. I bought the book Thrive by Brendan Brazier to better understand how to fuel on a whole foods plant based diet. It really helped me with recipes for gels, energy bars and recovery drinks. I adapted the recipes in this book to form the basis of my fuelling strategy.
Since the beginning of August I trained experimenting with different combinations of food and found that what best worked for me was a combination of long haul gels, potatoes, energy bars and cinnamon buns (I just really like these). I was determined to train my stomach like any other muscle, eating the same number of calories per hour as planed for my adventure to get it used to processes this volume of calories on the run.
Taking on a challenge such as this,it has to be a team effort. Sure I am the only one who ran the 142k, but I didn’t do it alone.
A big step for me this year is that I hired a coach. Yup the coach hired a coach. I’ll get into the reasons behind that more in detail in another blog post, but the short of it is that I did for the same reasons I would recommend to anyone looking to improve their running. Taking your emotions out of the decision making process and having someone take an un-biased look at your training is invaluable. It has really helped me over the past few months in preparing for this challenge.
My biggest supporter and the person who knows me best is my wife Amanda. She was the crew captain and in charge of making sure I was taken care of in between loops and making sure everything was ready to go. Basically just call her VP of awesome.
For safety reasons where this is such a remote loop and this time of year with the park empty, I needed to have people running with me every loop. I am fortunate enough to have a great group of friends who where willing to each come out and run a loop with me. Keeping in mind that each loop on its own is 47.5k, not just anyone could be called on to join me. Derek on loop 1, Shawn on loop 2 and Jeff and Chad on loop 3.
Also for safety we had designated check in points to contact base camp to let them know them know how we were doing. This also gave the guys running the next loop more of a heads up of when they should be expecting to start their loop.
No I am not going to list all of the gear that I brought…. because it was a lot. Being that this adventure was taking place at the end of November it was quite possible that any weather could be experienced on this run. Anything from shorts and t-shit warm, to freezing cold and snow and anything in-between.
Being that each loop is 47k and I would be out there between 10-12+ hours without access to other supplies I needed to have a fairly large running pack to make sure I could fit everything. You don’t just pack for what you might need on the the loop, but you pack to be warm if something goes wrong and you end up stuck waiting for rescue for 4+ hours. So here is a basic list (not all inclusive) of some of the key items I had with me on every loop:
- Trekking poles
- Soloman 12L hydration pack
- 2- dry bags
- light weight gloves
- heavy weight lobster claw mits
- Buff x2
- spare long sleeve shirt
- spare t-shirt
- 2.5 L bladder of water + extra chorine tabs to sterilize more water on the loop
- utility knife
- first aid kit
- cell phone
- toilet paper
- map with bail out points shown
- light weight rain coat
- light weight wind breaker pants
- plastic bags to put of gloves in case of cold rain
- hand warmers
- 2 x 24 oz. bottles to fill up after the bladder ran out
- emergency blanket
- petzl headlamp with 2 spare batteries
- Suunto ambit 3 gps watch
- portable usb charger
- 12+ hrs of food and salt pills
- Altra lone peak shoes
So as you can see…. that’s a lot of stuff! But doing remote adventures like this you are on your own so you need to be prepared.
It took me a full day to prep all of the gear and food for this adventure….
Why do this at the end of November?
There is a whole list of reasons why choosing the end of November to do this was just a bad idea. When I had originally planned to do this adventure I thought I would go for it in late September or early October. This would have made a lot more sense. Its warmer then, the days are longer and the park is open (so rescue is closer).
It became abundantly clear after running the SONOFA GUNOFA this year, that my body just was not going to be up this challenge by the end of September… I just plain needed more time to be able to confidently attempt it. So I knew that this whole thing could just end up not happening at all because if it was snowy and icy come the end of November, I would have to bail on the adventure. If that happened the back up plan was to find a 100 mile race down south early in the new year.
There is a whole list of reasons why choosing the end of November to do this was just a bad idea
Here We Go!
Pulling the trigger
Its a bit of logistical challenge to line everything up for a weekend that you know has less than a 50% chance of happening due to weather. I just wasn’t going to put my self in the position of spending 30+ hrs in the cold rain… It just wasn’t going to happen. So you just have to pick a weekend and hope the universe is on your side.
Not only did I need to line everything up and take time off work… the other 6 people I was dragging out to do this with me needed to know so they could plan to come as well. Our accommodations needed to be booked etc. Its just hard to say well you know I can let you know 2 days before the weekend if its going ahead. So the Monday came and and the forecast looked ok with cool temps and some light drizzle and rain over night. I decided to take a gamble and just commit so everyone could plan to come.
As luck would have it, the very next morning after telling everyone we were doing it and booking the accommodations the forecast changed to heavy rain. This was a major cause of anxiety for me the whole week because I knew that I would not really know what the weather was going to be until around a day or 2 beforehand. Now it was just going to be what it was and we were doing this thing no matter what.
On top of all of that, typical for me my body decides to have some taper pains. Leading up to most major events I have come to expect that when I back off in my training I get aches and pains in my body that I didn’t have before. Every time on race day the pains go away and everything is fine… but its stressful. This time it was my left quad that had tightened up and was giving me a bit of knee pain in the week leading up to this adventure. I spent most mornings and nights rolling out my quads wishing my knee was going to hold up for the big day. Sometimes you just have to have faith.
The day before
Amanda and I headed up to the Chignecto park the day before. We took our time packing up and getting ready to leave. Which was really nice and low stress compared to some of our trips we have taken when we get home late from work and rush to leave as quickly as possible. We left our house around 12 pm grabbed a falafel from Tarek’s and and we own our way.
The place we had rented was really close to the park. When we got there we quickly through on our running gear and got in a quick shake out run while it was still light out. It became apparent to me on this short run by how soggy the trail was and by all of the running water that tomorrows adventure was going to be a wet one for the feet.
I was strangely relaxed and I was feeling confident. I was even able to sleep for more than a few hours!
Loop 1: The Fun Loop
(more loop 1 pictures to come)
The planned start time was 7:30 am. I got up around 5, had my breakfast smoothie and cordyceps tea, did a final loop 1 gear check and then just chilled and watch some trail ruining on youtube.
Derek shown up around 6:30 am (he drove all the way in from Moncton that morning!) and before you know it we were standing at the green gate getting started.
My goal for loop 1 was to go easy and relaxed, have as much fun as possible and bring it back in around 9.5-10 hrs. We had perfect conditions to start the day, it was sunny and 5 degrees. We lucked out for the end of November!
On the stretch out to Eatonville the many stream crossings were very swollen and what once was easy to skip across the rocks was now a much trickier puzzle to keep the feet dry. We did a pretty good job for a while using our poles to vault over the streams a rivers. However, the trail gave way and essentially became one with the river for a while. Aside from the many many river crossings this section of trail starts out with the third largest climb of the loop, but then gives way to some more runable trail through a beautiful valley.
With the park having been closed for for a few months there was a significant amount of deadfall down. Some we could get over, but some of it was impassable. Being the first loop we spent a bit of time trying to make my life easier on the next loops by trying to break and move any of the deadfall that we could. We were somewhat successful in some areas, but in other there was no choice but to go around.
After we reached Eatonville thats when the fun started. We took a short break, filled up our bottles from a nearby river and headed out towards to coast and seal cove. I had met Derek at many of the local races, and we had always chatted when we saw each other, but I feel we really got to know one another over this 9.5 hours together. We were telling stories about how we got into running, some of the races we had done and talked about our family lives. This was Derek’s first time around the Chignecto loop so it was a lot of fun being his tour guide.
Reaching Seal Cove checking our splits we had somehow lost around 20 min on our pace. It didn’t really matter to me at all though. The real game plan was just to make sure to run an easy effort and have as much fun as possible.
The coastal section of the trail is beautiful, and we made sure that we took it all in. The effort was very relaxed, breaking to take pictures and enjoy the view along the way. At this point on the run I didn’t even mind the first trip through the torture chamber (the stretch of trail between Seal Cove and Cape Chignecto), the infamous rugged unrelenting terrain which seemingly goes on forever.
We both got the the Cape in great spirits and the first loop was going great! A short time later as we were running along a “coyote” stopped me dead in my tracks. It was right in the middle of the trail staring back at me and I swear it looked more like a wolf than a coyote! I’ve seen a few coyotes on the trail and this guy was much larger and had longer fur then I remembered seeing before. I started wackking my poles together and yelled at it to try and get it to go away. It looked at us and the slowly walked away and disappeared into the woods.
After you reach the cape the trail is much easier going and you are able to quickly make up time even though this section has the most elevation gain. I never understood why everyone who runs the loop saves this section of trail until last…. until I ran the loop myself for the first time last year. Then it made perfect sense saving the more runable trail for last. We made quick work this this section although I made my first mistake of this adventure. I forgot to fill up a second bottle leaving Refugee cove, then didn’t stop again to fill up at mill brook. This lead to me running out of water on this last leg of the loop. Not a big deal, but I finished the loop a bit dehydrated. I also didn’t eat my last hours worth of nutrition as I had nothing to wash it down with, so I ended up a bit behind in calories as well.
We made it back to the gate in 9hrs and 32min. Right on schedule! Derek and I just finished up before it got dark enough to need our headlamps.
My crew was no where to be found. We waited around for 5 min or so and then I gave them a call and they showed up quickly after that.
After stopping running, my body cooled off really quickly. I changed into a dry shirt and grabbed a new long sleeve shirt to wear overtop. I was starving and Amanda had brought me some hot lentil soup! I devoured that, ate a cinnamon bun and had an energy bar…. Mistake #2. I ate way too much food here.
I thanked Derek for going with me and Shawn and I were ready to head out on Loop 2 after spend roughly 30 min in the first inter-loopal period.
Loop 2: Into the darkness
I was originally supposed to have two friends join on the night loop, however one of them got called in for some last minute work. No worries though. Shawn and I headed out into the darkness.
I had intentions of being able to run this loop close to the same pace as the last one. The last one felt so easy, joking and stoping to take pictures and enjoying the views. It should be no problem to do that again right? Well it became apparent pretty early on when it felt like my pack was full of lead and bricks that this loop was going to be a bit of a different experience.
Right away as we were making away up the long first climb I knew I had eaten too much. So my game plan changed from trying to keep pace with the last loop to lets slow down and let this food digest. There was no pole vaulting over the river crossings on this loop, just a slow trudge right through it.
It was pitch dark, but I was still pointing out all of the views to him and describing them in detail haha.
We made it to Eatonville about 20 min behind pace, which wasn’t bad considering how I was feeling. I was very bloated and quite uncomfortable. Having not eaten anything in the past 3 hours I knew that I didn’t have a choice any more. Bloated or not I had to eat. I started taking in 1/3 of the amount of food I’d normally take in at once in a effort to make things a bit easier on my digestive system. The remainder of this loop was a battle between trying to get the food down which made me feel a bit better and nausea. I was very happy to have Shawn with me to keep me moving. I tried to keep my spirits up by joking with him, being his tour guide. It was pitch dark, but I was still pointing out all of the views to him and describing them in detail haha. Shawn was a big help through this section, as I lost the trail a few times navigating around some of the deadfall but he was able to get us back on track quickly.
Through the torture chamber I faded in and out of despair, but Shawn kept me moving at a steady pace. This section of the trail was just sloppy. The whole 10 k section was just slippery mud and roots, and the river crossings were starting to take some more time to navigate. Again there were sections here where I didn’t time refilling and sterilizing my water right and I ended up for 30 min spurts of not being unable to drink as my water was sterilizing. This was the least of my worries though. I just kept thinking to myself, if you want to make the next loop you need to keep eating.
After what felt like an eternity in the black abyss of the torture chamber we finally rounded the cape. Everything seems to magically get better once you get there. I still didn’t feel great, but I started moving significantly better. Descending down into Refugee Cove I felt the beginnings of my left quad giving out. Knowing I still had over 60k left to go my only chance was to start taking the downhills easier to save the quads for as long as possible. On a positive note though I was still climbing strong! I had no issues on those long ascents out of Refugee Cove or mill Brook. My feet however were starting to become a bit of an issue. They had been soaking wet for over 20 hrs now and I could feel the skin on the bottom of my feet starting to slide around.
We finally made it back to the green gate in roughly 11.5 hrs and I was ready to hurl. I knew I had to reset my stomach, so after changing out of my sweaty clothes I curled up in the back seat of the car with the heat cranking and took a 20 min nap. I made sure to get my soaking shoes and socks off to let my feet air out and dry. Apparently as Amanda told me I kept babbling along in the back seat for 5 or 10 min so she gave me an extra 10 min after I passed out.
Just like that, I woke up and no longer wanting to throw up. I by no means felt great, but this was a big win!
Loop 3: And I thought loop 2 felt long!
Taking a full hour in-between loops 2 and 3 was exactly what I needed. It was now around 4:30 am and we still had another few hours until we would see the sun. Loop 3 was run with Chad and Jeff. I am good friends with and coach both of these great athletes and their positivity would prove exactly what I needed to get this done. I learned my lesson on the last loop and only filled up a half of a bladder this time to try and reduce the weight of my pack. I joked with Jeff before we left:
I hope we make it back before the 2nd sunset!
The dry socks and aired out feet seemed to do the trick. I made an effort for as long as possible to keep my feet dry, and manage to do so for next 5k or so. Then it was back to slogging right though the rivers and streams again. Jeff and Chad laughed and the scurried around or hopped over them and I just bulled straight through.
Partway through the stretch to Eatonville something magical happened…. The sun came up! This was the first time I had run though the night to see the sun come up. It was an instant pick me up. I went from being quite and slogging along, to cracking jokes! I had read about the effect of the sunrise when running through the night but I did not expect it to be quite as profound. It was like I had woken up from a bad dream haha!
Shortly after the sunrise it started to rain, but not too hard. I had a choice of jackets and I choose wrong. I picked my light windbreaker because it was more breathable than my rain coat thinking I’d be more comfortable…. but then it rained harder and I needed to stop again and switch to my raincoat. Rookie move, but hey I was over 24 hrs and 100k into this this thing.
I still wasn’t doing great on calorie intake but I was consistently getting it in and my stomach was improving. I was constantly moving forward but the effort was become much more laboured. I was starting to really struggle when I had to take any significant steps down, having to stop and plant my poles and ease my way through it. On the climbs it felt like I was at altitude, my breathing was very laboured and the effort was very high, but I could still move up the climbs well.
The section through the torture chamber was the longest 10k of my life. I started playing games with my self to keep moving. Just make it to Big Bald and you can have a break, get there and say well its not that much further to little bald so I better keep moving. I really just needed to mentally make it to the cape, but it seemed no matter how long we ran, we never got there. Jeff even told me shorter distances in-between points (he says by mistake haha), but it kept me going. “only another mile to go and we’ll be at the cape” he says.
The river crossings were each becoming a big puzzle of how I was going to get across without falling and hurting myself. Jeff was actually showing me where to step on the rocks because I couldn’t think that much for myself. I also had a hard time remembering which water bottle I could drink from. I would often have one bottle of drinkable water and one bottle of water with a tab in it sanitizing. Jeff and Chad to the rescue again remembering which one I could drink from!
We finally made it the Cape, almost double the distance Jeff said it was but we got there. Id never been so happy to see this sign.
So I promptly decided I deserved a break.
Not that I had any other choice (due to the remote nature of this adventure) but I knew I was going to finish it now. I just needed to keep putting one foot in front of the other. We were far from done but I was feeling like we were almost there.
Progress through these next sections was much faster. I was able to run (well shuffle) through some of the flatter sections, where the flatter section s through the torture chamber were too rooty and slippery for me to run this loop. I had actually taken a fall this loop in the torture chamber but I was fortunate enough to just end up face down in a mud puddle and didn’t hurt anything.
Coming into mill brook the sun had gone down again and we once again had our headlamps on. It was also raining again, but we just kept moving. The rain eventually changed to snow as the temperature kept dropping. We had only one thing on our minds and that was to finishing this thing up.
Chad’s headlamp had died and he was now using his phone as a flash light. Next up my headlamp died. I had a spare battery but Jeff didn’t want to stop to switch it out so he gave me his headlamp and took out his phone to use as a flash light. He struggled to use it though because he hands had gone numb from the cold.
As we reached the final decent and the runable fire road down hill that takes you down through Christy field. I just started running as fast as I could. I felt like I was sprinting but looking back at the splits I was well over 8:00/km downhill. As a ran this section I teared up a bit knowing what I had accomplished and I felt extremely grateful of for all of the support that I had gotten to make this crazy adventure possible.
34hrs 45 min, 3loops, 142k and 7100 m of climbing with over 16 hrs of darkness done! The last loop took around 12.5 hrs.
The after party
Back at the house we had rented I was still wide awake. I guess it was just all of the adrenaline from running in that finish. Amanda had heated up the lentil soup for us which was soon awesome! It was snowing hard enough that there was some debating going on about the drive home. But everyone decided it was ok to make the drive.
I didn’t get a picture of my feet… but lets just say after close to 35 hrs of being soaking wet I didn’t think they would ever be the same again.
Once in the car I think I was awake for roughly another 15 min and then I blinked and we were home.
I am just amazed at how fast my body has recovered from this adventure. The day after my legs were a bit sore, but I could get up and down stairs with no issues. I also didn’t experience as much fatigue from missing an entire night of sleep as I thought I would. Now I still had some aches and pains yes, but Ive have felt way worse from running significantly less distance. So body this one is a win!
What went well
- I worked really hard on nutrition though out all of my training and even though I was given a few curve balls, I was able to get through them.
- My body was prepared to take on the challenge and it held up great! I feel that the extra strength and mobility training work that I did this training cycle really paid off to help with this.
- I was smart enough to take the time I needed between loop 2 and 3 to reset my body and it saved the adventure.
- I had fun despite how hard of a challenge it was, and I was surrounded by great people the whole time! Overall it was a really positive experience for me and I got everything I wanted out it and then some.
Areas for improvement
- Cut down on the weight of the pack and be more comfortable carrying less water.
- Be more mindful with the water supply and be diligent with filling up and treating as to not run out.
- Don’t over eat at aid stations.
- Amanda McNeil
- Derek Lounder
- Shawn McCardle
- Jeff Mosher
- Chad Gilbert
- Corrine Malcolm
- Nova Physio
- Active Approach
Without you guys this never would have happened.
Now its time to hit the roads again for me and go after that spring BQ again!