Cape Chignecto, Round Two

Five-thirty a.m. The sun is nowhere in sight. Frost on the ground. Woodsy is dressed and out the door before I can really even process what’s going on. He wanted to be out early and on his own on the trails.

The finishing stretch of Cape Chignecto. Photo by Jodi Isenor.

The finishing stretch of Cape Chignecto. Photo by Jodi Isenor.

Cape Chignecto Provincial Park boasts a 47km hiking trail through some of the most beautiful scenery you can find anywhere in Atlantic Canada. Over two-thirds of the trail skirts the coastline so there is no shortage of incredible views and secluded beaches. Those rewards don’t come easy however, as the trail is very difficult and technical in many spots, and there is around 2000m of elevation gain over the duration of the trek. Most hikers do the trail over a 2-3 days, spending the nights camping in one of several small tent sites. Then there are those of us insistent on running the entire 47km in one day.

Over the past couple years I’ve had the pleasure of running Chignecto a few times some good friends, sticking together as a group. Today’s run is with those same friends, but this time we are all on our own. We will each choose our own pace and whatever happens, happens. The six of us (Jodi, Karine, Suzanne, Woodsy, Mitch and I) are all after our personal best times. Hopefully today will be the day.

Coming up the first hill and into the woods. Photo by Jodi Isenor.
Coming up the first hill and into the woods. Photo by Jodi Isenor.

Let the day begin

Five-thirty a.m. The sun is nowhere in sight. Frost on the ground. Woodsy is dressed and out the door before I can really even process what’s going on. He wanted to be out early and on his own on the trails. The girls are out a little after 6, and it’s just Mitch, Jodi and I. Mitch and I are giving the girls an hour head start and Jodi will sweep the course. The goal is for all of us to finish around the same time.

Exactly one hour after the girls leave, Mitch and I say goodbye to Jodi and head off from the gate. My previous best time at Chignecto was 7:19. I’m was hoping to be as close to 7 hours as I cam. Thanks to Jodi I have a chart with splits times for my current record, Jodi’s best time this year (6:19), and my goal time. As long as I can stay within a few minutes of my goal, it should be no problem. I knew I had a little left in me last time. I don’t want to leave anything in the tank this time.

The first checkpoint is where the trail splits, just under 4km in. The goal is 34 minutes; Mitch and I are there in 32. A little fast, but I feel good so I brush it off. I tell Mitch we’re a little ahead of pace, but should be fine. He smiles and nods and we keep moving. About one more km up the trail I say goodbye to Mitch. I feel bad leaving him, but hes had done the trail several times before — he’ll fine on his own.

A map of Cape Chignecto.
A map taken from my GPS data, as tracked by my GPS watch.

The next two checkpoints are both encouraging and a little scary — way too fast. I am already 15+ minutes ahead of my pace at Eatonville, 14km into the run. I know it’s fast, but I feel good. I haven’t gone as hard as I could and I still have plenty left. Of course, this is the easy, runnable section. It only gets worse from here.

Welcome to the “torture chamber”

The torture chamber is a name coined by Jodi for the section from Seal Cove to Cape Chignecto. It’s a roughly 10km section that usually takes over two hours for even the fastest runner. Yeah, do the math on that one. There isn’t anything particularly awful about this stretch, but it just gets in your head. It feels like the same section of trail is repeating itself over and over, it’s always wet and muddy, and it’s usually just slightly uphill, so you’re never totally sure if you should be running or hiking. Lucky for me, this is the driest I’ve ever seen the torture chamber. I put my head down and charge through, trying not to think about how much I hate this section.

One of the incredible views along the torture chamber.
One of many incredible views along the "Torture Chamber". Taken summer 2014.

I try not to do math while running, and I always fail. I know the girls have an hour head start on me, and I spend at least half of the next few kilometers trying to figure out when I should catch up to them. Finally I give up trying to figure it out, and put it in my head that I would will them around the half-way mark. Turns out, my guess is pretty damn close — I meet up with the girls at around 22km.

They have stopped for a second to have a lively chat with a young couple that are hiking. If you know Karine and Suzanne, this is hardly surprising. I smile, say a quick hello, and keep moving. As nice as it is to see the girls after around 2 hours alone in the woods, there was work to be done. Get out of the torture chamber and try to catch Woodsy. He has an hour and a half on me, so it will be tough.

Another breathtaking view on your way to Cape Chignecto.
Another breathtaking view while on your way to the cape. Taken summer 2014.

4:12 in and I reach Cape Chignecto. More importantly — the torture chamber was done. Checking my split times, I realized I am almost 45 minutes ahead of schedule. How the hell did that happen? I feel like I had been crawling through that last section! I double check the times as I walk up the hill, but it all added up. If I can keep this up, 6:30 might be possible!

Refugee Cove and Mill Brook

The finishing stretch of Cape Chignecto is both breathtakingly beautiful and brutally hard on the body. Two steep descents and even steeper ascents await, and then one final climb before downhill to the finish. The first obstacle is the magnificent Refugee Cove at kilometer 34. The trail drops 150m in only 500m of distance on your way down to the cove, and if you didn’t save any legs you’re in for a treat. Nearly 5 hours in, and that descent hurts. Checking my split times confirms I’m still making ground. Perfect. Now, time to climb. From sea level to around 140m in less than a kilometer.

The climb is tough, but not as bad as I had imagined. Guess I saved just enough, lucky me. One small problem: The next descent and climb are even worse. After reaching the top of the Refugee Cove climb I have 5km of spectacular trail (the maple leaves turning a brilliant yellow this weekend) to pull myself back together and push hard towards Mill Brook at km 40. For me, this is the biggest milestone. One more big climb, then I’m on the home stretch. This thought keeps me going as even flat ground running is starting to hurt. No injuries, just the usual leg and foot soreness you get after 5+ hours of pushing as hard as you can.

I begin to recognize the trail changing, and know that means it’s time to go down to Mill Brook. Surely I will see Woodsy soon. He must be having a great day if I haven’t caught him yet! I hit Mill Brook at 5:37. I remember last time I did this next section in under an hour, so 6:30 is starting to look like a real possibility! A quick stop to fill up my water from the stream and it’s time for the climb. 145m of gain in around 600m of distance. Let’s do this!

Elevation data for Cape Chignecto.
Elevation data for Cape Chignecto. Refugee cove at around 4:45 and Mill Brook around 5:30.

Around half way up the climb I finally see the sight I’d be expecting for a while: Woodsy! I yell from below, he turns and waves and then continues with his business. I resist the urge to push harder to catch him and keep my pace as even as possible. A minute or two later and we are side-by-side. He’s looking good and moving as well as can be expected on a climb like this. He says he’s having a great day so far, just 6km left. He asks what kind time I’m looking at: “I’ll either hit 6:30 or blow up”. Here’s hoping it’s the former.

The home stretch

The peak of the Mill Brook climb is the single greatest point of this trail. The hardest work is done, time to gut out 5 more kilometers and make this happen. My splits tell me if I can keep this up I’m looking like a shoe in for 6:30. Through another section of bright sun shining through the yellow maple leaves — just the motivation I need.

Back to the trail split, I start the final 3.75km at 5:55. I’m feeling good, the downhills hurt, the uphills hurt, the flats hurt, but there’s less than 4km left! Pushing as hard as I can, I start down hill. Feeling pretty good about my downhill speed this late in the day, I get one of those humbling moments you never forget: Jodi comes flying down the hill behind me, so fast that I barely have time to get out of the way. We exchange some form of communication that could be considered words, but I manage to take away the only thing that matters: he was on pace to break the fastest known time at Cape Chignecto!

I’ll leave his story for him to tell, but hearing the news is all I needed to push even harder. I run down the hill after him, even though he has opened up a huge gap in just seconds. I catch up to him at the start of the final ascent, and stuck with him for a few minutes. We are together long enough to quickly recap the day, how we are feeling, what kind of times we are looking at. Turns out he had given me a 45 minute head start, which is putting him on pace to break the record by 5 or 10 minutes. The FKT for Cape Chignecto is ~5:44, a record that has stood for several years now.

Finally over, so glad to see the gate. Photo by Jodi Isenor.
Finally over, so glad to see the gate. Photo by Jodi Isenor.

With less than 2km to go I give up on staying with Jodi (not the first time I’ve done that, certainly won’t be the last). I still need to finish after all and crashing and burning on the side of the trail won’t do me any good! Looking at my watch I see 6:12 at the top of the final climb. Less than 1.5km — all downhill. I go as fast as I can, which really isn’t very fast. Everything hurts, but at least it can only hurt for a few more minutes. “Running” up the last climb, I finally see the gate and Jodi leaning against it — I have no doubt he’s broken the record. I touch the gate and stop my watch: 6:19:45. I have taken over an hour off my previous best time this year, and almost two and a half hours off my best time before this year.

Jodi took the FKT with a time of 5:33:43. I have no idea how he did it. Woodsy, Karine, Suzanne and Mitch all finished shortly afterwards and all had personal best times. Six runners, six personal bests. A perfect day.

November 8, 2015: Edits to statistics and grammar.