Big Birthday Bash 2018: Celebrating 30 Years of Life

Blinded by rain and strong winds, I’m sitting under a tree as I shuffle the food in my bag in search of an energy bar. Bugs and mosquitoes are buzzing around me. Every other minute, they get behind my neck and die getting stuck into my sweat. Others continue to bite on my legs, face and head. My left eye is swollen off a bug bite since morning and I question myself “Why are you doing this?” In loneliness, I burst into tears and they mix with sweat to add a weird salty flavour to every bite. It’s almost 3 in the morning and I’ve been moving for past 25 hours now. I want to sleep. I clear some mud off the ground to lie down and close my eyes as tears continue to glide through my face mixing in the drops of rain.

Fifteen minutes later, I can’t take the bugs anymore. I can see the lights of Torbay – a beautiful town 12 km North of St. John’s in Newfoundland – that is the end of this trail. But, that’s not where I will finish. I must continue on to Silver Mine Head Path, Cobbler Path and then Sugarloaf Path to finish at Quidi Vidi Village, that means 36 more kilometres of hiking on East Coast Trail. I started running yesterday early morning at 2.00 am from my home in St. John’s with an aim to hike all the Northern Trails of East Coast Trail in 30 hours or less, all by myself, to celebrate my 30th birthday. I have covered about 86 km and speed has gotten considerably slow. I’m nearly two hours behind my schedule. As I take the last bite of chocolate, I am scrolling through Facebook posts on my timeline and messages on Whatsapp. It’s my birthday already.

After a few minutes of recollecting myself, I set my phone on flight mode and start crawling further deep into the Father Troy’s Trail placing my feet cautiously on the rocks to avoid the pain of ripped skin due to a few blisters I have earned while moving in soaking wet shoes since the time I started the first hike. While my eyes are focussed like a hawk on the dark trail, I’m talking to myself about a baby that was born many years ago on the Eastern hemisphere that, right now, is lit in bright daylight.

On a Wednesday of July in 1988 – the baby was born to a family who was dreading the day of delivery for months, or one could say years. The couple had lost their only son nearly two years ago, who died as merely a few months old. This newborn was not fully developed either. So, doctors feared he might meet the same fate. Following a  complicated procedure, the mother and the baby survived. A pound and few ounces, about the size of a baby rabbit, the newborn was nourished with utmost care in his early days and then he was lost in oblivion. Lost. But, this time only to find himself again. To chase what he desired. To live what he dreamed. To meet what he longed. To be. I am that baby, who was probably got tossed out of the window, dropped on his head, bounced off the ground to hit a car and then clubbed into the orbit.

I started running in 2006 and since then, every year on my birthday I ran a half marathon. I was 18 then. As I grew older, the Big Birthday Bash challenge of celebration kept evolving. In 2010 distance grew to match my age in miles and 2011 onwards it grew further to match the age in hours. So, the natural progression was to run for 30 hours to celebrate 30 years of life. Injured with plantar fasciitis and tormented with depression, I had not run at all since October last year, so running for 30 hours was a tall ordeal to survive. After a lot of brainstorming, it was decided – I will use this opportunity to bounce back into training and continue the chase of Iditarod that was long left behind.

122.60 km of Northern Traverse of East Coast Trail that included an elevation change of 25,500 ft and back-to-back seven of East Coast Trail hikes. The trail is rocky, mostly well maintained and features one of, probably, World’s most picturesque seascape views all along the Avalon peninsula’s Northern Coastline. It was planned as a self-supported hike, so everything I was going to need – food, water, first-aid – was packed in my bag to lead me to the finish. I carried an MSR Trailshot water filter to refill my water supply from the streams and lakes along the trail whenever I’d get time.

Out of the seven hikes, Piccos Ridge and Whitehorse Path – the first two hikes on ECT – are toughest of all. I knew, once I get across them with a fresh body, I could drag myself on the remainder of the trail. No one hikes ECT in the night, so I was scared the night before departure and my intuition was calling it a bad idea. The trail goes through woods, inches from steep cliffs exposed to the Atlantic and expected bad weather were the challenges once I would overcome exhaustion and sleep deprivation.

For food and hydration, I was carrying a bag of trail mix (cashews, almonds, peanuts, apricots, cranberries, dates), CLIF bars, salted wafers, NUUN tablets, my own energy drink, sandwich, pasta dinner left-overs and ready-to-eat rice mix, in a total of 9000 calories. Wednesday being a working day, I didn’t sleep in the day or night. So, when I took off for 26 km run to begin the epic journey, I was already feeling exhausted in the first hour of running with a loaded bag that weighed close to 14 pounds in the middle of the night. Home to Quidi Vidi Village and then to the beginning of Southbound East Coast Trail – it took me little under 3 hours to cover the first stretch and by end of it, I was feeling alright.

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Reached Portugal Cove, the start of Piccos Ridge Path at 4.53 am, July 26 2018

I reached Portugal Cove at 4.53 am, rested for 2 minutes and started the first hike at the break of dawn. Dense fog and high winds enveloped the landscape in no time and I was virtually lost in the woods as the visibility reduced to mere 10 feet, significantly deteriorating the confidence of moving swiftly in the early daylight. I had no orientation of distance, altitude or pace as I kept walking as fast as I could navigating through tough climbs and muddy undeveloped trails. Estimate time for Piccos Ridge Path is 7-9 hours, and I had reached the halfway point in under 2 hours. That meant I was moving way too fast, so I stopped to munch on the pasta in hope of getting some more light. The fog just got denser and I continued the hike.

I could see fresh footprints in the mud that appeared of a bear. ECT has no bears, but one was spotted on the Southern end of the trail a month ago, so if they show up here it won’t really be a matter of surprise. Barely anyone hikes Piccos Ridge on a weekday, so I was not expecting to meet anyone along the way. I had to be cautious of the sudden unexpected encounter of a predator I had never yet caught a sight. A kilometre later, I saw a Moose, barely 5 feet away. Immediately Moose ran uphill in the bushes. A Moose is similar to Elk, looks like a horse with huge antlers and can be tall as 7-8 ft.

As per the plan, I was supposed to hike uphills slow and rush down the hills. However, Piccos Ridge being extremely muddy and slippery, downhill speed was slow, so I was climbing fast. 12 kilometres later, I reached Black Cliff, exhausted. I always wondered, how it might feel going down Ratjaw. Black Cliff was somewhat that kind of experience. Very slippery, a muddy-rocky drop of about 200 ft in a matter of 100 m with many stumps that can stab you on any fall. It took me four and a half hours to reach Bauline to start the next hike, Whitehorse Path. Practically, Whitehorse Path is almost 26 km long with endless climbs and descents. I kept thinking of bailing out, but I didn’t know how to get to St. John’s from Bauline as that was never the plan. After an hour of convincing myself, I continued to climb with sleep deprivation and stomach cramps.

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Black Cliff. Just before reaching Bauline at the end of Piccos Ridge. The fog had started to lift by end of the hike given first and the last chance of clicking a picture.

The fog uncovered the beautiful landscapes. Whitehorse Path is a hike mostly through woods, so that means I was covered in a swarm of black flies, deer flies and mosquitoes for hours at a time. While going down steep downhills at the end of the path, I nearly got toppled down into the Ocean as I blacked out a couple of times. It was then I decided to sleep in the middle of the trail for a few minutes on a windy spot where I could easily be seen by a passing hiker, who could wake me up to check if I was alive. An hour later, I was still the only one on the trail. Having lost a lot of time with incredibly long breaks, I had to rush through Biscan Cove Path – the third hike – to make it to Pouch Cove in time.

I was running late by an hour and 20 minutes when I reached D & L Convenience Store in Pouch Cove and saw first humans since I had left from my home. I hung around for another hour, heated my dinner in the microwave, munched on some snacks from my bag and left the store leaving everyone in surprise that I was heading to St. John’s overnight and was not going to camp on the way. It soon got dark when I started hiking the Stiles Cove Path. It was a 15 km long hike. When I reached Shoe Cove, about 3 km on the hike, I realized something was following me. Green eyes, tall about my knee length, maintaining a distance of 10-15 feet. It creeped me out to the core. The giant supermoon of July 26 night was not enough to draw all my attention when I knew something was following me.

That thing followed me for about 3 hours and then it vanished. I believe it was a cat, some argue it could be a Lynx. Lynx are generally shy, but given an opportunity, they do not refrain from stealing a brutal attack. I had seen the second half of Stiles Cove Path before, so I was feeling confident. In the past few hours, I had got lost a countless number of times in the woods and had to struggle to find the trail. Whenever I would stop to eat, or a little break, it was a struggle to find which direction I came from. Bright full moon deep in the woods is a waste. It just messes up with your vision. Before I could see the moon again, clouds took over, the temperature dropped, strong winds began again forcing an immediate change of wardrobe.

By midnight, I made it to Flatrock, and the cool breeze was the sign – rain was around the corner. After a quick break in Flatrock church parking, I continued on the fifth hike – Father Troy’s Trail. Little over 8 km long, Father Troy’s Trail has a reputation of easy trail. But, not in the night, when you are sleepless for 44 hours, moving for 24 of those hours after long work-day in the office, somewhat dehydrated,  disoriented and hallucinating. About halfway into the trail, my stomach gave up for the second time after Whitehorse Path, and I shove the finger in my mouth to force out most of the stuff from my gut. Apparently, I missed the trick of consuming enough salts. I was dehydrated.

As I was crawling up the trail, the rain strengthened and blinded me as headlamp was reflecting light from the raindrops instead of ground making ground impossible to find. My only understanding of surface was from the feeling of it, with blistered feet that were wet since the previous morning. After struggling for few minutes, I rolled my right ankle twice in quick successions and decided to stop under a tree, only to be eaten alive by the bugs.

As now I can see the lights from Torbay, I feel confident to make it to the next hike, still being less than 2 hours shy of my schedule, and try to reduce the gap. But this is possible only if I continue to power hike in the rain after shutting down my pain sensors of feet and turn on my zombie mode. Silver Mine Head Path is little less than 3 km long so I didn’t even count that as a hike while planning this ordeal. What I had missed, the trail has two rivers to cross. I cross the first river with ease, but the second one is running high. I am not scared of getting my feet in the water as they are already wet, but the river opens into the ocean in just a few metres. One slip on a wet rock and it could well cost my life. None of the rocks (to step) are visible under drizzle and the faint light of the headlamp. I remove my bag, take out the hiking poles for the first time and start gauging the depth at various points to find a way to cross the river. After a struggle of 5 minutes, I get on to the other side, drain my shoes and continue to chase the lights of Middle Cove.

I make it to the end of trail around 4 in the morning, and now I have just two familiar hikes before I can call it Finish. After hiking in the dark for seven hours, I no longer want to move, so I stop for a power nap on the cold-windy Middle Cove beach. Night hiking is a lot of mental work than physical. Zombie mode on trails doesn’t work when you are always just a few feet shy off the raging Ocean that is freezing cold round the year.

Following a quick nap, I am back to running again after a long time and decide to go as fast as I can on the Cobbler Path. It took us 4 hours when I hiked it last time with others, After hiking continuously for past 27 hours, I have no idea what would be a realistic finish time. Blisters at the base of my feet have pushed me into a world of pain, where every step is a new challenge. I start to sing while taking all the attention from my feet and continue to climb up the first peak of the hike. The loneliness of the past many hours has crushed my spirits and I run to the last stream of water where I can refill the drinking supplies. As I bend to fill the water, something brushes past my ears and vanishes in the bushes. In the extreme shock, I could take a glance of just a bushy tail attached to a dark brown body of a size of a coyote. I’m not sure what was that – a fox, a coyote, a lynx?

As soon as I fill the water, I take off to the final climb. I reach the end of the trail in an hour and 40 minutes and plan to walk the next 5 km on road to the trailhead, rest for about 20 minutes at Memorial University Ocean Science Centre and then start the final hike of Sugarloaf Path with a target of 5 hours.

As I continue to deathmarch in tears of joy, to start hiking the Sugarloaf Path, two girls walk from the Ocean Centre as I reach the parking area and go “Are you hiking to Quidi Vidi? Would you mind if we join?” Young businesswomen from London, they were in St. John’s for three days as the beginning of their month-long Canada tour that would progress all the way to Vancouver Island by end of August.

These are the first humans I have seen since I left Pouch Cove and it has been one very long, lonely and painful night.

“I would be too slow for you guys. I’m a little tired and sleepy” I wipe off my tears pretending it to be sweat.

Before they could even respond, machismo kicks in and I change the plan unannounced. I empty the trash from my bag to the bin and start to lead as we introduce ourselves. While hiking I explain the route, share some of my experiences from the trail and talk about my current ordeal. Since we were hiking at a good pace, we manage to cover a lot of ground in no time. Halfway through the hike I realize, they have understood the trail, its map and could do the route finding now and I still stand a chance to chase my long dropped 30-hr goal. I then take off.

I am running as hard as I can. To make it Quidi Vidi under 30 hours, I must climb the final brutal hike and find the shortest route off the annoying hundred crisscrossing trails of Quidi Vidi Village to make it to the end of the trail. All of it in less than 50 minutes. I am out of water supply, so in order to keep my mouth moist, I pop in a sour-gum candy and push myself up. As I make it to the top, I have 25 minutes for the final 2 km of the route finding.  While charging to the final section, unexpectedly I find two of my friends – Chris and Kaila – climbing up the same hike.

“Final kilometre ‘eh. You made it.”

A quick conversation and birthday wishes later, I charge on to the finish. During all this time, my calculation was as per 5 am start from Piccos Ridge. However, what I had completely missed was ‘I started yesterday at 4.53 am and not 5.00 am’

So, I don’t have 18, but 11 minutes for the final kilometre. I pace up, scramble the rocks, jump off little cliffs, fall down, get up, slide on gravel patch, climb the stairs again. I have no idea how far I still must go and it is 8 minutes to go. My heart rate is extremely high, I am exhausted, can barely breathe as I reach the last stair climb. I pull myself up, nearly colliding with two other hikers, pass through the bushes and sprint along the beaten gravel to find the end of the trail sign on my right. 10.46 am!

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The Finish Line. Sugarloaf Path after 32 hours and 46 minutes of hiking. Bug bite on the left eye from the previous morning had got a lot better.

It took me 29 hours 53 minutes to make it to Quidi Vidi Village from Portugal Cove after running 26 km from my home (Avalon Mall) via Quidi Vidi Village in under three hours with a 14-pound backpack. The complete traverse of 122.6 km took me 32 hours 46 minutes – not quite what I targetted, but nevertheless, it was my birthday present to myself. Thanks to those two girls, the final hike, that was anticipated a 5-hour hike with 20 minutes rest, was accomplished in two hours and 46 minutes with no rest.

I collapsed multiple times on Whitehorse Path, was throwing up merely 6 hours into the hike, faced 4 Moose on first two trails, was chased by possibly a Lynx for close to 10 km, survived a near-deadly fall into the Ocean and made it to my (adjusted) goal with 7 minutes to spare. Did I enjoy? It was perhaps one of my life’s best birthday celebrations in terms of the landscapes I got to see, trees I got to speak with, the moon that accompanied me and many faces of me that I befriended to make it BIG BIRTHDAY BASH!

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Feature Image: Greg Greening

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