Island Adventure

No phones, no lights, no motor car, not a single luxury.
Like Robinson Crusoe, it’s primitive as can be.

–“Gilligan’s Island” theme song


I spent this past weekend on Pelee Island, a somewhat remote Canadian island in the middle of Lake Erie. I went with a purpose: the first ever Pelee Island Winery Half Marathon.

20130603-154654.jpgI saw something about the race back in December via Canadian Running magazine’s twitter feed and signed up almost immediately. I wanted a spring race to get myself motivated to train, and the late date of this one allowed for more prep time. But I’d also wanted to find a reason to go to Pelee Island and finally found one. (No lie: right after registering, I was able to scrounge up a Pelee Island ferry schedule sitting in my car since last summer’s trip to an American island in Lake Erie.)

The blue dot is on the north shore of Pelee Island

Pelee Island is the southernmost point in Canada. (Sort of…it’s the southernmost land mass with human inhabitants.) It’s so far south that its southern tip is basically the same latitude as the Michigan-Ohio state line. Getting there is not easy (nor getting back, as I found out). If you want to bring your car–and, at 36 square miles, you do want to bring your car–it’s 90 minutes by ferry from Leamington, ON, or just under two hours from Sandusky, OH.

Phone booths are still in use

It’s not exactly Gilligan’s Island. There are phones and lights and cars. But cell phone service is spotty (further complicated by half the island picking up Canadian carrier’s signals and the other half picking up American ones). The television in our rental house had neither cable nor satellite, relying on a quaint old technology called an “antenna”, and it picked up about six channels. There are cars, but not a single traffic light. There are no resorts, few if any “attractions”, and one 60s-style motel. If you want to stay here, B&Bs are the most popular option, followed by cabin rentals.

All of this means that things are slowed down. Very slowed down. Canada already has a reputation as being a friendly place, with a bit of small-town sensibility even in its biggest cities, but this place takes it to another level.

The stone house

When I e-mailed our B&B operator to let them know we were coming, she offered to upgrade us from a room at her house to the “stone house”, a north shore structure that is one of the oldest on the island. I eagerly accepted and she said the front door would be open with the keys on the table. I thought she meant “unlocked” but when we got there, the door was literally wide open.

And what a place. Made from island limestone on the outside and walnut on the inside, it has that pleasant smell of a summer cabin–a little musty, a little campfire, a little lake water. We would have booked this place from the get-go, but the normal rate is a bit beyond the means of a teacher and a professor.

View from the Stone House deck

What To Do

When I was asked about Pelee at work today, I said “you’d better bring your own fun.” What I mean is that it lacks distractions. There’s plenty of outdoor beauty; just sitting and looking at the lake filled a lot of my time. There are a couple of nature preserves and several beaches. There are relatively few restaurants besides the famous winery. Charters are easily available for fishing and sailing. Mostly, it’s a place to sit and relax and hang out with your friends, a place to enjoy the sun and water and sand….with one exception: the Pelee Island Winery.

The present winery dates from 1979, but this makes a cool t-shirt

Pelee Island creates high-quality wines from an unusual combination of southern Great Lake water moderating temperatures and rich soil created when the swampy center of the island was drained.

The race

Postrace party area at the winery

The race was the brainchild of a two women at a local B&B and they made no pretense that it was created for any reason besides drumming up tourism. (Obviously it worked on me.) It was centered around the winery, with the finish line right on the winery grounds. The post-race cookout was in the winery’s pavilion, and it included a glass imprinted with the winery’s logo filled with your choice of red or white. A refill, too, if you wanted. Or three. Or four.

The finisher’s medal was a work of pure genius: a replica of a tastevin, a “small, very shallow silver cup or saucer traditionally used by winemakers and sommeliers when judging the maturity and taste of a wine.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Before the post-race awards and festivities was the race. The course was simple: along the lakeshore around a bit more than half the island, then across the middle to close the loop. The organization was good, with clear distance markers and ten water/gatorade stations along the course. Everyone on the island was either out to watch or volunteer or do a bit of both. The course wasn’t closed to traffic but everyone knew there was a race going on so no one was trying get anywhere anyway.

It was flat and turns were few, but it’s still not what you’d call a “PR course”. For one, the sun beat down on us for a good portion of the distance. It was warm. And the wind was fierce. All of these challenges came together in the final 5k, cutting through the island’s shadeless wheatfields while going straight into the teeth of the wind.

This guy was on the course

An issue I didn’t even think of until the week before the race: units of measure. The course map showed kilometre markers but no mile markers. I recalculated my projected splits and now I think I like them better than miles. I got more and quicker feedback on my pace, and while there were more distance markers they came more quickly–a very good thing at the end, when I was struggling to keep it together.

A gimmick?

Last week, my colleague Pat Price wrote about what he called “gimmick races” and what more charitable people might call “theme races”. These are things like the Warrior Dash and similar “mud runs”, Color runs, and other things where the party is more important than the race. What makes something a gimmick race? And was this one of them?

In high school English class we learn about conflict: man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. nature. Road racing offers all of these; we compete against other runners, against our own limitations, against the elements and the course. I faced all of those on Sunday. It was definitely not a gimmick race, because the party was clearly after the race, not during or before.

The Warrior Dash and some other “mud runs” originally meant to take the man vs. nature conflict to another level, but many have now devolved into little more than drunkfests. Other gimmick races basically remove all of those conflicts and the result is something that really can’t be called a “race”.

Another other common thread among gimmick races is their existence as a means to separate runners and their money. At $80 (CDN) per head, this race was not cheap, but it did offer me a lot. I got a well-managed course, a high-quality shirt and medal, and a great post-race meal (including a healthy amount of wine). Compare this to some gimmick races that charge for things like post-race refreshments or spectator entry, and I think I got my money’s worth.

Getting home

So this is the tale of our castaways,
they’re here for a long long time.
They’ll have to make the best of things,
it’s an uphill climb.

I had scheduled a 6:00 ferry to Sandusky but things did not go as planned. Those unusually strong winds wreaked havoc with ferry service. I hadn’t seen a ferry depart the dock all day. First I didn’t know if my ferry was going. Then I was told that it was going at 8:00. When I returned at 7:00 to get my car in line, I was then told that it was canceled and not running until 9:00am today. That was going to be a problem for me since I had to be back at school for final exams this morning. My mind raced through reprimand…disciplinary hearing…termination…

I seem to have a remarkable way of landing on my feet in tricky situations like this. On Saturday I ran into some people I knew that I had no idea were doing the race. Just as I found out I was screwed, they were in line to get on the last ferry out. They had room for one and offered to take me home once we got to Ohio. My wife stayed back with the car (she’s a professor and doesn’t need to be at work until about August) and came back this morning.

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