A record-breaking (and nearly spirit-breaking) ride across Canada

A record-breaking (and nearly spirit-breaking) ride across Canada

Inuvik paramedic sets world record for biking across Canada

By Chris Bruckner for CBC Sports
March 14, 2021

It's the 13th day. July 12, 2019.

Early in the morning, I get rolling out of Plaster Rock, N.B. I have never felt worse. Never been more tired. Tired is an understatement.

Let me back up six months and explain. I am an experienced multi-discipline cyclist. I raced in the Canadian system. In January, I decided to challenge the Trans-Canada Solo Male Cycling World Record, which is a time trial from Vancouver to Halifax. I was in my late 30s, so my strength was dwindling, but my endurance was still solid.

Day Two.  The mountains of B.C.(Photo: Justin Attfield) Day Two. The mountains of B.C.(Photo: Justin Attfield)

After a few years away from the sport, I completed some epic four to five day solo rides around Saskatchewan in 2017. I learned that I enjoyed riding long distances at my own pace. In 2018, I rode a couple of mini training camps in Arizona and California. I was pedalling 20 hours per week, road and mountain biking. My body was comfortable with the intensity and duration of the training load. I rode more than 20,000 km in 2018. Two hundred vertical kilometres of climbing.

Physically, I felt I had the ability. Mentally, I had a head full of grievances. I was not happy with my career, my former employer and I did not see eye-to-eye, and I felt that a couple of the cycling clubs I trained with in Edmonton owed me more respectful treatment. So that’s my rationale in a nutshell - I was physically fit and I had something to prove to my adversaries.

I had a two-person performance team, a rented RV, and no sponsors. I exceeded my budget by 100 per cent. This was my first true ultra-endurance event. I was committed to setting a new mark.

June 30, 2019, I set off from Vancouver City Hall. It took me two days to get past Calgary. Riding the mountains seemed easy. I was fresh, paced myself well, and chose the right gearing. Leaving Calgary, I was fortunate to get three solid days of tailwinds across the prairies. I averaged 500-plus kilometers daily. I had an early comfortable lead. I was ahead of my own proposed pace.

Day Seven. Thunder Bay, Ont. Halfway there, plenty of pain to come. Left to right: fellow paramedic Brian Schenk, Chris Bruckner, Justin Attfield.(Photo: Tyler Pilling) Day Seven. Thunder Bay, Ont. Halfway there, plenty of pain to come. Left to right: fellow paramedic Brian Schenk, Chris Bruckner, Justin Attfield.(Photo: Tyler Pilling)

Fatigue and self doubt hit hard as I arrived in Winnipeg. Lack of sleep and lack of recovery time caught up to me.

Thunder Bay is close to the halfway point. Beyond there,  some of the toughest terrain of the whole journey begins. I began experiencing numbness in my hands, feet, and pelvic region. My entire body was inflamed, and judging by the amount of skin I was sloughing every rest break, I was at risk of getting permanent saddle sores.

Some agony highlights: Ontario had wild temperature swings. 35 C days and 5 C nights. Huge bugs, swirling around my head as I rode. My rest breaks had to be inside the RV, or I’d be eaten alive. I got lost after crossing the St. Lawrence River between Montreal and Quebec City. Strong headwinds blew most of the way from there to Nova Scotia. I was at my physiological limit.

Day 14: it was so difficult to mount the bike and get going again—even knowing the end was near.  (Photo: Justin Attfield)
Day 14: it was so difficult to mount the bike and get going again—even knowing the end was near. (Photo: Justin Attfield)

So, back to Plaster Rock, in western New Brunswick.

This day was to be my final push to Halifax, and it was scheduled to be a long and gruelling 24+ hours. It began with calm breezes, but as dawn broke, the headwind gained strength, and so did the rain.

I was bored and tired and soaking. I checked my distance to Halifax City Hall, and hit the stark realization: I was so far off pace that it seemed mathematically impossible to make it to Halifax in record time. Blowing a comfortable lead is -athletically speaking - my worst nightmare. Panic set in. I was certainly wide awake now. I tried to pick up the pace - just 25 watts more power, but that was unsustainable.

I tried to call my family, but my phone was inoperable, flooded by rain. There wasn’t much I could do except sit on my bike and suffer. I rode as hard as I possibly could. I wanted to punish myself for falling behind. I thought I deserved to be permanently scarred for allowing this to happen. My hands and feet looked like prunes. My support crew forecast headwinds and rain all the way to Halifax. Failure seemed inevitable. I was hoping for a steady stream of slow trucks to either break the headwind or end my suffering completely.

Finished. Halifax City Hall, July 13th. (Photo: Justin Attfield) Finished. Halifax City Hall, July 13th. (Photo: Justin Attfield)

Yes, I was in a dark place, but that is how invested I was in this project.

I arrived in Moncton around 10:30 p.m. The wind subsided and the rain ceased. The road started to dry. My support crew and I made a plan: I would ride through the night, taking short rest breaks every 25km. I never had a problem riding at night, but now, after two weeks of sleep deprivation, on a dark and lonely highway, it was torture. It was so hard staying awake and staying warm in the pitch darkness.

I remember stopping at the Nova Scotia border and trying to fall asleep in the ditch. The bugs attacked, so I thought it best to just keep going. The next rest break, my crew allowed me to nap. They told me I slept for a half an hour, but it was actually only ten minutes. As the sun rose, I began to perk up. I skipped a rest break and rode a full 50km to set up the final segment: a 70km push to Halifax City Hall. I could taste it now.

Official vindication.  Verified by Guinness World Records on December 29, 2020. Official vindication. Verified by Guinness World Records on December 29, 2020.

A significant tailwind began pushing me to the capital. But 70 km is still a long ride, and I was on a busy highway, physically and mentally utterly exhausted. My crew let me use their phone to reestablish live tracking, but I still couldn’t call friends or family. I had to concentrate hard to stay on the right side of the white line. I was in such a fragile state that I wasn’t sure I would make it until I got off the highway and began to navigate the city streets.

You would think I would be elated at this point, but I was most excited at the prospect of seeing my family and friends. Crossing the Angus L. MacDonald Bridge and finding city hall was surprisingly quick and easy. My parents and support crew were waiting at city hall with banners and balloons. They were joined by Halifax Police Service bike patrol and members of the Canadian Mental Health Association, for whom I was raising funds.

The agony was finally over. I dreamed of this so many times in the months of preparation, and now that the moment was upon me, it seemed anti-climactic.

I had accomplished my goal, but at what cost? I seriously wondered if I had done permanent damage to myself. Would I ever be the same again?

The finish line. Left to right: Tyler Pilling, Peter Bruckner, Sheila Bruckner, Chris Bruckner, Justin Attfield. (Photo: CMHA Halifax Branch) The finish line. Left to right: Tyler Pilling, Peter Bruckner, Sheila Bruckner, Chris Bruckner, Justin Attfield. (Photo: CMHA Halifax Branch)

The recovery took more than three months. Nerve damage persisted long afterwards. But after two solid weeks of bedrest, I was back on the bike. I did not submit the evidence to Guinness World Records until almost a year later. I was so anxious about having the record denied that I was afraid to claim it. Organizing the data in a logical and sequential file took me an entire week.

I consider myself a very independent person, but I could not have completed this feat without good people helping me along the way: my support crew in the RV, Justin Attfield and Tyler Pilling; my parents Peter and Sheila Bruckner; my friends and family who talked on the phone as I pedalled, or who met me roadside along the way; and everyone who donated to the CMHA.

It’s the people and the relationships that really matter in life. Success is delivered with helping hands.

Next Question:The Chris Bruckner edition

Q: The best book you've read?
A: 1984 by George Orwell. The novel correctly illustrates what is likely to happen when individuals in power are not held accountable. I believe the story is just as relevant now as it was when it was written.

Q: Must-listen podcast?
A: The Daily Dill with Mike Pickles and MyBack40 with Steve O’Shaughnessy

Q: Best advice you ever received?
A: 1) All living things are engaged in a struggle for existence 2) Anything worthwhile doing won’t be easy.

Q: If your life is a movie, what would it be called?
A: C. Bruckner: The Science Experiment Gone Wrong

Q: Word or phrase you overuse? 
A: "I am not running for office (so to hell with the political implications)."

Q: Skill you wish you had?
A: I wish I could perform a nice saucer pass in hockey.

Q: Something no one would guess about you?
A: I want to have my own children.

Q: What scares you?
A: Sleeping in and being late for work. Also, blowing a lead in a sporting event (aka choking).

Q: Who gets an invite to your ultimate influential dinner party?
A:  RB/KR Michael “Pinball” Clemons, QB Matt Dunigan, QB Doug Flutie, QB Ricky Ray, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, and President Joe Biden. When I get bored discussing political issues with influential world leaders, I know all I will want to do is chat about football!

Q: What makes you cry, every time? 
A: Rewatching the 2017 Grey Cup. Now that made up for 1971! Actually both Grey Cup games get me misty-eyed for completely different reasons.

Q: Next goal?
A: University.


Top large image by Mackenzie Scott/CBC

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