Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Race report (Part 2): Cabot Trail Relay - fun, fraternity, a challenging course... and a little too much drama

I've been thinking about this post for a few days, wondering how to capture what made my first Cabot Trail Relay experience so memorable.

To start with, I totally lucked out when I got the opportunity to run with the Smokey Mountain Daredevils.  As the photo above (taken just before we all headed home) suggests, they're a warm, supportive, fun and talented group of runners, who made me feel welcome from the moment I arrived in Cape Breton. The "spirit team" ensured we were attired so that we'd stand out in the crowd, uber-organized "Kaptain  Karen" prepared a detailed spreadsheet that detailed where everyone was to be and what they were meant to be doing throughout the race (which lasted nearly 27 hours), and teams members went above and beyond to help and support one another at every turn.

And the sense of fraternity extended beyond the Devils. At the start/end point of every leg, there was a "lock down" period when vehicles were not permitted on the course, which meant those who weren't running were stuck waiting until they could drive ahead to cheer on their teammates. I loved the lock down. With nowhere to go and nothing in particular to do, we had lots of time to soak up some sun, eat, socialize, offer encouragement and support to fellow runners, stand in line for the porta potties and just "be" in the moment. It was incredibly relaxing.

It helped that the weather was pretty fabulous the whole weekend. There was only a minor spattering of rain around midday on Saturday, and though it got chilly at a few points, there were long stretches when the sun shone and it was lovely and warm - occasionally a bit too warm for the runners.

The other wonderful thing from my point-of-view was that I finally got to see the Cabot Trail. Over the years, I've been to Cape Breton many times to visit friends in Arichat and Whycocomagh, and I've driven to Louisbourg and back a couple of times, but somehow I've never found time to travel around the trail.  It is - in a word - breathtaking.  Here are just a a couple of shots from Saturday evening to give you a sense of just how beautiful it is.

Of course, with hills like these, the course was a challenging one.  I ran leg 5, which was rated a moderately difficult 3.5 out of 5. I started a little too fast and I found it quite hot for the first 10kms but my teammates (and others) offered fabulous support, the views were lovely and my body held up well so I was able to run relatively quickly for me (17.5kms in 1:40:45) while still  leaving lots of room for improvement next year. :-)  Here are a couple of pics taken just a few kilometres from the end of my leg. (My tights are rolled up on account of the heat.)

I have to say that I think the leg rating system is a bit wonky though. Given that leg 5 was rated 3.5, leg 4 - which includes a long hard climb over Cape Smokey - should be rated 10 at least! And legs 9 and 10 which take runners over North and MacKenzie Mountains (where I took the photos above) should be rated 15!! I'm in total awe of the runners who completed them.

Me and some of my team members atop Cape Smokey
North and Mackenzie Mountains are especially challenging because they're much higher than Smokey and it's dark by the time the runners reach them.  In addition to the physical challenge of running steep ascents and descents that are kilometres in length, runners have to contend with darkness, very little support (sensibly, team vehicles are not allowed to stop along the most dangerous stretches of the road), possible encounters with coyotes, bears, moose and other wildlife, and late night traffic travelling curving, narrow roadways cut out of the mountainside. Did I mention I'm in awe?

Two "she-Devils", Sandi and Deidre, ran North and MacKenzie for our team. These women are machines! When they finally arrived at the motel to grab a few hours of sleep around midnight on Saturday, they were pale and obviously exhausted. Nevertheless, they were already talking about next year and discussing whether they might swap legs with one another. Crazy!!

At the banquet after the race, all the runners who completed leg 10 were presented with an aerial photo of MacKenzie Mountain - a well-deserved tribute!

Unfortunately, our team also had to contend with a fair bit of drama when one of our bravest and toughest team members ended up in hospital. Just after completing her leg in a smokin' good time, she collapsed and needed oxygen. When she came around and was feeling better, we walked her up the hill to our van intending to go for supper, then join our teammates back on the course. Plans changed however when, soon after arriving at the restaurant, it became evident she was more ill than we'd first realized.  The intense effort - perhaps coupled with the ibuprofen she'd taken earlier in the day to ward off knee pain - resulted in nasty GI bleeding - the symptoms of which are intense cramping, excretion of blood (yes, I do mean she was pooping blood) and vomiting.

Fortunately, we were less than an hour's drive from Cheticamp by that time so John, who stayed cool, calm and reassuring throughout, jumped behind the wheel to drive our team mate and me to the hospital there, where she got wonderful care. The two nurses on duty immediately phoned the doctor on call who quickly arrived to assess and admit her for the night. John headed back to join the team who needed the van to support our other runners and I stayed on at the hospital until I knew she was okay, then walked to the motel. By the time Kaptain Karen and other members of the team arrived around midnight to grab a few hours sleep, schedules had been rearranged so I could stay on in Cheticamp when the van left at 6:00 Sunday morning to accompany her back to Baddeck.

Despite an awful, sleepless night, our team mate was up and ready to go when I arrived back at the hospital. We piled into the car shortly after 9:00 and drove to Baddeck where we joined the rest of the team to watch the last few finishers cross the line, then walked up the hill to the arena for the closing banquet.

Of course, the banquet would have been a pretty sombre affair had we known that a runner from one of the other teams, Steve Dunn, collapsed and died shortly before the race ended. I never met Steve but, from what I've heard since, he was a terrific guy who died doing what he loved and will be remembered by the local running community for many years to come. My sincerest condolences to all his family and friends.

Since the sad news about Steve hadn't yet reached us, our team was obliviously celebratory as we scarfed down our lunches and cheered individual and team accomplishments.You gotta love a race that ends with lobster!!

It was incredibly moving and inspiring to help celebrate the relay's 25th anniversary and meet people who'd run every year and completed all 17 legs! A massive shoutout to the organizers and volunteers who've made it such a class A event.

For the running geeks out there, the winning team, the Maine-iacs, completed the relay's17 legs in just 16:39:32 - considerably faster than any other team. The fastest local team, the Cape Breton Road Runners, came 3rd, completing the race in 18:57:04, while the Smokey Mountain Daredevils finished in 16th place, completing all legs in 23:37:23.

I have to admit that, as I headed to Cape Breton last Friday evening, I kind of expected that my first Cabot Trail Relay would be my last. Though determined to enjoy myself and scratch "run the CTR" off my "bucket list", I wasn't sure I was up to participating in such a challenging event.  Now that I've experienced it, I'm determined to train harder than ever so that, hopefully, I can join the Devils again next year and contribute a little more to the team's success.

For a few more pics from the weekend, click here!

P.S. I almost forgot to mention the water stations. Outstanding!! Unfortunately, I didn't get many photos but here's one of my favourites.


  1. Hi! Great race story!

    I was part of the Mojitos on the Rocks team on our first (but hopefully not last) Cabot Trail Relay. I checked out your pictures and actually remember seeing you run. I was taking photos at the end of Leg 5 and remember you running in. Congrats on a great race and a fun weekend. Your team was super fun to watch and we got a great photo of one of our runners in Leg 15 looking like she's being chased by a devil :)

  2. Thanks, Celine! I loved reading your three posts on the race as well.

    For those who haven't read them, here's the link: