When people ask me what my favorite marathon is I have a hard time answering. There are many that put on a well-run race over a scenic course. If the question is expanded to my favorite race, then the answer is easy: my favorite race – bar none – is the Cabot Trail Relay around Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.
The Cabot Trail Relay is unique among relay races in that it is a staged relay. By staged relay, I mean that every leg starts together (Leg 1 starts at 7 am, Leg 2 starts at 9:40 am, etc.). It is a great move logistically in that race organizers only have to maintain one point along the course and move it to the finish / start of each leg. And even though it runs against the handoff that we picture when someone says “relay”, the set-up is a lot more fun for the runners as well. This year I ran the final leg – Leg 17. Had this been a traditional relay my team would have given me the baton (or whatever is used) and I would probably have carried it alone for my 12-mile leg. Instead I had other runners to chase and be chased by to spur me on. I would love to see more relays adopt this format.
The format makes the race fun – however, what puts this race at the top for me is team aspect. The best description I can give to people who have not run a relay like this is that it is a mobile running party. Over the course of the years I have toed to the line of other races with the people on my team who I now can cheer on. At local races in Maine I only see their backs and I might get to talk to them for an hour or so after the race. At Cabot however I get to watch someone like Louie Luchini or Cheri Piers in action along the entire course. Over the course of many sleepless hours we travel together from Maine, around Cape Breton Island and back.
Getting to Cape Breton (Thursday, 23 May)
Getting year’s race was a challenge. I flew from my home in Boulder, CO on Thursday to New York. The flight into New York was delayed by thunderstorms and when I finally arrived I discovered that all the flights to Bangor were canceled for the night. I could not fly into Bangor, Portland or even Halifax until Saturday – the day of the race. Finally, I asked about Boston. They put me on standby for a flight at 6 am on Friday morning. I went to the terminal where my flight was to leave – upset not only that I would be sleeping in the airport but also that I would miss the drive up from Bangor to Cape Breton. As Thursday turned to Friday I tried to sleep in a less trafficked part of the terminal. Over the intercom I heard they were boarding a delayed flight to Boston.
This intercom announcement spurred my imagination. I grabbed the 12:30 am flight (slept as much as I could) and landed in Boston around 1 am. I then rented a car and took off to Bangor. I pulled into Bangor around 5:30 in the morning. Adam Goode picked me up at the airport after I dropped off my rental car. We picked up my mother’s car and went to the Exit 197 Dysarts. Here we picked up two other vehicles and the host of Maine runners from the Old Town / Bangor area.
On the way out we typically leave the US via Houlton and take the Trans-Canada Highway (Routes 2 to 104 to 105). The centerpiece of “Leg 0” is the Big Truck Stop in Aulac, New Brunswick. This year we were in for a treat when the manager showed us the specialty poutine menu. For those who have never experienced French fries, cheese and gravy – I have little to say. Adam got the pulled pork poutine and I tried the turkey dinner poutine. It was epic.
We made Baddeck around 5:30 (Atlantic Time) and went for a shakedown run. It had been a full 36 hours of travel. I would do it again in a hearbeat.
Saturday, 24 May – Legs 1 to 8
The Maine-aics typically stay at the Telegraph House – although there are many other good locations in Baddeck, NS. For breakfast / lunch most of us go across the street and get the boxed lunch with a scone from the High Wheeler. You have to order this the night before though as this is a popular stop for the 17 runners from the 70 teams at the relay.
I have rarely seen the start of the relay since anti-congestion rules prevent support and team vehicles from leaving until 30 minutes after the start – if they do not leave 10 minutes before the race start. Instead of watching the start, a few of our team vehicles went straight to the 5k mark. At this point the relay consists of stopping along the way and waiting for your runner to come by. During these points you often catch a nap, some conversation, or an Alexander Keith’s IPA. We would give our runner the scope on how far the next runner was behind and how they were looking and then jet on.
Kirby Davis lead the relay for the Maine-aics. He went out strong but was overtaken by a perennial local (who we will call Mullet Guy) in the last third of the race. This native of Nova Scotia shows up every year and always throws down a hard run. Louie Luchini then came out of the gates in Leg 2 with a dominating performance. Louie, a sub-13:30 5k runner from Stanford, is one of those runners who is just fun to watch and Cabot Trail is one of the few chances to see something other than his back. Jeff Ashby followed up with 2nd place on Leg 3.
The first three legs are rolling and reasonably challenging, but it is Leg 4 - Cape Smokey that first gives runners a taste of the Cape Breton Highlands. After 10k of rolling hills you gain 800 ft in about 1.5 miles. Then you go through a screaming downhill and two small but painful uphills. There are tougher legs to come, but this one is a worthy opener. Erik McCarthy ran a smart tactical race. He trailed the lead run through the opening 10k and the climb. By the descent he closed the gap. By the finish he had put a minute on the 2nd place runner.
Leg 5 was a solid run by Al Bugbee, but it was the Maine Road Hag, Cheri Piers who shone – beating all the guys. For those who do not know, Cheri is the top women’s marathon masters runner in country and has won the women’s master’s division at Boston more than once. Legs 6 and 7 saw good performances by Josh Zolla and Jon McGonagle. By this point it was clear that our competition was a team from Ontario called the Black Lungs (I assume a reference to the region’s coal mining history). We had a little more depth than them, but when we were beat in a leg they were usually the culprits.
Leg 8 has a special place in Maine-iac running. It is not particularly hard, but it finishes with the sunset on Saturday. This symbolic “running-into-the-sunset” has made this leg the final Maine-iac run for many a founding member of the team. This year Rich Chalmers, a Maine-iac and Cabot legend, was completing his last un-run leg of the relay.
Unfortunately, at this point our coach, Brian Hubble, was insisting that Mike Bunker, Louie Luchini and I head to Cheticamp to get some rest before our Sunday legs. While I wanted to see Rick run into the sunset I knew I had pushed Brian as far as I could in watching the relay and the man knows Cabot. If Brian Hubbels tells you it is time to rest, you rest.
So Mike, Louie and I drove out to Cheticamp. After an scenic wrong turn up towards Meat Cover we found ourselves at Laurie’s in Cheticamp around 7:30 pm. Cheticamp is the lone town of any size on the far side of the island. It is a popular resting spot for runners doing legs on Sunday. We grabbed some sandwhiches at Timmy Ho’s (Tim Hortons) and went to bed.
Sunday 25 May – Night leg recap and Legs 14 - 15
Mike, Louie and I got up at 4:30 to get Mike Bunker to the start of Leg 15. As we got Mike checked in I got the update from Adam on how the night had gone. We had learned at the start of Leg 9 that the Black Lungs were only 12 minutes back. We had thought they were further back but they had had a penalty incorrectly assessed to them and this penalty had been removed. This news fired up Van Hoogenstyn, a Maine-aic rookie who ran for UNH. ‘Hoog destroyed the 1000-ft climb up North Mountain. He was followed by Adam Goode who likewise crushed the 10-mile run up MacKenzie Mountain. This put the Maine-iac lead back around 25 minutes. Matt, Tim, Jeremy and Rob followed with solid performances on Legs 12-14.
In spite of rough winter and spring training Mike Bunker ran a good race for Leg 15, coming in second. Then Louie notched a second win of the relay on Leg 16 in spite of some sore legs (from yesterday’s victory).
Now it was time for my leg. I had run the mountain legs – 4, 9, 10 and 11 as well as the hilly and challenging leg 6. This year I had requested and got Leg 17 – the glory leg. For logistically reasons the race did not allow teams to stop or cheer on runners for Leg 17, so the course could be lonely along the way compared to other legs. The glory was in finishing in front of your team and every other team. The course was different this year (and last) due to construction on a bridge along the course. I was dropped off by Adam and Mike who then left me to head for the finish.
Although we had the relay title locked up, I still sized up the competition – Dan Way from the Black Lungs. He had already won leg 8 and run a 2:27 at Boston. While victory in my leg was unlikely I intended to stay close as I could for as long as I could. Dan let me lead out the first mile in 5:45 before pulling ahead. He took another runner, Sean Patterson, with him. While Dan gradually pulled away, Sean appeared to have gone out a little too fast and I spent the next three miles pulling him in over the rolling hills.
We crossed several old green steel bridges each followed by a climb out of that particular drainage. Due to living at 5300 feet in Boulder my breathing was fine but my legs were comfortably maxed. I went though 10 miles in 59:30 as the route did a long lonely stretch paralleling Route 105. But this came to an end as I turned left and began the descent into Baddeck.
The finish was everything I had hoped it would be – fast (due to the downhill) and lots of high fives. I finished in 1:11:50 at an average pace of 5:58 per mile. I was a hair over two minutes behind Dan Way of the Black Lungs and a minute ahead of Sean.
Banquet and Leg 18
I ran a cool-down with Erik McCarthy and Rick Chalmers and took a shower in my room at the Telegraph House. Around 11:30 am I started for the banquet. The banquet is held in Baddeck’s ice rink. Race goers have their choice of lobster, steak or vegetarian lasagna. This year there was an extra treat of a new brewery on the island. Big Spruce started up last year and had a tasty Cereal Killer Stout. The race director, Mark Stein, called for a moment of silence for a runner who died last year on Leg 17 as well as the people who were killed and injured at this year’s Boston Marathon.
Following this somber moment we went into the awards. The Maine Road Hags claimed their 5th consecutive women’s title. We went up and claimed the overall title – our 7th in the last 9 years. The winning team gets a large road sign for the Cabot Trail. In acknowledgement of completing all 17 legs of the relay (and his contribution to Cabot lore) the team gave the sign to Rick Chalmers.
While some Maine-iacs and Road Hags commenced immediately with festivities, many of us took a much needed nap before heading off to the Yacht Club. In the earlier days of the relay, the Maine-aics used to go home on Sunday until a few years ago when Rick Chalmers discovered that there was a great party at the Baddeck Yacht Club. After a 24-plus-hour-relay, beer and relaxing by the water wins over a nine-hour drive.
The Yacht Club usually has a good local band which, at our request, generally plays Wagon Wheel three or four times over the course of the night. This year the Big Spruce stout and pale ales were on tap which were a nice addition to the Alexander Keith’s IPA (which is an IPA the way Budweiser is a Bohemian Pilsner). There are many stories that come out of this party every year and this one was no exception. For now those stories will stay with the Maine-iacs and those other teams that make themselves mainstays of Cabot lore.
The Journey Home
Another aspect that I love about Cabot is that over the years every part of the trip has developed its fun traditions. The group that I travel with generally leaves around 6:30 am. In 2009 we discovered the Nova Scotia Visitors Center off Exit 1 on Highway 104 just before you leave the province. There is a nice flat dirt road that goes through farm country from this spot. Over the last two years wind turbines have sprung up which is appropriate since there always a strong headwind on the way out. All of our legs are sore but we all appreciate this run for how it breaks up the drive and loosens our legs for a few slow miles.
The same year (2009) that we discovered our mid-way run we also found the Barn Yard BBQ. This restaurant is paired with the Pump House Brewery and sits on the outskirts on Moncton, New Brunswick. There is sister brewpub located in the downtown that also has fine fare. Most of us chose the Burger That Ate Moncton – which is every bit as epic as its sounds. And, of course, some poutine.
The Bangor / Old Town group generally returns to the US via Vanburen and Route 6. It takes about the same time at the northern route (Houlton / I-95) or the southern route via St. John and Route 9. We made Old Town around 5:30 Eastern Time and went our separate ways. The journey back to Cabot Trail is never a sure thing with my job and family out west but even if I do not know when I will return, I surely will. We all already know what leg we will each request next time.