For four years I’ve been running with the Maine Road Hags, an all-women’s team that competes at the Cabot Trail Relay on Cape Breton Island every May. The 17 legs of the staged relay race take place over 2 days, after months of training and preparation. It’s hard to explain what makes Cabot different from other races, but in part, it’s the collective experience. A runner’s individual race begins and ends as part of a remarkably fluid stream of events. Around 1200 runners (70 teams of 17), along with a huge volunteer race crew, begin leg 1 at 7:00 a.m. on Saturday morning; the race concludes with leg 17 on Sunday. Sleep is often impossible because of the logistics of making sure every runner is where he or she needs to be in time to queue up at the start.
There’s a tale to tell from every single leg in the race, but this year, the transition from 13 to 14 captures what it’s like to be in the thick of it. Leg 14 starts at 3:45 in the morning in a dirt parking lot scattered with ditches, puddles, and rocks. We had new runners on the starting and finishing legs–Kate Fleming running 13 (her second leg) and Kate Miles running leg 14. My car at that point consisted of my co-captain, Casey Dunn, who had run legs 7 and 12 (placing second in both!), and Amy Roma, who had run leg 3 and still hadn’t had a chance to rest. We were all wiped out, but since I’d gotten about 20 minutes of sleep earlier, I pulled over to let the two of them rest, and ran up to the finish line to see if the two Kates were all set. Disoriented from lack of sleep and the flashing headlamps, I scanned the parking lot for my teammates.
Eventually, I heard “Kate…Kate…Kate…” and followed the sound until I found Julianne Gadoury. Kate Fleming had crossed the finish line but couldn’t be found in the crowd of racers getting ready to start leg 14. It was cold, and we needed to get her into dry clothes and make sure she was feeling okay after racing 2 legs. Kate Miles, who was about to start leg 14 had another issue. Kathleen Bell, the teammate who had planned to drive Kate’s car to the end of leg 14 had been unable find Kate and her keys, and had to leave in order to get to the start of leg 15, her race, before they closed down the roads (this happens 10 minutes before the start of each race).
Camaraderie and support go way beyond individual teams at Cabot. This was in evidence earlier in the night when Amy and I were just about to get a few winks of sleep at the start of Casey’s second race (leg 12). We were just shutting our eyes, when a guy knocked on the car window, saying his car support hadn’t shown up and asking if we’d drive his wheels down the mountain to the finish. So much for the few winks! We had no idea what his name was or what team he was running for, but he handed over his keys, and Amy and I caravanned the cars off the mountain.
We were on the receiving end of that camaraderie back at the parking lot. A group of Maine-iacs, our stunningly fast and gracious compatriots from Maine, saved the day. First, they (I think it was Greg, Ken, and James…but I was a bit delirious) offered to drive Kate Miles’ car, and they tracked down Julianne and Kate Fleming (who had found each
other), in order to pick up the Hags’ car magnet, This would allow them to leave the lot in time to get to the start of the following leg. The magnets allow one car per team to leave the start earlier than the rest. This helps control traffic around the island while getting runners safely where they need to be. It’s a good system, but getting the magnet from car to car can be a major logistical challenge in the middle of the night. With Kate Fleming finally reunited with her dry clothes and support vehicle, and Kate Miles setting off toward daybreak on leg 14, with her car safely in the hands of the Maine-iacs, I ran back down the road to get Casey and Amy and head toward the next adventure.
My own race, leg 9, had taken place the night before. Leg 9 is one of the mountain legs, and it’s rated 5 out of 5 in terms of difficulty. Though I was physically fit, I felt tired and distracted before the race. With half of our roster being runners new to Cabot, Casey and I had some extra logistical leg work, not to mention the fun of our leg 6 team water stop. I’d been running around taking care of details rather than resting up and getting my head in the game. Nevertheless, at 7:55 pm, we set off into the dusk with reflective vests and headlamps. The 11-mile race begins with a 6.2 km climb up North Mountain. I managed to keep my legs running up the climb, but in the last kilometer, I was cursing Cabot and vowing I’d never do it again!
As the course flattened out on a plateau, a thick fog set in. Along that stretch of road, my teammates saw a moose strolling along the shoulder, then disappearing into the scrub. Later, I learned that runners had also seen a bear and 2 cubs crossing the road near the finish line, but the nocturnal critters were long gone by the time I ran by. The descent on the course was relentless, and after a few miles of running down, I started to get a painful side stitch. When the road returned to sea level, the ache had mellowed, but we had another 3 miles to go. At that point, my legs were toast, and we were running into a headwind. I knew I wasn’t going to run the time I’d hoped, so I just tried to sustain my pace.
In the final mile, two guys passed me, and one called out, “we’re not chasing the mat, just hang in there!” Given that the same amazing volunteer crew (timing, safety, registration, emergency, etc.) works all 17 legs in the event, they have to pull up the mats based on something close to a 9:30 pace finish, so that they can set up at end of the following leg before the first runner crosses the line. Dan Vassallo of the Maine-iacs almost beat them to it when he won leg 14, averaging a 5:04/mile pace for the 12+ miles.
There’s a time penalty for the whole team if a runner doesn’t make the mat in time. On the mountain legs that cranks the pressure up a bit for some runners. I didn’t have trouble making the mat, but I did finish 5-8 minutes slower than I’d hoped. Crossing the line, my legs were like noodles from the long climb and intense hammer down. As soon as I finished, I was met by Casey, Ali Chase (who’d stunningly won leg 4 earlier in the day), and her partner, Maine-iac Ken Akiha (who’d stunningly won leg 9!). I felt disappointed in myself and the first words out of my mouth were an apology to my teammates. They said, “Don’t be ridiculous,” clapped me on the back, and handed me dry clothes and water. There was an ambulance nearby, and one of the earlier runners was being hoisted into the back of it. There was also news of a runner who’d had a heart attack earlier in the day but was said to be fine and recovering. Pretty quickly, I was back in the mental groove, feeling pleased that I’d finished the epic leg with no injuries and that it was in the rear view mirror!
Later in the morning, the races concluded with an inspiring leg 17, which Holly Jacobson ran beautifully for the Hags, placing third woman overall. After that, we enjoyed the awards banquet and feast, then commenced to Leg 18, a celebration of the conclusion of Cabot 2018, where we toast one another into the night, and start dreaming up plans for next year!
On the 12-hour drive home from the race on Monday morning, we made the ritual windmill stop, at the Nova Scotia welcome center, forcing our sore legs to do a quick shake out run. After chatting with some friends in the parking lot, we got back in the car, and Casey, Amy, and I started reliving the adventures leg by leg.
At one point, we got totally immersed in looking up race results for the Hags and the Maine-iacs, until Casey looked over at the dash and said, “Um, do we need gas?” I’d completely spaced it given my excitement and exhaustion, and according to the gas gauge, we had 30 miles till empty. We did a little research and found a gas station 12 miles away. We cruised along toward the exit and started going through the leg results again. After what seemed like just a few minutes, Amy called out from the back seat,
“Did we pass that exit?”
We had only a few miles left to empty and got off at the next exit, in the middle of nowhere. We headed along the rural road, fingers crossed, with the car reading “_ _ _ to empty.” I’ve never been so happy to see a gas station come into view, and now I know that you can get about 5 miles with _ _ _ in the tank!
There are many more stories I could tell from this year’s race, but it still wouldn’t capture what makes Cabot so special and addictive. It’s all-consuming in the best way–spectating 17 races in a row with a community of people who love a challenging, shared experience. The event requires full immersion–mental, physical, and emotional–and in the face of what Cabot demands, there’s no faking it. You’re reduced to your essence, and so is everyone else. I learn something new about myself every year—the good things (I’m strong, committed to others, take joy in new experiences…) and there’s always a mirror on my darker self too (self-recrimination, envy…). It’s a gift to witness the real in myself and others, and the raw richness of Cabot brings out the real. There’s no faking it!