The Race: Sonofa Gunofa Trail Race
Location: Wentworth, Nova Scotia
Distance: 25 km and 12.5 km
Why do it: Because you’re seeking a challenge or because your brains have been knocked out and you lack common sense
Swag: Tech T-shirts to early registrants; a generous amount of draw prizes, including shoes, T-shirts, buffs, water bottles and more
“So do you think this is good training for a marathon?”
That’s the slightly ironic question the trail race organizer posed to me just as I finished wading through 400 metres of calf-deep water and faced a steep embankment that would require me to clamber on all fours.
Jodi Isnor, organizer and course designer of some of Nova Scotia’s most challenging trail races, placed the question while training a video cam on me as I floundered through the water.
I smiled weakly.
Before the race I’d told Isnor I wanted to run it, my first trail race, as a way to switch up my long runs for marathon training. By Isnor’s estimate, the 25 kilometre run equaled 40 road kilometres. He arrived at this formula by comparing the previous year’s winner’s time to his marathon time.
At this point in the race, I was not prepared to dispute the comparison.
For those who aren’t familiar with Wentworth, the hills stand halfway between Halifax and Moncton and boast an elevation of approximately 800 ft. The nearby ski hill calls it some of the most vertical and challenging terrain in the province. For years, mountain bikers have raced over the area’s 25-plus kilometres of relatively flowy single-track. Today, we got to run it.
If you’re new to trail running the first thing you notice is the cordial, laid-back vibe. All the “competitors” casually greeted each other before the start, whether they knew each other or not. You’d think it was a music fest or something.
Bunch of hippies.
The start is even more relaxed, if possible. Isnor just counted down and everyone began to run, fairly slowly. It’s not like a road race, where a number of rabbits launch themselves off the front. Rather, people almost seemed to be jockeying for position as the slowest.
There’s a reason for that.
Road runners find it terribly amusing that trail racers walk the hills. Once you run one of these suckers you find out precisely why trail runners apparently plod at such a turtle’s pace.
Off the start, you head upwards through open fields, cross railroad tracks (your time is adjusted if the train comes through) and continue through an open area (where the mountain bike races used to start). Turning sharply to the right, you encounter your first hill.
It’s steep. And half-way up many people broke into a fast walk.
WTF. Walking? Really?
If you intend to finish the race, you power walk the ascents. They’re far steeper than what you encounter on the roads and you need preserve your strength for later in the race.
Generally, the trail continues to climb. It’s not overly rough, mostly swooping single-track largely free of rocks and roots - though those are always in evidence. You round the “Look off,” one of the highest points, and then hit a few sections where you hammer downhill.
The hard descents are fast until suddenly you’re diverted into the 400-metre river section. You must run through the water. If you try to run along the bank, the watchful organizers dock you five minutes.
Experienced racers seem able to dance over the slick stones. Others can lose time here.
At the end of the water section, is a four-minute scramble up the embankment back to double-track. That quickly leads back into the woods again, over what – on mountain bike – is a flowing section – but running seems herky-jerky.
At this point in the race, it can get lonely – and spooky. You’re deep in the verdant woods, running along a foot path with no one for company. It becomes a mental game.
Just when you believe the woods will extend forever, you pop back out to the start/finish, where water, energy drinks, chips, bananas and more await.
And then you get to do a second lap.
If you didn’t walk the hills the first time, it’s pretty certain you will the second – even the slightest inclines.
The thing about trail racing is, you don’t just get to flow over the road, but you’re constantly high-stepping to avoid roots, rocks and other obstacles. And if you don’t and you let your attention waver, then pain in the form of a fall is like a Zen master hitting you with a stick to awaken your focus.
You cannot let your attention waver.
You like the sound of that?
Then welcome to a whole new world of running.