The race: Cabot Trail Relay Race
Location: Cape Breton Highlands National Park and Cape Breton Island
When: End of May
Distance: 175 miles/276 kilometres
Why do it: To experience the tremendous natural beauty of Cape Breton, to run some of the most challenging terrain you can find, and to hang out at the largest two-day outdoor kitchen party going with a couple thousand of your closest running friends.
Swag: tech shirts, various plaques for assorted achievements, a place mat if you run fabled Leg 10 of this race.
You run 6.2 kilometres up a mountain that climbs 385 metres, pushing yourself for a total distance of 14.7 kilometres, at night no less, and what do you get? A place mat?
What kind of race gives you a place mat for performing such a ridiculous feat of endurance?
Seriously, the Cape Breton Trail Relay Race (CTRR) is unlike anything else out there. Set in the stunningly drop-dead gorgeous highlands of Nova Scotia’s ridiculously scenic Cape Breton, this 17-stage, 24-hour relay race pushes everyone to their limits.
It’s not just the three mountain stages, the endless rolling hills, the relentless humidity, and the fierce winds that make running so competitive here; it’s the sheer level of competition. The CTRR attracts some of the best runners from across the Eastern Seaboard, all of whom are anxious to win a stage and bragging rights along with it.
Nor are those the only reasons. Every year 70 teams made up of 17 runners apiece gather in Baddeck to begin the stage race around the trail. Naturally, with that many like-minded individuals gathered in one place, things become – shall we say – festive. For example, a relay tradition are the pancakes available after Leg 16. And at the race’s end is a massive steak and lobster supper for the participants.
But before they can eat, runners must earn their chow.
The 70 teams, previously picked through a lottery process, compete against each other, pitting individual runners on each of the 17 stages. The stages are rated from two (easy) to five (very difficult). Most offer challenges of one kind or another.
The first three legs are described as “rolling,” a relative term in Cape Breton. What might be considered large hills elsewhere are merely “rolling” on the island. The real fun begins with Leg 4, a 20.01 kilometre stage that takes runners over the ~cough~ rolling hills before landing them at the bottom of Cape Smoky.
Organizers say Cape Smoky consists of 2.1 kilometres of “extremely steep grade.” They’re not exaggerating. The majority of runners end up walking short portions, but as they reach the top the primal beat of onlookers beating rocks against the road guardrail pours adrenalin into runners that is enough to push them over the final 300 metres and send them flying full-tilt down the five or six kilometre down-hill.
Cape Smoky is far from the only truly difficult stage. The aforementioned MacKenzie Mountain night stage is a beast, as is the climb preceding it up North Mountain.
While the mountain stages are the showcase legs, runners should not under-estimate some of the other legs. On Leg 6, the long hills, coupled with the heat and strong run caused carnage at this year’s relay, overloading numerous runners into walking.
The mountain stages are also the ones that draw the crowds, but at night runners struggle on their own through the dark, running anywhere from 12 to 18 kilometres on their own. A couple of water stations punctuate the silence; otherwise the only sounds are their own footfalls and those of other runners’ nearby.
The dominating teams are the Maine-iacs and the all-female Maine Road Hags in terms of respective genders. The latter are insanely fast women who wear cute, frilly skirts and whom are renowned for pacing runners for short distances before effortlessly leaving them behind.
It’s a tradition for teams to wear identifying costumes. So it’s not infrequent to find Chicken heads or red cones signifying gnomes passing you. The water stations also try to outdo each other in the competition to be the best one.
All of this takes place among Cape Breton’s majestic scenery of mountains, ocean, forests and small, friendly communities.
The race ends where it began, back in Baddeck. There, runners race downhill through a tunnel of spectators to wind up the hectic weekend.
This year marked the 25th anniversary of the fabled race, which in 1988 first hosted six teams. Complicating the event is the fact that teams have to figure out how to shuttle their runners from one leg to the next, meaning most everyone ends up either staying up for the duration of the event or sleeping very little and at odd hours.
A stringent set of time penalties help maintain order, and include bans against music headsets, careless road crossings, careless parking and such.
Without the selfless hours of volunteers the race would not happen. Run Nova Scotia and Halifax Running Club provide much of the support.
You might join a relay team once out of curiosity, but it’s a fair bet that you’ll find yourself wanting to attend again and again to run all 17 legs.