More than 1,000 runners from across Canada and the United States will run 276 km through the Cape Breton highlands this weekend to compete for top honors at the Cabot Trail Relay.
About 70 teams – most with 17 athletes apiece – along with a one-man team will begin near the Gaelic College in St. Ann’s Saturday morning and kick up their heels all the way down the North Shore and over the mountains and western cliffs before returning through the Margaree River valley towards the finish line in downtown Baddeck.
The 24-hour race that will end Sunday morning will see athletes tackle the distance over 17 stages, some which measure a relatively short distance of 12.36 km along the scenic protective old growth forests of the North Aspy River or much longer difficult legs, like the 20.01 km awe-inspiring climb up and over Cape Smokey Mountain.
Teammates of racers participating in each leg cheer on their runners and offer support and water along the way – including on Cape Smokey’s narrow serpentine curves high along the cliff where fans have been known to sit on the guard rail and use it like a jungle drum to produce this chilling rhythm to echo the beat of pounding feet along the pavement.
“They are coming up the hill and everyone along the guard rails are beating out what becomes this rhythm that I’m sure you can hear all the way down at the bottom of the mountain,” long time runner John MacDonald said. “That sound…well it’s the most amazing thing.”
Runners will continue non-stop through the night and into the wee hours along the blackest of highways, some wearing head-lamps, others just carrying glow sticks to be seen by the occasional passing motorists. Moose and other wildlife are often spotted by runners.
“This is the one event that draws together the running community in a big, big way, like the Fiddlers Run,” MacDonald told WGO during a break from his Crown duties inside the Sydney Justice Centre. “It will bring together people who you haven’t seen since the last race, last year. I know I will meet hundreds of Cape Breton runners this weekend. And because you’re together with these people for 24 hours once a year, you get to form friendships, get to know them… form bonds.”
Teams from all areas of this province will compete against squads from New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Ontario, Quebec, Maine and Newfoundland. Teams consist of men and women of all ages, military and police, master marathon runners and accomplished Ironman competitors who are training for or have completed multiple world endurance races in recent years.
One such master runner – or some may call mad man – who completed last year’s Relay with just one other man will be back again this weekend, but to run all 276 km alone.
Mark Campbell of Halifax decided to attempt the seemingly impossible feat in under two days to raise money for Brigadoon Village, a camp for children with chronic illness, currently being built near Aylesford, NS, who can’t play or do sports as easily.
“I don’t know if it’s logical,” he told the Canadian Press in a recent interview. “It’s an illogical progression.”
Illogical or not, it’s believed this is the first attempt by anyone to complete the entire distance in under two days.
Runners have tackled the famous scenic hills of the Cabot Trail before, named for the famous explorer John Cabot, but most take several days running a daily marathon of 42-km with lots of rest and food in between.
For Mr. Campbell, running each leg will mean little rest along the road or time to sleep, or eat and refresh. But his attempt will undoubtedly be the one that’s watched with great interest.
He is an inspiration to many, including MacDonald who says he’s hooked on the Relay too, but his goal is to complete all 17 stages of the race before he dies.
“It’s the allure of the streak,” he said. “This is my ninth race and I can’t stop.”
Many local athletes have done all stages already including senior Ironman Peter Hanna, 69, and his running buddy Jack Lively, both of Sydney, as well as David Gabriel, one of the key organizers behind Sydney’s Fiddlers Run.
RCMP detachments on each side of the island are expected to again help organizers keep roads safe and paramedics will, again, be trailing the last runner in every leg to offer medical aid if necessary.
Participants have long respected the strict rules in play at the race because time penalties are imposed on teams who, say, fail to have all four wheels of their vehicles off the pavement before stopping the engine along the race to support a member.
Awards will be handed out to the top teams in Baddeck Sunday afternoon over a lobster or steak dinner for participants.