Ah, the Cabot Trail Relay. It’s coming – and I’m gonna run it this year. Now, for those who’ve never heard of this crazy event, picture this: 280km, 24 hours, 17 legs (all between 12 and 21km long) through the Cape Breton Highlands, some of the most spectacular scenery in the world and certainly the hilliest terrain in the province. The event attracts 70 teams from all over the north east – NS, NB, PEI, NF, QE, ON, and even Maine. And around these parts, the race has achieved almost mythical status – each leg inevitably produces epic battles that get told and retold for years.
In fact, for the past six months, I’ve listened wide-eyed with wonder as my friend Alex (the son of a famous and very successful Cape Breton writer – and an emerging author himself), like some old-time Gaelic bard, has woven magical tales about the race. He ran it last year on a team named “Dennis Fairall’s Grey Hair” (the norm is to make up a silly name), a team consisting mainly of former varsity runners from the University of Windsor (Dennis Fairall was their coach, apparently). They won it. And no wonder – they were all national cross country champions back in the day. But the winning didn’t come easy – they had to wrest the title from the Maine-iacs, the team who’d won the Relay for the past 6 years. This year, the rivalry will be intense.
But from what I can tell from Alex’s stories – tales of grit, of competition, of strength, of daring, of humour – tales of runners suiting up and searching for the kind of suffering they were destined to endure – a sharp sort of suffering that cuts through the vague dullness of the everyday and makes life bleed thick and red again – at least for a weekend – anyway, from what I can tell, the point is less to win the thing than to go out there and take part in a strange and memorable event that has people running up and down mountains in the middle of the night and teams of runners huddling together in vans, laughing and cheering and letting it all hang out. So it was a hell of a lucky break when a space opened up on this year’s Grey Hairs team, and I was asked to join. I’m no former national champion – not by a long shot – but I know how to run hard and to have a good time, which is exactly what the event is all about (winning the thing and setting a course record are secondary goals!).
On the last weekend in May, then, I’m going to suit up and toe the line as a Grey Hair. And like the Grey Hairs of old, I’m gonna lay down whatever guts I have along some long lonely stretch of cold Cape Breton highway, chasing a kind of glory only a few obsessive people can comprehend. Because, hell, how many former smoking, drinking, pastry eating fatties like me get a shot at running immortality?
And when I cross the line at the end of my leg (leg 8 – the epic leg for slow guys), my chest heaving and my eyes rolled back in my head, I’m going to look back and smile at the legend I just took part in. And then I’m going to have a beer.