Monday, 4 June 2012

#70: A Hard Day's Night

2012 Cabot Trail Relay Review
Part 3: The experience of a lifetime and counting down to the finish

Leg numero 9: the middle/median leg. We were half way there, with only half way to go (like driving through Tennessee on the way to Disney Land). As mentioned before, a very good case could be made for this leg being the most challenging of the entire race (or a close second to leg 4). While a bit shorter (‘only’ 17.84km), it requires runners to ascend 385m to the top of North Mountain before descending back to sea level in a very short period of time (the downhills on this leg are severe enough to make your quads quiver). Then, if that weren’t bad enough, it’s still another 5 or so k over rolling hills to the finish at Pleasant Bay. But regardless whether we can agree it’s the toughest leg of the race, I would say it is hands down the most beautiful. The leg begins at dusk just before 8pm and by the time it finishes the sun is setting over the Cape Breton Highlights National Park and the combined views and lighting make this leg sensually and aesthetically appealing in every way.
Ah, the smell of brake fluid in the evening. The descent from North Mountain at dusk during leg 9
But back to the race. Our chosen disciple to tackle this leg was none other than the talented Mr Tom Hesch. Tom was chosen for this most special leg for very good reason. Last year when many of our runners were still a part of Cardio Arrest, Tom’s brother Dave ran this leg for us and did an exceptional job (hell, the guy never ran again afterwards!). We figured that having Tom on this leg would add extra incentive for him to go after his brother’s time and give everything he had. And if he didn't do better than Dave, we planned to just leave him out on the trail. Luckily, Tom did not disappoint. He keyed himself up and I could tell during his warm up that he was ready to go. I wished him luck and we left him alone at the start as we ascended the mountain to the first support site. There we waited in quiet anticipation and could only imagine the anguish and energy being felt as the runners climbed this beast. Slowly the runners, one by one, appeared from around the bend, grimaces on their fighting faces as their quads burned and their hearts heaved. A Maine-iac appeared first followed by a steady stream of singular runners including our own Tom Hesch in very good position. They reached the apex of the mountain and got only the shortest stretch of flat reprieve before descending and then again climbing another large hill. It was then that the runners would begin their rapid descent back to the bottom at break neck speed. We continued on along the leg and took in the spectacular oceanviews and forest covered valleys of the Park below. Descending the mountain in a vehicle was hard enough and everyone made similar comments about how incredibly crazy the downhill portion of the leg was. It was assumed that no one was immediately envious of what awaited poor Tom Hesch and his peers.
An artists rendition of what Tom may have felt like while descenting leg 9.
We stopped to support him several more times. He had asked to be given a gel but given that this was the first official ‘night leg,’ we were not allowed to support him and he was forced to carry on alone. He was fighting a good battle with several other runners and positions were changing constantly. Although we missed it while trying to park at the finish, it became known that Tom had moved into second place for a time before simply losing energy during those long and lingering last 5k and was unable to hold on to the others. He finished in a fantastic time of 1:14:55 (4:12/k) and 6th overall. Leg 9 results. Although quietly reserved and a fighter through and through, made of every ounce of determination, Tom expressed his subjective disappointment in this performance by stating his desire to run the leg again the very next year in order to finish stronger, finish faster. You’ll get your chance Tom Hesch. You’ll get your revenge on that mountain. Someday.
Tom Hesch gave everything he had (and then some) during his battle on leg 9. Hopefully he will live to run another day.
So after parking the SUV and while the others went to find and congratulate Tom, I was left alone to prepare for my second leg. The past weeks I had tried to wrap my head around this task which was essentially to run uphill for at least 10k sometimes rather steeply. I pride myself as a descent uphill runner and was generally excited to take on the challenge. I take on the hills with confidence and can generally drop my competition who seem to spend way too much energy and effort (the key is not to do that!). But after having already run a fast leg less than 12hrs before and not paying particular attention to my rest and refueling strategy (candy counts as carbs right?!), I was beginning to have my doubts. I did some light stretching, took a visit to the woods for a final pit stop and then ran lightly to the starting area. By this time it was completely dark. I met up with the others who were inside the restaurant having ordered some food (who said they would come out to see the start but totally bailed to eat instead). I dropped off my clothing and was ready to run. I milled around a bit as the organizers got us ready and once again we lined up on the Cabot Trail ever so briefly before the gun went off and we departed into the night.

A rough elevation profile of MacKenzie Mountain. Note: It's uphill.
The first ~3k were rolling hills and it was nice to run in a small group and chat with the others. As we arrived at the base of MacKenzie Mountain, one runner broke away and I knew immediately it would not be smart to follow. I settled comfortably into second place and as we began to go uphill, a gap began to form behind me and I was alone. The next ~6k are all uphill as we climb the mountain and at times the uphills seemed overwhelming. There were a number of switchbacks and I convinced myself that the turns were flat and provided a bit of a break. A gentle wind was blowing and although the temperatures were dropping close to zero, I was so warm that it provided a nice cooling effect. I again refused to look at my watch but tried only to think about my task at hand and mentally visualize the end of the hills. This point came sooner than I had expected and my perception was that the hills had leveled out and I was either running on flat surface or slightly downhill. Technically it wasn’t true since the leg continued to climb uphill right to the finish of the 14.7k leg. However, my pace began to quicken and after only a few minutes, my breathing and heart rate relaxed and returned to ‘normal’ and I was able to ‘race’ again. I became so comfortable with how I felt that for the first time in the leg I was able to really take in my surrounding and really enjoy the experience. The sky was clear and what seemed like millions of stars shone brightly above. Occasionally I could see a view of the ocean with a quarter moon laminating the waters below. Endless evergreen forest enveloped the quiet trail and suddenly I became aware that I was in the most beautiful place in the world doing the thing I loved more than anything in this world. At one point I was so elated by the entire experience that I consciously wished that I could continue on running forever. It was without a doubt an existential experience that will go down as among the greatest I will ever have.

Above and below: Sorta what/how I imagine seeing/feeling during my late evening jaunt through Leg 10.

Obviously I was travelling quite quickly and soon there came a time when I began to anticipate the end. Again I checked my watch only once and only to see the distance which notified me that I had just less than 3k to go. Those last k’s required some extra effort and focus and I was only too happy to see the 1k to go marker. I really had no idea what my time or pace was like but figured I was giving a very honest and hard effort. I saw the line of cars parked along the road and as the final few hundred metres grew closer, I gave everything I had left. I crossed the road to see the illuminated finish area and caught a glimpse of the time clock with read 57:xx. I had come in well under an hour (my primary goal) and would soon realize that my time of 57:41 (3:56/k) was also good enough to average under 4:00/k (my secondary goal) and placed me second (behind a guy who set a new course record. Leg 10 results. I was so thrilled with the result and also just totally relieved to be done that I did some cheesy gunshot thing with my hands that came out of nowhere. It was uber lame but was done in the heat of the moment.
Sadly, no one captured my gun slinging glory moment so this photo from the finish will have to do instead.
Not long after the finish my body began to rebel and I immediately felt pain in my entire lower body (mostly my groin and hip flexor/adductor area). I tried to run a bit and stretch but it was too painful. Trying to put on pants whilst sitting in the front seat of the SUV was also a bit of a challenge. While I had now finished running both of my legs at Cabot, Warren Ringler was just now getting ready for his first (of two). Warren is a local runner from Toronto who we see (and get beaten by) all the time at races. He’s very quiet and reserved and tends to run solo most of the time. We were both surprised but thrilled when he agreed to join our Cabot team and I was hoping that I and others wouldn’t be too much for him. Shortly before his leg was set to start (23:03) I wished him luck and took his things and then our vehicle got out of there before the start. Leg 11 is 14k and is a mostly downhill leg. Warren had told us he liked running downhill and his small frame and good form suggested he would excel at it. The first ~6k actually climbs gradually to a max elevation of 460m before rapidly descending back to sea level. There are then two short but very steep uphills right before the finish. As could be expected, I was utterly exhausted after running my second leg and was content to sleep/rest in the back of our SUV. I missed Warren the first time we stopped to support him but when I heard that he was running in close second I made the effort to get out and support him. I’m not sure why certain images and memories are so solidly cemented in one’s mind, but one I will never forget and which I consider a highlight of the race this year for me was seeing little Warren Ringler (‘our little Ringler’) fly down that hill at epic velocity and look so composed. He overtook first place sometime during the downhill when he was simply flying and was still in the lead when we last stopped to see him just before the final k and those damned final uphills. We parked the car and not wanting to miss the finish I actually ran towards the finish as fast as I possibly could despite resonating pain all through my body. I arrived in just the nick of time but unfortunately saw another runner come in a mere 6 seconds ahead of Warren. Ringler finished in 48:49 (3:20/k!!!) and came within a minute of the course record! Leg 11 results. The downhills surely beat up his legs pretty bad and he just didn’t have anything left for those last uphills. Warren was disappointed that he was passed within the final 150m but I hope I conveyed to him just how amazing he had run for us.
A wicked run by Warren. A close second place and within a minute of the record.
After leg 11, I was somehow forced to start driving our SUV despite my inability to voluntarily control my legs and so after Warren had finished his cool down and we had wished Rob C luck on his second leg we high-tailed it outta there and went off ahead to park and wait. I’m sorry Rob but I really don’t remember much about this leg. I remember Ringler feeding me some delicious vegan treats made of a bean to be reckoned with and then coming into Cheticamp where the Tim Hortons stays open late just to accommodate the hordes of runners and teams who have become ravenous in numerous ways. We stopped so Darren could buy something he probably didn’t need and chatted a bit with our other team vehicle and some Cardio folks. We supported Rob one final time before making our way to the finish where Rob crossed the line in 1:00:22 (3:50/k) and finished 4th. Having fought tooth and nail the past year to avoid being ‘hagged’ by Sheri Piers in 2011 on leg 10 (he was successful finishing just seconds ahead), this year he fared worse and was beaten by Kristen Barry of the Road Hags who finished a place ahead. The course record which had stood since 1995 was also smashed by a Maine-iac by almost 2 minutes (apparently something did happen on this leg). Lynn of Cardio Arrest ran a great leg as well and finished 6th overall and was the 2nd female. Leg 12 results. Other events of note to happen at the end of this leg were Warren taking an ice bath in the ocean (he just walked right in like it were nothing) and the team making a last minute decision to switch our runners on leg 14 and 15 (Darren and Gerardo) which meant I was running around like a headless chicken with the timing chips to be exchanged and then losing our Mexican Diesel while trying to make it out of the start before the 10min rule came into effect.
For rather obvious reasons (a lack of illumination), there are few good photos from the night legs (10-14), but I can assure you we were all busy running and driving around the Cabot Trail. We didn't just have a nap and say we ran!
Anthony Davey was running the next leg which included a major detour that added ~2.5km to this leg (now totalling 18.18k). I was still driving and after some minor confusion where I almost got lost, we found our way through the detour and back to the trail where we waited for Davey at about 5k. This was both the second leg for Davey as well as for the Hags’ Sherri Piers and like me earlier, Davey was determined not to get beaten. They were pretty close in the early stages and I was having fun razzing Davey about how close Piers was and how he was going to be beat but he was confident that it wouldn’t happen. He was cruising along and looked so comfortable the entire time. I was very impressed and was happy to report that the gap between him and Sheri was only getting bigger. In the end, he finished the leg in third place in a time of 1:12:48 (4:01/k) and a full minute ahead of Piers. Not far behind was Julie of Cardio Arrest in 5th who also ran a great leg in 1:17:15(4:15/k). Leg 13 results.
Because he was running at night, we had Davey identify himself during the day so we could locate him in case he got lost during his second leg. That's him there with his hand in the air.
So despite Darren having the most unusual of medical conditions which prevent him from being able to see at night (we superior humans on the other hand have long developed perfect night vision), he took on the challenge and was readying himself for his second and much tougher leg. This leg is long (19.81k) and although considered ‘flatter’ than others, it still contains some gradual rollers that add to its difficulty (the other being the timing in the very early morning). Luckily for those running this year (unlike last year when I ran the leg), the start time (349) was moved up almost 30min which meant they would get more of the increasingly daylight which was on the near horizon. Sadly for Darren, his luck would end there. He was matched up against some very tough competition including our good friend (temporarily turned foe) Roger Moss of Cardio Arrest who was running his first leg of the race and must have been feeling fresh and feisty. The battle was apparent even at the first stop near 5k where a group of 3 (the Maine-iac was already well ahead) including both Rog and Darren were running in a tight pack at a wicked pace. This continued on well into the race. Due to the limited light, we could never be sure as to who was leading the trio and so at one point I asked the lead runner to identify himself and for the first time (ever?!), I was acknowledged with a reply: “It’s me, Darren!” As the long leg wore on, the already fatigued Darren did what he does best, he faded from the front. With less than 5k to go, Rog and another anonymous runner got a gap on Darren who was fighting to hold on for dear life. But this did little to detract from the excitement of the leg as Rog and the other guy went toe to toe right up to the finish where an inspiring kick to the finish and some poor tactical moves (you should have went to the inside!!!) meant that Rog got edged out over the last 50m and finished 2nd behind random other guy (3rd overall on the leg) in a time of 1:14:18 (3:46/k). Leg 14 results. It was definitely the most exciting finish of the entire race in my opinion and I think I may have caused most of the damage to my throat muscles whilst screaming incessantly at Roger during that fantastic finish and amazing time too. Our man Darren was not far behind in fourth in 1:15:16 (3:48/k) which is an excellent result for the tough second leg. Daylight had now mostly risen which is ironic that my teammates now seemed more tired than ever before and lazily napped and relaxed in the SUVs while we waited for the next leg to start.
Roger and Darren celebrating the end of leg 14 and a job well done.
Gerardo (Her-are-doe in Mexican) was our man for leg 15 and after such a long wait, he seemed ready and anxious to go. He had been recently dealing with a minor back problem which was why we made the last minute switch between leg 14 and 15. If his back didn’t feel great, the almost 20k on leg 14 could be a rough road so we felt it safer to put him on a slightly shorter leg and give his back some extra time to recuperate. Anyway, we left Gerardo at the end of leg 14/the start of leg 15 and assumed he would be okay while we went off ahead and camped out in our SUV several k’s up the trail. I was again fluctuating in an out of consciousness and was particularly sleepy after polishing off the remaining ‘monster’ cookies that were suddenly re-discovered in the back of the car. We cheered on Gerardo several times as the day broke to reveal what would become a beautiful day and ‘the Mexican Diesel’ was doing great and didn’t seem to be suffering at all from his back. The end of leg 15 was a bit of a circus for parking and we ended up missing the finish in which Gerardo did 1:02:40 (4:04/k) for the 15.42k leg and place 5th. Darren Goldman of Cardio finished close behind in 1:02:59. Leg 15 results. Following the leg at a little restaurant, we hung around to drink some much needed coffee and for the first time in ages, actually watched the start of the next leg. I'm sure some other funny things worth mentioning happened as well, but due to the extreme lack of sleep and poor air quality in the SUVs (mostly because of Warren's crazy vegan bean snacks), I was becoming increasingly delusional and my memory of such events now eludes me.
This is a photo of Gerardo.

This is a photo of Gerardo running leg 15.

This is a photo of Gerardo finishing leg 15.
Warren had admitted to feeling a little banged up before his double which is only fair given that he had flung himself precariously down a massive hill on leg 11 a mere 7hrs earlier. We wished him luck as he departed on this 15.35km leg that is considered among the ‘easier’ legs given its fewer hills but knew that he would have a tough road ahead regardless. We finally left the starting area after almost a half hour and raced ahead to support out Ringler. His hypnotic compact form and fluent stride suggested he was running comfortably but he was also clearly showing signs of being worse for wear and was doing his absolute best to simply get this one done and mail it in. With Doyle on board and a trek to get him to the start of leg 17, we sadly had to leave Warren alone and wasn’t there to see him finish (no wonder he likes to run alone). He fared well in the end coming in at 58:44 (3:50/k) and 4th overall just one spot ahead of Cardio’s Brooke Brown who had completed the Texas Ironman just one week before in an amazing time of 9:45. Leg 16 results.

Warren Ringler wondering where the hell his teammates are to support him on leg 16.
Due to some engineering issues with a local bridge, leg 17 was altered this year which meant that the start was moved from where it usually is very near the finish of leg 16, but was now several km’s down the road. All teams were instructed to drop off their final runner at the new start area and then return to Baddeck to watch the grand conclusion. We figured we had plenty of time for this as we cruised down the highway with just under an hour to the start of leg 17. The written directions seemed clear enough (follow the trail over Hunter Mountain and turn left on Swamp Road where a marshal will direct you) but after driving for some 20min or so and not seeing any swamps, roads or marshals, I began to think that something was wrong. I stopped driving in the direction I was headed (the wrong one) and decided to turn around. There were now less than 30min to race start and everyone was getting nervous. We went back the way we came and a gravel road appeared on our right. Although it was NOT labelled ‘Swamp Road’ we were able to ask some locals who told us it was. We then proceeded to drive what seemed like forever to the end of this makeshift roadway where we were relieved to see a number of other teams/runners milling about. Despite only about a quarter of teams being present and no race officials to be seen, we were convinced we were in the right spot. Doyle went off to warm up and we hung around awhile to be sure that everything was in order. After another 15min or so, the race officials and many more teams finally arrived and we were all instructed to head back to Baddeck. We wished our captain luck and were on our way.
The whole team waiting in unifrom on the streets of Baddeck for Doyle to finish leg 17.
That is all we saw of leg 17 until the very end. When we arrived back in Baddeck the crowds were slowing building in and around the ‘downtown’ core (ie on the one and only Main Street) and we soon met up with the other from our team. We all dressed in our ‘Black Lung’ singlets and headed down to finish to wait out the rest of the race. The sun had already risen brightly in the sky and the rapidly warming temperature meant that we soon began to bake in our all black getup. Soon the crowds had grown to what seemed to be thousands as all the teams and many more locals filled the streets and surrounded the finish line. In fitting fashion, the first runner, a Maine-iac, came in well before the others in ~67min and highlighted why they are the team to beat. We then waited several more minutes and began to make rough calculations as to when our man would arrive. Sure enough, and again most appropriately, Michael Doyle appeared at the top of the hill solidly in second place a few minutes later. He flew down the hill towards us as we closed in to create a human tunnel to the finish and offered our hands for some well-deserved high fives. In the countless times I’ve seen Doyle run and race, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bigger more satisfied grin on his face as he beamed with pride, confidence and pure happiness.
'Happy Doyle' finishing leg 17.
It was a sight to be seen and an experience to envy. The whole team was elated and in this brief moment, we knew that everything had worked out just as we had imagined, and perhaps even better.  His result for the 19.0km leg was 1:14:40 (4:00/k); several minutes later, Kevin Gallagher would finish in 1:24:50 to finish off the race for Cardio Arrest. Leg 17 results. Doyle had completed the final leg and the entire race in the finest form and fashion and had put the ‘Lungs’ in the Cabot history books for the first, and far from final, time. This was just the beginning…

The grand finale and finish of leg 17 for the Black Lungs at the 2012 Cabot Trail Relay.
As we had anticipated but were far from guaranteed, we finished the 278.3km race in a solid second place in a cumulative time of 18:04:24 (3:53/k). No one was even close to beating the Maine-iacs who finished in 16:39:32 (3:35/k!). The course record is 16:16:45 but it’s important to note that the course was changed slightly (made longer) this year due to road closures and construction. Cardio Arrest was 4th overall and repeated as top mixed team in a time of 19:38:25. The Maine Road Hags were the top female team in 20:50:06. Full team results.

The 2012 Black Lungs. Back from left: Doyle, David Hiddleston, Darren, Rob Campbell, Davey, the Belge.
Bottom from right: Gerardo, Tom Hesch, yours truly and Warren Ringler. Missing but not forgotten: Guy Smith.
This concludes the race specific portion of my Cabot review for 2012. The final instalment of the series will come later (like after I have a nap, or several naps) and will briefly highlight what some consider the best part of the entire Cabot Trail Relay experience…that being the post-race celebrations!

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