There’s something about the Cabot Trail Relay
A group of women on their journey that lead them to team up to take on Canada’s most storied East Coast relay
A group of 17 women travelled to Nova Scotia to run the Cabot Trail Relay. The 2 4-hour event is broken up into 17 legs, ranging from 12–20k. The course covers the entire 276k of Nova Scotia’s mountainous and breathtaking Cabot Trail. Though training for this specific race only began several months before, all of the steps that led to it were years, and even decades, in the making.
In May 2016, a group of 17 Toronto women travelled to Nova Scotia, under the name Camp Saturdays, to run the Cabot Trail Relay. The 2 4-hour event is broken up into 17 legs, ranging from 12–20k. The course covers the entire 276k of Nova Scotia’s mountainous and breathtaking Cabot Trail. Though training for this specific race only began several months before, all of the steps that led to it were years, and even decades, in the making. Women’s running has seen an incredible boon in recent years; in fact, last year the Wall Street Journal reported that in 2015, 57 per cent of the 17 million U.S race finishers were women. When you consider the fact that prior to 1960, women were mostly banned from competing in races farther than 200m, and that the women’s marathon wasn’t an Olympic event until 1984, it puts into perspective just how significant this percentage is.
Women are still less likely to run longer races. Data from 2014 reveals that marathon fields still see male entry rates at slightly more than 50 per cent, and ultramarathons had only 30 per cent female participation. The Cabot Trail Relay itself is still mostly raced by male-dominated teams. Though this is slowly changing, there is a special significance to a group of women tackling a race like this celebrated relay together, without the help of male teammates.
I sat down with the women from the Camp Saturdays team to talk about their journeys in running, and the Cabot Trail Relay race specifically, and why this was such a meaningful experience.
Why Camp Saturdays?
Parkdale Roadrunners was started by Mike Krupica and Steven Artemiw in the summer of 2010. In the beginning, it was just two friends who wanted to get each other running. They printed a few shirts, and set a regular time and place to meet up, and slowly, their run crew grew. Years later, Artemiw’s then partner, Preety Mudhar, noticed that a lot of women felt too intimidated to come out to the regular runs. They were worried that they weren’t fast or strong enough. And so in the late fall of 2013, the Parkdale Roadrunners Ladies’ Run was born. It was a huge success.
“I have to admit, it is intimidating showing up to a huge crew run, as a new runner,” says Mary Higgins, who joined the Camp Saturdays team after running with the Ladies’ Run. “It’s really discouraging if you can’t keep up. At the Ladies Run, we still pushed each other, but in a really non-shaming, encouraging kind of way. And I don’t know if guys do that. But it’s totally different with women. They’re coming from a place of having been there before. It’s kind of hard to articulate, but for me it’s a lot about that bond with other women. It’s non-competitive authentic empowerment. It’s just something that people do by sharing their own experience and just running beside you.”
Similarly, Jenny McConnell was on her own mission to empower women to seek their strength. After qualifying for Boston in her first year as a runner, she left her job as a restaurant manager in 2014 to pursue a career as a trainer at Academy of Lions, a Toronto training facility that attracts many local runners. Noticing that many of her fellow women runners didn’t cross-train as fervently as some of the men, she started The Camp, a weekday morning metabolic conditioning class for only women, mostly from the running community.
These two communities grew (with some overlap), and both Mudhar and McConnell saw the women around them getting stronger. They ran more, ran with each other, ran marathons. They went from push-up to pull-up, and started to set goals for their own strength.
The idea for Camp Saturdays started one day when Jenny McConnell did a speed workout at Equinox gym. “I was trying to think of people who might be interested, and I couldn’t think of women I knew who wanted to actually race. So I wanted to figure out a way to inspire women to want to go faster.” To achieve this goal, McConnell decided to put together a relay team to keep women accountable to each other. She enlisted Mudhar to be her partner, and they made a list of people who were part of their respective training groups. All the women who they messaged said yes within two hours. And that was it. The name Camp Saturdays came from combining McConnell’s The Camp, and the fact that the Parkdale Ladies Run is held on Saturday mornings.
There’s something about teams
As one of the runners who quickly and enthusiastically replied “yes” to being on the Camp Saturdays team, I can attest to the fact that taking a generally solo endeavour and turning it into a team sport definitely ups the ante. When I have a race coming up, I am one of those runners who will do the absolute minimum amount of training necessary to be able to get it done on race day. This was different. We did training runs together. We ran hills together. One of our team members, Kate Evans, a yoga instructor, even helped us with mental training – meditation and creating mantras to get us through any mental blocks that might come up on race day. Being part of a relay makes you accountable to the other people on your team, and while you may have personal goals in your own running, all of the women who I spoke to from Camp Saturdays confirmed that Jenny McConnell had achieved her goal in creating the team – all of us went into the race wanting to go faster. We wanted to make each other proud. And the relay dynamic lends something special to the race experience. Team members can draw from each other’s strengths in a way that’s very different from what you see in solo races.
“Watching Celeste Morton, who was right before me – I saw her running up a really steep hill, and saw the determination on her face and how focused she was,” says Carissa Gregoria, who ran Leg 7, a 13k. “And then she crossed the finish line and started crying. And I started crying. I was so nervous, that it relieved my tension.”
Celeste told Gregoria after finishing that she gave everything that she had and, “pushed so hard for all of you,” recalls Gregoria. “And I thought, ‘I’m going do that, too.’ Not that I didn’t think that before, but it gave me focus. It made me think, ‘I feel awesome and I can do this’. Gregoria now considers her leg of the relay her best-ever race.
There’s something about women’s running
“The concept of female strength is changing. Women are no longer worried about becoming ‘masculine’ while training,” says McConnell. “Even if women come in [to the gym] saying, ‘I want to get skinnier’ or ‘I want abs,’ that goal quickly shifts once they see how much stronger they’re getting.”
When I talk to women I know who aren’t runners, they think that runners are crazy. We’re crazy for running marathons and ultramarathons. We’re crazy for running in -30 C in the snow. We’re crazy for travelling to Nova Scotia to spend 27 hours in a van supporting other women running up mountains, while also throwing our own 13–20k race into the mix. But when I start talking to them about the benefits of running beyond fitness, and the reasons why I run, their bewilderment often begins to shift to intrigue. When you stop seeing running as a form of exercise to get fit, and start seeing it as a tool to help you work through all of the other things going on in your life, that’s when the real strength of running.
“Being around other women doing positive things to change their lives and achieve their goals has changed me,” Gregorio points out. “I know what I want more confidently and assertively because of running. At work, my career and leadership are going so well. It’s because of the people around me, and because I’m running. I see things so differently from [when I started running] two years ago.”
This was a common theme for the women that I spoke with about running in general, and specifically about the experience of running the Cabot Trail. Running will pull things out of you that you didn’t expect. “As far as watching the race, and watching all of those women,” says Celeste Morton, “it brought something out of me that I’d never felt before – a serious depth of emotion that I don’t get to very often. I saw women that I’d been running with for a number of years dig just as deep as I did. And I thought ‘you felt as deeply as I did; you wanted to dig to the best of your ability to do well for the people running with you.’”
There’s something about community
The prominence of run crews has exploded, both in Canada and globally. It’s this community that’s helped fuel the third, current major phase of the running boom. Unlike traditional run clubs, which focus on running first, “run crews” are “about family first and foremost and the running is actually secondary,” Charlie Dark, founder of one of the first run crews, London’s Run Dem Crew, at his keynote talk last year at the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. “It’s about supporting and elevating everyone in your crew, particularly newcomers, beginners and making everyone the best that they can be.”
And with the rise of women’s crews, or women-focused runs, women runners are finding their footing, as well as the role models they crave to help push themselves further as runners. “Women are definitely more open about how challenging running is for them sometimes,” says Celeste Morton. “As I’ve run with more women, I need that. I need other women to tell me stories about how hard, or how good, or how challenging it is for them. Because I feel like women deal with physical challenges on a different level than men.”
There’s something about showing up
“When I started running, I thought everyone else was an experienced runner,” admits Mary Higgins. “And they’d been running their whole lives and I’d never be as fast as them. And I didn’t realize that this wasn’t the case until I started talking to them. The secret wasn’t that they’d been doing it their whole lives; the secret was that they showed up. We live in this culture that we want everything right away. And if we’re not the best right away we don’t want to do it. I didn’t feel that connection the first time. But I kept showing up and trying to talk to people about their running experience. And I learned pretty quickly that the people I was running beside were not track stars from high school. They might have been partying two years ago, but they decided to keep showing up. Anyone can do it. It just takes time.”
“She enlisted Mudhar to be her partner, and they made a list of people who were part of their respective training groups. All the women who they messaged said yes hours.” within two
“We wanted to make each other proud. And the relay dynamic lends something special to the race experience. Team members can draw from each other’s strengths in a races.” way that’s very different from what you see in solo