by Michael Brunelle
The 2nd annual Tobermory Trail Race Weekend took place in late September at the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula in the iconic harbour village of Tobermory, Ontario. Known for the Fathom Five National Marine Park, home to Flowerpot Island with its interesting rock formations, 19th century lighthouses, shipwreck dive sites, and the famous Chi Cheemaun Ferry, there is plenty to see and do in this popular destination.
The event had many options including a marathon, half marathon, marathon relay, and a 5k race Sunday on Flowerpot Island.
The race organizers did a great job of creating a weekend festival out of the event, stretching the festivities out over three days.
On Friday night we arrived at the Community Centre for race kit pickup. There was a pasta dinner, complimentary for participants with options for vegans and vegetarians, and a silent auction at the event. The feature of the evening was guest speaker Chantal Warriner, who holds the Fastest Known Time record completing the Bruce Trail end to end. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. Trail runners are an eclectic bunch known for being laid back and sociable, and this group was no exception. I introduced myself to a few of my “Strava people” and chatted for a while with some running friends that I had met at other events. Everyone was excited and a bit nervous about the race the next day, as the weather was unseasonably hot and humid and the terrain we would be tackling was extremely technical. These fears would prove to be well founded!
Early Saturday morning, all participants met back at the Community Centre for a pre-race briefing and safety talk. A freak heavy rain had blown through the area overnight, and the race organizers stressed the importance of moving carefully over the slippery rocks.
The course, not revealed in detail until race day, would follow for the most part the northern peninsula section of the Bruce Trail. Marathoners and relay teams would start in Tobermory, then run an out-and-back to Cyprus Lake at Bruce Peninsula National Park. The half marathon runners would be transported to the turnaround at Cyprus Lake where they would start their race. All participants would cross the same finish line back in Tobermory.
From the Community Centre, the half marathoners and relay leg runners boarded the busses to their respective drop-off points, while the rest of us walked in procession ceremoniously behind a Piper to the starting line. We lined up on Bay Street, and then we were off!
After a very short time on the streets of Tobermory we hit our first section of trail, some nice woodland paths through the Bruce Peninsula National Park Visitors’ Centre. The trails here were easy and I was moving along close to my road marathon race pace. After about 2km we turned onto the first fairly technical section. This would be our first taste of the rocky terrain that was to come. As we followed the trail we ended up on a local golf course, whose owners were gracious enough to have set up the first of the volunteer aid stations. This was a welcome site, and after only 5km of racing I happily grabbed a cup of water and poured it into my hat to help keep my head cooled off. Back onto the trail, nothing too crazy through this section. It reminded me of some other points along the Bruce Trail where I had done some training for this race. (The Bruce Trail follows the Niagara Escarpment for over 800km, starting in Niagara Falls and ending at the northern tip of the Bruce Peninsula in Tobermory. While the geological attributes of the escarpment are prevalent all along the trail, no other section quite compares to the rugged backcountry along the northern end of the peninsula).
We turned onto a section of gravel road and then hit the second aid station at Little Cove Provincial Park. It was our first glimpse of the clear blue water of Georgian Bay and the spectacular views that lie ahead. Several of the 2nd leg relay runners were waiting here for their transition into the race. I had hoped to arrive at Little Cove in about 50 minutes, and as I cruised into the aid station I realized I was way ahead of schedule, at only 43 minutes! In a road marathon I would take this as a cue to slow myself down immediately, but that would prove to be unnecessary as the trail after Little Cove would make sure of it.
Immediately the trail became extremely technical with steep climbs and rocky terrain, in fact I recall seeing a warning sign posted that stated exactly that. The pace slowed drastically, and I marvelled at the trail running skills of some of the racers who were able to keep running steadily through this long, difficult section. To me, every step felt treacherous, and the rocks were incredibly slippery from the earlier rainfall. Back in July I had been on this section of trail for a course preview run, and at the time it was difficult and slow-going, but still somewhat runnable. But today I found it nearly impossible to run at all. It was just too slippery. I ended up power-hiking almost this entire portion of the race, more than 10k from Little Cove to the turnaround at Cyprus Lake, along cliff edges, sharp-ridged slabs of limestone, and across pebble beaches.
Finally the trail opened up and I was able to get running along at a decent pace again. I was starting to pass by quite a few half marathoners running in the opposite direction, including a 12 year old kid who was quite happily floating across the terrain like it was no big thing. I spotted my friend Sandy and she cursed something about injuring her wrist. She decided to drop from the race at her next checkpoint, but not before first trying to continue on for an extra kilometre. It’s a good thing she did, as it turned out x-rays at the hospital revealed a broken wrist and elbow. As it states on the race website, this event is not for the faint of heart!
According to my race plan I was hoping to get to the turnaround point somewhere around 2 hours, but I was 20 minutes behind schedule. I stopped at the aid station as both bottles in my Salomon pack needed to be refilled, and my shoes needed to be sorted out and re-tied after the wobbly rocks on the pebble beaches had loosened them considerably. Joan Matthews, who would eventually go on to be first place female caught up to me at the aid station and we headed into the second half of the race together.
The race course now looped around back to the shoreline of Georgian Bay and we turned north again toward Tobermory. We climbed up and over the famous Grotto, a wave-carved cave that tourists flock to in droves – and for good reason. The view here is absolutely spectacular, and it’s some of the best hiking to be found anywhere. Once again across a long pebble beach, and Joan somehow was able to get into a slow shuffle across the rocks. I made an attempt at running on them and decided it was safer to just keep hiking.
Joan left me in her dust as I once again embarked upon the long ordeal of precarious shuffling and scrambling between the Grotto and Little Cove. I dropped from 5th place to 7th as two more marathoners came along in this section and passed me.
When I finally returned to Little Cove the day was dragging on and I was really feeling the unseasonal heat and humidity. I was thankful for my aggressive hydration and fuelling strategy early on in the race. Because I was forced to walk so much in the previous section and I had consumed so many gels, I still had a fair bit of energy left. The easiest part of the course was ahead of me now, and there was less than 10km left to the finish line. I was feeling a bit grumpy and frustrated from being forced to walk for such a long time, and I had already surpassed my projected finish time.
The road section at Little Cove was such a welcome relief and I opened up my stride and fell into a steady jog. I cruised through the woodland trails at the Visitor’s Centre once again, and was passing quite a few half marathoners, which was giving me some motivation. Finally I was back on the village streets of Tobermory, then turned to run along the walkway at the edge of Little Tub Harbour, up some wooden stairs and then onto Bay Street for the final stretch.
The finish line atmosphere was fun and the crowd very supportive of the runners coming in from their challenging day out on the trail. The highlight of the day for me was having my wife, who was working as a volunteer at the finish line present me with my medal. It was a unique wooden medal with a hand-carved image of Flowerpot Island. I finished in 5h29min, a good hour longer than I had even considered it would take me to finish – but I was happy anyway for the experience. It’s not everyday you get to race a marathon on the Bruce Trail!
We hung around at the finishers’ area for a while just taking in the summer-like weather and the festival atmosphere. There were bouncy houses and other activities for the kids, and it was nice to see so many families out enjoying the day in such a beautiful place. There was an awards ceremony with prizes for top finishers in various categories, and well as random draw prizes for participants. On the back of the runners’ bibs were several discount specials offered up by local businesses.
On Saturday night there was a fish fry at the Community Centre which we skipped and went instead to the golf course restaurant. It was called Ancient Cedars and featured quite a few vegan options on the menu, including the best vegan burger and potato wedges I have had anywhere, ever. I recognized the operators of the restaurant from the golf course aid station. What a long day they had put in, out in the hot sun helping out the runners!
Early Sunday morning a boat from Blue Heron Cruises transported the 5k participants to Flowerpot Island for the race. We were at the dock when the runners returned to Tobermory and I’m pretty sure it was even more hot than it had been the day before.
The awards presentation was dockside, and I recognized some of the marathon participants who had doubled up and raced in the 5k as well.
I have to say this event was one of my favourite race weekends that I’ve attended. The course was beautiful, the volunteers at the aid stations were amazing, and the entire weekend just seemed to have a feel-good vibe. The organizers experienced some technical glitches with the pre-race briefing presentation and the timing clock, but everything was sorted out just fine and our results came up accurately. The race course was by far the most challenging I’ve ever attempted, and it was somewhat humbling to realize I still have a lot to learn when it comes to running a smart race on trails. After talking to several other participants, there seems to be one common sentiment which I happen to agree with: We can’t wait to come back and do it again!