The Herring Run, Maritime Canada’s Best Trail Race

IMG_2901It’s been all international all the time for me lately. First Iceland (which I am slowly writing about), and then, a couple of weeks ago, a quick overnight to Canada for the third annual Herring Run in Mascarene New Brunswick. And next weekend it’s right back to Canada (the French kind this time) for more running.

I’ve gushed before about how the Herring Run is the best race ever, and I mean it. My friends Sadie and Bryan Gagner put on this race in their back yard. Mascarene is located on the far side of Passamaquoddy Bay just south of the town of St. George. The ferry to Deer Island comes in just a few miles down the road, and you can hear the ferry’s horn sound when it leaves. Passamaquoddy Bay and the Bay of Fundy exert firm control over the climate there. Bryan and Sadie live near enough to the water that the fog keeps everything damp, I learned years ago that the footwear of choice most days is rubber boots.

The finish line, strung between the house and the shop.

The finish line, strung between the house and the shop.

The Herring Run is a home grown, organic event and that home grown feel is a big part of the appeal. There’s the free camping in the back fields, and open use of the kitchen for cooking a shared dinner the night before. There’s the night before campfire and masses of young kids with marshmallows and sticks. There’s the incredible logistical masterpiece that is Sadie marshaling all of the neighborhood volunteers. There are the faces I see each year, runners, their families, volunteers in the kitchen and on the trail. There’s the course, a technical 10km that passes through rooty and rocky spruce forest, along the edge of wetland, over small streams, along a gravely woods road, the top of a sea cliff, across a gravel beach (passable only at low tide), and ends where it starts, in Bryan and Sadie’s dooryard. It is a trail race specifically designed to build a trail running community and culture in maritime Canada, and I’d say they’re doing it.

Hand written finishing times.

Hand written finishing times.

The first year there were 26 of us intrepid souls in the inaugural race (an 11km that first year, and an additional 7 in the 22km version). Last year 49 people ran the 10 km, and 14 took on the 20km. This year the race filled to 100 person capacity a few weeks before race day, so if you are interested in running next year, watch Bryan’s Hackmatack Trail Racing website closely for the opening of 2016 registration.

Because the course is tide dependent, one of the quirks of the race is that the date bounces around by necessity. While other races settle into a hallowed annual schedule, the Herring Run flits around the calendar, popping up when the tide allows. To figure out when to have it, Bryan and Sadie have to pour over the next year’s tide charts to find a weekend summer day with a mid to late morning low tide. In 2016 they already know it will be held on July 24, mark your calendars. This race also stands out for its goody bags and amazing post race food. You don’t get a t-shirt or any of the usual race swag, but instead get a hand made Topsail Canvas zippered bag that includes a Gagner Creative bookmark and a tin of sardines.

The amazing lunch provided to all runners and volunteers (and pretty much everyone there).

The amazing lunch provided to all runners and volunteers (and pretty much everyone there).

I made fast friends with John Hough, the race director for the Bay of Fundy International Marathon, himself attending the Herring Run for the first time (he saw my name at registration and introduced himself. Yeah, he reads this blog). I warned him not to eat too much at the post race food table (itself an amazing feast of hand made energy bars, locally smoked salmon and toppings, fruit and blue berry muffins). “Save room for the lunch” I said, “it’s amazing”. He thanked me later for the tip, after we feasted on locally made sausages, salads, bread, pies and salmon jerky.

And I would be amiss to not mention the kids race, a half mile run consisting of two loops through the back fields. A racer dad gets recruited to wear a full body Winnie the Pooh suit to lead the kids through the course so they know where to go.

The kids race line up

The kids race line up

Pooh's pre race briefing.

Pooh’s pre race briefing.

The start!

The start!

And the winner, Eben Bryan, handily beating the field and Pooh bear too.

And the winner, Eben Bryan, handily beating the field and Pooh bear too.

I’ve known Bryan and Sadie for many years. I met Bryan first, through mutual friends and fortuitous geography. Sadie came along a few years later and with her came her dog Pearl. Born behind an Exxon station in the Yukon, rescued by a friend of Sadie’s, Pearl is one of those dogs that only come along once in a great while. Smart, agile, social, and free spirited, she inspires envy. Everyone wishes Pearl was their dog.

Pearl refused to pose for any pictures that day. This blurry face shot was the best I got.

Pearl refused to pose for any pictures that day. This blurry face shot was the best I got.

When I first met Pearl her great trick was that she could climb trees. At 20ish pounds this little mutt ( a bit of chihuahua? And Terrier? And Husky?) could scamper up apple trees and tall spruce trees alike. More importantly she could almost always get her self back down as well (Bryan only had to go up after her a few times). When Bryan started developing the trail network in the woodlot behind the house, Pearl accompanied him as he biked and ran. Pearl could always be counted on to be up for a run, or walk or bike. In the course of her life I’m sure she’s covered every square foot of those woods from the top of the hill all the way down to the shore of Passamaquoddy Bay, paying special attention to locations of various neighborhood compost piles.

Please try to keep Pearl in.

Please try to keep Pearl in.

I’ve known Sadie and Bryan long enough that Pearl is now an old dog, 15 years old to be exact. And like all old dogs, she spends a lot of time sleeping. She’s pretty much deaf, and rarely goes for a run anymore, but old habits die hard, and she still can be counted on to visit the compost pile every day. Stiff and lumpy, bad breath, the occasional indignity of incontinence, none of that matters, I love that old dog. She inspired me to find my own little free spirited buddy (he doesn’t climb trees, but when he wants to go visit the neighbors compost there is no stopping him). I worried about her the day of the race. With 100 people running, many cars driving in and parking in the orchard, kids running everywhere, spectators and volunteers finding their places, I saw how easy it would be to lose track of an small old deaf dog, who still acts on her own initiative from time to time.

My own little version of a Pearl dog.

My own little version of a Pearl dog.

I asked the people in charge of food in the kitchen to try to keep her in the house. I told the kids to keep an eye on her. When I looked around before the race and couldn’t find her, I walked down to the end of the driveway where the cars were coming in an being directed to parking spots and found her just about to trot down the road. I made it my mission to keep track of Pearl while Bryan and Sadie were attending to their event. And I made it my mission as well to run the race for Pearl, knowing she knew the trails and woods better than I ever would, that every stretch that was hard for me was like nothing for her, that the joy I felt when I broke out of the trees and found Passamaquoddy Bay stretched out in front of me was the joy she felt running along those rocks with her people. Alone in a crowd of familiar friendly faces, I pinned Pearl’s face to my heart, and found a connection, a context, a reason for my run that day.

Keeping the lawn clean of crumbs, like any good dog.

Keeping the lawn clean of crumbs, like any good dog.

By the time I finished the race, Pearl was out of the house, wandering the yard, nibbling the crumbs out of the grass beneath the racers food table. She cruised the yard during the lunch picnic, effectively ignoring everyone in her silent world, paying attention only to what was dropped. The prerogative of an old dog. By the time I left, she had disappeared to the back field camping area for a nap in the shade. Also the prerogative of an old dog.

Someday I will be an old dog, and I hope I will be able to look back on my life and see one lived as free as Pearl’s. One where the most important things include the love of the people I surround myself with, knowing the natural world around me intimately, being smart enough to lay down when I need rest and to jump up when the opportunity to run in the woods presents itself. A life where some of the time I stop doing what everyone else wants me to do, and I instead lift my head to the breeze and follow my nose to something interesting.

My nose is taking me back to Canada next week, to a big deal race that I am so woefully unprepared for that I have already resigned myself to the fact that I am likely to come in last. For real. At least I have 7 hours to finish the course, and I am pretty confident that I can achieve that, if nothing else. Bryan and Sadie and their kids will be there too, as will many of the faces from the Herring run, and I am looking forward to getting my French on in a place I have only ever visited in the winter. Pearl will be at home, holding down the fort, keeping watch over the compost pile, which is a pretty good place for an old free running, tree climbing, gas station mutt from the Yukon to be.

 

 

Sarah O'Malley

About Sarah O'Malley

Sarah is a science educator, naturalist, writer, tide pool fanatic and burgeoning obsessive trail runner. From personal experience she believes strongly in the restorative power of contact with nature, especially experiences that make your heart beat a little faster or get your hands and feet dirty. She lives on the Blue Hill peninsula with her husband and two dogs.