After seven runnings, the high-summer Great Cranberry Island Ultra 50K went out on a high note. Not only as Runner’s World mag’s “Best Race Ever,” — and with the 2013 edition designated the national championship race at the distance — but also because in March, the Road Runners Club of America named it National Road Race of the Year. Last week, race co-director Mary Ropp was in Spokane, Washington, at the RRCA’s annual convention to accept the award.
Other Crow Athletics productions include the Mount Desert Island Marathon, October’s Bar Harbor-to-Southwest point-to-point roller-coaster that traces Somes Sound in its second half; and the 62-mile, July 4 Around MDI Relay in which the batons are Barbie dolls. So when directors Gary Allen and Ropp conspired to conjure up a worthy successor to the 50K, there wasn’t much chance of its being a First Annual Ho-Hum Dime-a-Dozen 5K Race and Walk.
No, the heir is the Down East Sunrise Trail (DEST) Relay, to be held Friday-Saturday July 25-26 (formerly the Ultra’s weekend) over a 103.7-mile course on the west side of Route 1 from Washington Junction in Ellsworth to Eastport. The first 85 miles, and 14 legs, will be run on the gravel-surface, rails-to-trail that ends at Ayers Junction in Pembroke; the final two legs on the road, ending with Route 190.
Teams will consists of four to eight runners, and the legs vary in length from 3.6 to 10.6 miles. “There’s something for everyone here,” said Allen, who described the terrain through Hancock and Washington counties as “moderate to rolling-moderate, with quite a few bridges. People who lay out railroads don’t go for steep inclines.”
Much of DEST’s charm and challenge derives from its through-the-night schedule, a team-relay format that is new for Maine. Registrants are asked to predict their pace so that organizers can determine an approximate end time for each team, with the goal of ensuring that as many final-leg runners as possible cruise down Pessikapskiyak Road to the Moose Island, Eastport, finish about midday Saturday. Because 1 p.m. is the time for the celebratory lobster bake “right on the ocean, basically looking across the Bay of Fundy to Canada, stunning is the best way to describe it.” The bake is put on by the Eastport Chamber of Commerce and included in the per-runner entry fee of $70, portions of which go to the Down East Trail Coalition and an Eastport-area charity to be designated.
The coordinated finish requires staggered starting times on Friday from 5 p.m. to midnight, with the slower teams first leaving Ellsworth, then on down to any course-hammering, 6-minute-pace types last.
Allen points out that 12-minute teams will see the sun set and rise. All teams, he hopes, will run beneath the stars, “get to discover the deep Maine woods, and some hidden gems in Down East Maine … through the blueberry barrens, you can see the hills of MDI in the distance; it’s really cool.”
Runners should also see wildlife — and be seen by more wildlife than they see.
“Everything Maine has is somewhere in those woods,” Allen said. “But (animals) don’t want to be around people anyway. The black bears are having their cubs now, or soon, so the mothers are less agitated by then. And the moose will have gotten over the spring rut. You’re more likely to get hit by a Buick when training in your home town than steamrolled by a moose or eaten by a black bear here.”
As for navigating through the scary darkness, between 7 p.m. and 6 a.m., runners are required to wear “reflective vests, headlamps and a red blinky light (worn on the back).” Headphones are allowed (“but we can’t imagine why you wouldn’t want to listen to the sounds of running streams and the glorious nature all around you”) as is on-trail mountain-biking support (note that “teams must be 100 percent self-supported”).
For how this support will be managed, visit the website destrelay.crowathletics.com for precise driving details and directions that extend even to “Points of Interest and Side Trips.”
Beginning with the sheer toil of creating 32 individual pieces of maps and minute directions, the DEST Relay appears an incredibly complex undertaking. But the footrace should prove as simple as the act of running and as natural as the inspired course that only needed to be discovered. There aren’t even batons. At the handoff points, Allen said, runners “just high-five each other and say â€˜go.'”
John Rolfe writes about road racing for the Maine Sunday Telegram. He can be contacted at 791-6429 or at [email protected]