The water stop on North Mountain was an oasis in the chilly Canadian landscape.
As dusk fell over the steep hillsides of northern Cape Breton Island, the fog rolled in in ghostly tendrils that made everything eerie, cold and wet. A solitary runner came huffing up the road, drenched with sweat and fog. The white-haired man was alone, and yet he wasn't, as he emerged from the mist to a barrage of cheers and noise.
"Go Fossil," someone screamed from the crowd at the runner. "Great work! Keep it up."
When they weren't running, Maine participants in the relay pounded rocks against guardrails in a relentless rhythm, beat steel drums and handed out endless sloppily gulped paper cups of water which the runners crumpled and threw on the ground on their way to the finish, many dark and cold miles away.
The Mainers also wore grass skirts over their waterproof gear and looped plastic leis around the damp necks of anyone who wanted one.
It was business as usual for the Cabot Trail Relay, one of the most unusual races to be held on the Eastern Seaboard - or anywhere, for that matter. Unusual because the competition, which began early Saturday morning in the hamlet of St. Ann's, covers more than 185 miles over a two-lane scenic highway circling part of Cape Breton on the northernmost tip of Nova Scotia. Participants run all day and all night in 17 legs of the relay, with each leg taking one to two hours. They run over three steep mountains, through fishing villages and across rolling farmland.
Staged by the Cabot Trail Relay Association, the Cabot Trail Relay began in 1988 with six teams and has grown ever since. Last weekend's event drew more than 1,000 runners on 63 teams from Canada, the U.S. and even Great Britain. Racers ranged from highly competitive to highly recreational.
For years, Maine has fielded three or four teams. This year three Maine teams made the trek northeast to Cape Breton. Led by Newell Lewey of Orono, the Maine men's team, the Maine-iacs, won the Cabot Trail Relay for the second year in a row. The Maine Road Hags, the Maine women's team, placed a strong ninth overall and came in second in the women's division. The crowd-pleasing over-50 team, the Maine Running Fossils, ran for the eighth year. The Fossils' 17 members average 60 years in age and compete with the unofficial goal to not finish last. They came in at a respectable 50th place.
Not bad for a day's work, especially when the day included more than 24 hours of running, 185 miles of dazzling scenery, driving rain, bright sunshine, heavy fog and swarms of man-eating black flies.
The Maine runners say the Cabot Trail Relay is one of the best things they do each year.
"It is the most fun race I've ever run, without exception," Fort Fairfield runner Jeff Ashby said while waiting in his steamed-up car for the signal to pull forward and chase his team's runner during a leg of the relay.
"The first year I did this, it amazed me," Fossils co-captain Denny Beers, 56, of Dixmont said. "I hit the top of the mountain once and this druid came out of the woods and gave me a drink of water ... . It's a wonderful experience."
It's wonderful, and a little weird, and the men and women from Maine wouldn't have it any other way. The three teams' members range in age from 22-year-old Adam Goode of Orono, a recent University of Maine track-and-field athlete, to 69-year-old Dick Storch of Orono, a retired professor of entomology.
The runners joke with each other in the comfortable way of old friends.
Fossil Katherine Wilson, 61, of Stockton Springs says anyone over 50 can become a Fossil. She joked about recruiting a Road Hag who had injured her knee cartilage, or meniscus.
"You don't need meniscus, " the teacher and guidance counselor quipped.
Maine-iac captain Lewey, 47, agreed. "You don't need a knee," he said.
"You just need a pulse," Beers said with a smile.
But despite the differences in generations and race times, the Mainers have a lot in common - a love of running, and, quite often, something more.
"It's about family," Rene Collins, 64, of Brewer, a Fossil, psychotherapist and Husson College counseling service director, said. "It's totally about family."
Sometimes the family ties can be so close that they hurt. When Fossil Bill Pinkham of Lamoine died last year after a Fourth of July road race, it left a big hollow spot for his friends and running family.
Team co-captain Robin Emery, 59, of Lamoine knew Pinkham - known as "Q-Tip" because of his shock of white hair - very well. They often ran together over the back roads of their coastal Hancock County town.
"This is my sixth [relay] and the first one he's not running with us," she said. "It was hard coming up yesterday."
Though that strangeness and loss was a very real part of this year's relay for the Fossil team, silliness and fun still abounded. Though no druids were spotted lurking in the woods, one team decked themselves out as Vikings, complete with helmets and plastic axes. Another group of women runners donned black fishnet stockings, short red skirts and slinky singlets. The Maine Road Hags looked a little like landlocked mermaids, as all wore transparent, spangled green skirts over their running togs.
"We have an intense fashion focus," Road Hag Abby Weisman of Holden said. "It's not how fast you run, it's just how good you look."
The spectators added to the festive atmosphere. Those watching the race - fellow participants and bemused villagers of Cape Breton Island - seemed to have a good deal of compassion for the particular type of lunatic who would compete in an overnight relay race.
Norris Whiston of Nova Scotia sang along to the Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil" as he waited in the rain for the runners to pass him on an eastern section of the trail. The teacher, storyteller and trail builder held up a sign that read "Roller Blades For Rent," wringing tired smiles from the faces of the racers who pounded - or plodded - by.
"I'm excited by people," Whiston said.
Runners leaned into the heavy sheets of rain as mist billowed up from the green hillsides ahead. Bystanders cheered them on, soaked themselves but cheerfully tooting on horns and clapping loudly for the last runners as well as the course leaders.
"You look strong, dear," called out David Smith, 64, a Bucksport-born Fossil who now lives in Wilmington, N.C. He spoke to a woman who ran towards the back of a long, bedraggled pack. She flashed him a brief grin. Another woman followed her wearing a hula skirt and a coconut bra strapped over her billowing yellow slicker.
Far below the hillside, a quiet silver sea merged with the steely sky in an infinite stretch of gray. One fishing boat, looking more like a bathtub toy, bobbed gently in the harbor.
The runners raced alone, but surrounded by the frenzy and fun of their international running family. It's a thing that's hard to explain but amazing to experience, according to Road Hag Katrina Bisheimer, 40, of Bangor.
"You're up for 24 hours, watching races, doing your own race," she said. "You eat and then you get in your car, drive 12 hours back home. It's kind of crazy when you think about it but the camaraderie is great."
Bisheimer paused for a moment, searching for words amid the bustle and noise of the crowd.
"You learn to believe in yourself, I guess," she said. "I don't know how else to describe it."
Emery, a distance runner who never lost a road race in a decade until she was beaten by Joan Benoit, ran the 17th and final leg for the Running Fossils. It was the leg that Pinkham, her running partner and friend, ran last year. She looked tired but triumphant as she jogged across the finish line into the arms of her teammates.
"I've only got four months until I'm 60, then I'll kick butt. Wrinkled butt," she said. "When I started running, women didn't run distance. I just love it. Have to do it. I was just born to do it. It just makes you feel so good."
Abigail Curtis can be reached at 667-9395 and email@example.com.