Ten years ago, I fell in love with St. John’s.
On the eastern shores of Newfoundland, in the frozen North Atlantic Ocean, St. John’s lies nestled in a narrow harbour, sheltered on all sides by a wall of great hills. It’s a city defined by paradox: shrouded in cloak of grey fog, broken only by the vibrant hues of brightly-painted clapboard houses; a relatively tiny town that still boasts better nightlife than the best of Montreal or Toronto (yes, really); a rugged coast perpetually battered by brutal winds and inhospitable weather, and yet somehow still famous for its hospitality.
Isolated from the mainland (and in outport communities, from each other), in the face of a volatile climate and an unstable fishery, the distinctive Newfoundland character has emerged. Theirs is a culture defined by a curious blend of long-suffering pride and irreverent humour. Newfoundlanders understand mainland English, but answer back in their own strange language – something akin to an Irish brogue, a dialect born of generations of islander isolation. They’re a universally bilingual people; music is their second language.
Raised partway in Dublin, Ireland as the child of Canadian expats, Newfoundland had long intrigued me for the way it seemed to blend my dual, conflicting identities. So at eighteen-years-old, in the spirit of fearlessness that defines so much of early adulthood, I decided to move there.
When you’re a mainlander living in Newfoundland, you can’t help but feel like you’ve stumbled upon one of the world’s last unspoiled treasures; the island’s inimitable charm is oddly unknown away from her own shores. And the islanders are quick to embrace the “Come-From-Aways” like myself who choose to settle there. The result is that St. John’s, and the extraordinary people who make their lives there, never really lets you go. You leave this town with a perpetual sense of unfinished business. Newfoundland, even if you’re not a native Newfoundlander, will always call you home.
This past weekend, I came home to St. John’s for what I thought would be a destination race. But really, it was a pilgrimage.
Newfoundland boasts one of the oldest road races in North America, a ten-mile course that runs a straight shot from the town of Paradise into the heart of old St. John’s. Second only to Boston and Around The Bay, the Tely 10 (diminutively named, in true Newfoundland style, for title sponsor the Telegram newspaper) is the island’s marquee athletic event.
It’s a mid-sized road race by most standards: this year saw just shy of 5,000 participants. But like so much else in Newfoundland, its modest size belies its mammoth significance in the insular island community. The local paper runs a detailed predictions page in the days leading up to race weekend. Every bit of the 16 kilometre course is lined with cheering spectators. The finish line crowds are packed five-deep, and the winners’ smiling faces are all but guaranteed to run on the cover of the paper the following morning.
In a sport so often relegated to the periphery, the Tely 10 offers a brief, shining moment in which distance runners can feel like kings.
It might look to mainlander eyes like a smaller race, but a victory in the Tely 10 is no small feat. The competitive field runs remarkably deep, and despite not having an elite program, the race consistently attracts world-class athletes from across the country.
(An unofficial elite program operates primarily in the form of local distance runner David Freake’s Twitter feed. Freake’s method is a targeted, earnest, and unrelenting year-long promotion of the event, complete with proffers of free accommodation and rides to the airport – a truly St. John’s approach if ever there was one.)
Like the island it calls home, the Tely 10 is unselfconsciously eccentric. A midsummer road race of non-standard distance with the gravitas of a championship event, it heralds the peak of racing season for Newfoundlanders. Forget the usual spring/fall training schedule; like the island’s peculiar half-hour time zone, the Tely 10 refuses to be bound by a mainland timetable. Never mind the ordinary – this is Newfoundland, after all.
Even the course markings are no exception to this. The Tely 10 mile markers aren’t your usual sandwich boards or flags, but actual road signs – permanent, integrated fixtures in the town’s infrastructure. There’s a sense of rigidity, a characteristically Newfoundland stubbornness, to be inferred from this; here is the course, as it is, as it always has been.
This isn’t an event; it’s an institution.
With the benefit of hindsight, I would have been hard-pressed to choose a better year for my first Tely 10 than this one. The 89th running of the race, 2016 is destined for infamy as the year Kate Bazeley shattered Nicola Will’s 30-year-old course record, in a finishing time of 55:34.
Bazeley, who ran to a ninth-place finish in last year’s race just weeks after giving birth to her second child, has been enjoying a banner year, with a strong performance in far-less-than-ideal conditions at the 10K road championships in Ottawa this spring. Her record-breaking run this Sunday, while not entirely unexpected, was one of those rare, dizzying moments of athletic transcendence. Make no mistake: the unofficial ambassador of Newfoundland athletics is a woman on the brink.
But though Bazeley’s competitive zeal and undeniable fitness are a force to be reckoned with on the roads, she cuts a surprisingly disarming figure in conversation at the Nautilus Running Club‘s post-race celebration later that evening.
There, in the quiet of Pippy Park, in that long, suspended summer moment between daylight and dark, is where the real weight of the Tely 10’s long history is unpacked. There are tales of high winds, and bad weather, of years that went favourably and those that didn’t, of the dominance of Paul McCloy, of the record that was broken today, and of ones that might never fall. It’s an unwritten saga, a living, oral history unwound over music and laughter, and just a bit too much of that unforgettable Quidi Vidi Beer.
“There’s a saying ’round here,” one member tells me, as a friend laments his running prowess hasn’t translated to success in today’s race. “If it’s not done at the Tely, yer not worth a damn.”
…he may not have said damn.
Chase big dreams.