Don Williams, Jr. (American Novelist and Poet, b.1968)
Just organizing this one proved to be a bit of a nightmare that somehow turned into a dream come true. I come from a big extended family in Newfoundland and though the years have passed the bond still remains tight. My Mother is the only remaining sibling, of eighteen born (yes you read that right) that still resides in Nfld. For years when I went on BC road trips and relayed the stories to my parents it would be followed up by, you missed aunt and uncle a-b-c-d and cousins e-f-g-h-i-j-k-l-m-n-o-p, in towns q-r-s-t.
A few years back a wedding reunited me with this long lost side of my family tree and it has been an absolute pleasure getting to know them all over again. In the end, I could not have pulled this one off without their direct assistance and it would simply be unfair of me not to start by specifically thanking everyone who made this possible for me.
Aunt Karen, Uncle Bob, place to crash and great conversation on Monday night
Sarah Logan, friend of this side of family. Place to crash in Bamfield on Tuesday night and drive to trailhead at 5:20am Wednesday
Randy and Roxanne Neville. Pick up in Victoria, dinner, change of clothes for journey home, drive to ferry in Tsawassen.
Ryne Melcher (Montrail family) and his GF Kristin Ohm-Pedersen, drop off at ferry on Monday evening and pick up from ferry on Wednesday night.
On the running side of things the weather could not have been better, and given that it rained just 36hr after I came off the trail I’d wager to say that I had the best day of the year for my speed attempt. In hindsight I’m fully relieved I was not able to attempt the trail in May, as was originally planned, because it would have been a complete waste of my time, money, and energy, with a definitive do-over necessary. In the end it most certainly all worked out for the best!
At 9:30pm I downed a couple of melatonin, as I would never be able to sleep otherwise, and I was out within minutes.
4:30am is early, no matter how you slice it and no matter what time you may have crawled into bed the night before.
5:15am Sarah and I depart for the trail. It’s a ten minute drive and for the first five minutes I find myself making jokes and trying to wake us both up. As we approach our destination though, I go noticeably silent. It’s almost go time. The gravity of the situation is starting to sink in.
It’s still completely dark outside, and there won’t be anyone else around when I arrive at my starting point. There will not be any other runners to share this experience with, or to create that wonderful nervous excitement that inevitably precludes daunting tasks such as these. I won’t have a Race Director there to send me off, and there won’t be any well stocked aid stations along the way. I’m completely on my own, and competing against nothing but a clock and thirteen years of history. I can’t help but notice that I’m more nervous than I was while lining up for the Western States 100 miler back in June. This attempt is so black and white it’s scary.
10h12m or better, success…10h14m or longer, failure.
I have no one to pace off of, no idea of what my ‘splits’ along the trail should be, no way of knowing at any point in time if I’m genuinely going fast enough to pull this thing off. Due to this fact there will not be a single mental break for the entire duration of the run. I have to get my mind locked in, for as much as some of this might prove to be enjoyable, it’s about time to get down to business.
I didn’t pack a headlamp so as to save on weight and we had to wait a few extra minutes until I could sufficiently make out the obstacles of the trail. At 5:34am, I asked Sarah to give me a ten second countdown…
I thanked her for her help with everything as I disappeared into the darkness. Truth be told another ten minutes would have been ideal but I was growing restless, it was chilly, and I had dragged a relative stranger out of bed at 4:45am to assist with this. I tried my best not to end my attempt early with a bad foot placement. The first ladder arrived even quicker than expected. Just 300 meters in and my heart rate was already spiking through the roof.
That right there is what makes the 75km West Coast Trail so unique and daunting all at once. There are many runnable sections on this trail, and the largest non-ladder climb of the route is but a few hundred meters vertical gain. If you removed all of the ladders and cable cars, and replaced the soft sand/loose rock beach sections with hard pack terrain you’d honestly be able to tackle this route in well under 7hr. To look at an elevation profile of the entire 75km would actually leave you scratching your head as to how people could possibly describe the trail as one of, if not the toughest trail in Western Canada?
“ I’ve been waiting all year for this!”
The Northern 17km of the trail are known to be the easiest, and prior to the wind storm damage of 06 it used to be a veritable ‘Golden Brick Road’. This has changed slightly, but comparatively these kilometres are still the least challenging you will encounter upon the entire route.
Each and every kilometre on The WCT is sign posted, and after exactly one hour of running I had eclipsed the 10km trail marker. I was exactly on my anticipated starting pace of about 10km per hour for the first three hours, knowing this pace would prove impossible to sustain as the trail grew tougher.
At twelve kilometres you are spit out onto your first beach section and the pace is once again compromised. A thick fog had beset the area the night before and many of the square foot sized beach boulders were glazed over like honey cruller donuts….mmm donuts…no wait, can’t do donuts, dammit! I think I’m bonking on my trail report as I’m currently (was) on my flight to Newfoundland and seriously sleep deprived…maybe I’ll down a gel!
These delicious yet treacherous beach rocks eventually gave way to sand and pebble sized stones...kinda like timbits…must cease with the donut references…This, above all else, would prove to be the most difficult consistent obstacle to be tackled on the day. At this point I had but a few kilometres of this to deal with, but already it was draining me as much mentally as it was physically. When each and every step you take is compromised, it taxes you as much mentally as it does physically. Like walking in quicksand. Each individual foot placement would result in my entire balance being thrown off, with the only thing stabilizing me being my core muscles, my hip flexors, and my secondary muscle groups. There is simply no amount of pure running that can condition your body to properly accept this type of beating. I was putting in my absolute best efforts to run this stuff and was just managing to sustain sub 8min kms. To stop and walk brought these numbers closer to 11-12 minutes a km. Not a huge difference given the additional energy expenditure warranted. Thankfully however, I kept telling myself that I simply had to run this stuff.
“Every minute counts. Suck it up princess”
In the end, these words could not have proved to be more accurate.
I have a pretty stellar record for wildlife encounters upon trail running speed attempts, including a thirty minute lunch break with a bear last spring while attempting the 47km Juan De Fuca trail with Ryne Melcher.
It’s not even a question of IF I’ll see a bear anymore, just WHEN?
When, ended up being just 1h10min in while coming to terms with the fact that I’ll probably never attempt Marathon Des Sables if the conditions were anything near what I was struggling with. I was in the process of talking to myself via my head camera when I heard rustling in the bushes to my left. I just managed to catch a glimpse of a cub before it was gone and I spent the next few minutes shoulder checking and finding myself thankful that I had missed Momma Bear.
I was still grasping to my original planned pace of 10km per hour for the better part of the first three hours and at exactly two hours I hit nineteen kilometres.
At 23km you encounter the first of five potential cable car crossings, depending on water levels and how wet you wanna get. Only a few are completely necessary by mid-summer, this being one of them. I hit the crossing at 2h25min and shot this video which sums it all up.
The cars rest in the middle of the lines and once again you are thrust into an upper body workout that rivals everything your legs have already absorbed.
After this water crossing the views start to open up a bit on some higher exposed sections of trail, hundreds of feet above the ocean. The terrain also starts to change though and the level of technicality begins its steady ascent towards the completely unrunnable and almost unfathomable culmination later in the route.
As I approached the one and only water taxi crossing, at 32 kilometres, I start to blow on my whistle. Having been stuck at this crossing for the better part of a half an hour in 07 I thought it only smart to try to contact the operator the night before. I was fortunate enough to get a hold of him and as I explained my motivations, my attempt, and my estimated time of arrival, he assured me it would not be an issue to be waiting for my on ‘my side’ of the river. (That being the opposite side of his shelter and normal resting place)
Sure enough after just a few hoots of the whistle I heard an engine fire up! I cruised on down to the waterline and the guy I spoke with the night before was standing in his boat with a smile on his face, all ready to go. I handed him $10 to say thanks, though he kinda looked at me as if to say,
“What the hell is this for?”
“Just to say thanks!”
Into the boat I jumped and we were across the water in minutes! Little did I know at the time, but this one phone call, this one two minute investment the night before my run would end up decisively determining the outcome of my overall speed attempt!
I was carrying four water bottles with me for the run and though I thought I could make the beach vendor, at about 44km on this ration, I now found myself completely dry of bottled fluids and completely drenched with bodily fluids. It was a very humid day, though not yet hot, and when I noticed the water coolers in the boat operator’s beach shelter I asked if he might have some to spare,
“Oh for sure! No worries.”
There appeared to be ample supply to help out hikers on a daily basis, though I am uncertain as to if this is the purpose of this water or not? I simply topped up two bottles, said thanks one more time and was gone.
A nice section of runnable boardwalk follows the water crossing and for the first time in close to an hour I felt like an actual runner again! This didn’t last long however before I was spit out onto the beach again.
The beach sections were getting more torturous with every step so I took every opportunity I could to get back inland. This back fired on one section of trail in particular as it clearly had not been touched by another trail patron in years. The overgrown brush slowed me to a crawl and left me soaking wet from head to toe. I jumped back on the beach as soon as an option presented itself and was left wondering which was the lesser of the two evils?
As you approach ‘Moniques’ at 44km you come off of the beach, up a staircase that climbs a few hundred feet, around a lighthouse, and then back down a staircase of a few hundred feet on the opposite side. While passing through the Carmana Lighthouse grounds I literally nearly stepped on a snake! A tiny garter snake of which I tried to entice back for a pic but having nearly been imprinted with a Montrail Gryptonite shoe sole he was now nowhere to be found!
Moniques is a small beach vendor in which you can sit down and enjoy a hot meal and a cold bear on the beach, IF you’re not attempting a speed record. For me it consisted of buying two Pepsi’s, a plum, and filling my four water bottles with fresh fluids. There were three to four young travellers working there and about a half a dozen hikers enjoying the break.
As I was rushing about looking very dishevelled,
“What are you doing?”
“The West Coast Trail.”
“When did you start?”
“AT WHAT TIME?”
“HOLH S#%T! Are you running the entire thing?”
“Yeah. I’m attempting a speed record and as of right now I think I’m on pace. The record is 10h13m.”
Two people asked if they could take my picture and one shoved a pen and paper in front of me. I chuckled to myself, realizing it was so that they could validate me via the internet! Kinda like, we don't quite believe what you're saying and we fully intend to check your resume buddy!
“THANKS GUYS! Sorry, gotta run…”
Eight minutes was my ‘transition’ time, which was about three minutes longer than I thought it should have been, though I did not feel like I wasted any time as I was restocking supplies from within my pack to the front storage pockets. I didn’t shoot a video at Moniques as I really didn’t want to be the guy wearing a head cam there, in hindsight though it would have been nice to have a few seconds of what Monique’s actually is.
Exiting this beach vendor is doubly tough as not only are you leaving your one safe haven upon the trail behind, but you are trading it in for the longest beach section of the entire trail…seven kilometres of TORTURE!
The first mile was great. The way you would imagine running on a beach, like a pleasant stroll. Hard packed sand, great traction, breaking ocean to one side, and no problem knocking down the mileage without flinching. This did nothing but lull me into a false sense of security though.
“Maybe this won’t be that bad? Maybe it’s all hard packed from here on in. Maybe the worst is now behind me!”
“Dammit GARY! This is a speed attempt, even a minute per kilometre for the next six kilometres will add up. Get yer damn feet moving!!”
It was soul shattering work. Every single stride was compromised and it was beginning to feel as if I were running on a completely foreign planet.
I’m sure if I could actually remember attempting to walk for the very first time I would say it was infinitely easier than this purgatory I was finding myself trapped in.
“You can stop”
“No I can’t”
“You can walk”
“No I can’t”
“You know you want to Gary”
“Shut up Gary! Stupid head! Just shut up and run dammit!”
I was experimenting with anything and everything to try to ease the discomfort of the surface. Eventually I found the answer as I started running IN the ocean. There was a rocky shelf covered mostly by a few inches of water. I ended up zigging and zagging around oceanic obstacles and occasionally I sunk in knee deep, but overall the sensation of once again running upon solid ground, albeit an ocean shelf, was mentally refreshing.
When I finally saw my forested escape route I jumped on it like a monkey on an ice cream cone (no that doesn’t make sense, nor does it have to as it’s MY run report, so there) A MONKEY on an ice cream cone…I was back in the forest and though the trails were getting progressively more challenging I welcomed those challenges with open arms. In fact sometimes very literally as I would ‘decide’ to hook a foot on a stump and kiss the earth with my face. One time in particular I was glad I wasn’t donning my head camera as I ceased my forward motion by firmly planting my noggin into a stump. The camera mount surely would have snapped right off.
I was shooting plenty of trail footage and though time consuming I thought it to be worth it. Then my battery started flashing on my head cam and it was gone. Just under fifty individual videos was all it could handle I guess. I still had my handheld and though I could not capture the true difficulty of the final 20km of the trail I could at least still document the worst bonk of my life!
As I was tackling these Miwok village style structures and contemplating how neglected the constructors of these agonizing devices must have been in their childhood, I came across my first real hiker encounters of the day. Much like I experienced in 2007 you can virtually finish the entire trail before you are confronted with any real traffic heading your way. I was back logged for about thirty seconds. The girl standing on top and awaiting her posse to catch up took one look at me, pieced it all together and simply said,
“Are you RUNNING the trail!?”
“HEY GUYS, GET THE HELL OFF THE LADDERS! THIS DUDE IS RUNNING THE TRAIL, HE’S IN A HURRY PEOPLE!”
And with that the four people below all stepped aside and wished me luck. As I reached the dried river bank I was able to forgo the cable car and as I was filling my now empty water bottles, three hikers stared at me. One girl was wide eyed and speechless, and the head of the group spoke up,
“What section of trail?”
“All of it”
“What time did you start?”
“Blah, blah, blah speed record attempt, blah, blah, blah”
“Then GET GOIN MAN! C’mon, outta here already!”
These brief exchanges did wonders for my confidence, which was taking a beating all day long. I was feeling rejuvenated and with only about twelve kilometres to go I knew it was in the bag. I thought 9:30-something would be my worst case scenario.
As I approached one of the final pieces of ladder work upon the entire trail two hikers were about to set in on the climb.
“Hey guys, mind if I…”
“HEY! You’re that guy! The guy who ran the entire West Coast Trail and Juan De Fuca Trail back to back!”
I was floored. Someone actually recognized me, the bald running weirdo, for what I do. Of course it was ON TRAIL, but still. I didn’t know what to say, so he helped me out,
“Are you running BOTH TRAILS AGAIN?”
“Nope, just the one this time.”
“Right on man! Get goin! Great work! Looking strong!”
Of course by this point I felt like I was dying a slow death, I just didn’t know the full extent of it all just yet.
This being the third time I was covering the West Coast Trail in its entirety I had a pretty good idea of what I was up against. The last 5km were relatively easy and I knew once I got to the 70k marker I would be on the home stretch. It was all but over, game-set-match. It was just a matter of how far under 10hr I could go at this point.
I was now but 7km away from etching my name in the WCT record books. I had run out of water, even though I had consumed FOURTEEN full bottles of fluid! I had run out of calories, even though I a tightly structured plan for constant calorie consumption, but all of this was alright because I was approaching the home stretch.
From seven km to six km was decent, not super fast but consistent. Six km to about five km slowed down a bit, but it was ok cause there was only 5km to go and I was going to close this thing out in under thirty minutes! I could and would push through because surely I could hang on for half an hour. I wasn’t feeling ‘off’ at all, just fatigued and ready to be done.
A strange thing happened from kilometre 70 till the end of the trail at 75+? Someone had made the trail significantly harder than it had ever been before. Someone had thrown in yet more ladder work, they’d also added hill climbs that felt like scaling mountain sides. They topped this off by putting in so many roots, rocks, and off camber terrain that it was completely impossible to run. Time was evaporating around me and I was starting to feel ill. My body was starting to crack. It was ok though, I was almost there, I just had to hang on for another five minutes maybe.
The trail opened up ever so slightly and I was able to run for a few hundred meters. I came around a corner and slammed my right knee into a stump that sent me reeling onto my left knee and eventually my face. I was laying on the ground and begging the trail for mercy. Had I not suffered enough out here yet today? At that moment it all came flooding back to me. I rolled over and stared at the stump that had taken my legs out from under me. I glared at it long and hard, as if in an actual stare down. Memories of 2007 overwhelmed me. It felt like déjà-vu. I recognized the exact tangled, mangled, mess of a remains of a tree now looking down on me from above. We had met before. I had fallen in this EXACT same manor three years ago to the day! I was now being forced to remember what three full years of reminiscing had allowed me to forget. THIS was the worst section of the entire trail. THIS was where you were really put to the test. THIS was what had caused me to revisit my entire detailed collection of four letter words during my last running of the WCT. THIS was were I now remembered wanting to lay down and die last time.
I was not home free. I was nowhere near the finish. I still had significant climbing left to tackle. There would still be ladders to tackle, roots to stumble over, and rocks to careen down. I had somehow managed to completely forget just how brutal this part of the trail truly was.
“You should go South to North” people had told me,
“Nah, I know North to South. I like finishing on the harder stuff” I’d respond with.
Was my own self induced ignorant bliss about to screw me and my speed attempt? Was I anywhere near where I needed to be to still pull this off?
I glanced at my watch…it said I should have been done already! There were no longer kilometer markers on the trail.
How far was there left to go?
I was still in the 9h40’s so I wasn’t fully stressed. Just put the head down and go. Get your ass off the ground, put your head down and grab this while you still can.
Another climb, another descent, now near the water line, I must be close. Around a corner and into a sheer vertical climb, taking me hundreds of feet back above the ocean, eating minutes like an all you can eat buffet.
9h50’s now. Still time. Still lotsa time. 10h13 is still so far away.
“I can still do sub 10hr. Just get the legs moving again Gary…c’mon, get yer legs moving Gary…C’MON ALREADY LETS GO, RUN DAMMIT!”
But something was not right. My body was completely tingly now and as I crested this climb I found myself light headed. I even found myself swaying side to side a bit and consciously thinking, ‘Whoa dude, don’t pass out up here!'
Downhill, it’s ok, it’s downhill, you must be there, just a wee bit further, my watch now showing 78km, it must be around the next corner! I round the corner and am completely shattered by what I see…ladders, climbing, uphill…have I gone wrong? Is it possible to miss the finish and continue on past it? NO, I know better than this, yet my brain is not functioning properly. I have since figured out that I have a small emergency bag of calories in the bottom of my pack, in the form of dried fruit and nuts…but the finish…where is the finish…
I had a ridiculously long mental debate about stopping, taking off my pack and finding my food vs pushing through. I was half way up the climb and recognized that I was crumbling by the nanosecond. I ceased, found the food and tossed it in my mouth. I’m over 10hr now…this can’t be happening! I’m going to finish in 10h14min. I can see it now, clear as day. I’m going to miss, I’m going to fail, I’m going to have to come back and go for round two again in September. I set out with a mission this year, it revolved around two trail records and a major fund raising effort for Right To Play. I would never be able to justify taking a cent in donations from people if I didn’t cover my end of the bargain. I was already making travel plans and working out the dates. Maybe mid Sept? I’ll definitely go South to North next time. I'll pack more food. I'll carry more water. I'll eat my veggies, I'll wash the dishes, I'll clean the house...please make this end!!
10h05m, 10h06m, a downhill now, yet another downhill that will inevitably lead me up and over the next mountain face. I’m toast. If the clock strikes 10h13m I’m laying down for a nap, no matter where I might then find myself.
10h07m, a clearing below, what the? Is that? Can it be? 10h08m, oh my god, I think I see a sign, I think…I think…I’m going to make it…what time is it?
Followed by this cinematic gem
I NEVER, EVER want to go back and run this damn trail again! If someone else breaks the record, A) go South to North B) try for a lower tidal line so you may be blessed with a better beach running surface, and C) you get it, you can HAVE IT!
Seriously though, I feel incredibly fortunate to have pulled this one off. Although I am still convinced that 9h30m is possible, I have no intentions of attempting it anytime soon. It will take me at least another three years to purge the lows from my mind so that I am left with nothing but positive memories of the experience. Though next time I'll be sure to re-read MY OWN run report so that I don't do something stupid like go North to South again!
RIGHT TO PLAY, please help out...we're at 93% already!!
FULL GPS FILE of the run
Nothing more to say, in fact I apologize for how long this one is. Betcha can't wait for the ECT 215km report now, haha!
(A group of boaters throw me a celebratory bevy!)GR