Brian early during the run
Running the West Coast trailWe both peered through the growing darkness at the sign – it had to be wrong. We knew that we only had 2 more kilometres to run but the sign said 5 more to the Gordon River, our final destination. Now on most trail runs this would not cause either of us too much angst, but when it occurs after 14 hours of running along the untamed west coast of Vancouver Island, perspective is in short supply.
For the past few years Roch and I had discussed the possibility of doing the West Coast Trail as a day run. This year, however, we resolved to make it a reality and at 5:20 am on August 15th we set out from the tiny fishing village of Bamfield with instructions to Michelle to meet us in about 12 hours at the south end of the trail, Port Renfrew. After an initial false start down the beach, we were soon heading through old growth Douglas fir and cedar forests with the Pacific Ocean crashing below us – 72 kms to go, or at least that’s what the guidebook said.
Initially, we made good progress along the trail as the northern section was redone in the 1970s and is wide and runnable for substantial stretches. In fact, we couldn’t believe how quickly the kilometres rolled by (Parks Canada has considerately marked every kilometre). Before we knew it, we had covered over 20 km when we met the first surprised hikers on the trail.
At the 32 km mark we encountered our first real barrier to finishing the run – the Nitnat Narrows: a narrow, fast-moving body of water that flows to the sea or inland to Nitnat Lake depending on the tides. Luckily, within minutes of arriving at the dock, the local Indian band that operates the ferry crossing for hikers arrived and deposited us safely on the other side. Once across we were confident of the success of our run and celebrated by purchasing a couple of ice-cold cokes (perhaps the best $2 I’ve spent in a long time!). Before heading back onto the trail, Roch decided to buy a lemonade for mixing with Carbopro. I must admit it took a lot of maturity on my behalf to point out that what he was in fact purchasing was not just lemonade, but a vodka cooler. Ah, opportunities missed!
Over the next 30 kms the trail slowly deteriorated with many sections of ancient broken boardwalk giving hints as to both the trail’s age and original use as an emergency route for shipwrecked sailors. As the trail deteriorated, the beach was often the recommended route for travel. While the beach provided beautiful views of the ocean, it wasn’t as easy as it could have been, as the sand often seemed to consist of small ball bearing sized pebbles that gave way with every stride. For those who know Roch well (or Quadzilla as Huddle fondly refers to him), his strength is, well, strength and each step in the loose sand painfully reminded me that I am no Roch. Luckily, I was able to occasionally convince Roch to walk for short periods (though Roch tended to argue that running was easier than walking!) and during one longer forced slog, I was saved from more quad-shredding by a friendly shout of hello from a group of hikers who turned out to consist of Roch’s good friend Mark Wood, his fiancée and her parents – it really is a small world.
Even when we were forced to abandon the beach, the trail offered up its own challenges: fallen trees, bridges, cable-car crossings and ladders. With over 40 ladders running up and down the numerous ravines along the trail, we found we were often in our anaerobic zone without even trying. While it was tiring, we could only sympathize with the hikers, many of them carrying 40 or 50 lb packs, who had to negotiate the same route.
By 7 that night we realized we had been overly optimistic in our estimated running time but were still confident that we would be soon off the trail. And while our progress had slowed to 18 minute kms, we only had a couple more to go, right? Wrong, slightly dehydrated, we quietly pushed on through the toughest section of the trail toward the Gordon River, which we reached just about an hour later in failing light. After a quick repacking of our bags, we waded into the frigid waters of the Pacific and swam toward the lights of Port Renfrew on the other side – the perfect cool down after a perfect day of running.