May 08, 2009

How NOT To Run The 47k Juan De Fuca Marine Trail...

My Third Running Of The JDF

I had run the 47km Juan De Fuca Marine Trail twice before. Once in 2006 where the lead three of our pack of nine finished in about 7h15m. The second time I ran the trail was at the end of my 'West Coast Double' in 2007, in which most of the trail was done at night, and all of it was completed after having run the 75km 'West Coast Trail' plus an 8km stretch of road that connects these two trails. The total distance of that one was 130k and I somehow managed a 9h10m effort on the JDF that night. On more than one occasion during this attempt I found myself wondering exactly how I managed to pull that one off?

The understatement of the year is that the Juan De Fuca Marine Trail is tough. In my humble opinion it's about as difficult as a coastal B.C. 'running' trail can get. To help put it in perspective, the current speed record for the route is 6h15m. The trail never forces you higher than 660 feet above sea level, and only climbs over 500 feet once, yet the total elevation gain and loss for this trail...I love over 8,000 feet!!! That's all you need to know right there. To see a side profile of the JDF is like looking at a saw blade. If ya ain't climbin yer descending, and that's the Juan De Fuca in a nutshell.

I have a fairly large 'to do' list for 2009 and I am looking to cross some of the larger things off that list early, before the summer evaporates. With just two days off, and having supported some friends for the Vancouver Marathon on Sunday morning, Ryne Melcher and I departed for Vancouver Island at 2.30pm on Sunday, catching the 4pm ferry to Victoria. We both knew what the trail record was, and although not our sole motive during this journey, we openly discussed our plan of hard, and when we start to falter and tire, run harder!

We arrived in Port Renfrew, where we were to camp for the night, at 8:30pm. As I was telling Melcher about my bear encounter just prior to the park gates in 2007 Ryne looked at me and said,

"Was it THAT bear?"
(Melcher gets photo credits for this gem of a shot!)

Sure enough, in almost the EXACT same place as two years previous, there was another black bear feeding on the side of the road! As with most bears in areas like this, they have become so accustomed to human interaction that they rarely even flinch at the sight of people...which is not the most comforting feeling by the way. Especially when you are setting up camp just 400 meters away!

We drank a few beers while dropping down our tent and called it a night by 10:30pm.

The initial plan was to awake at 5am and start at 6am, so as to leave us plenty of 'post trail time' to figure out a way back to my car...more on that later:) The rains began around 11pm and at 5am it was still coming down hard. We knew that due to low tides we were not pressed to make any mandatory beach crossing by a certain time, so we reset the alarm for 6am. Nothing had changed by six, and we both happily closed our eyes for another hour. At 7am it was still raining, but had started to subside. We decided to break camp and wait in the car if need be. Thankfully though the rain had ceased all together and we initiated our attempt at exactly 8:23am.

I was certain that the rains would have left the trail in rough shape. There is a ton of woodwork, boardwalks, and trimmed tree stumps to navigate on this trail, especially in the first 1/3. Of course we can't forget about the mud either, and within just meters we knew it would be a long, wet, day of running.

Sixteen Minutes...

That's exactly how long it took before one of us bailed hard on a slick boardwalk...ok, it was me that went down hard, but I was just taking one for the team! Before I could even react my legs were gone and unbeknownst to me I had decided to break my fall with my hip and my wrist. It is now Friday, four full days later, and my hip is yellow and my wrist still hurts! Ryne eventually peeled me off the ground and we agreed that we would 'run smart' and not care about making time on the nasty stuff...only problem was that it was all nasty!!

I believe the first 14km took us close to or just over 2hr...and we were working hard to make this happen! We decided to forget about the trail record and just stick to running strong, enjoying the views, as the weather had now somewhat cleared, and taking it all in. Ryne had never even been to Vancouver Island before!

We shot a ton of video, upwards of eight minutes, and went snap happy on the pics as well. The trail, for all the misery you encounter through mud, roots, rocks, climbs, and descents, is actually amazingly beautiful. I guess it had better be if you're gonna suffer that much to get through it!

Going into the run we were told that our main concern would probably be downed trees, as the trail was supposedly untouched from the fury of the West Coast storm season. We were very relieved to quickly learn that this would not play a factor in our run whatsoever. The trail, for all intents and purposes, was completely clear of any 'serious' obstacles.

Eventually the boardwalks are replaced with mud, beach crossings, and the occasional suspension bridge. The mud was ATROCIOUS, but we fully expected this. Neither of us lost a shoe, although both came close on numerous sections of trail. The beach crossings are each beautiful in their own right, and on one particular crossing we decided to take the 'short cut', which almost involved swimming...I WILL BE ABLE TO INSERT A VIDEO HERE, AND ELSEWHERE, WHEN MY PARTNER IN CRIME ACTUALLY LEARNS HOW TO DOWNLOAD PICS AND VID TO A C.D...

First 27km=4hr, Final 20km=2hr?

Ryne has been fighting through a torn meniscus since The Dirty Duo in March. I had been amazed at how well he has fared in the last few months. Unfortunately though, the JDF was really taking it outta him. We had originally discussed that if one of us was feeling stronger than the other, and if the trail record might be within range, then we would let that individual go.

We were 27km into the trail, and it had taken us just over 4hr to get that far! Ryne looked at me and asked how I was feeling.

"Pretty good."

"You think you could knock down the last 20k in under 2h15m?"

I thought about this for a second, not sure if I was wanting to leave Ryne on his own on a trail he had never been on before? He spoke up again,

"If you think you have a shot at it, get yer ass outta here!"

"You sure?"

"Yeah, but it'll take one hell of an effort to do so. If you don't knock down the next five km by 4h32m you're not going fast enough. How bout you go and if you're not on pace, or not feeling it, you chill and let me catch up to you again."

"Deal. 4h32m you say?"


And with that I was off. It was 4h02m30s when I sped into my solo mission. The terrain through this section is the toughest of the entire trail. The biggest climbs seem to go back to back...and it truly feels relentless in what the terrain is able to throw at you. I was loving it!! I truly felt like I was flying up and over the ascents and that I was being ruthless on the descents. I was going for broke, and it felt amazing!

The trail is sign posted for the entire 47km and I hit the 32km post, with 15km to go, in exactly 4h30m flat...GAME ON!!

I chugged back some of my Carbo-Pro 1200, dropped a few Thermolytes, swallowed a gel, and put my Montrails to the test on some of the harshest singletrack around...figured the sponsors would like that subtle plug! Would you believe me if I told you that the trail was so dark under all the canopy that could not have done it without my Princeton Tec headlamps? Oh yeah, and that I was only fit enough to run this trail because of all my Mind Over Mountain Adventure Racing experience...there, that should put me in the good books for the rest of this month:)

You Don't Look Too Happy With Me...

Having run the trail twice before, I knew it became somewhat more runnable over the last 8-10km. I hit the 37km trail marker in almost exactly five hours. Only ten km to go, and 1h15m to better the trail record. I thought it might just happen and was even motivating myself into a sub six hour mindset. It most certainly had the 'horse blinders' on, which is why I didn't quite notice the massive black bear I was running straight towards until the last second.

'Smokey' as we so very cleverly named him, was about twenty five feet in front of me now. To make matters worse he was standing right in the middle of the trail itself. Black bear protocol states that you should make as much noise as possible and try to make yourself look as big as you can. I threw my hands over my head and just started yelling in as deep a voice as I could muster. Smokey however, was completely unfazed by this and he was simply staring straight at me, which in case you happened to be wondering is not such a good feeling when you are standing alone in the middle of the forest! I reached for my emergency whistle and blew into it as hard as my ears would allow. Smokey in turn rubbed his own ears and seemed none too impressed with me. I again threw my arms over my head and yelled as loudly as I could. At this moment, my new friend, Mr. Very Large Black Bear, decided he had had enough of me and my stupid little antics. Smokey stood up on his hind legs, leaned into a tree, and started rubbing his nose against it. As soon as the smell of my own urine cleared I proceeded to slowly back down the trail the same way I had come. My initial hope was that I could sneak by the big furry guy and still grab my trail record. I would of course leave Ryne back behind me on his own, bum knee and all, to fend for himself against this trail guardian. I was POSITIVE nothing bad could come of this, but none the less, I retreated to the last safest point, a bridge, and awaited Mr. Melcher's company once again.

Melcher, Meet Mr. Black Bear

A mix of me feeling good, and Ryne feeling progressively worse meant that I was stretching on the bridge for almost 25min. Ryne admitted when he arrived that he was happy to have a trail partner once again. I told him that I tried to replace him with a black bear but the bear wouldn't run with me. We both grabbed javelin like sticks and proceeded with caution down the trail. The bear was nowhere to be seen, but with all the fresh mud around there was no mistaking that he was still somewhere in front of us.

After about 2km we were thinking we must have scooted past him somewhere down the line. Then we popped out onto the very aptly named 'Bear Beach'.

Another twenty minute sitting session ensued before we were ultimately able to hug the water line, rocks in hand at this point, around Mr. Smokey and back onto the trail now in front of our newly found friend. Unfortunately he's not on Facebook so I doubt we'll ever hear from him again.

At this point there was about 7-8km of running left and Ryne was really starting to hurt. We took it down a notch and once again just appreciated the fact that not only were we in one of the more beautiful sections of the world, but that we were fortunate and healthy enough to be able to even attempt something along these lines. We had only seen four people all day up to this point, but as we neared the end we came across numerous hikers, and even a school group.

"So which of you kids might be the slowest runner? Well you might want to tie someone Else's shoelaces together bud!"

We were spit out into the parking lot finish area at exactly 7h31m. We had run out of food and water, and our celebration consisted of one of those really lame attempts by two exhausted white guys at a high five. Which is to say that we basically slapped each other in the face.

The Juan De Fuca is one hell of a trail, and would probably be best enjoyed as a multi day hike, as it is of course intended to be.
(I enjoyed Eddie The Eagles company much more than Mr. Smokey)

I do still believe, that even in the conditions presented to us this past Monday, the trail record can and will come down to at least the 5h30's range. I'd love to get back over there and put my money where my mouth is, but unfortunately I have a big mouth and a small stack of cash. We shall see. I have re-added it to my seasonal 'to do' list in the hopes that I might get one more shot at it again this year.

There is one additional story to tell, which involves how we actually got back to our car and eventually home again. The story is a bit long and will be told in my next posting. It involves a few rock stars, primarily Kitt and Devon Stringer, both of MOMAR fame. Without them Melcher and I would still be out there cuddling with our friendly neighborhood black bear!

Club Fat Ass
6hr Enduro run in the a.m., which means I am off to bed.



Matt Hart said...

good stuff gary.. great read. to bad the bear stopped you from the record. next time try knuckles, rather than the high fives. it's much cooler.

if i can ever get healthy again i will be knocking on your door to get after this trail record with me!

i'm twittering this post now.

Jeff Hunt said...

That is one hell of a story. I haven't seen a bear on that trail in 4 attempts. Certainly, Shawn and I beleived last time that the trail is doable in under 6hours...and if we think that, then a 5:30 is definitely possible for you. However, as you know, it isn't really all about the time. The JdF is a spectacle. The reference to the profile being like a sawblade is bang on. I love this trail and am dying to get back out. And by the way, if you think that the mud is bad on this trail, it is actually NOTHING compared to the North Coast Trail.
Thanks again for the writeup...always love a good story!

Leslie said...

Flashbacks! I did China Beach to Sombrio solo a few years back and OMG, was it EVER an adventure. I was moving so slooooow for fear of twisting an ankle by my lonesome on the roots and mud. Some tricky, slippy technical running for this Banff girl! It was a whole different game. I love, love, LOVED it!

garobbins said...

Thanks Hart! As soon as you're good to go I'm gonna be hounding you to get yer ass up here!!

Jeff, I can't believe you've never seen a bear on there! Yeah, the trail record would involve putting your head down, and where's the fun in that?

Leslie, I often forget how different the 'running' is out this way...when I stop talking about making it back to Banff, and actually make it back out there...I expect a full running tour:)