November 16, 2010

215km Of East Coast Trail, The Perfect 35hr Family Vacation!

I had been on my feet for over 24 straight hours,


and I had covered over 100 miles of ground for the first time in my life. The sun had risen on my second day only to reveal terrain that was completely overgrown and impossible to run. Navigation was not an issue, but I was down to a bushwhack hike of about 4km an hour. I was wearing running shorts and my primary thought, outside of reaffirming every curse word I'd ever learned before, was that I only wished I had enough foresight to pack a pair of running tights. Every step through the harsh overgrown Newfoundland brush was like grinding on a heavy grit sandpaper, and I truly wanted my legs to bleed more than they actually were so that I would at least have visual justification for all the frustrations I was dealing with.

To add to the anguish I was suffering through I had under budgeted my food and fluids for this section and I had completely run dry hours earlier. My left hip, which had been an on and off issue for months on end had started flaring up after just the first hour and a half of my journey and since then had gone completely numb. As painful as it was it had not spiked in pain in hours and I felt like the worst of that issue might be behind me. Over the years experience had taught me that if you ignore your own body's sensory perceptions they will eventually start to questions their own sanity. Which is of course directly in line with the conversation you will inevitably have with yourself at some point as well.

"Listen I've been telling him for hours that he's all messed up but he just ain't hearing it."

"Really? You sure we're right about sending out those pain signals?"

"I dunno. I just do what what comes naturally but if the big boss man is telling me to shut up I guess I might as well listen to him. He can deal with the consequences himself later."

Truth be told, had I registered for any race on that same weekend I would have pulled the plug, DNS (did not start) without question or any feeling of remorse whatsoever. Since early summer I felt like I was just hanging on. I managed a successful Western States in June yet I still had two major pursuits on the schedule that I'd made very public in March. There was a fundraising campaign for Right To Play that was gaining momentum and I had somehow been able to fight my way to a slightly better West Coast Trail time than ever before, just two weeks prior. Though three quarters of the way through that West Coast Trail attempt I found my mind on the opposite side of the country, in Newfoundland. I was wondering how in the hell I was going to pull off a 215km run just fourteen days after running the 75km WCT. Those thoughts lasted all of a few minutes before I realized I had to be present in that moment in BC before shifting my sights towards the next run in Nfld.

The weeks between runs had evaporated and I now found myself in a whole other world of hurt. I had once covered 200km in a weeks worth of training and it completely shattered me. I had never attempted a distance greater than 160km in one go, and I had never had the 'good fortune' to run into a second sunrise before. This was all new terrain for me, and none of it was going according to plan.

Ray Zahab had been kind enough to send me fourteen maps that made up the entire route, and in hindsight these maps were integral to our success as a family. Though the terrain had now slightly eased, at least in terms of the overgrowth, I found it impossible to run more than a few steps at a time. I would guilt myself into a trot of about a minute before my body would shut down on me. I continually repeated this process like a scratched LP stuck in a record player. Over, and over, and over again. Try, fail, walk, try, fail, walk, try, fail, walk.

I knew the direction I wanted to travel and I couldn't help but notice that I was getting farther away from my next town and what would end up being my saving grace of seeing my family and their rolling support vehicle again. It was already four hours beyond my predicted arrival time and though the sun was now shining bright upon a beautiful Sept day I was being bombarded by coastal winds that would leave my face wind burned by the end of it all. I pulled out my maps, careful not to let them get caught in the breeze, and I confirmed that I was indeed still on course. It just happened to be the long way round to my next intersection. It was blatantly evident why the trail meandored out to sea and not towards the safe haven community of Petty Harbor. The scenery was endless and this trail was designed to take in all the fantastic sights and sounds that help make the route such a rare gem. I however, no longer gave a shit about the sights, sounds, and vantage points, and in fact I was actually starting to loath all of it. My two cameras felt like dead weights that I had to carry to document the damn trek and I was sick of feeling the need to stop and capture beauty on film.

I glanced into the distance and could just make out what appeared to be the end of the inlet I had yet to turn towards. My next 'aid station' was all too far off and I very literally had thoughts of just laying down and shedding a few tears. I was a defeated man, completely deflated and devoid of motivation to continue onwards. I had always wanted to find my breaking point through my endurance pursuits and I was now being confronted by something I had never truly dealt with on such a low level before. I wanted to quit. I just didn't care anymore, about anything. Knowing that quitting simply was not an option was all that kept me moving, one step at a time. Then it happened, I started to hallucinate.

As I crested a small knoll I thought I could see my brother off in the distance. Part of the beauty of The ECT is the solitude of the experience, and after covering nearly 185km, and being on my feet for over 29 hours I'd seen but two other people. One was camping in the night as I ran past, and the other was enjoying breakfast (while I still had food and fluids) many hours earlier, and nearly fifty kilometers away from the first hiker.

I blinked a few times to get a grip on myself and when I rubbed my eyes open I could not believe what I was seeing. My brother Bryan had hiked in 4km to find me and he had huge smile on his face and simply extended a handful of tinfoil towards me,

"I thought you could use some breakfast."

I found those tears I fought back just minutes earlier now starting to form by means of sheer amazement and excitement. I felt like he'd saved my life, and more importantly, my run...and for the second time in the last twelve hours no less.

East Coast Trail 215km


The first twenty nine hours of the run had itself brought many a high and low, and much in the way of mental anguish and doubt, but all in all my Father's rough time estimates were proving to be incredibly accurate.

The biggest issue that I simply had not prepared for was that of being completely wet for nearly the entire effort. Though we did not really get rained on too badly at any point, it did rain fairly hard the previous night and with so many overgrown sections of trail I rarely went more than a few minutes after changing into dry clothes without getting soaked again. In fact in the first 24hr my feet were dry for fewer than two of those hours. At one point my Brother even utilized a laundry mat in a small town we crossed through to 'refresh' my clothes for me and it took him nearly an hour to remove all the moisture from everything

I was also not expecting The East Coast Trail to have so many steep climbs in it. This may sound foolish to say, but it is a coastal route and there are no mountains in the region. This did not stop my GPS from recording almost 20,000 feet of climbing, and that's after the data corrections have been applied to the file. I'm always weary of inflated elevation data from a GPS watch, but I'll confidently say there was over 15,000 feet of climbing for sure.

I had expected and was prepared for the mud upon the trail to be worse than it actually was. This is not to suggest that the terrain was not atrocious because it most certainly was. Mentally though I had told myself I'd swim through quicksand like bogs and ford surging rivers if I had to. Instead I simply felt like a child on hockey skates for the first time in my life. There were hours upon hours that passed where every singular step I took was a fight to stay upright. I had my fair share of tumbles with the worst landing me elbow deep in a mud bath that smelled like a barn yard. I unleashed my anger and frustrations into the universe only to be on my ass again not a minute later.

The trail was turning out to be a lesson in humility. It was not the clear shot run that I had dreamed of and I felt more like a speed hiker than an actual runner at times, yet the goals of both are always the same. Relentless Forward Motion. One step at a time, baby steps if the trail demanded, and all the way from Cappyhaden to St. John's. There would be no stopping until I reached my home, my true home, the city in which I was born 33 years earlier.

The number one concern I had going into the speed attempt was based around my hip injury. It had been bothering me for months and even on the nine hour flight across Canada I would have to continually walk around and stretch off the impending numbing of the area.

I took my first steps upon the trail at 6:15am on Friday August 20th, and by 7:45am that same morning I was locked into a war of wills against my own body.

"This really hurts"

"No it doesn't"

"Umm, yeah, it totally hurts right now"

"Like no it doesn't!"

"Like yeah! It totally does like, really, like, freaking hurt...like"

Yes, I have the internal dialogue of thirteen year old kid.

"Alright fine, it hurts, but you knew it was gonna hurt coming into this thing so how bout a little suck it up princess"

"But I still have over two hundred kilometers left to go...."

"SUCK..."

"I just started this thing. There's no way I can ignore this much this early...."

"IT..."

"I'm ninety minutes into what will likely be a 36hr run..."

"UP ALREADY!"

"I hate you"

"I know"

"I'm not talking to you"

"Good"

"You'll pay for this!"

"I'm ok with that"

The first 100km of the trail took around thirteen hours to complete, and I fully recall hours seven, nine, and eleven being the most painful to accept. At the eleventh hour, and around 80km, my body screamed at me louder than it had all day long,

"SERIOUSLY ROBBINS WHAT THE F?"

It was a brutal sixty minutes in which I stopped a few times to try to stretch out the pain, but to no avail. I noticed my stride was being compromised in an attempt to alleviate the issues, but again this wasn't making things any easier. I had my first true doubts about my ability to endure, and the mental math nearly debilitated me.

"Eleven hours, eighty kilometers in. Still 135 kilometers to go. Still at least a full day of running left to get me through this thing. I still have twenty four full hours to go...how, just how is all I'm asking you?"

"Honestly I don't know ok. I just don't know. I'm sure you'll figure something out, and besides when you see your family again I know you're going to come around, so deal with it."

That eleventh to twelfth hour on the trail was the most painful I've ever experienced from that specific injury, or any other injury for that matter. By the time I'd hit 90km mark though, it was as if the pain sensors had hit a steady state and simply started cancelling each other out. The hip would no longer make it to the top of my 'reasons to quit list' upon the run. I'd won a small battle, one of many that were waged along the way.

As the kilometers rolled by we got into a pretty smooth rhythm as a family. My Father (Fred), Mother (Gerri), Brother (Bryan), Niece (Kayla), and Brother's Girlfriend (Heather) were all along for the ride, in the form of two rolling support vehicles. The East Coast Trail has fairly regular intersections with small coastal communities and on average you spend about four kilometers running roads through small towns for every twenty or so kilometers you cover upon completely isolated trail.

These communities became our intersection points and my family would continually leap frog me throughout the entire process, always awaiting my arrival into each town. Every few hours I'd pop outta the trail to big smiles, hugs, cheers, and a rolling buffet. From time to time family members would hop outta the car and run with me to the next trail head, or until we hit the first wee bump in the landscape that created a bit of a climb. These moments were pure magic for me. Completely spontaneous and fueled by love. I felt no pain when I was with them and without my family the run would have been completely impossible on so many levels. They had even gone as far as to make signs that they hung on the car while they drove between towns.
In one community a rather large gentleman started chasing me down the road. Survival instincts kicked in and all I could think was,

"How in the hell am I gonna out run this guy right now!?"

Then I noticed he was waving money at me. He was donating to Right To Play!! When I stopped to accept his generosity he just looked at me and said,

"Get going already! Don't stop for us!"

How could you not be moved by something like this. How could you possibly not finish what you'd started. How could you not draw energy reserves from this the likes of which you didn't even know you previously possessed. I felt like I floated on air for an hour after this encounter, feeling no pain whatsoever. Such a simple human interaction, yet so powerful at its core.

Gettin Ruffed Up


As nightfall was approaching, and we were running through yet another small town, my brother hopped out of the car to join me while the rest of the family drove on ahead to find the next trail re-entrance sign. It was to be a ten minute jaunt at most. A 'hey howya doing, keep digging, you're doing great' pep talk run.

We were just passing the second to last home in the community of Brigus South when out of nowhere an overweight Golden Lab came screaming out of a driveway at us. It was brandishing its teeth and left no doubt as to its intentions. The dog gave chase, but unlike every other scary dog encounter I'd ever experienced this beast meant business. He was on our heels in no time and as we turned to face him he leapt up and grabbed my Brother by the leg! The owner was now sprinting down the road after all of us which eventually turned into the three humans yelling at the one dog until he finally cowered behind his master. Bryan was obviously now pumping with adrenaline and for a second I thought I was going to have to prevent him from biting the owner of the dog himself. After a brief screaming match and a multitude of apologies from the dog's owner we were on our way again, my Brother now hobbling a bit from the impact of the bite, which turned out to leave a mark but not break the skin. He'd eventually walk it off but I'm not convinced I could have fended off the dog on my own at that point. We were laughing about it by the time we caught up with my family again.

The funniest thing I witnessed during the run was about six hours later at 2am. As I came off of another section of trail and into the community of Witless Bay we awoke another angry mutt and up he got and at me he came. My Dad immediately positioned the car between the dog and I, as I watched in shock as my Mother threw open her car door and started positioning herself to defend her first born at all costs.

"I woulda tackled that dog if he'd come at ya ya know!"

"Oh I know you would have Mom, you left no doubt with me or the dog that he didn't stand a chance of getting past you!"

Once the adrenaline from that scare wore off I found that I was completely and utterly drained. Physically and mentally I just needed a break. At 2:30am, after covering approximately 135km in twenty hours of running, I simply came towards my parents car, now set up at the trail head ahead of me as an aid station, and said,

"I need a nap"

They were so focused on the task at hand and our end goal that no one even processed what I'd said. They were straight into filling bottles, offering up clothes, and changing headlamp batteries.

"I need a nap"

"What?"

"A nap. I'm done. Someone wake me in fifteen minutes please." I then looked at them with a serious expression which was to convey that though we all knew I needed more sleep that this, they were not allowed to let me go beyond fifteen minutes.

Ten seconds later they placed a blanket over me in the back seat of the car. I didn't anticipate needing a nap for the run, but having flown clear across the country and into a four and a half hour time change on Wednesday, arriving in Nfld at midnight, shopping for supplies on Thursday before driving the two hours to our starting point, and only getting five hours of sleep the night before the run began on Friday morning, I just had nothing left. I've done numerous 36hr adventure races and without fail a 15-20 minute nap had always gotten us through.

Nineteen minutes later, after my parents had let me 'sleep in', I was back on my feet. It was a lot like peeling myself out of a self constructed coffin. I didn't really know my name for a few seconds before grabbing my gear and hitting the trail again. Ten minutes later as my mind finally joined my body I found my legs moving better than they had in hours. The power nap had worked wonders. I now just had to make it till sunrise and my body's natural circadian rhythms would take care of the rest.

For the most part this strategy worked well. The sun rose a few hours later, right on time even, and I was awake. But the trail had thrown us for a loop and our time guesstimates for the longest non intersecting section of trail, 32km, proved grossly under estimated. It took a full seven and half hours to clear this section, yet I had carried sustenance for three and a half hours. If my brother had not unexpectedly shown up with the food and water I'd probably still be out there waiting for someone to drag my ass back to civilization.
My savior Brother had lifted my spirits and ripped me from the dead when he showed up with that tinfoil breakfast and two full water bottles. He started running to pace me, asking if he should go faster. I hadn't actually run for the better part of four hours and the fear of loosing him was all that propelled me along,

"No, this is good! No need to go any faster Bryan!"

He helped haul my ass back to my family, still four kilometers away, and upon seeing them a funny thing happened. Their smiles, cheers, hugs, and laughter seemed to caress through my body like pure energy, with it removing every singular bit of doubt, fatigue, and exhaustion that I still carried with me. I knew I'd overcome the worst the trail could throw at me. The worst my mind could throw at me. The worst my body could throw at me. I knew I was going to beat this thing. I knew WE, as a family, were going to succeed. It was noon on my second day of running, the sun was shining bright though it had forecast heavy rain, and I had but thirty kilometers of trail standing in my way. Thirty kilometers between me, beer, and sleep.

Those final thirty kilometers of the run were a bit of a blur,

not because I can't remember them now, but because I was fried and just going through the motions. I very literally had an hour of full on hallucinations, with everything from ski resort chair lifts, to road construction signs in the middle of the ocean and I was almost enjoying the distractions to be honest.

As I hit Cape Spear, The Most Easterly Point In North America, I was finally in my own backyard. I was on familiar ground, playing in my home rink, and that familiarity picked me up as much as the inevitability of completing the task at hand.
My parents called the local news network and gave them a finishing time of 5:30pm. I glanced at my watch and I thought I could do better, but like every good ultra runner I had completely forgotten just how tough the final section of the trail actually was, it being the only real part I had any previous experience upon.

As those final kilometers started to tick away I realized I was really going to have to dig deep to finish by 5:30 so I told myself I was going to leave it all out there.

"No use holding back now Gary, let's see what ya got in there?"

I effectively destroyed the final 15km of my 215km run along the coast. It was very near the strongest I had run at any point on the entire trail in the day and a half that I was out there. The climbs in this final section are long and steep, with technical footing, and rarely an easy or flat step. I ran the entire section minus the one obscene and endless scramble/climb in the middle of it all. I think I would be hard pressed to run all of this terrain on completely fresh legs. I have no idea exactly how this all worked, whether it was adrenaline, the need to be done, simply a newfound focus and motivation, or maybe a bit of all of the above. Either way I felt like a runner for the first time all day and I ended up finishing just two minutes behind my Dad's perfect guesstimate, at 5:32pm on Saturday August 21st.

A news crew, family members, and even some high school friends had turned up to welcome me home. I'd made it. Thirty five hours and seventeen minutes to complete two hundred and fifteen kilometers of incredibly challenging terrain. But beyond that, I'd had conquered doubts the likes of which I'd never experienced before, pain the likes of which I hope I never have to deal with again, and nutrient deficiencies that I will never subject myself to in a racing environment. After all of this I still managed to persevere. I came out on top, I didn't say uncle, I didn't listen to the quit now demons in my head, and I continually fought past all obstacles that were presented to me on the day.


In life it is rare that you will feel 100% prepared when faced with a new challenge, but you can ALWAYS give 100% of what you have in you on that day, and more often than not, that's plenty good enough to get you through




Way back in March when I decided to propose this project dubbed 'Conquer The Coasts' I really had no idea what to expect or exactly how I intended to pull it all off. Sitting here now in November I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to say that I achieved all I'd set out to over nine months ago. 

-The West Coast Trail Record now sits at 10h08
-The East Coast Trail Record now sits at 35h17
-An ECT film is being worked on
-A combined trail film will be completed as well

Thank you to everyone for their continual support and kind donations towards Right To Play. None of this would have been possible without you.

Special Thanks

My Family. Every single one of them were integral towards the success of this project, right down to my beautiful niece Kayla who took care of all of the twitter updates and found most of the nearly impossible to locate trail heads during the night.

Trevor Richmond. I don't know how I would have afforded to pull this all together without your assistance with flights. Your generosity is unmatched and I knew there was a reason I still talked to you after all these years!

Erik Nachtrieb. For offering to take all my raw solo shot footage and to make it into something worth actually watching!

David Papineau. That fantastic logo is compliments of Mr. Broadway Run Club, thank you!

Ray Zahab. Ray was more excited than anyone about my proposed runs this year and he provided me with plenty of insight about The East Coast Trail and the aforementioned invaluable maps

North Shore Athletics. Any other employer woulda fired my ass long ago, yet somehow you still keep me on payroll. Thanks for approving the time off necessary to pursue these things.

Drymax Socks. Of course all sponsors deserver their props but Drymax deserve their special mention here. I have run 4x100 mile races, and in each of them I have battled significant foot blistering over the final 20miles/30kms. I have never run more than a dozen hours without some sort of foot issue. I've learned to accept it and thought it was just a part of the game. Then Bob from Drymax spots me some socks, telling me they're bound to help. 'Yeah Right'. A sock is a sock is a sock. I'd tried no fewer than a dozen kinds so how is yours gonna be any different?

I NEVER GOT A SINGLE BLISTER ON MY FEET! MY FEET WERE SOAKING WET FOR OVER 2/3 OF THE 35HR RUN!

Even my Father, having seen me at WS 09 was completely speechless. These socks are the best. PERIOD!

Sponsor Shoutout

Montrail

Mountain Hardwear

Princeton Tec Sport Lights

Carbo-Pro

Moveo Sport Rehab

Curb Ivanic Strength & Conditioning

3 comments:

Ray Barrett said...

Absolutely fascinating. Well done and thanks for sharing that story.

discostu said...

Quite a read! Way to go Gary that was quite simply awesome. From a Running Stupid listener. :-Disco Stu

Paul said...

I'm inspired.