August 09, 2007

Stage One, The 75km West Coast Trail

Let me just start by saying one thing, Carlos Castillo is THE MAN, and none of this would have been possible without him!

The idea was hatched over a few beers in September 2006. A group of us had just run the 47km Juan De Fuca Trail, with times ranging from 7.5-9 hours. We unanimously agreed that the JDFT was a killer...and yet we all discussed what we could do to make it tougher?
How about an out and back? Boring.
What about linking it to another trail?
Then someone mentioned the 75km West Coast Trail, which finished just down the street from the North end of the Juan De Fuca Trail. There was a paved road connecting these two and the total distance added up to 130km.

The West Coast trail is a classic West Coast hike and is internationally known for it's high level of difficulty. There are dozens of hikers rescued off of this trail annually with numerous injuries and ailments, and the one season rescue record topped over 100 people!
With steep ladders, cable car water crossings, deep mud, rocky rooty trails, and lengthy beach sections, the West Coast Trail stood alone as a test of your trail running prowess. To tack on another sole destroying 53km after this...well that sounded like a great idea! We all planned to come back and give it a go in 2007.
After some further research we learned that these trails had never been successfully run end to end before. A few groups had attempted it, but without success.

Fast forward to the B.C. Day long weekend, August 4th-6th 2007. I had somehow managed four days off from work and without a major race in there I found myself without a good 'get out of town' plan. I racked my brain with different options and came up with everything from sky diving to flying to Wisconsin to visit some friends, but this 'West Coast Double' kept popping into my head. I decided to sleep on it but to no avail, when I awoke the next morning and my first thoughts were with the trails I knew it was time to go for it. I hoped that some of my trail running buddies would be able to join me but would quickly learn that all had to pass for different reasons. Each person wished me luck and said they would be thinking of me while enjoying the comforts of their own beds that night.

The WCT sells out months in advance, but I did learn that they issue five additional permits per day on a first come, first serve basis. So as long as I could get myself to Bamfield in time, I should be able to grab one of these for myself. On Thursday August 2nd I worked ten hours at North Shore Athletics, drove an hour to the ferry crossing, caught the 9:30pm ferry for an 11pm arrival in Nanaimo, and cranked up my music as I drove off into the night. I arrived in Bamfield at 2:30am and was forced to sleep in my car, with my dog no less. Just four hours later I awoke with the daylight, grabbed a chair, a book, some food and my dog Roxy and headed for the Warden's office. I knew they did not open until 9am, but I was leaving nothing to chance. All it would take was one group of five hikers to leave me stranded in Bamfield for the day. Roxy and I camped out right in front of their door.

At 9am the Warden arrived and issued me my running permit. All she had to say was,

"Oh. I have never issued a one day permit for the entire trail before!"

The fees for the West Coast Trail, even for just running it in a day, are $160.00, including your two mandatory water taxi crossings. Due to these water crossings there is no possible way to even consider 'poaching' the trail. This was not a thought I had, but for any other runners who might be wanting to run the WCT, know in advance what it will cost you and don't give the park staff any grief over it! There was apparently a runner who left the day before me and he fought tooth and nail not to pay this fee, frustrating everyone involved and potentially jeopardizing future trail running access to the WCT. It will only take a few jerks to push the park staff into banning us from it all together. If you intend to head out there for a run, let it be known that you are a runner and show them how great the running community is. We need to cover our butts from the one's that shouldn't be out there in the first place!

With my permit in hand...firmly in my hands, as I was now afraid to loose it! I headed into Bamfield for a nice cooked breakfast.
At noon my good buddy Carlos Castillo arrived from Victoria. He and Roxy went for a two hour run while I managed a nice one hour nap. We spent the remainder of the day chilling on the beach and swapping war stories. Carlos was great company and I enjoyed the opportunity to get to know him a bit better.

At 9pm I figured it was time to hit the tent. Roxy joined me and she was asleep within minutes. Although I had only slept 4hr the previous night, and I felt completely exhausted, my mind would not stop racing. Anytime I got close to falling asleep, I would all of a sudden get goose bumps as another thought about the following days attempt would somehow creep its way into my mind. It was a long and sleepless night and at 3:20am, without even looking, I was fully aware of the fact that my alarm was about to sound.



As I hit snooze, my second back up alarm sounded. I actually lay there telling myself how much I did not want to get out of my tent and try this stupid run. It was downright freezing out, it was 3:30am, I had hardly slept in two days and I was about to embark on a 130km run, c'mon, who was I kidding, this was insanity, just turn off the alarms, go back to sleep and tell everyone that you couldn't get yourself a permit for the West Coast Trail. At about that time I remembered that Carlos was sleeping in the tent across from me. He had offered to sacrifice his own weekend to come out and be my support crew, had boarded a 6am, six hour bus ride the previous day, and was getting up shortly after I left to drive seven hours to the end of the WCT. Then he would drive to the end of the Juan De Fuca Trail and camp in the parking lot until 4am on Saturday, at which point he intended to start running the trail back towards me in case I had gotten lost or injured. The man was a legend in my books and I would never be able to face him again had I slept in and blown my only chance at this run.

I dragged my sorry ass out of my tent. Shivering and sleep deprived I went about breaking down my campsite and getting my running gear ready to go. I had intended to start the WCT at 4am and I officially made it onto the trail at 4:04am. It was pitch black out and although I was wearing a headlamp it was not my brightest setup. I had sacrificed brightness for lightness, thinking I would not want to carry the heavier lamp for ten plus hours after the sun came up. For the first two hours of the run I was wishing the opposite.

I had hiked the West Coast Trail once before, in 2001. I did it in three days and most people told me I was crazy to attempt this, and that I would not make it through...oh if only those same people knew what the hell I was doing to myself on this day.

The winter of 2006-2007 was a rough one on the west coast. We were battered by wind storm after wind storm and the WCT was forced into a late opening in 2007. The cleanup was massive due to all of the downed trees that had to be moved, cleaned up or just sawed in half to allow the trail to continue. I vividly remembered the first 15km of the WCT as being a 'Golden Brick Road' that you could have run with your eyes closed. I was all of one kilometer into the trail before I hit my first ladder section! The ladders on the WCT are near vertical and in some sections climb over 400 feet! This first ladder was a few hundred feet up and I was left puzzled as to how I had forgotten such an element of the trail. I traversed a short section of route on top of the ladder and then proceeded down a few hundred feet of wood work on the opposite side. It was here that I noticed the old section of the trail that had since been closed. Due to the wind fall from the previous winter I was getting an early taste of what was ahead.

A few km down the trail, another set of ladders, followed by a section of forest that looked as if a bomb had been detonated right in the middle of it. There were dozens of huge trees strewn about in a mess of tangled tree trucks, branches and roots. There was a but a tiny chainsawed route through the middle of this mess, and once again I was left wondering what had happened to my 'highway' through the forest. I was only an hour and a half in and I was already falling off the pace that I figured I needed to sustain to make the 5pm water taxi cut off in Gordon River. This first part of the run was where I had intended to 'bank time' by hammering through it. Instead I was seriously struggling and starting to feel sick.

I don't know if it was the lack of sleep leading up to this run, my nerves getting the better of me, or something I ate the previous day, but I was having serious difficulty with consuming any calories, whether in liquid or solid form. I had to duck off into the bushes numerous times to deal with bowel issues that I had not experienced while running since I had diagnosed my Gluten Allergy nine months previous. Had I somehow consumed gluten while eating in Bamfield the day before? All I knew for sure is that I was suffering way more than I should have been this early into such a big run. I was constantly battling the notion that this was simply not going to be my day to do this. I needed to be at 100% to pull this one off and in my current state the thoughts of still running 115km did not seem possible. I knew I would hurt during this run, just not right from the start of it! I kept telling myself that maybe I was going to be doing the physical stresses backwards. I'd get the suffering out of the way early and then run easy through the rest of the run...although I am not a good lier and was having trouble convincing myself of this one. I put my head down and struggled onward.

I had a spectacular fall before the sun came up. I was running across a log bridge, with the logs having been halved and stuck in place going with the direction of travel. Moss had filled in a gap in the middle of these two pieces of wood and my foot shot right through the bridge. I was on my face and sliding before I even knew what had happened to me. It took me a good ten seconds to crawl back to my feet as I was not really enjoying myself at this point in time anyways. I had hardly eaten anything, was sick from the start, the trail was now tougher due to some newly re-routed sections and the chances of me actually making it through this thing seemed to be fading by the hour. I had a days worth of thoughts go through my mind in ten seconds flat, but the only thing that I heard was,
“Get yer G.D. Ass off the ground and get freakin moving again!”

As the kilometers ticked away I found it increasingly difficult to consume any food. I was in a bad downward spiral, as I could not eat because I was feeling sick and I was feeling sick because I was not eating. I forced down one Cliff Shot Block, about thirty calories and continued running. I was gaining some calories from my Carbo-Pro mix in my water bladder, but it was nowhere near sufficient enough for how much I was expending. I tried to eat a Snickers bar, but nearly spit out my one bite. I forced it down and ambled onwards, wondering what the rest of the day had in store for me.

It took me a full two hours and twenty minutes to cover the first 20km. Not a terrible pace, but still slower than I had intended.

The beaches were taking their toll on me early as well. There was virtually no runnable terrain on the beach sections. From time to time I would find some nice hard sand and make decent time but overall the ocean areas consisted of mainly small loose rocks and not only was I not able to run this stuff, but my left leg seemed to be taking a beating from it. As the 'up slope' leg for the entire day it seemed to be tweaking with each and every step that I took on theses rocks. I told myself that I had to stick to the forest at all costs. Even if the terrain in the forest was considered tougher, I believed I could make better time on it.

A major oversight on my part was forgetting my actual West Coast Trail Map! I was reviewing it while I lay in sleeping bag the night prior and in my hurry to depart I ended up packing up my tent with the map still sitting in a side pouch. I was kinda blind as to what the WCT had in store for me next, maybe a good thing, but it was tough to keep track of exactly where I was in regards to the more demanding and also more beautiful parts of the route. At about km 25 I crossed a bridge and there was a huge strand of flagging tape leading off to the left, although the main trail seemed to head to the right. It appeared to me that the main route would hit the beach and this obvious newly flagged route seemed to be yet another detour due to the winter storms. I followed the bright orange flagging tape, having promised myself that I would avoid the beach at all costs. There was a strip of tape every ten feet, and although it was not a completely definitive route, it was flagged well enough that I followed it with confidence. This section was not even close to runnable, in fact I continually wondered how anyone with an actual hiking backpack would be able to negotiate this terrain. After fifteen minutes I came to a major mud crossing, and was starting to question my chosen route. There was but one set of footprints through the mud. The WCT was completely sold out and there was only ONE set of footprints through this made absolutely no sense whatsoever! I struggled for a minute with what to do and settled on retracing my steps back to the main route. Even if I ended up on the beach I would limit my losses to just thirty minutes, to go any further, in uncertainty, was putting my entire run in jeopardy. I mumbled and grumbled for the full fifteen minutes back out but would eventually learn that had I not made this call I would have ended up at Little Tsusiat Lake, which of course is nowhere near where I needed to be!

As soon as I hit the main trail again, and followed it just a hundred meters around the corner, I realized how silly I had been. The main trail continued onwards and a beach option was presented. Being without my trail map however, meant that I missed out on the most beautiful section of the entire route. Having hiked this trail before I was fully aware of the natural splendor of Tsusiat Falls, and intended to stop here for a quick break and some pics, instead, I ran blindly past on the inland route.

At kilometer 32 there is a water crossing in which you need to access a water taxi. There are two along the WCT and if you have not paid you trail fees you ain't getting across, in fact before the operators will not even say hi to you they have to see your actual WCT permit! I arrived at 8:40am only to discover that the boat operator does not start until 9am and he has been known to not show up until 10 or 11am some days! I decided that if he did not show up by 9:30am, I was going to have to attempt swimming this channel. It would be my only option for making the final 5pm water taxi to get off of the WCT (assuming that guy was there!). The good news was that my half hour detour was not going to cost me any actual time on the route, however, had I known that this boat did not operate before 9am, I probably would have slept (lay in my tent trying to sleep) for an extra hour and ended up with the same finish time for the WCT. I was completely relieved to see the a boat heading for me at exactly 9am!

Safely across and I was finally running into actual hikers. I was over five hours in at this point and had not seen a single person on the trails! However, taking five hours to cover the first 32km left me with little time to spare and all conversations were had in passing. Most looking stunned at what I was obviously doing, but the occasional person would ask,

“What time did you start?”


“Good luck!”

The boardwalks through here made for some great running, but I was fully aware of how fortunate I was that it did not rain overnight, for this area would be a death trap with any moisture on it. I was still struggling to take in calories, but was able to make decent time through here, fueled mainly on fears of missing my final water taxi. I snapped a self picture at km 39, just over half way through the West Coat Trail, but I was suffering so badly that I could not even muster up a smile for it. The picture looks like I have just poured water over my head, but it is all hard earned sweat.

I inadvertently ended up back on the beach again from km 43-44 at which point you hike up another steep set up ladders to the Carmanah Lighthouse, which has incredible views out over the ocean. From here you get back onto an inland trail for a short distance before hitting the beach for an unavoidable 5-6km section, which I was dreading! At the very start of this beach run there is a full on vendor set up called 'Moniques'. They sell everything from snacks and pop to beer and cooked food! I had depleted my three liters of water just one km prior and was intending to stop at Moniques to hopefully get on top of my stomach issues. I was 45km in, had taken over six hours reach this point and had consumed virtually none of the food I was carrying. I had counted down the kilometers to the time when I knew I could buy a few Cokes and rest up for a few minutes. Moniques also has free fresh water, so I was able to top up my three liters of capacity while I downed my pop.

It was just after 10am and there were a few groups of hikers enjoying the scenery. The sun was starting to break through the clouds, as it had been a perfect overcast morning for running. All six people sitting here were enjoying an early morning Beer, in the sun, on the beach, while doing one of the most gorgeous hikes in the world...a big part of me wanted to call it right there and join them! I appreciated the short interactions with these people and departed after about fifteen minutes, feeling somewhat better.

There is something magical about Coca Cola for endurance activities. Its mix of sodium, sugars and caffeine just can't be beat and although I knew my body would eventually turn the corner with how I was feeling, the timing with the Coke consumption was almost immediate.

Although my calorie intake had fallen behind from six hours of running on empty, I still felt that I needed to run the beach away from my beer drinking compadres. It didn't seem right to just hike out of there after telling them what I was attempting to do (I never once mentioned the JDF portion to people, they were shocked enough at the WCT run that it did not seem necessary). I made it all of 2km down the beach before my left hamstring completely seized up on me. Once again doubts came rushing through my head. What was I doing? This was ridiculous, it was over, my body would obviously start shutting down on me. I had never run for more than 7.5 hours before...I thought for sure that I had gotten in over my head and was about to pay a hefty price for it.

I tried to calm myself and managed to at least keep walking. It was alright I said, it's not like I had never cramped before, it's not like I thought this would be easy, just concentrate on getting some damn calories into your body, I thought.

As I hiked a few km of sand and rock I did just that. I rifled through my pack and put whatever I got my hands on into my mouth, some cliff shots, the rest of that snickers I could not eat earlier, a few Nuun tablets, some gels, a folding blade knife, a protein bar (the knife didn't taste so good), absolutely anything. Thankfully I was able to hold it all down and eventually I made it off the beach and back onto the trails at km 51 (this was now the furthest I had run in three years). Some quick math told me that my hiking was all but over. To make my 5pm cut off I had to really hammer it through the most technical and challenging sections of the entire route. As mentioned I had intended to bank time on the earlier parts of the trail in anticipation of this, but that plan was out the window. It was go time, this was the big test I knew I would face. I just put my head down, prayed my legs would hold up and started running for my double would all but vanish if I missed the last water taxi of the day and I'd be crawling up under a tree with nothing but a space blanket for the night!

KM 52 – KM 53 took me fifteen minutes...fifteen minutes! I was giving it all I had left in the tank but this section of the trail was just littered with wood work like I had never seen before. It was like stumbling into an Ewok Village! Ladders and wood everywhere, hundreds and hundreds of feet of planks that were completely vertical, and they ended at a cable car crossing. The cable cars are a bit of fun, if you have the time to enjoy them, but hauling a few hundred pounds of twisted steel across a river, only to jump in and shoot to the middle of the line and have to haul yourself the rest of the way across, is physically draining and time consuming to say the least! You are then rewarded for your efforts with a set of ladder work that mimics the life threatening descent you had just accomplished on the opposite bank of the river. (Life threatening due to a freaking heart attack!) Anytime I crested a set of ladders I would inevitably have to hike for a few minutes before my heart rate would even consider allowing me to run again. I could not imagine doing this with the huge backpacks I had witnessed some of the hikers on the trail with. No wonder they have to rescue so many people out here each year, I bet half of them are faking any injury they can dream up just to avoid the ladders and cable cars.

“What's that, it's going to cost $1,000.00 for a boat rescue, deal! I mean, owww, my leg, I think it's broken!”

The very next KM was without a cable car, instead having a suspension bridge, but they decided to up the ante and put in an even larger section of wood work! It still took me a full ten minutes to cover this single kilometer. The trails between these devices of torture known as ladders are punctuated with deep pools of shoe swallowing mud and ankle grabbing tree roots. The game was on, and the next three hours were a fight for every inch of trail out there. I hit the final cable car on the trail, took one look at the water and said scew it, it was only knee deep, so I waded through instead! I was constantly doing the math in my head and eventually by the time I reached KM 67, I had it calculated that I had all but won the battle and was definitely going to make my necessary cut off, but I had destroyed myself in the process.

Sixty seven kilometers was previously the farthest I had ever run, during the 2004 Stormy ultramarathon. I stopped to shoot a video of the official step that pushed me into a completely new realm for distance running. The celebration was short lived however as I quickly reminded myself that I still had a full 63 KM of trail running to go, if I was going to make my entire proposed route.

With seven kilometers to go on the WCT I came across a friendly family of hikers. The daugther was close to my age and was out with her brother and parents on a nice family shared vacation. The girl asked,

“What time did you start?”


“From where?”

“The beginnning.”

“Beginning of what?”

“This trail.”


“The entire West Coast Trail!”

Right in front of her family she blurted out,

“You're a f$%king nut case!”

“I've heard worse!”

The mother then went about her motherly duties,

“How are you? Do you have enough water? Do you have enough food? How are your feet? Are you OK?”

“Yeah, things are going pretty good so far.”

“You ARE a f$%ing nut case!”

For once, I was speachless.

The very next group of hikers I encounted were an active group of students from Vancouver who were up for a seven day version of the WCT. Our conversation was going very similar to the last, until they said,

“We just saw a cougar.”

“Excuse me?”

“Yeah, about half a km down the trail”

“Excuse me?”

“It should be gone, we scared it off.”

“Excuse me?”

I tried to act tough and experienced with stuff like this and hauled out my three inch folding blade knife.

“Not to worry, I've got this!” I proclaimed

Their response was, “Excuse me?”

So they had scared it off, simple as that, eight hikers would scare off a single cat, but what would a large feline do with one person RUNNING through the forest. Wouldn't I be playing specifically on its primal instincts! I held the three inch knife in my hand and screamed like a F$%king Nut Case, for the next ten minutes!

By the time I reached KM 70, with only five to go, I was utterly shattered. I had nearly killed myself to get to this point, but I had done it and that was all that mattered. I would make the crossing and at least give myself a shot at finishing my entire 130km route. I decided it was best to simply hike the final 5km to the water taxi and try to get my strength back.

With buy one kilometer to go, and while hiking, I managed to whack my knee on a fallen tree. It nearly took me down, but I tried to walk it off. Not 200 meters later my left arm crashed into a rock protrusion and swelled up instantly...and not 300 meters from there I hooked my right foot under a tree root and crashed down onto my handheld water bottles! I actually screamed out loud,

“C'MON! Have I not suffered enough for you today!!”

I decided upon a slow run down the final KM to the water and after 12 hours and 20 minutes of running I had managed to clear the West Coast Trail! My right knee was swollen, my left arm was swollen, I had a headache, my toes were blackened, I had chaffing on my arm pit, back, legs and 'other areas'...but there was only 55km of running to go, things felt like they were finally starting to look up for me!


(It will be another day or two before I am able to finish up my run report and detail the Juan De Fuca section)


Anonymous said...

excellent write-up! can't wait for part two.

The Chaser said...

you are awesome. i stumbled upon your blog and enjoy living vicariously through you. also, i appreciate great you document your journeys with photos. hard to do when you are tired and just want to die.

The Chaser said...

ignore typos and lack of 'real sentences' please :)

Unknown said...

Thank god, I thought I may have been the only person reading these great entries. Gary, I am planning a 1000km trip back to Kentucky from N. Carolina on Sunday, I have budgeted my calories, which should work out to about 37 gallons of regular. I was wondering if you had any tips on preparing for a journey of this length. I hope I will be ok, and plan to complete the journey in 9 hours. Pray for me, I hope my legs hold up....on the gas pedal.


Unknown said...

I am still a little pissed about not getting a pic put up to accompany our stories on I shun you for that.

Gary Robbins said...

Shawn, you are not nearly as photogenic as you like to think you are!!
For that insane 1000km journey, be sure to stay on top of your fluid intake and don't cramp up out there!


Anonymous said...

OMG! You *are* a f**king nutcase!

nice work! and brilliant write up.