As a competitive outdoorsy person, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of going for FKT’s (fastest known times). There’s something special and unique about it– something exciting, pure, and maybe more natural than traditional races. The experience is stripped down, with no markings, no support, no visible competition to push you. It’s just you and the trail, plus everything you brought with you, and your knowledge. Just a watch to time you against everyone else who preceded you, and some way to verify you did it.
I set the Hanes Valley Women’s FKT in 2016, (someone challenge it!) and at one point around the same time, I was secretly obsessed with the idea of going for the Wonderland Trail FKT. (It was dumb, I was super iron deficient at the time.) The style that interested me the most was doing it as a team with another runner. To me, this added an element of complexity, especially in longer routes. Most people will hit a low point at some stage during a hard effort, and the odds are that I would most likely have my low point at a different time than my friend’s– so double the low points! On the flipside, I thought that if I teamed up with the right person– and if we knew each other well, that we could communicate to get past those compromises, and ultimately have the awesome satisfaction of sharing the experience together, as well as the memories later. And if the day turned out to be terrible, at least you could laugh about it with someone for years to come. The idea of approaching a challenge as a team really appealed to me.
Enter Tara. For years, we’ve been running buds, and very similar in our strengths (downhill and technical!). It was obvious for years that we would eventually take on challenges together, but with traditional races often getting in the way, it hadn’t happened. Finally in September right after UTMB, Tara had the idea to see how fast we could run the Howe Sound Crest Trail.
It was a rhetorical question, obviously I would want to go for it together. It’s my favourite local trail, its net downhill profile and technical terrain played to our strengths, and the idea of getting the record would mean something. The HSCT was my first real trail run in 2013, and I was so over my head. I was dropped by the group several times, completely exhausted, barely able to hike up the final climbs. I was so horrendously bad at it, holding the group up all day, that I nearly decided that trail running was not the sport for me. This isn’t for me, I thought, back then. Thankfully I realized that I really enjoyed being in the mountains, regardless of my skill, and that it’s fun to have big challenges. Fast forward to today, and the idea of getting the FKT would signify something– progress, a reward for ‘believing’. Honestly, in 2013 I would have never believed it was possible, when I was alone at the back of the group, struggling. Next thing you know we had set a date, we would go for it on Thanksgiving weekend, whenever the weather looked best.
Right after Tara and I made plans, Sam Drove ran it super fast — when I saw her time– 4:37.56, I thought it was out of reach. But that made it even more fun, to have a real fast time as a target.
So, on October 6, Tara and I went out for our first attempt. Being cautious and not super confident, we went out at our own efficient pace, thinking we would focus on doing our best, but that Sam’s time would be hard to beat. We started slow, getting over five minutes off pace by St. Mark’s, but we figured we’d make up time on the technical sections, near the West Lion. Not so. Before long on the descent from Mt. Unnecessary, I slipped on black ice and super-manned into a rock, head-first. Thankfully my hip and thumb took 100% of the beating, and my head gently hit the rock… it was unbelievable. Needless to say, after that, I had adrenaline pumping, my confidence was wiped, and I couldn’t get into a regular flow on the technical sections. The black ice continued all the way until Harvey Pass, so that didn’t help my fearful state either. (Although, Tara didn’t seem as affected — she had to wait for me as I crab-walked and stalled on any steep parts!)
By the time we hit Hat Pass (just past the Brunswick Mountain turnoff), I knew we were way off pace, like 10-15 minutes. I didn’t mention anything to Tara, it’s not like that would be motivating at this point– with only about an hour to go, there wasn’t enough time left to make up that big of a gap. We weren’t expecting to beat Sam’s time when we started, and we were still super motivated to set our personal fastest time on the trail. The last sections from Deeks Lake to the bottom (one of our strengths) went well, and we finished in 4:51, happy with a sub-5 time, as we had both only ever run the trail at party paces of around 6-9 hours with friends.
Our run boosted our confidence, and we realized that if we got the right conditions, we could maybe beat the record. We would need to have a great day, on an ice-free trail. But we live in Canada, and given it was already mid-October, we would have to wait until next August, we figured. I continued on with other plans, running Valley Vertikiller, and generally overdoing it.
By the end of Valley Vertikiller, I was ready for an off-season. I was craving snow sports, social activities that don’t revolve around running 24/7, writing, and drinking copious amounts of all my favourite hot drinks, in between cat cuddles. I started a two week “active rest” itinerary, which Julien doubted I could achieve. Man does he know me well. I was so dedicated to my “two week running break”, until day two, when Tara invited me to give the Howe Sound Crest Trail another shot on the coming Saturday. There was a sunny day in the forecast, and apparently the ice might have melted up high, she said. I stared at the text for less than a few seconds before impulsively caving. I was tired, but I wanted to push past it and get it done.
With “rest week” shot and killed, I started running a little bit to come out of hibernation, while Tara hammered out a crazy work week. My runs made me wonder if I was up for it. I was tired running what would usually be a slow pace, on a flat trail. How was I going to rebound for such a demanding challenge, by the next day? I didn’t want to tell Tara, but I confided to Julien how doubtful I felt, and he was so positive. He told me that it’s all in my head, that whatever I’m thinking is my reality. (Best husband ever.)
This being our second attempt, and very clearly going for it, I was way more nervous the second time around. Unlike the first time, I had told a couple friends about it, so it felt more legit. And also, knowing our time from last time, we knew it was within reach — but that it would be painfully close, most likely. Julien kindly shepherded us to the start, and we did a warmup in the parking lot of Cypress Mountain, just like it was a race. We squandered as much time as we could until we just had to get going. Julien walked us over to the start, took one of our only photos of the day (I look terrified), then we started our watches and away we went, into the forest, no turning back.
We knew that we had gone out too slow at the start last time, so we had to up the pace right from the get go, which sucked. That beginning section to St. Mark’s is tough, especially when you have a long way to go afterwards, and when you’re following Sam Drove’s bleeding pace. I was breathing hard from the start, both from the effort, and from the crazy race-like excitement.
As we neared St. Mark’s, I started to see that Tara looked much more fresh than me, and the negative self talk started in hard.
Look how much more fresh and fast she is, I told myself.
She didn’t race last weekend, you did. The voice added.
Plus she’s tiny.
You’re slowing Tara down, you should just let her go for the record, and just run slowly behind. Feel how tired you are. Feel how easy it would be to slip into an 8-hour HSCT pace…
And on the thoughts went. Finally I caved and near the St. Mark’s summit, I told Tara to go on without me, that I was too tired to make it happen today, after a crazy fall.
Thankfully for me, Tara wouldn’t have any of this bullshit, and she tricked me into continuing. She insisted we go on together, and that if we needed to, we could bail out later, near the turnoff to Lions Bay. What she didn’t tell me then was that she knew that we were doing great, faster than last time, and that we would be happy on a downhill soon enough. I agreed to follow Tara as though she was setting her own pace for the record, and I just told her I’d try to hang.
She was right, I’m not sure what happened but we were getting to the West Lion much faster than last time, and I started to feel amazing. Luckily, there was barely any ice, and I found my normal rhythm. This time, Tara and I were totally in step, loving every minute and yelling out in joy more than a few times. As we passed through that section, I thought of my friend Mark and how he had come up there to take pictures last time. I air high-fived his spirit.
Right before the West Lion, we passed a guy on the trail and didn’t think too much of it, until he came riding our ass for a solid five minutes. We hadn’t seen anyone in a long time, and so it felt weird to have company, at exactly the same pace, right behind us. I wanted desperately to drop him, to free myself of the feeling of being chased, but I didn’t want to go any faster. So, I befriended him! Turns out his name is Clayton, and it was his first time running the trail. (He was fast!) As Tara led the pace in a militant fashion, Clayton and I talked about the beauty of the Grand Canyon in winter, and the Kneeknacker. We joked that he should join us for our “sub 4:40 goal”, but that if he fell and hurt himself, that he’d be on his own to call a chopper for help. (We were kidding, obviously we would help our new friend — or anyone — if they were hurt out there.) But still, any time I hit a slick patch and slipped, I would yell out to warn him behind me. I also joked that we would have no photo breaks or water stops — and he seemed totally into it. The three of us powered up and over the often-forgotten James Peak, and all the little bumps (that feel big) on the way from the West Lion to Harvey Pass– one of the longest sections on the trail. Tara set the pace, I put my hands on my knees and followed, and Clayton powered along behind me, even cheering us along as we went. I really enjoyed his company, and the way he mellowed things out a little bit. (Although Tara was concerned I was talking too much, I believe.)
Near Hat Pass, I started to realize we were ahead of the record pace, and that, if nothing went wrong, we could likely get it. From there, we had our favourite sections ahead, with a bunch of technical trail to Deeks Lake, and a huge net downhill to the parking lot. Still, it’s not over until it’s over, and even then, I wanted to run it as well as we could, to set the bar as high as we could for the next person. Tara let her militant hammer pace lapse for a moment at Deeks Lake, so it was finally my time to lead. The descent flew by in what felt like no time at all, and somewhere in there we lost Clayton behind us. That old logging road, the last 4k, is a deeply comforting site to me. It means you’re almost done, especially if you can remember your turnover and churn out some 4-5 minute K’s.
Julien turned up with about 2k to go, and he told us we were ahead of the record, which was nice to hear– I still wasn’t certain. He tried to make us go faster by creeping behind us, but by that point, we were in a flow state, in our own little world. And there it was, the yellow gate, it felt like it came sooner than I expected it to. Oh shit, it did, our time was 4:28.15! Two months ago, I would have never believed that I could run the trail in that time– I have Tara and Sam to thank for that! We took some obligatory ugly parking lot photos, and then headed straight back to Copper Coil in Squamish, puffy hands and all. Time for a beer! (And lunch!)
I love this trail, and if you live in (or are visiting) Coastal BC, you must go! (During summer!) I love doing this trail in every style. As a party pace, it’s fun to jump in the sparkling lakes, eat lunch at one of the many panoramic views, reconnect with old friends and make new friends. And as a tempo, it’s almost a playful feeling, to run the technical trail as fast as you can.
Random nerd / gear notes
- Here’s a link to our strava file, for everyone to go out and chase! It’s awesome, there are mini segments within the whole trail.
- Here’s a link to the Howe Sound Crest leaderboard on Strava
- Here’s a link to a good description of the trail
- For nutrition, I carried 2L of water with 800 calories of Carbopro, tons of Chime’s Ginger Chews (pre-opened! I find them so hard to open while running, especially when my hands are cold!), actual salt packages like the kinds you get at cafés, plus two Luna Bars as extra food in case.
- For safety/mountain gear, in my bag I carried an arc’teryx norvan SL jacket, a merino wool longsleeve, a buff, fancy dollar store gloves, an emergency blanket, minimalist first aid kit, and we had 1 fully charged cell phone between us. We had told Julien our route, and the time we were expected to finish. If one of us got hurt, we certainly wouldn’t be comfortable, but we would have enough on us to make shelter and wait for help.