Tara and Alicia’s Howe Sound Crest Trail Women’s F^2KT (Fastest and Funnest Known Time)

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.

First Attempt

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!)

One of many countless insanely beautiful sections along the trail. Photo by Tara.

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.

War wounds from attempt #1. I was a liability, constantly falling or nearly falling. Photo by Julien.

Second Attempt

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.)

You can see the look of fear on my face. When you know it’s going to be a hard 4+ hours…

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.

From a previous trip to this beautiful place, around the same time of year.

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.)

From a previous HSCT adventure with Mike, Ryan and Julien in 2015, party pace.

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!)

Post-adventure Whistler Chestnut celebratory beers … the best.

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.

 

 

Advertisements

Play With the Challenge – Hanes Valley Women’s FKT Attempt

We’ve all been in a situation where the going got TOUGH. What did you think in that moment?

For me, tough moments sneak up from behind. They often show up as being annoyed, or angry, maybe swearing at the terrain or myself, or tripping and falling on the ground. If I don’t catch that this is happening, it can often quickly progress to a situation where things are actually bad– I stop eating, or stop thinking about my goal, or the worst of all, I stop believing that I can achieve my goal. Often, I’m thinking I’m doing way worse than I actually am– and I beat myself up for no reason! This happens in running, and in learning Computer Science, too. It’s weird, because before these big challenges present themselves, I say I’m ready. In fact, I actively seek them out by signing up for experiences that will challenge me– ultras, computer science, start-ups. But the willingness to experience the tough doesn’t always translate to a capability to deal with it. It’s hard to be ready, because it can show up in so many forms, and I often find I’ve only prepared specifically for a few of the possible forms…

This past weekend, I had a run that showed me a glimpse of how to handle this.

Julien and I wanted to see how fast we could run the Hanes Valley Loop, a classic local run in North Vancouver. Gary Robbins had set a blistering fast time as the FKT, but there was no women’s FKT published. This was all Julien’s idea. I was hesitant, however. I had run Hanes Valley three other times and I knew it would be a huge endeavour to try and run it fast. When the route isn’t HURT-like, it’s going up a scree field or down a mountain biking trail. (Well, there is an easy beginning…!) But Julien knows how to stroke my competitive desires, so obviously this was happening. He loves uphill, and I love downhill, so it meant that we would be constantly uncomfortable.

I’m usually feeling strong when the trail gets technical, so I was looking forward to flying over some roots and rocks. But as soon as we passed Norvan Falls over the bridge, I felt like an awkward giraffe on the trail. I couldn’t predict where the trail would twist and turn, I couldn’t get into a rhythym, I even fell flat on my stomach at one point. I became very frustrated, expecting this trail to be my sweet spot.

I should have known that things were still going just great when we made it to the helicopter pad in Hanes Valley after 1 hour fifteen minutes. But instead, it was still this strange asshole part of my brain commanding me, telling me I wasn’t doing great. I scampered up the scree field trying to make up time, and of course, went way up the wrong side of the valley. Julien kept calling at me to come left, but I waited way too long, and now I was separated by a huge 20-foot bush from the correct side, with no flagging in sight. In this moment, I let myself get a bit more frustrated, as my efforts to hustle thus far seemed effectively pointless. In the past, I might have gotten angry and canned the effort. But as we walked down the scree back to where we left the flagging, I realized I could embrace this new, greater challenge. The getting lost was done, and all we could do now was make the best of it, and try to make up for it on the rest of the route. I apologized to Julien for being crazy, which was step one.

hanesScree

It was perfect timing to remain positive, as just when we found the flagging again, we saw a huge chunk of the bushes move and shake, about 10 meters away– where we just were! We both knew right away, this had to be a bear! Immediately we rushed as far left on the scree as we could, and climbed straight up. When we topped out from the scree field, a couple of hikers were watching our supposed “hiking fast right at the bear” from above.

In the end, the run did turn out great, as we made up for the detours with a smooth run through Crown Pass to the top of Grouse, down Mountain Highway, and down the winding Fromme trails. If I had let myself get too angry at my mistakes, it would have killed a great run! For now in this fleeting moment, it’s a current women’s fastest time–3h 45m 21s.

For those of you who want to run it for yourself, I found this Hanes Loop RunGo route really helpful on the last trails through Fromme. (I made this route from Gary Robbin’s GPS file from his run.) However, you need to keep your head up through the scree field… a) because of bears, and b) because since it’s more of a route without taking “turns”, RunGo didn’t give me directions up there. Hence the hiking straight up the wrong way, with my head down. Also, make sure you’ve got all the backcountry essentials. Since this is a major North Shore Search and Rescue spot, I always carry multiple navigation aids, (I carried RunGo, plus photos of my paper map on two fully-charged phones) a great jacket, food, water, and an emergency kit which has a mini turtle light, and basic first aid supplies.

If you want to run this fast, (and you should! You can do it!) my advice is to win with wisdom… essentially, to not get off track in the scree. You could also consider skipping the Grouse chalet. We stopped to refill water there, but if you wanted to skip that then you could cut about 2km off through the resort, plus the time to refill water. Here’s the link on Strava with all the stats from my run.

This was a day when I was able to play with the challenge. Definitely one to remember and re-produce!