Good things take time
Alicia: In 2013, we went on a trip to Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, which borders right next to the West Coast Trail. We knew the trail was just south of us, and it awakened this excitement about running it. Being winter, the trail was closed and off limits at the time, but it was planted in our minds for another day. Driving home, we stopped somewhere near Cowichan, and went to this little cafe. Not sure how the topic came up, but we started talking about it with the cafe owner, how we wanted to one day run the West Coast Trail. He told us it wasn’t possible. We rejected that notion. He insisted, “No, it’s not possible. People take a week to do it. You can’t run it.”
Tara: That encounter only fueled our fire even more to prove him wrong! Why couldn’t we?!
Alicia: In the years since, Tara and I kept running, and the goal eventually expanded beyond just running the trail, but seeing how fast we could do it. Tara ran the trail with Tory in 2014, which was an FKT time at that time, and then she hiked with a big pack over four nights with Ryan the next year. I’d never done it, but I’d frequently read about it. Last summer I’d planned to do it solo on Canada Day, but then I got super iron deficient in June. I couldn’t imagine running 20k, let alone 75k, so thankfully I cancelled and took to writing instead of running. Thank the universe that I cancelled. I’d planned to do it alone?! Obviously it would be way more fun, and way more likely a fast time on the trail with the huge teamwork boost from Tara!
Tara: I can’t believe Alicia planned to do it alone! I was excited to join and jumped at the opportunity to run together. The first time I ran it I hobbled out the last 30 km due to an injury and has always wanted to go back to try running it again! I also thought this trail would feed to both of our strengths, technical rooty terrain. Alicia had run Hurt previously, and the West Coast Trail sounded like the Canadian version. Obviously it would be way more fun to run this trail together!
Summer solstice, 2019: the perfect day
Alicia: In the days leading up to our planned run of the West Coast Trail, I was anxious. Many nights I woke at 4am, our planned wakeup time, as though it was already time to go. I really respected the women who had come before us to run it quickly, and I wasn’t sure if we could run it faster. I also felt humbled by how difficult the trail would be, and how remote it is. Heck, I’d never even set foot on the trail.
The slight discomfort of the unknown continued until we woke up on the morning of our run. At 4am, the ocean right in front of our campsite in Port Renfrew was calmer than usual. The sky had a marine layer, and the birds weren’t even awake yet. For the first time, I felt calm and relaxed. All the logistics, the details, the challenges to get there– those had all been dealt with. There was nothing to worry about! Now we just got to have fun!
Tara: I was also nervous about the route and knew exactly what we were getting into. We had to book the permit back in January, so there was no option to change the date. I thought we would have more time to do more specific training together, but the date seemed to come quite quickly and we were busier than we thought this spring.
I felt similar to Alicia, the excitement rather than nervousness only went away once we started putting our paddle boards in the water and I got excited about the challenge ahead. Paddling over to the other side feels a little bit like stepping into another world. You can only get to the start of the south end of the trail by crossing the Gordon River.
Alicia: Our planned start at sunrise (5:15 a.m.) obviously shifted to 6am, as we tinkered with last-minute (copious amounts of) sunscreen, and then we paddled on our stand up paddleboards to a misleading beach. We even had a false start: there was lots of overgrowth at the start, and we managed to get ourselves off trail within the first 30 steps. After wasting precious minutes looking for the trail, we concluded: might as well restart!
The first 20km were some of the most fun, technical trails I’ve ever run. It was like HURT, but with crazy-steep ladders and half-there wooden planks, less Pirate Aid Station and more bear/wolf/cougar. Within the first 10k, we’d already torn the mesh of our shoes, hammered our shins into roots, and tripped and saved ourselves. We also went off trail for a few minutes, as soon as we let our attention drift to volcano vacations. At one point I supermanned into a huge mud pit, and came out with my arms and hands covered in thick mud. I looked like a Tough Mudder competitor!
Tara: This trail is one of my favorites because of how technical it is, but because of that, it’s almost a matter of when you may trip up on a branch versus if. When Alicia fell, was trying not to laugh and so badly wanted to take a photo, but I didn’t know if the fall was serious or not. Alicia got up so fast and insisted we keep moving. I had a similar superman fall later on in the day on more solid dirt, and similarly brushed it off.
I hammered my quad into a log early on within the first 2 km and had a moment of panic worrying that I may end up hobbling out of this trail again, luckily it was just a charlie horse.
Alicia: The south end of the trail is so fun at the start of the day, but I can’t imagine how much it would suck to run if you were coming the opposite way.
Tara: I had run south to north previously and agreed this way made much more sense with trying to do a fast time. You get the harder and longer section of the trail completed first, and the boat for Nitinat Narrows is on the south side of the trail which means we wouldn’t have to wait on the other side of the river and hope the boat see us and comes quickly. We also didn’t have to worry about crossing a river at the end of the day!
Alicia: After a long time of full concentration, we finally reached the first beach access point, near Walbran Creek. After talking with Matt Cecil before the run, we’d decided that we’d try to run the beach when we had the option, because he said it was quite a bit faster.
The beach was beautiful, with huge crashing waves. But it also felt painfully slow! We spent the first ten minutes zigzagging between soft sand, pebbly rocks where you would sink, and running on a firm but slippy underwater rock shelf. A few years ago, I’d cut my leg pretty badly after running when the tide was out from Kits Beach to near UBC in Vancouver, and I was still traumatized from that. Tara tried to lure me farther onto the rocky shelf, but I cowardly ran in the sinking sand. It was clearly taking me double the effort to keep up with her, so I kept criss-crossing between attempting to run on the tempting rocky shelf, then cowardly retreating to the sinking sand, then repeating. In this first beach section, I totally understand why this trail takes so much time. For a second, I worried that Chris and Holland would be waiting for us to finish in 18 hours.
Tara: Mentally I was struggling with the thought of running on the beach, and debated whether we should indeed take the trail. We took the beach whenever we could, but opted for the trail in the last 20 km when we had the option, as I was feeling the effort on the beach was both mentally and physically draining me. Cue the compromises that have to be made when running as a team versus solo!
Alicia: The day continued like that, trail-beach, trail-beach, and we stopped for water often, hoarding 1.5L in soft flasks every time without any water purification. (Hello, Giardia. Do you want a ride?!) Every thirty or so minutes, we’d encounter a group of hikers, all of them so happy, grinning from ear to ear, and offering encouragement. They could hear our bear bell from a mile away, so they were already ready to greet us when we came upon them. (Most hikers seemed to be hiking opposite us?)
At some point, I realized we were actually getting close to halfway. I looked at my watch, for the first time looking to calculate what sort of time would be possible. I didn’t want to do that earlier, because the trail is so technical, it would be discouraging. I couldn’t believe it. If we carried on at this pace, knowing the second half would be much easier than the first half, we could fairly easily break not 13 hours, but 12 hours! I never would have imagined that. Back when we were dreaming, we thought that a time in the 12-hour range would be fantastic, a “perfect day” sort of achievement. But sub-12?! I wasn’t sure whether to tell Tara or not. I decided to tell her, and obviously she had also figured it out. That was a huge boost, for the first time realizing how well we were doing.
Tara: I secretly knew that the real halfway point timewise was much sooner, but I didn’t want to jinx how we were doing and kept this quiet. We had hit the halfway point in my mind at 5.5 hours in, when we were near the old burger shack (Moniques)! Around here, I felt a bit of a boost after knowing what our time was and picked up the pace a bit before we got to Nitinat Narrows. It was the excitement and surprise about how the day was going. I also thought we could push a little harder before getting to the boat as it was likely we would get a rest at the dock and need to wait at least 5-10 minutes for the boat driver to shuttle us over.
Alicia: Near Dare Point, we hopped back onto the trail from a beach section, which our Port Renfrew Parks Canada orientation host had advised. This section was my favourite! The trail was fairly flat, up high, with many views down to the ocean, and a constant sound of crashing waves. Several times, we passed through arches of ferns, and deep, dark patches where suddenly all the sunlight vanished. I felt amazing. It was breezy, the trail was super fun, and we were on track for an awesome time too! Above and beyond all that, I was really enjoying all the views, I think more than any other run I’ve done. Around here, Tara started to pick up the pace. (I found out later that she thought the Nitinat Narrows boat ride was at 36k remaining, when it was actually closer to the 32k remaining point. She’d picked it up a little bit, thinking she was going to get a rest at the boat!)
At Nitinat Narrows, we ran down a wooden plank to see the boat just about to leave. “Hey!” we yelled, not super loudly, but half-heartedly. (Didn’t want to be too annoying!) We arrived to the dock, realizing we’d have to wait for the boat to go for its trip and then return before getting us. Oh well, more time to eat our sandwiches! We thought. But then, the Narrows ferry operators came over to us, shook our hands, and told us they were bringing the boat back for us! “You two are the fastest yet this year!” they said, smiling. We were blown away that they were coming back to get us! This was a huge boost, with about 32k to go.
The final 32k was a mix of beach and trail as we spent our last few hours in paradise. We kept eating and drinking water, navigated on and off the beach fairly swiftly, and we even ran into 2 long, lean black bears with about 14k to go. (Sorry to anyone who heard our terrible singing!) At our last water refill, we encountered two women taking a break from the hike, maybe in their 50s, at the stream. I could tell they were runners, because they asked very detailed questions about what we were eating, and they weren’t shocked— more so, very interested. One lady announced that she was competitive in nature, and now she wanted to run the trail! We told her she should go for it. We wished them a great hike, then we entered the final stretch, which was a beautifully flowy 12k to Pachena Bay.
Tara: Alicia patiently let me lead even though the pace had slowed to some walking on false flats. My legs were starting to seize up and I was having trouble running our normal pace.
Alicia: Poor Tara was on her wedding and honeymoon for a month before this, and wasn’t loving this part. But before we knew it, we saw an obscure sign and grass field. This was the end, far less monumental than I’d imagined. It was done!
Tara: Alicia talked me through the final stretches and before we knew it, we saw the trail sign in Bamfield and the orientation post on the grass field! What the heck, we actually did it?! We finished in 11:34!
Running the West Coast Trail!
While everything is fresh as mud, we thought it would be a good time to share some of the things we learned for future runners! Here’s everything we learned from Tara’s previous 2 times on the trail, plus lots of blog-reading, and talking with Matt Cecil a few days before (thank you Matt!):
- Travel south to north. It’s so nice to do the most technical part when you’re fresh, both physically and more importantly, mentally! The stretch of trail from Gordon River to Walbran Creek (approximately 20k!) is similar to the most technical section of the Baden Powell trail in North Vancouver, if you’re familiar with the area (between Grouse Mountain and Prospect Road). It took a ton of mental focus the entire time, and would be so hard at the end, after a long day! Doing it first made it super fun, while I imagine that doing it at the end would be frustrating and more like type 2 fun. Also, the technical nature of that stretch forced us to start out slower. It would be super tough to run too hard in this part! :p Lastly, this lets you get the Gordon River water crossing over and done with right away, rather than doing that when you’re tired at the end!
- We used a stand up paddle board to cross Gordon River at the start, which worked really well. (Two of us kneeled on one board, plus we both had paddles and life jackets.) The water was super still when we crossed, it felt super safe. Our friend Chris towed the extra board back with her using the SUP leash.
- If you can, time your run so that you can choose to run on the beach, or the trail. For us, it worked out great because that meant starting at 6am, which was also really nice for us with safety in mind. We’d learned from Matt that it’s often quicker to run on the beach when you can, because it’s more direct, obviously not technical like the trail, and sometimes you can find a nice rocky shelf to run on, under a few centimeters of water. We sometimes found it nicer to run on the beach, but more often we preferred the trail, just because it was shady, and the surface was much mor enjoyable. (Well, we love the technical stuff though!) Either way, it was so nice to have several occasions when we had the choice of doing either trail or beach, because the tides were out. We were able to learn what worked as we went, and made decisions on the fly. (We used the beach stretches to look at the map and plan the next sections. Also, it was easier to eat on the beach, to its credit.)
- Running the trail on Summer Solstice was great, because it gave us ample daylight with sunrise at 5:15am and sunset at 9:30pm! It was really nice peace of mind, in case we had a longer-than-expected day!
- You will laugh, but carrying a bear bell was a great little trick. Although we brought it to prevent seeing bears, it turned out to be mostly great for sharing the trail with hikers. It let them know we were coming with tons of notice, so we had lots of great interactions with hikers hearing us coming a mile away! Seeing all the hikers along the way, and how happy they were, was one of our highlights.
- Having friends meet us at the end was super awesome, it just let us run confidently, not wondering how we would get to Bamfield (5k away from the trail!) at the end of a long day!
- Bring a “lunch” (sandwich, or something yummy) that you can eat at Nitinat Narrows. This way, if the boat doesn’t come right away, you have something positive to do while waiting– eating something delicious (and calorie dense) that’s hard to eat while running! That’s what we did. We were looking forward to a little wait for the boat, and during the ride across, to have a lunch break, and dump the rocks from our shoes. (Either way, it’s positive!) But fortunately / unfortunately, the boat was just leaving, heard us coming, and they actually came back to get us! So in the end, we had zero time to eat! It was nice to have the more luxury food to make use of the time in case we had to wait.
- In terms of training, we live in Squamish and Vancouver, and frequently get out on trails that are very similar to the most technical part of West Coast Trail. We did a training run from Grouse Mountain to Deep Cove in North Vancouver, that’s a good one! Also, Alicia did three runs down Sea to Summit in Squamish as training. (The hardest parts of the west coast trail are similar, but way flatter!) Tara did some sand running on vacation. Either some training in the sand or snow if you’re not used to those conditions would be ideal!
Of course, a big important requirement for having a relatively efficient day on the trail, if that’s your goal, is having great weather, so that will just come down to luck! We lucked out with a sunny, not-too-hot day, and the week leading up didn’t have a ton of rain. This meant that the roots were all dry for us, and we got to skip a couple cable car crossings by walking right across the rivers. (We only did one cable car crossing!) I’m guessing this is a very rare and special treat.
Ways to do it even quicker
We think that a super-motivated gal could push herself to do this even faster, assuming a perfect day with the same dry conditions! Here are a few ideas:
- Running the last 12k portion faster! We slowed a bit in the end, walking the gradual ups, but they are very smooth, non-technical and runnable if you’re able to push there!
- We filled up water four times, but we could have filled up three times instead with an extra soft flask, maybe saving five minutes. (We had three 500ml soft flasks, maybe having a 4th would save some time.) You do waste a bit of time filling up while looking for the stream, especially when you’re on the beach. We also went off trail one time, down to the beach to get more water.
- Maybe you could keep running when you see two big, lean black bears jump from the bushes onto the beach 50m from you? In our case, we stopped, started singing horribly, and then slowly walked past them once they hid in the bushes. Depends how comfortable you are!
- In the first 20k, there was a downed tree which led us off-trail, up an animal path by accident for about five minutes. This was the one time we stopped paying full attention, and started talking each others’ ears off about volcano vacations. (Tara hiked a volcano in Indonesia the other week with Ryan, and some tourists were smoking the entire way, apparently!)
- We were conservative running along the rocky shelf which was under a few inches of water on the beach, being super careful to not slip and hit our head! If you’re more aggressive, you could probably pick up the pace there, although it’s often covered in seaweed and algae. (Alicia had once slipped on a rocky shelf like that and cut her whole leg, so she wanted to be cautious.)
It’s nice to travel light, but the only way out on this trail is at Nitinat Narrows at approximately halfway, or in Bamfield. If you get hurt, the communication system is based on handing a piece of paper with information about your situation to the next hiker you see, and having them hand-deliver it to the next person they see with a radio on the trail. (!!) So, a bit slow. We knew we needed to carry enough stuff to survive overnight if we needed to, in the worst case scenario. That included:
- Lightweight Gortex rain jackets (Arcteryx Norvan)
- Merino wool long-sleeve
- Buff that could be used as a toque or tourniquet if needed
- Lightweight gloves
- Extra socks
- Emergency blankets
- 1 SPOT device
- 2 packs of matches and fire starters
- Cell phones (although likely useless for making a call on the trail, you never know, maybe you can get 1 bar of reception somewhere… and, we could use it for navigation.)
- Waterproof maps of the trail
- For first aid supplies, we had bandages, antiseptic, Tylenol, Advil, antihistamine, and medical elastic and bandages.
Most important, we had our friends waiting for us at the end, and they knew our route, and the time in which they should start to call for help.
We ate and drank a ton running the West Coast Trail! It really helped to do lots of planning before. Alicia sat down and literally wrote a google doc with a list of sweet and salty foods, to make sure she had variety. In the end, here’s what we ate:
Alicia: 2400 calories during the run including:
- 2 Clif Tart Cherry-filled bars
- Big bag of plain salt and vinegar chips
- Huge bag of sour grape candies, gifted from Chris
- 6 packs of Mott’s fruit snacks
- 1 pack of Clif Chomps for electrolytes
- 6 softflasks filled with 200 calories of Carbopro each, just for some extra
- Salt packages just in case (literally, packages, like the ones you might see in the condiments section at McDonald’s)
- In the second half, 1 cheese bun sandwich with lots of mayo and Havarti inside
- Brought a high-protein teff waffle sandwich stuffed with almond butter and honey inside in case it took longer, but it didn’t!
- For water, guzzled 14 (500ml) soft flasks of water throughout the day! (We didn’t bother treating the water, hope we don’t get giardia!)
- Brought orange ginger Chimes, really didn’t like them!
- Brought 1 pack of kids baby food fruit puree, but unfortunately, it had yogurt in it, which was sour and gross! Good emergency food though!
Like a kid’s birthday party snack table!
- About half a pack of bacon in the first half!
- Some tailwind to start.
- Tried out new flavours of Muir Energy Gels got from Distance RunWear- Now she loves these!!!
- Untapped waffles! (4-5!)
- Majority of one of Alicia’s Teffles waffles
- lots of jelly beans (late in the day this is all I wanted the last 20 km or so!)
- A bag of salt and vinegar chips
- Some coconut chocolate
- A few bites of a ham and cheese sandwich, but couldn’t stomach this and opted for more jelly beans
- Pack of mini eggs
- Honey Stingers
- Justin’s nut butter- also couldn’t get much of this down, too sticky when your mouth is dry!
- Similar amount of water to Alicia/slightly less as I didn’t fully fill up on one stop!
To our amazing party / crew / SUP whisperers, Chris and Holland, who came along for all parts of the adventure except the actual running of the trail. They woke up at 4am to make coffee, shepherded us on SUPs across Gordon River at the start, towed the extra SUP back, drove our car to Bamfield on remote dirt roads all day, and were willing to wait until midnight for us to make sure we were safe in Bamfield! We’re ready to be your party / crew for this thing as soon as you are! 😉
A special thank you to Parks Canada, the West Coast Trail Guardians, the Pacheedaht, Ditidaht, Huu-ay-aht, and Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations for welcoming us onto this beautiful wild paradise, and protecting and preserving such an enjoyable route through it. Kudos to everyone who came before us to pioneer this route as an awesome run– notably Gary Robbins in 2010, and Jade de La Rosa who had the most recent women’s FKT.