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.

 

 

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Inaugural Gorge Falls 100k

My second year heading down to the Rainshadow Running Gorge Falls races, I was looking forward to absolutely everything. How can it get any better than combining waterfalls, technical single track, awesome familiar and new faces, Portland, Hood River, some silliness, and road trip?! No. it doesn’t! And this year, there was more to love with a 100k option. The choice between the 50k and the 100k was an easy one. More trail = better!

amazing green moss kingdom!

amazing green moss kingdom captured by Paul Nelson!

Back in winter I misguided Tara into signing up with me, and a week before the race, the two of us then misguided an entourage to road-trip down with us– Ryan, April, Nate, and Julien formed the groupies. Groupies are very important to a successful race, they help you get in the zone. We shared an AirBnB flat, and the owners definitely thought we were nuts. (You know there’s only one room for all six of you, right?)

It didn’t really matter, because we were going to be running and volunteering so long that we wouldn’t be home much, anyway. I approached this race with a lot of respect, thinking that I had only done one 100k before, a much easier flat one. I knew there would be a lot more climbing, so I just pretended I had never done anything like this before, I was a total freshie. I was excited, except for the 4am start! Tara was extra-excited, because she didn’t have any appropriate running shoes for the sharp rocky course. Naturally, we buy her new shoes that she can wear for the first time ever in the race. 100k is a good test for new shoes, right?!

After a heck-load of mac & cheese, Tara and I go to bed at 9:30, to the sounds of a movie playing on the other side of the room, which our groupies are watching intently. I so want to watch, but I decide that 2:55am will come way too soon for fooling around, that kind of alarm takes no prisoners. And if I’m not careful, I will still taste any beer I consume at 4am! Scary.

2:55 arrives and I’m actually super energized, I don’t even need coffee! We jump in the car and take off, circling around looking for exits at that early hour. Not west! That goes to the ocean! East! Where is east?! 

amazing shot by Paul Nelson! Doesn't it make 4am look appealing? What an awesome time of day to hang out.

Doesn’t it make 4am look appealing? What an awesome time of day to hang out. (Another amazing shot by Paul Nelson!)

It turns out that with the right bedtime, (9am?) a 4am start is awesome! I absolutely love night running, especially the comfort of night running with other people, and so I’m totally in my element getting going in the pitch black at the start of the run. I don’t come with brakes, so I run like a crazy person down the technical cliff-sides, darkness doesn’t need to slow me down.

I’ve bonked tons of times in the past year so I planned to eat lots of dried fruit, it was going to be glorious! But a few bites into my dried mango, I realize that I’m not a fast enough eater to be worthy of real food today. Yup, I’m going to have to eat gels. Suddenly I switch plans and I decide to eat 3-4 gels every 10 miles. (I end up eating like 25! So many that I develop cuts on my mouth from the repeated plastic abrasion!) Thank the trail god, Heather Pola from PocketFuel had given Tara and I a pretty good stash of real-food-gels before the race, so between every fake-food gel I demolish, I treat myself to Pocketfuel’s gels, which make me feel like a human being again. Blueberries and almond butter?! Yummy cold brew coffee?! Ironically, I’m wearing my old McDonald’s staff jersey as I down these organic, locally made whole foods products. (They should have called them crack candy, I feel like I would sell my dignity to get more once they’re gone.)

girls gone wild is my favourite hat, apparently they also make a TV show? Sounds cool!

girls gone wild is my favourite hat, apparently they also make a TV show? Sounds cool! Glenn Tachiyama spots the hat.

The race is going super well, although it feels weird that there’s not too many people in front of me. There must be something weird going on. Ah, well. I’ll just keep on trucking! Running through mind-blowing waterfalls, on rocky wonderful flowing trail, I’m totally in flow state, to the point that it’s difficult to remember the details. It’s all a beautiful blur. At some point we get to run on the PCT for a while, at several points Dave comes and goes with his Project Talaria video camera, and I feel pleasantly in an alpha, maybe even theta, state of brainwaves.

At halfway, I’m greeted again by Heather, and I greedily get to take another massive boatload of candy crack (Pocketfuel). I ask for a cheeseburger and fries at the aid station, and they don’t seem to get that I’m joking just yet, until they notice my McD’s jersey, and my good ol’ nametag.

Heather Pola is my hero.

Heather Pola is my hero.

A conversation mid-race goes something like this.

runner to me: XYZ girl back behind us, she’s sponsored by ABC [sports brand].
me: That’s cool. I’m sponsored by McDonald’s. I get all the pies and fries I could want, that’s all I need.
runner: [no comments. Awkward silence.]

Somewhere in the second half, I get to run with some of my groupies, Julien and Nate. Julien ends up running the farthest he’s ever run in his life, and Nate runs, perhaps the farthest he’s run in jean shorts? Actually, I don’t want to make that bet…

What a wonderful site, especially after you've run 60 or 70k!

What a wonderful site, especially after you’ve run 60 or 70k! Epic photo from Paul Nelson!

The two of them are the best pacer groupie friends you could ask for, like running whisperers, they just understand the pace and the level of excitement or anger (road stretch!) that’s needed, without me even needing to communicate… They get me through the two mile road stretch by telling me near-death stories, which is ironic because I feel like death on that seemingly never-ending road! Maybe it’s because it’s right next to the highway, after we’ve run miles and miles of beauty?

A few K left! I'm smiling, because I was just pretending to be a Pterodactyl.

A few K left! I’m smiling, because I was just pretending to be a Pterodactyl. Photo from the legendary Glenn Tachiyama!

After the road stretch, everything is glorious again, and the rest of the race is kind of history. I get to run with another runner, Justin from Ashland, and the three boys and I run and power hike a huge amount of miles together, until the final switchbacks, where I escape ahead while pretending to be a pterodactyl. (Thanks, spellcheck!)

We run back into civilization, and looping the final lake, it’s hard to believe it’s been almost 12 hours, and that it’s all coming to an end. From about a kilometer away I can already hear people cheering from across the lake, and it spurs me on big time. (Later, I discover Heather also cheers like crazy!) What a day! We finish just over 12 hours, and Tara kills her debut 100k not far behind us, with brand new shoes to boot! The fresh pizza-eating, friend-making, band-listening and microbrew-sipping commence, and it never ends really. Shout out to April, our other groupie turned pacer, who ran one of her first trail races as Tara’s pacer!

goal smashing is so much richer when shared with friends.

goal smashing is so much richer when shared with friends. Tara and I @ the finish!

The Gorge Falls races are my favourite races, ever.

If you’re considering running the 50k or 100k, definitely make it happen! The trails are addictive, the race is so well-run by Rainshadow, and combine that with Portland and Hood River… winning formula! And bring the groupies too, Portland is such a fun town for all, and they can check out the waterfalls as well!

Fun Facts about Pterodactyls
Results from the weekend
Fun place with pub, resto, brewery, and heated soaking pools for apres race…
PDX Thrift store tour on Hawthorne
Make your own PDX brewery crawl!

Trail Porn shot by Ryan, as Julien and I run around my favourite waterfall

Trail Porn shot by Ryan, as Julien and I run around my favourite waterfall