Wednesday, September 26, 2007

West Coast Trail Run - Sept. 22, 2007

This is the story of Jeff Hunt (Victoria, BC) and Bob Wall (Campbell River, BC) who ran the 77k West Coast Trail on Sept. 22nd, 2007 in 14 hours and 25 minutes.

The morning started at 4 am, as I heard Bob’s alarm ringing. All things considered, I had a pretty good sleep that night. I got up and had a banana, a bagel and an English muffin. I tried to relax as best I could, while sitting with my legs up. I kept saying to myself, “rest now Hunt, this will be the only rest you get today”. I took a look out of the hotel window. The day before had been quite wet, but the night sky was full of stars. This was a good sign, as we had rescheduled our adventure to take place on the Saturday instead of the Sunday mainly due to the weather being the best on the Saturday.
We left our hotel at 4:40 and drove the bumpy road a short 6k to the trailhead. We headed to the official sign and took some photos. I wanted to be sure to take a photo of my watch showing our 5 am start time, just in case we happened to set a speed record. My original goal was just to finish the trail, and I knew I was going to be happy with this huge accomplishment. However, the competitive person inside me also thought it would be kinda cool to beat the 12:20 speed record, set by Gary Robbins only 6 weeks prior.
With a final gaze up into the starry sky, I reminded Bob how lucky we were with the current conditions. I was counting on no rain, but the fact that there was no fog was definitely bonus. We took out our flashlights and skirted along Pachena Bay on the beach and headed onto the trail at the 0.5k mark. The trail itself was wet. The rain the day before had definitely made the trail as wet as I had imagined. The first 10 km. to Pachena Lighthouse was relatively easy, but it was a constant start-and-stop affair, due to the quagmires and the blow-down. With every few km., I commented to Bob that the sky was slowly starting to brighten.
By the time we reached Michigan Creek at the 12 Km. point, our flashlights were off and we were guided by the waking daylight. I was occasionally watching the clock to see what kind of a pace we had going for us, and, it looked pretty good. With the final ferry in Port Renfrew leaving at 5 pm, we had forced ourselves to break the speed record, or we would simply be swimming across Gordon River at the end of the trail. As we hit this small beach section of the trail, I was excited that we were able to run the sandstone shelf through this section. Running along the shelf was quick, but it definitely soaked us running in the 2” deep water. It was at this point that I remember Mark from Frontrunners bragging how much water my “Smartwool Socks” could absorb (I think it was 1L per sock).
A little while later, we saw the buoys in the trees that indicated we needed to get back to the trail. We were now rocketing through the trail, and for a little while, I had measured our pace to be at 6min/km. I was feeling more and more confident that we were going to be at the Nitnat Ferry right at 9 am, which was the earliest time the ferry ran.
At the 20 Km. point, we were forced to get to the beach again. I didn’t mind this fact, as I was sure we could continue the quick pace along the sandstone shelf. However, this was not the case. There was no shelf in this section, so we had to slug it out on the beach. The beach in this section was pea gravel and definitely not runnable. We quickly adapted to a power-hiking mode, which was the best we could do. After a couple of K’s on the beach, I got impatient at our slow pace and I told Bob that maybe we could hit the trail for a little while. Bob agreed, and I scampered up to the beach edge to look for a trail. Looking for the trail, I stepped on a piece of driftwood and my feet completely slipped out from underneath me. I landed flat on my side and hit the ground hard. I was okay however, as I didn’t land on any logs or rocks. I thought to myself “that was lucky, boy. Don’t do that again!” Bob followed me onto the trail, and I warned him to be careful on the logs! We quickly found the trail again and it wasn’t long before we were at the first cable-car crossing at Klanawa River.
The cable car required a huge effort. Pulling the cable was strenuous on the shoulders to say the least. When we finally got across, and with my shoulders burning, I said to Bob “this will be the only cable-car we take. We will wade through the other rivers.” Bob smiled and said “good”.
The next stretch of trail started off nice enough, but by the time we passed the Tsusiat Falls access, the trail deteriorated significantly. I did not count on this. I had never hiked this section of the trail before (because the other times I did the trail I took the beach at this point), but I had assumed it was not difficult. I was wrong. It was wet, muddy, and rooty, and although we slogged through it, our pace had slowed significantly.
As we got close to the Nitnat Ferry crossing, I reached for my whistle. I wanted to be sure that the fellow operating the ferry was not going to dawdle in picking us up. I blew the whistle a few times to alert the guy on the other side. He eventually said “I’ll be there”, but certainly was in no hurry. The next few minutes were those of reflection. We had hit the ferry crossing at 9:40, about an hour slower than I had hoped for, but still definitely a respectable time. My body was still feeling quite good, except for my hamstrings, which were tight. I figured the tightness came about from all the starting and stopping with the running. Bob and I took the opportunity to drink some water, and have a Cliff Bar.
Before too long, we were on the other side and found ourselves on boardwalk. The boardwalk lasted for quite sometime and we made awesome progress on the boards. It was a little slippery, but it was definitely easier than being on roots. We then arrived at “Beaver Bog” at Km. 33. I was told the week prior by a person from my running group that this section was the wettest on the trail, and that it was extremely slow. However, Bob and I did not struggle at all really, and the fact that we didn’t really have any weight on our backs must have made this technical section a breeze. It was only around the last corner of Beaver Bog that Bob got his whole leg in mud. I soon followed suit – it was the only way through. We laughed at our muddy legs, and then sped along quickly to Cheewhat Bridge at Km. 36.
It was in this section that we noticed about 5 piles of bear scat. I was not too worried, but I was glad I had my whistle close by. We never saw any bears, but I am sure that they couldn’t be very far away.
We ran ahead and got to Dare Beach. I was excited at this point, because I did the time-planning in my head again, and we were back on track. I was also told that this section of the trail was going to be easy and fast, because the sand was hard-packed and definitely runnable. I was pissed off when I found out that this was not the case. The sand was soft, and we quickly backtracked off the beach and hit the trail again.
The next few kilometres seemed to take forever. Again, the trail deteriorated as we went along and the great trail that once was (at Cheewhat) was now a bloody mess. We not only had the mud and the roots, but now there was also quite a bit of elevation change. We would have loved the beach section through here, but the tide was way in and there was no way to go quicker on the beach.
We eventually got to Cribs Creek at Km.41, refilled our water packs, and had another Cliff Bar. Bob and I stared at each other blankly and didn’t know how we could possibly make this easier. The only thing we could do was battle on. So we did.
We slogged our way to Carmanah Lighthouse at Km. 44 and I made a phone call back to home. Unfortunately, nobody was home so I left a message. I was disappointed to relay the message back home that there was no way we were making the final 5 pm ferry. We were now 7 hours in, and the hardest part of the trail was still ahead of us. I tried to tell myself “forget about the time. Finishing the trail was my life-long dream, and I am going to finish.”
After descending some ladders, we skipped ahead and made our way to Monique’s CafĂ©. It was actually a lean-two with minor provisions, and I was surprised to see a young man operating the stand. I scanned the chocolate bars an invested in 4 Mars Bars. Not a bad deal really for $8, when you consider the fact that you really are in the middle of nowhere. Bob invested in a Diet Coke. As we were just about to leave, the fellow offered us some Sharky’s Energy Drink for free. He said it was close to the end of the season, and that we could take it. I was a little concerned by the new product, but when Bob had some of his, I followed his lead and pounded back the drink.
This next section of the trail was beach. It was 9 Km. of non-runnable beach, so we power-walked as best we could. It wasn’t long before my stomach started really cramping and I got quite a bit of pain. I actually felt like throwing up. My stomach probably didn’t know what hit it. This stomach pain last for all of the 9 Km. of beach, but eventually did go away. Bob felt fine, and he seemed to be only getting stronger as the kilometres clicked away.
We actually made very good time on the beach. The quick power-walking was effective, and in a few spots, we could get into the water and run along the shelf. We passed a couple of guys around Km. 50, and they were astounded that we were running the trail. They shouted at us “you can do it” and “way to go”, and we persevered along in the 2” deep water. I didn’t know there was shelf in this section, but by the time we hit Walbran Creek at Km. 53, I couldn’t believe our timing. I figured we had a solid shot at making the 5 pm ferry once more.
My hopes were high again. My stomach was feeling better, and my calves, which were cramping earlier, seemed to settle down. We decided to stay on the beach. This was not our original plan, but after talking to a man in Bamfield (who worked for Parks Canada repairing the trail all summer) he had convinced us that this was definitely the way to go if you didn’t have a pack. He said that there was a waterfall, and that if you had runners, you could skirt along the water’s edge and make it through no problem. Well, there was a problem. After jumping over two minor surge channels with no problem, we found ourselves with a big one in front of us, with no apparent way around it. This sucked. We had travelled 2 Km. on the beach to get to this impassable surge channel. The far side of the channel that we had to climb across was covered in a brown algae. It made the rocks just like ice. It was also about a 60 degree slope, and with the surge racing in and out, I stood there in shock. Before I knew it, Bob was trying to get across. I stood there helpless. After a couple of attempts, Bob said “it’s just about timing”. He watched the surge come in and out a few times and then picked his time. He took a few rock-climbing steps and with 3 large strides on the ice-like rocks, he made it across. It seemed to happen so quickly. But now we had a greater problem - we were now divided.
After a couple of failed attempts to get my foot into position on the rocks, I told Bob that I was going to go back the other way. He wanted nothing of this and said, “you can do it.” Easy for him to say, he was already on the other side of the channel. After a few more minutes of watching the ocean crash in and out of the channel, Bob had an idea and said, “hold on, I’ll be right back”. Then he disappeared. When he left, I knew exactly what he was doing. We had the same idea at the same time. After a few more minutes, Bob returned with a piece of driftwood that was about 10 feet in length and it appeared wide enough to do the trick. Bob attempted to wedge the piece of driftwood into the rocks, in so that I could just walk across the piece of wood. Although this idea seemed like the perfect one, it didn’t really work so well because every time Bob got the piece of wood where he wanted it, the ocean surf would just come and wash it out of place. However, after a short while, Bob got the piece of wood into place and the surge was a small one, and the piece stayed. I took the chance and put my foot half on the rock and half on the piece of driftwood. As I stepped down, the piece of wood fell from the shelf. I was fortunate that I was still standing, but it was only a small slippery rocky outcropping that was holding me up. I braced myself for the next impending wave. I knew at this point I was toast if the surge wave was a big one. I held on as tight as I could with my hands onto the brown algae rocks. As the wave came, I felt my shoes get a little wet, but that was it. I was so lucky. However, I looked at the next wave coming and it was a biggie. I knew it was now or never - so I went. I stepped onto another browny rock and it supported me. One more step up the rocks and then Bob reached out and helped me up to safety. I had made it. I was shaky, and I said to Bob “we aren’t doing that again!”
For the next little bit, we ran along the wet shelf and I was determined to find the Logan Bridge to get the hell of the beach. I was petrified of any other surge channel that may lie ahead. Fortunately, there weren’t any, and before too long we were climbing a massive set of ladders up to the trail.
At the top of the ladders, I felt dizzy. I wasn’t sure if it was the adrenaline, or a blood pressure thing, or just a calorie thing, but I felt quite dizzy. As we trodded ahead along the trail, my head was pounding and I was simply unable to run. The trail was terrible in this section. There were roots everywhere, and giant pools of mud.
We eventually made our way to Cullite Creek at Km. 58. I thought if I could just hang in there a bit longer, my head would get better. Not the case, in fact in time, my stomach began cramping again and I felt like throwing up. As we slogged through the trail, the pace was now awful. I desperately drank my water, took my salt caps, and ate my gels religiously with the hope that I could turn things around. Didn’t work. I wasn’t getting any better, but thank goodness I didn’t get any worse. I remember there were a couple of times where I actually sat down and rested for 5 mins or so. This was unheard of for me.
At around Km. 68, I remember looking up to the trees and commenting on how dark things were getting. It was only 6:30. I did not expect things to get dark this early. This was not good. If we had to get our flashlights out for the final few kilometres, we would be finishing really late. As I looked at my watch, I thought of phoning the guys at the end of the trail and notifying them that we still were coming. I knew they were there waiting, but it just seemed like too much effort to dig my phone out.
By the time we made our way down to Km. 70, we saw a sign that said “Gordon River 5k”. This was inspiring, and I knew once we got to the top of the next mountain around Km. 72, it should be a breeze to the finish.
All of a sudden, I felt strong again. My stomach was fine again, and my head felt slightly improved. We cranked it up the hill and we found some runnable sections once more. It was clearly dark now, but there was still enough light for us to make our way along the trail. I couldn’t believe how long the last few kilometres seemed. It seemed like our pace was very good, but it still seemed to take forever. Finally we hit the last kilometre and I thought this is it, we are almost there! But this was not the case. As with any long run, the hardest kilometre is the last. I was surprised to find the trail going up again, but soon enough we were headed to Gordon River, the final ferry crossing.
As we rounded the final bend, I got my whistle out and started blowing. We couldn’t see anyone yet, but we could hear voices. We then heard a voice: “Coo Loo Koo Koo, Coo Lou Koo Koo”. It was Bob's wife, and as we ran to the beach, he answered back. As he made his return call, the other side of the river erupted with cheering. We now could see them (barely) and I raised my hands into the sky. We had made it. I checked my watch: 7:25 pm. That made it 14:25 of running time. Not the greatest, but it was still respectable. I was just thrilled that it was over!
My life-long dream had just been realized.
Bob went into the water to clean his shoes and I did the same. I wondered whether we were now going to have to swim across the river, or whether there was a boat. The river was much wider than I remember, and I was glad to hear someone yell “we’ve got a boat for you”. Thank God.
A few minutes later, the ferry guy came and picked us up. Apparently, our families had bribed the ferry guy $60 to pick us up late. A short while later, we were on the other side and hugging our families. Teagan (my daughter) had made me a sign that said “Congratulations Bob and Jeff”. It was a little hard to see, because it was quite dark now. What a feeling. We dried off, ate some food, got warm and then Bob looked at me and smiled. I said, “thanks for staying with me.” His smile told me that the experience was awesome for him too, and that made me feel better as I was a little concerned that my lack of running had let him down. I shook his hand, and then we both got into our cars and went home. Not surprisingly, I fell asleep on the way home.


Gary Robbins said...

Awesome job guys! Sounded pretty sketchy in the surge channel though...didn't some body tell you to stay on the trail!!

Just for the record, I'm pretty sure that the actual WCT record is just over 10hr by Kevin Vallely, or so I am told.



Ming said...

Hats off to you on an amazing feat... how you mustered up the courage to cross that surge channel I'll never know. RVM is gonna be a walk in the park by comparison!

Mike J said...

Nice work Jeff! paddling the WCT was definitely easier (and quicker!) than running.

HC said...

You are amazing, Mr Hunt!

Brad Holmes said...

Hi jeff1 Brad holmes here running the westcoast trail on the 24th Aug south to north taking the first ever woman for bragging rights starting 4.00 am Gordon River arrive Bamfield before dark for media and Party, come join us.You rock man, long may you run !!