Since moving to Washington state earlier this year, my husband, Nick, and I have been obsessed with Vancouver Island. There are plenty of beautiful trails within a half mile of our home in Bellingham, and stunning alpine routes less than a hour’s drive east, but we spent most of the summer fantasizing about the very wild, very wet, West Coast of Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Canada.
Vancouver Island is home to several remote trails that traverse rocky coastlines and snake through old-growth forest. These include the West Coast Trail (we ran this trail last month where I managed to snag the female fastest known time in 13 hours, 18 minutes—read more about that on my blog, here), the North Coast Trail, the Nootka Trail, and the Juan de Fuca Trail. We weren’t ready to tackle the North Coast or Nootka Trails after completing the West Coast Trail just three weeks earlier, but the Juan de Fuca was appealing. For one, it was easier to reach—just a ferry ride and a few hours of driving away. For another, it wasn’t as long in distance at 26 miles. Lastly, all of the pictures made it look like an easy choice: it was beautiful.
On Tuesday morning, Nick and I boarded an early ferry to Victoria where we enjoyed lunch downtown and spent our afternoon wandering through the Royal B.C. Museum. As evening approached, we made the drive along the coast and up to Sooke, where we’d be staying for the night. The weather was mild, even for September, and as our car wound along the coast, I watched the sky turn pink and the Olympic Mountains in the distance fade to blue. Just before sunset, the horizon turned red and the phrase “red sky at night, sailor’s delight” hummed through my mind. Tomorrow we’d have good weather which was a fortunate omen: we needed it.
Just after 7 a.m., Nick and I piled out of the car, eager to use the bathroom and stretch before we began. Although our primary goal for the run was to enjoy the trail, I was also aiming for the unsupported—and if we happened to nab it, the supported—female FKT, which meant anything we needed for the next 7 hours would have to be carried on us. In order to stay light, I brought a 0.6 L bottle and a Katadyn water filter to be used at the creek crossings. Along with this I carried roughly 1,400 calories in Spring energy, a space blanket for emergency, an Epi-pen and Benadryl (both Nick and I are allergic) and some cash for food at the other end of the trail. With our packs secure, I pressed start on my GPS and we were off.
The first few miles of the Juan de Fuca going south to north are considered moderate. We found ourselves maintaining a 12 to 14-minute mile, which was fast considering the numerous roots, downed logs, and twisting trails. The typical weather for this region typically hovers somewhere between grey skies to downpours, but we had lucked out with a bright sunny day, not a single cloud in sight. Temperatures hovered around 70° and within a mile I was already too hot in my jacket. Since an FKT requires taking advantage of every minute, I slipped out of my jacket and stuffed it away in my pack as we bounded down the trail.
5 miles in, the trail spit us out on Bear Beach, notorious for black bears that scavenge the shore for carrion. The West Coast of Vancouver Island is home to the densest populations of black bears, cougars, and wolves in North America and a large bear paw print on one of the few sandy sections of the rock-studded beach reminded us of that fact. We hurried along the beach, moving as fast as we could over slippery logs and through water crossings. Soon, the trail climbed back inland which meant a steep ascent through salal bushes.The trail here was dusty. We both wore tough trail shoes, but we struggled to gain traction on the steep terrain. Still intent on keeping up a strong pace, we jogged the uphills and cruised the downhills. If we could keep this pace, we’d be golden.
As we came upon a downed log, I noticed a piece of paper nailed to the wood: WASPS! I stopped in my tracks, Nick running almost directly into me. “What do we do?”I said. “Run fast!” he replied. I bolted, running as quickly as I could past the wasp nest and over the root-strewn trai. A few minutes later, I finally slowed down. Neither one of us had been stung so we relaxed, trying to get back into a sustainable rhythm. Fifteen minutes later, after we had passed several more wasp nests, we began descending yet another steep section when Nick yelped. “Wasps!” He cried. I sprinted once more, my heart rate skyrocketing and my legs moving so fast that I swore I’d wipe out if I placed my foot even a half inch off my projected landing. Once we deemed we were out of danger, we slowed down to examine Nick. He’d been stung on his left achilles which was already red and itchy. At the next muddy spot, we stopped so that he could rub mud on the site; we hoped we wouldn’t have to use the Epi-pen less than ten miles into our run. Unfortunately, our wishes weren’t granted and just as our breathing steadied once more, Nick let out another shout. He had been stung yet again, this time on the back of his right arm. We ran as fast as we could, hoping to leave an already tough section, only to find more wasp sites. How would we get through the next four or five hours with this many wasps on the trail?
While we had wasted energy on adrenaline, the most difficult section of the trail had gone by fairly quickly—at least that much was in our favor. Soon we were at Chin Beach where we crossed a Suspension Bridge. It was hard not to stop: a gorge gave way to turquoise water illuminated by the dark forest. To our left the ocean gleaned blue and bright, the water surprisingly calm for a normally tumultuous coast.
We paused just long enough to take in the view then continued on, heading towards Sombrio Beach at kilometer 27. The trail didn’t get any easier; instead it seemed to close in around us. Here the salal was thick and, due to a recent lack of rain, exposed roots threatened to grab our ankles and pull us onto the dusty ground. Just before Sombrio, I checked my watch. Just over three and a half hours in; if we wanted to grab the unsupported and supported female FKT, we needed to move. Overall, however, I was happy with where we were at. The latter part of the route was marked as being easier than the first part, which meant we were on pace to break 7 hours. Additionally, I had packed well, taking in a Spring energy gel every 30 minutes. I felt neither query nor hungry and still had plenty of energy. I wondered if we could keep this up.
As the hours passed, the trail began to change; the climbs leveled out and the trail frequently popped us out on a short section of beach that required calculated steps. Although a dry summer meant not-so-drenched trails, there were still a few places where I stepped into mud, expecting it to be only an inch or two deep, only to find my feet disappear into the earth. On other sections, we struggled to figure out exactly where the trail went. While kilometer markers dot the entire trail, knowing when to stick to the beach and when to head inland was difficult. On top of this, we had been high on alert for bears over the last few hours. Bear scat, studded with bright blue berries, was all over the trail and the last thing we needed was a run-in with a bear.
As the kilometers ticked by, numbers started playing games in my head. If we were about seven miles from the finish with an hour and 20 minutes to go before the seven-hour mark, could we finish? While seven miles in an 80-minute period sounds like plenty of time when running a relatively smooth trail, the Juan de Fuca is an entirely different beast. The trail only seemed to get worse, with constant elevation changes and all matters of material strewn across our path: rotten planks, slippery stairs, mud pits, stream crossings, broken logs, and more bear scat. I was on a mission, and the last thing I wanted was to be within a minute of the record. In order to save time, we forwent water. We’d be thirsty, but at least we’d know we didn’t waste time filtering our water so close to the finish.
Soon we were down to our final hour, then 50 minutes, then 40, then 30…until we had just two miles to reach the finish…with twenty minutes to finish. Game over—there was no way we were going to make the supported FKT.
Here, we had to make a decision: let ourselves feel down about not making both FKTs or push until the very end. What would we do?
We didn’t hesitate: we ran as fast as we could, finishing in 6 hours, 59 minutes, 28 seconds. I hadn’t reached the supported time, but I had bested the previous unsupported female FKT by 19 minutes. More importantly, we survived bears and wasps, finished with all limbs in tact (minus a few bruised shins from run-ins with roots) and pushed until the very end.