Running the Juan De Fuca Trail

I can’t remember who came up with idea first. If it was my friend Ryan or if it was me. I have a feeling it was Ryan. I wouldn’t come up with something as crazy as running the Juan de Fuca trail with little long-distance running experience.

The idea grew into a plan. Then an exact date was set. Then some details were figured out. It was actually going to happen.

The Juan De Fuca Marine Trail is a 47km multi-day hike from Mystic Beach near Jordan River to Botanical Beach near Port Renfrew. It’s just north of Sooke on the West Coast of Vancouver Island and just south of Bamfield and the West Coast Trail. The trail consists of a lot of dirt switchbacks up ridges and down over streams, some stairs and boardwalks and a few suspension bridges.

I spent a few weeks planning out the details. I threw an event up on Facebook assuming that there wouldn’t be anyone else crazy enough to run the Juan De Fuca.  

6 other people signed up to run. I couldn’t believe it. In the end it was too good to be true as most of them dropped out.

With the plan set and most of my gear packed, I sat down the night before to go over the plan. Everything was in place, I had worried as much as I could. It was time to let things get going and see how it goes.

And it begins…

The first bridge on the Juan de Fuca in the dark.

The first bridge on the Juan de Fuca in the dark.

I can’t believe I’m doing this. It’s 2:30 in the morning. I don’t think I’ve ever woken up this early to do anything in my life. It’s often the time I start sleeping.

I haul my non-responsive body out of bed and get my gear together. I’m hoping the adrenaline will kick in at some point and I’ll get a wake-up boost. It doesn’t happen. 3am rolls around. I hop into Ryan’s car and we’re off to Port Renfrew.

Heading south we turn to Lake Cowichan just before Duncan. The fastest way to Port Renfrew from anywhere north of Duncan is through a paved logging road from Lake Cowichan. To find it just drive straight through Lake Cowichan until you see a sign on the right for Port Renfrew. Turn left and you’re on the almost 60 k backroad. Not having any streetlights made the road a little creepy. The car’s highbeams were making the trees glow a pale green on either side of the road. We passed a few elk. I was just trying to stay awake.

We hit Port Renfrew and kept going. We were heading to the Mystic beach trailhead to start. The 30 minute drive from Renfrew was a poignant reminder of the length of trail we were about to run. With all the coffee and water from that morning running its course, we had to stop for a bathroom break. I had my socks drying on my lap for the drive down and had forgotten about them. We hopped back in the car and headed off down the road. I start looking for my socks. Only one sock….One u-turn, a quick sock grab and another u-turn later, we were on our way and made it to the trailhead.

I couldn’t believe it, this was really happening. I was starting to get psyched now. We had originally planned to start at 4am. I had no idea how long we were going to take so earlier sounded better. We moved it to 5 to try and take advantage of the later light but it didn’t help. Things were still pitch black at 5:30 when we got to the trailhead.

Just after 5:30am we had our bags packed, our headlamps on, fees paid and were off at a trot. Hiking in the dark with a small headlamp isn’t easy, running is even harder. It was tough to go at any sort of speed with all the roots and rocks and not being able to see either of them in the dark. It was exhilarating! If you’ve ever gone trail running during the day, you know how fun it can be. Multiply that fun a bunch when you do it at night.

The first couple kilometres headed mostly downhill towards Mystic Beach, a beautiful part of the trail when you can see it. We walked along the beach and then headed back up into the woods. Running on the beach is a tough but necessary evil when it comes to doing long trails around here. We walked them for the most part, in part to conserve energy and hopefully prevent any major accidents on the rocks. Mystic was nice and sandy. I usually love this kind of beach but the sand saps your much-needed energy on a run.

Why am I doing this?

We headed off into the bush after Mystic and then back down to Bear Beach. I’m glad we hit the trails right. There are a few in this area that take you up to the highway. We were supposed to meet up with a couple other people on the trail that had come up from Victoria to run it as well. I assumed they beat us to Sombrio Beach and then bailed or hadn’t even started for some reason. In the end we found out they had taken a wrong turn at Bear and ended up on the highway. Normally a little detour is a pretty break from the trail but when you’re already running 47km just to finish the trail, a 3km detour is not a fun way to start!

So the pretty Juan De Fuca Trail map says we’re done the “moderate” section and the most difficult section is next. I wracked my brain on the way down trying to remember the ups and downs of this section of the trail from the last time I hiked it. All I could remember was there were a lot of them. I think I blocked the details from my memory. Or my muscles did.

I was able to get into a bit of a rhythm. Each of the hills and valleys were similar to each other in terms of running them that you didn’t have to think too much of how to get the job done. Hike up, run down, hike up, run down. None of it was easy.

We hit the emergency shelter at Chin Beach and slowed down a bit to have a bar. There was some beach here so we took it easy walking. Easy meaning not running, not easy like a Sunday stroll through the garden. One slip up here and you put your running on hold for 2 months, never mind not being able to finish the trail. The big rocks were slippery and hardly uniform in shape. I’m going to try my hardest to keep some speed through the beach sections next time I run the trail. For now it was nice to not push it to hard.

Hitting the trails after Chin, I was tired but my hopes were up. This was the last beach section before Sombrio. We were almost at our “half-way” point where we could sit and rest. That’s what kept me going. I only forgot one minor detail. The biggest, longest, most tortuous climb stood between us and Sombrio.  

The bees must have picked up on our hesitation. I was getting myself psyched up for the big climb and tossing back some Sharkies when I hear “aahhh, owwww , run!” from Ryan. I don’t need to be told twice to get the hell out of wasp territory.

Torture

I was thinking just a few more ups and downs till Sombrio. That’s not that bad. The worst was almost over and then it was an easy stroll to the end. I forgot about ridge I later nicknamed Everest. I began the climb thinking that this was just one more of the climbs that riddled the trail. The only difference was that I couldn’t see the top. No big deal. My knees were sore from the pounding downhill, my quads on fire from the near-constant climbing, my lungs screaming from how hard everything was working but Sombrio was just around the corner, I couldn’t give up yet. The uphill continued it’s dirty assault. Turning this way and that, switchbacking up onto the top of the ridge, yet another uphill would appear just as the previous finished. It was like an optical illusion. The uphill kept going forever and I wasn’t moving anywhere.

The top finally appeared. It looked to be another false summit like the rest of the “tops” but on closer inspection it turned into flat trail. Sweet, sweet flat trail. I don’t think I got excited because there was just not enough energy to go between keeping my legs going and thinking about finally hitting Sombrio. The sweet, sweet flat trail turned out to be the longest non-uphill section of the trail and it was amazing. Flying (little bit of an overstatement) down the trail, whipping by the lush green trees, sucking down the fresh ocean-scented air, it felt good to be alive and I was reminded why I was doing this epic grind in the first place. Long runs have to have some small wins to keep you going and this was definitely one of those.

“Half-way”

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After climbing Everest we were headed downhill to the beach. I couldn’t wait. I love to slow down and take in the what scenery I can but that was the last thing on my mind at this point. Thinking about just getting to Sombrio so much my memory neglected to remind me of the length of the beach. It might have been that I could see our next stop but I still wasn’t moving very fast. Luckily just above the high-tide mark on the beach there’s a shelf of rock that’s quite stable. Walking on that proved to be much nicer than the large rocks on Chin and I took what speed I could.

Back on to the trail. Over the suspension bridge. I could just taste it. And out to the tent pad where our support crew was waiting. We did it! Well…. half of it. The hard part was over. I was feeling tired but good as I refilled my water, slurped some Gatorade and ate a protein bar. It hadn’t hit me yet that we had just run longer than we’ve ever run before. The Kusam Klimb was the longest and hardest run I had done up until that point but the Juan De Fuca had already been much tougher. We weren’t done yet but we only had 20km to go.  I couldn’t believe what I was thinking…. only 20km to go.

I was starting to get chilled sitting so we started to packup. One of the things I did wish I had on the trail was a super light running jacket. At Sombrio and a couple other places, it would have been nice to whip out a tiny jacket and throw it on for a few minutes to keep the heat in. I was mentally keeping a list of things for next time.

A Bear!

Sort of. Everyone said there was a bear on the beach between us and the trailhead. We didn’t see it. He must have thought, “Holy crap, those dudes are running this gnarly trail. I don’t want to get in their way.”

Wasps!

Well, only one.

We were making good time on the trail after Sombrio. The little lunch break raised my spirits and I was excited to get running. One thing kept nagging at me from the back of my mind; I was nervous about the wasps. I had hiked the Botanical to Sombrio half the week before and my girlfriend and I both got stung at different points on the trail. One of the spots we saw a bunch of wasps circling around a nest in the ground. 3 of us got past but one of the little bastards followed us about 50 meters down the trail and got my girlfriend in the leg. I was trying to picture exactly where that spot was in my head. I didn’t want to come running around the corner and get my leg stuck in a wasp nest. As you can tell I’m not a big fan of wasps.

Whew.

Made it past the spot where my girlfriend got stung the week before.

Whew.

Passed the spot where I got stung the week before. Made it. All I’ve got to worry about is getting to the end now. Won’t have to think about any more…..Ouch.

One of the little bastards got me in the front of the leg. I didn’t hear it or see it but definitely felt it. Because I swell up a fair amount when I get stung, I had an epi-pen with me. If I were to get stung in the neck or face, there’s a pretty good chance I’d need to get out of the bush asap and possibly stab that pen in the leg. That’s never happened before and I didn’t want test the procedure. It was only on the front of my leg so the chances were almost zero that I’d need the pen but my leg would still swell up a bit and it would be painful to run on it.

Someone had mentioned to me a couple weeks prior that putting a penny on stings prevents them from swelling. What the hell, I’ve got nothing to lose. Packing my stuff that morning I tossed a couple pennies in my bag hoping I wouldn’t have to use them. After getting down the trail a bit hoping I didn’t stop near a nest I grabbed some tape and my pocket change and slapped it on the wound. Weird, but ok. Time to run.

With my fingers crossed that we wouldn’t run into any more winged devils, we put rubber to pavement, err…dirt.

This part of the trail was easier. It wasn’t huge crazy hills like the first part and it didn’t have as many logs, stairs and roots to go around. Nevertheless, I still had trouble keeping my head straight. The last few kilometres were an intense mental workout. Thank god for trail markers. They definitely kept me going being able to count down like that. I was trying to see how fast each of the kilometres were but I’d stop timing to concentrate on a tricky trail section and lose count. The number of kilometres left was going down. That’s all that mattered. 6, 5, 4, 3 ….

I’ve never had to mentally push myself so hard to get running again before. The little ups and downs in the last section broke my pace just enough that it was hard to get going again. Just the little bump up to the next boardwalk and my legs just didn’t want to go. They could, I know they could. After a bit of walking, a pep talk (more verbal abuse aimed at my lethargic muscles), they got moving again and I could get into a short groove. Until the next bump.The last part of trail is a beautiful flat section that I couldn’t express in words how happy I was too see. Coming out of the woods and getting closer to the beach, I could tell that we were almost there. I could just taste it. I couldn’t remember exactly which corner was the last. But I had to be close. Over a root, across a bordwalk, around a corner, and there it was.

Getting up at 2:30am, travelling 2 hours, starting at 5:30 am, running 47 kilometers. 7 and a half hours after we started running, we were muddy, we were exhausted, we were stung. But we were done. Just before 1pm we strolled out onto the beach, following the directions of an awesome sign care of our support crew.

I can’t think of anything quite like the satisfaction and relief of having just run 47 kilometres. I’ve played a lot of sports and the game just ends. I’ve walked a lot of hikes before and you hit the peak and it’s over. I’ve run a lot of races and you cross the finish line and you’re done. None of them came close to that feeling of pushing your muscles until they can’t move, of pushing your mind until it can’t focus, and of running those 47 paintful, blissful, awesome kilometers.

Now for the West Coast Trail.

Finally done running the Juan de Fuca

Finally done running the Juan de Fuca