(Or Kusam Klimb 2013)
The website asks “Are you tough enough?” and I hesitated for a moment. I used to be tough but I have softened and become much more tender over the past year. But I pushed those worries aside when I read that this trail run was only 24 km long. How tough could it be?
The event is one that I have wanted to do for a long time but its remote location makes it logistically challenging to do from Vancouver as a weekend warrior. Sayward, BC is a tiny coastal village on the east coast of Vancouver Island – less than a 90 minute drive north of us in Courtenay (close to 6 hours away from Vancouver). But the geography is not sandy beaches with long sweeping views. Instead it has fjords that fall directly from mountain summit to ocean bottom. I didn’t really understand this until I had been climbing steadily for over an hour with no end in sight.
Leading up to the race, I had heard the trail chatter about Kusam. People advised wearing gardening gloves to help with the rope sections. Others had heard that Yak Tracks were necessary to climb the snowy parts. I had seen race results that had the winners finishing in two and a half hours but I took note that some klimbers took over twelve hours to complete those 24 km!
At the starting line, you could see that this was “everyman’s run”. There were hikers decked out in full wilderness hiking gear, including 30 L packs and MEC expedition gaiters. There were sinewy young bucks wearing tank tops and short shorts, carrying no gear at all. There were 14 year olds and 71 year olds. I saw people wearing every type of footwear imaginable, including trail running shoes, lightweight road running shoes, minimalist glove shoes, heavy leather hiking boots and even soccer cleats! There were the intense triathlon glares of those checking out the competition and the howls of laughter coming from the annual participants. The crowd seemed to be a confused blend of a grassroots trail racers and wilderness hiker knowledge, with a sprinkling of road running intensity.
As the Klimb officially began, some racers took off down the road as others meandered towards the start line. There were two kilometres of pavement before the trailhead and I set out to find My People. I didn’t want to be caught behind the casual out-all-day participants when the trail narrowed. But I also didn’t want to get stuck in front of more capable climbers and feel pushed beyond my comfort zone. I came across Trina, a formidable runner I had met on a Gnarly 90 run and a parent from my school, and I decided to try to stick with her. As our little group entered the trail, the route steepened. As our running pace slowed to a fast hike, someone said “Is this the beginning?” and I recognized that I would be hiking for a good long time. You see, from the start line to the summit is just over 4800 ft and this is done in 7 kilometres (2.5 of which were on runable paved road and gentle uphill grade).
The steepness of the Kusam Klimb is hard to explain. In numerous places, you have to tilt your head way back to see the upcoming trail or the person in front of you. It was not unusual to see a klimber pulled off to the side, gasping or drinking or pretending to enjoy the tree-scape. As often as possible, I used Dave Terry’s signature cross-over side step so that I could engage more muscle groups and give my fatigued quads and calves a temporary break. I focussed on the person in front of me, imagining that I was attached with a thin bungee cord and that they were doing all the work. I thought about my breathing and wondered how long I could really sustain this panting. I assessed my leg fatigue and was surprised at how well I was able to move.
Eventually, we came to a rocky outcrop and there was our first rope. I put on my garden gloves, waited my turn (like at the Hillary Step) and hauled myself up. This was the first of many sets of ropes.
Mt. H’Kusam was shrouded in fog that day and, sadly, we were never treated to her spectacular views. There was one point, at Keta View Rock, where we emerged above the fog bank and could see some of the surrounding peaks. For a moment, it was the view you get when you are flying above the clouds in an airplane.
I caught myself wondering when I’d ever reach the summit. Then I remembered that I hadn’t even reached the snow line and that the summit was well up into the snow. A man and his young son were cheering us on through a forested section, having camped out the night before. The man called out,
You have just reached the 3000 foot marker!
It was good news – but it meant we still had almost 2000 more feet to go!
Finally I came across snow patches and soon the whole trail was snow-covered. Our legs were given a bit of a break as we descended to and rounded an alpine lake. The snow was crusty and icy and there were some sketchy places where I imagined I could slide right into the lake. At one point, I purposely started to glissade down a bank, planning to use a tree to arrest my descent, but I misjudged my speed and felt my whole shoulder socket get wrenched as I held fast to the tree and slid to a stop.
At the far end of the lake, we started climbing again and soon reached the treeline where the trail began its final, intense, 700 foot ascent. It was steep – imagine clambering up on all fours like a bear – and I was thankful for my gloves. Trying to climb a bare snow face meant that my legs were constantly slipping and sliding around unpredictably. Every muscle would fight each sliding step and those muscles had very little left to spare. I soon found that my quads were seizing up with every mis-step. At one point, I stood paralyzed, unable to lift any of my limbs, trying to get my 10 monkey toes to grip the snow through my shoes. I often felt like Bambi, sprawled out, with legs akimbo. All the runners around me where doing the same thing. It would have been comical if it hadn’t hurt so much! I somehow managed to ungracefully get myself up to the ridge and I even smiled for the photographer at the col.
After 2 hours and 20 minutes, I had climbed 4800 ft but only covered 7 km! I had 17 km left to run on these cramped and sore legs.
The fun began as soon as the course dropped over the far side of the ridge. It was an icy snow face with sparse trees. The race organization had fixed ropes down the steeper sections. Here is where the gardening gloves were a true lifesaver. With a little practice, I was able to hold onto the ropes and run at top speed down the steepest sections. But each time I reached the bottom, my legs would cramp and seize up from braking. In some places, I simply sat down and slid down on my ass, thankful that I had chosen to wear full-length tights. Eventually, we reached the snowline and the steep gradient lessened. This was my kind of running – steep trail that dodged tightly through trees. But my legs were protesting and endlessly threatening to lock up. I eased up my pace and simply became thankful for each painless step.
The thick forest trail spat us out on an ATV track and, for 14 long kilometres, we ran down double track and gravel roads that had been mildly decommissioned. I ran gently, which is not my usual style. I had to throttle right back and pamper my cramping quads. It was a mental game to stay smooth and flowing and to not push too hard. I was passed by others on the downhill, which is uncommon for me, but the gentle grade and smooth surface made this ideal for non-technical road runners.
Soon enough, we popped out on the Sayward streets and had about 2.5 km of downhill road running to the finish line. I crossed the line in 3:50.40 (67 out of 415 and 18th woman overall).
As I sidled up to the post-run food table and began chatting with other finishers, Bruce came over, already having finished, soaked his tired legs in the creek and changed into dry clothes. He was surprised to see me done so soon. With affection, he said,
You are quite the sandbagger.
which, to me, is the ultimate compliment. I have been told before that I perform best when I am under-trained and rested. The nickname “Bagger” was given to me years ago by my trail partner, George, and it has come to be a term of affection.
The race is one I hope to do many times over. The laid-back attitude of the race organization is a breath of fresh air, although the essentials (course markings, roped sections and unexpected aid at the checkpoints) were absolutely top-notch. The snow levels vary so greatly each year making each klimb a completely different experience. The wide variety of klimbers who toe the line makes it fun on many levels. Next year, I will add hill training into my regime, although any kind of training would have helped.