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(Or Kusam Klimb 2016)

This is where the magic happens - Sayward Community Hall

This is where the magic happens – Sayward Community Hall photo credit:

500 people descend upon the tiny seaside village of Sayward, BC on the longest Saturday of the year with the goal of hiking steeply up to the pass of Mt. H’Kusam (1482 m / 4862 ft) and descending the gentler side in an event called the Kusam Klimb. It is a 23 km loop which can take some as long as 13 hours and others as fast as 2 hours (and change).

Kusam profile

Don’t let those metric numbers fool you! That’s 4800 ft in less than 4 miles

There is something unbelievable in the difficulty of this event that makes me keep returning. Each year, I am stunned by the route. With sweat dripping off my eyebrows and my chin, occasionally I crane my neck upwards to see those ahead of me, ascending rock faces with ropes or switchbacking endlessly out of sight. This was my fourth tour of Mt H’Kusam and, by far, it was the most enjoyable – although ‘enjoyable’ may not be the word of choice for most.  But this annual trek has become less shocking and more familiar with each passing year.

Mt H'Kusam - sea level to 5000 ft and back

Mt H’Kusam – sea level to 5000 ft and back down

I dare say that this year, I was able to approach the event with a strategy and it worked. I started off fast, pushing the pace on the paved town roads, passing as many others as possible, trying to get ahead of the middle of the packers. Although this left me gasping before I even left the pavement and before Bill’s Trailhead, I found myself free and clear of other runners for the rest of the hike.

Arriving at the Cottonwood switchback, Glen proudly looks strong and effortless as he takes the lead.

Arriving at the Cottonwood switchback, Glen proudly looks effortless as he leaves me in his dust.  photo credit:

Of course, there were plenty of runners near me and we made a long train up onto the single track but there was no jockeying for position, no waiting at the ropes and no frustration in wanting to pass.

The steepness still surprised me but the various twists, ascents and bluffs were familiar. I knew not to get excited when I reached Keta Viewpoint or when I arrived at the first snowy patches. I knew that the first descent is not actually The Descent and I correctly anticipated where to put my gardening gloves on for the fixed ropes. After summitting, there was no one else near me and I had the ropes all to myself. I flew downhill using the fixed ropes as my guide, hurtling at the edge of control over small trees, rocks and fallen logs along the way. In the blink of an eye, I was at checkpoint #3, out of the forest and onto the Quad Track.

I counted no less that 18 piles of fresh bear scat as I whistled down the quad track, the gravel road and the decommissioned trail. The checkpoints came and went so quickly that, in no time at all, I was back on pavement, heading to the finish line.

I crossed the line in 3:26:21, which ended up being a grand 36 seconds faster than last year!

No matter how hard I try, I always look like I'm collapsing in my finish photos!

No matter how hard I try to finish strong, I always look like I’m collapsing in my finish photos! photo

Although my finish times over the past three years have all been within five minutes of each other, this year felt different because of my familiarity with the route and my mental preparedness for the inevitable spanking that this course delivers. It is an awesome event and I will keep returning each summer!

Team Huband Park teachers raised a $200 donation towards the Cumberland Community Forest Society!

Our team (Glen, me, Lisa and Korky) raised a $200 donation for the Cumberland Community Forest Society just by entering as a team and choosing a charity! 

Finish time – 3:26:21

48/497 finishers; 7/273 women; 3/88  W40-49 age group


Kusam Klimb 2014

Having been Comox Valleyians for over 2 years, Bruce and I now have annual traditions to follow. Since doing something twice comprises tradition, the Kusam Klimb event is now one. Each year on the Saturday of the summer solstice, about 450 outdoor enthusiasts gather to enjoy 23 km of trail, climbing from sea level to almost 5000 ft and returning back to sea level. It is as grassroots and community-driven as an event can be.

Don't let those metric numbers fool you!

Don’t let those metric units fool you!

In order to make the most of the longest day of the year, our little group of runners, Todd, Kelsey, Bruce and I, met up at our house for a 5:00 am departure. It takes about an hour and a half to drive from Courtenay to Sayward, which allowed us just enough time to check into the race and line up for the portapotty before the 7:00 am race start. We easily met up with Steve and Karl near the Heritage Hall starting area, completing our group of local training friends.

Once again this year, the start line scene pleased me to no end. Beside wizened hikers, clothed in expedition wear and laden with heavy cordura backpacks, there were skinny shirtless dudes and dudettes decked out in compression calf sleeves and zero-drop trail shoes. This is an event for everyone – no exceptions.

At the check-in table, we each received our complimentary cotton t-shirt and a nifty thermos lunch bag (or six-pack cooler) along with our chip-enabled race number. After briefly sharing snippets of memories from last year’s event, we ambled to the start line and set off.

Most of our group had done this 23 km run last year so we knew what to expect. After a 2.2 km teaser pavement run to the Bill’s Trail trailhead, the route begins its ascent. For the next 7 km, you climb steeply and steadily for almost 1500 m (just shy of 5000 ft). There are sections where ropes are necessary and very few places where you can manage more than a shuffling pace. GPS gadgets are unable to detect forward movement due to the steepness. Strava decided that I was not moving for much of the time. Unfortunately again this year, the cloud cover was low, preventing us from seeing the 360° views from the H’kusam pass and from Keta View lookout. Instead we were treated to slightly cooler, moist air as we made out way up through the fog.

I have been working hard on my climbing legs this year so I pushed the pace whenever possible. I tried to find my own space, free of other people, so that I could monitor how I was feeling and stay within my comfort level. But comfort is not a word for this course. With sweat dripping steadily off my eyebrows and the sound of shallow panting breaths for the entire climb, I finally crossed the summit in 1 hour 53 min.

My Kusam Klimb efforts, according to Strava

The initial downhill section is incredibly steep and ropes have been put in place to help descend. But this year, there was very little snow on the course, meaning that there was little opportunity to glissade down the hill using the ropes for balance. Instead, there was a fair amount of slightly out-of-control running through recently thawed mud, hoping to avoid trip-wire roots and submerged rocks.

Soon enough, I reached the 2/3 Hut Shelter (10 km) and popped out on an ATV track which descended more gradually. For the next 13 km, the steady grade allowed for my legs to operate like windmills – just spinning freely, touching down gently with each turn.

An easy. wide descent

An easy. wide descent for about 13 km – although here I look like I’m barely holding my balance.

Little did I know that Bruce was hot on my heels. Despite his very recent recovery from Shingles and this initiation back into the world of running, he was the next person photographed at this point.

Bruce approaching Rainbow Bridge

Bruce approaching Rainbow Bridge

As I continued down towards town, I knew that I was far ahead of last year’s time. I crossed the finish line in 3:21, which is a 30 minute improvement over last year. This awarded me 44/458 overall, 13/243 in the women’s race and 3/65 in the women’s 40-49

Yahoo! Hill training really works!

Yahoo! Hill training really works!

But the story of the day belongs to Bruce – he finished just a few minutes after me in 3:24. Although he was 3 minutes speedier last year, this year he decided to run the race only 2 days before, having been flattened by Shingles for the past six weeks.

Take that!

Take that!

And with that, our little group re-assembled at the finish line and began sharing trail stories, filled with lies and embellishments. It was a stellar day of effort and enjoyment. Congrats to Kelsey on her third place finish, to Steve for his longest trail run to date, to Todd for toughing it out and still finishing fast and to Karl for being the most consistent of us all. I’m already looking forward to continuing the tradition next June!

For the story of how the real runners of the Comox Valley did in this event, you have to read the Comox Valley Record sports section of July 11, 2014. Here you will learn about the real ‘who’s who’ when it comes to running tough mountain trails. ;o)

See you on the trails!

(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.

These are essential gear for the ropes in this course! (especially when descending)

These are essential gear for the ropes in this course! (especially when descending)

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.

Slipping and sliding all the way to the top! photocredit to

After 2 hours and 20 minutes, I had climbed 4800 ft but only covered 7 km! I had 16 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 (67/415 overall and 18th woman).

A filthy finisher - white was not the right colour to wear.  And check out those swollen quads - I'll be limping and waddling for a week!

A filthy finisher – white was not the right colour to wear. And check out those swollen quads – I’ll be limping and waddling for a week!

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.

Baggers both!

This is how we have fun!

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.

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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