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OR Our Sunshine Coast Trail Fast-Pack

The Sunshine Coast Trail (SCT) first came onto my radar in early 2004 when our good friend (and ultra-running legend) George persuaded a small group of friends to run the trail from end to end. The plan was to run about 50km each day and have a fourth day to round out the entire 178 km route. Each day, we would have a specific end-point where we would stop, drive back to Powell River for good food and good sleep and then head back to the same location the following morning to begin running the next section.

In 2004, our group of 6 Smart Asses ran the SCT. Here we are at the 100 km marker [L to R – George Forshaw, Gail (Bazeley) Forshaw, Rob Lang, Sally Marcellus]

At that time, there were no FKT records to beat and we simply enjoyed the challenge of running somewhere new. As I was new to ultra-distance running and was not mentally ready for this kind of multi-day challenge, I took on the role of ‘crew’. I drove the back roads of Powell River in search of unmarked trail junctions, met the runners at their finish point each day and took them back out each morning. I often joined them in the mornings for the first 8 – 10 km and then retraced my steps back to the truck to begin my solo-navigation to their predicted end-point. The trail sunk its teeth into me then, with its grueling climbs, rocky outcrop vistas, and ancient forests. I longed to be able to do what my team was doing and I believe that this four day experience was the seed that started my ultrarunning pursuits. From our little group of six, three of our runners completed the entire SCT – Rob Lang, Sally Marcellus, Gail (Bazeley) Forshaw. George ran for three of the four days, I ran only a few dozen kilometers in total and Bruce, who initially had work commitments, ran the final two days on the trail. For Bruce and me, the trail remained unfinished business.

Fast-forward a decade to October 2013. Bruce, Wendy and I decided to try running the SCT trail over the course of the Thanksgiving long weekend.

Sunshine Coast Trail 2013 with Wendy. We ran some sections of the trail but were caught off guard by the challenging footing, steep climbs and heavy packs.

We thought we would take advantage of the many huts now dotted along the route, allowing us to ditch the tent. No sooner had we begun our trek than we recognized how truly challenging running was with backpacks, weighed down with thick clothing and warm sleeping bags to counter the chill Fall nights. We were moving half as quickly as we planned and, by the first hut, we realized that we would not finish within the tight time constraints that we had. We revamped our running plans and completed sections at either end of the SCT but we skipped the very remote middle section, planning once again to return another time.

This summer, everything fell into place. Although we had briefly discussed running the SCT, we were vague about when we would do it, how long we would need or even what we would pack – until the weekend that we left. It was Saturday afternoon when I began to make shuttle and water taxi inquiries for accessing the remote start at Sarah Point for the following day. But spontaneity worked in our favour and we set off the next day.

At 5:00 pm on Sunday, we were met by Jesse from Sunshine Coast Shuttle as soon as we walked off the Powell River-Comox ferry.

Jesse drove us as far as his 4×4 truck would go – and much farther than I would feel comfortable driving on this rough logging road!

He has been offering his shuttle service to trail users for about two years now, willing to drive the back roads to drop off or pick up hikers or even to deliver supplies. His much-needed service allowed us to get from downtown to Sarah Point without needing a car or having to figure out the twice-a-week bus service to Lund. Compared to the cost of a water taxi, his $189 price is a sweet deal. In just over one hour, he drove us in his 4×4 truck from the ferry terminal to the very end of the rough logging road at Sarah Point – about a 15 minute walk from the 0 km mark of the SCT.

At the northern tip of Sarah Point, our journey begins. “I always like going South; somehow, it feels like going downhill.”

The Sunshine Coast Trail is a 178 km route which travels along the back country behind Powell River. Here I have noted our start and end points as well as where we spent each night.

Sunday (16 km) – We set out on our third SCT quest just after 6:00 pm. In the heat of the evening, we cruised along the arbutus-lined trails of Malaspina Provincial Park. Here, the moss-edged trail gently curves around to the east edge of the peninsula, descending down to Feather Cove and but ever-ascending up towards Gwendoline Hills, giving lovely views of Okeover Inlet. Our only option for water came at the creek outlet of Wednesday Lake (km 12). A family was enjoying a swim in the lake and had set up their tent just beside the trail in a lovely flat site. We had to load up with water for dinner, breakfast and coffee as well as enough drinking water to last until the next water opportunity the following day. With our Sawyer filter, we filled our four water bottles and the Sawyer reservoir, totaling about 3.5 liters. Little did we know at the time that this creek water tasted terrible – sort of like bread mold – but we had to tolerate it until the next day. The final 4 km of the day climbed up and down and up again over rocky bluffs.

Atop Hummingbird Bluff, we watched the sun sink below the horizon. Luckily, in July, we still had over an hour of daylight.

We paused on Hummingbird  Bluffs to watch the sun set, descended and then made our final climb up to Manzanita Bluff, where we found the amazing Manzanita Hut (km 16) which faces out towards the Salish Sea, Savary and Vancouver Islands. As we had done this section and had slept in this hut before, we knew what beauty to expect. As we rehydrated our meal, we watched the dusky sky change from amber to violet and chatted with a hiker who was taking over one month to complete the trail northbound. After a quick rehydrated meal of Mountain House mac and cheese with pepperoni, we sneaked into the hut loft, joining the three other hikers who had already hit the hay.

Monday (42 km) Amazingly, we overslept on our first night out and were shocked to awake at 8:45 am. A pair of hikers had already packed up (noisily, I assume) and left before we awoke! We had tentative plans to run approximately 50 km to the hut on Inland lake (~km 67) but this late start made us begin recalculating. As we ate a hearty steel-cut oatmeal and full grain breakfast, we reminded ourselves that this was not a race but a vacation.

Good morning, Sunshine!

The Manzanita hut view is spectacular (even if the coffee tastes foul!)

Yet our bread-mold flavoured coffee was nothing to linger over and we were off and running at 10:00 am. Luckily, within 2 km, we came across Thulin Creek and were able to dump out our moldy water and replace it with some cold, clean-tasting water. This section of trail is cruisy and gorgeous, partly because it is a gradual descent and partly because it was sun-dappled through the thin canopy of trees. Smooth trails under-foot made for easy movement and we were reeling with trail fever as we crossed Malaspina Road where the SCT Marathon Shuffle run begins each May. The SCT route markings, which were already more than sufficient, doubled at this point with the race course being marked further with red paint splotches on rocks and logs.

The SCT is very well-marked. The red/white square denote each passing kilometer (except for those in the kilometer-warp zones). The red and orange blazes are very frequent, with almost always one in view. The blue diamonds, the original trail markers, are less frequent and sometimes have hand-written distances on them.

Although we felt that we were moving well, the kilometers did not come quickly. Just as we had found with Wendy in 2013, moving quickly with a well-stocked backpack is hard work and having to stop frequently to filter water was time-consuming. After running alongside the peaceful Toquenatch Creek, which brought back a wave of 2013 memories, we began climbing up to Rieveley Pond (km 34).

Rieveley Pond hut

At the hut, we paused to eat our mid-day snack foods and discuss the ramifications of our relatively slow pace. After consuming all the huckleberries in sight, we pressed onward into new territory. The next section in Appleton Canyon may be my favourite section of the entire trail. We followed the creek for an hour or so as it rambled over lazy waterfalls and swimming holes.

Appleton Canyon offers the perfect swimming hole.

After the Theyeth Lake lookout, we dropped down to the level of Sliammon Lakes (big and little). The trail runs tightly along the shores of these lakes which, although it sounds lovely, makes for herky-jerky trail running with every footstep needing consideration as the trail snakes severely over rocky terrain. Beyond the lakes, we popped out into an old clearcut, the first that we encountered so far. It seemed such an assault on the senses to be dumped out in the hot afternoon sun after the cool seclusion of Appleton Canyon but, luckily, there are very few clearcut sections on the SCT. Soon, we began our ascent of Scout Mountain which is a steep grunt with loose footing. Mentally, it is a tough little climb since we were so close to the Powell River bridge crossing and it was hot in the direct sun. As we re-entered the trees on our way down, we could hear the chit-chat of rock-climbers on the Higgyland cliffs and then we soon popped out at the boat launch and parking lot of the Shinglemill Pub. Having been out of water for a little while, Bruce and I sneaked into the pub washrooms to refill our bottles and have quick splash baths in the sinks. We had reached the 50 km mark of the SCT but had only managed 34 km for the day so far. Despite the delicious smell of burgers and fries, we crossed over the Powell River and continued on the south side of Powell Lake, passing the evening swimmers and picnickers at Mowat Bay and Haywire Bay. The guidebook mentioned a campsite at Haywire Bay but it became apparent that this was not a SCT hiker’s campsite. Instead, it was a full hook-up RV site with a boat launch, sea-doos and screaming children. We strongly considered setting up camp here since we were both hungry, tired and recovering from hydration issues but we spied a SCT trail sign reporting that Haywire Bluffs (km 58) were only 40 minutes away. Despite our mutual fatigue and the addition of yet another climb onto our day, we took on the challenge and hiked up to the bluffs in 20 minutes. There we found a lovely, open, mossy, flat spot where we rehydrated our delicious homemade chili and quinoa/rice dinner and set-up our cowboy camp.

We spent out second night cowboy camping on Haywire Bluffs. Bug nets are mandatory for this! At some point in the night, I lay awake and watched the milky way. I love the way we have decorated the trees with all our trail clothes!

Tuesday (30 km) To some degree, the hut locations determined our mileage each day. Over morning coffee, we read through the maps, considering our progress so far, and we realized that, if we wanted to sleep at huts, we would have a few shorter days ahead of us. We set our sights on Tin Hat hut (km 88) for tonight.

This is a good representation of the trails for this first third of the SCT – sun-dappled, pine needle-covered, moss-lined, single track.

We cruised through the Haywire Old Growth section, down past Lost Lake and popped out on the wide gravel pathway which borders Inland Lake. We followed the trail around the western edge and circled up past the snoozy Provincial Park campground. At the dock, we dumped our gear and dove in for the most delightful swim ever. Afterwards, as we continued along the wheelchair accessible trail, we came across hundreds of Western Toadlets who were migrating across the trail to a boggy area near the lake. Each little toadlet would fit on your thumbnail and they are difficult to see unless they are hopping. We had to carefully pick our way through their migration path and hope that none were squashed in our shoe treads. We stopped (once again) to filter water before beginning to climb up to Confederation Lake. We were astonished to see dozens of invasive American Bullfrogs lollygagging in Inland Lake with tadpoles nearby the size of a fist. This next trail caught us by surprise both in its beauty and its difficulty. It is an old, old forest with enormous trees and sparse undergrowth. It is no exaggeration to say that some of the trees are more than 1 meter in diameter. As the narrow trail began to ascend, it was soft and loamy underfoot and the switchbacks were carved precariously into the sideslope. In places, the climb was incredibly steep and we would have to crane our necks to see where the next switchback would be. There were places where multiple trees had fallen over each other and it would be a pick-up stix challenge to figure out the sequence of their falls. When we finally reached the top of the sweaty climb (our swim being a distant memory), we followed the shore of Confederation Lake to the hut (km 74). Here, we filtered water from the lake, ate a Mounatin House chicken salad lunch and chatted with some hikers who were taking a rest day and luxuriating in the lake’s waters.

Confederation Lake and its new hut were a welcome respite after the grueling climb

Our next milestone was Fiddlehead Landing, way back down at the Powell Lake shoreline. The descent was no easier than the ascent and we had to slowly pick our way down the steep trail. It was a relief to arrive at the bottom and pick up the pace along an old road. We filtered water at a decent creek and turned towards Tin Hat mountain, completely bypassing Fiddlehead Landing and its lakeside hut. The climb up to Tin Hat mountain began as an old logging road but soon we were directed onto a trail thickly overgrown with thimbleberry and salmonberry bushes. Just as we started climbing in earnest, the trail turned sharply downhill, causing us to lose all of that elevation only to have to climb it again. It was here that began to notice severe chafing on my heels and had to stop to empty out my gritty socks and apply BodyGlide to my feet. We continued climbing through thick salal and sandy soil until we came to a dribble of a creek and two other hikers. Here, at the only water source near Tin Hat mountain, the black flies and horseflies feasted on us as we tried to fill up and filter as many vessels as possible. We still had about 400 m vertical to climb, some of it on gravel road but most on steep, rocky trail. We arrived at Tin Hat hut (km 88) around 7:00 pm and were treated to views of the snow-capped mainland mountains to the east. By the time we had settled in and rehydrated our dinner, the thick smoke from BC’s interior forest fires had blown over and, in an instant, it was like a curtain had been drawn across the sky, obliterating the mountain view. We sat on the hut porch and enjoyed our homemade dahl and saag paneer curry dinner, watching the amber sun set. We shared the hut with one hiker while three others slept cowboy-style under the stars.

Tin Hat mountain is the second highest point on the SCT. The hut sits ~100m below the summit. Here, you can see the line of forest fire smoke on the horizon line which would conceal our vistas for the rest of our hike.

The next morning, all evidence of the views had been erased by the smoke. This photo is looking directly west, towards Vancouver Island.

Wednesday (35 km) The entire SCT is adorned with signs denoting each passing kilometer. But as with all trail systems, the route is somewhat dynamic with occasional re-routes and improvements which can alter the actual distance of the trail. In these places, the kilometer markers are not adjusted to reflect the new distance since that would mean adjusting the markers for the whole length of the 178 km trail. Instead, on days like today, hikers can enter a ‘kilometer time-warp’ where hours of hiking result in only a few kilometer gain. We left Tin Hat hut and carefully picked our way down the sand-covered rock slope in search of a water source. From the map, we could see there was a creek about 3 kilometers away, at the base of the mountain, but it took us close to two hours to get to that water source. Other hikers speculated that six new kilometers had been added in this section. We cruised along the edge of Lewis Lake and found ourselves on a freshly-made trail, soft and ashy under foot with spanking new bridges. We crossed over Spring Main logging road and then entered the familiar March Lake trail, which I clearly remember from our 2004 run. This decommissioned road offers a gradual, shady, mossy ascent up to March Lake and was teaming with berries of all varieties. It would almost be runnable if you didn’t have 100 km already in your legs!

Replicating a photo from our 2004 journey, we stopped for a selfie at the 100 km marker and briefly discussed our upcoming Finlayson 100 km race.

We struck GOLD! Notice that my lips and teeth are already blue with blackberry juice (as well as salmonberry, thimbleberry, blueberry and huckleberry juice!) These are native Trailing Blackberries – very brambly but small, sweet and seedy.

Not all the trail is pretty. This steep, dry section heading up to Elk Lake had no green undergrowth and was a little soul-sucking.

Soon enough, the trail turns and climbs very steeply up to Elk Lake. At the top, we found a picture of paradise! The Elk Lake hut sits right on the lake where a few hikers were reading, sunbathing, swimming off the log-boom dock and feasting on blueberries. Once again, we dropped everything and jumped in the lake while waiting for our lunch to rehydrate (Mountain House eggs and bacon). After an hour’s break, we continued onwards. Here, we made our only error in navigation and, instead of heading up over Elk summit, we somehow stayed on the old ATV track which skirted the summit and looped back to join the main trail a few kilometers later. This ATV track carried us steadily downhill and we knew that the trail would soon turn away from the road and head straight up to Walt Hill and the Suicide Bluffs, but we needed to load up on our evening supply of water before that junction (little did we know that there is a water source near the hut). We arrived at Washout Creek only to find it dry and Bruce recognized that we had to retrace our steps back to Coyote Lake to get water so we ditched our packs and hustled back to the lake to resupply. Now weighed down with 6 pounds of water each, we entered the steep ascent up to Walt Hill. The kilometers went by so slowly here as we summited the hill and, when we found no hut at the top, we were confused and disappointed. The smoke obscured our views and it was difficult to have any sense of direction.

Thinking that this was Walt Hill hut, we were truly disappointed. We found out later that this emergency shelter is known as the Walt Hilton and the real hut is 2 km farther along the trail.

We came across an emergency shelter, which resembles a large outhouse, and we briefly considered hunkering down for the night but I insisted that the Walt Hill hut was further along. We pressed on and began to lose elevation, regain it and lose it again as we wound around the edge of this rocky bluff. Occasionally I swore I could hear laughter and wondered if I was starting to go mad but then we came to a sign directing us towards the hut and the peals of laughter ended up being real. We came across Walt Hill hut (km 123) and a party of 5 friends enjoying the evening. Bruce broke out the small flask of scotch whisky and we toasted our progress before enjoying a tasty Mountain House lasagne meal and hitting the hay.

Upon finding the real Walt Hill hut, Bruce brought out his flask of scotch whisky and we toasted my navigation skills.

Thursday (46 km) Sleeping in the huts is no easy feat since other hikers are noisy, the plywood floor is hard, the heat is unbearable and often there are bugs feasting on your tired body. On this night, I slept barely a wink as I was endlessly woken up by biting insects. Over the next few days, the tracks of bug bites flared up all over my body. Bruce was unaffected as he slept in the impermeable SOL bivvy but me, using my down sleeping bag as a partial quilt, I was exposed and attacked. I have to wonder about what is living in the walls of that hut. With Mt. Troubridge hut (km 158) as our goal, an early rise had us on the trail at 8:00 am. With the sweet combination of finally being in shape after 3 days of fast-packing and a long, gentle 20 km descent (mostly!), we flew along easily with the kilometers clicking by.

Smooth trails edged with enormous trees

One lump or two? We came across two tables (red tablecloth in the background) with a full china tea service. Later on down the trail, we read that it is a memorial to a local well-loved hiker.

At the Lois River crossing, we chatted with one of the PRPAWS trail maintainers who gave us a run-down on the up-coming trail conditions and various options for shortening our route. Lois Lake offered a beautiful, easy-going running route with views of houseboats all along the lakeshore. There were a few under-used recreation campsites right on the lake and good sources of water throughout.

It was impossible to cross over creek without dunking our heads and soaking our hats. Try doing this move with a 50 lb pack!

We were on the edge of a clearcut as we followed the shore of Lois Lake. This was our first view (!) of Mt Troubridge and our climb up to Elephant Lake.

Eventually we left the lake and headed up alongside Creek 4. We came across the brand-new, still unfinished Golden Stanley hut (km 145) and stopped briefly to rehydrate a late lunch. We refilled our water and continued up towards Elephant Lake. Initially this is a mountain bike trail, complete with jumps, bermed corners and bridges, often steep and gnarley as it follows Buckwheat Creek. But then, it flattens out and becomes a wide, overgrown road with a constant grade, making it easy to fall into the rhythm of climbing. We stopped again to eat that rehydrated lunch and carried on up to Elephant Lake. The lake was inviting but we simply filled our water bottles and continued up the next pitch to our highest point of the trail, Mt Troubridge. Predictably, the climb steepened as we gained elevation and the sweeping switchbacks brought back memories of the Diez Vista ridge ascent. When we arrived at the junction to the hut, we were disappointed to see that Jocelyn Pond, next to the hut, was almost dry and that they biting flies were rampant, making sitting outside nearly impossible.

Mt Troubridge hut is a gorgeous log cabin, complete with pellet stove for winter nights. Although we would have had the hut all to ourselves, the bugs and lack of water chased us away.

Since it was only 5:30 pm, we decided to press onwards to Rainy Day Lake hut. We had once again entered familiar territory, having run this section with Wendy in 2013. The descent is shady and the trail is pine-needle covered with berry bushes all around. I would often round a corner to see Bruce picking a bush clean of berries while waiting for me. The 10 km descent was tiring and, as we hit the power line access road, I was completely spent. The final 3 km to the hut were fueled only by the draw of a swim in Rainy Day Lake. We arrived at the hut (km 169) and immediately headed down to the dock for a refreshing swim. There were two other parties at the hut and one group had already gone to bed (before sunset!). After a homemade chili and quinoa/rice dinner, we pitched the hut’s emergency tent just outside the hut and hunkered down for a well-earned sleep.

Friday (9 km) We slept well in our bug-free tent and spent time chatting with the other hikers at Rainy Day Lake before heading down towards Fairview Bay. With less than 10 km left to go, we took our time and started around 9:30 am. The final section dropped us down to the ocean where  we were hit by the lovely salt air as we approached Fairview Hut (km 172). In typical coastal fashion, the trail carried us up and over rocky outcrops, inland and back out to the seaside.

The Fairview trail hugs the sea shore and gives lovely views of Jervis Inlet and Nelson Island – even through the smoky haze.

We could see the Saltery Bay oyster farms and the local ferry as it headed over to Earl’s Cove, on-board car alarm screaming through the morning quiet. The terrain is so much like Finlayson Arm or any other southern BC coastline and we reveled in the beauty that is right here in our backyard. We rolled into the Saltery Bay parking lot and took a photo at the SCT trailhead kiosk.

Our 178+ km journey was complete and it was a fun challenge to do it fast and light over four and a half days. It would be a completely different challenge to do this over 10 days, as the guidebook suggests, but this is what appeals to us at this point in our life.

And we are done! This was such a beautiful, challenging and fun vacation. I hope we add it to our annual event list.

Once back on pavement, we refilled our water bottles at the ferry toll booth and then headed to the lone bus stop where a few patio chairs beckoned. Being a dead-end road, there is very little traffic heading into town outside of the ferry rush but luckily the third car to pass us with our thumbs out picked us up and drove us the 30 km back to downtown Powell River. I guess the sight of sweaty backpackers and dirty legs is fairly common in Saltery Bay. We had completed the loop of our trip and had time to enjoy a pub lunch with a local Townsite IPA (or two!) before walking on the ferry home.

Extra Thoughts

  • water sources were our main concern for the entire route. Approximately four times each day, we needed to find and filter water which swallowed up a lot of time. Many streams are seasonal, making July/August a challenging time to hike
  • the huts are wonderful and every hiking party that we came across was welcoming and accommodating, despite our late arrival times. I would highly recommend Manzanita, Confederation Lake, Elk Lake, Rainy Day Lake and Fairview Bay huts as destinations
  • Eagle Walz’s SCT hut-to-hut guidebook is invaluable and essential. Divided into 30 section hikes, he points out the history of each area and key things to look for. We cut the book apart and carried only the small maps with us. newer editions of the book have a SCT Odometer at the end which gives a kilometer-by-kilometer run-down of camps, water sources, key junctions and points of interest
  • our complete gear lists are posted in Tips from a Lightweight

While Bruce and I fast-packed the Sunshine Coast Trail, every time we met other hikers loaded down with 50+ pound packs, we were predictably asked how we were able to manage with such tiny backpacks.

Are we even wearing backpacks? You would never know from the front view!

As the days rolled by, we mulled over many possible answers and came up with this sweet sound-bite:

When you backpack, you can either have comfort while you hike or you can have comfort while you camp.

We opt for comfort while moving in order to move quickly and we are willing to sacrifice some luxuries in order to achieve that. Don’t worry – we still brush our teeth and eat three meals a day! And truly I don’t think that we were at all uncomfortable due to reduced gear. At the beginning of our 178 km trip, my pack weighed 14 pounds and Bruce’s weighed 19 pounds (before adding the weight of water). This includes all our cooking, eating and sleeping gear for our five nights out as well as food and clothing. We even had a few extra meals in case our plans changed or an emergency situation arose. Of course, camping with a good friend allows you to shed even more gear weight since you only need one stove, one bottle of deet, one tent, etc.  We opted to hike without a tent and use the huts each night. Although that was a fine choice, next time we would opt to bring a super lightweight tent (no fly) like our Big Agnes Seedhouse just so we could get a better sleep than the huts offered. I should add that this hike was done at the height of summer and the forecast called for full-sun and high temperatures all week long, which allowed us to be without raingear. In fact, it hasn’t rained here in many weeks, making fire danger very high and water supply very low.

Here is my gear list:

Lightweight Martha’s pack weighed in at 14 pounds at the start and an unbelievable 10 pounds at the end.

Pack – Terra Nova Laser 20 L backpack (321 g)

Clothing – I wore the same thing every day – technical shirt, running skort, running bra, wool socks, La Sportiva trail shoes, running cap. In my pack, I carried a synthetic puffy jacket, a thicker technical top, thick leggings, sleep socks, arm warmers, buff, sun glasses and trekking poles. [In the future, I would pack an extra pair of running socks so that I could wash a pair once a day]

Camping GearSea to Summit Spark 1 down sleeping bag (which was way too warm for this trip!), a tiny hourglass-shaped thermarest, headlamp, extra batteries, collapsible bowl, spoon, inflatable pillow x 2, ziploc for accumulated garbage, 30 section maps cut out from the SCT guidebook.

Personal Care – mini containers of suntan lotion, deet, body glide, hand sanitizer, toothpaste, Dr. Bronner’s biodegradable soap and face cream; ear plugs, toothbrush, dental floss, end of a toilet paper roll, small piece of a nail file, 6 salt pills, 4 ibuprofen, 4 Aleve. All of this fit in one zip-loc baggie.

Food – we carried a mixture of Mountain House meals and homemade, home-dehydrated food. I carried 4 dinners, 3 lunches, 3 oatmeal breakfasts, 1 pound Costco trail mix, 6 long pepperoni sticks, some pork jerky, 3 Clif bars, 3 Vel bars, 1 tube of Nuun, 2 tubes of Clif shots

Each packaged meal was re-packaged into zip-loc baggies or in Food Saver pouches and we brought only one rehydration bag which we used for every meal. For dinner and breakfast, we boiled 2 cups of water and poured it into the rehydration bag so no real cooking took place (and no dishes needed washing!)

Water – I carried 2 x 650 ml water bottles, 1 platypus bladder (1 L)

Emergency Supplies – driver’s license, $50 cash, credit card, space blanket, lighter, tea light candle, matches, 2 gels, 2 Emergen-C packets, small swiss army knife, whistle, back-up light, large band-aid, cell phone. [I need to add in a piece of Leukotape and a golf pencil with duct tape wrapped around the end]

Bruce’s gear list is similar to mine in terms of clothing, food, personal care and emergency supplies. Here are a few differences:

Lightweight Bruce started with a 19 pound pack and finished with a 14 pound pack.

Pack – Raidlight Ultra Olmo 20 L backpack with pole holster (630 g)

Camping Gear – GPS, GoPro camera, pepsi-can alcohol stove with stand and wind guard; titanium cooking cup (~600 ml), 500 ml denatured alcohol in a collapsible bladder, foldable sleeping pad, SOL bivvy sack, bug net hats x 2.

Food – 150 ml scotch whisky in a plastic flask

Water Sawyer filtration bladder (1 L), water scoop and filter, 500 ml collapsible water bottle

One hiker asked what one thing could he focus on to reduce his pack weight and size. Bruce spoke to him about his pot/stove/cooking set-up and encouraged him to rethink the amount of fuel (# of canisters) he would ultimately need, which is a great place to start. I also think that hikers need to consider all the packaging and bags they are carrying. They could probably reduce their pack weight significantly if they just removed all the stuff sacks (especially those hefty dry bags I saw!). Also, pay attention to the weight of your pack alone. It is easy to find a pack that weighs more than a kilogram empty! (ours were both around half that weight empty) Make sure that each item is either 1] multi-use (like a towel/chamois/buff) or 2] essential (like a meal). You should expect to sweat and be stinky. You can swim in your hiking clothes. You can walk around camp in your hiking shoes. There is no need to bring a second pair of shoes, a bathing suit and a second set of hiking clothes. There is a fantastic little book to set you on your way to light-weight camping and I highly recommend it to everyone as a place to start:

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We own this little book and refer to it often when planning a trip. Check it out!

or Running the Squamish 50/50

This whole thing started off with an offer I couldn’t refuse. Sometime last November, RD Gary Robbins dropped me an email invitation to return to the Squamish 50 miler this year. It turns out that my top ten finish in the event last year secured me a place in this year’s race at an unbeatable price. Caught off-guard and slightly awe-struck, in that moment of weakness (or was it strength??), I asked if I could register for the longer 50 mile/50 km race combination. Without a second thought, I was on the list of entrants. Nine months later, I was toeing the start line and wondering if a hat and a couple of Gary’s famous finish line hugs would be worth it all.

Day one – 50 miles (80 km); 3500 m (11 000 ft) elevation change

Smiling and feeling pretty good at the start of day #1.

Smiling and feeling pretty good at the start of day #1. (Every race start picture looks the same!)

Heat management was the factor for the day. Temperatures in Squamish had topped out at 37°C (98°F) the day before which had me plenty scared. I decided to take advantage of the early morning coolness and the initial flat section to get ahead of the bell curve but I knew I would have to slow down and be more cautious than last year. After the first 11 km, I was ready to take on the Rigs in Zen climb with vengeance. This climb is so significant although it is easy to overlook when glancing at the course profile. With multiple false summits and rock face scrambling, this 420 m climb took me about 45 minutes. After topping out at the radio towers, I gave myself a mental ‘high-five’, knowing that the course would not take me by surprise this year.

SQ50m course map

SQ50m elevation

The upper elevation profile is snipped from the Squamish 50 mile map on the website. The second profile is from my Strava track of the 50 mile course last year. Those climbs look a little different, don’t they? A new perspective brings on a higher respect for the course.

After leaving the Alice Lake aid station, the sweet Four Lakes trail swept us along effortlessly. But suddenly I felt something on my neck and I noticed the guy in front of me swatting his cap around. Then I felt a sharp pain near my belly button. I slowed down, took off my cap and tried to swat away the buzzing. We were in the thick of a ground wasp swarm and I realized that I had to get out of there! Everyone around was yelling or calling out ‘Wasps!’. I had two wasps in my cap and one under my shirt. Other runners were whipping off their packs and shirts, trying to free the angry insects. Once we were clear of the area, nearby runners took stock, compared wounds and asked if anyone was allergic. With adrenaline pumping from three stings, I had to stop and regroup for a few moments before gathering my wits and carrying on.

Upon reaching the 37 km mark at the Corners aid station, I was treated to some TLC by Bruce.

Having a support crew like Bruce is truly an unfair advantage. His wise words, questions, support, encouragement and instant action on my requests put me far ahead of so many others.

Having a support crew like Bruce is truly an unfair advantage. His wise words, questions, support, encouragement and instant action on my requests put me far ahead of so many others.

He had ridden his bike out to the station, weighed down with homemade turkey/avocado wraps and other tasty distractions. Last year, I set my sights on Quest aid station (#5) as my main refueling center but found that 53 km is really too late to remedy many issues. This time, it was here at Corners (#3) where I took time to really assess myself as Bruce refilled my bottles and reloaded my pack with treats for the big climb of the day. With almost half of the race done, I felt fantastic!

Heading back out onto the trails after Corners, delicious wrap in hand.

Heading back out onto the trails after Corners, delicious wrap in hand (and in mouth!).

At the base of the big Galactic climb, I settled into a strong climbing rhythm, knowing that this 6 km effort would take at least 1 hour 10 min. Although this climb looks intimidating, the grade is forgiving and there are many parts where I was able to run. On fresh legs, this could be a mostly runnable climb (and I’m sure that Dakota ran up it earlier in the day). This is where the heat of the day started to take its toll. We were in the shade of big evergreens all the way up and down Galactic but the air temperature was starting to rise as we neared high noon. For this race, I borrowed Bruce’s old-school hand-crafted bandanna from his early Western States races to keep me cool. With a cloth chamois sewn inside and a secret opening for crushed ice, I was able to beat the heat. I saw others rolling ice into buffs and wrapping either head or neck in the icy turban.

Secret weapon! The circa-2000 bandanna chamois was a game-changer! I barely even noticed the 31°C scorcher day.

Secret weapon! The circa-2000 bandanna chamois was a game-changer! I barely even noticed the 31°C scorcher day.

Without going into detail ad nauseam, I flew downhill and felt good as I arrived at Quest aid station (53 km). On Bruce’s wise advice, I topped up my salts to avoid further leg cramps, washed my feet and changed my socks to offset the hot spots on the balls of my feet. After about 10 minutes, I headed on my way with another turkey/avocado wrap to-go. The next climb was another almost runnable hill called The Climb or Legacy, which riders use to access the black diamond descents like Half Nelson and Angry Midget. The switchbacks go on and on and on so it was important to remember that this would be another 1 hour 15 min grunt. Keeping an eye out for any change of grade, I challenged myself to run/shuffle as often as possible. I passed so many runners with this strategy as they struggled with the heat of direct sunlight or, once again, had underestimated the difficulty of these small bumps on the elevation profile. The most dedicated volunteer was waiting for us at the high point, same place she was last year, directing us down the sweet and steep descent as a reward for our efforts. She truly is an angel of mercy!

As I passed through AS#6 and continued to descend, my mind focused on the next climb, called Bonsai, which I had been dreading for months. Although it barely registers on the course profile, it threads its way up through a recent clear-cut in the intense heat of the afternoon. I was determined to make short work of it and I did just that, finding myself back in the shade of evergreens in no time, working my way to its summit. I arrived at the Farside aid station (#7), feeling strong but my emotional balloon was popped when I heard the time. It was 4:30 pm, 11:00 hours into the race, and that was my secret finish time goal. Since I was still at least 90 minutes away from the finish, there would be no PR for me today. There was no way I could complete the two events in my dream time of 19 hours. I should have known that the heat had forced me to move slower and I wish I’d recognized that I was feeling good and strong because I had reigned in my competitive side. But, at that time, I felt complete disappointment and I headed out onto the last section with a black cloud over my head.

And with that attitude, the wheels started to fall off. I knew that there were two climbs left, each about 125 m high and each needing about 30 minutes to summit. The Fartherside climb went well, as it is shady and gentle, but Mountain of Phlegm chewed me up. I knew that the climb ended at a helicopter pad but I just couldn’t get there. It took frickin’ forever and when I finally got to the lovely volunteer at the heli-pad summit, I sat down and whined for all my worth. As I worried aloud about the elapsed time and the course difficulty and having to do it all over again tomorrow, she replied with sweet words of praise and encouragement. She told me to sit and look around and she reminded me that I only had four km to go. She gave me exactly what I needed to get up and finish. I was still able to run so I used my frustration as fuel to power down those switchback, stairs, paths and roads. I was just able to hold off my tears of disappointment and negativity, realizing that I had to get this run done before I could worry about tomorrow. I set my jaw, clenched my fists and tried to hold my emotions at bay. I must have looked intense and half-crazed since volunteers looked at me warily and gave me very curt directions as I neared the finish.

But as the finish grew near, I could see Cathy C. and John I. taking photos. John M. was smiling just beyond the finish line. Bruce was waiting for me at the edge of the park and ran beside me with the go-pro video running as I entered the chute. I could hear my name over the loud-speaker and I saw Gary reach out with unbridled enthusiasm to be the first to congratulate me with his bear hug as I crossed the line.

Right after my well-earned hug, Gary spotted Bruce and dropped everything to congratulate him on his unbelievable TransPyrenean 850 km race.

Right after my well-earned hug, Gary spotted Bruce and dropped everything to congratulate him on his unbelievable TransPyrenean 850 km race. Our ultra-running community is small and everyone knows about everyone else’s achievements!

It was so difficult, so challenging and now so rewarding. As Gary assessed my lucidity, he asked, “Will you come back to do the 50 km tomorrow?”. And I said yes. I admitted to having second thoughts right up until he asked and I was glad he had forced me to re-commit right away.

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Brent ran his first 50 miler in a stellar time of 11:35 and was able to enjoy a few tasty Howe Sound brews before I joined in the finish line fun.

Bruce and I sat with Brent and Erin on the steps of the bandshell and shared stories of the day. Eventually I limped over to the massage table and met Magic Fingers Paul who set to work on my aching foot arches and crampy quads.

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Meet my new best friend, Magic Fingers Paul. Not only did he fix my tender tootsies, he did so without commenting on the layers of filth he had to touch.

His active release stretches made a world of difference to my throbbing feet and afterwards I was able to saunter around the finish area, re-hydrating and eating a burger, as the sun set. As the chill set in, we packed ourselves off to our campsite and I began the de-griming process and then the reloading of my gear for the following early morning start. Bruce whipped up a ravioli dinner which we enjoyed in the dark with a post-race IPA. I was asleep as soon as I was horizontal.

 

Day 2 – 50 km (31 miles) 2500 m (8500 ft)

At 4:30 am, as I was trying to will my legs into my running shorts, I heard Bruce call out from the picnic table. I peeked my head out of the tent to see that all my race gels and chews had been eaten by raccoons during the night. I had stupidly left a handful of packets out and now I had no fuel to start the day. As we ate breakfast and sipped a delicious mug of home-roasted coffee, the marauding band of four raccoons visited our campsite, even daring to venture under the table while we were sitting there! Luckily this was my only encounter with wildlife all weekend!

Still smiling at the start of day #2

Still smiling at the start of day #2

At the Alice Lake race start, in the early light of day, I was able to find familiar faces in the crowd. There was a strong sense of camaraderie between the 50/50 runners, who were sporting a different style race number than the others, and each of us congratulated the others on finishing yesterday and daring to start this next event. It turns out that only 35 runners (out of 100?) returned for the second part of the 50/50 event. I found the Courtenay/Comox contingent and wished them well just as the starting gun went off.

I won’t (continue to) bore you with a step-by-step account of the 50 km run (since it is the final 30 miles of the 50 miler course) but I will note that once my legs warmed up, they responded well and thankfully the ground wasps slept in. Time flew by with trail chatter and I was heading towards the big Galactic climb in no time flat. As I reached the base of Galactic, I briefly ran with Christine S., a familiar face among the hundreds of strangers. We caught up on each other’s lives and compared stories of friends in common before she turned her retro-blasters on and took off.

As we made our way up the big Galactic climb, Christine took this parting action shot.

As we made our way up the big Galactic climb, Christine took this parting action shot.

After the initial shock of running, I found that I was getting stronger on each climb but becoming more tentative on the descents. My feet were tender and I made every effort to plant each footfall solidly to avoid stubbing toes, moving blisters into new territory or inviting unwanted cramping. I had the royal treatment once again at Quest aid station (23 km) with both Bruce and KiCKiT Katie C. attending to my every need.

Thanks to Katie C for the picture. Sitting on the same bench as yesterday, I was treated to crewing in the style of a Formula 1 pit stop

Thanks to Katie C. for the picture. Sitting on the same bench as yesterday, Bruce and Katie got me recharged in the style of a Formula 1 pit stop

The Legacy Climb felt shorter as I was able to march up, running whenever possible, and pass so many sufferers. My Angel of Mercy volunteer was once again awaiting my arrival at the summit, directing me down the crazy Angry Midget black diamond descent.

As I arrived at the Farside aid station (40 km), I was really concerned about that final climb up Mountain of Phlegm, which had taken so much out of me the previous day. I caught up to Christine at this station and decided to hold onto her shirttails and keep her in my sights for this final section. But as the climb unfolded, I recognized certain corners and junctions and knew exactly what was left. I honestly charged up that piece of nasty and was on my way home in no time.

My final descent into town was a blur of switchbacks and leg turnover. As I approached the Smoke Bluffs stairs, I passed two runners who were gingerly taking them backwards. I hit the pavement and turned on the afterburners, simply wanting this endless race weekend to be over. After crossing under Hwy 99, I heard a train whistle blow and I knew I still had to cross the train tracks. Breaking into a full sprint, I raced that train and I won. There was no way that I was going to stop within 500 m of the finish to watch a freight train pass!

Faster than a freight train!

Faster than a freight train!

As I rounded the final corner, I allowed myself to take in my accomplishment. It was a big challenge and I tackled it well. I raced smart and only allowed myself one small section of self-pity. As I entered the finish line park, Bruce called out “You are the second woman.” but my overloaded brain couldn’t figure out what he meant. As I leaped into Gary’s arms for the second time that weekend, he confirmed what Bruce had said. Only one other woman had completed the 50/50 event so far. He set my new 50/50 Finisher trucker hat atop my head and listened to my raw feedback about the day.

Gary's methods are wise. All the racers remember is 'the hug' but Gary gets the opportunity to hear all their uncensored, untapped feedback which I'm sure he uses to ever-improve his events.

Gary’s methods are wise. All the racers remember is ‘the hug’ but Gary gets the opportunity to hear all their uncensored, untapped feedback which I’m sure he uses to ever-improve his events.

Bruce and I sat and enjoyed the finish line atmosphere, waiting for friends to cross the line, eating as much as my sore mouth could handle and cheering for everyone.

Christine and I finished close together and I was so thankful for her motivation to get out of the Farside aid station.

Christine and I finished close together and I was so thankful for her motivation to get out of the Farside aid station.

Who knew that there was a race between the Marthas today? I snuck a photo with the other Martha's parents since they had

Who knew that there was a race between the Marthas today? I had to  have a photo with the other Martha’s mum since they had my customized sign.

John Murray improved his Squamish 50 km time by more than 45 minutes this year, easily winning the under 20 age group category!

John Murray improved his Squamish 50 km time by more than 45 minutes this year, easily winning the under 20 age group category!

At some point, we heard the announcement that bumped me from 2nd to 3rd place. Adrienne crossed the line after me in the 50 km but had a superb finish in her first 50 miler the day before, making her combined race time faster than mine. There was a brief awards ceremony for the 50/50 finishers. When Gary called me up for my 3rd place award, he said the kindest things about my running history, making it sound like I am full of experience, not just getting old. Admittedly I have done a fair number of ultras, been running them for a big chunk of my adult life and can withstand a lot of adversity but I still have so much to learn and there are so many more places I want to visit on foot.

With a gleam in my eye, I chuckle at his comment about racing in the day when you had to have a map since there were only 8 ribbons used for the entire route. Oh, how things have changed!

With a gleam in my eye, I chuckle at Gary’s comment about racing in the days when you had to have a map since there were only 8 ribbons used for the entire route. Oh, how things have changed!

Podium Finish! With RD Gary Robbins, Adrienne Dundar (2nd), Kaytlyn Gerbin(1st), me (3rd) and RD Geoff Langford

Podium Finish! Here are the women’s 50/50 top three – RD Gary Robbins, Adrienne Dunbar (2nd), Kaytlyn Gerbin(1st), me (3rd) and RD Geoff Langford

I don’t know how I’ll react in November when I receive Gary’s invitation to race in Squamish next August. This race has a draw that I cannot resist – and my favourite colour is green!

The blue cap is for one 50/50 finish. The green is for two finisher and the yellow my other favourite colour) is for three. Hmmmm....

The blue cap is for one 50/50 finish. The green is for two finishes and the yellow (my other favourite colour) is for three. Hmmmm….

 

50 miler Finish Time – 12:15.33

  • 54/197 finishers; 10/50 women; 2/12 W40-49 age group

50 km Finish Time – 8:34.17

  • 148/287 finishers; 44/110 women; 9/32 W40-49 age group

50/50 Finish Time – 20:49.50

  • 12/35 finishers; 3/10 women; 1/3 W40-49 age group

What does it take for a runner to move on to a longer distance? This question has long been one that rattles around in my head. I have blogged about it before (here) but I still don’t have an answer that satisfies. Here is Wikipedia’s definition of Long-distance running:

Long-distance running, or endurance running, is a form of continuous running over distances of at least three kilometres (1.86 miles). Physiologically, it is largely aerobic in nature and requires stamina as well as mental strength.[1]

While some runners break into a sweat at the idea of adding another 8 km to the end of a marathon, others think nothing of jumping from a 50 km to their first 100 miler. What allows one runner to constantly search for bigger challenges while another holds back?

I choose to enter races that my running friends organize or have successfully completed, thinking there is some kind of safety in that. Often I know a few folks out on the course which gives me some reassurance. Slowly, over the years, the distances have increased and my sense of adventure has grown with it. But I am still cautious in my selection of events and in monitoring my readiness for a longer distance, always wanting to read through results and blogs to know exactly what I am getting myself into.

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At C4P 2005, Canadian Club Smart Ass took Ventura County by storm because there was safety in numbers.

Most of us think that the marathon or even the 100 miler is the upper limit of possibility because we are unable to imagine anything beyond. But those distances are only known and accepted because someone broke out of the mold and attempted something unknown with dubious possibility of success. If you dare to do some research, you will find unbelievable events which fill to capacity with people who are able to open their minds to the endless possibilities out there. Once the bar is raised and a new distance is established, the flood gates will open with others wanting to try.

But, even more daunting than increased distances, I am amazed at runners who enter an inaugural race – a race that has neither stood the test of time nor had the wrinkles worked out. What if the water-drop gets put on the wrong mountain top or the distance is measured in nautical miles rather than those regular ones? (Don’t laugh – these things have happened!) A race’s long history is a sort of proof of its do-ability and that the organization has worked out the logistics. But this proof is absent in a first-time event and therefore it is not a race that I would enter.

Recently, Get Out There magazine published an article titled Going Long which featured two humble athletes who thrive on those kinds of races – the ones with no results, no blogs, no history. One of those featured athletes is my own husband.

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Inaugural year of 332km Tor des Geants 2010 – the great unknown in action

Those who read farther than Bruce’s extensive resume were treated to a glimpse into the philosophical thinking behind his leisure pursuit. These inaugural races of ultra-long distances, put on by unknown race directors, often in distant countries are the kinds of boundaries he aims to push. There is a purity in being completely self-reliant and, in some cases, self-sufficient, having to carry all necessary food and supplies or even having to acquire those enroute (in another language). There is also a thrill to being ahead of the curve – competing in an event that the media has not yet sullied as ‘the next great must-do race’. These events are not about the speed-work sessions you did, the number of Strava kudos earned or even the number of training kilometers logged. It is more about being able to filter out the noise and focus solely on the immediate present so that the next mountain pass can be attained. It is a great reminder that the finish line is arbitrary; the journey is everything.

No matter how far we aim to run, our limits are directly linked to restrictions we put on ourselves. If you say “I could never run that far”, then you can’t and you won’t. An open-mind and deep self-knowledge are the tickets needed to go longer.

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The Transpyrenea route follows the GR10 trail from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic through the French

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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