This is a run I have been thinking of doing since last October, when April and I ran 30 km of the Juan de Fuca Trail. I’d always thought of the Juan de Fuca as the “ugly sister” of the world-famous West Coast Trail – but I was surprised when April and I went by how beautiful it is! And it’s much more doable as a one-day run than the West Coast Trail – at 47 km compared to the WCT’s 78 km. The terrain is still challenging: technical trails with lots of roots and mud, some pretty steep hilly parts, and coastal sections where you are hopping long boulder beach for a kilometre or two. But it doesn’t have the dozens of ladders that you must go up and down on the West Coast Trail.
So when my cousins came visiting from Denmark this month, and one of the things that they wanted to do was to hike the Juan de Fuca Trail, it made for the perfect plan. One of the challenges of hiking or running this trail is the car shuffle. But this way, we each left a car at one end. We all drove to the northwestern end, where I started running from, and left their car there. They drove my car to the other end, and started hiking back. We each had our car waiting for us! Perfect!
I didn’t really have a good grasp on how long I might take. April and I had taken eight and a half hours to do the 30 km from Sombrio Beach east to the trailhead at China Beach. I would be starting 17 km further west. April and I had not been pushing for speed, we’d stopped for a lot of photos, and it was October and the trail was quite muddy. So I hoped that I could knock and hour or two off the time for that section, and perhaps do the whole thing in anything from 9 to 12 hours. (Plus, then I would have a four hour drive back home to Port Alberni, alone).
But you never know about timing. I had a headlamp with me, in case I got badly delayed on the trail (it’s still light out til well after 8pm), and I had my camping gear and a bit of food in the car, in case I was too tired to drive. I didn’t take much with me on the trail as far as emergency gear though – the headlamp, a little bivvy sack (that I hope never to have to use!), and a very basic first aid kit. So my plan was to definitely get to the other end no matter what: not sacrifice my safety by trying to make speed.
I started at the northwest trailhead, Botanical Beach, at 6:45 am. It had been really chilly, camping in Port Renfrew the night before, because the fog had come in, and I had been worried that, if it stayed that cold, I didn’t have enough clothing with me to survive the run. But the day dawned clear – not super-warm, but a comfortable temperature for what I was wearing: my Opedix compression shorts, and a T-shirt with separate arm-sleeves.
The Juan de Fuca trail map shows the various sections of the trail graded for difficulty. In order, I would be going through “Moderate” then “Difficult” then “Most Difficult” then back to “Moderate.” (There is no “Easy” section). Well I was pretty frustrated by the first 15 km of “Moderate.” I think it is graded that way because there are not a lot of hills – but the flat terrain meant that the trail was super-muddy, way wetter than I had expected, mostly ankle-deep to calf-deep mud and roots, very easy to slip on. As I said, my ultimate goal was completing the route safely, not going for speed. Not taking risks meant that I ended up walking most of this section. By the time I was approaching Sombrio Beach, at the speed that I was going, and still with the Difficult and Most Difficult sections to come, I was getting worried that I would be 13 or even 14 hours on the trail! (And glad that I had packed my headlamp).
I passed through Sombrio, where April and I had started our run, at 11:04am. So I’d spent 4:20 to do those first 15 km. But fortunately, the Difficult and Most Difficult sections after that were much easier rom a runner’s perspective. Yes, there was a real lot of up and down – but the trail was much drier, and mostly very runnable.
My friend Fiona had run Juan de Fuca the Saturday before with a group of runners from Victoria. They had seen both bears and cougars on the trail. Bears don’t worry me – in fact, on this run I saw a cute one who peered at me from the side of the trail, just above me, with a goofy look on his face and a bit of drool curling off his lip. I stopped and took a few photos, and then told him I was coming past, and he was OK with that.
But cougars, on the other hand… well they prey on large mammals. I had chosen to go very light on this run, so only carried a small water bottle than I could drink from at the many creeks along the way.
So I was very conscious, every time I crouched down to drink or to get something out of my pack, that I was an ideal target for a cougar like that – so I remained very aware, always keeping my attention on my surroundings when I stopped.
The Difficult and Most Difficult sections went much faster. Some trail sections were really on the edge of cliffs – one little slip on a root, and I could crash through the salal bushes fringing the edge of the cliffs, and down to the wave-dashed rocks below! The views from up top were just stunning, though – I tried not to stop too much for photos, to keep my pace up – and was glad that I already had so many photos from April’s and my run in October.
I found my cousins at Bear Beach, 9 km from the end of the trail, setting up camp. I was really set on keeping moving, stopping only for a moment to chat with them, not wanting to lose my momentum. (By then I realized that I was on track for finishing in around 11 hours, which would get me to my car by 6pm – still a good safe time for me to start my long drive home). My only regret there is I had planned on taking a selfie of me with them together, and I totally forgot to…
These last 9 km were by far the easiest parts of the whole trail: dry and runnable, somewhat hilly but not overboard. I was still feeling good, but I could feel that my pace was lagging a bit. I pushed for the first while, really motivated to come in under 11 hours. But around 5 km from the end, I realized I wasn’t going to achieve that – and I figured there was no point in pushing my legs that hard when I was about to sit in a car for four hours, risking some serious muscle cramps – so I slowed down, and took my last 4 km or so more as a cool-down, mixing the jogging and walking.
I came in feeling great! I finished in 11:23 – definitely on the slower end of the range I had expected. But I was feeling great, my problem knee had not acted up, and – definitely – the trail was far muddier, and therefore slower, than I had expected it to be for July. A totally great run – I definitely recommend the Juan de Fuca Trail for any ultramarathon runner who wants to complete a fun, challenging-yet-doable, and amazingly scenic route! (And the Botanical Beach trailhead is only about 7 km by road from the southern trailhead of the West Coast Trail – meaning that a run combining both of them is possible…. at least quite possibly in the cards for me some day!)