West Coast Trail
Credit: Matt Cecil

By Kerry Hale

In the pre-dawn hour of July 19, 2014, after spending a rainy night in his car, ultra-runner Matt Cecil checked over his belongings one last time and took another peek at the numbers scrawled on a trail map.

The Victoria, British Columbia resident was about to embark on a run along the famous West Coast Trail. His goal: to surpass the fastest known time (FKT) of 10:08:49, set in 2010 by Vancouver-based endurance runner, Gary Robbins. 

“My first and biggest surprise came in the form of heavy rain,” commented Cecil. “It started the eve of my run, and continued on through the majority of my day on the trail.”

Despite the treacherous conditions, Cecil managed to clock 9:32:32, besting the previous record by more than 36 minutes. 

“The trail is a spectacular place. It is a truly remote coastal environment. Having virtually no exit routes other than helicopter airlift adds a whole other dimension to this route, and makes it quite intimidating. It is a formidable test, both mentally and physically,” he adds.

The WestCoastTrail is a 75-km backpacking route that follows the southwestern edge of Vancouver Island, BC. Built in 1907 to facilitate the rescue of shipwreck survivors along the coast, it is now part of Pacific Rim National Park and is rated as one of the most grueling and picturesque treks in North America. Isolated, physically challenging and potentially hazardous, it is a “choose your own adventure” with sections ranging from beach to trail to cable car to ladder. 

Typically a six-day hike, a modicum of trail runners have recently tackled the trail with single-day pursuits in mind. Gary Robbins, who now runs for Salomon and who has competed on some of the most epic courses in the world of ultra-running—such as the Hurt 100 in Hawaii and the Mount Fuji event in Japan—said, “The West Coast Trail is a beautiful location but it presents a logistical nightmare. There are a lot of complexities involved. It really is not an easy trail to run.”

Both Cecil and Robbins specifically highlighted the logistical headache of getting both on and off the trail. “It’s isolated and you often have to rely on other people to help you,” commented Robbins.

Undeterred, the WCT is attracting more and more enduro thrill-seekers attempting to complete the trail in one go.

For anyone wishing to attempt it in this manner, here’s what you should know:

West Coast Trailhttps://www.flickr.com/photos/ilya_ktsn/

Who: For advanced runners only. The WCT is a demanding trek and should not be attempted by beginners or anyone with recurring knee, back or ankle injuries. “To be honest,” says Robbins, “It’s more enjoyable as a multi-day effort. Very few people can conceivably complete it in under 24 hours.”

When:The WCT is open from May 1 until September 30. It is accessible outside of this period, but Parks Canada does not guarantee the accessibility of services, such as search and rescue, in the off-season.

Trailheads: There are only three access points for the West Coast Trail. The entire route connects the trailhead at Pachena Bay in the north (near Bamfield) to the trailhead at the mouth of the Gordon River in the south (near Port Renfrew). There is a mid-point trailhead near the Nitinat Visitor Centre.

Terrain: Both Cecil and Robbins GPS-mapped the route at closer to 80 km in length and both agreed the southernmost 20 km of the trail is the most difficult section. “That 20-km section provides not only the most vertical gain and loss on the trail, but also the muddiest terrain,” says Cecil. Robbins adds, “There are hundreds of metres of vertical ladders involved, as well as heavy cable cars and a lot of mud.” Timing is of critical importance. Cecil says, “For me, the most difficult part of the trail is getting the timing right with the tides. The WCT is very unique in that there are often beach routes or inland trail options available. Many of these beach options become impassible beyond a certain tide height and the water taxis only run at certain times. Timing is everything here.” 

Weather & Trail Conditions: The weather is typical of a marine temperate climate—very unpredictable with heavy rainfall possible even in July, August and September and likely in May and June. Rainfall averages 120 cm per year, summer temperature average is 14 degrees Celsius. (Though on the day Robbins ran, temps reached 28 degrees). Heavy morning fog is very common, especially in July and August. 

Permits:  “The nice thing about running the WCT is that you needn’t book in advance, as you would if you were hiking,” says Cecil. “This only applies if you are planning to complete the trail in less than a day and will not sleep on the trail.” Regardless of speed, every person using the WCT requires a Trail Use Permit. For multi-day hikers, a quota system is in effect between May 1 and September 30; you may reserve ahead starting March 16. A mandatory Trail Use Permit Fee is in place as well as a fee for ferry services for access to or from the Gordon River Trailhead and across Nitinat Narrows.

Trail Etiquette: Common sense applies. Everything brought in must be packed out, cooking should be done on a lightweight stove, fires are only permitted on the beach, drinking water is available from rivers and creeks, though it is recommended to treat, boil or filter all water collected. Use outhouses and beach privies located at major campsites, or bury human waste in the inter-tidal zone at the ocean’s edge. Wash yourself, your clothes and dishes in the ocean or at creek mouths. Camp on the beach above the high tide line whenever possible and respect all First Nations sites along the route.

Evacuations: A considerable number of injuries on the WCT involve inexperienced hikers and those who are rushing (irony noted) and not paying attention to adverse trail conditions, so use extreme caution at all times.

Equipment: Cecil carried a hydration pack with two litres of water, 20 gels, electrolytes and caffeine pills. He also had a trail permit, trail map, lightweight jacket, emergency blanket, headlamp, batteries, knife, lighter and cellphone (though there is no coverage for much of the trail). Robbins carried many of the same items, including sunscreen, two full bottles of water (and two refills from streams). Both stopped at the rustic trailside café, Chez Monique, for drinks and snacks near the halfway point. 

Training Advice: Cecil comments, “I’d recommend training a lot of long hours on varied terrain. Don’t neglect the running component of this trail, despite its technicality.” Robbins concurs with covering varied terrain, including soft sand and off-camber pebbles and ladder climbing.

If you’re planning to fast-track the WCT, the underlying message is to be well-prepared for both a logistically and technically challenging route. The rugged coastal scenery and remoteness promises to deliver lifelong memories; but once you’re in, you’re absolutely committed. 

This article originally appeared in our Summer 2015 issue.