By Debbie Preston
Some of my favourite races to run are the MEC series here on Vancouver Island. Although they might not have all the bells and whistles that other races have – some races aren’t timed, there are no medals and there aren’t always aid stations along the route – these races have the essentials: they are always affordable ($15-$20), you’re guaranteed to be challenged by a talented group of fellow racers and the entire MEC team and amazing volunteers will cheer you along the course.
It’s no surprise that for my first trail race I decided to sign up for one organized MEC. Although not part of their official Race Series, The Big Wild Challenge had all the makings of a great MEC race; beautiful race route, affordable registration fee and a great group of volunteers organizing the event. (It should be noted that runners were informed due to the technicality of the course this was not a race but instead a “run”; that said, it doesn’t make much difference to me once I have that race bib on.)
The Big Wild Challenge had two options: the 12k run from Pike Rd to Aylard Farm or the 21k run from Aylard Farm out to Iron Mine Bay and back, with a cut through the interior trail once you get back to Cabin Point. Although this was my first trail race (okay fine, run) I decided on the 21k option. I’ve run the 12k trail from Aylard Farm to Pike Rd several times with friends, and by the end I’m so grateful to see my car I’ve never thought I could actually make it back along the trail without giving up and being forced to spend a night in the cabin along the trail (it should be noted that I don’t think you’re actually allowed to stay in the cabin). But I figured now would be as best a time as any to try: there will be other runners motivating me, aid stations along the way to fuel me, a souvenir race bib at the end, and I’ll be helping raise money for Canadian Parks and Wilderness Society – all for the low cost of $20!
The 21k route started at 8:00 a.m. in the field at Aylard Farm. It was a beautiful sunny morning, and after a quick warm-up led by the MEC team we were off down the trail. For anyone not familiar with the Coast Trail, first of all you should become familiar with this beautiful part of the island; and second of all, it’s one of the most technical trails in the south island. From the beginning runners are challenged by tree roots, loose rocks, mud (for about 10 months of the year) and not to mention some pretty steep climbs. However, the incredible views of the Pacific Ocean and a good chance at seeing some whales make the challenging trail worth every step and slip.
Within the first 30 minutes of the run those challenges proved a bit too much for a few people, some twisting ankles on the lose rocks, one taking a pretty bad fall after tripping over a tree root and another runner getting taken out by a tree branch. Knowing I still had at least another three hours to survive on this trail I vowed to keep my head down while my feet were moving, and only take in the amazing views with feet planted firm.
We continued south west along the Coast Trail towards Cabin Point where we refueled at a fully-stocked water station and were cheered on by the MEC team. Not that you need the motivation to keep going on this trail; with the jagged rock bluffs, thick rainforest and emerald waters, this trail keeps you captivated at every turn, as long as you can stay on your feet. About 10k into the “run” we reached Iron Mine Bay, the end of the trail and our turn around point. Once again refueled at the aid station, this time with soft, chewy, chocolate chip cookies, we turned around and headed back along the challenging and beautiful trail back to Cabin Point. About 2k into the return journey I noticed a runner just in front had stopped suddenly on the trail. As I caught up to him I saw what stopped him. Not the jagged rocks or a spindly tree branch, but a huge grey whale breaching just off shore. “I was keeping such a good pace, that guy ruined it for me!” he laughed as he stood watching the whale swim away.
On we went until we reached the cheering squad and ice cold water at Cabin Point. After filling up my backpack with Cliff bars and water, we headed northeast along the interior trail towards Aylard Farm. At this point the trail begins a long, steady climb but becomes much less technical. Realizing we were only a few kms from the finish line and I was no longer in danger of falling off a cliff or tripping over tree roots, I picked up the pace and ran full force over the rolling hills. Eventually the trail opened up to the big hay field that is Aylard Farm, and following the orange trail markers through the meadow I sped to the finish line. I was happy to see I managed to complete the “run” in 3:35, about half an hour faster than I thought I would. After rewarding myself with one or five cookies, I headed down to the main beach and joined the other runners numbing their legs in the ice-cold ocean. The only thing that topped a race ending like that was the free BBQ MEC provided after!