Have you ever developed a girl crush on almost a dozen people at once? That’s how I would describe learning about the Wild Bruce Chase, an all-female team of fearless, record-setting trail relay runners. The Toronto-based group first came together in 2016 when the team visionary, Erin (@envitesse), decided to gather a crew of like-minded women, 18 altogether, with the goal of running the entire Bruce Trail in one go—totalling, oh, just about 900k.
“We didn’t know if there would be any interest in spending a long weekend sweaty, stinky and crammed in a van, but word quickly spread. Before we knew it, the team was full—and we even had a wait list,” recalls Erin. Since successfully setting the Fastest Known Time (FKT) on that trail—finishing in 4 days, 1 hour and 39 minutes—the Wild Bruce Chase has gone on to achieve two more FKTs: on the Rideau Trail (July 2017) and the Grand Valley Trail (February 2018).
Of course, the ultra endurance needed for these trail relays is incredible, but I’m equally impressed by the level of detail required to pull off such a logistical feat. As an Excel enthusiast, I’m a huge fan of the team’s motto that “spreadsheets save lives” and I have great respect for their diligence. They have to figure who will run which leg, coordinate crew members, organize their gear, food and hydration, and make driving and sleeping arrangements. On top of it all, these ladies practice running each part of the trail before game day, to scope out any unexpected terrain and make route changes if needed.
For their next adventure, kicking off later this month, the Wild Bruce Chase will be pursuing their fourth FKT on the beautiful Ganaraska Trail, spanning Port Hope to Midland, Ontario. Although the main trail is technically 500k, there are two side branches they’ll need to run as well, making their total distance 600k.
“It’s a really accessible trail and has hidden gems worth exploring,” says Erin. “There’s an incredible section most famous for its rugged terrain and remoteness, called the Queen Elizabeth II Wildlands. There is only one access point to break up the 65k stretch of trail, which divides the wildlands into 45k and 20k legs. Given the remoteness, we will have two runners on those sections. That means two of our runners will be covering more than a marathon distance on extremely difficult terrain in the middle of a 600k relay!”
All told, the team of 11 runners will each cover 55-60k over the July long weekend, finishing up sometime Monday morning. You can follow their journey at @wildbrucechase as they prepare to start this relay on June 29.
So here’s to the strong women of the Wild Bruce Chase—may we know them, may we celebrate them, may we learn how to fend off bears from them.
How did you first get into trail relays? “I had run a few longer distance relay races—Ragnar, Cabot, Canadian Death Race—but I got into FKT relay running with the Offtrack Running Team, a rad group of trail runners doing relay challenges on the Bruce Trail.”
What’s the funniest/weirdest thing you’ve experienced on a trail adventure? “Weird in a scary and unnerving way: once, on a trail in Alberta, I was followed for about a mile by a grizzly bear! But for me, the funniest experiences always seem to be during the night legs. The pacers join us, the energy is renewed, and there’s something totally wild and free about running through the deep, dark woods at night. The silliness hits a fevered peak. It’s eight hours of belly laughs, inside jokes and weird antics that don’t translate well to the written word. Absolutely my favourite part of every relay is the night shift.”
What advice do you have for newbie trail runners? “Don’t worry about pace! It’s easy to get discouraged if you look at your watch and see that you are off your usual pace, sometimes slowing by quite a bit when the terrain is really technical or hilly. For new trail runners, one way to ease into trails is to go out for a run based on time, instead of trying to hit a certain pace or cover a certain distance.”
What’s your all-time favourite memory from a trail relay? “Finishing our first FKT on the Bruce Trail as the sun came up. We ran the final 7k together and joined forces to touch the southern cairn in sync, finalizing the run.”
Nicole (Nyki) Rogers
How did you first get into trail relays? “I’ve always loved relays. Running can get so solitary sometimes, and there’s something about a team relying on me that makes me perform my best. When our visionary, Erin, pitched the idea of doing an end-to-end women’s relay on the Bruce Trail in 2016, I went all in. I barely even ran on trails and thought, How hard could it be? Spoiler alert: it’s tough!”
What’s the funniest/weirdest thing you’ve experienced on a trail adventure? “One story that sticks out is from our relay on the Rideau Trail in 2017. My husband and I scouted one of my legs in May and it was stunning. One pristine, grassy hill reminded us of the famous Sound of Music scene. However, when we went back in July, everything had grown over, and in the dark we ran face first, full speed, into what was now a forest of sharp and prickly briars! We looked like we went through a shredder.”
What advice do you have for newbie trail runners? “Forget about your speed and have fun. Leave the pace clocks on the road, and let trail running be your time to connect with nature and feeling like a kid again. No matter how hard you run, you will be slower on the trails, so you might as well embrace it!”
What advice do you have for newbie trail runners? “Sign up for a trail race! It’s an easy intro to the sport because you’ll be on a well-marked course, and with 5 Peaks or MEC races, you can take your pick of distances. (A 5-6k run on the trail can feel quite a bit more challenging than the same distance on the road.) These races are great because they introduce you to amazing trails that aren’t too far from the city. Also, forget about your watch and your pace, and run by feel.”
What’s the ugly/unglam side of trail running? “Is there a glam side? There’s a reason Denise made us all ‘Trail Hair, Don’t Care’ T-shirts. Ciele does their best to glam us up, but we’re still pretty unglam.”
What’s your all-time favourite memory from a trail relay? “One of the most memorable moments has to be the very first shift on the original Wild Bruce Chase relay. While we were at an exchange waiting for one of the runners, Deanne, she came bursting out of the woods brandishing a huge tree branch. She had carried this for about 10k because she saw a bear about 2k into the leg. She had the wildest look on her face, like the craziest mix of fear and exhilaration.”
How did you first get into trail relays? “I’m the trail relay virgin of the group! I’ve been trail running for the past 10 years, but this will be my first relay.”
What advice do you have for newbie trail runners? “Get out there! The trails in Ontario are incredible, so you really just need to make the decision to go. I recommend getting some intel about the trail conditions, so you know where you’re going and what footwear will be helpful. Take your phone for safety reasons, but also be prepared to make frequent photo stops! I would recommend networking with a local trail running group to get started.”
What’s the most important thing to pack for this type of adventure? “Food and drinks that you know won’t upset your stomach. I can run with sore or wet feet, but if my nutrition or hydration suffers, it’s hard to continue from that and enjoy what I’m doing.”
Are women underrepresented in the trail running world, and why do you think that is?
“Women are underrepresented in most sports. The neat thing about trail running, especially when you move into the ultra distances, is that women can totally dominate. The trail running world is so welcoming, and there is a stronger sense of community compared to road running. Everyone is just really supportive of each other.”
What’s something people might not know about the relay planning process? “The planning takes much longer than the actual FKT. Each member has to pre-run her legs. You have to make sure the trails are well marked, the handover junctions are safe, and pacing times are recorded. Sometimes you need to do them twice.”
What’s the ugly/unglam side of trail running? “Trail running can be dirty, muddy, wet, cold, buggy and waterlogged. There can be unpredictable terrain or trail markers have been moved, so getting lost is a possibility. But the ugly side is also what makes it so appealing.”
What’s your all-time favourite memory from a trail relay? “On the first Wild Bruce Chase, my first leg started just before dawn. It was foggy and cool, but as the sun rose, the mist lifted. I ran through the trails and the grass was hip high. As I ran, I let my hands graze the tips of the grass and I let my legs spin. It was effortless and it was beautiful.”
Are women underrepresented in the trail running world, and why do you think that is?
“I think women are made to fear the woods and the wildness of nature. It’s sad because it’s so beautiful and so freeing. To women interested in trail running, I say just go do it. Come out to a local trail race by yourself or with friends. Just go.”
What’s the funniest/weirdest thing you’ve experienced on a trail adventure? “While I was scoping out a leg for our Rideau relay last year, I came across some perfectly staged dolls (think Raggedy Ann and a clown) propped up on little rocking chairs in the middle of the woods. It was a pretty creepy thing to come across when I was running by myself, but at least it gave me something to think about other than ticks for the rest of my run!”
What advice do you have for newbie trail runners? “Have fun and don’t be afraid to get dirty! The energy of trail running is completely different from road running. I enjoy getting dirt under my fingernails and mud on my legs, so trails are where I feel most in my element.”
What’s the ugly/unglam side of trail running? “Your feet. Missing toenails and blisters are a harsh reality of any type of running, but especially with trail running. The plus side is that it takes less time to paint my toenails because I currently only have eight.”
What’s the most important thing to pack for this type of adventure? “The trail map. We were so fortunate that the Bruce Trail has an amazing app so we could verify in real-time if we had gone off course. It was also blazed pretty consistently. For the Rideau and Grand Valley trails, it was really important to know landmarks and important turns, and to be able to consult a map if you thought you may have missed something.”
Ivy Chiu Loke
How did you first get into trail relays? “A good friend basically forced me to do these with her! But it’s the relationships built over many trail miles that keeps me coming back.”
What’s the funniest/weirdest thing you’ve experienced on a trail adventure? “The Rideau Trail has a section that crosses railway tracks. In order to cross the tracks, I needed to run into a train station during operational hours, follow the blazes inside the train station, run under the tracks and emerge on the other side to continue on the trail.”
What advice do you have for newbie trail runners? “When you’re running through the woods in the dark, don’t scan your surroundings with your headlamp. Chances are you’re not going to be able to do anything about whatever is in the woods with you, so it’s better not to freak yourself out by seeing a pair of eyes glaring at you through the trees.”
What’s your all-time favourite memory from a trail relay? “Running through technical trails in complete darkness in the middle of the night for the first time. It was fascinating to rely on the headlamp to navigate and not trip and fall (too much).”
How did you first get into trail relays? “I have been a competitive, active trail runner for many years and became friends with Erin through 5 Peaks Ontario when she was a race director. I met her at many events hosted at various conservation parks in Ontario, and I was invited to join the Bruce team in 2016.”
What’s the funniest/weirdest thing you’ve experienced on a trail adventure? “During the Bruce FKT, I ran into a young couple going to third base on the trail and I had to pass them in order to continue following the trail markers. It was incredibly awkward and I certainly surprised them.”
What advice do you have for newbie trail runners? “Always be prepared on the trail for safety reasons. If you roll an ankle or take a really bad fall, you want someone to know where you are to help. Be prepared when you hit the trails, but also appreciate the scenery, the quiet and the woods.”
What’s something people might not know about the relay planning process? “A successful FKT requires working with the trail organization and being prepared for reroutes. There may be changes in conditions that may not be ideal—the trail could be muddy or overgrown, trees could be down, or it could be poorly marked. It always helps to train for the terrain, study your maps, know your trail distances from access points, and know challenges you might face: hydration, bad cell reception, footing, wildlife.”
What advice do you have for newbie trail runners? “Work on strengthening your ankles, and don’t force yourself to run up all the hills. Power hiking works better.”
What’s something people might not know about the relay planning process? “A very important part is pre-running our assigned sections. We create a spreadsheet and develop sections based on the layout of the trail, terrain, each runner’s preferred distance and safe exchange locations. Leading up to the FKT attempt, we spend our weekends heading out to these locations and running the trail, so we have a better idea of what to expect and can modify the plan as necessary. This can include moving an exchange location or figuring out the distance is shorter or longer than expected.”
What’s the ugly/unglam side of trail running? “You will swallow bugs and they will get in your eyes. Popping blisters just feels like second nature. Sweat, sunscreen and bug spray become a trail runner’s aroma. Your legs will carry the stories of your run with you, whether it be a sunburn, rash, bug bites or scratches and bruises. You are going to get very good at answering ‘nature’s call’ in the woods—just watch for poison oak and poison ivy!”
Update: The Wild Bruce Chase kicked off their Ganaraska Trail FKT attempt during an extreme weather event, with “scorching heat and a dangerous humidex” (reaching 47 degrees Celsius). Despite the challenging conditions, the team successfully completed the fastest (and only) known relay time on the Ganaraska Trail, finishing in 2 days, 21 hours and 20 minutes.