A 135-mile, multi-terrain run following Canada's dynamic East Coast Trail
In 2016 James visited his Grandparents' home of Newfoundland to run 135 miles of developed hiking trails on the island's renowned East Coast Trail route. The run was spread over the course of five days, with an average distance greater than a marathon each day. The trail, a community-led route that is constantly under development, is located on the east coast of Canada on the shores of the Avalon Peninsula in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador. It takes in stunning coastal scenery, from high rocky bluffs to tiny coves, and has an overall elevation gain of several thousand meters. James ran alone and unsupported by day but with extra luggage moved between night-time stops.
"The best trail you've likely never heard of" The Boston Globe
The East Coast Trail on Newfoundland's Avalon Peninsula is managed by the East Coast Trail Association – a volunteer-supported charity. Each year it is developed further and, as such, has changed in length and quality since it was first established in 1994. The official opening of the trail came in 2001 when the main route, from Capphayden to St Johns, was completed. Since then, a further 50 kilometres (31 miles) has been developed and yet 275km of undeveloped trail also remains still to be added. The potential total distance for the route is, in fact, a whopping 540 kilometres (335 miles). As the only continuous section of trail, however, James' run covered the 'original' 220-kilometre (136-mile) route from Cappahayden to St Johns.
If you would like to offer sponsorship for the run, then the best way is quite simply to support the route itself. The East Coast Trail is maintained by a charity and relies heavily on donations. To help James, to help the charity and to help maintain this trail for future generations, you can donate to the East Coast Trail Association here.
Advice, Resources & FAQs
Just like the Canoeing the Continent page on this website, the aim here is also to provide like-minded people with helpful information. Throughout the process, James has be posting advice and information on running the East Coast Trail for anyone else interested in doing something similar. If you have more questions just get in touch.
How much water did you carry?
I began each day with around two litres of water and occasionally filled up in settlements along the way. In the final three days, as I got closer to St Johns, I was met by friends along the route who also brought along syrup drinks and extra water, which allowed me to top up. I only re-filled my water bottle from a stream once or twice and never used water purification tablets or gadgets. I’d happily trust the cleanliness of streams when filling up a water bottle in Newfoundland.
What did you eat on the trail?
Nothing special. My original intention was to carry some trail mix and Clif Bars and then stop each day for a bit of a picnic lunch. I tried this on the first day but quickly realised that stopping for a proper lunch didn’t work – I didn’t have much of an appetite and I didn’t like stopping for a long period of time. In the end, I ate a lot of jam and peanut butter sandwiches on the move, along with trail mix (nuts and raisins) and, instead, focused on having a hearty breakfast at the start of each day and a large dinner at the end. I went off Clif Bars after the first couple of days and never used any gels.
Is there a fee for access to the East Coast Trail?
There is no fee for hiking the East Coast Trail and there is no National Park-type fee or membership you have to pay. The trail is, however, cared for by a volunteer-based charity and therefore relies heavily on donations and the free contribution of volunteers' time. For those planning to use the full length of the trail I therefore recommend donating on the East Coast Trail Association website or even becoming a member to help support the route.
Where did you stay along the trail?
In order to travel lightly and run with the minimal amount of luggage on my back, I did not do any camping along the trail. Instead, I stayed in pre-booked accommodation along the way, as well as spending two of the nights with my uncle and aunt. In Port Kirwan, on the first night, I stayed in the converted shipping container cabins at Belle Maison Dine and Dream. The food there is incredible and the hosts could not have done more (they thought I was a little crazy). I highly recommend the place. In Calvert I stayed in the Inn on Capelin Bay; I was the only one there and had the place to myself, so it was more like having a big house rental rather than a room. On the third day I finished in Bauline East, where I was picked up by my uncle and aunt who live in Witless Bay, where I stayed. The next day I was dropped back to the same point and ran to Bay Bulls where I did the same again. On the final day I finished in St Johns.
Why did you not run all the way to Cape St Francis?
The East Coast Trail is a continuous trail from Cappahayden to St Johns. From St Johns north to Cape St Francis the trail is well developed and well maintained, however it does not run as one unbroken line and is made up of several sections. As such it is not currently possible to run a continuous route from Cappahayden to Cape St Francis (or wasn’t at the time of running). To follow the trail north from St Johns to Cape St Francis there are some sections where it is necessary to head back in land by road and link the different sections by other means. I didn’t fancy doing running sections on the road.
What other good resources are out there?
I’ve mentioned the main East Coast Trail Association website a billion times already, but there is also a decent ECT Thru Hikers website, which includes that spreadsheet noting things like distances between settlements and elevation gains. If you’re particularly interested in running the trail, there’s and ECT Ultra Marathon, which has an informative website and takes place in October each year. This Newfoundsander blog also has good details on individual segments of the trail, so for descriptions of shorter routes is useful.
What is the record for the East Coast Trail?
I ran the East Coast Trail over five consecutive days, while the current record stands at just 34hrs 40mins. The record was set by Caroline McIlroy, a Newfoundland resident, in 2015. You can find out more about her run here.
What is the best time of year to run the East Coast Trail?
There is no single best time to walk or run on the East Coast Trail – though, of course, in winter the trail is snowed over so it is certainly only a late Spring to Autumn route (apart from certain sections in snowshoes). I ran the route in late August so that, having had a summer's use, the route was clearer and in a good but worn and easy-to-follow condition. More importantly, running in August gave me plenty of time to train. There are good times to follow the trail to maximise your chances of seeing certain sights, though: Hike the East Coast Trail in late April, May and June for the chance to see icebergs. Hike in July and early August to see whales. Hike in late August and September for the best of the berries (I enjoyed plenty of blueberry picking en route).
What are the best maps to use for the East Coast Trail?
There aren't exactly tonnes of options but you can find most maps on the East Coast Trail Association website. These are the maps I used and come as several A4 pages – I advise laminating for protection on the trail. Two guidebooks for the original Cappahayden–St Johns section are also available and there is a new interactive guidebook available for ipads, kindles and mobile devices, though I have not used this personally. For navigation, the main map was fine and there are very few places that you can go wrong. If you want more information on the history and so on, then the guidebooks would be a good supplement.
How remote is the East Coast Trail?
In British terms, the East Coast Trail is pretty remote. Though the path is well trodden, the number of hikers is not comparable to the likes of UK routes such as the South West Coast Path or the Pennine Way. It is narrow and natural – there are no long paved sections or large staircases. The population size along the route is relatively small and there are no large-scale conveniences such as supermarkets. This is all, of course, a big part of its appeal. Having said that, the East Coast Trail still passes through 30 different communities in total and the longest stretch of uninhabited path between them is just 10 miles long. As a result, you're always within (strenuous) waking range of a settlement.
How do you train to run the East Coast Trail?
I did not followed any form of strict training routine and did not have a coach. I did, however, ensure a high weekly overall distance and ran six days a week, every week for several months. These six weekly runs were split between high intensity intervals (shorter runs with a higher tempo), steady runs (medium distance runs at a steady peace) and long distance runs. The longest individual distance I ran in training was only 27 miles (shorter than the longest day I spent on the East Coast Trail, which was around 35 miles) and my average weekly distance was been between 60–75 miles. I also live in a flat area of the UK. To combat this I sought out hills for specific hill training sessions and also, albeit briefly, visited the Lake District and more mountainous areas of the UK.
How fast did you run?
The short answer to the question is, I don’t know. I didn’t use any apps to track an average pace. Though I trained hard I was under no illusion that I would be racing along the trail. The East Coast Trail is an extremely challenging route and has a dramatic amount of overall elevation. When I couldn’t run, I’d stick the hands on the knees and push on at a steady walk. When on the flat or descending I always ran. If it is helpful to gauge my general pace as a runner, my road half marathon times were about 87 minutes at the time that I ran the East Coast Trail and my marathon time was around 3.5 hrs. I ran the Cape to Cabot race the following year in 86 minutes. It took me 5 days to complete the trail, starting at around 9am each day and finishing in the early afternoon (the time depended on the distance that day).
Are there campsites available along the trail?
There are several 'backcountry' campsites along the route, particularly on the longer sections of the trail between settlements. On the Cappahayden–St Johns section of the route, these campsites are Miner Point Campsite, the Little Bald Head Campsite, the Roaring Cove Campsite and the Long Will Campsite. These are backcountry campsites and cannot be accessed by vehicles. They have wooden platforms on which you can securely pitch your tent and some also have long-drop toilets. There are, however, no facilities such as showers or electricity. Campfires are not permitted and you must pack out any rubbish you bring in. Leave it as you found it and respect the fact that these are 'wild' campsites.