Vancouver runner chronicles epic 400-mile journey in new film complete with cougar encounter
Austen Beitenbeck's 'Passages' is available to stream now
Vancouver runner Austen Beitenbeck was looking for a rite of passage that would be life-altering, something that would push him like he’s never been pushed before. He decided to run the Kettle Valley Rail Trail, a 400-mile five-day journey from Hope to Castlegar through the Similkameen, Okanagan, Boundary and Kootenays, which he would chronicle for the film Passages, which premiered this week and can be streamed on YouTube.
Get Out There spoke with Beitenbeck about his adventure.
So what inspired you to take on such an epic run?
I had been reading some books and articles about rites of passage and their traditional roots in many past societies, and the idea that a big event could truly be life-altering. In the past, this might have been something such as living alone in the wilderness for months while having to fend for oneself. For me, I wanted to channel some of that energy into my own life, and because of the chaos of 2020, and my growing love for endurance sports, I wanted a challenge that would embody change and growth.
Had you ever attempted anything like this?
I’ve never done something quite this long or large in scope, which was the most exciting part. Five days surrounded by mountains and forest, truly getting unplugged and focusing on one simple task for that long was a real trip.
How long have you been running?
I’ve been a casual runner since my hockey days (Beitenbeck played hockey up until age 20 in the BCHL and AJHL), but mainly for training. Trail and ultra-running really only picked up about two years ago, I decided to sign up for the BMO Vancouver Marathon, and a month later ran a trail 50K.
What kind of training did you do leading up to the trip?
Due to any and all races/events being off the table, I started training for this run specifically by trying to get as many miles, and also time spent on my feet as possible. On most days I was running 30 to 40 km and some longer runs on weekends, but quite slowly. I also ran a self-supported 100-mile run along the first part of the KVR trail a few months into the COVID-19 lockdowns.
How did it all go down?
We rented a Sprinter van and loaded it up with food and water, my brother, girlfriend and her dad were all there to help with cooking, driving and generally making the whole thing happen. I set out in the morning in Hope, BC and started running from there. Over the course of the five days, I had multiple friends come out to run with me, which was amazing, and my dad even joined in. I ran with water, and food on me for longer stretches and took smaller supplies with me to lighten the load when I was able to meet with the crew more frequently.
Tell me about the first day.
The first day went by amazingly smoothly; I had hit about 100km before it even got dark, and my spirits were high. That night as my friend George and I set off to tackle the last section he was going to run with me, we had a run-in with a cougar staring us down about 30 feet away, so we had to backtrack and run in a different direction to get out of that situation. It definitely made me super uneasy for the rest of this trip, and especially at night when things get spooky out in bear and cougar country.
Wow, what was the vibe like going forward from that?
The whole run felt like riding the ebb and flow of a wave, because of the amount of time it took and the distance, there are inevitably times when your mind and body are both against you, and times when you're moving well and you are super positive about the whole experience. For me that was a real lesson in change, and that even when we are in our darkest moments, or in our highest peaks, nothing is constant forever. That mindset allowed for pushing through some of the tougher moments that were building up by the night of day two and really for the rest of the run.
How did you sleep?
The first two nights didn’t include much sleep, and by the third night, I was having a lot of pain in my knee and ankle, to the point that it didn’t feel like I could walk on them even. There were quite a few sections where a fast hike was all I could manage. At points, I really had to remind myself that “you chose to do this man” to keep myself accountable for the task at hand.
Did it get better closer to the finish?
The second to last day was one of the best of the whole trip because even though the pain and fatigue had not subsided, I moved through it to a place where I was aware of it, but it wasn’t holding me back. This coupled with some amazing weather around Rock Creek, BC made the day an amazing one running through some desert-like terrain. The final day was what felt like the wall where I physically felt like I couldn’t move my legs, especially to run at any pace. But with the goal in mind, I did end up running the final stretch into Castlegar, B.C. At the end of running and subjecting my body and mind to that pain and suffering for over 100 hours, I couldn’t help but realized how quickly in all flew by in hindsight, and that I was able to stay in the fight for so much longer than I could have imagined.
You are a student is that right?
Yeah, I just graduated this December, which is really exciting. I have always been fascinated by psychology and the mind. I’m planning on getting into clinical psychology.
What were some of the unique challenges this trip presented?
The sheer amount of time that was spent on my feet, and in my head posed so many unique challenges. From the jump, I caught myself wondering what I was doing and doubting the completion of the run. So letting myself not get too far ahead of where I was in physical space was super important, and thankfully it is easy to ground yourself when you are immersed in the mountains, with views of rivers, lakes and canyons all along the trail. To go along with this, the pain I began to feel on the second day in my ankle and knee were completely consuming my mind. However, at one point a shift happened for me where I just acknowledged the pain, which didn’t resolve the pain but allowed my mind to detach from it.
But the cougar?
I think the greatest challenge, which I couldn’t have foreseen was having a run-in with a cougar. Although we were safe, I couldn’t get the fear out of my mind for the rest of the run. It was tough to continue moving at times during the night when that fear made me want to freeze and stop. Although it was a burden, the continual movement forward allowed me to finish, regardless of that fear.
Who worked on the film with you?
I got help from so many people and truly couldn’t have even begun to think about this run without them. Meaghan Gipps filmed and edited the video and is a star. Brodie Tavares did the music, and Stefan Tavares helped me with the audio recording. I also had friends and family who helped both crew and pace the run.
What are you hoping people take from the film?
I’m hoping that people who end up seeing the film are energized and can take the spirit of the film into their own lives. For me, the spirit is one of adventure, exploration of the unknown. The perceived limits I’ve set in my own life and that I’m sure many others do in theirs is something I’d also like others to take account of. Those limits are almost always arbitrary, and if we want to test them, all we have to do is get out there and do the thing.