When his 50-mile ultramarathon was cancelled due to the pandemic last year, Andrew Cotterell of Canmore, Alta. decided to start planning to hike Canada’s 1,100-km Great Divide Trail for charity, which he did in July, 2021. He only learned about the GDT when he moved to Canmore five years ago with his partner, Megan, from Perth, Australia, but for Cotterell, who says he has never been anything more than an average runner, it was the adventure of a lifetime.
Cotterell had frequently gone on runs or hikes along the trail, but there was so much that he hadn’t explored. “One of the best feelings about trail running is being in the middle of nature with absolutely no one around you,” he said in an interview. After a quick browse of the trail on fastestknowntime.com, Cotterell began planning his journey. The record belonged to Elaine Bissonho, who yo-yo’d the trail in 2019 (meaning she hiked it in both directions) in 23 days and eight hours.
Cotterell knew if he wanted to achieve his goal of covering the trail in under 23 days, he would have to hire a coach. He began reaching out to famous trail runners on Instagram for training advice. In came Joe McConaughy, an ultramarathoner and ex-track runner with four FKTs to his name, including the Appalachian Trail (self-supported) and the Arizona Trail (supported). “The reason I reached out to Joe was for his experience and style,” says Cotterell. “His knowledge about gear and FKTs made me feel more confident going into my journey.”
McConaughy set Cotterell up with a training plan one year before the start of his journey. Training for an FKT is very similar to training for an ultramarathon – McConaughy had Cotterell running six days a week, which included speed workouts, hills and strength training. “We went in with the motto that the fitter I am, the easier each kilometre will feel,” said Cotterell.
Cotterell noted that the toughest part of the GDT is that it’s very remote. “We had to plan out our campsite stops months and months before, due to doing this FKT during peak tourist season,” he said. “I would often go three to four days between resupplies as the GDT doesn’t go through many towns.” Megan and a few of his friends would meet up with him every three to four days to hike along the trail and restock him with food and gear.
“The toughest part about this journey was to keep neutral thoughts,” Cotterell said. “I was 1,000 kilometres into the trail and bothered by a dime-sized blister on my foot. I just had to keep telling myself that it could be worse.” Each day Cotterell covered between 55 and 60 kilometres of hiking and over 2,000 metres of climbing.
What made the journey special was the final day, as Megan and a few close friends joined him for the last 30 kilometres. “I honestly couldn’t have done it without my team,” he said. “Just to have their support kept me balanced and motivated to keep going.” Cotterell achieved his goal and set a new Great Divide Trail FKT in 20 days, six hours and 55 minutes.
During his journey, Cotterell raised $9,500 for Crossing the Divide, a charity that provides opportunities for disadvantaged youth through outdoor education in Alberta. Cotterell has been on the board of the charity since 2019.
You can donate towards his cause, here.