Shortly after 11 p.m. on Sunday, September 20, John Harrison Pockler touched the cairn in Queenston, Ont. that marks the southern terminus of the Bruce Trail, to complete an end-to-end run that began nine days and 17 hours previously in Tobermory. This was a new FKT on the 890-km route, besting by nearly four hours the previous mark of nine days, 21 hours set by Adam Burnett in 2017.
Pockler’s Garmin tracker shows he actually ran 944 km, due to trail re-routings, closures, construction and the handful of times he went off track and had to retrace his steps to get back on the trail. He ran an average of 94 km per day, and each day he was on the trail for about 17 hours, including breaks.
The Bruce Trail is Canada’s oldest long distance hiking trail, dating back to the early 1960s. The route mostly follows the edge of the Niagara Escarpment from Queenston to Tobermory and features a variety of terrain, from rocky, hilly singletrack to gentle paths through forest and farm fields, as well as some gravel and paved roads. While some sections are owned by the Bruce Trail Conservancy or by local conservation authorities, much of the route is on private property and depends on the goodwill of the landowners.
Pockler says he had been tossing around the idea of doing an end-to-end Bruce Trail run for a while, but it was only in May, as all other races were being cancelled, that he began to think, ‘why not do it right now?’ Around that time, one very small event went ahead: the 135K Run Around Toronto, where he met brothers Alex and Connor Emeny. The three discussed many things that day, but nothing was nailed down.
Around that time, Pockler also called Christian Flugel back home in Germany to discuss the idea more seriously. Flugel lives in Germersheim, about 10 kilometres from Pockler’s hometown of Römerberg. The two had competed against each other for neighbouring running clubs, and had become friends. “After researching the trail and the previous record, I told him I thought setting a new FKT was achievable,” says Flugel. “I’ve never seen anyone who can focus on what needs to be done better than John. He can take an issue or setback that comes up and turn it into a reason to push harder.”
Ultrarunners Julie Hamulecki and Adam Takacs of Toronto and Jamie McDonell of Ottawa, whom Pockler had met at the Canadian Death Race in 2017 (where he finished fourth), were three more friends he talked with as his plans began to take shape. All three would eventually join him for sections of his run.
Finally, at the beginning of July, Pockler decided to push the button and commit to starting his FKT attempt at 6:00 a.m. on Friday, September 11. “I like to do things with a 10-week training window,” he says. “It’s close enough that there’s an urgency about it.”
But it didn’t leave much time to get the word out, find sponsors or get a support crew together. With just a week to go, Pockler still didn’t have a van, or anyone to drive it. He reached out to the Emeny brothers, and they were available to join the team. “Alex and Connor were complete rookies at the start and we were scrambling, but they’re pros now,” says Pockler. “We had never really spent any time together before, but they grew with the challenge and did an amazing job.”
The brothers alternated driving the rented camper van from one checkpoint to the next and running with Pockler to pace him, as well as looking after his nutrition and hydration and making logistical arrangements. In addition to McDonell, Takacs and Hamulecki, women’s Bruce Trail FKT record holder Chantal Warriner, ultrarunners Jamieson Hatt and Eric and Paul Chan of Toronto, Ted Graham and many others joined for one or more segments over the 10 days, and John seldom had to run alone after the first few days in the northernmost sections of the trail. “The team came together to function as a community,” says Pockler. “Everyone was super helpful and open.”
Pockler spoke with Flugel every day, usually around midnight Eastern time (6 a.m. in Germany) and usually while he was still out on the trail. He was behind the average pace needed to break the record on days three and four, and wanted to push harder, but Flugel told him it was too early. “It was important that John not push too hard at the start,” says Flugel. “A race normally starts at the halfway mark. John was 43 kilometres behind after day five. After the next day we said, ‘OK, now it’s time to push. I knew his body could get through four long days.”
This strategy worked, as Pockler was able to run two 100-km-plus days in his final three days and finish as planned on September 20.
Obviously, a run like this takes a huge toll on the body. “I was seriously depleted after day four,” recalls Pockler, “but I took a few more breaks – I’m lucky that my body can recover quickly.” He also credits team member Hugo Orozco Reyes, an RMT from Toronto, who traveled out to treat him and help with his recovery several evenings during the run and on the weekends. “Hugo fixing me up after the runs was crucial. He’s amazing – very calm, and so helpful.”
Pockler says he dropped about five kilograms in weight between May and September while training, but oddly, he didn’t lose weight during the run itself. In fact, he gained 2.5 kg. “That’s great news,” said Orozco Reyes. “It indicates that he was well hydrated, his nutrition was good, and it means his body will recover faster.”
A dozen cheering friends and supporters were waiting to greet Pockler and his pacers when he reached the end of his journey at Queenston Heights Park late Sunday night.
Pockler spoke with Flugel again just moments after the finish, the night before his 32nd birthday. “I congratulated him on his birthday and said, ‘Enjoy the moment – this is the kind of thing that only comes along once in a lifetime,” says Flugel.
The procedures for making an FKT attempt include setting up a website where a link to live tracking can be posted, and declaring the start date in advance. Donations to the Bruce Trail Conservancy and in support of Pockler’s FKT run can be made at www.brucetrailultra.com.