Race mornings are usually a bustle of excitement, with speaker systems shaking the walls of porta-potties as runners hastily pin on last minute bibs and find their way to the starting line. But on November 7, 2020, the morning was as calm as could be – no speaker system and no numbers to pin on. Quiet and dark, dawn was just beginning to break over the Salinas Valley as a handful of runners stood in the parking lot of a 7-11 and made small talk. There was no music, no fanfare and most important of all: no course. Welcome to the start line of the Fort Orditude 100-mile run.
Early in 2020, I had decided that I would finally take on the challenge of training for my first 100-mile race. I prowled UltraSignup and found a great race in August, leaving me plenty of time to train. I swiped the credit card before I could change my mind, but COVID had other plans. In late June my race was canceled, and like most runners I was left with a blank slate for the remainder of the year. I had spent many weekends racking up long runs in the Sierra and on my home trails in Monterey, daydreaming of crossing the finish line. I did not want all that training to be for nothing, so the DIY 100-mile event was born.
A few friends and I chose to run on public land in Fort Ord National Monument, a former Army base that has an extensive and beautiful trail network which bridges the Salinas Valley to the Monterey coast. I run and train there often, so it seemed appropriate to test our fortitude on familiar territory. Since this was truly a DIY event, we only implemented one rule: finish in 30 hours. All runners were free to pick their own course, bring their own food to the makeshift aid station and coordinate with their own pacers.
On “race” morning, we all pulled into a 7-11 parking lot just outside of the park, (the very official start line to a very unofficial event) before 6 a.m. There were five of us gunning for 100-mile finishes, a few folks going 50 miles, and a few more runners pacing and wanting to be a part of the journey. I made a plan with my friend Sam – also running his first 100 – that we would stick side-by-side and see this journey through together. We hit the trail a few minutes after 6 a.m. and ran into the growing light, kicking off what would be the longest day and night of my life.
The first few miles clicked smoothly, Sam and I ran conservatively and power-hiked hilly sections like the Guidotti trail, a long and exposed fire road that is soul-crushingly difficult even though you only gain a mere 600 feet over just 2 miles. I had a loose plan to run 10 x 10-mile loops that would include this climb and a beautiful stretch of single track that dipped down into “Couch Canyon” just below the Laguna Seca speedway where our aid station was located. My thinking was, if anything happens, I’ll always be five miles or fewer away from an aid station.
Dawn gave way to morning and morning gave way to the afternoon before we could even blink an eye. I looked down at my watch and was surprised to find us running smooth through the 40-mile mark on our way to refuel and retrieve some of our night gear. A quick cheese quesadilla (big shout out to my wife) and some Coke and it was time to grab our headlamps and get back on the trail. Unfortunately, around miles 58-60 the good vibes and carefree running of the afternoon did not carry over into the early evening, and not even the beauty of a California coastal sunset could pull me out of the deep hole I was in. I’ve been in this place before on long runs, and “this too shall pass” and “embrace the suck” usually snap me out of it after a relatively short amount of time. But not this time.
Sam and I had a few pacers join us for the nighttime miles and I was like a lead weight dragging at the back of the pack feeling worse and worse with every step. The 9- and 10-minute miles from the morning had screeched to a walking pace and then eventually a limping pace. Every four or five miles I would have a surge of energy and reconnect with the pack, energetic and chatty only to start walking again and fade back into the darkness. At mile 71, I felt a sharp pain on the top of my right ankle – the ankle that I absolutely destroyed falling off the Dipsea trail in 2018. I called my friend Adam Merry from the trail around 1 a.m., “Dude I don’t think I’m going to be able to finish…” he cut me off. “Walk it in if you have to, but don’t give up in a low spot. I know you’ll regret it.”
He was right, but that was not what I wanted to hear. Sam and the other runners caught wind of my potential dropping out and alerted my wife, Melissa, waiting and crewing our aid station. By the time I limped into camp a mile or so later, I told her I was thinking of dropping. She looked me right in the eye and said, “That is not an option, sorry.” She handed me a cup of noodles and some ibuprofen and proceeded to peel off my shoe and sock (I am so sorry you had to do that) to examine my ankle. She is a physical therapist, and so is Sam and Sam’s wife. I was literally surrounded. After some tape and a little massage, I was pushed out of my chair and catapulted back into the cold and dark. The next 20 miles was easily the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I could only run for a few minutes at a time before having to walk, but surprisingly I was in good spirits. “I’m going to be a 100-mile finisher,” I kept repeating to myself.
After 27 hours, I was just that. My ankle swelled up to twice its size and then gave up the ghost at mile 90ish, but I marched on, distracting myself by laughing and joking with my pacers.
Just like the start, there was no fanfare at the finish. Sam and I limped over to our cars, collapsed into chairs and sat there wide-eyed, wired from too much caffeine and too tired to sleep. No announcers, no medals, just a few very confused hikers in the parking lot wondering what the big deal was.