A Narrow Neck of Land – Running Sea to Sea in Baja California

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by Todd Porter

We had been running through the desert of Baja California for 17 hours. Despite being followed by armed police, obsessing about water and losing a couple of runners to injury, it had been a great day so far. All that quickly changed once the sun went down. With no visual landmarks we got off course and found ourselves completely lost. If that wasn’t bad enough, the vegetation was getting thick, making it almost impossible for the support ATVs to follow.

We kept pushing forward, which, in reality, ended up just being in circles. Then, a barbed wire fence stopped us cold. The GPS was clear: just go through the fence. Easier said than done. As we contemplated our situation, Keith, who (along with his brother Kevin) was kind enough to invite me along on this little adventure, casually put his hand on a fence post and was immediately stung by a scorpion. That’s when we started praying. Literally.

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Most people have heard of The Book of Mormon – The Musical, but few could tell you what the book is actually about. In a nutshell, it tells the story of a family that left Israel around 650 BC and traveled by boat across the Pacific to somewhere in the Western Hemisphere. Where they landed has been a source of debate and speculation ever since the Book of Mormon was first published in 1830. One of the geographical clues in the book refers to a “narrow neck of land,” a span that can be traversed by foot in a day to a day and a half.

Kevin’s friend Dave has made a hobby of trying to locate various Book of Mormon sites, and had developed a theory that this narrow neck of land might be in Baja California. Dave was eager to find a few runners who were willing to test this theory by attempting to run it in one day. So when he invited Kevin, Keith and then me there was no way we could resist, even though we are older, middle-of-the-packers—at best.

Our support crew included three “boys” in their early 20s: Jay, Seth and Daniel. Sure, they were athletic, but they definitely were not trained runners. And by that I mean the longest run any of them had ever done was a seven-mile Ragnar leg three years prior. Their job was to pilot our ATVs and occasionally run a section or two. That changed pretty quickly, though, once we got there.

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When you’re 20-something years old, and you’re watching three guys getting ready to have all the fun on an epic adventure, there is just no way you can’t join in. So, I bit my tongue, and along with Keith and Kevin passed along as much running wisdom as we could in the shortest amount of time. Luckily, friends Dave, Tony, Paul and Joe agreed to crew the six of us. Before too long, it was time to get to bed and rest up for the big day.

Our route had been pretty well scouted – with a couple of exceptions. Linking our maps and Google Earth gave us just enough unknowns to keep things interesting. We began our run about 400 miles south of San Diego in a remote village called Bahia de Los Angeles on the Sea of Cortez side of Baja. Our plan was to run 61 miles west to the Pacific Ocean.

We left our hotel, Costa del Sol, at 5 a.m., crossed the street to the beach and dipped our toes in the water, a fitting way to begin our adventure. The first 13.1 miles of our run were paved, and they were a real treat. We started out nice and slow and tackled one of the longer climbs over the eastern side of the Peninsular Range. At one point, I looked back to see the sun rise up over the water. To think I would end the day on another coast watching it set on the other side.

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Running in a pack is a great way to keep company as you cover miles, but, of course, this also means you can only go as fast as your slowest runner. My biggest concern was that I was going to be that guy – the one holding others back. This was not an unfounded fear, as I’ve never been a fast runner to begin with. Last year, I timed out of my first 100k, the Miwok 100k Trail Run at mile 55. To make matters worse, soon after, my orthopedic doctor told me my running days were over due to bad knees. On his advice, I stopped running altogether, went to physical therapy and focused on strength training, rolling, stretching, massage, compression, ice, the whole deal.

My plan was to eventually return to Miwok and finally complete that elusive first 100k. It felt as though my future as an ultra-runner was riding on the success or failure of this trek across Baja. I tried to push the doubt aside as the pavement ended and the trail began.

At this point, Joe and Tony took off in a 15-passenger van and would meet us nine hours later at the next road crossing. Paul and Dave jumped onto ATVs and followed us, doling out food, water and supplies as needed. The sun was up and everyone was running strong. Eventually, we each fell into our own rhythm and the six of us strung out into smaller groups.

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By mile 20 the sun was coming up and it kept getting warmer. The honeymoon was over, and the boys were really starting to feel it, especially Jay. By mile 22 he started falling behind. We had just stopped to regroup when we heard a very loud and painful yell/groan. We ran back and found him lying on the side of the trail. Jay was done. Fortunately, Paul, who was piloting one of the quads, had been itching to run all morning. I don’t know if he had planned to run almost 40 miles that day, which he ended up doing, but he was ready to go nonetheless. Jay and Paul switched places and we continued.

The miles were ticking by, slowly but steadily. From the Dr. Seuss cacti casting long shadows during the day to the sight of a vulture perched on top of a stiff and bloated cow, Baja California is a land you simply have to experience to fully appreciate. We crossed through a small mountain range and emerged on the other side in a large valley where we could see a saddle on the next ridge that we would cross a couple hours later. This was a pattern that repeated over and over again throughout the day.

Several valleys in we heard the sound of a truck coming toward us, the first and only one we would see during the entire trip. As the truck got closer we realized it was loaded with armed military or police, I’m still not sure which. Fortunately, Keith, Seth and several others spoke excellent Spanish and they explained what we were doing. I don’t think they believed us, but I was only slightly worried that they would “take us in.” At the least, I expected them to require some sort of “escort” fee (bribe) to allow us to continue. They followed us for an hour or two and then stopped before coming upon us again. At that point I think they started to believe we really were just trying to run across Baja so they let us go on without incident. They were even gracious enough to let us take a picture with them.

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Seth was the next runner to go down, but not until he had logged almost 40 miles of serious desert running, and even then he kept fighting. We’d just put him on a quad when, less than a minute later he yelled, “Forget this! I’m finishing this thing!” and jumped off the ATV. He “ran” completely bowlegged for about 40 feet before he fell flat on his face. It was over. He was done.

As the day dragged on and the heat increased, our water supply started running low. Fortunately, we were only about eight miles from the road crossing where our van was waiting for us with several cases of water. By mile 45 the sun was starting to drop as we made our way toward the final set of mountains to the west, an important milestone in our trek across Baja. We were excited to finally be in the home stretch and run without the sun beating down on us.

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Night running is really enjoyable – that is if you know where you’re going. And it didn’t take us long to get off course. During the day we were able to use visual landmarks (head toward those mountains!) to keep us on track even though there were a lot of dirt roads to confuse us. Once the sun went down, however, it was a completely different story.

Our plan was to go up and over a low point of land that also served as a watershed. This meant thicker undergrowth and a lot of arroyos, all of which looked very much like the trail we were trying to follow. We were soon going in circles and the quads had a hard time staying with us. Things were looking grim, but with the help of GPS and our map we were able to determine our general direction of travel. That’s when we ran into the barbed wire – and Keith got stung by a scorpion.

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It was Seth who suggested we say a prayer. He had just finished serving as a full-time Mormon missionary, in Baja, no less, and we quickly agreed. That, along with the help of our GPS, a satellite phone and some long-distance help, put us back on the trail. It was an answered prayer for the one said out loud, but certainly not the first of the day. Thankfully, Keith’s sting, although really painful, was just that – painful, but not life-threatening.

As we neared the Pacific Ocean, our support van’s headlights shone like a beacon off in the distance. I kept thinking, “Why are we not getting any closer?” Light travels a long way in the desert, and those last 3 miles were the longest. We soldiered on, each of us celebrating our own private victory – together. We all believed we were approaching the coast from the north; since the moon was rising to our left, we kept looking for the ocean to our right. But when we finally reached the van, our crew escorted us down to the beach – on our left hand side. In our exhausted state we had completely lost our bearings.

The final descent to the beach led us down a long, steep concrete ramp, through a hodge-podge of beach shanties and shacks, and across a short and steep shell covered beach. Together we locked arms and walked straight into the Pacific Ocean. It was a sweet ending to an incredible day.

Paul, who took over for Jay, ran almost 40 miles that day. He had rolled his ankle earlier in the week and by the time we finished, his ankle had swollen to the size of a grapefruit. He never once complained. Daniel, the last of the youngsters, somehow managed to finish the entire run. I was so impressed with all my running partners but especially the three young guys.

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The fact that one ran almost a full marathon, the next ran almost 40 miles and the third somehow managed to finish the entire run – in Nike Frees no less – is more than just a testament to youth; it is an impressive show of grit and determination and proof that you can accomplish great things if you simply put your mind to it, commit and give it everything you have.

As for me, it was a wonderful confirmation that I can still do what I love. The slower pacing of the day allowed me to feel good at the end. Happily, my knees didn’t bother me the entire day. The wonderful feelings of satisfaction and relief at the finish were actually secondary to my sadness that our adventure was over. I now feel ready for Miwok and, who knows, maybe even my first 100-miler after that. We’ll see….

The historical and religious significance of this run, with its possible sea-to-sea FKT of 61 miles in 20.5 hours, made this a great adventure. But it’s the memory of doing this as a team, with a wonderful group of friends, that will stay with me. As for the Book of Mormon, we still don’t know if Baja California is where those ancient events took place, but our run confirmed it is possible to traverse this particular narrow neck of land in a day.

We may not have proved anything to the world with this run, but I can say our team saw and experienced things that made the book a lot more real for each of us. Religion takes faith, just like running ultras, and it’s only by acting on your faith and attempting to do hard things that you can ever really have these sweet experiences.

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