Running From the Border: Illegal Alien Style
Pacific Crest Trail. Campo, CA to Julian, CA
Early last month I decided to run from the US/Mexico border in Campo, CA to Julian, CA in 24 hours or less. The thought of doing such a thing came to me by sheer compulsion, three pints of ballast point, and an ultrarunnerpodcast.com episode. I started planning a month ago. All I really knew was that I would need lots of water, some sort of electrolyte replenishment, and something close to 400 calories per hour of moving. Thanks to the internet I was able to glean a few more tidbits of knowledge on ultralight backpacking to round out the plan. Water was of course my biggest concern … well that, and freezing my ass off in a lightweight bivy overnight. I decided early on that I would do my best to minimize sleep and any stopping for that matter.
“We were wilderness running. Power hiking. Kind of backpacking, but much faster. More fluid. Neat. Almost surgical. Get in. Get out. I call it fastpacking.” -Jim Knight, UltraRunning Magazine 1988.
To get ready, I made a rough list of things I would need. Never having attempted this sort of minimalist hiking, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I threw in a bunch of Hammer Nutrition bars, Clif Bars, and Gu packs for fuel. For comfort I added a pack of diced alaskan salmon and some Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter (I prefer Nutella but the jar would be unnecessarily heavy). At any one time I was able to carry 100 oz of water, which I found was good for about 5 hours of daytime “scrambling” at moderate effort. For shelter, I found a lightweight bivy sleeping bag made by SOL outdoor survival gear and packed a long-sleeve baselayer and running tights. I also packed an emergency blanket that I could use as a tarp but ended up not using it.
The trip started at the southern terminus of the Pacific Crest Trail. The trail marker is about a hundred feet from the makeshift barricade of border demarcation. I thought it both isolationist and ironic the day before Cinco de Mayo. Anyway, enough about made up holidays. My friend Christina had driven me to the trailhead. It was about 1:30 pm on Friday afternoon. She asked me, “Are you sure you have everything?” “I think so.” “This is crazy.” “Isn’t it?! See you tomorrow.” Watching her drive down the dirt road leading to Campo, I fumbled with my gear making some last minute adjustments, waved at the patrolling border patrol agent and started running north. Julian was roughly 65 miles up the trail and the plan was for Christina to meet me in 23 hours at Julian High School.
First Leg. Campo to Lake Morena. 20-ish miles. 5hrs30mins.
Campo to Lake Morena was a lesson in water conservation. The southern portion of the PCT is very dry during the day and far from any sort of 7eleven-type convenience store. There was maybe one small stream crossing where you could dip for some water. I opted out of that and bummed a sip of water from an SDG&E worker sitting overwatch on the trail as the power company pulled a stretch of power line. I made it to Lake Morena with both 20 oz handhelds bone dry and about 5 oz of water left in my bladder (60 oz made by Platypus). I didn’t know what I didn’t know. The water fountains at the campsite seemed so amazing at the time, so sexy. After filling up, I found the next stretch of trail and a good log to sit and eat dinner. I had the pack of salmon and a Hammer Nutrition recovery bar. I don’t think I stopped for more than 15 minutes before I was off. Running still felt good and I was in good spirits.
Second Leg. Lake Morena to Boulder Oaks. 7-8 miles. 6hrs30mins.
This part of the trip flew by. I listened to a Led Zeppelin soundtrack the entire way. The sun was setting. There was a full moon on the horizon, and I was starting to think about running through the night. If it was bright enough I wouldn’t even need to waste my headlamp batteries. Boulder Oaks campground was closed. It was completely dark, but I was able to find a water spicket to top off my water. Changed into my tights and baselayer to keep warm through the night. I knew where I needed to go based on the map but had trouble finding the trailhead crossing Old Hwy 80. Slight detour. Slightly more painful setback to be lost at night. Crossing under Interstate 8, just south of the Buckman Springs exit, I shot off a text to Christina “crossing under the 8 now. going to push up to mt. laguna tonight. will sleep there.”
Third Leg. Boulder Oaks to Mt. Laguna. 15-ish miles. 14hrs.
The full moon was an emotional plus. I could see most of the loose rocks and exposed roots without my headlamp. Early on I was still running 40 minutes, walking 20 minutes. The original plan. But that plan went out the window after my first and second near falls traversing a narrow ridgeline trail along Fred Canyon. The right side of the trail was soft sand and a steep drop-off into the base of the canyon. I speed hiked most of the night and stopped to bed-down after feeling dizzy and nauseous from lack of sleep (about 10hrs of moving). It was hard to get good sleep. It was cold, windy, and incredibly bright from the full moon. I spent three hours of concentrating on keeping my eyes shut. I had my Buff scarf pulled over my eyes to keep the light out. Any sleep I might have got was interrupted by uncontrolled shivering.
”Pack light, freeze at night.”
Waking up, I fumbled around to pack my things and get moving again. I knew that was the only way I could stay warm. It was maybe 40 degrees and the wind was gusting through the canyon. Dog tired, I made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t think about running until sunrise. Don’t think I didn’t want to. Speed-hiking was fast enough. Dark, cold, and lonely. I started to hallucinate around 4 in the morning. Plants looked like hikers in the distance and sometimes bushes would startle me, mistaking them for people lurking on the side of the trail. My headlamp made for terrible depth perception and cast unusual shadows on the trail that messed with my mind further. Compounding the frustration, later in the night, when I went to stow away my gloves, I noticed my pack was partially unzipped. iPhone and sunscreen lost.
I cursed myself for a good hour as I continued on. I knew I had lost it and that it was “somewhere” on the 5 mile stretch of trail I had traveled since I had woken up. But I couldn’t waste time, energy, or water on finding it. There wasn’t a signal out there anyway. Thanks AT&T. I made it up to Mt. Laguna by day break and found a cache of water a “trail angel” had left at Burnt Rancheria campground. Further up the trail at Desert View picnic area, I stopped at water fountain and ate some breakfast (Hazelnut butter pack, Hammer nutrition bar, Roctane GU pack). It was about 5:30 in the morning and the sun was starting to rise. I gave running a try again. Not bad. But with a full bladder of water, my legs were only good for 15 minutes of running at a time.
Fourth Leg. Mt. Laguna to Julian. 25-ish miles. 22hrs45mins.
At this point I’m completely focused on making the 23hr meeting time at Julian High School. I kept wondering what Christina was thinking after I hadn’t sent an update this morning. Would she show up on time? What if I was late? If I was late, she might really think something was wrong. I had to be on time or early. I decided to run for 30 mins, walk for 30 mins until I couldn’t go any further. It was hard going at times, and I started to hate every stretch of trail that didn’t go NORTH. I hated most of the trail at that point. The PCT skirts the Sunrise Hwy just close enough to where you can see cars whizzing by. But there was no bailout there! It was a steep 20 foot climb to get to the highway. The thought crossed my mind to get up to the highway and start running a more direct route, but I knew there was a bailout at the Sunrise Trail head parking area. Finally making it onto Sunrise Highway, I had about 2 hrs to go 10 miles. Easy day if I wasn’t wearing a 5 pound pack full of lukewarm water and hadn’t already been running for 20 hrs. Any semblance of running form was gone. Imagine Roger, the alien from American Dad, running and that was me shuffling up Hwy 79. 6 miles to Julian. Of course, it had to be all uphill. Why the hell wouldn’t it be?
I think I had 2 miles to go when Christina drove up next to me on the road and picked me up. ”Well you almost made it to the school! How do you feel?” “Destroyed.” “Oh, okay. Well do you want to go back or eat in…?” “I want a beer…and an apple pie.”