A few weeks ago, I learned to my surprise that a trail race was going to take place at Fort Ord, California . It would be almost exactly thirty years from the day in 1986 when I reported for duty as a young officer with the 7th Infantry Division (light). Upon arrival at Fort Ord, I had briefly marveled at the coastal mountains of northern California and then quickly found myself crossing the beautiful, rugged terrain in runs, on road marches, and during tactical movements, learning a great deal about discipline and physical endurance as a member of the 7th infantry “light fighters.”
A lot had changed in thirty years. After a brief stint in the army, I had moved on to a career in finance. Meanwhile, the Army had deactivated the 7th Infantry Division, and Fort Ord had been transformed into a national park.
I couldn’t resist. In due course, I was registered for The Ordnance 100-kilometer (61-mile) trail race, organized by Inside Trail. It would be a chance to experience once again Fort Ord’s rocky canyons, emerald hills, and sandy trails, as well as reflect on the idea of “going light,” not only as a soldier, but now as a runner.
I spent the day before the race pondering distant memories. I had joined the Army as an infantry officer, even though my college degree would have qualified me for a higher-tech, less demanding, and lower-risk position. But I was seeking experience and adventure, not a desk job. The 7th Infantry Division had recently been converted to a light infantry configuration in order to respond to potential low-intensity conflicts where difficult terrain could bog down conventional heavy forces. To facilitate rapid deployment, the division had been stripped of all but the most essential support functions. With limited vehicular support, our bible was the field manual on Ranger-style dismounted patrolling, the Army’s version of small unit guerrilla tactics. In a nutshell, going light meant relying on human endurance and leadership, rather than heavy equipment or technology. With the cold war still going strong, the concept of a light infantry division was controversial in military circles, but this made it all the more exciting for young officers like myself.
But that was thirty years ago. Now I was here as a civilian, to participate in a recreational sport — a totally different experience.
At race check-in, by strange coincidence, I was issued bib #30. The next morning, it was still pitch black when about fifty runners grouped together for the race director’s briefing under the thinnest sliver of a crescent moon. At 6:00 AM we headed out. The hard-packed sandy trails quickly dropped into a maze of canyons and ridges, taking us past ghostly lichen-draped oak groves and tunneling through thickets of scrub. I felt completely at home, as if I had been here just yesterday.
We had started up in the hills, where it was pleasantly warm. After a couple miles of easy running, I warmed up, removed my shirt, and tied it around my waist, only to encounter cold, dank air down in the canyons. I could see my breath, and fingers started aching from the cold. At the first aid station, a bundled-up volunteer was surprised to see a shirtless runner so early in the morning and wanted to know whether I’d undergone special training to withstand the cold. Sure, I replied, laughing, right here at Fort Ord. In fact, we used to joke, “if it ain’t rainin’, we ain’t trainin’.” Getting miserably wet and cold, and then later on baking in the heat — that’s all part of the infantryman’s job.
As the sun peaked above a distant mountain range, and my fingers began to thaw, the early morning light revealed panoramic views. Coastal mountains rose steeply to the south, and to the east another range marched along the far edge of a wide valley. As the trail turned to the north, the waters of Monterey Bay glowed a hazy blue, and the coastline curved north in a long crescent towards Santa Cruz.
Moments later we ducked into the next canyon, passing more lichen-shrouded trees and thickets of manzanita brush with peeling red-orange bark and clusters of tiny white bell-shaped flowers. As a young officer, I’d been conscious of the beauty of these chaparral forests and scrublands, but I didn’t have much time to admire them. Planning and executing missions, even in training, keeps you busy. For a young officer, taking charge of experienced soldiers was challenging and often stressful, especially with commanders who were quite demanding.
One of our standard exercises was a 12 mile 4-hour road march. That’s a moderate 3 MPH pace, which doesn’t seem very fast, but bear in mind, even a “light fighter,” as we called ourselves, carried a substantial load. We toted M-16A2 rifles and wore kevlar helmets, leather boots, and full-length camouflage fatigues. Clipped to our webgear were canteens, ammo pouches, entrenching tool (folding shovel), flashlight, bayonet, first-aid kit, and butt-pack, and protective masks were strapped around the waist. And then there was a very heavy rucksack. Total weight was typically 70 pounds, and heavier for machine gunners and radio operators. Our battalion commander had served in Vietnam, where he’d learned that overburdened soldiers couldn’t function effectively. When we marched out on training missions, he’d order the rucksacks dropped, which meant that sleeping bags, food, rain gear, and extra clothes got left behind. Only mission-critical equipment came along — which for officers typically included binoculars, night vision goggles, map cases — and this gear got slung over a shoulder or tied onto the webgear, until we were draped with an assortment of bundles. Nonetheless, a little less weight made a big difference, and we moved forward purposefully across the chaparral and up and over the hills and mountains. (The funny thing is, nowadays when I head out on business travel with an overnight bag hanging on one shoulder and a briefcase slung on the other, it reminds me of those times. It would seem we carry some burden no matter what line of work we’re in.)
For a runner, every ounce of gear extracts a price in terms of speed, and maybe because of the lessons learned in the light infantry, I’ve become intent in recent years on going as light as possible. During today’s race, my uniform consisted of shorts, lightweight minimalist running shoes, hat, and GPS watch. There was a chocolate bar in one pocket and car keys in the other. I didn’t even bring a water bottle. This was “light” even by the standards of my fellow runners, many of whom wore tights, long-sleeved shirts, and super-cushioned shoes and carried hydration packs or vests stuffed with gels, power bars, salt tablets, and iPhones with earbuds.
The first twenty miles went by quickly. The watch beeped periodically with each passing mile, but I ignored the mileage, just happy to experience sunshine, pleasant temperatures, cloudless sky, the trees and scrub, the views. For the next twenty miles, the trail took us up and over more ridges. Mountain bikers and equestrians were out on the trails enjoying the day. I tried to keep a steady pace, managed to pass a couple of runners, and stepped aside for one or two who came from behind.
Eventually the course looped back to the start-finish, and from here we’d repeat a twenty-mile loop to complete the race. It had taken a long time to reach this point. The sun was now directly overhead, but I had lost track of time. I paused to check my watch, and it seemed I was on target to finish before dark, which was an important calculation because I wasn’t carrying a light. Energy was starting to become an issue, as I hadn’t consumed any calories since breakfast. At mile 43, I ate half a banana and a couple of squares of the chocolate bar, and then headed back up onto a sandy ridge.
Since I wasn’t carrying water, it was important to drink at each of the aid stations. One runner looked at me in astonishment and remarked I must be pretty tough to be running without water. But it wasn’t a question of toughness, it was a judgment call. Going light means relying on experience, knowledge, and training, instead of gear, and sure I could’ve easily carried a bottle, but during my days at Fort Ord we’d occasionally run out of water, and I understood the consequences of dehydration. Right or wrong, I wasn’t concerned, or even feeling particularly thirsty, although the heat of the day had just begun.
Running the twenty mile loop for the second time was hard work. The miles passed very slowly, sometimes it seemed to take forever just to knock off another quarter-mile. From time to time I’d take note of the sun’s position above the horizon and remind myself to keep moving, lest I find myself groping my way to the finish in darkness. After reaching the last aid station, the final six miles of trail rose steeply into the hills, the sun dropped lower in the sky, and the shadows began to lengthen.
The uphills were getting a little slow for me at this point, but in the last two miles I picked up the pace as best I could and managed to pass two runners before sprinting to the finish in 11:47, fifteenth out of 50 starters. The winner, Ryan Neely, 26, of Vacaville, CA set a new course record of 7:45. When I was 26, I wouldn’t have been able to run 61 miles in under 8 hours or even 12. But back then I was able to carry a lot of gear, move through the woods at night without a light, and hit targets at 300 meters with an M-16.
I was hoping to win my age group, figuring that my experience at Fort Ord and my light load would prove decisive. However, I soon discovered that Ken Hughes, age 57, of Santa Barbara, CA, had won the age group in 10:42, fully two hours ahead of me, followed by Harald Walther, aged 50 of Mountain View, CA, in 11:37.
After the race was over, I reflected on the concept of “going light.” Needless to say, the goal isn’t to eliminate all gear, otherwise you’d be left barefoot and naked. Rather, the point is to push back on the attitude that puts too much reliance on technology and not enough on human qualities, like endurance and judgment. After all, technology is a crutch: it leaves us physically a little bit weaker, and it replaces creativity with a checklist mentality. For runners, the question is, do you really need to carry water, or can you tolerate a little bit of thirst? Do you need to bring food, or can your body burn fat? Do you need a light, or can you estimate your finishing time with reasonable confidence? These are good questions, and we answer them differently as we make judgments and trade-offs.
In today’s army, the spirit of light infantry lives on in the Rangers and other special operations units, which have at their disposal an array of super-sophisticated high-tech equipment, as is appropriate for the dangerous missions they undertake. But even so, they can only take as much of this gear as they can carry. What makes these elite fighters so impressive is not technology, but rather training, endurance, judgment, and leadership.
Returning to Fort Ord after thirty years was a special experience. It was hard work running for sixty-one miles, but what a great joy to move through the beautiful landscape without encumbrance, having a mission no more demanding than getting myself from start to finish, and facing risks no greater than discomfort and inconvenience. I truly felt as light as a feather.