2016 was the fifth time in the last six years I have done this. I would like to explain why, if for no other reason, to make it clear in my own mind why I would put myself through 36 hours of hell and love every minute of it.
To start, some background. Hood to Coast is a relay race in which teams of 8-12 runners, comprised of two “vans” take turns running the 36 legs from Timberline Lodge (where The Shining was filmed) on Mt Hood, down the slopes, through cities and woods, over the Cascade Range, and finishing on the beach in the lovely ocean town of Seaside Oregon. Each leg is anywhere from just under four miles to about eight, and each runner will complete 15 – 20 miles of the journey.
Okay, with that in mind, let’s go. Please note I have changed the names of my teammates to protect the guilty.
Friday morning at 5:30 AM, I meet my vanmates in Gresham, OR and we pile into a 1990’s Chevy Suburban I borrowed from one of my best friends. Six runners and all the clothes, food, and everything else we’ll need for the task. This is the latest we have ever started, the start times based on how fast (or in our case, how slow) the team is estimated to finish. My team is called The Defenders of Last Place. Why? It is simple: We, then called The Half-Assed Runners ACTUALLY, REALLY, HONESTLY, finished dead last in 2011:
Yes, 36 HOURS and 33 minutes. Keep in mind, the record is a mere 15:44:55.
We travel the hour+ up to the lodge and check in.
and then we wait… at 7:44:50 am Pacific Time, the countdown began for the 7:45 start. 10,9,8,7,6,5,4,3,2,1… GO!
I was lucky enough to have my daughter Jala with me this year and she was the one who started us off down the mountain! After she ran by, we headed to the van to meet her for the first exchange.
As I said above, I’ve done this before so there was nothing unexpected coming. The crowds, the vans, the costumes, but there was something unknown for me: my own performance. You see I did not train as I should have over the months before the race. I could have said it was my ankles and the tendonitis (in fact I did say that several times). I could have said it was my writing or work, but what it really boiled down to was my own tendency to be lazy.
My first leg was number 4, a 7.18 mile “medium” rated course roughly downhill, although there were a couple of “ups”.
The issue? I had only done 4 miles during my training and only once… and had not run the whole way. What was going to happen? Was my lingering ankle injury going to flair up and ruin the rest of the weekend? Were all the cheeseburgers I ate over the last year going to pound my knees to oblivion? All this whirling in my head, I drove on through leg one, met Jala and watched as she handed off to Ann, then hugged her and told her I was proud. Then back in the van, next exchange and Ann hands to Dan. Then I hopped in the passenger seat so I could don my bib and hat, tie my shoes, and prepare my mind for what was to come.
The hand off. We stood alongside the road, the five of us, and waited for Dan. The day was heating up, on its way to 100 degrees, and sweat popped out on my forehead. I hoped there was shade on my way. Then he appeared, shirtless, orange headband glowing in the distance, barely brighter than his white skin. My heart began to pound and all the doubts disappeared. I was here again, ready to run, ready to test myself, and I smiled.
Dan stopped, flexed his muscles and shouted “Just, DO IT.” in a parody of Shia Labeouf:
I responded in kind, then Dan slapped the bracelet on my wrist and I was off.
It did not go well. Within the first mile I was questioning my decision to do this. My ankles hurt, the sun was baking my neck, my breathing labored. I walked a little, found the energy to continue, and ran some more. This went on for all seven miles, the walks getting longer, the runs shorter, the day warmer. There was no shade.
At mile five a woman was handing out ice cubes. It was manna from heaven.
At mile six, another team’s van was pulled over and offered me a fresh water which I accepted as only a dying man can.
Less than a mile to go and my feet were a furnace of pain. I wanted to douse them in water but feared the wet socks would make it worse. I suspected at least one blister.
The finish line was in sight! Normally I speed up the last hundred yards or so, sprinting (well, I call it sprinting) across the finish, but not this time. I gave the road everything I had, I had nothing left. I handed to Paul and walked a few feet.
It was Dan. It was time to get in the van and move on to the next exchange.
After Paul and Simone ran their legs, we handed off to van 2 and returned to my house for food, showers, and some rest before heading on to the next major exchange so we could do it all again. I ate a lot, slept little, perhaps only an hour, but I felt refreshed and ready, and although I had been right about the blister, my ankles didn’t hurt and I was only moderately sore.
We moved on and met van 2 near the Hawthorne Bridge and Jala was off again just before dusk and so were we. This leg was shorter for me, only 3.8 miles and flat. I was the slowest on the team, but they didn’t care: they clapped, they cheered, and I soldiered on. We ran in the dark, lights blinking front and back, head lamps shining the road in front of us. I had been up since 5 am with an hour of sleep since then. It was now 11 pm.
The next rest was not at anyone’s home, not in a hotel or cabin, but in a field in Mist Oregon. Jala and I slept in a tent in “tent city”, hundreds of two man tents only a foot apart, but free and clean. Everyone else huddled together in the van, just big enough to sleep four. I set my alarm for 7 am, it was 3:30 and I was looking forward to three hours of sleep. Something woke me at 4:56. I don’t think it was the man next to us with the loudest snore I have ever heard, but he started in at about 5:05 while Jala slept on. I drifted in and out for the next hour between thoughts of my next run and of murder. The cops would understand, wouldn’t they? I would be a hero, all the other runners around us lifting me up on their weary shoulders because I had done what no one else would! I had shut the snorer up!
I realized seven would be too late and decided to get up at 6:15 since I was not sleeping anyway. I sat and waited for Jala who eventually woke up and commented on the snorer. We found our way back to the van and our teammates were still sound asleep. We moved on past and got in line for the porta-potties.
At 6:45 the rest of the team woke and we waited together for van 2.
The final leg. 4.08 miles in a gradual rise on a back county highway. Beautiful. I’ll save you the blow by blow, but it was hard. I had to play mental games (just run to the next light post, then you can walk) but I came into the finish and I sprinted God damn it all, I sprinted.
Once we handed off to van 2, we drove to the hotel in Seaside, showered, and waited. Several hours later we met them and ran with our 12th runner across the finish in the sand. Legs aching, eyes drooping, but heart soaring and ready to do it all again next year.
So why do I do this? Why would anyone, not to mentioned 12,000 people put themselves through it? The laughs, the highs, surviving the lows, the sense of accomplishment, but mostly the friendships that form. When you go through something like this, a trial of your physical and mental stamina, bonds form with those around you. Bonds that are difficult to explain unless you’ve been through it. It is the attraction of these bonds that brings me back, to strengthen those that formed before, and create new ones with new teammates. I skipped a year due to injury and I missed it. It was a hole in my soul. I know that this sounds corny, and maybe it is, but this experience is one of the highlights of my year and of my life. I will be doing this as long as I can, as long as their lottery system lets me in, as long as my body doesn’t fail me, and perhaps even after that.