This past weekend I had the chance to do something totally amazing: the Hood to Coast relay. I literally cannot believe, still, that after only two months in Oregon I managed to get on a team – there is a lottery system for teams to get entered, and it’s a huge deal. I didn’t know everyone on my team, far from it, but a few of my good friends were there, and I drove up to Portland with one of them to meet up with our van. Neither of us had ever done a big relay before, and we didn’t know what to expect. The trunk of Heather’s car was stuffed with sleeping bags and pads and more food than we could possibly consume (so we thought).
Hood to Coast is a 200-mile race, where teams of twelve people run three legs each. The event starts at the Timberline Lodge on Mount Hood. As we drove up the road we were quiet with anticipation, and occasionally gasped as the mountains revealed themselves. We weren’t in 24-hour race mode yet, and we hadn’t opened up; it was still hitting us that we would be spending more than a day in this very van, pretty much nonstop except for running.
The scenery was beautiful but on the other side of the road, we could see runners already streaming down the road. With 1200 teams participating, waves of runners start their downward journey in waves throughout the day on Friday. And most of them didn’t look comfortable. Leg one descends two thousand feet in five miles.
Up on the mountain, we scurried around grabbing Clif bars from the promo tent and lacing up our running shoes as confused (and stoned) snowboarders wandered through the parking lot. We decorated our van with paint, put our costumes on, and snapped a team picture:
So I guess I should tell you a little bit about our team. We were the Red Dress Express Too, the rejects from an older team which has been doing Hood to Coast since about 2001. It’s made up of people from Eugene, and everyone wears red dresses and accessories, even the guys. This year, Red Dress Express was trying for a top-six finish in the sub-masters category, which would guarantee them an entry into next year’s race, bypassing the lottery. I’m a newcomer and well below the sub-masters age limit, so I was stuck on the second team… which turned out to be the best thing anyway. I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.
Because, can I say that we had a good time? We had a good time, a better time than any other team, I’m sure of that. Each of us was only serious when we were actually running, which meant that the other five members of our van were goofing off the whole time. We had a photo contest with the other Red Dress vans which ensured a lot of shenanigans. For instance, we had an actual horn which one of my teammates occasionally blew through, and with which we repeatedly chased some members of the Run Oregon team:
This was the fourth runner we terrorized, and she was psyched. She had watched us take pictures of our other team members running after her other team members, and as soon as she saw me in my red dress on the side of the road she started smiling. She really hammed it up for the camera.
Anyway, back to the running. Once we got down off the mountain, it got hot. Our second leg runner finished as a shell of his former self. Even though he had two water bottles during his race, he was speaking unintelligibly and had trouble walking in a straight line. We ran ahead to get him more water and gave him an ice pack to hunker down with in a van. I began to get a little bit nervous for my own leg.
I had told the team organizer that I would take any leg, no matter how hard, as long as it wasn’t that first steeply downhill one. I’m good at running up hills, I said. I do it a lot. And so they stuck me with leg 5, the hardest in the entire race. It’s a third of a mile shorter than leg 9, which my friend Mike was running, but there’s much more terrain. That’s why I was nervous. I had basically acted very cocky, and if I didn’t deliver on my bragging, I was going to be ashamed. More than that, I was afraid that if I went too hard in my first leg, the rest of the race would be really, really unpleasant.
So off I went on leg 5, four miles along the highway in the sun and then a turn into the shade and up a big hill. Almost as soon as I started, my competitive juices got flowing and I took off. At first, I felt great. Then, I felt hot. Next, I felt a little shaky. I had stopped sweating and was almost cold. I knew I was in trouble as I ran along the highway in the full sun, but I also knew that sometime, I’d be turning into the shade. I didn’t know when that sometime would arrive, and wavered back and forth about whether I should slow down, or just try to get to the shade as quickly as possible. Luckily, I had my drinkbelt with some gatorade, and tried to take in as many electrolytes as possible without making myself sick in a different way.
When I finally made it to the turn it was a huge relief. Almost immediately, I felt better. My teammates had stopped the van to cheer for me, and as I went by they dumped water over my head. Whew! I began passing people again instead of lagging. A volunteer promised me that there was a sprinkler coming up, but it turned out that she was kind of lying. I commiserated with another runner as we ran up the hill – which wasn’t that big, just 400 feet or so, but after a long hot run on the highway, it seemed to go on forever. At one point I knew I had only a mile to go, and I started looking for the finish line around every corner.
I also started looking at my watch. I had submitted 45 minutes for my 10k time, and a teammate had estimated how long it would take everyone to run their legs. I was nervous about this. I haven’t done any workouts, really, since March: just perhaps three sets of intervals and one 5k race. I haven’t even been running that much. I didn’t think that I’d have any speed left, just slow-twitch fitness. So I glanced at my watch, subtracting the time from 45 minutes to see how long I thought I had to keep running. Which was discouraging.
But when I finally saw the finish, it was not discouraging. I was ahead of my seed time, and more importantly, I was done running. For now. I snapped our bracelet onto my teammate Brian’s wrist and sat down on the pavement. My teammates ran up to me and gave me hugs. Then we piled into the van and drove toward the middle of Brian’s leg so we could cheer him on and give him water.
Because this is the thing about Hood to Coast: there’s no warming up. There’s no cooling down. Maybe if you’re serious and you manage everything perfectly, you might be able to do it on some of the legs. But there’s bigger issues. You have to get to the next exchange, and there’s six of you to keep track of. After two years of micromanaged warmup routines and making sure I ate exactly the right thing at the right time, the concept of just jumping in a race cold terrified me.
After Brian finished, we handed our clipboard off to the other van of six runners and headed into Portland, where we crashed at my teammate Nice’s house. We changed into new, dry red dresses and walked to a nearby (excellent) Mexican restaurant, where we got a LOT of strange looks as we ate our tacos. Heather and I split a margarita. It was delicious. We tried to nap on Nice’s floors and sofas, but it was only 7 p.m., and we couldn’t sleep; soon enough it was time to head to the next exchange to switch off with the other van.
By the time we got there – a big concrete road exchange under a bridge in Portland – it was dark, and everyone was wearing headlamps, reflective vests, and blinking red lights. There were runners everywhere and we had to push our way through the crowd to the actual exchange zone. It was great to be reunited with the other van, and we had a good time hanging out. I felt lucky not to have been stuck with the first leg – not only would I have had to run down Mount Hood, but I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the van exchanges as much.
Leg two for our van turned out to be one of the more grim sections of the race. Heather got to run through downtown, along the river, but after that it was out through the industrial edges of the city. Especially in the dark, it wasn’t fun. Just gray, lonely, and a little bit dirty. We would still stop along the side of the road to cheer for each other, but it became impossible to tell which blinking red light was our actual runner. Many of the legs were on the long side, too, so it felt like the night was going on forever.
It was finally my turn to run, and I embarked on a seven-mile journey along pancake-flat Highway 30. I have never run in the middle of the night before, really; it was disorienting. Even with my headlamp to guide me, I only roughly knew where the edge of the road was. I followed the river of blinking lights in front of me, but unlike on my first leg, there weren’t many people to pass; everyone was my speed or faster. But I could see them, so I was tempted into running harder and harder to try to catch up.
“I feel like I’m being chased by an army of fireflies,” one runner said as four of us ran past in a pack.
When my teammates greeted me at the halfway point with a waterbottle holding a mix of coca cola and coffee, I said to myself, shit. I glanced at my watch and knew that I had been running much too fast. I shouldn’t have covered three and a half miles so quickly, especially in the (non)-shape that I was.
How long could three more miles be? I told myself that everything would be fine, that the caffeine would do its job and wake me up, that I should just keep going. But after another mile, I began to drag. I’d pick a runner and match their pace, and then I’d slow down, unable to keep at it. I actually caught a guy in an orange shirt who I had also passed on my first leg, but after running with him for about 30 seconds, he pulled away and over the last mile but 20 or so seconds on me.
By the time I was turning onto the road towards the high school for our exchange, I was suffering bigtime. Not only had I started out too fast, but I was wearing racing flats, a questionable move after 13 miles. It had seemed like a good idea at the time, but my calves were seizing up in a serious way. As soon as I handed off to Brian, I lay down and didn’t get up for a few minutes.
But soon, I was standing up and joking with the orange shirt guy’s team. They were from Seattle and in one of the masters’ divisions. Honestly, I was a little pissed that orange shirt guy had run away from me; he was just a guy, how was he so fast? But they were great and we had seen them so many times at the exchanges already that we fell into a long conversation.
Heather broke some bad news to me. “Everyone else is kind of falling apart,” she said.
What? Falling apart more than me? With my cement-like calves, I hobbled back to the van and surveyed the damage. Nice was passed out across the driver and passenger seats, face down. Leah and Kathryn were semi-comatose in the back. Uh oh. Brian’s leg was only five miles, and we had wasted time talking to the other team; we needed to get to the next exchange.
Then Heather confessed that she had a terrible sense of direction.
“Do you want me to drive?” I asked.
“No, no, I feel terrible doing that,” she replied. “You just finished racing. I’m sure I can find my way.”
But I thought about it and decided that me driving would be better. We moved Nice into the back and took over the front. After taking a long time to figure out how to move the seat forward, we were off. Heather fed me Clif ShotBloks one at a time as I drove.
And…… we immediately missed our first turn. The sign for the road was after the actual intersection, and it was dark, and there were runners on the road! What do you expect? So we had to keep driving and circle back. We eventually made it to the van exchange at a county fairgrounds. It was a designated sleeping area, so between the rows of vans there were runners sacked out in sleeping bags and tents. I gave Heather the clipboard to take to the exchange and tried to do a really easy run around the grounds to loosen up my calves, which were cramping worse than ever.
Two things happened on my little jaunt through the parking lot. First of all, I heard some team refer to us as transvestites (don’t buy a Balance Bar; they also opened the door of their van and shouted “fa**ot” at Brian as he raced along). Secondly, I just happened to come across our other van as they packed up from their brief night’s sleep.
“Mike!” I said.
“What are you doing?” He asked.
“I need a hug,” I said, and stopped running.
“Why aren’t you wearing a shirt?”
Oops, yeah, that’s right. My red dress had gotten very hot and sweaty on my run – which had turned out to be a personal best for 10k, the first few miles at sub-seven minute pace making up for the later ones at over-eight – and I had wanted it off. Luckily I had managed to put shorts on, but I was jogging around in the night cold in my sports bra and heart rate monitor (coincidentally, the first time I’d worn it since leaving Craftsbury in March).
Ever the gentleman, Mike walked me back to my van where I found some more clothes, and then we went over to watch the exchange. After saying goodbye to our groggy other van, I got back in the driver’s seat and headed towards the next van exchange, where we would sleep until it was our turn to run.
Things went well for a while. I had a sip of coffee and Heather chatted away to keep me awake. It was only supposed to be an hour or so drive. But as we got close to the exchange, traffic got really bad, and we were at a standstill. I can do this, I thought to myself, inching along at a snail’s pace. Then an hour and a half had passed. I was tired. I was sleepy. Was I going to make it?
I finally decided that it was Brian’s van, and so he should drive, because if any of us fell asleep at the wheel, at least he’d be wrecking his own car. Luckily he was pretty awake. As soon as I switched places with him I fell asleep, and woke up an hour later in a very uncomfortable position. It was a good call to give up driving. I was not fit to drive, not even close.
We parked and unfurled our sleeping pads and bags. It was about four thirty in the morning, and I didn’t even have the energy to take my contacts out. If you looked at us, curled up on a tarp, you would have thought we were having some sort of snuggle-fest, but I don’t think a single person moved an inch or even rolled over between the time we fell asleep and when our alarm woke us up the next morning. We were too exhausted.
Van number two found us again, and it was off to the races. By this time, racing didn’t seem so intimidating. I didn’t even worry about how I couldn’t warm up. It seemed like it would never be my turn to run. Nothing seemed important except enjoying the morning sunshine.
But when Kathryn started running, I knew I had less than an hour before I was faced with my hardest task yet: leg 29. It was six miles, just like my first leg, but gained and then lost 600 feet of elevation. Thinking about the numbers, that didn’t seem like so much, but then again, I was pretty tired and my calves were still wrecked. So I tried to stop thinking about it entirely.
When the handoff came, Kathryn slapped my butt and sent me off. The beginning was actually quite flat and in the shade, and after a quite painful first two minutes, I started feeling good. I fell in with a guy from Portland and we ran together, striding easily along a creek. We’d trade off leading and were even chatting away. That’s how easy it was. I felt like everything was going to be fine, just fine.
That’s me, with Portland dude:
Then I got to the hill.
It was not fine.
“Go on,” I told the Portland guy. “I can’t keep up with you.”
“No, I need to slow down too,” he said. “We’ll help each other out.”
That lasted about 20 seconds.
“No, really,” I insisted. “You should just go.”
In the first leg, I had run up the hill like it ain’t no thang. I’m not actually sure I was going much slower than I had been on the flat. But this time around, my calved complained loudly and I was just plain tired. My form disintegrated and I felt like I was shuffling. People kept cheering for me, but I am pretty sure it was just because I was a girl and usually teams don’t have women run leg 5 because it’s so hard. I got a few cheers for my red dress, too, which kept me going, and the Nike France team cheered for me in French as they drove by because I had told them to “Allez, allez!”
On top of it all, we had run out of the shade and into the sun, and it was getting hot again. The hill became a real slog.
I couldn’t have been happier when I reached the top of the “pass”. My teammates were there and held up a roll of toilet paper for me to run through like a finish banner.
In my mind, I was thinking, woohoo, I’m done! But I still had a long way to go… what I thought was two miles of downhill was really two and a half, and after taking off and working it for the first mile I began to question how long I could keep it up. My calves hurt! I was tired! This was stupid! There was nobody around me for the first time in the entire race, so I didn’t even have a chase to keep me motivated. Still, I pushed on to where I knew Brian was waiting for me.
And there he was. I was done! I was free! It was a strange feeling, after 19 miles of running, not to have to run any farther. I climbed into the van and we encountered more terrible traffic. With two and half miles to go before the exchange, we were at a dead stop. Heather and Leah got out of the van and began running down the road; even walking, they could have gotten there faster than we did. In the end, we arrived just about the time that Brian finished. So we handed off the clipboard to the second van and headed for Seaside and finish line.
We met up with the original Red Dress team, who had finished eighth, just missing a guaranteed entry for next year, which was pretty disappointing for them. Their time was fast enough to make the cut most years, but this year was a fast year, and also Coco had left his shoes in Eugene and racked up some huge blisters running in a teammate’s sneakers. Not to blame it all on Coco or anything. Brian, Leah and I ran into the ocean, cooled our legs very briefly, and then got out of there because it was cold. There was beer, and the beach, and much rejoicing as we waited for van number two to make it to the finish.
Unfortunately the second van encountered more terrible traffic coming into Seaside, so their runner actually beat them there. We hung out with her and drank more beer as we waited quite a bit longer for the last of our teammates to arrive. Then, finally, it was back to the finish for our official team picture. I got to hold our race number!
Later that night, we had a bonfire on the beach, and then passed out four or five to a hotel room. It was lovely. Amazing. So much fun. Sunday morning, we got breakfast at a diner. Biscuits and gravy and eggs and bacon hoo yeah. For once I didn’t feel guilty eating a ridiculous amount of calories. I had earned them, bigtime.
Hood to Coast was even more fun than I thought it could be. Part of it was rediscovering a way to race that didn’t stress me out, and realizing that it could be fun. And perhaps it’s better to be fun than to be serious: both my second and third legs were faster than any 10k I had ever run before, something which still puzzles me. Does that mean that I just wasted the last two years of my life? What the hell? But that doesn’t matter now, it’s water under the bridge. What matters is that I had a great time and look at how cool my friends are. I have the best friends. The best teammates. These are good people and we are going to have more fun together. If I don’t get back on this team next year, I’m going to be devastated.
Thanks to Brian and Christina for the photos.
Over and out.