It's 2 pm on a Wednesday afternoon in northern Oregon and I'm driving towards Mount Hood in a minivan. The mountain's bare brown peak and snow speckled sides are looming ahead and my heart is racing. I look out the window. In about 4 hours, I'll be following thousands of other runners down this mountain as we begin a mad dash with our teams to the town of Seaside on the coast of the state, 197 miles away. Most of the teams have already started and I can see a trail of runners with numbers affixed to their chests chugging down the slope. A few look like they're ready to give up already. And this is just the first of their three race legs. Great. What have I gotten myself into?
The Hood to Coast race began nearly thirty years ago and takes place for two days at the end of every August. The first 1,000 teams to register for the race are entered as participants and each team is made up of 12 runners. In addition to the 12,000 runners on the course, there are 3,000 volunteers who do everything from telling the runners not to go down certain roads to setting up the party tents at the finish line on the beach. This makes for a huge number of people converging on the lodge at Mount Hood (where the race begins) all at once. To deal with this, the start times are staged based on each runner's projected 10k time. This year, the start times for the slow teams began on the morning of August 28th and teams were starting all the way until 6:45 pm that night. The race officials try to get everyone into Seaside by the next afternoon, so if your team is projected to run the race in 36 hours, you'll have one of the first start times. If your team is projected to run around 26 hours, as ours was, you'll have one of the last times in the race.
So here's how the race works. Each team is split into two vans. Van 1 carries runners 1-6 and Van 2 takes runners 7-12. The race is made up of 36 legs, with each leg being anywhere from around 3.5 to 7.5 miles. After you drop a runner off, your van rushes up ahead to the next pit stop, where you park and wait with anywhere from about 20 to 200 (or more) other vans for your runner to arrive. When the runner comes in, the next runner waits to take the baton (a neon green slap bracelet). Once the exchange is made, the runner who has taken the "baton" runs off and the runner who has finished is met by the rest of the team, who then all get back in their van and drive to the next stop where they do the same thing over again. Once the sixth runner has run, the first runner from the next van (runner #7) takes the handoff and then the second van takes over. When the 12th and last runner has run, the first runner takes the baton and the first van takes over again. This goes on for 36 grueling legs of the race and yes, some would even call this fun. I didn't think I would be one of them.
I was the second runner on the team which meant that around 6pm that day, I found myself standing in the designated handoff zone watching our first runner, Steve, getting closer and closer, ready to hand me the slap bracelet. All the waiting had finally come to this. He took the last few steps and extended the bracelet towards me. Here it goes! I grabbed for the bracelet and started running...but forgot to actually hold on to the bracelet and dropped it behind me. I picked it up, and then, just like that, I was off.
My legs felt light and the cheering from the groups behind me faded. In front of me were the bouncing forms of a few runners down the road and the open highway stretching down the mountainside. We had been in Oregon for nearly three entire days now, and I couldn't believe how good it felt to finally start running. Maybe it even felt a little too good. I found my legs bolting down the hill at a pace I knew was too fast, but it just felt too good for me to want to stop. When you talk to anyone who has run the race, the advice they give you is usually going to be, "Save your energy on the first two legs. You're gonna need it for the last." So really, I'm not sure what I was thinking going as fast as I did on the first. I guess I really just don't like to hold myself back when I run. I figured that if I was going to run on this kind of downhill, I was going to take advantage of the fact that my legs were years younger than most of the other guys out there. Ha!, I'd think as I passed them, You're going to regret taking the downhill leg tomorrow, old man. Bet you wish your knees were as young as mine.
I kept up my pace the entire way. My iPod was blaring in my ears and the songs couldn't have been better. Nothing was going to stop me. I rounded the last bend and saw my dad waiting for me with a walkie-talkie to tell the rest of the team that I was close to the end. I sprinted by him and passed the baton to our next runner. Only then did I feel the fatigue in my legs and a blister forming on my right big toe and I realized, Crap, I have to do that again. TWO more times.
We made it through the entire van and handed off to the first runner from the second van. It was dark by this time and we had our first break. We drove to the home of one of our teammates and I was asleep within what seemed like 2 minutes of getting there. It was like my body knew what I was about to do to it and was gathering as much energy as it possibly could before the real test began.
I don't really remember anyone waking me up, but I woke two hours later to the sight of my teammates hurriedly packing things up and getting ready to leave. Was it really time already? "We only have a few minutes," one of them muttered, and I threw my things together and laced up my running shoes. I looked at my watch. It was one in the morning. What was I doing putting on running shoes?
We headed out for the Hawthorne Bridge in Portland and were met there by what looked like thousands of runners. There was a narrow chute between all the people where the handoff would take place and Steve squeezed into it and waited. Soon enough, we saw the twelfth runner, my cousin, Mike, running out of what looked like a dark alley and turning the quarter to meet us. Mike handed off to Steve and, suddenly, I was next. I felt nauseous the entire drive to the next handoff point.
The next handoff point was in something that looked like a warehouse parking lot and I tried looking ahead to see where my route would take me, but I couldn't really tell. The runners who were taking off ahead of me ran down what looked what looked like some kind of truck delivery route and then disappeared around a corner.
If you run the Hood to Coast, you're inevitably going to have a night run (my dad was lucky enough to get two). When I looked at our projected running times a few days before the race, I saw that my second leg was going to start around 2:30 in the morning. This was, by far, the leg I was most worried about. I had no idea if there were going to be street lights, nor if the road was going to be clearly marked. We were going to be wearing reflective vests and headlamps, but I didn't know how effective the headlamps were going to be. I was worried that I would be so focused on the tiny patch of light ahead of me that I would wander off in the wrong direction. What if I was running in the woods somewhere and took a wrong turn? I had visions of creepy men pretending to be runners just waiting for guys like me to go off course so that they could lead us to our demise.
Soon enough, I saw Steve coming at me and I turned on my headlamp and waited. The baton came and I nailed the handoff this time and started to run. Right away, I knew that this leg was not going to be as easy as the last. My legs felt like they were still asleep and it took a while before it felt like they went, "Hey! We're running," and woke up a little bit.
To my surprise, I found that the streets were well lit the entire route. I was glad to have worried about that over nothing. Now if my legs would just start working. The road ahead of me was nearly empty, but I could see a few bobbing lights ahead, letting me know I was on the right path. Luckily for me, there were no major turns in the road and my run was almost entirely along a highway along the river.
I tried my best to enjoy the second run, but even in the dark, the scenery was dismal. It seemed like I was going by one refinery after another. Even though it didn't look uphill, my legs felt like I was trying to run up Mount Kilamanjaro. There were mile markers along the road that I found myself looking forward to. To anyone else, they would just look like bland white stencils reading "HTC (Hood to Coast) 1...HTC 2," and so forth, but to me, they became stepping stones on my path to freedom. My second run was around five and a half miles, so when I saw the "HTC 5" sign, I felt my heart jump. I was finally almost done. Time to turn it up, I thought, and quickened my pace. After a while though, the terrifying thought occurred to me: "What if the markers are wrong?" Soon enough, I passed a marker on the ground that said, "HTC 6". Son...of...a...
Mercifully, the end came soon after. I handed off the baton and immediately realized that I had nothing left in my tank and another run ahead of me. I was toast. We got back in the van and began driving to the next stop.
Before I knew it, I was on the road again, waiting for my third and final run to begin. I did everything I could to get myself pumped up to run. I had managed to catch about two hours worth of sleep during our second break and I had taped my blistered toes up to keep them from causing me too much strife during the run. Still, when I lowered myself out of the van for my last run, I found that I was already having trouble walking. How was I going to make it through this last run?
Months before the Hood to Coast, we all got to plan out the legs we wanted. On the website for the race, you can download a map of the course as well as the difficulty ratings for all of the legs. I scoured the course, looking for the legs I wanted. Finally, I decided to be the second runner, stupidly not realizing that it would mean that not only would my last run be the longest of my three runs, but that the only true hill I would have to run up would come on my last mile of my last leg of the race.
As I saw Steve crest his final hill and run towards me, I thought back and cursed my idiotic decision making skills. Still, the decision had been made and now it was something I'd have to deal with. I took the baton and ran.
About four steps down the road, I cramped up. To tell the truth though, running was feeling better than walking at this point, so I decided to try and run through it. About a mile down the road, my van passed me and gave me a honk and cheer as they passed. Secretly, I wondered if I would ever see them again.
Somehow, I made it about halfway through the run without walking. Then I came to a long stretch of road through a meadow that seemed like it stretched out about 15 miles straight in front of me. Ahead, I recognized an older Brazilian man who I had seen back at the last pit stop. He looked to be in bad shape, but he too was determined to keep running. He was muttering or singing something to himself in Portuguese as he hobbled along. The result was something that looked less like a long distance runner and more like an old lady jazzercising down the road. I laughed to myself until I realized that he was going faster than I was.
I summoned up all the energy I could and decided, Cramps or not, I'm going to finish this race and I'm going to finish it without walking. Also, there is no way I’m letting a jazzercising dude beat me.
So I forced myself to run a little faster, slowly passed the Brazilian and found myself at the bottom of a dark and thickly wooded hill. Obviously, this is not the kind of thing that anyone wants to see in front of them, much less while they’re in the middle of a run. But I remembered from looking at the map of my run that the hill in front of me was at the very end of the race. All I had to do was make it up the hill and I was done!
In Haruki Murakami’s “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” he mentions that every long distance runner needs a mantra that they can repeat to themselves when the going gets tough. Murakami says that his is: “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.” I tried as hard as I could to repeat this in my head while I was running. The truth is, I couldn’t stop thinking about how I shouldn’t have eaten half a pan of rice krispies treats in the van with Steve before running.
A lot of things went through my head as I ran up that hill (some that probably aren’t fit to print). With each step, my legs told me to give up, but somehow, I kept going. One positive thing I was able to think about was my team waiting for me at the end. Walking, even for one step of that hill would have been letting them down in my mind, and I couldn’t do that. I thought of the look on Steve’s face when he had finished. It was somewhere between “I’m gonna die,” and “I just won the lottery!” He had been the first one of us to finish all three legs and I wanted that look.
I reached the top of the hill and pushed myself as hard as I could towards the finish. Finally, I could see the next checkpoint. I handed off the baton and stopped my legs and then doubled over for a minute to catch my breath. I was done.
I think that in my experience, life isn't always about finishing the goals that you've set from the start. Sure, that's part of it and that feeling of total completion is tough to beat. But sometimes, life is about being realistic; adapting and setting new goals. These goals may not as vast as you would always have wanted from the start, but maybe it's getting through adversity and dealing with our own mediocrity that gets us through our failures and allows us the ability to succeed later.
When our van finally made it to Seaside, my cousin asked me, “So do you want to do it again?” My reply was an immediate, “No!” However, as the last runner, Mike, came into Seaside and the whole team ran across the finish line together, I felt a bigger sense of accomplishment than I have in a long time.
To me, the Hood to Coast was more about humility than anything else; realizing that maybe I'm not as great of a runner as I thought I was capable of. But at the same time, it was about realizing my own potential. After the race, it was hard not to think about how much better I would have done on the last leg if I had trained semi-properly. However, I couldn’t help being proud of myself for making it through such an intense experience. I had counted on my youth and athleticism to get me through and I had finally come to the painful realization that counting on things like that isn’t always going to be enough.
We had all set goals coming into the Hood to Coast. Some of us did better than we hoped to. Some of us did worse than we had hoped for. And some of us were humbled to the point that their goals were reduced to trying to pass jazzercising Brazilians on the way. But as we crossed the finish line together, we all realized that we had all accomplished the most important goal in the Hood to Coast- finishing.
Hood to Coast, I’ll see you next year.