Hood to Coast, learning, racing, running

Hood to Coast, from the perspective of Runner 1

Despicable We, Van 1, ready to roll
Despicable We, Van 1, ready to roll

Note: As with my Boston Marathon write-up and most everything I write for this blog, it took me about a month to get this done. See, when I go out of town for something like a race, I return to a shit-ton of work and do not have time to write recreationally. Also, it is long. I want to not only document my experience for personal use, but also to provide useful information to readers anticipating this race in the future. Anyway, enough bla bla bla. Here’s the Hood to Coast report:

It’s mid-morning on a Friday in August. I am at the top of Mount Hood in Oregon, 6,000 feet above sea level. With me at the starting line are some 40 or so other runners. Our teams cheer us from the sidelines. My adrenaline is pumping. I have never been more ready to run. Minutes later I am flying down the mountain, running the fastest miles I’ve ever run past a million evergreen trees and rivers and waterfalls — yeah, friggin waterfalls.

It all started many months ago …
… when my running buddy Danny Hardeman asked me to be on his Hood To Coast relay team. Friends from our White Rock Running Co-op ran the 2013 HTC. They made it sound insanely fun, but not at all like something I wanted to do. Twelve-man teams, some 25 hours in a crowded van, scrupulous planning and related meetings, a litany of expenses … not exactly ideal for a frugal, disorganized loner who despises hassle and deeply values personal space, not to mention sleep.

But Danny was so excited. He thought my husband could drive one of the vans, he said. Yeah, like that would happen.

My husband, Josh, is not a runner and he thinks we are weird. If my husband wants to drive, I say, I’m in. I figured that would be the end of it.

But something happened that night — local radio personality Craig Miller, a competitive runner and triathlete whom Josh and I both love, came for dinner at Josh’s restaurant.

“Hood to Coast?” Craig apparently said, “You have to do it!” So Hubs called me and said he was in.

Danny put together a team of 12 solid runners. Most were people I know and a few were people I did not know well yet. At our first meeting, we argued over team names. Suggestions that required the least bit of mental calisthenics were met with blank stares; most enthusiastically praised were suggestions alluding to sex, gross bodily functions or food (I later would learn that these things drive most HTC team names). Eventually every name proposed at said meeting was rejected and somehow we became Despicable We. It turned out to be a beloved team name and theme — later, throughout the event, we would hear, “It’s the minions!” “I love your shirts!” “Love your van!” Not to overstate it, but we were kind-a famous.

The unveiling of the Despicable We campaign, featuring Susan, Gigi and Jenny: Photo (and poster) by Paris Sunio
The unveiling of the Despicable We campaign, featuring Susan, Gigi and Jenny: Photo (and poster) by Paris Sunio

The other WRRC team is called Cereal Killers. I wrote all about them here last year.

I did not really know before I partook in Hood to Coast, but I know now: name and theme — this also involves T-shirts and van decorations — is a big deal. A seriously big deal.

As race weekend neared I realized the complex planning and expenses that go into HTC — registration, travel, two vans with (preferably) two drivers each, starting-line accommodations, finish-line lodging, getting to and fro the airport, and so on. Fortunately a few of my teammates were real leaders when it came to planning and I did not need to do much other than pay my way and do my best to follow instructions.

Then there is the training — how does one train to race three times in less than 24 hours?

I pretty much just followed my training schedule for my upcoming November half marathon. Through the early summer months I maintained a base by running about 40-50 miles a week; in May I began adding speed work twice a week. I’d run, for example, 12 times 200 meters or 400 meters on Tuesday and six mile-repeats on Thursdays and a long run on Saturday and Sunday (usually 10-15 on Saturday and 10 on Sundays). In July I ramped up the mileage to about 70 miles per week, adding a second run about three days a week. I sought out hills and used the downhill treadmill at the gym for several runs. Normally I would schedule a 5k or 10k race this time of year; instead, HTC would be my end of summer fitness test.

But there is nothing to prepare one who resides in Dallas for the infamous Leg 1 of Hood to Coast. It is six miles of extreme downhill running. Overall, it is one of the shortest and easiest legs of the race, but the mountain makes for some really intense racing. I decided that no matter how fast or controlled I ran, I would hurt afterward. I knew from research and personal experience that the worst muscle soreness would set in about 48 hours after a given run, so I would be able to finish all three of my legs before the really intense pain set in (which it did; in the days following the race I could barely walk). So I chose to let the momentum and adrenaline carry me through my downhill leg — no holding back.

me at start
I’m so excited. I’m so excited. I’m. So. Scared. Photo by Brent Woodle

Book 1

I believe the faster teams usually start later, but somehow Danny had negotiated us a 9:45 start time. Teams start in waves — about 30-40 every 15 minutes all day Friday.

So I started with other Leg 1-ers who were planning to race a bit slower than we were. Therefore, from the starting horn to the end of my almost-six miles I was out front and all alone. The few times I looked back, I saw not a soul. About a mile in, my van passed me en route to the first exchange and they yelled that I was running on the wrong side of the road. I was kind of scared to cross the street but then another van pulled over; the driver said we’d be disqualified if I didn’t cross and she watched traffic so I could cross. Thanks, friend.

I clocked a 5:36 first mile. My second mile was closer to 5:40, and I maintained a sub six-minute mile right up until the final quarter mile (where things flattened out). To give you an idea of the speed-assistance this mountain offered: my fastest-ever 5k prior to this was run at a 6:12 per-mile pace.

My buddy Matt was waiting to take the relay wristband. The van and the rest of the team parked across the street and was cheering us on. Teammate and friend Susan was waiting for me at the exchange, too, thank goodness, because when I came to a halt, my rubbery legs gave out and she caught me.

Me and Susan: Photo by Brent Woodle
Me and Susan: Photo by Brent Woodle

No time to waste — getting the van from one exchange to the other in a timely manner is part of the competition. We hopped in and drove down a scenic thoroughfare thickly lined with fir trees. At 10:30, the air was crisp but the sun was emerging and it was warming up. As we waited for Matt, I walked around and rolled my hamstrings and calves with The Stick. I drank a bottle of Gatorade and ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich.

By the time Matt finished and Jenny started, it was nearing 70 degrees. Susan was dreading Leg 4, a sunny 7-mile race, but she wound up being right on pace. Brent, our fastest, had the toughest overall assignment, but his first leg, though hot, was handily slaughtered. By the time Danny finished Leg 6, and we went to rest a few hours while members of the second team van did their thing, it was blazing hot. The sun was shining full force as Van 2 minion Julie embarked on Leg 7. This relay and van exchange took place at a high school. The parking lot was an ideal place to check out the competition and all the creative team themes, costumes and decorations.

While Van 2 minions ran legs 7-12, us Van 1-ers went to a pizza place. Pizza was delicious. As I tore into my second slice, I asked Brent — who had created a spreadsheet to estimate our start and finish times based on each team member’s predicted pace (and as we went along, actual pace) — how much time I had until my next run.

Four hours? I guessed. “No,” he says. “Two.” I returned that second slice to its plate and said, “Crap.”

Pizza before racing on a hot afternoon: not the best idea.

Ready for round two: Photo by Paris Sunio
Ready for round two: Photo by Paris Sunio

Book 2
My second run, a.k.a. Leg 13 was just over four miles, but it was through the middle of Portland at 5:30 p.m. The sun was still baring-down and it was about 85 degrees.

In Portland, a half HTC relay race called Portland to Coast begins, so it is crowded. As I waited for Leg 12-er, Kevin, to hand off to me, the race officials started announcing that if we were not going to be finished with our leg by 6 p.m., we needed to be wearing our reflective vests. I asked some of my team members to get me the vest, but the van was too far; there was no time. When Kevin arrived, glistening with sweat and smiling broadly, the linesman said to me, “Where’s your vest?” And I confidently proclaimed, “I’ll be done before 6.”

Of course there was no way I was doing 4.5 miles in fewer than 30 minutes, but they let me go. In fact, I ran these miles at a little over 7 minutes each. I had hoped to keep my miles all under 7, but I was beginning to understand that running 13 or 14 miles in HTC was very different than running, say, a straight half-marathon. By the second round of running you are sore from your first race, cramped-up from being in a van all day, and there’s a good chance that your lunch has not fully digested.

I grew very nervous during this leg that I was on the wrong track. The course runs through a Portland park, where vagabond loafers smoking pot stare at you. You can’t really blame them for being baffled — while they are just blazing,  this pink-faced, heaving chick is blazing through their park. WTF? But finally I saw two HTC fans sitting in lawn chairs — they cheered me as I approached, told me I looked hot (and I think they meant the sweat soaking my body and my fire-engine-red face, as opposed to the complimentary sort of hot) and they verified that I was heading the right way.

On the other side of the park is this industrial area that smells of burning rubber. It is hot and miserable and the few other Hood to Coast-ers I saw were walking. I miraculously managed to hand off to Matt without regurgitating the pizza, which was my constant unwelcome companion through the aforementioned miles.

I am so grateful to be done with that leg! Here on the edge of Portland we also encountered the Cereal Killer team. We were neck-in-neck with them and competing in a friendly way. Meredith, a CK member, wound up carrying a second reflective vest because she had heard I did not have mine. She was trying to get one to me. When I heard that, it warmed my heart. It was one of many sweet fuzzy feelings to come as the night wore on.

After my second race, I stretched, drank a protein shake, continued to hydrate, popped an allergy pill and some aspirin and attempted to relax as my husband and his co-pilot, Paris, navigated the runner exchanges.

As it grew darker, we ran farther, through scenic, wooded, mountainous Oregon — through towns called Scappoose and Mist and Jewel — toward the finish line at Seaside.

With the night came cooler temps. Once Danny finished Leg 17, we pulled into the campgrounds at the start of my final leg and attempted to get some shuteye. This was practically pointless. Several of us stretched out on the seats of the van while a couple tried the tents provided by Dick’s Sporting Goods. For about an hour I was able to relax myself into a near-meditative state, but never slept. Then I had to pee. As I walked from the van through the dark to the potties, I realized my legs were toast. I mean, they felt like someone had beaten them, and ruthlessly, with a baseball bat.

Screen Shot 2014-09-20 at 4.45.19 PM
In the middle of the night — Brent, Jenny, Susan, Me, Danny, Matt: Photo by Paris Sunio

Book 3
For about 45 minutes I walked around the campgrounds trying to loosen up. Just a little over 4 miles left, I told myself, but I knew I had to move fast to keep our team on pace. We wanted to break 24 hours. It now was super-chilly. I grabbed some coffee from a vendor. Van 2 arrived at the exchange to pick up their last runner of part 2, Kevin, and members of Van 1 began to emerge from that pseudo-sleep and gather to cheer Kevin in and me out.

Despite my soreness, I was much more excited about this leg than I had been about the last. It was cool. It was dark. The stars were abundant. It was 3 o’clock in the morning, and I was totally pumped.

Again, Kevin arrived with a smile and I screamed his name. “Keeeevvvviiiinnnn! Come on, buddy! Yes! Alllrriiigght! Wooo hooo!” And then I was off.

As the noisy, crowded exchange area faded into the background, I breathed in and concentrated deeply on the moment. Even with my flashlight, visibility was low. All I could see was the gravel-y road at my feet. The fog made even the few runners I passed invisible until I was just steps behind them. I turned off my light for a moment and looked up. The stars were thick and endless. The night was sparkling.

My legs refused to match my overall enthusiasm and didn’t move much faster than about 7:15 per mile. I worked as hard as I could, tried to mentally photograph that sky, and when I handed the relay bracelet to Matt for the last time, I felt a pang of sadness. My run was over.

When I reached the van, I offered my one bit of advice to my teammates: “Be sure, at least once, to turn off your light and look at the stars,” I said. “They are amazeballs.” (So shoot me — I get sentimental when I am sleepy.)

The night flew by. We grew more excited as morning approached. Brent tackled the toughest leg of HTC — 3.5 miles of  extreme elevation followed by 2.5 miles of treacherous downhill running. By the time he reached the exchange, traffic was bad. We were fortunate enough to avoid any delays due to the backup at the exchanges, but Brent did have to walk an extra mile after his run to reach the only spot we were able to park the van. Luckily we also were able to drop Danny off at his proper starting point, and Susan got out with him and helped Brent find us. More evidence that this race is in large part about navigation, logistics and luck.

Danny embraced the final leg of Van 1, flying downhill at breakneck speed. He hopped into the ride and we all took a moment to be proud of this little team he had put together. We were done, and every member of Van 1 performed brilliantly in his/her first Hood to Coast experience.

Turns out, though I did not get to observe it so closely, our Van 2 members did the same.

Finished!: Photo by Paris Sunio
Finished!: Photo by Paris Sunio

A memorable finish 

We drove to another Oregon high school that was welcoming Hood to Coast runners (for a small donation) to use its showers. At that point, I think we would have paid anything. (Um, thanks, Brent, for paying for both me and my cash-broke husband.)

After old-school group showers, we headed toward Seaside — famous for providing a backdrop to the classic “Goonies” movie and — more importantly if only on this day — the Hood To Coast finish line.

First we made a couple of pit stops for well-earned potables of an alcoholic variety. Now, I no longer drink alcohol, but I sure do love watching others get plowed. And mixing alcohol with exhaustion is always funny and unpredictable. So as to not incriminate myself or any of my teammates, I will not go into any more detail there. I will just say, when you are a runner, there ARE actually times when it is acceptable to purchase Crown Royal at 7 a.m., though it is not easy to find someone selling it.

Josh, me and Matt, done.: Photo by Paris Sunio
Josh, me and Matt, done.: Photo by Paris Sunio

After a couple of hours we know we need to get to the finish line. We estimated that Kevin would be finishing just about 9:45. (As it turned out, our finish time was 24:08:00 which placed us 8th in the open division — about a 7:12 overall pace for almost 200 miles. Not bad.)

The way the finish works: as the anchor runner rounds the last corner, about 400 meters from the finish, race organizers announce the team number, then the team gathers in a corral and joins its runner as he passes, so that your whole team finishes together.

Problem: Van 2 got caught-up in traffic. As Kevin embarked on his last mile, they were just finding a parking space. A good eight blocks from the finish. The members of Van 1, already gathered at the finish, were beginning to worry that the second half of our team would miss the big finish. Biting my nails, I watched the road for signs of Andre, Julie, Kelly, Ryan, Gigi and their drivers Tamra (Kevin’s wife) and Sohale.

Then, we heard it — the announcer called out “Here comes team 825. Despicable We!” Just as we filed into the corral, I spotted Andre. I started screaming at them, “He’s here! Kevin is here! Huuurrryyy!” This effort would mean the last of my voice, which was hoarse for the next two weeks. Andre and the gang surveyed the fence between them and us, and they assessed that there was no way over; they would need to go around — a bit of a hike. At that point, Kevin, who was hauling, came into sight.

Not to Kevin, but to his teammates we screamed, “RUUUUUN!”

They had no choice but to revive their dead legs and start running toward us. Just as Kevin came down the final stretch, the members of Van 2 stumbled through the corral. All together, we ran to the finishing chute — under the banner, some of the guys lifted Kevin to their shoulders. I felt a little catch in my throat, and it wasn’t from my pained vocal chords. It was emotion.

I hugged my good sport of a husband and the rest of my teammates. A lady handed me an armful of medals and I put them, one by one, around the necks of my relay brothers and sisters. Danny. Kevin. Matt. Susan. Jenny. Gigi. Kelly. Ryan. Julie. Andre. Brent. Me.

Shortly after, the members of Cereal Killers arrived. We ate and drank and recapped the hilarity. I bonded with CK friends Meredith and Greg, who like me were veterans of “Leg 1” (this and last year, respectively).

We dreamed about “next year.”

Seaside beach was magnificent.

Cold waters: Photo by Matt's camera, but that's Matt, so I am not sure ...
Chilly water, sand and fog: Photo by Matt’s camera, but that’s Matt prancing along the coast, so I am not sure …

Josh and I, while too wimpy to fully submerge ourselves in the icy water like some of the others, dove into the balmy sand and slept for 45 minutes, and we woke as the sun burned off the last of the morning’s dense fog.

Thanks, Craig Miller. You were right. We absolutely had to do this.