Hood to Coast 2014


Hood to Coast is known as the mother of all relays, and is the race that gave birth to the increasingly popular long distance relay.  Starting on the slopes of Mt. Hood in Oregon, it winds it’s way 199 miles through Washington and Oregon to end on the sandy beaches of the coastal town of Seaside, Oregon. It is often referred to as the “200 mile party” - and that it is.

I became aware of the race while watching the documentary of it made in 2011 - found on Netflix by chance. I was hooked, but soon found out that even though they accept 1000 teams of 12 runners each, getting accepted was almost impossible. It’s popularity ensured that. So, I put my name out on a running website to say I was available should a team need a member - and a few months later I got the call.  I was to join the team ULtimate Runners - formed from the employees of Underwriters Laboratories - the UL mark found on virtually every product we use in day to day life. Over the months preceding the race I came to know them via email as a bunch of fun people who were out to enjoy themselves. Perfect.

Each team is comprised of 12 runners divided into two vans of 6 runners each. There are 36 pre-defined legs to the event, and the team captain assigns to each runner their 3 legs, varying from 4-9 miles per leg, some easy and some very difficult. The runners in Van 1 start the race and after each of those 6 have run their first leg in normal relay fashion, Van 2 takes over and carries on while Van 1 “rests”.  This goes on day and night for up to 36 hours until the entire distance is covered.  I was assigned to Van 1, and would run legs 2, 14 and 26 - a combination rated by the organizers as the second longest and second most difficult. Great.

We met on Friday morning at 6 am and set off for the start - we were assigned an 8:30 start time. Teams are assigned start times based on projected finish times - the fastest runners starting later - the idea being for all teams to finish within a short period of time. Bri was to run the first leg, and then me the second.  Both severe downhill legs that would be painful.  The start is at Timberline Lodge - the training site for the US ski team, and there were skiers on the glacier when we arrived - in mid summer. It was cool but not cold, with little humidity.

Once Bri was off, we dashed down the mountain to the first transition point, where I got out and waited, ready for my run. Soon enough, the transition staff yelled 910 - our race number - and I looked up to see her approaching the transition. She slapped the team bracelet onto my arm (required, like a relay baton), and off I went down the mountain.  The scenery was magnificent - mountain and forest views. I had planned a pace of 8:45 minutes per mile, but was feeling great and could not help myself but go faster.  I passed 10  runners on that leg - or “roadkill” as they are called there. I finished that 6 mile leg with an average pace of  7:36 min/mile, exhilarated.

This pattern of alternating runners continued throughout the day - always with a mad dash to get to the next transition point before the runner.  It would seem that would be easy, but with 1000 teams each having 2 vans on the road, plus thousands of other spectators and normal traffic, it is not.

Each transition point however was it’s own unique party. Vans decorated with team names, music blaring, and the thunderous cheers from everyone when a runner approached and their team mate set off. It did not matter whose team - everyone cheered.

My second leg (leg 14) began just before sunset in downtown Portland.  Essentially flat, about 6 miles long, it ran through an industrial area for a short while, then gave way to the road out to the coast, with lovely views of the river. Again I felt pretty good but knew I needed to slow down if I was to have anything left for my last leg.  I chatted to some runners along the way, and managed another 7 roadkills. Sweet.  I arrived at the transition point just at sunset and once again handed over to Jaqueline for her leg. Average pace for the leg was 8:14 min/mile. Back into the van and off we went.

After our 6th runner completed his 2nd leg, at about midnight, we handed over to Van 2 and went to a local high school where for $2 we could shower. We then settled into the van again for a nap. Hard to do. Tired, sore legs and cramped - and we needed to take over again at about 4:30 am. We had not had any hot food all day - just the energy bars, fruit and snacks in the van. And NO COFFEE.

We left the school at about 3:45 am, found some coffee (yay!) and set off for the hand over from Van 2 - as did many other vans. About a mile from the transition we were in stand still traffic (4:00 am) and moved 0.1 mile s in 20 minutes. We could not miss the runner as he would be stranded and we’d loose time, so Bri (our runner) ran the mile to the transition point to take over. We finally got through and raced ahead so I’d be there for her when she completed her leg.

I took over at 5:30 am wearing the mandatory reflective vest, a front and back flashing red light, and a headlamp to light my way. It was pitch black, and wonderfully misty - each droplet speckling in my headlamp’s throw. Magical.  This 6 miles was undulating to start, with a big uphill at mile 5 and then a downhill finish. I settled into a slow pace - I was tired now and sore from being cramped up with little sleep and that fast first downhill leg. Soon enough the sky lightened and through the mist an old world forrest uncloaked itself all around me.   Tall trees that had seen this race many times before, and occasional small animals that scurried away as I approached.  With 4 roadkills so far on that leg, I arrived at the hill and dragged myself upwards behind another runner who was clearly working very hard. I did not have the heart to pass her on the hill - it is too demoralizing.  Cresting the hill I had just a half mile left and my running would be over. I ran it as fast as I could now, and leg 26 was over - 8:49 miles/minute.  It was magnificent.  After the handover, that runner from the hill came and found me and said “thanks for pushing me up that hill”. I knew it was the right decision not to pass her. I replied “it was you that pulled me up”.