There are quite a few iconic races in the U.S. that I want to run soon. Big Sur and Pike’s Peak Ascent come to mind along with the Ragnar Relay in the Florida Keys, but the Hood-to-Coast (HTC) Relay has been at the top of the list for a long time. Thanks to my good friend, Kent Byers, I was finally able to realize my dream and run the relay this weekend. It was all that I imagined and I can tell you that running through that finish line on the beach in Seaside, Oregon was a bit of an emotional moment for me. I couldn’t believe I had just run it.
My chances of running the 31st version of the HTC were slim to none after I found out that my entry late last year didn’t make it through the usual lottery system. I had planned to field my own team and take the plunge off Mt. Hood, but as luck would have it, that was not to be – at least not in 2012. I commiserated with some fellow runners including Kent who managed to get an entry after his application was rejected for the third time. He asked me to join his team. It took all of a nanosecond for me to accept. I could taste the adventure that awaited, but wait I did.
It seemed like forever and a day waiting for this moment to get here. The application season opens in October, they make their decision soon after that, and then, you wait. And wait. To say I was anticipating the weekend of Aug 24th would have been a mild understatement.
But it eventually arrived, and when I met my teammates in Van 2 at the Microsoft campus on Friday morning, the adrenaline was already flowing as I was eager to hit the road for my first leg. The van was brimming with excitement as we all chatted on the trip down to Portland. Prior to joining this team, I only had known one other person in my van, but I quickly got to know the others and realized we had a great team. It’s important to really like your teammates when you’re stuck in a 12-foot van with them for almost 40 hours including 30 hours under sweaty and sleep-deprived conditions. Otherwise, it could get ugly. I had nothing to worry about.
If you’ve ever seen the Hood-to-Coast movie, you know what the HTC is like (If you haven’t seen it, I highly recommend it even if you’re not a runner. It’s simply inspirational regardless of how you feel about running.) One of the teams in the movie is called “Dead Jocks in a Box.” The Dead Jocks team is probably one of the most recognizable and lovable teams in the movie mainly because of the jockstrap-adorned coffin that sits on top of their 1970s-era van and the affable nature of the team. One of the Dead Jocks, Larry, has run every single HTC. He’s one of two that has done this, so he’s quite famous in the HTC world. Shortly after we arrived at the first exchange to begin our race, we saw Larry pull into the exchange in the Dead Jocks van. I couldn’t help but take a picture.
Larry from Dead Jocks parks at the first exchange.
There was no time to lollygag, we had to get ready to move once the final runner from van 1 finished her leg. Before I knew it, van 2’s first runner was out of the chute, and we were on our way. My HTC adventure had finally begun.
As I’ve learned in other relays, once your van starts rolling things happen very fast. Our van raced to the next transition to get our second runner in position, and before I knew it, it was time for me to hit the road as runner 3. I started running a little after 5 PM on a rather hot day (for the Pacific Northwest). I was a little concerned about the heat since I don’t run well in hot weather, but my first leg was mostly on a very well-shaded trail east of Portland. I zipped through the almost seven-mile leg at a good pace and handed off to my teammate ahead of my projected time. During my leg I passed 24 people (24 kills in relay parlance). I felt good, but the adrenaline really carried me through it.
In no time, we were parking in downtown Portland to meet van 1 for the second exchange. After swapping some war stories and some good-natured trash talk, van 1 took off for a long night of running and our van took off for downtown to carbo-load at a local Italian restaurant. It was nice to take a break from the hectic pace of the race and have a nice dinner, but our break wasn’t too long as we were scheduled to be back on the course around 1 AM. We had to eat and get to the next exchange, some 40 miles west of Portland, quickly so that we could get at least a little sleep.
The van 2 team at dinner Friday night
One thing about the HTC is the traffic. You have over 1,000 teams released off Mt. Hood in waves all throughout the first day of the race. The first teams were released early in the morning on Friday, and the last (and elite) teams were released Friday evening. Basically, you have almost 13,000 people divided into vans of six heading west like a mass migration across a major metropolitan area and rural western Oregon. The people who live in these areas have to feel like they are suffering through an invasion. The traffic is horrible.
We experienced this traffic first-hand throughout much of the race. We had queues at many of the transitions and exchanges. Luckily, I was in a van with a couple of HTC veterans who had mastered shortcuts throughout the route. We met a massive backup on the way to the fairgrounds for our next exchange. We wanted to get there quickly to get some sleep, but the regular route was going nowhere fast. We jumped off the main road and took a back way to the fairgrounds. It still took considerable time, but we had at least a couple of hours before the exchange by the time we arrived. We all quickly found sleeping spots and settled down in our sleeping bags hoping to get some rest. We each had varying degrees of luck. Me, not so much. I maybe slept for 90 minutes or two hours, but nothing more. I gave up by the time everyone else started stirring in anticipation of the impending exchange.
Before I knew it, we were off again. Our first runner left the fairgrounds and we had to rush to the next transition in the dark of night. As we drove along, runners with head lamps and flashing red lights on their backs lined the road and stretched as far as the eye could see. There’s a certain amount of camaraderie in trudging through the night with fellow runners. I don’t know if it’s the adrenaline or the unique position of running blind save for the six or so feet in front of you, but the common focus makes you feel intimately connected to the mass of humanity that surrounds you.
By 3:30 AM, I was in the chute again. At this point in the race, we had reached a long stretch of dusty, gravel roads. At this time of the year, it rarely rains, so the gravel dust was easy to stir. As the vans eased along the road to the next transition, dust swirled like snow around the runners on the road. The temperature had dropped precipitously and I was freezing, so the dust could have very well been snow for all I knew (it wasn’t; 50 degrees just feels cold when it was in the 80s during the day). My head lamp was virtually useless no matter what angle I turned it to as the light reflected off the dust and back into my eyes. I could taste the dust throughout the entire five-mile leg. The grit settled in my teeth and my contacts, and as I began to sweat, it plastered my face, legs, and arms with swirling dark patterns. Despite the dust, I kicked it into high gear. I love running in the cool weather, and this run was no exception. I had 40 kills as many people struggled in the dust and loose gravel.
I handed off to my next teammate and we continued running through the night. Van 1 waited at the next exchange struggling to get some sleep before they were on again. Our final runner in van 2 greeted the foggy sunrise in rural Oregon, but unfortunately, by the time she finished her chilly leg, van 1 was no where to be found. Our cell phones were useless in such rural areas as cell signals were nonexistent, and our one-channel long-range radio was plagued with teams trying to talk over each other. Finally, we located van 1 and they took the baton 35 minutes after our runner had finished. Ouch.
Runners finish up leg 24 in early morning hours on Saturday.
By the end of our night segment, we were essentially zombies, tired and sleep-deprived zombies. We raced to our last exchange point and made it there with over two hours to spare before we were on again despite the heavy traffic along the way. None of us could sleep, so we took the time to relax. I found an espresso bar and grabbed a much-needed latte and waited in the porta-potty line for 45 minutes. As van 1 finished up their final segment, van 2 was eager to get started on our last segment and take this race home to the finish on the beach in Seaside, Oregon.
The bad thing about our last segment was that it started at about 11:30 AM at the beginning of the hottest part of a clear day. The sun was already beating down by the time we took the baton over from van 1. The first two legs had some shade, but by the time I took the baton, the verdant country roads had opened up into grasslands that offered very little respite from the sun.
At 12:30 PM, I started my final leg. I was already sweating just waiting around for runner 2 to come up the hill. My leg wasn’t hard technically. There were just a couple of small climbs and then it dropped in elevation as we got closer to the Pacific Ocean. But it was hot as hell. The heat really pounded me. I drained my 20-ounce water bottle quickly and slowed my pace. It wasn’t just me that was slammed by the heat. Other runners jogged slowly or simply stopped and walked. I had 64 kills on this leg despite being tired. They were clustered in groups of five or six all along the course. Most were laboring under the heat. I kept plugging along. I don’t think I’ve ever been so happy to see the end of a run as I was when I rolled through the transition and handed off the baton to our next runner.
And just like that, my HTC experience, at least from a running perspective, was done. I cooled off in the van as we continued our relentless march to the sea. The next three runners also struggled in the heat, but by the time our final runner hit the chute on the way out for her final leg, we had all forgotten the heat. Seaside was waiting for us.
When we finally made it to Seaside and walked up to the beach, that’s when I realized it was over. We gathered in the finish area as a team and crossed the line together. Some of us were veteran HTC’ers. Others, like me, were newbies, but on this day we were all finishers of one of the most iconic relay races in the world. I had finally run HTC, and I couldn’t have done it without the wonderful team Kent put together. We all walked away with wonderful memories, funny stories, and some awful blisters (at least one of our teammates did), but it was well worth it.
The team runs across the finish line in Seaside.
We left the beach in Seaside satisfied and proud to be a part of the race. The winners finished in just under 17 hours. We finished in 29:46 (or thereabouts), but we had a great time and really pushed ourselves. It’s hard not to have fun when you cram six people in a sweat-filled van and make them drive around for 30 hours on little sleep.
To cap off our accomplishment, we drove up to Ilwaco, WA and took over a little B&B in the town. After much-needed showers, we went to a lively dinner at a seaside restaurant where we recounted our war stories, trash talked, and had a great time. I began this race only knowing two of the 11 other runners on this team, but by the end of this trip, I’d made nine new friends who shared a momentous event in my life. The sun slowly set into the Pacific as the revelry began. Like all good things, the HTC had to come to an end, but I’m sure there’ll be many more adventures to come.
The view from the restaurant on Saturday night after the race