Hood To Coast 2009

I’m on the train on my way back from another relay race. Hood To Coast is among the first, best, and largest running relay in the world, and I’ve run the race with friends and strangers a lot over the years.

This time, I ran for Parkland Youth – a group of Pacific Lutheran University track runners who are all in their early 40’s. That makes them a masters team – and this year they were looking to break 21 hours (the race is 200 miles) and to win their division. They were short a runner, and I had the chance to toss my hat in the ring. I was pretty sure that I’d be the slow guy on the fast team, so I ramped up my speed training and also asked for the shortest total distance, thinking that I’d rather take a beating on a severe downhill than run a total of 18 miles!

I was a bit nervous about a couple of things: Racing with a bunch of complete strangers AND not being fast enough! Although I’ve been running and racing for years – I didn’t take it up until well after college – and there is a marked difference between those who raced in college and those who didn’t. I didn’t know if I’d fit in with a bunch of guys that raced together for four years – and was also nervous that I’d mess up their plans for the win!

Turns out – I was lucky on both counts. The team was comprised of 12 runners, two others like me who weren’t PLU grads. But all were masters runners, had some experience with Hood To Coast, and had typical, ribald senses of humor. For instance, running and talking about bowel movements tend to go together. As Chris said “I have to move, if I’m going to move!” And move he did – he cranked out 3 runs at a 6.30 or  better pace. Four, if you count his sprint from the porta-john, where as he described it:

"I knew I had to move, so I had to move. There was just one curve left in my lower intestine, so I almost yanked a guy out of the porta-john to take care of that curl. I heard Nathan yelling for me, so in one fluid motion, I grabbed the TP, wiped, upped my shorts, and opened the door and raced to the hand off.”

Of course, the re-telling was exaggerated, but the running wasn’t. We left Timberline Lodge at 6.30, just 15 minutes ahead of the very fastest teams. I was starting, and was more than a bit nervous: both vans had come to the start line to watch, and they’d drive past me on my way down the hill. On top of that, I was due to lose about 2,500 feet of elevation over 5.6 miles – a grade that approached 9% in places. Nathan (our team captain) had figured that I would run a sub six minute pace, based on one of my recent races and on the downhill. I was skeptical – but I did hit the first mile at 5.30 – I time I’ve rarely seen on my watch. The next mile was slower, and the pounding wasn’t so bad – at least not in the moment! I had a hard time actually measuring my pace, because I wasn’t working very hard – gravity was doing most of the work. I raced down, down, down, and finished in a 5.58 pace. Not as fast as the team needed –but I hoped to make it up on the next two runs!

I handed off to Nathan, and he smoked down the hill in a 5.26 pace. Robert was next, at a 5.40 pace, Mike (recovering from an injury) was in the low 6’s (he’d promised 7’s), and Scott blew out his long, hilly leg at a 6.02 pace. Craig ran below 6.30, and we handed off to the other van and headed to Portland to rest for a few minutes before starting again.

The break in Portland (courtesy Nathan’s mom) was nice, but much too short. Before I knew it, we were in the van and on our way to downtown Portland. Our van 2 had run strong as well, and we were within 2 minutes of the next masters team. It was about 1.30 in the morning, and cool when I took the baton and headed up and over the Hawthorne Bridge for a near 5 mile run along the waterfront and thru the industrial area of downtown Portland.

It was fairly awful – my legs were beat from the downhill pounding, and I wasn’t really awake yet. To make matters worse, the miles weren’t marked – so – while I’ve run that stretch of road before – I had no idea how fast I was going. My only real option (I had 30 seconds to make up for the team based on my first run) was to run as hard as I could, so I did. It hurt, and there were moments when I was sure that I was either running both the best and the worst run of my life. I tried to keep my eyes off my watch, but it was hard: I kept myself disassociated by doing math. I’m not very good at math, so it takes awhile, but it goes like this:

My fasted mile might be a 6.15 – so – to go just under 5 miles will take around 30 minutes. And my slowest might be closer to 7, which will take 35 or so. So, I won’t look at my watch until I’m sure I’m halfway.

Of course, that didn’t work – I checked my watch, and noticed I’d been running for all of 8 minutes – barely more than a mile. Ugh. Nonetheless, I knew that if I could just hang on for 30 minutes or so – I’d be well past halfway. By the time my watch was in the high twenties, I was sure I was close, and could tell myself that I just needed to hang on, so I did. I ended up with a 6.34 pace – better than I’d hoped for, and a second a mile faster than predicted. I was spent – but I’d but my deficit to about 30 seconds. I didn’t know how I’d get through my next run, but figured that I’d worry about that in the morning!

The rest of the team also hit their targets or better – and while the team we were chasing was slowly pulling away from us – we were on track to place 2nd AND to break the 21 hour mark – a fairly aggressive goal for us. After we picked up our runner, we headed to the next exchange for a bit of sleep before our final set of runs.

Right around 8.00 AM, Nathan woke the team, and we all shuffled around trying to wake up and prepare for our last effort. Our van 2 contacted us via 2 way radio (no cell phone reception where we were!) and they had run pretty well, but lost a bit of our margin. Alan came charging in, though, and handed me the baton, and I set off for a morning run, still wearing the same pair of contact lenses I’d put in more than 24 hours prior!

It wasn’t as hard as my 2nd effort – maybe because I could see the mile marks. The first mile was tough, as my sore muscles took their time warming up – but I tagged my watch and saw that I’d covered that first mile in 6.15. I was thrilled – if I could hold that pace, I’d make up my gap! The 2nd mile had the tinniest of rises though, and I could feel the tug of gravity working against me at that point. I was pretty dismayed though, to see a 6.45 on my watch – I was behind again, and more than a bit demoralized. The road evened, and I knew that I had just under 2 miles to go, so I did my best to work my arms, get on my toes, and to charge the runners in front of me. I hit mile 3 at a 6.05 pace – which likely meant that the miles were mis-marked, and that mile 2 was long, and mile 3 was short. That left me not knowing for sure how fast I was going, or if I was making up time or losing it!

The final half mile was a gentle rise followed by an even gentler downhill –and when I spotted Nathan, I got back up on my toes and ran at a full sprint – the sooner I finished the sooner I’d be out of may agony! I handed off the baton, and staggered to the side of the road. My teammates left me be until they were sure I wasn’t going to throw up, and then told me I’d made up a second a mile on my projected pace. I was delighted – it had been a grueling effort, but it had paid off!

My van mates ran hard over challenging ground, and woke Van 2 in time for the hand off. We delivered a 9 minute margin on that sub 21 hour finish time, and we headed for the beach!

We were out of cell phone contact for the next 3 hours, and only heard from Van 2 when their next to last runner was finishing. They’d run some challenging hills, and while they’d lost a bit of the margin –we were still ahead of our best expectations. Alan headed out for his final 5 miles, knowing that he had just a 2 minute cushion if he were to help us break 21 hours.

It came down to the wire! We lined the race course and peered anxiously down the boardwalk, waiting for him to take the turn and head towards us and the finish. We each gripped our watch, and watched as we saw 3.29 tick over, and no Alan in sight. He had just a minute to make the turn and cross the timing pad!

When he DID make the turn, we yelled and waved, each of us trying to somehow indicate that we weren’t just happy to see him but that he had to MOVE HIS ASS! It was a down to the wire finish – he turned the corner and we all had a few tense moments – each of our watches varied a bit, but it looked like he’d finished with just a few seconds to spare!

Although we had to wait (a beer helped), we did get news at last – we’d placed 2nd in our division, 20th out of 1,000, and had indeed cracked the 21 hour barrier by a skinny 15 seconds!

It was great fun, hard, hard, exercise, and fun to be with a group of guys that had raced together so long that the next morning one of them asked (out of habit) “what’s the team uniform for the day?” (Yes, we had uniforms).

We’ll see about next year – they may or may not need an extra runner – but if they do, and I am in shape – I’ll head back for another go at the 2010 relay!

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One Comment to “Hood To Coast 2009”

  1. Pat congrats. Just noticed in your twitter that you moved. Where to? Jeanie

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