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Save the Pain for Tomorrow (aka Hood to Coast 2010)

Sunday, August 29, 2010
For the longest time I've wanted to run in the Hood to Coast relay.

At 197-ish miles, it's the longest relay race in the world and is known as "the mother of all relays". The race starts at Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood and runs into Seaside, OR on the next day. Traditionally, twelve runners (two vans of six runners each, plus a possible driver) hand off a baton so that each runner runs three legs of the race. The first runner runs the 1st, 13th, and 25th legs, and so on.

The Hood to Coast 2010 course map

Hood to Coast is also one big party. In addition to being a grueling relay, it's an amazingly fun atmosphere. Vans are decorated, people run in costume, and, aside from a few competitive teams, the attitude is "it's the journey, not the destination". Team Top Gun was there, running in flight suits and blaring Highway to the Danger Zone, Team Superheroes featured a ninja handing the baton to Wonder Woman (and I'm pretty sure I saw Wolverine somewhere along the way), and other teams featured clever and/or slightly suggestive names such as "12 buns but only 5 sausages", "6 dudes / 12 boobs", "North American Distance Sprinters" (the van was labeled "Go NADS!"), a group of doctors called "Running on MD", and so on. Costumes, music, camaraderie, and pain are hallmarks of the Hood to Coast experience.

The company that I work for put together a Hood to Coast team this year, and, though I'm far from being in running shape, I wanted in. I got on the team and our team got in the race. Our team name? IP Faster. To explain, we're an internet service provider and IT service provider. IP stands for "Internet Protocol" - but yes, we were all well aware of the joke. We all trained starting late last year and a few months ago were were assigned our official race number: 293.

Due to injuries, we'd had several people drop off our team leading up to the race, and I was almost one of them. I'd hurt my knee when I'd bought a new pair of shoes that, instead of correcting any pronation, served to accentuate it. My knee almost went out and I limped for a long time, barely able to train in the months leading up to the race for fear of completely re-injuring it. We managed to replace runners with people closely associated with the company (or with employees), though I was able to extend a last-minute invitation to a friend of mine that I'd attended grad school with and who had run Hood to Coast a couple years prior with her husband. On two weeks' notice she arranged to fly up to Portland from Sacramento for the race!

The upside to the injuries, however, was that I was able to switch around the legs that I was running. I ended up as the 12th runner; moderate distance, few big hills, and, among my runs, I'd be doing the last leg into Portland and the last leg into Seaside. I was excited, but given my lack of training, I was nervous. My personal goal? Run. Simply that: run the whole race. Don't stop to walk, don't stop to rest, just run the whole race.

Leg 1 (map)

On race day, Friday, August 27th, Van 2 runners met in Portland and climbed in the van at 2:00 PM. Our first runners were off at Timberline at around noon, texting us with updates. We left in heavy traffic to meet them at the Fred Meyer in Sandy. I'm going to give Fred Meyer a shoutout for both being a sponsor of Hood to Coast and being super-organized at the first handoff point. Word on the street is that this is their second biggest day of the year after Black Friday!

We cheered for our runners as van 2's first runner was finally handed the baton (a plastic wrist slap bracelet). Being the last runner - runner 12 - for our team, the buildup gave me the jitters. I was the last one on the team to run a leg. There was a point where I was the only runner in the van to have not actually run at all. I was nervous, too. My first run was supposed to be 6.37 miles long, and I've never run more than 6.2 miles at a time. I also get dehydrated when running, so I'd packed a water bottle.

We were 9 hours into the relay before it was my turn, but when my turn came, it happened all too quickly. I almost bungled the handoff to leg 12; we were running slightly behind and, with the parking over 1/4 mile from the exchange, another runner and I had jumped out of the van as we were going past so we wouldn't miss the handoff. The problem was that I'd forgotten my water bottle. Compounding that was the fact that the runner out there was making much better time than planned - we'd happened to see him in the brief stretch that the course paralleled the road - so I didn't have time to stretch and warm up properly.

Once running, though, all that was forgotten. Without a map or a watch on me I had little idea of the time or the distance I was covering. With the sun down, it was often just me and my headlight. That lasted until the Springwater Corridor crossed 99E. Then I instantly recognized the lights of the "iconic" Acropolis, one of Portland's more famous and recognizable strip clubs. Don't ask.

Continuing on, I was running through a neighborhood when I passed a car that said "IP Faster - Leg 11" and had the name of our previous runner on it. It took me a second, but then I yelled out, "He was the last runner; this is leg 12!". The response of "Burton?" shocked me, to say the least. It was the lovely proprietor of Nosh on Seventh showing her support for our team. She gave me a hug as I ran past that really boosted my spirits.

I passed Oaks Park and, thankfully, was handed a cup of water, which, despite only having a few sips of water in it, really helped my dehydration. Running along the corridor right next to the Willamette River was amazing. I saw a deer next to the railroad track that ran adjacent to my path. While I was passed by the occasional runner, but aside from that it was just me.

Being taller, heavier, and slower than anyone else on our team, I had been joking that I was "the heart if the team", making allusions to the movie Rudy. As a response, my team got the crowd chanting "Burton! Burton!" as I ran in. I smiled and pushed a little harder. It was, in a word, one of the most awesome experiences ever. Compounding that, I'd predicted a 10:30 minute per mile run time, and I'd beaten that by about 30 seconds per mile.

Leg 2 (map)

After we finished the handoff to Van 1, we all piled in the van and went to my place. We had at least four hours until the next handoff, and, living in St. Johns, I didn't live far off the route and was even on the way. We rolled up after 11 PM and we started snacking and napping, cheerfully telling stories and stealing shut-eye when possible. I even took a 1.5 hour nap until our driver realized that she'd been reading the chart wrong and the handoff from Van 1 was an hour earlier than expected. To my team's credit, we were all up, packed, and in the van in 15 minutes!

The handoff to our team took place in Scappoose. We cheered for Van 1's last running as he came in our cheered for our running as she headed out. We also found out that law enforcement was out on the prowl, giving tickets for even the slightest perceived infractions - such as giving the Van 1 driver a ticket for a left turn on a yellow light.

We proceeded on, switching off runners every 45-50 minutes or so. Tired as we were starting to get, few of us were able to nap in the van because we kept having to start, stop, move stuff around, and cheer on our runners. Even between exchanges, we'd often drive past our runner and roll down the windows to cheer them on.

As we started winding through the coastal range, temperatures started to drop. My friend who had flown up from Sacramento started her leg when it was 37 degrees. It may have dropped below freezing for the next runner, but the sun started to come up as he was out there.

When it was my turn to run, I was the first of our runners who, due to daylight, wasn't required to wear a reflective safety vest and various lights while running. It was still uncomfortably cold, but I was able to warm up as I waited for our runner to come in. Come in he did, barreling in another 5 minutes early - though we're fast learners and expected it this time. This handoff was seamless and I was off.

This run, leg 24, was shorter than the last one, at only a 4.92 miles. While my last one was rated "moderate", this leg was rated "easy". It really wasn't that difficult. Instead, it was kind of boring. The path just took us along one winding road, with scenery that didn't distinguish itself. This time, not having a watch meant I had no real idea where I was. I really felt like I was making good time - I'd even passed three other runners - until I saw "HC3" painted on the side of the road. Instead of being close to the finish, I was only at the third mile marker.

As I continued to wind through Mist, OR, I started to get tired. Even with no real hills, the distance was starting to wear on me. Finally, I saw the volunteers and the crowd waiting at the exchange. My pace quickened slightly. I saw the next runner waiting for me and I handed her the baton. I stopped running and, as I caught my breath, walked over the high-five my team. I was two-thirds of the way done. My team was doing well. Well over a hunded twenty miles into the relay, we were within a few minutes of our predicted time, and again, I'd shaved a few minutes off my personal time, running at about a 9:35-9:50 pace.

I stretched for several minutes, popped some ibuprofen, and we all climbed in our van for the break.

Leg 3 (map)

As we were driving toward the final van handoff point, we were looking for a place to spend the next four hours. As we drove through Jewell, OR, we saw that the school there was running a fundraiser: warm showers for $3, with hot food available for purchase. We opted to stop and most of us took showers. I even managed to get over my normal modesty for the siren call of a hot shower. After the shower? Massages were available: $25 for 20 minutes. I didn't want to be the guy to get a massage in the middle of Hood to Coast, but I was hurting. My friend counseled me: "Burton, we do what we have to do." It was the best $25 I've ever spent - and half my van, who'd also had massages, agreed.

After some of us were able to nap (not me!) we got back on the road an hour before the next van handoff, expecting to have plenty of time to chat with the other van and cheer our runner in. We didn't count on traffic. Instead of passing the fifth runner as we made our way to the exchange, we passed the sixth runner, already a mile (and moving fast) into his run. Then we hit traffic, a line of vans a mile and a half long winding along a narrow country road. It wasn't long before runners were passing us. Fortunately, I spotted our other van four cars ahead of us. I jumped out and ran up to them. "Hey, have you guys seen van 2?" They laughed, but were also concerned that we were behind them. I waved to everyone and ran back to my van. A few minutes later our team captain ran back. He'd been watching the clock and knew that we weren't close to the exchange yet. He and our first runner ended up jogging ahead to make sure they were ahead of the runner coming in. They barely beat him, too, as we were cheering him on through our open van door as we crawled along and he passed us. Not far behind him were a lot of other team captains and runners trying to make it to the exchange on time. We weren't alone.

Aside from that almost-botched experience, the third leg started our smoothly. Our times weren't nearly as good as when we started. In one case, our runner who'd started with an 8:00 mile for his first leg posted a 14:00 mile for his last one. We were started to get concerned and talk about going back to look for him when he hobbled across the finish line. He'd managed to keep running, even if he could have walked faster. I was scared. My legs were really starting to hurt and tighten up after just two runs and a total of an hour and forty-five minutes of sleep in the past 30 hours.

Finally it was my turn. I'd been popping ibuprofen and acetometaphine for the past hour and stretching like crazy, trying to loosen up my legs. As the incoming runner charged in 15 minutes early, the pain left and I took the baton. Heading out, I jogged up a gravel road and turned to go uphill. I knew that my run featured "[c]hallenging up and steep downhills on winding paved roads to Finish on sand". I made it up the hill as my left leg was finally starting to loosen up and headed for the down. It was two miles of downhill running, and it was much better than I thought it would be. Even though I was being passed left and right by runners, I was breathing fine and my legs weren't having to do much - just land in front of me. In fact, it was at the bottom of the hill that I groaned, realizing I was going to have to run the final two miles on my own, with no aid from gravity.

I continued to shuffle along, still running - or at least trying to. They had erected a temporary foot bridge over Highway 101 in Seaside so that runners wouldn't have to stop. It was steep; I'll also admit that, while I was running, I may have had to pull myself along a little using the railing. On the other side, I was just a few blocks away from the promenade.

The promenade was the hardest part. It was crowded with Hood to Coast runners who'd finished or people there for the party. Yelling "great job, you're almost there" may have seemed like a good idea on their part, but it was distracting and I really had to push the last mile. But I still was running.

Down to the sand I went, approaching the finish line, when my team captain called at my from my side. "Stop!". I paused in mid-run. There was the rest of the team in line; we needed to wait to be called so we could finish it together. A few seconds later we were all jogging - in some capacity or another - across the finish line as the announcer called us out. It was a glorious finish - but I made sure that we were done and that I could stop running. I even found out that I'd beaten my predicted time by 15 seconds, or about 3 seconds per mile. I'd never stopped running.

My team cheered and we were all relieved and happy to be done. We'd posted a total time of just about 30 hours, 32 minutes, off of our predicted time by only 15 minutes. Around us the party of the year raged, with live music, drinks, and dancing. It was an amazing thing, and we were all part of it.

... and as for today? I hurt. I hurt a lot. I feel like someone surgically removed my quadriceps and replaced them with bricks. I can walk until there are stairs or a hill in my way; then it's painful and awkward. But you know what? I'd do this again next year, with no hesitation in my voice when I say, "yes!".


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