Second Wind and First Gale at the 35th running of the Hood to Coast Relay

by Stephen Long

After running the Boston Marathon, next up on my running bucket list was Hood to Coast, the iconic annual overnight 198-mile relay from Mount Hood to Seaside – the Mother of All Relays. My chance came when a team headed by Tim Ulbricht, an Illini now living in Portland, was short of runners. His team has been predominantly C-U and former C-U runners for the past eight years. It included two very successful local distance runners, Peter Goldsmith and Shane Cultra. Luckily Tim had two places to fill. This meant that my youngest son, Patrick, also an Illini and former Second Winder now living and working in D.C., was able to join me. He was in training for the Marine Corps Marathon and the D.C. Ragnar, so the timing worked well.    

The team stayed together at Tim’s the night before, which was a great chance to get to know everyone. The relay requires 12 runners divided between two vans. We were assigned van #1 and set off from Portland at 7 a.m. for our start time of 10 a.m. The start is at Timberline Lodge in the shadow of Mount Hood. There are start waves every 15 minutes.    Patrick, with two of the youngest knees, took the first of our 36 legs. This sounds easy, a steep downhill run for about 7 miles. But as most will know, while a gentle slope is your friend, an unrelenting steep slope is not, and a totally unfamiliar experience for C-U and D.C. runners.    

The start had a great party atmosphere, with some teams in fancy dress and others clearly aiming for the fastest time possible. The start of our 198-mile relay came, and we cheered our runner off and departed for the van and what would be a process we would repeat 18 times. On most but not all legs, the van takes the same route as the runners, and so we were delighted to see Patrick out in front of the 10 a.m. wave and catching the rear of the previous wave as we passed and cheered our runner on. We then parked at the first exchange.    

My leg was #4, and by the time I took over, the route had become largely level and it was now over 80° F. Luckily the adrenaline allowed me to turn in a respectable time, urged on by being able to add 20 to our tally of “road kill,” the term for the number of teams that you pass on your leg. Once our six runners had each completed their legs, we handed over to van #2 and had time to clean up with baby wipes, change, get some lunch and nurse aching limbs.    

Four hours later we took over from van #2 in the center of Portland, running along the river. Although it was not yet dark, lights were required, and by the time I take over we were out of Portland and it was dark but still in the 70s and very humid. More “road kill,” but now one or two strong teams were appearing and making me their “road kill,” although the net was still encouragingly very positive. It was wonderful to reach the point in the dark where a volunteer reads your number with a torch and relays “878” to the changeover. You know at this point that you are almost done and ready to hand over the yellow baton.    

At about 10 p.m., our last runner handed over to the first of van #2. While waiting to see the hand-over as numbers are announced, I heard number one called out. A runner glided in out of the dark at a remarkable speed and handed over to an equally fast runner, as if in a 4 x 400 relay, who quickly disappeared into the night. I was not surprised to see that team #1 placed third in the women’s open division.    

At this stage, we were in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere. However, an entrepreneurial high school opened its showers at $2 a shot – the most welcome shower I can remember excepting the one I took after six weeks of field work in arctic Norway – but that was 40 years ago.    

Now we had to try to get some sleep before taking over for our third and final legs. Oregon had been in an unusual and prolonged drought for six months. We fixed that. The end of our rest period was interrupted by an intense Midwest-style thunderstorm that rattled the van. We took over in the storm. Being the fourth runner in our van, my headlamp was important in avoiding a trip. By the time our last runner set off, it was light again but the wind off the ocean was picking up. We handed over to van #2 just after 6 a.m. Yeah!    

We were done!    

Meanwhile, as the van #2 runners descend to the coast, they were also exposed to the wind, which was now a gale – 30 mph with gusts up to 80 mph! Unable to do anything to help, we cleaned up, changed and went off for a great breakfast. Then off to the finish line and party on the beach where the relay finishes. When we arrived, the beach looked like a bomb site. The exhibits and stage had been wrecked by the gale, with debris strewn and blowing across the beach. The finish had been moved to a sheltered street backing the beach.    

Just after 10 a.m., just over 24 hours from our start, the van #2 runners arrived, waiting for our final runner. We then all joined up with our final runner to cross the finish line together. Of the 1,050 teams that completed the Hood to Coast this year, our team came in 63rd overall and 15th out of 253 teams in the men’s open division. Not too shabby a way to mark off the bucket list!    

My son and I described being in a van with five other sweaty bodies, dealing with heat, a thunderstorm, little sleep and a gale, over the phone to my wife. Her response – “Let me get this straight – this is fun?” As strange as it may sound, it was fantastic fun and I would jump at the opportunity to do it all over again. Only another runner could possibly understand this. We benefited hugely from being part of an experienced team, and I would recommend this as the way to try your first Hood to Coast. The organization of moving almost 9,000 runners over 198 miles, with 35 handover points, was just amazing, yet it worked without a glitch thanks to hundreds of volunteers.    

If you ever have the chance, do it! And you may even have a beach party.  

This story originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2015 issue of In Passing.