Sunday, September 6, 2015

Hood-to-Coast Relay

I don't like some of the connotations of the term "bucket list." I am very much a list obsessive, and I do have lists of things I would like to do "some day," mainly races and mountains, but I don't want to just tick boxes or do things because "you have to do them." While I have done plenty of things to tick the box, I always try to make the most of the experience, and make it an adventure if it's not interesting enough on its own. If I were to lose interest in completing a list, such as visiting all the State Capitols, I would shelve the project and focus on things I'm more interested in. Furthermore, it's not like I will ever complete my bucket list; much like the hydra, when I check off one item, two more take its place.
Which is a long way to go to say that I have wanted to do the roughly 200-mile (it varies a little year-to-year) 12-person Hood-to-Coast Relay for a while, but hadn't actively pursued joining or forming a team. Several friends of mine, along with other Austinites and their friends, have done the race in years past. When two of those friends were injured, I put my name in to fill in. Someone else took that spot, but Saturday 8/22, less than a week before the race, another team member had to drop out, and my friend messaged me asking if I could jump in at the last minute. After checking that flights were reasonable, I had to check with my boss that I could take two days off of work on such short notice. With approval, I booked a flight and became the final member of the Fat Cheetahs.
The logistics of Hood-to-Coast (HTC) are daunting. I studied what I could before the race and still hadn't the slightest idea of how it would work. Molly, the team organizer, is clearly some organizational wizard to forego the already complicated standard scheme of two 6-person vans and devise a 5/7 rotation scheme. I don't know the history, maybe this was pioneered by someone else, but it's still hard to wrap my head around even after having been through it. I can't possibly explain the mechanics, but it works out to the "off" van having 5 people and the "on" van having 7 people, one of whom is running. Add onto that coordinating the arrivals and departures of 12 team members, it's way more than I would ever attempt to coordinate.
Beyond the individual team logistics, the HTC organizers have a crazy task to assign every team a start time from 5am to maybe as late as 5pm on Friday. They must have some huge pool of data they use to estimate everyone's leg time based on their stated 10k pace, then come up with an estimated team time which they use to have everyone finish within a certain time frame. Essentially, the slowest teams start earlier, and the fastest teams start later. We were assigned a 1:15pm start time.
All 12 runners, plus Molly (who didn't run this year) and her son, drove up to Timberline Lodge a little before 1. Mt. Hood looked significantly different than last time I was up there, for a Christmas-day climb in 2013; there was very little snow on the mountain. I watched the 1 o'clock wave go off, wandered around a bit, then the team gathered up to cheer our first runner off at 1:15. At that point, van 1 was "active" and went to exchange 1 for the handoff; I started in van 2 and we went to exchange 3 to hang out for a while at a convenience store. The fact that leg 1 ends at exchange 1 further confused things, but at least we had time to figure things out before the fatigue and sleep deprivation set in.
Before the rain started and before the traffic jams, pretty much the whole active team went to watch/cheer the transitions. Let's just say the enthusiasm waned a bit once the rain started overnight. From then on through Saturday, the traffic got so bad at the exchanges the van didn't always have a chance to park before the exchange happened. Several times the next runner had to jump out of the van just to be at the exchange to meet the incoming runner, and didn't always get a chance to take that potty break they wanted.
I was runner number 7, so I ran legs 7, 19, and 31 at 6pm Friday, 3am Saturday, and noon Saturday, respectively. The race organizers grade every leg based on distance and elevation profile, and my legs were 5.4 miles moderate, 5.8 miles "very hard," and 4 miles moderate. I'd say the grades were fairly accurate, though with the very hard leg being in the dark in the middle of the night, it didn't seem that bad. I haven't done a lot of night running, this was definitely the longest, and I kind of liken it to my also somewhat limited trail running experience- that you have to run more by feel than the watch, and you'd better not be looking at your watch. I didn't find it that bad running on a very dark small road in the middle of the night, I reckon almost every car on the road was part of the relay. My biggest problem with that leg, beyond the dark and the hills, was the tilt to the road. Whether it was deliberate for drainage or just that the road is old and in poor repair, the left side of the road, where we were running, slopes decidedly to the left. I developed a blister on my left foot during this leg, and I think it was due to that foot being "downhill."
The race has somewhat arbitrary rules on safety gear- every runner from 6pm to 9am has to wear a reflective vest with lights and carry a flashlight or headlamp. Since my first leg started just before 6, I had to wear the gear even though the sun was still well above the horizon, and I was wearing sunglasses. The vests also carry an "ick" factor, since they are always sweaty when a runner finishes their leg, and we didn't have enough vests for everyone to get their own. I did bring my own headlamp, however. Apparently it's a lot brighter than other peoples were. The headlamps of some of the people I passed in the night were so overpowered by mine, it didn't even seem like they were on.
There is a thing in this race about "roadkill," that is passing another runner. Some teams had "kill counts" ticked off on their van, this wasn't something our team was tracking. I didn't keep a close count of the people I passed, but it was somewhere around 20 combined for the three legs. On my first leg, our van passed as I was passing another runner and the driver had his phone to take pictures or video, at which point the woman gave a dejected "Aw man, kill in action." I was passed something like 6 times. It wasn't until my last leg (with an almost a hockey stick profile- long flat shaft, then straight up the blade to the finish) that I got "chicked" as I sputtered up the hill.
Between breakfast Friday and dinner Saturday, I didn't have a real meal nor any real sleep. The vans were loaded with snacks, so I didn't go hungry, but due to the time constraints and having to run every 8 hours, it just wasn't possible to have a regular meal. About the closest I got was Saturday morning at an exchange that was serving breakfast. I got pancakes and eggs, but I only ate about half of it before handing it off to a teammate. Theoretically we could have gotten a decent nap from about 10 to 2, when our van was off, but it just wasn't working for me. We were in the parking lot of a high school, and exchange point. The school was set up with showers and cots or something like that for sleeping for a few dollars, but those who had been there before did not recommend it. With 5 people in the van moving around and such, plus other vans coming in and out, I could not sleep. The irony was that I did fall asleep for about 5 seconds when we were driving around before we got to the school. Later in the morning I was so exhausted I was desperate for even a moment's rest to "reset." Fortunately I managed to sleep for a few minutes at one of the exchanges before my last leg.
The weather was apparently the worst this race has ever had. The finish line party had to be cancelled because all the tents got blown down in the wind. The worst of the storm was around 4:30am, shortly after my leg ended. I could see some lightning way off in the distance when I was running, but only got rained on for the last half mile, and not too badly. Mary, who ran the next leg, got the worst wind and rain. The lightning was very close, and she described the rain as just going sideways in front of her eyes. There was some drizzle when I started my leg, plus it was cold, and I was worried about dumping rain and being cold, so I ran with my light rain jacket on, but took it off within the first mile and left it tied around my waist. The rain got heavy again around 10am, and I was worried I would have to run in the rain, but it cleared up and the sun even came out not long before I started. My shoes did get wet from the wet road, but it wasn't too bad. There was a long stretch of road that was covered in leaves, plus an occasional branch, brought down by the storm.
The wind was still pretty strong on the beach later in the afternoon, to where you felt sandblasted. Since I finished in van 1, and was the last for that van, once I was done, we went straight to the beach house. We had a chance to shower, eat some pizza, and relax for a while. At 4 we went down to the beach to see our last runner, Hans, in to the finish. I think he was pleasantly surprised to see us. Because he had been running with his head down so his cap kept some of the sand out of his face, I don't think he saw us until he was to us, at which point we all ran the last 100 meters to cross the finish mat together.
All in all, I had a great time, it was a lot of fun, and I would do it again. Although next time I would plan it more than a week in advance and fly out Monday instead of Sunday to get a little more time at the beach.

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