The Many Faces Of Hood To Coast, Mother Of All Relays Is Competitive Race, Yet Festive Romp by David Hunter, note by Larry Eder

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David Hunter wrote this piece on the Hood to Coast Relay for your reading pleasure! We hope that you enjoy! Hunter's experience as a relay runner on past Hood to Coast's and driver this year gave him a real insider view of the heralded event! 

davehunter_hoodtocoast.jpgHood To Coast: Hammarley And Hunter At The Beach

The Many Faces Of Hood To Coast
Mother Of All Relays Is Competitive Race, Yet Festive Romp

September 2012

At the end of every August, as the summer is winding down, dedicated and festive hordes of runners make an annual pilgrimage to the Pacific Northwest. The nomadic runners come to compete in a grueling relay race over a taxing yet beautiful 200 mile course, to galvanize friendships among their teammates, and to battle first and party later with teams of runners with whom they share a special kinship. They come to run the Hood To Coast Relay.

Make no mistake; the event is a formidable challenge. Over 1000 relay teams -- each comprised of 12 runners in two vans -- tackle a 36-leg race over a picturesque 200 mile course which starts 70 miles east of Portland at Timberline Lodge atop Mount Hood. The race winds its way to Portland, heads north toward Mount St. Helens, and veers northwest into hilly -- and Dave_Hunter_Right_On_Track.pngbeautiful -- logging country. The course then meanders toward the coast, and ends -- in dramatic fashion -- on the beach in Seaside, Oregon near the Lewis & Clark statue which commemorates the 1805 arrival of their expedition at the Pacific coast.  

But the race that labels itself as "The Mother Of All Relays" is not just a running competition. It is much more than that. There are many facets to this unique event which, at once, is a curious blend of the Boston Marathon, the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade, and Woodstock.

When race day finally arrives, the Timberline Lodge area is a non-stop bustle of activity -- with vans full of runners arriving, engaging in pre-race prep, and then heading out onto the race course after the wave containing their lead-off runner is sent on its way. The start line mastermind is John Hammarley -- a 4-time Emmy award winner who has served as the race announcer for every one of the 31 annual editions of HTC. To spread out the competition, the race starts 15-20 teams every 15 minutes and the intrepid Hammarley introduces every team by name in the waning minutes leading up to each quarter-hour start. Setting the tone for the event - a spirit of tough competition with a dash of levity -- Hammarley's serious, yet impish, delivery signals that Hood To Coast is a difficult, hard-nosed event, but also is an opportunity for fun and some laughter. Jude Hubber, Vice President of Marketing and Publications is quick to acknowledge the pivotal role Hammarley plays expertly. "John is the starting line, the voice of Hood To Coast." Hubber solemnly intones.

The team names? Ah, yes, the names. Squads work hard and take great pride in coming up with a team name that captures the group's personality, acknowledges the collective struggle of competing in an ultra-distance relay, and promotes a laugh. Double entendres and junior high school humor prevail as the race course is strewn with decorated vans sporting names like Booty And The Beasts; I Hurt, You Hurt, We All Hurt; and Ain't Nobody Got Time For That!  Hammarley, his voice already raspy only halfway through his 13 hour starting line gig, quickly acknowledges that there is no team name he hasn't heard over the past 31 years. His favorite? After only a moment, he smiles and answers, "Off Like A Prom Dress!"

It would be a mistake to conclude that this is not a serious competition. Beneath the veneer of frivolity, there is an abiding spirit of competitiveness that is embraced by a broad array of teams -- regardless of whether the runners are men, women, open, or age group. This year, pre-race publicity touted the fortunes of a young Japanese team from Toyo University that openly stated that their goal was not merely to win, but also to take down the long-standing course record -- a 1994 mark of 15:56:54 set by an uber-elite team from Nike which covered the course at an average per mile pace under 5:00. When the Toyo team's lead-off runner rocketed off the mountain and covered the tortuous 2000 foot elevation drop over the 5.64 mile first leg in under 25 minutes -- a sub-4:25 pace -- careful observers took notice.  But one superb leg does not a record run make.  Yet even though the Toyo team could not better the course record, its winning time of 17:14:34 gave them a comfortable 40 minute margin over the runner-up.

Fierce running is not limited to a few elite teams. Black Flag, which won the race in 1990, was back 22 years later as a Masters team. And it showed it still had the competitive juices flowing. Headed by David Frank - Galen Rupp's high school coach, a talented runner in his own right [8:38 steepler], and one of two of this year's Black Flag runners from the winning '90 squad -- the veteran team posted a time of 19:47:03, successfully defended its Masters title, and finished 9th overall.

The 200 mile journey to the Pacific is dotted with memorable images -- some inspiring, some humorous, some touching.

At the Brightwood Weigh Station -- the 4th Exchange -- vehicle envy prevailed. Cramped runners in mini-vans squirmed out to gawk at Russ Humberston's Mercede's Sprinter -- a spiffy and barely rule-compliant 21-foot long sports vehicle, fully pimped out with a kitchenette, bath, and shower. Team Back Fat was competing in style.

As night descended, runner headlamps and reflective vests were donned and the northbound berm lane of Highway 30 became an endless string of colored blinkie lights as runners soldiered onward toward Scappoose. Affirming the notion that Hood To Coast is truly an "adventure race", tweets soon spread the word that a tire fire near Leg 17 would necessitate a course change. Hubber's race management team was all over it.  In 25 minutes after being alerted of this disruption, Hubber's squad had nimbly designed and implemented an effective solution that was minimally-intrusive. Race leadership constructed an alternative route for Leg 17 which left the remainder of the standard course intact -- disaster averted.  Not unlike life, Hood to Coast is often about how you do on Plan B.

The mechanics of running a smooth and "clean" race is part of the event's challenge. Squads must work in a coordinated effort to reach the Pacific. Teams lose precious time if they run off course or fail to have a warmed-up runner ready at every one of the 35 exchange zones. Each team's two vans - both carrying 6 runners -- share the responsibility. One van is always "on duty" -- with a racing runner on the road while the "on-duty" van is scurrying to the next exchange, 6 miles up the course, to prepare its next runner to accept the wrist wrap and keep the team moving. Meanwhile, the second vehicle -- the "off-duty" van -- is parked at an exchange 35 miles up the road while its runners, waiting for their turn to go "on duty", check the course map, nibble on bananas, sip sports drinks, and try to steal a brief snooze.

A favorite nap spot is the "Sleeping Meadow" just west of the 23rd exchange in aptly-named Mist, Oregon. Late into the night, off-duty vans will creep onto the foggy and dew-covered field in search of a quiet corner to park and rest.  A brief moment of comic relief can interrupt the still beauty of this setting when, for example, a runner, sporting impeccable "broadcast hair", decked out in a business suit and tie, and a member of "Seaside Action 4 News Team", emerges from a sleeping bag, trots through the mist, and enters a parked van displaying an "Anchorman" photo of Will Farrell admonishing, "You Stay Classy, Seaside."

Aided by a welcomed nap and some on-board snacking, the racers now must tackle the last runner rotation -- the tough 3rd and final leg for each runner. As the early morning sunrise burns away the stubborn Pacific mist, thoughts of the joyful finish on the sand and the beach party that follows help inspire the runners to dig down deep as each prepares for that last run.  To paraphrase a favorite team name, it is time to "Suck it up, Princess."

In recent years, teams running their third and final legs have sometimes met a new and emerging challenge: clogged roads. Traffic congestion over the final third of the race course has proved to be a growing-pain issue. Traffic slow-downs can preclude "on duty" vans from making timely delivery of the next runner to the next exchange before the current racer arrives there.  After a long stretch of jammed roadways marred the 2011 race, race leadership vowed to implement necessary changes. A lower cap on the number of participating teams combined with a newly-implemented seeding formula greatly improved the situation for the 2012 race. Glad for this improvement, race leadership nonetheless knows that this challenge has not yet been completely eliminated. "We know we have more places to fix," admits Hubber. "But the good news is that everything is fixable."

The highlight of the final runner rotation is Leg 29 -- arguably the toughest leg on the course and the dramatic pinnacle of the race. Each team's "Leg 5" runner -- who runs legs 5, 17, and 29 -- is usually the squad's best athlete, and with good reason. Leg 29 is a brutal 6.11 mile rule run which contains the ascent and descent over the final mountainous terrain before the ocean. Once shaded by a mighty stand of evergreens that offered the runners some relief in their battle to conquer the summit, the mountainside is now completely logged. Now the ascent is bathed in relentless sunshine and heat that add an additional element of challenge for the runners as they grind up the twisting mountain road.  Both the athletes and the cheering teammates that line the roadway know that this stretch of the course is the HTC equivalent of the Newton Hills of the Boston Marathon.

As the vans reach the beach, the anticipation builds as teammates congregate on the sand to join their anchor runner for the ceremonial group run over the final 80 meters to the finish line. It is a special and emotional moment for the final runner and the entire team as a hoarse Hammarley -- who greets finishing teams for 9 hours -- announces each team's finish and welcomes them to Seaside. After the finish, a quick pose for a commemorative team photo precedes the long-awaited trip to the beer garden where tired but exuberant medal-adorned athletes join thousands of others to relish live music and the best beer ever. The party rolls onward and concludes at nightfall with a spectacular fireworks display over the Pacific.

What is the magic that makes Hood To Coast such a special and unique event? Hammarley, whose raspy voice necessitates word economy, succinctly answers, "Size, speed, and endurance."  With a more expansive response, Hubber touches upon several contributing elements: the communities along the course ("which embrace 18,000 athletes passing through their towns"); the diverse participant base ("you can witness an Olympian passing a race walker passing a wheel chair athlete"); the resilient volunteer base ("Our volunteers come back every year. They want to be a part of it.") and the impressive sponsors ("They are deeply involved.") Added to these factors should be the recently-emerging and often-overlooked charitable aspect of HTC. The relay race is the American Cancer Society's second-largest athletic event fund raiser in the country with annual cash contributions approximating $620,000 and with an over-all in-kind value pushing $1 million.

With Hubber and his wife and Race Director Felicia -- daughter of race founder Bob Foote -- ably undertaking the second generation of race leadership, this family business looks to be on solid footing. Wary of the staleness that can be brought on by complacency, race leadership is constantly looking into the future -- pressing itself to evolve and to become better. "We never want to say 'This is a successful event and we don't need to change anything for next year,'" states Hubber. "We want to respect the history of the race, but let it grow in the natural way that things grow." Even a future broadcast facet may be in the works. Preliminary discussions have taken place with a network affiliate which could lead to a televised element to the race.  Notes Hubber, "They are talking about building a portable studio for the start and the finish and doing all-day broadcasts."

And so Jude Hubber and Felicia Foote-Hubber -- aided ably by founder Bob Foote's "long view" -- now begin the process of planning for the 32nd running and continue to build and push the vision for an even greater Hood To Coast Relay in the years to follow. All the while, thousands of runners across the country -- barely recovered from this year's event -- are already constructing race lineups and making plans for next year's Oregon adventure.

~Dave Hunter

[The author, who has raced all 36 legs of the Hood To Coast Relay, captains the Young Tarts & Old Farts -- a Hood To Coast team which this year finished 89th, but proved to be a stronger competitor at the beach party. He can be reached via email at: [email protected]]

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