Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Hood to Coast Relay (August 25 & 26, 2006)

Another year, another Hood to Coast Relay. But nothing old is ever truly the same from year to year. This year I have a new teammate: fellow Tapir Michele! She is a speed demon so it’s a shoe-in that our team will do well.

My summer has been nothing but one delayed flight after another, so why am I surprised that my flight from Denver to Portland is delayed? For a few desperate minutes I’m afraid that I won’t even get out of Denver on Thursday night, but then United comes through with a different airplane and all is well again. In the end, my late-arriving flight is a moot point, since Karen, who is driving down from Seattle to do taxi service from Portland to Salem, is stuck in traffic and is even later than I. The only real consequence of the delay is that Michele has to do overtime waiting at the Portland airport. She, of course, uses this waiting time to a best advantage: when I meet up with her, she’s toting a couple of bottles of wine from the “Made in Oregon” store at the airport. Now THAT is a woman who knows how to take advantage of a situation!

We do the normal routine – my brother Dave cooks us up a yummy pasta dinner, my niece Emily cooks us up some yummy French toast in the morning, and we (Karen, Michele, and I) head over to our team captain’s home mid-morning. After the frenzy of packing way too much stuff into the vans and all of the obligatory pre-race photos, we’re on our way. Mount Hood, here we come!

Leg 1, Mount Hood to Government Camp. As always, I’ve requested to run leg 1 again. Nobody else on the team wants it. I love it. I own it. It’s mine. It’s a match made in heaven.

Among the things that I love about leg 1 are these things: it’s the only leg that has a pre-defined start time (in our case, this year, at 2 p.m.); because we arrive early for the race, I always get to warm up on the trails that snake up the mountain beyond the Timberline Lodge; my legs tend to all be in the coolest part of the day; leg 1 is steeply downhill, so I can run faster here than in any other race I’ve ever participated in; and finally, I get to finish first! While the race organizers score this first leg as “Very Hard” owing to the fact that it drops 2000 vertical feet over a 6 mile stretch, I don’t think it’s anywhere near as hard as the climbs that some/most of the other runners have. And my other two legs are blissfully flat and short. It’s always a mystery to me that nobody else claims this leg, and that it’s mine for the asking.

Today, it’s a bright sunny day, with just a hint of cool at the top of Mount Hood. The illusion of coolness disappears in a heartbeat as I do my warm-up run. Somehow I feel calmer about the relay this year, a bit more relaxed, maybe a tad more organized. Maybe that’s because I’m already running on a sleep deprived body. Or maybe the newness has gone out of the experience. This is, after all, my fourth year running Hood to Coast with the Femme Fatale team.

About twenty teams take off right at 2 p.m., and I sprint off the starting line. I have a goal of running a sub 6-minute mile today, and this first mile is the steepest and therefore my best chance. I know that I have to go hard from the start. It may not be a great race strategy, but the only one that has a possibility of getting me the sub 6-minute mile.

And a funny thing happens: I look around, and there is nobody in front of me. Not a soul. I keep expecting the fast runners to go by, but all I see ahead of me is wide open asphalt. It’s a heady feeling, and one I’ve never experienced before. I can scarcely believe this, but as the minutes tick by, I realize that I am leading the flippin’ race! I have never done this before, and, what’s more, I’ve never really even dreamt of it. The experience leaves me feeling just a bit disoriented. Jazzed, yes. Exhilarated, yes. Breathless, yes. And still a bit disoriented. What the heck am I doing out here?

My watch/GPS beeps to signal that I’ve passed the first mile, and I steal a look at my watch. 6:06. Crap. Missed the 6-minute goal. What’s more, I know that that time is just slightly slower than my first mile each of the last two years, when I covered the same distance in 6:04.

But I don’t have time to dwell on the disappointment, since in short order I’m getting overtaken by a guy. He’s friendly and says something about this being fun as he goes by, and I watch him as he bolts down the road. Clearly, this guy is running a smarter race than I, and he’s picking up speed. I try to keep him in my sights, but he looks strong, and I suspect that he is not going to slow down.

While I haven’t hit my 6-minute mile goal, I figure that I can still target a faster time than last year or the year before. Oddly enough, I ran this leg in exactly the same time (38:09) both of those years. So I push with everything I have.

Another mile goes by, and now I can hear yet another runner gaining on me, and then a woman passes me. Dang! This is getting disheartening. Is the entire 2 p.m. field going to catch me and pass me by like I’m standing still? I worry that I’m really blowing this good thing. And then I can hear another set of footsteps behind me, and it’s really upsetting.

A part of me figures that I’m just going to get passed left and right, and I’m a bit miserable because of it. My legs are tired, my body is tired, and I’m breathing as hard as I can. But another part of me says, “This is BS and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” I kick as hard as I can, and the sound of someone overtaking me fades into the distance.

The gap between me and the woman who passed me is no longer getting bigger, and I start to have just a glimmering of hope that maybe I can catch her again. So I bust my lungs, and now I’m catching her. Little by little. Soon I know that I can overtake her, but now I’m worried. Is this too soon? Will she dog me the entire rest of the way to Government Camp?

But I don’t know how to do anything other than to give it my all at this point, and I blast past her. It feels SO good! There are about two miles left, and I’m afraid of her passing me again, but it’s a risk I’ll have to live with. This being out in front is more work than I bargained for.

With about a mile to go, I pass a guy from the previous start. It’s rewarding, but a little sad. Groups start in 15 minute increments, so that means that this guy started at least 15 minutes before me. He is most definitely going to suffer over the next day, if he survives. But this is survival of the fittest, so I run on down the road.

The only cruel thing about leg 1 is that after 5 ½ miles of very steep downhill, there is one tiny little uphill stretch. It feels like hitting a brick wall. It doesn’t hurt as much today as in past years, but it’s still a major pain. The good news is that past this little stretch, we make one last little turn, and we can see the handoff zone. It’s all good downhill again.

So I finish the leg, and hand off to Jan, and hit my watch. According to my GPS, 5.88 miles in 39:18 for a pace of 6:40/mile. It’s a disappointment after running an average of 6:30/mile on this stretch each of the last two years. But later, I talk to Mick, and tell him that I’m unhappy with my run. He says, “You ran 6:40s for 6 miles and you’re complaining?” He’s right. A change of attitude is in the works.

The rest of the team runs extremely well, and we’re almost dead on schedule when we hand off to Van 2 in Sandy. Karen gets her first roadkill on H2C, and Michele tears up the road, too. It’s a good start.

Leg 2, downtown Portland. We’re a bit earlier this year, so I’m worried about my ability to get some real rest between legs 1 and 2. But somehow, I actually sleep a bit in the two hours that we have to nap in this odd urban environment, with sleeping bags spread out on top of overgrown weeds under a freeway. But then it’s time to be up and getting ready. Van 2 is right on schedule, too. That means my second leg (actually leg 13 of the relay) will start sometime around 11:30 p.m.

It’s humid and still a bit warm as I jog along the Willamette River promenade, trying to get blood flowing in my legs again. We’re on the east side of the river now, and the first thing I’ll do on this leg is cross a bridge to run on the west side of the river. Still, the promenade runs in the same direction, and I don’t like the fact that I’ll have a stiff headwind. But you run with the conditions you’re dealt, and that’s it for me tonight.

Selena hands off to me, and the run is on. I cross the river, and then head north. I try to imprint on my mind this view of downtown Portland at about midnight: lights twinkling in the river and more lights dotting the high rise buildings. The temps have dropped just a tad, so it’s gotten more comfortable in just the short time since I did my warmup mile. This course is almost a straight line north, and I have that miserable headwind to fight the entire distance.

But it’s a short distance – just 4.1 miles – and this leg goes by quickly. There are a few folks out on the promenade, but the only people I see after the first couple of miles – after the promenade ends and we run through an industrial area – are other runners. This is a good leg for me from a roadkill standpoint: I pass 7 people, and nobody passes me. The run is relatively short, so I’m sprinting the entire time. Total time for the leg is 33:57 for an average pace of 8:23/mile. This is slower than last year’s pace – or the pace of two years ago – so I’m starting to feel really old and slow. But I’ve worn my HRM for this leg, and I know that I could not have given much more, so I take comfort in that fact.

The rest of Van 1 runs, and this is my favorite part of the Hood to Coast experience. There’s something magical about standing out in the middle of the night, under the stars, when all the rest of the world is asleep, helping other runners prepare for their turn. Tonight, the entire team is spot-on again, everyone coming in very close to their predicted times. Soon, Michele is taking off on her last leg, and we’re scurrying to get to her next exchange before she does, and we just make it. Then van 2 takes over again, and it’s time for us to head off to the next major exchange.

Leg 3, Mist. The drive from this exchange to the next major exchange has always been a challenge. It’s all narrow two-lane roads, and lots of relay traffic, and it all just seems to crawl along. This year I decide that I might as well take advantage of my spot in the back of the van with my pillow, and get some extra sleep. It’s a good thing.

When we get to the exchange point at Mist, the field that serves as a parking lot is not as full as I remember from past years, and in a brilliant stroke of luck we find a huge tarp that someone has left behind. We park in front of the tarp, and in less than the blink of an eye, everyone from our van is spread out on the tarp, tucked into sleeping bags. (Everyone except Jan, that is, who prefers to sleep in the now-empty van.) We’re like sardines lined up on the tarp. It’s 5:30 a.m. when we hit the ground at Mist, and just 7:00 a.m. when my alarm goes off a short time later. It’s been a short night, but I feel pretty well rested, all things considering. Once I get a cup of coffee and eat a gel (and cycle through the honey bucket lines a couple of times) I’m ready to run.

If ever there was a place with an appropriate name, it’s Mist. The marine layer hangs heavy in Mist, and the air and ground are both extremely damp. It keeps the temps cool, which is good for my run. I’m pleased that my GPS hones in directly on the satellites – who would have guessed through all this fog? But it’s obvious that the fog is not really that thick, as it’s starting to burn off by the time I start to run.

Once again, Selena comes in right on schedule at 8:30 a.m. I take off like a madwoman. I’m feeling a bit upset because my first two legs were both slower paces than I’ve run them in the past. Have I crossed that line, where I’m starting to slow? After all, I’ll turn 50 later this year, so it wouldn’t be a surprise. But it would be a huge disappointment. I’m not ready for that to happen quite yet.

So I run my heart out on this leg. I’ve done that in the last two legs and haven’t been happy with the results, but I don’t know what else to do right now. I count steps from the very beginning, and I listen to my rapid breathing, and I’m aware that my legs are turning over quickly. Soon, I’ve passed a couple of people already, and am targeting yet a third.

Then a guy passes me like I’m standing still. And then another. I look at my GPS, and my pace seems strong, so I chalk it up to the fact that we’re all converging now, and the fast guys are catching up and overtaking the slower teams. Still, it’s disconcerting.

I run hard and breathe hard and try to keep my form strong. The first mile is done, and then the second. This leg is mostly flat, just slightly rolling, and the terrain is perfect for me at this time in the relay. Up a little – but not so much as to slow me down much – and then down a little – and just enough to feel like I can really move. Another roadkill or two, and yet another guy passing me. I run like I’ll never have a chance on this course again.

I recognize the last little uphill, knowing that there’s a brief downhill on the other side, and then the exchange. I’ve been working on catching a person for some time now, and then a tall lanky guy goes by me like I’m standing still. Oh well, these fast guys are not people I have any delusions of keeping up with. I see the tall lanky guy pass my rabbit, and now I’m worried that I’ll run out of road before I get my chance to pass. But I put it into overdrive and get my pass. I’m just about ready to puke as I hand off the wristband to Jan.

This last leg is my redemption leg. The GPS logs the run at just under 4.1 miles with a time of 30:03, for an average pace of 7:21/mile. This is better than my last two years – just by a little bit – and far better than my best 5k pace (at altitude). It isn’t the same as running a 5:something mile at the start, but it’s the best I’ve been able to muster at this Hood to Coast Relay, so I’ll take it.

Finish at Seaside. The rest of the morning melts away, as the rest of my teammates in Van 1 finish their legs in fine style. Since I’m the first to finish, I get some extra time to just relax and watch my teammates in action. First there’s Jan; I’ve handed off to Jan now three of the four years I’ve competed on this team. She’s having hip problems this year, and comes in limping at her final exchange, but she still beats her predicted time. Then there’s Karen, who is the people-gatherer. Everywhere we go, Karen attracts people – men, women, kids. Somehow she ends up getting close to everyone; every time I turn around, she’s having a close conversation with someone new. Not only that, but she also has a body that all of us would kill for. And yeah, she’s consistently beating her predicted times, too.

After Karen, there is Anita, who is running her first Hood to Coast Relay. Anita was a late substitution when another teammate got injured just a week or so before the race, and she fits in perfectly. She is SO jazzed after each leg, that it’s fun to just watch her smile. Then there is Michele, our ringer, and by far the fastest runner on our team. Who knew that she would also be such a chatterbox? I guess it just goes with having lots of energy. She fits in perfectly. And then running sixth is Kris, who is a machine. Not only is she an incredibly strong runner, but she also provides our van (actually a Suburban) and does the majority of the driving. Kris is easy-going and fun; it feels like I’ve known her all my life, even though I just met her last summer.

We hand off to Van 2, and head for Seaside, where we all walk down to the ocean and give our legs a brief ice-bath. After showering and getting into fresh clothes, we head to the beach to await the arrival of the rest of our team. They arrive right on schedule, and Selena comes running down the boardwalk, and we all run through the sand to the finish line. It’s a pretty cool way to finish a race, even though at this point my legs are rebelling at running anymore, especially through the soft sand. Later, Karen and Michele and I will meet up with Toby briefly, and then we’ll all watch a dazzling display of fireworks. And then after a night’s sleep, we’ll pick up our 4th place medals and then all head home again, and Hood to Coast 2006 will become just another memory.


Bridges Runner said...

Just stopped by after searching for H2C entries. Sounds like you had an awesome race....and very cool to see that go get 'em attitude towards leg 1:)

This was my first H2C and I had an absolute blast!

Anonymous said...

This is an awesome narrative - thanks for writing it. I ran Legs 4/16/28 in '06 and had a great time. This year, I have Leg 1/13/25 and am looking forward to it. Your post here is a big help to me!