Running with the Metalcats
The Hood to Coast relay is billed by its organizers as the “mother of all relays”, and it may well be the case. With 1,500 teams spanning 12-person, 6-person ultra, 8-person walking, and high school divisions, HTC has it all.
The relay begins at Timberline Lodge, 6,000 feet up Mount Hood in the Oregon Cascade Range. Winding down into Portland through forest and valley, the course takes runners 198 miles across well-supported back roads and major thoroughfares. 36 distinct legs continue up through the Coast Range in the wee overnight hours, before breaking into coastal valleys. Finally, as Noon strikes the following day, teams begin arriving in Seaside, Oregon, almost 36 hours after they began the day before.
The journey, to say the least, is epic.
This race report is going to focus a little less on the specifics of the relay, which has been documented countless times on just as many blogs. Instead, I want to write about something that is often left out of these posts: The importance of kinship, trust, teamwork, and connection that makes it possible, especially for a two-van team, to get from start to finish.
In any relay event, organization is key to ensuring things go as planned. When you factor in 1,500 teams with approximately 2,500 vehicles, 18,000 runners and walkers, and thousands of volunteers, only a well-oiled machine will succeed. A few random monkey wrenches are all it takes to throw things into a lurch, and in those situations, it is up to organizers and teams alike to keep the focus, to see it through to the end.
For my part, this year’s HTC was a new experience. It was my fourth year running the event, and my first time in Van 1. I was looking forward to kicking off the race atop my favorite mountain, not to mention finishing up first, rather than rushing to the finish line to meet the rest of the teams as has always been the case with Van 2.
It was also the first time I used my own vehicle, a Subaru Forester, in an overnight relay, and is something I’d hoped for a long time to do. That baby has seen me through thousands of road trips and a handful of one-day relays. It seemed fitting now, as it enters its “break-in years” of 130k+ miles, to put it to the test on road and trail, and perform it did.
Our team was organized by a running couple, Rick and Aurora Roth. They did a bang-up job, and I am very grateful for their efforts to bring together a mix of both experienced and first-time relayers, in a two-van setup, and to see it through to the end with support all the way.
Our team was the Metalcats, fashioned after a love of cats and a particular metal band. Big hair wigs and leather jackets didn’t appear as much as I’d thought would be the case. I think at the heart of it, we’re far more metal than an of us outwardly showed, and that’s really what counts: We were all very committed to putting in our miles, come hell or high water, and so we did.
We all met up Thursday evening before the race, at a karaoke bar in east Portland. For three hours, we terrified the living daylights out of each other and whooped it up. I have to admit, I’ve never had so much fun behind a mic, and on the basis the rest of the crew agreed to still run with me, I must not have scared them all off, so I’m going to count that as a big win. 🙂
The First 6 Legs
Van 1 departed from there, all gear loaded, and with a brief stop at a grocery store, continued on to a cabin we’d lined up from a friend in Rhododendron, just 30 minutes from Timberline. We took some time that evening to chill, as we whipped up a nice pasta and chicken dinner in the kitchen. The wood stove was stoked and set a relaxing tone as we finally settled in for not enough hours of sleep.
The dawn came early, and the five of us were packed and ready to go in just over an hour’s time. We made our way up to Timberline, and noted how some of the vans that rushed past us, were quickly caught by police. Active patrolling is one of the things I was very thankful for this year, and as we would find out was called for at a later exchange. You never know what you’re up against at these events, and the last thing you need to deal with is hot heads from other teams, driving recklessly or worse, endangering the lives of others.
As we reached Timberline, the temperature on my dashboard read 46F. It was lightly breezy, but the Sun was just coming up, and I could tell it was going to be a beautiful, warm-but-not-scorching kind of day. We found coffee and warmed up, and as 7:30am approached, our first runner, Nic, settled into the starting corral.
“They like Kittens and Metal… it’s the Metalcats!” shouted the announcer. That was a nice touch, as he called out all of the other teams as well.
And then, Nic was off… and we got back to the Forester to catch up and track him as best we could. Nic’s first leg was six miles, and encountered 2,000 feet of elevation drop. This leg in particular is a deceptive one, as it can destroy even the best athlete’s quadriceps and knees if they aren’t ready for the impact that is placed upon the body.
However, Nic was all smiles, and we quickly got situated at Exchange 1 for Chris to take over. He was soon off, and it was a good two miles until we caught up with him, only to see that he too was focused but relaxed on his own downhill course. He handed off to Elizabeth at Exchange 2, and she headed out to an unsupported forest service road for Leg 3, before dumping back onto now-busy Highway 26.
My wife Angela was up next for Leg 4, and as she took the baton bracelet, set out for her favorite portion of the area, which took her right past Lolo Pass Road, where the cabin is located, and through the town of Rhododendron. Ang’s first leg was the longest for that first set of six for Van 1, at 7.1 miles, and she was nursing a sore achilles. Nevertheless, she came into Exchange 4, and handed off to me.
Now it was my turn to face Highway 26. This portion of the road saw many fast vehicles whizzing past me, including a tractor trailer rig just 24″ away from me, and close to 500 feet of elevation gain, over 6.2 miles. A race official was patrolling this course, with cameras mounted to his vehicle as he recorded teams breaking the race rules, as this leg was not to be supported, nor were teams to part on the shoulder. Penalties in HTC include 60-minute time fines, and possibly disqualification depending on the severity of the rule broken.
The final two miles of my leg split off from 26 and onto a quiet country road, and it was here that I saw a healthy handful of roadkills — or just “kills” — when you pass other runners. Elevation gain is a quiet hell I’ve come to accept and to some degree, enjoy. I took that role and went for it. Finally, I was into the exchange, and I handed off to Nic, for his second run of this segment. You see, we were down a runner, so Nic and I agreed to fill in for the other three legs.
As I walked back to the Subaru, I was stunned at how long the lineup of vehicles had already become and so early into the relay. It was a good 1/4 mile from the exchange before I reached the car. We jumped in, and were able to pull out to merge back into traffic as we passed the exchange. This was a reminder of how choked HTC has become. There are literally places where a runner will pass the vehicle and reach the exchange first, and then have to wait for many minutes until the next runner shows up to take over.
We drove past Nic, and he had this big grin on his face. We knew he was in good hands and we continued on to Exchange 6 at Sandy High School. This would be our hand-off to Van 2, and provide us a respite of several hours as the other runners took over for their next six legs.
Our van made its way for a food break, and then onto Exchange 12 to await the next van’s arrival. We had estimated times that had been calculated by the team captains. The exchange was located along the eastern bank of the Willamette River in downtown Portland, and with the hot afternoon Sun beating down on everyone, the shade offered by the 405 overpass was welcome and provided us a perfect space to chill. I stretched out a blanket on the warm concrete edge of a planter bed and sunk into a deep meditative state.
Friday Afternoon: Legs 13-18
Our team got word that Van 2 had arrived and were awaiting their runner into the exchange. My time was approaching, as I had agreed to take the first slot for this and the next set of legs, as well as position 5. In all, I would cover five legs. My leg was just 4.1 miles through Portland and into the industrial blocks along Front Avenue, so skipped my hydration pack in favor of a handheld water bottle, and strapped my phone to my shoulder.
Aurora came in, and I headed out for my next leg, across the Hawthorne Bridge, and into a very familiar stretch of Waterfront park. The next four miles were retracing history, as I’d run this section dozens of times when I lived in NW Portland during my divorce in 2012. Running, since that time, had become therapy for me, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit the emotions this leg evoked in me. I pushed on and finished those miles in the hot afternoon weather with an overall 7:46 mile pace. Damn, that felt good.
I handed off to Chris and the team headed to the next exchange. There, we found the quintessential cluster — an entire exchange blocked by a locomotive train and its cars, continually shifting forwards and backwards, and blocking traffic for a good 20 minutes — and yet, we were still able to get in and out without any delays. Elizabeth headed off, and we drove on, now into the evening hours and with night falling, for Ang to take up from Liz and onto her next run.
Darkness fell, and fast. The evening legs, if you’re not accustomed to night running, can drive up anxiety, as your reflective vest, flashers, and headlamps still cannot protect you from the fact you’re running along a busy stretch of highway, and with vehicles indiscriminately racing past you. Ang came into the exchange and she was in pain. Her heel was flaring up, and it was hard to leave for my next leg, but I had alerted the team to her condition and they were ready with support and ice, so I took off.
My leg followed along Highway 30 all the way into the town of St. Helens. Despite being a good 20-25 miles from Portland, traffic was solid and seemed to go faster and faster the further I ran. Alongside the road were rails, and a large freight train approached me going the opposite direction. With stars overhead, the road finally black from no vehicles, and a glaring headlamp of the oncoming train, the scene took on a surreal space and I just absorbed it.
Miles counted by, and the lights of St. Helens approached. Soon, I was running through the streets, and I caught up to some of the elite runners that had passed me minutes beforehand, as everyone had to wait for a crossing guard to light the signal and allow us to cross Highway 30, on our way to the St. Helens high school just a few blocks away. I came racing into the parking lot and handed off to Nic.
We drove to Exchange 18 and awaited Nic’s arrival. This was the halfway point in the race, and we were ready to secure our vehicle and drive on to the next major exchange, 24, for a few hours of sleep. Nic came in fast, we assembled our van, and drove off into the quiet back roads between St. Helens and Vernonia.
At this point, exhaustion began catching up with us. I drove us for what seemed like hours, though it was about 30 minutes, along winding roads, near-summits, and overlooks along logging roads. We finally met up with Highway 47, which turned off onto 202, and led into Exchange 24.
Exchange 24: Hood To Jail…?
A dark part of the story is what happened at this exchange. We’d arrived about 1:15am, and had figured we had about four hours until the other van arrived. We unloaded tarps and sleeping bags from the Forester and made our way to one of the designated sleeping areas. The air was cooling rapidly, and within 30 minutes, I realized my sleeping bag was covered in dew, with the air chilling to the mid-40’s. It was cold.
Around 2am, I heard some engines revving, and a few minutes later, heard sirens of an approaching emergency vehicle. What I didn’t know is that a runner from another team, some guy that owns a mortgage company in Bend, had gotten himself either so drunk, or so jacked up on drugs, that he decided to steal a pickup truck from Honey Bucket staff that were on hand to clean the porta potties. He drove it through one of the other sleeping areas. Thankfully, several people were able to get out of his way in time, but sadly, he still managed to drive over one of the people that was sleeping in the field.
He was caught by a Beaverton K-9 unit and quickly locked up. His social media accounts were also quickly shut off, as well as his company’s website pages altered to try to hide his profile, but if you Google it, you can find his picture and his company. There is also a pretty telling 1-star review someone put on his company’s Yelp page that states it as best I could: “The owner of this company drives over people, so how can you possibly trust him to safely manage your money?”
HTC has enough to deal with. This person made a very poor choice and put many lives in danger. It could have been us. One person was overheard saying, “Huh, maybe he thought this event was called, ‘Hood to Jail’?”… and that statement has stuck ever since.
The Back Six: Legs 25-30
Back to reality, the clock was nearing 5am, and I was trying to warm up for my next run, Leg 25. It was 3.8 miles and had some moderate elevation gain. I was delayed getting to the exchange, with bathroom lines backed up for 20 minutes, so took off in a hurry to make up time. As with my second run, I averaged a solid sub-8 pace and counted endless “kills”. As I came into the exchange, my van mates told me they thought I was going to have a very good run, based on the state of other runners on the course. They were right. As much as I try to support all folks I meet on the road, when it’s 5am and you’re barely awake, anything you see that can feel like an advantage, including being just a bit stronger or faster than the others out there, can do wonders for your self-confidence and mental state.
Chris and Liz crushed their legs, and with dawn arriving, Ang set out for her final run. We drove on Exchange 28, and I waited for her to come in. I had been worried about her heel, but sure enough, there she was, right on time, and she looked strong. As she handed off to me, she said, “Yeah, I’m done”, but did so with a tone that told me she was in much better shape than she thought. Now it was my turn to take one for the team.
Leg 29 is a solid 10K, 6.18 miles of mostly uphill distance, 665 feet of elevation gain and up winding, narrow back roads. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this is the “toilet paper” leg, where teams lined up rolls of TP for runners to pass through as they reach the summit. I was passed by several more ultra team runners, as well as a few hot heads that burned out early. I figured I would catch up to them, and I was right.
I think I can.. I think I can… and do so I did. I reached the top, and what do you know, my wife was right there snapping a pic of me as the rest of Van 1 held TP right at waste height for me to cross through. Without thinking, I turned around and ran backwards and well, put that TP to use if you get my meaning. 😉
Then, it was two insanely fast miles downhill, with 500 feet of drop, and an average pace of 7:13/mile. I flew past lined up vehicles, including our team, and crossed into the exchange, awaiting Nic. He arrived soon after. I walked up the hill to our vehicle and we took off. Nic was flying, and had that same grin on his face that tells me he’s just loving life. Who wouldn’t look that way? It was early morning, the Sun was shielded by three shade, and we were all celebrating the completion of our runs.
We came into Exchange 30, got some coffee and refreshments at a nearby house-turned-concession-stand, and as Nic arrived, cheered for Van 1’s success!
The Wrap-Up to HTC 2017
From there, it was a blur. We were exhausted and ready for some refreshment. So on to Pig And Pancake in Astoria, it was! We fueled up, then made our way to Seaside to await the rest of our team’s arrival at the finish. We were able to check into our hotel a bit early, and even checked out the beer garden at the finish party, before we got word that our team’s final runner was heading into the finish.
HTC lines up teams in corrals to await their last runner, with the idea that all team members can cross the finish at the same time. We weren’t given clear instructions, however, from any of the race officials or volunteers near the finish line, so I finally went up the stairs to one of the announcers to hear it for myself. As this happened, our runner came in, so it was a mad dash to get down through the corrals, and then across the finish line we all went!
And then, it was done. Our 11-runner team had covered 198 miles in 32 hours and 19 minutes, and with no major hangups. We’d cheered each other on through heat, elevation, busy roadways, cold and dark hours, and through it all, succeeded.
And that’s the real story that needs to be told. Not the random details, like PR times or kills or total miles covered, but the stuff that matters, like how the team came together, performed, and achieved, from the captains, to the runners, and of course, the volunteers that made this a great team and once that rocked it in true Metalcat style!
Hood To Coast is a tough course. Sure, there are harder Oregon relays out there, like Cascade Lakes or Wild Rogue, but there is something about HTC that resonates with Northwest flair. Starting at a beloved mountain, passing through a busy city, and ending at another major landmark celebrating Lewis and Clark’s expedition to the coast… it rings through my Northwest bones, that in some way, each of us was retracing a piece of history, and adding to the legacy of exploration and adventure that defines those that undertake the Hood To Coast relay.
Happy trails and safe miles…