It may sound like a strange dream, or to some, a nightmare.
Imagine you are running along a pitch-black gravel road shortly after 2 a.m. The light from your headlamp bobs along the ground in front of you in a figure-eight motion, creating a small island of light in a sea of darkness. The only sound is that of your footsteps and your strained breathing. Occasionally, a large van races up behind you, kicking up a cloud of dust before speeding out of sight and deeper into the woods.
It soon becomes apparent you are not alone. There are others wearing headlamps with red flashing lights attached to their backs. You attempt to make contact, spouting out a word of encouragement to let them know they are not alone. But they respond with silence and a blank, emotionless stare like that of a robot programmed solely to get from Point A to B.
Wiping the dust from your lips, you round a corner and are surprised to hear the sound of voices identifying you by your bib number and guiding you into a chute. You hand over your sweat-soaked wrist bracelet to a familiar face. Finally, you stop running. With weary legs, you stumble toward an idling van that waits to whisk you away as your dream begins to disintegrate.
You wake up and realize you have just completed your second of three legs on the Hood to Coast Relay.
Each year since 1982, teams have signed up for this unusual experience that provides an escape from the monotony of daily runs around the neighborhood. In that time, the race has grown from eight teams to 1,050.
“It is so strange and otherworldly to run longer than I am used to, in a place I have never seen, in the dark with strangers covered in robot lights, and at an hour I try to never be awake for,” said Libby Lawrence, an Astoria resident in her second year competing in the Hood to Coast. “It's a powerful meditative space.”
With 12,600 runners participating, the 2014 Hood to Coast exhibits a wide spectrum of runners who come in different shapes, ages, skill levels and running forms. While some runners leave you wondering if they have bitten off more than they can chew, others leave you feeling like you are running through sand as they effortlessly tick off five-minute miles.
Like many Oregonians, running is in my blood. I joined my Lake Oswego cross-country team on a whim in seventh grade and have been on the move ever since. I love living in a state where the sport is embraced as well as celebrated. Oregon is home to the most prestigious track meet in the United States (the Prefontaine Classic at the University of Oregon), the monumental 3-Course Challenge cross-country race, and Hood to Coast “the Mother of all Relays.”
The 33rd annual Hood to Coast concluded Saturday and marked my seventh time completing the race with the Running Fools, a continually evolving team of runners from Astoria, St. Helens and the Portland area that has toed the starting line of every Hood to Coast since 1983.
Richard and Diane Bemrose, of Gresham, helped found the team that now includes daughter, Debbie Stevens, of Svensen, and granddaughter, Ashley Anderson, of St. Helens. The name was fitting because of the foolishness of the event the first few years as it battled to gain traction.
“My grandpa started the flame,” said Anderson after her third HTC race. “I remember always looking in awe at all his ribbons, medals and pictures in his home. I always wanted to make him proud and carry on his legacy more or less.
As one of the original teams, the Running Fools is considered a legacy team and is allowed to bypass the lottery that determines which teams are allowed into the relay race each year.
Competing in the mixed open division, the focus is less on racking up “road kills,” by passing other racers, and more on having a good time and cheering each other on to the finish.
“(Hood to Coast) is only as hard and intimidating as you make it,” said Warrenton's Dee Rzewnicki. “The team is not there to just run the other legs. It's there to carry you through yours.”
The Running Fools finished in 31 hours, 42 minutes and 35 seconds. The slow time, aided by the usual HTC traffic congestion along Oregon Highway 202, provides plenty of down time to deliriously discuss the various conditions and costumes of passing runners.
How hot do you think it is inside that runner's panda costume? Who is that 80's hair band singer taking the handoff from Slash? Will the space-time continuum implode if teammate Kyle Smith sees his future, older self just ahead of him on the race course? And would performance-enhancing drugs make our team slightly more competitive?
Eventually all conversations devolve toward the eternal struggle of waiting in line for an outhouse, only to discover it is out of toilet paper.
Once again it is time to step out of the van, and into the chute at the next relay exchange. There is a crispness in the morning air as the mist begins to break and give way to a sunny day along Highway 202. People are more willing to talk; mostly about sleep deprivation and the need for a good cup of coffee.
The third leg is always a grind, but you gain energy through the encouragement of race volunteers as they attempt to maintain order. A daunting hill lies ahead. But, as you approach the summit, you see the team vans with racers ringing cow bells, handing out water bottles and cheering for you, and others they have never met, to finish strong.
After all, you are all runners, and it's all downhill from here.