By Mary Jean Yon
I quit drinking Manhattans long ago. But I must tell you, when that fateful e-mail arrived back in July from “Team Manhattan Straight Up” inviting us to participate in the 196 mile relay known as Hood-To-Coast; I couldn’t help but wonder if there was a message hidden in there somewhere. Raise your glass! Toast your teammates! Run a few segments between Mt. Hood in Oregon and the Pacific Ocean! Revel in the glory of team sports! It would be as simple as that, right?
David and I quickly accepted the offer and immediately set about adjusting our training regimes to prepare for this big event. For me that meant cutting my weekly mileage back to 10 miles a week to try to persuade a gimpy knee to cooperate. David intensified his training, which was focused, at that time, on preparing to break 5 minutes at the mile race at Breakfast On The Track. Neither of us seemed to get it.
For those of you that are not familiar with this event, Hood-To-Coast is a 196 mile relay race from Mt. Hood down to the Pacific Ocean at Seaside, Oregon which just happens to also be the official end of the Lewis and Clark trail. Teams of 12 tackle the course, which is divided up into 36 legs. Each runner is required to complete three of the 36 legs and rotates through in an assigned order. Legs range from 3.7 miles to 8.2 miles and include both easy runs and extremely difficult runs and everything in between. The race is insanely popular and participation is limited to 1000 teams with an estimated extra 400 teams getting shut out of registration each year. Each team uses two vans to transport their runners and yes…that translates to a total of 2000 vans shuttling runners on race day!
Fast forward to August 21. The first clue that something special was about to happen occurred in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport when we started noticing groups of runners congregating and joking about sleep deprivation. The phenomenon intensifies when we reach the Portland airport and see all sorts of teams starting to arrive. Camaraderie runs deep. It’s a special feeling and I’m sure somewhere there’s a group of teams of really fast, really serious and probably really nervous runners that hope to win this race but for the most part…that’s not what we’re encountering.
We find our group of New Yorkers (aka: Team Manhattan Straight Up) and receive our team shirts from Sara, our “Captainess.” Rest assured, this group fosters no illusions of coming across the finish line first but if there’s an award for most enthusiastic and best partiers…something tells me we’re a shoe-in to win that! The New Yorkers are one of three teams competing in this race from the Manhattan based club, The New York Flyers. The Flyers were founded in 1989 and proudly claim the title of “largest running club in New York.”
The logistics that go into supporting this team effort are daunting and it doesn’t take long to reaffirm how lucky we are to have fallen in with such an organized group. For many on the team, it’s their fifth time doing this race and they’ve got the preparation down to a science, due in large part to a Saint of a woman named Susanne who knows just what food and medical supplies to buy. Two vans are rented to hold both the runners and the provisions. Van One will carry the runners for legs 1-6 and Van Two handles legs 6-12. Each runner is given a packet that includes elevation profiles and laminated maps of our legs so we don’t get lost. Lost? Is that really a possibility?
The excitement at the starting line tells us that there’s something far bigger and more intimidating to worry about than getting lost. Team Manhattan Straight Up starts at 2:30 p.m. on Friday, August 22 at Timberline Lodge (6000′ elevation) which doubles as a ski resort when the season is in. Waves of twenty runners go off every fifteen minutes over an 11-hour time period until all 1000 teams have been catapulted into their Hood-To-Coast experience. Slower teams start in the morning; sleek elite teams wait until the evening hours and Team Manhattan Straight Up goes right smack in the middle. Feels right…but what do I know?
I do know I’m glad I don’t have the first leg which plummets down Mt. Hood at a net elevation loss of 2000 feet over 5.95 miles. Jerry, husband of Suzanne the Saint and one of the original charter members of the New York Flyers, gallantly takes this leg and approaches it with the wisdom of a pro as he methodically glides down the mountain making it clear he’s saving his legs for later challenges. Sara and Tom P. take legs two and three respectively and by the time we get to me for leg four, the terrain is much more civilized. I’m blessed with a gentle downhill for most of my 6.95 miles but the blessings quickly wear off as I hand off to David who gets the more challenging 6.1-mile uphill leg five. It’s somewhere around this point that I begin to realize that the Flyers have pegged David as their ringer and the new guy most likely to grin and bare it (ask me about that later!) on the more difficult legs of this journey.
As each runner does his/her assigned leg, the remaining team members in the van tend to the duties of providing water, cheers and moral support. Entertainment is provided by checking out the vans for the other teams that are prowling the course. Most people decorate their vans to some degree and the team names themselves are often the greatest source of entertainment. Among the names suitable for printing are: Weapons of Ass Reduction, Ouch, a woman’s team named Traveling With Out Tantrums (you figure out the acronym), and one of my favorites…Scar Trekkers, a team of guys who had all had open heart surgery and were captained by a guy named Kirk. No kidding!
Each leg goes quickly and is punctuated by the excitement of the exchange areas where team members hand off a wristband as they tag up with the next runner amongst cheers of wild abandon. As Tom D. completes leg six, we realize our first tour of duty is over and Van Two, filled with Gary, Peter, Jay, Bill and the newlyweds Dana & Bill, goes to work.
This is where it gets strange. With 1000 teams and 2000 vans, it’s easy to understand why race organizers don’t want you clogging up the road when your runners aren’t running. So Van One’s job is to get off the road when legs 1-6 are completed. It caught me totally by surprise when we retreated back to the Doubletree in Portland and went to the one team room to rest before we went back on duty at 11:30 p.m. to relieve Van Two. We had approximately five hours to kill and the Flyers idea of how to kill that time was to shower and sleep. Huh? I struggled mightily with this concept. As if this wasn’t already a weird enough way to spend a Friday night, the last thing I wanted to do was shower when I knew I still had to run two more times. Instead, I assured the group that one of my running buddies had told me I don’t smell when I sweat and I tried to ignore the skeptical looks of our Captainess as I sat on the floor and e-mailed friends back home. Question: how many runners can sleep comfortably in a King sized bed? Answer: Four!
Finally…after a small eternity the phone rings and Van Two reports in. We rise, drink a cup of coffee and head out to relieve our fellow teammates. Here comes the part I’ve been most curious about…running in the dead of the night for the second time in nine hours. I resist the urge to ask my knee how it’s doing and pop a Vioxx instead. Runners…ya gotta love ’em!
We tag up with Van Two and Jerry starts our rotation again in downtown Portland. It doesn’t take long to get out of town and into the dark night, complete with loads of stars. Every runner is required to wear a reflective vest and carry or wear some sort of light. It’s eerie to watch the bobbing lights as the runners get strung out along the road. One by one we get Jerry, Sara and Tom P. in and now it’s my turn. I’m a little chilled, a little nervous and more than a little curious about what could possibly go wrong. Will I trip and fall? Will my knee quit on me? Will I get lost in the dark?
Imagine my surprise when we hear a race official announce just two minutes before I start that there’s been an attack about a mile up the road and to try and buddy up. Oh and don’t worry, the police have been called and they’re on the way. Ack! The hair on the back of my neck stands up and after assuring David that I’ll be fine, I bolt out of the exchange zone and run the fastest I’ve run in ages! I pass a dozen runners in my 3.7-mile leg and thank my lucky stars I don’t have to run any farther. I run by some poor guy on a really dark stretch whose flashlight has burned out and I silently hope that he catches the guy in front of him because I’m sure not slowing down! I run like a woman possessed until I reach the next town and corresponding exchange zone. Knee…what knee?
David and Tom D. both run their legs fast as well and we close out our second tour of duty with big grins all the way around. We meet up with Van Two again and note that they look relatively refreshed after visiting the recovery room at the Doubletree. I wonder silently how many people they wedged into the king sized bed and if they all took showers. Inquiring minds…or is it sleep deprived minds…ponder such thoughts.
We take our weary bodies to checkpoint number 24, which is where we’ll spend the next 4-5 hours trying to rest while Van Two does their thing. The grassy fields that form this exchange area have a Woodstock atmosphere complete with food concessions, port-a-lets and sleeping bags scattered throughout. It’s a strange scene as hundreds of decorated vans park and their occupants try to snooze and recharge their batteries. It’s right about now I start wishing I had taken that shower and nap back at the Doubletree but stubborn pride forbids me from voicing anything. Instead, I curl up in a fetal position and listen to my brain dead teammates giggle as they struggle with making the overhead light go off in the van. Ahhh…life is so much easier when you’re well rested!
But well rested we’re not and as the new day dawns we move into the part of the competition where the mind (what’s left of it) must clearly take over the body. Van Two finishes around 8:30 a.m. and we prepare to “take it on home” or something akin to that. Something interesting has happened as we snoozed in the van during the wee hours. The fast runners have caught up with us! We chat with one particularly sleek woman from Chicago who says her team started at 7:00 p.m. Do the math. They’re fast; we’re not! But we’re having a good time…I’m pretty sure!
As my last run approaches I find my willingness to do a proper warm-up has all but evaporated. Let’s just get through this, shall we? I’m particularly pleased to learn of another Flyer tradition that includes beer for each runner as they finish their last leg. Now I’m motivated!
The last leg goes about as you might expect. I get a gradual uphill for 4.2 miles that tells me I spent too much of the reserves on that giddy run in the middle of the night…but hey…”we’ll get through this,” I tell myself! I’m encouraged to see other runners struggling too so I entertain myself by seeing how many more I can pass.
My last leg is nothing compared to David’s however, as he enters a brutal run consisting of 4 miles of severe uphill followed by 2 miles downhill. True to form, the guy is charging hard and giving it everything he’s got. At the crest of the hill, the Flyers (and yours truly) all participate in yet another tradition and moon our fellow teammate. The smile on his face tells us he appreciates our efforts…or is it that sweet downhill that he likes? Whatever the motivation, he finishes strong and hands off to Tom D. for the last and final leg for Van One.
By the time we all get to our last exchange area, we realize our van made up a lot of time and came dangerously close to surprising our teammates in Van Two. Here’s another peek at the endless logistics of trying to orchestrate 12 people leap frogging their way through this course. We tag up successfully though and wish Van Two the best and promise to see them in Seaside.
As we make our way to Seaside, we allow ourselves a few detours, which is a strange feeling indeed. Here we are, sitting outside drinking a cold beer and feeling like the race is over but no…we’ve still got another five hours to go while Van Two does their thing!
We finally arrive at the official finish line and post-race party on the beach at Seaside and when the last runner for Team Manhattan Straight Up, Gary Heard, comes down the boardwalk with our official timing chip we all jump in with him and run the last 50 yards through the sand so that we all cross the finish line as a team! Twelve tired but happy runners and ten new friends for the Yons!
As with any good long run, half the fun is wallowing in the glory afterwards and telling the tales. The team continues to demonstrate their expertise in this event by lining up two nice rental houses just up the beach in Gearhart, Oregon. Suzanne is there to meet us with food, showers and chilled Manhattans and by golly…I think I earned one!