When invited to run on a friend's team in the mother of all relays, you answer yes and start training immediately. This is how I joined the Van Tramps for the 30th running of the Hood to Coast Relay. I had seen the documentary (here's my review of Hood to Coast, the movie) and was honored to be in the 12-women team named partially after the Von Trapp family singers, immortalized climbing hills in The Sound of Music. But our team name is also a nod to the hours spent in a van, tramping around Oregon between Mt. Hood and the Oregon coast. Silly names and decorated vans are all part of the fun of this endurance relay.
The race starts five miles up the eponymous mountain, winds its way through the city of Portland, OR, before ending 200 miles later at the beachy town of Seaside. The 12-member team is divided equally into two vans. Each member runs three legs of the 36-leg race, with stage lengths ranging from just under four miles to just over eight. The race takes over 24 hours to complete, so all racers have the thrill of running in the dark wearing flashing lights (or vests) and headlamps. In fact, race officials won't let you check in at the starting line without first showing them your safety wear. Nothing like sharing a sweating reflective vest with your teammates. It's bonding!
Hood to Coast is equal parts road race, slumber party, and road trip (but with healthier snacks and occasional sports gels). You definitely have a sense of adventure as you drive from stage to stage, cheering your teammates as you pass them, even stopping to provide water breaks since the race has no "supported" water stations. There are plenty of volunteers, a necessity to corral the 1,500 participating teams. With 10 teams starting every 15 minutes, the baton (a reflective snap bracelet) exchange stations can become a bit crowded, creating crazy traffic jams on two-lane country roads.
Van one kicks off the fun with the first runner descending down the mountain (this was me; it was fun to run downhill, and I ran faster than usual with gravity pulling me along, but it sure did trash my quads!) while the van drives ahead to the exchange area. The first runner hands off the baton/bracelet to the second runner then hops in the van after a wee bit of stretching before the van heads to the next exchange. This pattern continues until the sixth runner then passes the baton to the seventh runner, who is part of van two.
The folks in the first van then drive ahead to the exchange where the 12th runner will hand the baton back to the first runner. On the way to their destination, the runners in van one will eat and possibly shower (one exchange occurs in a high-school parking lot, and the school opens its gym for sleeping and locker rooms for clean up) and sleep, if they can. I found myself attempting to get some shut-eye in a big field full of vans and runners, wrapped in a sleeping bag thrown atop a tarp, at 7 a.m. Was I successful? Nope, but it was nice to stretch out. You repeat this leapfrogging a total of three times, and the runners hopefully all hook up to cross the finish line together on the sand at the beach.
Running is such a solitary sport that running with a pack — or at least driving around in a van pre- and post-run — makes you really feel like part of team. With hours to kill, you learn a lot about your teammates: first kisses, oddest summer jobs, how race anxiety affects their digestion. Prying my tired body off the cold ground to run my last leg was so surreal. I thought, I never do this in my real life. Yet it was me running, and the Hood to Coast might just become part of my real life. You learn so much from running it once (like bring a phone charger for the van and to take hill training seriously) that you have to run it again to put all the hard-earned knowledge to use.
Have you run in a distance relay? Share what you learned in the comments section below.