A stormy Hood to Coast to add to the memories
It's Sunday afternoon, more than 24 hours since my team crossed the finish line of the Hood to Coast Relay yet, in my mind, I'm still on the course.
All I have to do is close my eyes. I'm in the van, laughing with my teammates and blaring music on the stereo. I'm barreling down a gravel road in the dead of night, my headlamp illuminating the falling rain. Then I'm back with my teammates in Seaside, cheering as we race toward the finish line, slapping high fives with strangers who understand me in ways some acquaintances never will.
To say I'm a nine-time Hood to Coast veteran brings back a ton of memories. The truth is, I can close my eyes and suddenly be 19 again; I'm lying in a patch of grass, absolutely exhausted, amazed that I willed my un-athletic body to my first-ever Hood to Coast finish.
Last Friday, when my smartphone alarm woke me at 4:15 a.m., it might as well have been 1998. I woke up my cousin, Will Fackler, who has been on seven of my Hood to Coast teams. We got in his minivan and drove to my dad's house in east Gresham where the four others in our van were waiting.
I'm the captain of Van 2 for Sleepless in Scappoose, and my heart rises at the site of my crew. In addition to my cousin, there's my younger brother, Zach Pesznecker, and his girlfriend, Natalie Nax, who are students at the University of Oregon. Tim Bell is an old friend from high school. Amanda Young, who is entering nursing school, was raised in Gresham but now lives in Seattle. None of us knew Amanda until three years ago when she joined our team.
It was hugs all around when we reunited in my dad's kitchen. The only first-timer was Natalie, but she'd met enough of us to seem like a returning member. We ran through some logistics, including the weather forecast. In nine Hood to Coasts, I'd never seen more than light rain, but this year's forecast looked bad from the start. Most concerning was a high-wind warning in coastal regions.
Within minutes we were in the van our home for the next 33 hours driving to Timberline to cheer on the other half of our team for their 6:45 a.m. start.
The start area seems to buzz with excitement. Especially in the morning, weary runners who stumble from their vans come to life as their start times draw closer. Teammates huddle together for last-second selfies, and cheers erupt as new waves of runners are unleashed upon Timberline Road.
That was me, back in 1998, running the first leg of my debut Hood to Coast. My heart was pounding. In my mind, I could hear my father, also a Hood to Coast veteran, telling me to "run within yourself." I must have been the last person to make it down to Government Camp, but I followed my father's advice and lived to fight another day.
I couldn't even see our runner as she started down the mountain. We yelled her name anyway, then retreated back to my dad's house to rest and pack the van.
Friday morning felt like a kickoff party when the time finally came to leave my dad's house for good. Amanda controlled the music, blaring "WEEKENDS!!!" by Skrillex as we headed toward Sandy. Each of us was pumped to hit the course and start running.
Natalie was our first runner from the major van exchange at Sandy High School. Although she was anxious, she handled the rolling terrain of her first-ever Hood to Coast leg with veteran savvy. Up next was Zach, who dispatched his leg with a solid pace in the 8-minute mile range.
I started running where the Springwater Corridor passes Boring Middle School, and a good portion of my leg was along a segment of the trail where I often run. Because I knew the terrain, I confidently pushed the pace. My personal rule when racing is to run just a little bit faster than what feels comfortable. I finished my 5.45-mile first leg in 6:56 mile splits my fastest Hood to Coast leg in more than a decade.
I handed off to Amanda, who trained hard for months but was hit with the flu shortly before the race. Despite the setback, she churned out 8-minute miles and was greeted by her excited parents at the end of her leg.
Our next runner, Will, simply did his thing, covering 4.5 miles with a pace in the 9-minute range. In his early 20s, Will was an explosive runner with uncanny athletic ability. He's not as fast as he once was, but his natural abilities are still obvious. He can still make any leg look easy while bringing a smile to anyone's face.
Last up was Tim. As he ran, we headed into downtown Portland and met up with Van 1 near OMSI. Minutes later, Tim emerged from the crowd, and Van 1's runner was off.
Our spirits were high. We'd finished our first set of legs just 5 minutes off of our target pace. We were also excited for the next stop on our journey -- our traditional side trip to my mom's house in Milwaukie, where we could enjoy real food, hot showers and soft bedding.
As always, my mom was ecstatic to see us. She snapped team photos with the van, then changed into her orange "RACE OFFICAL" shirt -- a misprint of the Hood to Coast volunteer shirts from 2009. In the house, a giant bowl of watermelon waited on the dining room table. Mom cooked scrambled eggs for Zach, Tim and me while Natalie and Amanda took showers. Will drove to the liquor store for post-race supplies. Zach, Natalie and Amanda slept while Tim and I relaxed and watched "Aliens" with mom.
By 10:15 p.m., we were heading out. We waved goodbye, knowing we wouldn't have hot showers, beds with legroom or bathrooms without lines until hours after crossing the finish line. The Hood to Coast kickoff party was over, and things were about to get real.
Rain was in the forecast for late Friday night, but the weather was holding up as we arrived at the major van exchange at the Columbia County Fairgrounds in St. Helens. Van 1's runner had not yet arrived, so Natalie got in line for the portable toilet.
Suddenly, it started raining. Then I heard race volunteers calling out our team number, meaning Van 1's runner had arrived. I ran to the restrooms and found Natalie. Within two minutes she'd taken the wrist wrap and was on the road. Her leg was nearly 6 miles long with three distinct climbs, but again she handled her leg with steady resolve.
Next came Zach's leg, which is affectionately called "The Hill" by many Hood to Coast veterans. It's essentially two steep 2-mile hills with a short break in between, and half of the climb is on gravel. Zach wasn't scared of The Hill, though. He didn't want water or any kind of van support. He wanted to conquer the hill alone, and he did.
My second leg was remarkably easy a steady, gentle decline on dirt and gravel, which I strongly prefer over concrete. I finished the leg at a pace of 7:10 mile splits. Thanks to traffic in front of the exchange, I also beat Amanda to the checkpoint by 2 minutes.
Amanda's leg started with a fierce 1.7-mile incline, then went downhill 5 miles to the finish. The rain was falling harder, and Amanda was wary of the total 6.7-mile distance. She wisely took it easy and saved energy for her last leg.
Rain was falling in buckets as Will took the handoff. Then lightning lit up the sky, almost immediately followed by loud, clashing thunder. Tim stood waiting for Will in the exchange area while the rest of us stayed dry in the van. Eventually, I put on my rain jacket and brought Tim an umbrella. A girl from another team eagerly shared his cover until Will rolled in for the handoff.
Like Will, Tim was absolutely drenched by the time he finished his second leg. For all of us, fatigue was setting in roughly 24 hours had passed since we first left for Timberline Lodge. But, like clockwork, Van 1's runner was ready to take the wrist wrap. We were free to get some rest.
The break between each van's second and third legs is critical. This is the best and most natural time for most runners to sleep, and even an hour of sleep makes a huge difference in the Hood to Coast.
Rather than rest immediately, we drove through Van 1's next six legs and parked at the next major exchange point. Zach took over the driving duties as I grew more tired. I tried to get comfortable by curling up on the back seat, but Will and Amanda were lying where I'd normally put my feet. Instead, I piled an unrolled sleeping bag on them to use as a footrest.
Meanwhile, the Hood to Coast was experiencing the worst weather of the event's history. The winds were gusting up to 60 miles-per-hour. It also started pouring rain, and the gusts blew the rain sideways in thick, sweeping sheets.
We lounged in the van, doing our best to stretch while chatting and listening to music. At one point, I nodded off in the driver's seat, only to be stirred out of slumber by something touching my face. Turns out, Amanda discovered that lining up Werther's Original candies on my forehead was an amusing way to pass the time.
Finally, the time had come to run our final legs. Natalie was up first. Despite the erratic weather, she ran two minutes faster per mile than the pace of her previous two legs. Zach turned in a similar performance, bouncing back from a slower pace on his hilly second leg to run 7:50 splits on his last leg. As he handed off to me, I gave him a quick hug before embarking on my last stretch.
After two easier legs, my third leg was the longest of the course at 7.72 miles. The rain eased up as I started running. In fact, the sun broke through the clouds for most of my run, and the powerful winds were at my back most of the way. Some of the strong gusts seemed to help propel me forward, while others threatened to push me face-first onto the pavement. As I ran, I refused to look at my watch. I knew how far I needed to go, and months of training reinforced my confidence in getting there intact. I felt enough fire in my muscles to know I was still running strong.
Finally, the exchange point came into view. I broke into a sprint, pulling my shirt off as I raced toward the finish. It was a comical handoff, with the wrist wrap bouncing off Amanda's arm and falling to the ground. Still, she was off in an instant, and I returned to the van satisfied with my final-leg splits of eight minutes per mile.
Amanda's last leg was short, and she'd expected to tear through it, but that was before feeling the force of the steady headwinds with such paralyzing gusts. Although she couldn't run fast through the headwind, she powered through her run without dropping pace from her previous leg. Will's final leg was nearly seven miles long and almost entirely into the wind, but he plowed ahead with little drop off from his previous leg.
Next up was Tim, running the last leg. We piled in the van to make one last checkpoint.
Heavy winds destroyed the usual finish area on the beach.
For the first time ever, the official finish line was moved to where the boardwalk meets Broadway. The makeshift finish line was chaotic, but it was also highly entertaining. Scores of people lined the home stretch, cheering runners who went by. When people saw their runners, they simply filed in behind them and ran as teams to the finish.
Just a few minutes passed before I saw Tim coming our way. He was carefully running forward while shielding his face from a sandy gust of wind. I ran with him and got the attention of our teammates, including the folks from Van 1. Everyone filed in behind him, and we all crossed the finish line together. Tim's wife was at the finish line proudly snapping pictures. Tired and elated, we took a moment to savor the shiny finishers' medals now hung around our necks.
One thing is for certain people will talk about this year's Hood to Coast for years to come. They'll tell stories of the harsh downpours and the unforgiving winds, and how the usual finish area was blown off the beach.
I'll tell those stories, too. I'll also talk about the joy of finally breaking the 7-minute mile barrier for the first time since turning 30, and of relaxing with my teammates in our van while the wind and rain raged. I'll remember Amanda's and Will's tenacity as they battled those headwinds, and that moment with Tim on the promenade as the wind gusts blasted sand in our faces. I'll remember Zach telling me. No, commanding me. Not to help him run that hill. I'll remember Natalie overcoming her doubt and putting most first-timers to shame.
Each of these moments is so strong, so powerful. A Hood-to-Coast highlight reel in my head.
Now it's the summer of 2000, and I'm resting in the van with my sprained ankle resting on the window. Now it's a year later, and we're blasting "Rude Mood" by Stevie Ray Vaughan in the middle of the night. Now it's a sunny Saturday in 2002, and the two sisters in our van are doing cartwheels during their third legs. Jump ahead to 2009, and I'm in Seaside with Zach, Will, my dad, my stepmom and my cousin we all finished the race together, and I couldn't have been more proud.
All I need to do is close my eyes.