Posted by: Joe English | September 3, 2008

Hood to Coast Relay: Coach Dean’s HTC adventure (part I)

Coach Dean Hebert at Hood to Coast 2008

Coach Dean Hebert at Hood to Coast 2008

Coach Dean Hebert and I are friends and we enjoying racing together. For Hood to Coast 2008, I was pleased to have Dean come up to Portland and join our relay team. Dean sat down and wrote about his first brush with the “Mother of all relays” in this multi-part article, which is a joy to read. In part I, Dean gets to Portland, travels to the start and runs his first leg. Tomorrow, the story continues on as the race progresses.

I will add, before we start, that Dean can be a bit of a drama-queen. Although he says that I originally assigned him the “easiest” of all of the leg assignments, I had actually assigned him the anchor leg — an honor in relay racing. It is one of the easier leg assignments, but I thought that it would befit him to run the team in to the beach at Seaside. As it turns out, I moved Dean into van 1 with me, because I thought it would be more fun to have him with me for the weekend (it was) and I did, well let’s just say, put him on legs that were more befitting of his talent. He did a great job with his tougher assignment. Enjoy the story.

Hood to Coast – the Mother of All Relays
27th edition 2008.

I got the call in late November 2007. “Hey you want to run Hood to Coast (HTC) next year?” I had heard much about the race over the years and Joe sounded so excited to have me on the team, how could I refuse? I had run the Ragnar Relay in Arizona I knew what I was in for. My only hesitation? My physical condition over the past 3 years has been so up and down with different injuries I had no idea if I was even going to be running 10 months from then!

For those who aren’t familiar with these relay races here is how they are run. Teams are bunched by start times. The slowest teams start earlier in the day and the fastest teams start later in the day. With over 1000 teams at HTC they begin at 8:00 AM and keep starting teams every 15 minutes until 7:45 PM. Our start time was 6:30 PM. There are 12 runners on a team. There are two vans, each carrying six runners. Runners must run in sequence so, runner #5 will run legs 5, 17 & 29. Leg distances vary from about 3.5 to 8 miles. They also vary in difficulty from quad screaming downhills to leg dragging uphills and everything in between. HTC starts at the ski slopes on Mt. Hood, OR, and ends on the beach in Seaside, OR almost 200 miles away. Six sweaty people spending 24 or more hours very close together.

I strained my hamstrings (yes, both legs) in late February and sat out for more than 2 months. And just how did I fry my hammies? I ran the Ragnar Relay – a similar formatted relay to HTC but with only 130 teams or so. There is something that happens in a race; even if it’s supposed to be a controlled relay leg. I want to race. There is something ingrained in me that says if you see someone, go after them. The object of racing is to get from the starting line to the finish line faster than as many people as possible. I’m not into “just finishing.” I’ve run these distances hundreds of times. I can run them in training if all I want to do is finish miles.
I started training late in May. I had three months to get in shape to run three legs of about 6 miles each within a 24 hour period.

Teams are seeded based on projected 10k times for each runner. Now, mind you, he submitted a 38:00 10k pace for me which I know I couldn’t come close to in my current condition. Normally 38 would be a very manageable time… but not this time. I would estimate on a good day I might pull off 40:00. Word comes by email – no pressure Joe says – we’re projected to be in the top 20 in our race division by HTC. Joe found some pretty fast runners – male and female – and it looks like the projected times will make us competitive. No pressure… right!

Training goes reasonably well for a number of weeks until I encounter patellar tendonitis in my right knee. I take a week and a half off. It plagues me the rest of my training up to and including race week. I am not physically ready for this race. My longest run was a disastrous 10 miler that I had to walk several times and a couple 8 milers otherwise, my longest run has been 6 miles. So, for the Ragnar Relay I was in respectable condition and ended up injuring myself and not running for two months… I don’t even want to imagine what HTC holds in store for me.
Joe sends me leg assignments early and I luck out. I get the easiest three combined legs. Yes!

Emails are exchanged over a few weeks and he says adjustments to leg assignments need to be made due to replacements of runners who couldn’t make it. Joe and I even have a nice phone conversation about how best to arrange runners. No names are used. Just high level discussions about if you have a fast runner but he isn’t a hill runner should you put him on the longest legs (22 miles total) and if you have a weaker runner does the team lose more time putting them on shorter but harder legs, etc. I don’t bother looking at the adjustments. It can’t be good news. A race spreadsheet keeping it all straight had been created. The cumulative “difficulty factors” of the three legs for each runner range from “17” to “21”; oh, and one set of legs registering “24” – legs 5, 17 and 29. The average leg distance is 5 ½ miles and the average runner total distance is about 16 ½ miles. There are 197.3 miles in the relay. I finally take a look at my leg assignment two days before the race. Is he crazy? I was awarded legs 5, 17 and 29. I went from easiest to hardest. And my last leg is the hardest of all legs (a “9” – please don’t show me what a “10” looks like). Is he crazy?

Ok, it’s time to reassess my efforts or I will die. So, here’s the plan, run comfortably hard on my first hard leg. Run very hard on the middle – and easiest of the three. Hang in there and see what I can do on the last leg. The last leg is 3.59 miles straight up then 2.5 downhill steep. Survive the uphill and see if I even have legs to run downhill. I will be running that leg in the early afternoon in heat.

The start – traffic – See runners already 60 miles into the race as we move towards the starting line. We see some runners already walking – and it’s only their first leg! That can’t end well.

We get there at 6:20 PM, 10 minutes to spare. The organizer barks out, “You’re supposed to check in 30 minutes ahead of your scheduled start!” “Oh, I thought it was 15 minutes,” says Joe. “You’re still late!” he answered back. Paula jumps out and like a trooper, gets on the start line as the announcer introduces each team starting at 6:30 PM. Then they are off.
It’s exciting to know we’re underway. My mind flashes to the all the runners we saw on our way up; over 60 miles in front of us.

Paula runs well on a leg-pounding downhill leg. Joe powers through his leg (editor’s note: in 5:45 pace!) The sun sets – hopefully only literally and not figuratively on the team. Jen, feeling the effects of motion sickness, or perhaps coming down with something is nauseated. A little vomit here or there and she still runs a nice leg.

Then it’s on to me. Leg 5 is 2 ¼ miles flat and downhill then uphill for almost 4 miles total 6.08 miles. The sun has long set. It’s a comfortable 60F degrees; a bit humid; so I opt for just wearing the reflective vest on top without a singlet. I have a head lamp and reflective hat with rear red blinking light. It’s dark. Runners are sparse on the road. Just before I get ready to run, Joe reminds me – “Hey what do you say in every race?” I immediately know he means my mantra: nobody, but NOBODY beats me in the last mile! I’m ready. I get the hand-off minutes behind the previous team and minutes ahead of the following team. I’m running alone. I get my eyes adjusted to the lighting. The brim of my hat casts a funky shadow with the headlamp above it. It’s like a crescent shadow around me then a bright light. I keep adjusting my headlamp. For some reason that visual effect leaves me feeling almost dizzy. I can’t look down for long.

It takes almost 3 miles to find a comfortable angle for the light and by that time, I’m directed off the main route to climb alone, in the dark, on the backside of the mountain. The vans are directed straight ahead. Without a bright moon, without street lights and with only sporadic houses hidden back in the forest it is quite dark… and quiet. I only hear my breathing and my clothing swishing with each stride. I look back. There is no one. I realize I cannot see anyone up front to chase. I also realize if I did, I would have motivation to push hard – which I do not want to do on this leg. At the same time I realize I don’t want to give any trailing runner motivation to catch me. I turn off my rear blinking red light on my cap. I’ll go stealth.

It’s unnerving. I hear nothing but my imagination plays with me. What if Sasquatch is in the woods waiting for me? Just how fast can he run? If it’s like the videos I’ve see, I’m thinking I might be able to outrun him. But, this is tough going on this steep uphill; so maybe not. I gaze periodically into the forest. Trees; lots of trees; and something I really didn’t want to see. Little pairs of eyes reflecting my headlamp back at me. I don’t even want to know what or who it is. I’m sure I see long fangs glowing just below the suspended eyes. No doubt… it’s a blood sucking vampire bat that thrives on lonely runners. I have to get this leg done… soon!

My legs turn rubbery as I near the end. After well over three miles of uphill trudging a race official appears in the distance – reflecting my light slightly off his vest. I turn, and it’s now less than half a mile to the hand-off zone. Just a few short minutes later there it is in front of me – Andy waiting for his turn. I slap the wrist band on his arm and away he goes. I survived. I actually feel pretty good and within only minutes I realize I paced my first leg perfectly. I pushed hard enough to make up distance on the next team and still not get caught by anyone behind me. I run only 1:30 slower than projected time. I’m satisfied with my effort.

We successfully hand off to our second van. It is now up to them for the next few hours. We get to ride ahead to Portland. We will rejoin in downtown Portland. We hurry ahead to arrive and get as much rest as possible, perchance to sleep, before they arrive and turn over the racing reigns to us again. Joe knows a “good spot” only a couple blocks away from the transition zone. It has some grass even! One other team had found the same area. We lay out our sleeping bags. Joe curls up in the van; only to reveal later that he did so because it wasn’t a very good neighborhood and he didn’t want to get mugged. I’m not sure he was kidding. (Editor’s note: he wasn’t.) There was only one drawback to this location. It was only 50 yards away from the main train line. And it was an oh-so-busy train line. Every 15 minutes trains went chugging through, horns blaring. So much for sleeping! On the upside, we didn’t get mugged.

Tomorrow, part II, the story continues.

Coach Dean Hebert, Tempe Arizona, USA
Contributing Editor and guest author
Running Advice and News



  1. Damn.. I look good in that Foot Traffic top! I almost look in shape!
    Coach Dean

  2. Wait ’till you see tomorrow’s photo — the one that I captured in the Porta-pottie!

    — Sorry for calling you a drama-queen Dean — It was pretty much my favorite thing that I have written so far today if it makes you feel any better. 🙂

    Coach Joe

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