Hood to Coast 2021

by Dave Parsons

It’s already been a week since I returned from the 200-mile, 12-person Hood to Coast Relay from Mt. Hood to the Pacific Ocean in Seaside, Oregon, and I’m still basking in the great memories. This was a trip that’s been nine years in the making and I’m so glad that I was finally able to take it and also introduce my Rogue Racers teammates to this epic event.

Back in 2012, I had the opportunity to be part of a Hood to Coast Relay team for the first time. Unfortunately, I was battling injuries leading up to that event and after running my first leg I was unable to run my other two legs and my teammates had to pick up the mileage. It was frustrating and disappointing, and I vowed that some day I would come back and take care of my unfinished business.

Fast forward to late October 2019 and I found out that the Rogue Racers had secured a coveted entry into the 2020 event through the race lottery. I quickly committed to go and eagerly looked forward to a much better experience. Then, the pandemic hit and the 2020 race was cancelled. We were guaranteed a spot in the 2021 event, but like with most events the past 18 months some of the excitement was gone and we wondered if it would even happen in 2021.

Then, in March, I got a note from my teammate who was serving as the captain of our HTC team that she was unable to go and wanted to know if I would take over the captain duties since I had done it before. I said yes and immediately sent a note to all the folks who had committed to go in 2020. Imagine my surprise when I discovered there were only four of us who were still planning to go. That meant I had to get to work to make sure the team was filled with 12 runners.

You would think that it would be easy to get my teammates to say yes to this epic adventure, but it was not. Traveling to Oregon from Ohio isn’t cheap, the dates fell right at the beginning of the school year, and people already had other plans or work commitments they couldn’t get out of. There was plenty of interest, but actually saying yes was tough. I would get our team roster to 10 or 11 and then someone would need to back out.

As June rolled around, we were still one teammate short when we got an inquiry about joining Rogue Racers from a runner named Tamara. I immediately asked her if she wanted to join 11 strangers on our HTC adventure as a great way to get to know our team. She said yes and then showed up to a group run that Saturday and the rest was history. She was a great fit and our HTC team was set. What a relief for me and I couldn’t wait to just enjoy the race in August.

With our team roster set, I started reaching out to brands to see if they would like to donate items that I could give all of our team members. Thanks to Coast Products (awesome $60 headlamps for each team member), SaltStick (two packets of FastChews for each team member), Rollga (a foam roller or activator ball for each team member), Southwest Airlines (a duffle bag for each team member), Squirrel’s Nut Butter (an anti-chafe stick for each team member), and goodr (4 pair of their sunglasses). It was fun to be able to introduce my teammates to these brands that I’ve come to love.

Travel arrangements were all set with hotels, flights, and rental vans, special Rogue Racers finish line t-shirts were designed, van and leg assignments were done and the excitement that had been missing early in 2021 was all there and we couldn’t wait to get this adventure started!

Then, on Tuesday afternoon less than 39 hours before our flight to Portland was scheduled to take off, we got the news that we’ve all dreaded over the past year and a half – one of our teammates had tested positive for COVID. We were devastated for them and thankful that their symptoms were not too serious as our first concern was for their health and recovery. They had also not been around anyone else on the team, so there was no exposure to the team.

Next, the reality set in that we needed to find a replacement or have three runners pick up an extra leg each. And would you believe that within two hours, we had done it!!! Thankfully, a friend of Michelle’s was already in Oregon for work and could get the time off to participate. She had also been a college teammate of another member of our Rogue Racers team and she was from my hometown of Zanesville, so it seemed like an ideal fit in a not-so-ideal situation. We made all the necessary arrangements to get Kim registered and we were back ready to go with 12 runners in the mixed sub-masters division – 6 women, 6 men all at least 30 years old.

Our flight to Portland was fairly uneventful despite a slight delay leaving Chicago from our layover. One of my biggest fears was having an issue with getting our two rental vans since they were necessary for the race and there’s been a shortage during the pandemic, but big props to Thrifty for having everything ready to go for us. Then, it was on to the Courtyard where our rooms were ready and waiting thanks to the great work by their group sales rep, Liyu, who I had worked with for several weeks leading up to our arrival. We had made it to Portland!

After grabbing a bite to eat at Chipotle, we drove both vans to Mt. Hood so that everyone could see the starting line since only Van #1 could go there the next day to start the race. We took a funny picture with the sparkling clean Honey Buckets at the starting line and just enjoyed seeing the beauty of the area and soaking in the much cooler temps. No one was missing the heat and humidity of Ohio that’s for sure!

We drove back down Mt. Hood at that point and headed to Vancouver, Washington to have dinner on the water. I was in Van #2 and we were marveling at how steep the first four legs of the race were going to be and couldn’t wait to see how Amy H, Michael, Josh, and Brittney would do the next day because they were going to be flying downhill! We enjoyed spending the dinner time all together at one table and it was a nice way to be together before we set out in two vans for the adventure the next day.

Thanks to our predicted finish time of 22 hours, 14 minutes, and 33 seconds based on times that we had each turned in that the HTC staff plugged into their formula we were not slated to start until 1:40 p.m. local time on Friday. That meant that most of the other 867 teams would already be in front of us. We enjoyed being able to sleep in a bit on Friday and then we got together to decorate our vans before we cheered Van #1 on as they left the hotel to head to the starting line.

Van #2 relaxed the next couple of hours and grabbed lunch. Michelle drove a couple of hours to pick up Kim and soon we got an update that Van #1 was way ahead of schedule as they were crushing those downhill legs. We loaded up Van #2 and headed to the first van exchange to wait for Van #1 to get there. The butterflies were starting and we were all excited and nervous to get going. The Van #1 times were inspiring all of us to really push things when we finally got our first chance.

Finally, around 5:15 p.m. local time, Van #1 pulled into the parking lot in Sandy, Oregon with our bibs and we quickly got Jared T ready to go for his first leg. It was just 10 minutes later that Bryan came cruising in to finish Leg #6 as he passed the bracelet to Jared and our van’s adventure was underway!

Jared crushed his first leg and beat his time, passed to Tamara who also beat her time, and then Amy P took off on her first leg. I was starting to get nervous as I was now the “on deck” runner as Kim would take the bracelet from Amy and then pass to me after her run. It was getting real and I was getting nervous. All those years of waiting for another shot at this race were now down to just over an hour before it was go time for me.

Here’s where I need to reflect on what my running had been like for the month leading up to HTC. In mid-July, I had started to incorporate speed work into my training as I have the Boston Marathon coming up in October and I wanted to try to see if I could get a course PR there (sub 3:28). Well, speed work and I don’t go together very well and I suffered a painful left hamstring strain while doing speed work on July 27. I later began having issues in my right hamstring and my right piriformis, so I was a mess and began thinking I might be relegated to walking my three HTC legs.

From that day until race day at HTC on August 27, I ran a total of 45 miles and primarily just walked every day to stay in some kind of shape and to be prepared to walk fast if necessary. I also went to Fit for Life Physical Therapy five times and credit Chris Lawson for keeping me believing and working diligently to get me able to at least complete my three legs at HTC without walking. The work he did made the rest of this story possible. I was so determined to not have a repeat of my first HTC experience that I didn’t race the Emerald City half marathon and instead paced the 13:45 quarter marathon by walking. I knew that I wouldn’t be 100 percent on my legs and turned in 9:30-9:50 pace for my miles and just hoped I could do that.

Flash back to Friday evening in Portland. Amy had breezed through her leg and Kim was somewhere in the dusk heading rapidly towards me with the bracelet. I had roughly a 5-mile leg on a bike path to do. Seeing the times that everyone had been throwing down, I was hoping against hope that I could do eight-minute miles and keep things moving for our team. I knew I was going to get to enjoy the sunset on my run and I tried to zone out thinking about that. I exchanged small talk with Brenda from the Lululemon team who was also waiting for her teammate to get there. Then, Kim appeared in the distance and it was time to go!

What happened over the next 31:55 I can’t really explain. I followed the path and the one lone runner who was just ahead of me and the miles began to tick away…..6:52, 6:56. “How am I doing this?” I had to pause slightly at a couple of crossroads for traffic over the next mile and it slowed to 7:04. Then, I picked up the pace again for a 6:59 mile and I knew that I had just a mile or less to go until I would pass the bracelet to Michelle. I got passed by one guy during the last mile, but soon I saw Michelle in the distance and because I had run MUCH faster than expected she wasn’t really ready for me. I gave it all I had left and passed off to her and I was done with my first leg – 6:58 pace for 4.57 miles. Wow! I couldn’t believe it!

We quickly made our way to the van and drove to the next exchange to wait for Michelle to finish and to pass the bracelet off to the other van. It was fun to catch up with everyone and hear about their experiences. My run had taken me past roughly 200 hundred tents of the large Portland homeless population and I was glad that I had been able to get done before it was too dark. It was fun to see the rest of our team from Van #1 and hear their excitement about their first legs and also for them to celebrate what our van had been able to do. We were well on our way to a great race.

After Michelle finished and passed the bracelet off to Amy H to start the second round, our team packed up the van and headed to the Best Western in St. Helens, Oregon where we had a place to shower and sleep for a little bit. It was great to get cleaned up, eat a little, and sleep for about an hour before we got a text that Van #1 was about done with their second legs. Thankfully, the next meeting place was less than 10 minutes away and we hustled to get there.

Poor Jared T didn’t have much time before Bryan showed up and then he was off. Little note about Jared…he’s really battled a crazy amount of setbacks over the past three years since qualifying for Boston for the first time in February of 2018. I know from talking to him leading up to HTC that he was worried about letting the team down because he didn’t feel like his times were where they needed to be. I assured him that this was about fun first and foremost and anything else was icing on the cake. Well, as our van drove Jared’s hilly second leg, we just shook our heads at how tough it was going to be. And you know what? Jared absolutely dominated those hills and came in well ahead of what he had predicted and even said they weren’t that bad since it was in the dark and he really couldn’t see them. I guess that’s the key with hills – run them in the dark.

Next up for our van was Tamara with not only an extremely hilly run (ummm +900 feet of elevation gain over 5.75 miles), but it was also on a gravel road and there was lots of traffic as we were now catching up to a lot of the teams that had started much earlier than us. As we drove to the next exchange, we again looked at each other and agreed that we were glad we weren’t the ones running that leg. Well, just like Jared, Tamara came flying into the exchange fired up and happy to tell us that she had “21!” (Rogue kills or runners she had passed during her leg) as she handed off to Amy P. Another runner commented “Oh, those runners are here now” which made us laugh because we were definitely using the Rogue kills as a way to motivate us to push hard.

Getting our van out of the exchange zone after leg 20 was the trickiest logistical part of our race as the turnaround road was very narrow with deep ruts on the sides that could damage the van. I got out and directed traffic to get us out of there and Michelle was an excellent driver to get us out. However, we were nervous that Amy might get to the next exchange before us because she was running so fast, she had a good 10-minute lead on us, and traffic was moving slowly on the gravel road.

About 3.5 miles into Amy’s 5-mile route, things had really slowed down and the dust had picked up. There were vans stopping to talk to their runner as they passed them and that was irritating as we didn’t want to make Amy wait when she got to the exchange. Then, out of nowhere, we saw Amy on the wrong side of the road. She was trying to find good footing among the ruts and it meant that at times she was running the same direction as traffic. Michelle yelled at her to stay on the left and we hustled to the exchange so Kim could get ready.

Thankfully, Kim had a 6.70-mile run after she took the bracelet so I was going to have a few minutes to get ready once we got to the next exchange. It was around 3:30 a.m. local time and I was looking forward to going after the Noxgear and reflective vests of the other runners who were ahead of me. At one point while we were waiting, a runner came in and couldn’t find her teammate to pass the bracelet. She kept yelling her name “Barbie” and finally the teammate appeared. She must have been half asleep because she took the bracelet and headed the wrong way to which the entire crowd yelled at her to turn around. It was pretty funny and I made a mental note that she would definitely be one to pass on my leg.

Kim came flying down the hill out of the darkness, handed me the bracelet, and I was off. I passed my first person about half a mile into the darkness but it wasn’t Barbie. I was actually disappointed that I didn’t find another person to pass until Barbie finally appeared about 1.3 miles in. However, from there, I began picking people off left and right. I ended up with 15 ‘Rogue’ kills and was passed by one person so I netted 14. I ended up averaging 7:00 pace over the 4.13 miles with splits of 6:47, 6:59, 7:11, and 7:06 before closing out the last .13 at a 6:36 clip to give the bracelet to Michelle. I was two-thirds of the way done with my HTC and I had accomplished more than my last time. I was really excited. And grateful.

We hustled to the next exchange as Michelle had less than 5 miles before we would pass the bracelet off to the other van to start the final round of legs. We were a little nervous that the other van might not be there yet because we had gone faster than expected once again and there was no reliable cell reception for most of the time from legs 19-32. Thankfully, the other van was there, and Michelle handed off to Amy H for the last time and we had time to catch our breath, relax, and refuel.

Our van decided to head for the exchange at the start of leg 27 as there was a school that offered showers, food, and a place to sleep as a fundraiser. That $5 shower was well worth the cost and I had a plate of sausage gravy over biscuits to refuel. As I was walking back to our van, imagine my surprise when I saw Olympian Colleen Quigley warming up in the parking lot as she was running that leg for the Lululemon team. It was fun to chat with her for a few minutes and even have her do a video call with a friend who she has connected with over the past year through Instagram. She was very gracious and down-to-earth. I didn’t get any sleep at the stop, but I was ramped up and ready to go for the rest of the race.

We got everyone loaded back in the van and we headed to the final van exchange in Astoria, Oregon. We were parked in a large open field with the biggest crowd we had seen yet as we waited for Van #1 to arrive and Bryan to come running in to complete his final leg.

Bryan finally appeared in the distance and passed the bracelet to Jared T for the final time. Jared was off and running and he looked really strong as he wrapped up his third leg. He was so excited after he was done and realized he had done so much better than he had even thought was possible. This was one of the highlights of the trip for me because I know how hard coming back is and how much he’s gone through to do this. I’m so glad he got to go with us.

Tamara had another strong performance before handing off to Amy P and then Amy headed off on the longest leg for our van on the trip. While she was gone, Kim, Michelle and I began to realize that we might be able to finish before noon if we worked hard on our final three legs. We knew that Amy would finish strong as the sun was coming out and it was getting a little warmer. She did, and before we knew it she was passing off to Kim. Amy was gassed and had left it all out on the course. That’s the way you do it. I waited with her while Jared, Tamara, and Michelle went to get the van. I knew that my last leg was going to be tough and I was starting to tighten up so I stayed out of the van as long as possible.

Kim had just over 4 miles on her final leg so we had to hustle to get to the exchange before she got there. We drove past her with a little over a mile to go, so I knew I wouldn’t have long to wait. Checking the clock, I needed to average 7:30 pace over my 7-mile leg to give us a shot at finishing before noon. I wasn’t sure if I could do it or not, but I was going to give it my best shot.

Kim finished her leg coming up hill and handed me the bracelet as I turned onto an access road. This was definitely my least favorite of the three legs – not because it was longer, but because the road was torn up and it was mostly loose gravel and in full on sun for most of the route that started at roughly 10:30 a.m. local time. I was definitely glad that I took a full bottle of water with me as there was no water on the course and it got really warm. I was also really thankful for the SaltStick Fastchews that I took as they helped me push through.

Even though I was tired and tightening up from my two previous runs and my lack of running the past month, thoughts of my teammates’ great efforts, reflections of my first HTC experience, and memories of battling back from my injuries from the distracted driver hitting me head-on in 2018 kept me moving forward. I started out strong with a 7:02 first mile and passed 12 people. 7:27, 7:25, 7:27, 7:39 followed and I had passed 14 more people. Then, I had an uphill that took most of my remaining energy. I wanted to walk, but thankfully there were people to pass so I kept moving. 7:57 for the mile and 7 more ‘Rogue kills’. I did get passed by one guy during this stretch or it would have been 8.

With just over a mile to go, I dug in and tried to focus on getting to the finish and passing a few more people. A 7:42 final mile and then 7:13 pace over the final .13 helped me pass 6 more and I couldn’t wait to hand the bracelet off to Michelle for the final time. I just missed my pace goal with 7:31 pace over that final run and it was all up to Michelle now to beat our noon finish goal. I ended up with 39….yes, 39, kills that final run.

I kept walking to the van as I knew that we would have to hustle to get to the finish line before Michelle got there as parking gets difficult and not close in Seaside, Oregon at the finish. We passed Michelle on our way and she was flying with plenty of runners to pass so we knew that she was going to have a great final run to close things out.

We got to Seaside and parked and headed towards the beach. I kept walking fast and was ahead of my group which I know had to seem strange to them, but I was cramping up and needed to walk fast to get there. I also wanted to make sure I was there when Michelle arrived so we could finish with her as a team. The last time I was there nine years ago I had to limp across in a boot and I was looking forward to a much different finish this time.

We all got to the finish line along with our teammates from Van #1 just as Michelle came into view. We rushed onto the sand to meet her and with the Pacific Ocean as our backdrop we all crossed together in 22 hours, 13 minutes and 28 seconds – one minute and five seconds AHEAD of our predicted time and six minutes before noon. We ended up 17th overall out of 867 teams and third or fourth out of 103 teams in the mixed sub-masters division (the final results say fourth, but they gave us the third place medals which is what the preliminary results said).

The rest of the trip was fairly uneventful with dinner at a local Cuban restaurant after our drive back from Seaside, a quick visit to Voodoo Doughnut, and then it was time to pack and get ready for an early morning flight home on Sunday. As you can imagine, I fell asleep as soon as I sat on my bed that night and thankfully woke up in time to pack since I had failed to set an alarm. We returned the rental vans and had two good flights home that both included a nap for me and our adventure had come to an end. The memories, however, will last a lifetime.

I’m extremely grateful to my teammates for joining me on this adventure as it wouldn’t have been possible without Amy H, Michael, Brittney, Josh, Jared M, Bryan, Jared T, Tamara, Amy P, Kim, and Michelle. Each one of them contributed to the success of this trip both with their running and in other ways through driving, support, restaurant reservations, logistic suggestions, and just being great friends. Love you guys! Thanks to our high finish our team will get invited back again next year and I think we are all planning to do it again. I’m hopeful that 12 of our Rogue Racers teammates will also get a chance to experience this if we are lucky enough to get a second team in through the lottery in October.

Thanks again to the brands for all the donations you made. Thanks also to Jeffrey Hughes for the great design you came up with for our official team t-shirt. Thanks to Liyu and the entire Courtyard staff for treating us like VIPs during our stay with you, and to the Best Western for giving us a place to shower and catch a quick nap mid-race. And thanks most of all to the staff and volunteers of HTC for putting on an incredible event. We can’t wait to come back for the 40th anniversary edition next August.