I finally took my place at the start. By now, the announcer guy with the megaphone had been there for seven hours, and he was going to be there for five more. It would be hard for me to stay excited for that long, and to do it so outwardly. I introduced myself to a few people near me and actually got jacked for a start. I've gotten to the point that I normally don't anymore. A good sign, because I was worried I wouldn't get off to a fast start. Maybe the adrenaline would work in my favor.
I'd say the gun sounded, but it didn't. I kinda thought a big race like this would have a siren or something synchronized to a timer, but it boiled down to a guy with a megaphone looking at a clock and saying "Go!" I'm used to that from trail running, but it seemed out of place at this one somehow. I took off like a light, making an attempt to get out in front. And I didn't!
Right away, I was in third place, even though I actually tried to put myself in first. And they kept moving away from me! I was in unfamiliar territory. Then a few people passed me! What the hell?
The hill was as steep as advertised. In normal circumstances, this would be a "tap the brakes" hill. But this was a race. And I knew it wasn't going to get any different. I ran through it. It didn't hurt my quads or knees the way I thought it might (and was warned it would), but it took some serious effort from my core to maintain good form going down that thing, and moving that fast. It didn't take long before I got tired.
My watch beeped. One mile had passed. I looked down to see my pace. 4:43?!? Should I slow down? Probably not. If I did, I'd have to slow down drastically; any slower and I'd be hitting the brakes. The hill was doing most of the work to pull me forward. It was all I could do to move my feet fast enough to not slow myself down. I did what I could to keep up. Only a mile in, and I was already ready for this thing to be over. The air was just noticeably thin. I hadn't thought of that. 6,000 feet does make a difference.
Basically the entire rest of the run was a grind-it-out. Normally, that term is reserved for doing slow, tough miles, often uphill. But somehow it still applies to this situation, even though I was moving blazingly fast. It was a different kind of endurance battle. My heart racing, my core working overdrive, and just moving my feet with that kind of speed. For that long. I kept looking at my watch, watching each quarter mile tick away, getting closer to the end of my leg. And that's when I noticed something.
Normally, when I've got four miles left in a trail run, and I'm running at a 7:30 pace (which is pretty good in most trail runs), I'm thinking to myself,
"OK, just hang in there for half an hour. You can do this. You can do anything for half an hour. That's all, in half an hour, you'll be done."
This time, I looked at my watch, saw that there were four miles left, and told myself,
"OK, just hang in there for...20 minutes?"
I smiled. OK, so maybe this kind of running isn't so bad.
In the last couple miles, I started passing a few people that had passed me right at the beginning, even though I was slowing down just a bit. Maybe they had even more adrenaline pumping than I did at the start. Then I passed a few people that I hadn't seen before, moving much slower. They must have started in the wave before us. Our team was already 15 minutes ahead of a few other teams, before the first leg was finished.
The hill finally reached a flat spot, then the course went up an incline towards the exchange. Everyone else slowed to a crawl, adjusting to the different terrain, waking up their climbing muscles. I annihilated the field for a quarter mile. Seriously, trail running, I love what you have made me. Suddenly, I saw volunteers and a ton of cars. This must be it! The volunteers guided us through a twisted path through a parking lot, in such a way that I could never tell how far away the actual exchange was, so I never got to a full sprint. When I could finally see it coming, there were a ton of spectators all over the place, mostly other runners, also wearing singlets and running shorts. I couldn't pick out which ones were actually waiting for the baton, and definitely couldn't tell which one was John, until it was essentially too late to bother sprinting. I just ran hard to the finish, finally spotted him, and passed it off. He took off with astounding speed. I turned around and started walking towards where I figured my teammates were. I finally noticed I was sweating.
"Dude! You were rockin'! Was that a 5:00 pace?"
I looked at my watch. "Uh, I've got 4:59."
"Holy crap! We told you to take it easy! How do you feel?"
"Not bad! A little tired, but I'll be good."
"Well we had you projected for a 5:30 pace, so we're already a few minutes ahead. Nice going!"
I smiled big. Until now, I had been worried about letting my team down. I no longer was.
"I passed about five runners that must've started at 1:15..."
"Five kills, huh!" Nick brightened. "Not bad! We oughta keep track of those."
"No way," Larry answered, "Those are so hard to count and keep track of as you're running, and besides, we'd just have too many."
It turns out keeping track of your "kills," or how many times you pass someone, is a time-honored long-distance relay tradition. Some of the other teams' vans had a tally going for all the members of their team. Five didn't seem like a big number to keep track of, but it was only that low because all my potential kills had a 15-minute head start. After only one or two exchanges, people would be mixed up enough that you might get a kill less than a minute into your leg.
My van contained runners 1-6 (the other had 7-12), meaning we were support for the first three hours. Every 30 minutes or so, we'd pull in to an exchange station, fight for the meager parking, prime the next runner for his leg, he'd get the baton and take off, then we'd walk the finished runner back to the car and chase our guy to the next aid station. If it was a long enough stretch, we'd stop in the middle to give him support, basically hand out a water bottle. My first leg was a little too short, and there wasn't anywhere good to pull over either, so I didn't get it. Not that I needed it for a 25-minute run.
Three hours later, my van's first shift was done. I was surprised at how fast it went by; the whole thing just seemed like a whirlwind. Our last guy passed the baton to the other car's first, and they took off down the road. We stuck around in the parking lot for a little while, re-organizing some of our stuff before we headed out to our next checkpoint, six exchanges down the road. We didn't need to be there for at least three hours anyway.
Headed down the highway and into Portland, where we'd meet up with the other van. We were making an attempt to get there early, since we figured on traffic in Portland in general (a big city at 7:30 on Friday night), and a solid amount more around the big exchange point. It was a good thing we'd planned for an least an hour of down time, because upon arriving at the exchange, it took us 45 minutes to get into the parking lot. Read that again. I'm not exaggerating.
It turns out there's another relay called "Portland-to-Coast," intended as a walking relay. It was starting at this exchange point, right now. Why the race organizers felt that having the two races run simultaneously, I'll never know. I'll also never understand why they felt the need to start the walking relay right as the bulk of the running relay is passing through the same exact spot. Nor will I understand why the spot they chose was also sharing a parking lot with a traveling carnival and a roller derby match! FOUR events sharing a parking lot at the same time! Whose idea was this?!? Could they not have the walking relay start somewhere else and merge up? Or at another time? Could they maybe have found a parking lot that wasn't already crowded from two other concurrent events?
While we were stuck in line, we found a rep handing out free cans of Rebel energy drink. No, not Red Bull, Rebel. See, it sounds imperceptibly different. Never mind it's in a nearly identical blue-and-silver can. It does have more caffeine though. We picked up about a dozen. I intended to have one much later, after the race and after we've taken a nap, before we go out to celebrate tomorrow night, so I can perk up and actually enjoy myself.
Rather than wait for the van to park, I just got out and walked over to the exchange point (I was the first to go in each round). I only had to wait about 15 minutes before Angie charged in with the baton. Meanwhile, our van never bothered parking and just got in the equally long line to get out, and also told the other van not to bother coming by; we'd pick up Angie and get them to meet up later.
Shortly after I took off with the baton, it got quiet. I was running on a paved bike trail, with the Willamette River on my left, the sun setting behind it. There were barely any bikes on the path. I was mostly alone, except for a few other runners. I started counting my kills. After a mile, I stopped. Larry was right. 11 already.
The first three miles were mostly the same: flat, quiet, scenic, and fast. I ran my first three miles in 5:54 each. I was aiming for a 6:00 pace for this leg. After three miles at 5:54, that meant I had 18 seconds to play with. But it also meant I still had 4.5 miles to go.
I approached a more urban part of the river. There were now streets nearby, and multiple paths to choose from. Volunteers started dotting the course, but not everywhere they were needed. Here and there, I had to guess which way to go. It was usually an easy guess, and got ever more obvious once you ran down the correct path for about 100 meters. But it was still a little unsettling. What if I do go down the wrong path? How far would I go before I figured it out?
Some of the volunteers were very helpful. Others weren't. A lot of them had a habit of waiting until I was about 2 meters from the turn before they bothered telling me which way to go. Some of them didn't do anything until I asked (many of them were looking at their phones as I approached). Seeing a pattern, I started shouting "Which way?" long before I got there, so I wouldn't have to slow down until they told me. One particular forced slow-down came right before I had to climb a ramp to get on a bridge. The combination of hesitancy and uphill slowed me down until my average pace skyrocketed to 5:58. Just like that, two-thirds of my "buffer" was gone.
As I crossed the bridge, I really started feeling it. My core tightened, then weakened. It was getting harder and harder to maintain pace, until it started slipping. A lot of people out on the riverwalk though, most of them encouraging me, lots of "You're killin' it, man!" I wondered if that's what they said to everyone, or if seeing someone fast got them excited.
Just as I wasn't feeling so great again, one spectator, wearing running gear, made very direct eye contact with me, and started to lean forward like she wanted to run with me.
"Are you Rob?"
She started running alongside me. "I'm Jeff's friend. Kelley. You're lookin' good!"
I wasn't feeling good, but I smiled. "Thanks!"
"I just thought I'd run with you a little bit and cheer you up. I dunno how long I can hold your pace though!"
"I dunno how long I can either."
"Oh, you're doin' great! Keep it up!" We ran together for another 10-15 seconds. "Alright, I'm gonna let you go! Good job!"
She pulled up and I ran away from her. She did pick up my spirits a little bit. A thought crossed my mind. I turned around and shouted over my shoulder,
"I-E or Y?" No response. Maybe she didn't hear me. Guess I'll never know. (Jeff told me later; the above spelling is correct)
For whatever reason, I feel the need to add that between miles 1 and 4, I smelled pot on at least three separate occasions, two of them in a very public area.
Not long after Kelley left me, I saw three volunteers standing ahead, near another fork in the walking path. They were on the ball; before I got a chance to ask, they called out,
"Stay to the left! Left! Left!"
Well, that's easy. I waved and took a left. 100 meters later, just out of eyeshot of the volunteers, there was a T-intersection. No volunteers.
"Well, they said 'left' three times," I told myself. "I know that's basically back the way I came, but they kept saying 'left'..." I didn't want to stop and backtrack; I was trying to finish this leg as fast as I could. Seconds counted. I took a left.
I ran about another 100 meters. There were no other runners in sight up ahead. Then the sidewalk promptly ended. OK, this can't be it. I turned around in place. I could still see the last corner I rounded, but no runners coming from there. Where was it? My level of frustration was at least a 9.2. I knew this couldn't be the right way, so I just headed back. Halfway back to the corner, I saw runners coming past, turning right where I turned left. My frustration turned to anger, then increased. I was livid. Three friggin' volunteers and not one of them could provide decent directions.
As I passed the turn again, still out of line-of-sight of the volunteers (but within earshot), I turned and cupped my hands,
"YOU NEED TO SAY 'LEFT, THEN RIGHT!'" I shouted as loud as I could. "AND PUT ONE OF YOU HERE!!!"
All told, the detour probably cost me close to one full minute. My anger started to turn to disappointment. I was upset that I had let my team down.
My pace still sliding, my core hurting worse and worse, I slogged down a sidewalk in front of a line of shops and restaurants (as much as a 6:05 mile can be called a slog). It was starting to get just a little dark. I could feel my pace sag, then I'd force myself back up to speed, only to wear down again. It was very hard to stay consistent anymore. My form was a little sloppy. Things just weren't going too well.
The one good thought I had, if you can call it that, was that it was possible the team hadn't made it out of the parking lot and to the next exchange, so it didn't matter that I was slow. Or that instead, they'd made it there, but a lot of other teams hadn't (at the messy parking lot, probably a third of the arriving runners had to wait for their team at least a little). Maybe the horrifying parking lot was hurting everyone else but us.
I got away from the row of shops and found myself on a mostly-empty road near railroad tracks. It was now definitely dark enough that the head lamps and tail lights were coming in handy. I kept looking ahead for lights, hoping to see the exchange. Every time I thought I saw it coming, the lights turned out to be something else. It seemed like it was never coming. And then finally, it was there.
"JOHN!" I called as I approached. After last time, and with it being darker now, I figured audible cues might help me find where I make the handoff.
"RIGHT HERE!" I saw an arm raised. I sprinted the best I could and handed it off. Put my hands on my knees. Just like last time, I finally noticed how much I was sweating. My team was slightly less excited compared to last time. I dunno if it was because my time wasn't nearly as good, or just because the excitement of the first leg had worn off. As we walked back to the van, I explained the missed turn. They were sympathetic. No one blamed me in the slightest.
It was dark now. I was already getting tired. And after the poor showing I had in my leg, I was physically tired, too. Each time we met a runner at an exchange, I stayed in the car at least half the time, often laying down across the seats in a weird position to try to stretch out my abs and my back. At one exchange where I actually got out of the car, Nick came over and gave me a quick massage as I stood up. Felt pretty good, and I think it made a significant difference (thanks Nick!). It might not be a bad idea to ask a teammate for another one before I run again.
By the time our van finished up their second legs, just shy of midnight, I was exhausted in every way. But our team was 20 minutes ahead of our projected pace! Just about everyone on the team had chipped off a minute or two, even me, due to the unexpectedly fast time I had on my first leg.
For whatever reason, John picked up some kung pow boneless chicken wings at a grocery store. If I tried running fast after eating fried chicken, I'd either be too slow or I'd throw up. He admitted that he knew it wasn't the best idea, but that the morale boost would make up for it. He may have been right; it did smell very good. I was craving hot "real" food strongly by now.
We now had to drive over an hour on tiny, twisty country roads through the woods. The roads had no lights and were obscenely dark. I volunteered as a navigator and Jeff took the wheel. We tuned in to a 90's mix XM station to keep us awake and rocked down the highway as every other member of the team fell asleep for the entire ride. The clouds and the woods were thick enough that we kept losing the radio signal, even on a satellite station.
At long last, we arrived at the next major exchange, just some field in the middle of nowhere. It was now drizzling. Our team collectively decided to get some sleep. We only had about an hour before I should be awake and warming up. Dick's Sporting Goods oppurtunistically was renting out tents by the hour, complete with pillows. Most of us just found a spot in the car, but John and Matt slept on sleeping pads on the ground just outside. I claimed the driver's seat and reclined it. I shut my eyes, expecting to fall asleep immediately.
I never did.
I'll never know why I couldn't fall asleep despite how tired I was. I never managed to get completely comfortable in that seat, but still, I have a history of falling asleep just about anywhere. I trotted around the parking lot, trying to loosen up again. With about 10 minutes to go before Angie was due to arrive, I put on a vest and lights and made my way over to the exchange and waited.
My stomach turned. I looked at my watch. Only three minutes left. I turned to my teammates,
"I'm taking a crap. Now."
I ran over to the port-o-potties and got in the short line, practically jumping up and down with impatience as I waited. Finally, I got in one. Dropped my pants, unloaded, wiped, left. Elapsed time in port-o-potty: 20 seconds. I jogged back over to the exchange.
"That was fast!"
"More than half of that time was in line."
When you gotta go, you gotta go. And running when you need to do #2 is no bueno. Even if I kept Angie waiting for 30 seconds, it would probably still be worth it. Especially when I'm having problems with my core to begin with. Upon my request, Andrew gave me a 20-second lower back massage, even though he repeatedly stated he didn't know what he was doing. Seemed to work for me anyway. My teammates ruled.
Angie showed up, looking awfully strong. I grabbed the baton and took off. I wasn't sure how to pace. I knew what time I wanted, but how would it feel by now? Running fast and on pavement is foreign enough to me; doing so in six-hour intervals just makes it weirder. How tired am I, exactly?
When you do trail runs, you don't pace by your watch at all. You can go ahead and think you're going to run each mile in 7:30 or whatever, but the hills are going to say "No you won't, you're running this mile in 6:10, and that mile in 10:40, and you'll like it!" But in this case, my watch would probably be a more reliable indicator than my own general perception. I looked at my watch probably about every 10 seconds for the first half-mile, making sure I was establishing the pace I wanted.
If it was dark when we were driving, it was nothing but black now. My headlamp was the only source of light. It was nearly a full moon that night, but the clouds obscured it completely. As I ran, my headlamp illuminated flecks of drizzle in front of me as I ran into them, making it look like I was running through the stars. Compared to the previous leg, it seemed like there were a lot less other runners around. It was even quieter. The road was slick, and every now and then, I stepped in a puddle.
Halfway through, the drizzle finally stopped and my breath turned to fog, which just like the drizzle, was lit up in my face by my headlamp. I looked around. If I left my eyes in the same spot, I could see outlines of trees, and the landscape around me. I could tell that it was a beautiful area, or that it would be if I could see it. I couldn't help but think that it would be a great place for a bike ride.
The last two miles had a few rolling inclines. I handled them with ease. I wasn't running any faster than I had in the first two miles, but I felt better. With less than a mile to go, I saw what would be the last hill. I dug deep and charged up the thing. My pace probably only improved by a few seconds, but on an uphill, that's not bad. I crested the hill, saw the exchange, passed to John, and smiled. After my second leg, I was glad this was a short and easy leg, but I had still been worried about how well I'd hold up. A strong finish, maybe not a fast one, but a strong one, had me in a great mood. I probably could've kept going, but probably not for very long. My teammates all patted me on my drenched back.
I sweepingly gestured at them all. "Suckers!"
Going first had made me nervous, but I knew that it would be nice to be the first one done. I got in the car and ate a cookie. My spirits high, this time around, I got out of the car to cheer on my teammates every single time. Astonishingly, each one of us was still putting in impressive times. According to John, he was feeling those chicken wings bouncing inside him the whole time, but he also claimed they were the reason he did so well. At this point in the race, hey, whatever works. Probably about half of the other runners we saw on the course were now walking. We were at the point in the race that some were just running out of gas, but our team was still going strong.
By the time we made it to our van's final exchange, the dawn was just starting to break. A lot of my team was hungry. Somehow, I wasn't. The bulk of my teammates stopped for biscuits and gravy for breakfast. I took a catnap in the driver's seat. Why was it suddenly so comfortable this time?
My teammates got back from their breakfast. Already in the driver's seat, and now a little more rested than the rest of them, I volunteered to drive us to the finish line. Jeff, who had driven while I navigated last time around, navigated for me. Once again, everyone else slept the whole way. Roughly an hour later, we were in Seaside, OR.
We cleaned up the car for about half an hour, then hit the beach. Mostly devoid of energy, we didn't do much of anything. Just hung out until the rest of our team showed up in their van. Meant that Angie was less than 20 minutes away. We slowly migrated towards the finish line.
"298!" a volunteer cried.
"She's coming!" We lined up in a chute, and two minutes later, saw Angie blazing down the boardwalk. Seemed like she just kept getting faster and faster as she went. She crossed the timing pad, turned to her left, and held on to a rail, panting.
"ANGIIIIEEEE!!! OVER HERE!" We kept waving her over. She took her time; obviously, she hadn't left anything in the fight in her last mile. We grinned. She finally shuffled over to us, and we jogged through the symbolic finish line in the sand as a team.
To be concluded...