Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Greg To Coast: A solo 200-mile run

I awoke with a start and a gasp, sitting up in rapid fashion, first piking at my waist before transitioning quickly to my knees. My field of vision contained only trees and dense foliage. I tried to stand, but something wasn't right: I wobbled, and my legs shook unsteadily. And a strange, intense pain warmed the soles of my feet. I bent down to squeeze them, unaware why they hurt so much. I winced and withdrew my hand as if touching a warm stove top.

Then, everything fell apart.

Turning in horror, I now saw I was standing next to a truck containing three people whose murmurs I could barely make out. "Who am I? Where am I?!?" I asked frantically as I rapped on the truck window. My confusion gave way to terror...I was afraid and unaware who I was, where I was, or why I was there.

The three exited the truck quickly and tried to calm me. "Your name is Greg. You have run 150 miles. You are running Hood to Coast solo. You just woke up."

I had to process each answer individually, slowly. Ok--I remember my name and who I am. If I've run 150 miles, that explains my legs and feet. But the "Hood to Coast solo" part was more difficult to digest. "Hood to Coast?" I asked. "The race with 12-person teams?"

"Yes," they replied. "You're running it solo."

-------

Flashback to 1995, when my Hood to Coast team was passing somewhere through Oregon's Coast Range on the way to Seaside. During my 3rd (of 3) relay leg, I passed a runner who was moving very slowly, but as soon as she came into view, I recognized her instantly: Cyndie McKenna would be the first person to run Hood to Coast solo (eventually doing it twice), and her solo efforts would be followed by two others (that I can verify...more might have done it). As I passed Cyndie, I gave a short word of encouragement and saw the gratitude in her eyes. I knew, someday, that I would follow in her footsteps.

Solo runs, whether in race situations or as "journey" runs from A to B, have long captivated me. I've been lucky enough to tackle some very tough events (Badwater, Arrowhead, Marathon des Sables, Desert RATS, more) and come out the other side. I've also put together journey runs that were tough but incredibly satisfying (especially running from Portland to Seattle in '04). But nothing could match the distance of Hood To Coast (HTC) for me. There are longer races, there are races on tougher terrain and in much more difficult environmental conditions. None, however, travel right through my backyard in Portland, Oregon, and I knew no other event as intimately as I know HTC.

For years, I envisioned how and when I might be able to take a solo shot at HTC. There is no solo division in the race...for good reason. First, it's brutal. Second, the focus always has been and always will be on the relay team competition. It's the raison d'etre of the event. And before I go any further, my desire to do this run was never to detract from the incredible achievements of any HTC or Portland to Coast teams. As a 13-time veteran of the race, the team experience is incredibly rich and should not be notched down one bit by the stubbornness of one slightly loony middle-aged man.

As 2014 began, I already had the Arrowhead 135 on my schedule, and the experience whipped my butt. But as springtime rolled around, I started to get the familiar itch of wanting another challenge and adventure. HTC was close to home and I couldn't see any good reason for delaying. I scheduled a start date of Thursday, August 21st, 2014 at 9am from the Timberline Lodge parking lot on Mt. Hood.
A journey of 200 miles begins with the first step. Starting on Mt. Hood with Tonya checking the watch.

---

"Ok. I know he's ready to run, but I don't feel comfortable putting him on the roads if he doesn't even know who he is."

These were the words of my crew boss, good friend, and ultra genius Todd Janssen, who was not prepared to throw me to the ultrarunning wolves. I had just awaken from a 45-minute sleep completely fried out of my mind, not knowing much about anything. We put a specially marked stake in the ground and drove forward a few miles to the next relay exchange point where a medical officer quizzed me: Name, date of birth, and President of the United States, please. Seeing no medical reason why I couldn't continue, he gave the Hippocratic blessing and put the crew's minds at ease. I was slowly coming around mentally, and the break had helped. I was ready to run.

-----

Joining Todd in the control room was my good buddy Jason Walton, a college teammate and one of my best friends. He knows me (too) well--the perfect companion for the road. And rounding out the crew, getting her fill of ultra madness for the long weekend, was my coworker and buddy Tonya Oyala, lending a woman's view to the run and letting her trademark smile and "cool under any pressure" visage right the ship when needed. I was in more than capable hands with the trio of "JTT."

----

The magnificent peak of Mt. Hood watched as we unloaded, snapped a few photos before 9am, and readied ourselves for the adventure. At 9am, I took my first steps toward the Pacific Ocean, unsure of much ahead, but with full knowledge that it would include plenty of discomfort.

In the first 10k, which heads sharply down the road toward the town of Government Camp, I tried to settle into an easy pace. In conversations with my crew, I knew if I did not go very conservatively for the first 100k (62 miles), I would pay the piper dearly. It was easier said than done, as the weather was perfect, my mood was upbeat, and my body felt great in the first six hours.
1/4 mile mark.


On the slopes of the mountain, a marmot started barking (yelling?) at me in earnest. Perhaps it was a warning cry to stop before I fully immersed myself in the madness. Five miles later, a red-tailed hawk put on an incredible display of flight just overhead. These and many other wildlife encounters gave my mind a break from left-right-left-right.

The highway passed beneath my feet. Government Camp, Zigzag, Rhododendron, and other hamlets lined the sides of the road. 20 miles or so into the journey, I found a long CB antenna that had been lost or discarded, and carried it as my sword, magic wand, and protective stick. Like a kid in the back seat of the family sedan, I pleaded with passing trucks to honk their horn, giving the "pull the horn cord" hand signal. Many obliged, and I did a little dance when they honked.
No time for pie in Government Camp, Oregon.


The crew met me every 2 miles or so in these early hours, ready with a fresh, cold bottle of Perpetuem, which I sipped religiously. Only once during the entire run did I feel the slightest bit of dehydration, which I remedied by upping my intake.
About 5 miles out of Sandy, Oregon.
Todd and I just after a water bottle hand off.
No need for lights yet under the midday sun.


By the time I had the town of Sandy in my sights, I was starting to feel the effects of the 35 downhill miles I had run thus far. When I met the crew in the town, I told them I was going to lay down and put my feet up for a few minutes, and that I'd meet them at the high school.

Nobody told me they moved the high school.

In front of Sandy's "old" high school, I found the perfect place to prop my feet. 3 or 4 minutes later, I was a new man. But where was my crew? Just around the corner, it turns out.

Taking the miscommunication in stride, I pressed on past the new high school and through a residential neighborhood. Then, the course dumped out onto scenic country roads, lined with what would be the crew's favorite snack food (not counting the foul-smelling beef jerky they consumed) of the the race: Roadside blackberries.

Sunflowers.


And the scenery was incredible. It had been many years since I had passed through this part of Clackamas County, and I had forgotten about the pastoral setting, with sunflower fields, nurseries, and small farms dotting the landscape. Around mile 45, I passed a house where a girl called out, "Are you running Hood To Coast?"

"Well," I yelled back, "sort of. I'm running it by myself. The teams start tomorrow morning."

She was the first person I had encountered on the route who stared at me as if I had horns growing out of my head (there would be many others). Then she screamed at the top of her lungs, "YOU'RE CRAZY! BUT I LOVE IT!" It was these kind of interactions that made me smile and put a little spring in my step. Not for the glory, and certainly not because I felt like a one-man freak show, but because I could offer a slightly different perspective on what has become a running institution. To most observers, one just does not run Hood to Coast by oneself.

I passed small country lanes dotted with modest, but well-kept houses. On one front porch sat two young inhabitants, enjoying the warm afternoon and looking over a small flock of chickens. A sign read, "Fresh eggs for sale." I couldn't help ask them, "How are the eggs?"

"The best!" replied the girl. "Wanna buy a dozen?"

I smiled at their entrepreneurship and said, "Well...I forgot my frying pan. But next time through, I'll be sure to get a dozen." We laughed together and for a few moments, I forgot all about the mounting fatigue in my legs.

------

Boring, Oregon isn't a bad tourism slogan or something uttered by tourist kids in the back seat as they drive from Seattle to San Francisco. It's a town just east of Portland that marks one end of the Springwater Corridor, a paved trail that stretches almost 22 miles from end to end. It's also the race route into Portland.

Todd, Jason, and Tonya met me in Boring for my first extended crew stop of the race. After a quick clothes change and some food, I grabbed a two-way radio, my phone for a few calls and some music, and I was onto Springwater. More blackberries awaited the crew, and I grabbed a few here and there to keep my mouth happy.
The shoe bin is opened during a short stop in Boring, Oregon.


The section of the run on the Springwater was interesting. At one point near the town of Gresham I was joined by Joe, who had heard about the run via social media. Then I ran into yet another friend who happened to be out on a training run. The company made the time pass rather quickly, as it always does.
At Gresham City Park.

As the sun began to set, the creatures of the night began to come out to play, especially the ones of the human variety as I reached the Portland city limits. My crazy new lighted vest drew much attention from many observers, but the bonus was that it was visible by any car or cyclist, making me an easy target to avoid.

Fatigue crept in with the evening, and as the sky grew darker, it hit me that I had been moving now for 12 hours. Then, a pleasant surprise gave me new energy: Friends Renee, Wendi, and others had come out to cheer me on, ringing cowbells and making a fuss at my arrival. It was as much a mental break as it was physical, giving me a few mental "cookies" for at least the next 4 or 5 miles.
The welcoming committee on the Springwater Corridor.


At Oaks Park in the Sellwood neighborhood, I left the crew for a 5k stretch, alone only with my thoughts and the occasional passing bicycle in the dark night. I thought how great it was to now be within sight of downtown Portland, and contemplated how great it was to have come this far.

As I got within radio distance of the crew, I started cracking a few jokes, bringing up random words I thought were funny. "You know what I think is a funny word?" asked Todd on the radio. "Penguin."

How...odd. The word had never struck me as peculiar, but...whatever. Maybe Todd just thought it looked or sounded funny. But the joke would be on me.

Reaching the end of the trail as it dumped onto city streets, I saw the lights of my crew, along with another...person? Being? PENGUIN?? It was my compatriot Porter, dressed head to toe in our company's penguin costume we use to promote a foul weather-themed run and bike ride. And, he was wearing running shoes, ready to escort me through downtown. Awesome! Nothing could punctuate the ridiculousness of running 200 miles solo than being accompanied at midnight by a running penguin.
The Penguin.
Accompanied by the Penguin through downtown Portland.


The comments offered by late night carousers were epic, and made the miles pass quickly through the city. After Porter peeled off to head home, I was alone again, sans support crew who had gone in search of late-night refueling for the vehicle. Running alone through an industrial area, I found a small shopping cart that looked like the perfect companion, so I dropped my handheld water bottle into the cart and started pushing. Awesome, again!
Where's the beer aisle? (Waar ist het bier stelling?)


The crew eventually caught up with me and I thought it a good time, while still relatively lucid, to schedule my first sleep break. In a small corner of a parking lot on Hwy. 30, I put my head down and was instantly asleep for a pleasant 45 minute nap (not even a RAT Tonya spotted could rouse me from my slumber!). But waking up and getting back on the road proved tough--beware the chair, as they say. I managed a shuffle and headed under the iconic St. Johns Bridge to points beyond, wondering if I'd start to see relay race crews setting up exchange zones or walking teams start to catch me.

--

The stretch along Hwy. 30, heading north out of Portland is a blur. Shaking off the bonds of (a brief) slumber, feeling the accumulated fatigue of over 70 miles, and the inky black narcotic of the early morning hours all conspired to drape my eyes and mood with a dark gauze.

Ultramarathons bring a weariness akin to the ultimate PhotoShop smudge tool. Sharp edges morph into cloudy waves. Memories are dulled; towns, villages, and landmarks are only good as points of association in the rearview mirror. Linnton: A place to stretch on a bench. Sauvie Island: A climb. The climb to Scappoose: Sunrise, and the first contact with walking teams. 
A typical nighttime crew stop where I had a seat for a minute or two.


I ran and walked into Scappoose with Friday's first light, which experience tells me is always a shot in the arm. My fast walking pace now dominated my running pace, and the encounters with the fastest of the walking teams discouraged me. Casual banter began; these were the first people I had encountered in nearly 24 hours who could begin to comprehend the magnitude of what I had already completed and the difficulty of what still lie ahead.

But the company did something else for me: It put me in my element; among those who valued movement above sedentary pursuits and fitness above inactivity. Yes, these were power/fitness/race walkers, but they were movers--men and women who could, on some level, relate.

Into the town of St. Helens, I entered the first relay exchange zone where I sensed the "race was on." The whirling dervish of activity and excitement was palpable and lifted me out of my mental funk. The morning sun now broke through clouds and warmed the air--I was in for at least 8 hours of warm to hot temps.

Tonya joined me for the next segment, and upon leaving St. Helens, we made sure to take a wrong turn, gaining my one "bonus" mile of the race. I so enjoyed her company and cheerful attitude as we left the town and entered the first rolling foothills of the Oregon Coast mountain range.

Into the major relay exchange at the Columbia County Fairgrounds, I got the first of many ego boosts...volunteers heartily announced to the waiting crowd of runners, "SOLO RUNNER...COMIN' THROUGH!" The cheers were embarrassing on one level, but so touching on another. I was moved to tears as I received high-fives from numerous folks, many pats on the back, and more than a few stares of disbelief and pity.

Hills are your friend. This, my mantra for many miles, remained unchanged and repeated until I nearly fell asleep muttering the words aloud. Narrow roads twisted through pastoral acreages lined with hardwoods. Alder leaves shimmered in the late-summer afternoon, their twinkling reminding me that every time I farted, an angel got its wings. Apologies...that is crude, uncalled for, and...just the kind of juvenile humor I needed in order to retain my sanity.

Up, up, up the route climbed, onto the gravel sections of the course, offering stunning vistas of countryside few--other than Hood to Coast runners--often see. Gravel sections seemed to last forever as afternoon gave way to early evening, and runners now started catching me, which I actually relished instead of dreaded.
Fake, fake, fake smile. I'm hurtin'.

My crew, through it all, appeared at the most opportune times, ready with a cold bottle of Perpetuem; a small bunch of Pringles (Greg's super-double-dog-spy-special-secret-ultra-weapon); a cold towel; a kind word; a stupid, yet critical insult or joke at the appropriate moment. God, I loved these three people.

Conversations with runners who joined me ran the gamut. I met an administrator for Habitat for Humanity who intrigued me with her story of how running transformed her life after a divorce; a guy who was running his first race beyond a 5k; and was uplifted by an endless stream of others who had gotten wind of my silly stunt, giving kudos and good tidings once they got beyond the disbelief.

---

The lights of the Natal Grange are behind me, and I'm running scared, my fright fueled by an endless supply of mounting fatigue that feeds my paranoia. Hallucinations have yet to start, but in my experience, are always preceded by the virtual looking-over-the-shoulder.

I'm not allowed to waver too much as I roll through the major exchange point in Mist, Oregon. Cheers and jeers from sleepy runners keep me running down the road, past a bar featuring a blues band belting out what must be the last encore of the late night.

"AAAAAnnnnddddd...the wheels came off!"

-----

If daylight could illuminate my face, the stare would have been frightening. As it was, in the pitch black, no one could see my thousand-mile gaze. A cup of hot coffee from a young couple outside the Birkenfeld Church lifts my spirits, but even the caffeine and grounds in the bottom of a styrofoam cup can't cut through the thick sludge of my sorry state.
The stare.

I despaired, and had to reiterate to the crew my dedication to reaching the beach. I asked for a short roadside meeting and asked if there were any objections to getting to the finish line at all costs, regardless of the time spent doing so. There were none, and I continued. Envision Ed Harris as Gene Kranz in Apollo 13: "Failure is NOT an option!"

----

Soon, Jason is walking next to me, and I can hear his stupid voice and see his outrageous clothing and footwear, his usual mishmash of fashion disaster/brilliant functional ensemble. But Jason doesn't give a shit about looking good in this pitch black god-forsaken night. He's been up for countless hours, has just run out of beef jerky, and wants a shot of bourbon. Gee...a bourbon sounds nice right about now.

Cows close to the roadway startle us as we hear a staccato "Moo!" and turn our headlamps to light the black and white faces, just a few feet away. I'm descending a never-ending spiral of weariness, with no end in sight. I need sleep, and I need it now. In the absence of the luxury of time to stop, I press on.

video
Someone had obviously put roofing tacks into my shoes, because the soles of my feet, suffering from big blisters, were on fire. Every step sent flashes of pain through my feet and into my legs. I didn't how much more I could take. But there's a moment where we all must separate extreme discomfort from true pain. How could I recompartmentalize (?) the discomfort, shuffle the deck a few times, and deal out a new hand that was more to my liking? I was the dealer in charge of the table--no person had a knife to my back forcing me down the road. Every step was of my own choice, so the obvious and logical conclusion was to take the extreme discomfort, place it neatly into its own cubby hole, and deal with the myriad of other issues I faced.

----

They say the darkest hour is just before the dawn. Here, the descent continued toward backward motion. My pace had dropped to sub-pedestrian, and I knew sleep was imminent. I asked Todd for 10 minutes, which he gladly arranged for me roadside. 10 minutes came and went, and I knew immediately it wasn't enough. Back on the road, my bobbing and weaving continued, putting me on the borderline of danger to myself and others. I asked Todd to ready my sleeping bag for a 45-minute nap...little did I know he was envisioning (or hoping for) a 2-hour break.

----

3 miles out of Jewell, I succumbed to the sleep gods, chronicled earlier by the rude and incoherent awakening, followed by the medical clearance and re-entry to the course.

Slowly, life on this little 200-mile journey began to get better and better.

I was joined just out of Jewell by a judge from MIssissippi (thanks, Matthew!) who was running with a group of friends from the South. Our conversation reminded me why I love Oregon so much...he fawned over the scenery, the trees, and even the friendly attitude of runners and race staff. It made me proud to welcome guests like this into our little corner of the world.

The route gets prettier and prettier outside of Jewell. A climb through verdant forests slows the pace of the race, giving passing team vehicles the opportunity to voice their support. In this 10k stretch I saw a number of familiar faces, and their kind words helped make easy work of the steep hills.

Some van congestion added to the entertainment value, and a cold Coke from my crew lifted me further. Tonya had to temporarily leave our team in this section for a social engagement near the coast, but she would return to the race later. Into the hamlet of Olney, van congestion was at its zenith, but my slow pace allowed for Todd and Jason to not worry about getting stuck in traffic.

Just past Olney, a mental cookie was delivered in the form of old friends and Hood To Coast teammates who stopped to offer encouragement, hurl insults, and pass me a bottle for a few slugs of something that tasted like a mix between moonshine, Tabasco sauce, and cinnamon. Probably just what I needed.

The sun now heated up for the third time since I had started this endeavor. I was having..."fun"...but I longed for the cool ocean breezes and the sand between my toes.

A few miles later, I could smell the briny waters of Young's River, an inlet which signaled my approach to coastal waters. But the party wasn't over quite yet. Afternoon sun baked down, making the next 8 or 9 miles feel very, very lengthy. Other runners I saw were hurting, too, so I gave encouragement when I could and kept my eyes on the horizon, looking for signs of a turn that would signify the relay's next exchange and another segment for me to wrap my head around.

Just past the aptly named Lewis & Clark School (this entire corner of Oregon bears evidence of the great explorers' visit), I soldiered southward toward the town of Seaside, still well over a half-marathon distance away.

Throughout the race, I would chuckle at the various team vans and their clever decor, one of the hallmarks of this event. One van stood out, however, as it flew past me en route to the next exchange. Crudely painted on the back window, the lettering read, "Do Epic Shit." It was an epitaph I repeated for the next 5 miles. Do Epic Shit. Do Epic Shit.

At the next, and second-to-last exchange, more cheers arose when a race volunteer announced my arrival. I was pretty cooked at this point, and needed every bit of energy I could borrow. 12 miles to go. Thankfully, Tonya appeared, ready to accompany me for the next 7 miles, so we ran, ate trailside blackberries, and discussed the finer points of living in Seaside, Oregon, a town she had called home years earlier.

A thick layer of clouds began to shroud the trail and roadway as we approached the final exchange point, the last time I was to see the crew before the finish line. I shivered in the cool air, but it was a welcome change to the heat earlier in the day. Since my "implosion" near the town of Mist many hours earlier, my feet had miraculously stopped hurting (nerve endings tired of shouting at me??), and I had run 95% of the time since the sleep break.

---- 

Into the last exchange point, I saw the whole crew for the last time before I would hit the beach. As I departed, I worried that they wouldn't make it to Seaside to park and get back to the race course in time to join me across the finish line.

Down, down, downhill I ran, entering Seaside under a thick cover of clouds during this final 5 mile stretch. I thought about all of the steps that had led me here...not just since I had begun THIS race two days earlier, but naturally, the path my life had taken to this point. In my wildest dreams as a young man, I never would have envisioned running 200 miles in one go. But in those many decades since I had run my first road race, I had done much more than I ever thought possible. This run, while hopefully not my last race, was proving to be A.) Superbly difficult, and B.) An incredibly sweet experience in its own right.

Into the town, I smelled the barn, picking up my pace as best I could and joined by relay runners who were completing their team's "glory leg." I crossed Hwy. 101, and wove through the residential side streets of Seaside. In vain I tried to radio my crew, but I heard only silence on the walkie talkie. Then, as I reached the Seaside promenade, Todd's voice came through: They were waiting for me on the boardwalk near the finish line!
Just a few strides to go.


Todd & Tonya with social media management at the finish.


After a few photos of me stumbling and smiling like an idiot, we joined hands to run under the finish line arch. 59 hours and 1 minute later, I had run 200 miles and the Hood To Coast relay route as a solo runner.
video

Crowds of runners who had gathered at the finish line clapped and yelled when the announcer gave me a shout out. Then, as I exited the finisher chutes, a mob of folks were all over me, dishing out the high-fives and giving me hugs and back slaps. The whole scene was incredibly humbling and while I enjoyed the accolades, I felt a bit embarrassed at the attention.

I guess you could say there was a day years ago when I was a "fast" runner, if we were to use a very liberal definition of the word. Sub-16 or 17 minute 5ks, sub 3-hour marathons and the like were within my realm. Today, while I enjoy the competition of a footrace, I'm not under any illusions that I can beat the young (or old!) fast guys and gals in a race. I do the best I can, given my training and other variables that go into my event preparation. While I haven't given up on maximizing my performance, I find great joy in simply soaking up the atmosphere that running races offer. And a solo 200-mile run could be one of the ultimate examples of that. I had no competition other than my own doubts, fears, and insecurities. No other runner was on my heels, pushing me to the red line of my inner tachometer. No runner was ahead of me, offering the tantalizing "fish to reel in" as my next "road kill" victim.

It was just me, myself, and I, supported by a selfless crew of amazing individuals, moving down the road one footfall at a time.

And in its great simplicity, was its beauty. It was running, at its very best.
Everybody happy...and exhausted.


---

As a postscript, it has taken two months for me to write the above words; or I should say, it has taken two months for me to type the words out, as the story was written with every mile that passed under my feet in August.

I've been asked so many questions about this feat, so I'll address a few of the most common here. Yes, there was plenty of walking during the 200 miles, especially from around the 90 to 140 mile point. 80% of my fuel was liquid, primarily Perpetuem from Hammer Nutrition. Except for a short segment where I wore an old pair of running sandals, I ran and walked in HOKA shoes, and used 3 or 4 pair at some point--mostly the Stinson Tarmac and the Conquest. Pictures show me in those dorky, yet superbly effective compression socks, which I wore throughout. The distance between crew stops varied from 1 to 3 miles, although there were a few places where it was more distance.

The people I encountered along the route, including fellow race participants and event volunteers, were incredibly supportive. A kind look, light applause, or the numerous words of encouragement were worth more than gold, even at it's current rate of $1235/oz. The "civilians," casual spectators out living their life along the way...well, they were the spice that added a very rich flavor to the event: The work crew in a truck just outside of Gov't. Camp; the guy in Sandy who directed me to the "new" high school instead of the "old" one; the people picking berries on the Springwater Corridor; people like Joe and Porter who ran with me for a while; the Hispanic family near Gresham who were laughing at their own attempts to pick an apricot from a high branch; people in their St. Helens neighborhood attending to their garage sale; and the list goes on. To all of them, known and unknown, I owe a debt that could never be repaid.

JTT made the race for me. Without them...no race!
JTT's post-race treats.


Finally, I've been asked if I would do this run again. With the memories of the discomfort still fresh in my mind...I'm not sure. There are plenty of journey runs, races (both short and long) available out there. The world of endurance sports is huge, and even after 30 years of pounding the pavement, I've got miles to go before I sleep.

Thanks for reading, your support before, during and after the race, and for any comments you wish to share. #gregtocoast can be used for any social media shares, etc.

As always,

Remember to love the ones you love.
Incredible illustration, plus all photos/videos courtesy of Jason Walton





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