Riding shotgun with BTC at Hood To Coast
1,199 teams of 12 take off in an epic relay race from Mount Hood to the Oregon Coast. 199 miles of hilly Oregon roads makes for a long drive - or a relatively short road trip with friends, depending on how you look at it. The iconic Timberline Lodge parking lot, still bustling with ski bums, is transformed into a starting line while the tourist filled beach of Seaside, Oregon becomes a finish line.
This year I would be enduring the smells, the sweat, and the late night delirium with Nike’s elite teams from the Bowerman Track Club. I’d be focused on capturing the men’s journey on the road to victory and their pursuit of overtaking the Corporate Record set in 2008, along with the women’s chase to hold onto their streak of winning the title in the Women’s Corporate Division which they’ve held for as far back as the records state.
From elite teams trying to take home the trophy and all the glory that comes with, to the teams who are chugging beer, wearing costumes and have pulled out a pair of running shoes for the first time in a decade, Hood to Coast is complete chaos and everyone wants to play.
It’s the day before the gun goes off and the men meet up at Nike WHQ to talk over the plan. “I literally forgot I was running this until last week” Julian mumbles as pasta falls out of his mouth.
Team captain Jordan Welling states the most important rule, “Everybody get your shit together. A little arrogance is fine but we’re not jerks. We’re out here to have fun and run fast.”
Tenacity is the common thread amongst the guys. They are dedicated and ready to win. With the best team they’ve had in years, they are gunning for the 11 year old corporate record of 16:58:30. “Take pride in the fact that we could actually beat this. No one thought this record would ever be touched and for the first time we have a team that could do it.” JW encourages the team. With the Tokyo Team not competing this year and the Jacuzzi Boys moving to the Mixed Open Division, their main competition will be the RunLab team from Austin, Texas.
The girls are cheersing around a table full of beer and plates of pasta at Deschutes Brewery in downtown Portland. Mandy takes a drink of her beer, “I retired from Hood to Coast last year but Molly convinced me to do it again.” Beth looks around the table to the other three ladies who work in Nike Women’s Running, “Oh yeah, I thought I retired too. But someone dropped out and these three asked me to run so here I am.”
“They’re cancelled. Done.” This is Molly’s reaction whenever another team’s name is mentioned. Someone from across the table demands a “cheers to that!” and again the glasses are raised.
Team captains Sarah Price and Elysse Egerman make it clear that in order to hold onto the title they’ll need to play the long game. It’s more important to run smart than it is to take risks that could be detrimental.
It’s race morning. The skies are blue and it appears to be the warmest HTC race day in years. The sweet glisten of sweat radiates off hundreds of bodies alongside the windy road up to Mount Hood. “Oh jesus, is this my leg?” Sarah has some discomfort in her voice as she watches runners struggle up a hill, “Yeah okay, maybe I should look up what legs I am running.” she adds with less than 2 hours until start time. The nerves in the van are high and knees are bouncing with anxiety.
“Rest and recharge babies. We’ve got a long one ahead of us.” Anna encourages the girls after claiming she’ll be the one keeping the party going through the night.
We arrive at the start line and a couple of bearded skiers hop out of their subaru. One of the girls yells, “Yeah boys! Send it!” They throw a shaka up, and take off toward the trail with skis over their shoulder, time to shred. The perfect environment for an Oregon race.
At 12:45pm Katelynn darts off from the start line. Tyler’s feet will hit the ground just 45 minutes later. After more than 5 miles almost entirely downhill, Katelynn comes into the exchange with relief in her voice, “I was so happy to hit the little bit of uphill. My legs were tensing up so bad. My shoe didn’t come untied so that’s already an improvement from last year.”
Red lace dresses envelop bodies of all different shapes and sizes as a mixed team division piles into the van next to us. It’s clear they are committed and intend on wearing them all the way to the coast, ouch.
Meanwhile, Trish hunches over with the ultimate pain face as she comes into the exchange. Without a word she heads to the van. When someone has a moment like this early on, it shows what it takes to be a part of a team. You’re spending countless hours with the same people in a confined space. You have to understand the way they operate and respond in a way that they need. In the silence there is a mutual understanding that what Trish needs is to be left alone. Peering out the window in the front seat, she’s slowly catching her breath, her eyes are glistening but there is no doubt she’ll be coming back strong for her next leg.
We’re almost 3 hours into the race and with anticipation of the wild stories I’ll hear from the girls when they cross the finish line at the beach, I hop in the van with the boys.
“90 seconds ahead of projection. 50 seconds ahead of RunLab. They came to play it seems.” JW keeps the group chat informed. He shoots another text. “Good news: Maisey crushed. Overall 1:50 ahead of projection and 1:10 ahead of RunLab. Bad news: Maisey rolled his ankle pretty bad and might be out :/” Crazy Maisey (actual name Josh Maisey) is a Kiwi who is back running with the team this year. He’ll have a couple of hours before determining if he’ll be able to run his next leg but for now the pursuit continues.
Chris Platano, Driver of Van 1, will be one of the heroes of the night. He had planned to run with the team but a recent injury took him out so he ended up behind the wheel determined to help get a victory any way he could. The debris of what looked like a collision between Nike and every grocery store in Portland consumes the boys van. The aroma of sweaty bodies and smelly feet takes away from the beautiful snow capped mountains and endless green fir trees that encompass the van. 'HUMBLE' by Kendrick Lamar blasts over the speakers. Jeramy Elkaim shouts over Kendrick’s voice, “Hey Pat, put this on a post if you beat the RunLab guy on the second leg!” The drama has already started for HTC 2019. The RunLab team started talking trash on social media after beating Pat’s Strava record on his first leg, adding some healthy competition and igniting a bit of fire in the guys.
We pass by JW hammering gracefully on the paved road. The sun is blazing and we decide to pull off ahead to hand off some water, he’s in for a long one and the heat is an issue.
HTC becomes a different race when you’re on a fast team. Averaging close to five minutes per mile creates a dilemma. Most teams have plenty of time between exchanges, but these guys have to be completely dialed. Now on the outskirts of the city, the team will have to factor in stop lights, trains, and attempt to dodge all things that could cause a delay. They know that HTC traffic is going to get backed up so they agree to take a risk and pile 10 of the 12 guys into one van. The plan is to drop people off at their exchange ahead of time, while the other van picks people up.
It’s just after 5PM. At the next exchange, a man wearing a vest reading “BLIND” starts shouting as he runs in, “I’m here! I made it! We really can do this!” Everyone is clapping. Their entire team is composed of 12 legally blind runners with guides who will be alongside them throughout the race. This is what it’s all about.
With bandaids on his nipples and a huge grin Liam comes running up, “Here take a picture of me and my big muscles.” I laugh and snap a quick photo before he hops on the path. At this point the BTC guys have a 5 minute lead on the RunLab team. With more than 12 hours to go it’s still anyone’s race.
Julian is filled with disappointment as he comes into the exchange. He had a run in with two stop lights, adding what felt like an eternity of time to his leg. Still he ran 25:20 for 5 miles and absolutely killed it.
Talik, who has already vomited at this point, jogs out of a little market nearby with instant vegan organic ramen (because Portland) in hand. “Yep, seems about right.” Julian comments on the meal choice. When it comes to eating, long races are like an airport. Anything is valid because what is night to one person might be morning to someone else. Everything is fair game.
Phones come out and people try to inconspicuously take photos of his shrouded shoes as Pat paces back and forth with adrenaline at exchange 13. Curiosity fills the crowd for those who are paying attention or who care for that matter. The first half of his leg will have a bit of daylight, but the sun is starting to set.
7 hours into the race and Crazy Maisey has decided to run his second leg on his rolled ankle, “Hey can someone convert 7 miles to km’s? I’m keen to know how far I’ll be running on this thing.” He seems confident and the guys trust his decision.
As daylight fades, christmas lights atop vans illuminate the night. Glow in the dark painted bodies dance through the streets, and music is blaring from van after van... which to be fair is not that far off from a normal Friday night in Portland. We drive past the Aussie of the crew, Kevin Batt (Batsy), who looks like he’s kicking at the end of a race but is crushing mile 3 of 7.8. “Batsy was out like a bat outta hell.” JW turns to the rest of the van with excitement.
“Yep, that’s my teammate.” Pat adds, proud of Batsy.
At exchange 17 we connect with another Nike Team. Tarahumara is a Mixed Division team who will likely take the win. Rogan Meza is on their next leg, “Alright, so I’m just gonna latch onto Jordan Welling and blackout. That’s my big plan.” He laughs at his own joke.
Batsy rolls in with disappointment, he hit a 90 second stoplight at the end of his leg after running 4:45s for 7.8 miles. “It’s just so frustrating. You work so hard just to get stopped by something that is out of your control. I guess that’s all part of it though, right mate?”
We’re somewhere on a quiet road beyond St. Helens en route to the coast. We have almost no service for the next 11 hours and will have to rely on the team staying on course. With traffic building up on these usually lonely dirt roads, there is no way we can get Liam to his exchange in time. In a split second, a decision is made. He’ll hitchhike. He takes off running up the traffic packed road to catch a ride with whoever is in front. By the time we make it to the exchange Liam has jetted off into the night, he made it.
“I’m gonna kick his ass. We gotta get Maxwell in some 4x4s. He made me run extra. I practically ran through him.” Talik laughs after a terrible handoff with Maxwell.
12 hours down, 6 to go. Maxwell is headed uphill straight into delirium. With nearly 6 miles of country road hills, dust is filling the air and we’re almost certain he’s going to be pissed when he gets back in the van. “We’re never going to hear the end of this,” moans Talik anticipating Maxwell’s attitude.
Instead, he comes back grinning and full of stoke. “Dude. I loved that. I loved those hills. That was awesome.” Yep okay. We are convinced he is in a state of delirium at this point.
The sense of community as we pass through small desolate towns and lonely roads give the night character. It’s approaching midnight but with a ripped box of PBR at their feet and a handwritten sign reading, “We Have Water”, a family sits in lawn chairs outside of their home. Consider this an “unofficial aid station”. Although the world outside is relatively quiet in between these little local sights, the boys’ energy is at an all time high. Jeremy Freed is running on a dust filled road for what seems like forever. As we pass by Julian grabs the megaphone and shouts to Maxwell to roll down the window. “FREED THE MIND, FREED THE BODY, FREED THE SOUL. Use that downhill baby! Send it!” A thumbs up shoots into the air and Freed grins at the rowdy crew and their outrageous bantar.
We roll into exchange 22 at midnight. “Is that an R2-D2 statue?” Julian is slightly delirious but comes to his senses, “Oh nope. It’s a trash can.” His leg is next, this will be fun.
Liam whisks past us off the downhill shouting “Yes baby, let’s go!”. Julian takes off sprinting. The best hand off yet.
“Woo! I’m a wet dog!” Liam shouts, still on a high.
With a few more miles on the road, we arrive at the next exchange. “Ja boy is tired.” Julian lets out a deep breath. “I looked down after like 15 steps and was running 3:55 because Liam gave it to me at a million miles an hour. That was sick.”
As we stand alongside the road, a RunLab guy comes up to chat. This will likely be the last time we see anyone from their team until we hit the coast. “Hey is Patrick over here? I’ve been talking trash on the internet but wanted to introduce myself. You guys are killing it.” This moment. This is the definition of the running community. For the last 12 hours trash talk has filled Instagram and Strava, but here are the two competing teams laughing, shaking hands and congratulating each other on stellar performances.
The night brings grit. Nothing but quiet, winding back roads, perseverance and passion revealed in the darkness. Each time we send someone off into the inky black night the anticipation rises as we await the bobbing headlamp at the next exchange.
Old Town Road is playing in the background, and the boys are shouting the lyrics in unison. We pull into exchange 25 around 1:20am and grab some coffee from the aid station. Two middle aged men stand under the tainted yellow lights of an old camper. “I’ve been volunteering out here for years. The nights don’t feel so long when you get to see all of these people coming in hootin’ and hollerin’.” The man takes a sip of coffee, “I mean my job is easy. It’s all these crazy people running around that have to do the hard part.”
The crisp air chills our bodies and layers of clothing are added. CP breaks the silence around us, “Hey guys, what do you think this year will be remembered as? The year that Crazy Maisey sprained his ankle, thinks he broke it, comes back and runs sub 5s for 7 miles?”
Back on the road frustration fills the BTC van as the vehicles of walking teams have casual conversations out of their windows with their walker. As the first running team, they likely have no idea why we are in such a hurry. They have several hours between each leg, we have approximately 25 minutes.
It’s 2:58am when we jog up to the next exchange. We’ve hit what we believe to be the majority of the walkers. The lady next to us turns to her teammate, “I mean, it’s cool that these skinny boys are the first runners we’ve seen but do they have boobs they can carry snacks in? Nope.” At this point the boys are getting a lot of attention. At every exchange people watch as the chaos ensues and begin cheering them on.
3 hours to go and Taylor Swift is on repeat. “I think we’re all losing it.” Batsy speaks for the group. Van 1 has almost completed all of their legs, once finished they’ll head to the coast for shower beers and pizza while they await the rest of the team.
Earlier in the day Van 2 claimed to be the fun crew, but when the van door opens at 4am the energy is at an all time low. “The party has ended, you may honestly find dead bodies in here.” Julian sleepily mumbles and eye masked Talik smirks.
“I don’t know guys, I’m feeling fine, might go crush.” Maxwell says with forced confidence, removing himself from the dead body crew.
“Great. Anyone else who wants to go crush in my absence feel free.” Freed laughs.
It’s 4:04am and the tone has changed. Everyone is trying to ignore that they’re fatigued. Music is blasting out the back of the van in a parking lot with tacos and coffee. Party boys Julian and Liam start dancing, which could be a direct result of the Red Bull they shared just moments before.
Talik comes in off his leg “I can’t fucking breathe. My lungs.” He is the first to be finished with all three legs in Van 2.
A voice in the distance shouts, “Hey man don’t vomit. You won’t hear the end of it.”
Talik stumbles back to the van, falling through the doors. He melts into the seat and we hit the road. After a few moments he comes back to life, “The walkers are so nice. Like they are low-key, high-key people.” The rest of the crew agrees.
Liam leans to the front of van to change the music and elbows me in the face. 15 hours into the race and this is the first injury inside of the vehicle, not bad.
Blessings by Big Sean brings out all the karaoke voices. “The only way we justify drinking beer is by running our faces off. Oh yeah, let’s just run from the mountains to the coast that sounds fun.” Liam laughs with the realization that they all might be a little insane.
Talik takes over DJ and the Jonas Brothers are suddenly in the car with us. “Oh, absolute banger!” Julian shouts and catches the melody. The boys hop out of the car and jog over to grab burritos. Liam dances a bit then blasts off into the dark as we inch closer to the coast.
Somewhere on the backroads of Astoria, Oregon at 5:34am we see an old VW bus that has been converted to a mobile coffee unit. Maxwell orders coffee as the team stretches their legs at the exchange.
Liam arrives at the exchange looking like an absolute liability. He hands off to Julian with a huge grin. Covered in blood he laughs, “I elbowed you in the face but I’m the one with a bloody nose. Shot a rocket and blew a vessel. Pretty much couldn’t breathe the entire second half of that leg.”
Freed goes in for a high five but sees the blood on his hands, “Dude, you look so fierce.”
After being off the grid through the night, phones begin to buzz and we know we’re back online. We notify Van 1 to head to the beach.
The sun brings a new energy as we wait to changeover runners and the trash talking begins again. This time it’s a middle aged woman and the trash talk is playful. She is radiating with excitement as we walk up to the exchange. “We’ve been waiting for you! What time do you guys think you’ll finish? Our goal is to beat you and our walker already took off. I think we’re gonna get ya!” After being alone on the road for several hours this is fun for the guys.
Liam fires back “Well we have Usain Bolt finishing the last leg for us so.. good luck. JK Usain is retired we’ve got AC. Damn, you might get us.”
She hops in her car and puts up a fighting fist with a huge grin “May the best team win.”
Julian comes in off his leg and looks at bit haggard. “Maybe it’s too soon but I’m definitely not ready to do that again next year.”
“Oh yeah, you’ll need about 363 days to feel ready again.” Freed jokes.
Julian hops in the van “I can’t believe I didn’t even vomit. This is bullshit.”
We pass AC on his last leg, he’s crushing. Designated megaphone boy jumps to the front of the van “Yeah Boy! He’s taking flight. He’s feeeeling it.” AC laughs and keeps cruising. The car is getting riled up as AC is the last runner and we are en route to the beach.
It’s 6:30am at the Oregon Coast. A light breeze fills the air, the sun is still rising, and fog rolls over the beach like a blanket. There is no fanfare at the finish line as most normal humans are in their homes snoozing or drinking their morning coffee. Most other teams won’t be rolling in for several hours.
AC’s feet hit the sand and he closes out the race with rest of the BTC guys. 199 miles on foot, 17:19:01 averaging 5:14s. This is their first win as overall champion in 3 years. They receive their trophy and the announcer offers to hold onto it until the awards session later that evening. The boys decline as they are keen to keep it throughout the day and use it as a beer mug. They’ve missed the corporate record by approx 20 minutes. However, with further research they realize that in 2008 when the record was set, the race was 2 miles shorter and the guys averaged 5:10s so they were closer to breaking it than they thought. In full on death mode but full of stoke, the boys set off to nap and shower before returning to cheer on the ladies.
The ladies roll into the finish at 23:54:03 which has them averaging 7:13s. A 37th place finish overall and keeping the title with a 1st place in the Women’s Corporate Division.
The boys meet up to congratulate the ladies and White Claws are cracked open. In the midst of mayhem and the competitive atmosphere of these elite teams, it can be easy to miss the important moments. Both teams finished the race and they did it damn fast, but that’s not what would remain dominant in their memory. The teams poured out story after story as they recalled the last 24 hours. A night full of car dance parties, quiet whispers to check if anyone in the car was awake and the outburst of laughter realizing no one could sleep... not to mention the human disco balls, “I painted my entire body with reflective paint. It was fun until no one could see me on the road. That’s the whole point of being obnoxious.” Anna’s disappointed in her lack of visibility.
Tired eyes fill the beach but it’s time for the after party. For the next several hours the guys group chat is going off with photos of each teammate drinking beer from the trophy and endless group photos with people they seemingly don’t remember. They were on an absolute war path but let’s leave those images up to the imagination.
Often viewed as a solo endeavor, running is seemingly more powerful with community. The old man who sits alone outside his house waving, children giggling as they spray the passersby with a garden hose, and a family with a sign reading “free homemade burritos” standing alongside the winding dirt road. These things matter. A hand on a teammate’s back as they heave after their final 7 miles. A seemingly simple “you’ve got this man” at the exchange, or the whole gang simultaneously screaming out the window at the top of their lungs with a hand pressed firmly down on the horn while blazing past a teammate to the next exchange. It’s more than just running, it’s more than just a race.
Anyone can get out and run, and anyone can race. But why? Why stay up all night scrambling in and out of vans, bombing down country highways in a strange yet rhythmic pattern to the Oregon Coast? During the race it’s the pain that becomes abundantly recognizable. The attributes of the individual reveal themselves because when it comes down to it, no one can run your leg except you. But what happens when injury comes early and unexpected? What happens when you run slower than what you’re capable of and feel defeated or conversely when you absolutely crush it? That’s when you need someone.
Running can be as lonely as you want it to be. But when you cross that finish line with 11 teammates by your side, that’s where you really see it. Joy. Pure fucking joy. That’s why.
There’s camaraderie in the midst of chaos and it keeps you wanting more.
I mean, I didn’t even run the damn thing and I guarantee I’ll be back next year.