Hood-to-Coast report: can I do this again next week?

It was 9 p.m., I was a few hours from my second about six-mile leg of the Hood-to-Coast relay, and I was going on seven hours of sleep in the past 48 hours. I thought I was going to throw up. I was headaches and nauseous and poopy and oh, how was I ever going to make it through? My first leg, at 2:30 in the afternoon, had gone very well despite the heat, semi trucks blasting past me as I ran on the shoulder of I-84, and long hill at the end; I’d run a good time, equivalent to my best 10-K time in years, although a bit slower than my goal pace of eight-minute miles. More importantly, I’d racked up eight “road kills” (passed runners), mostly men. Awesome.

And I was there mentally; I’d done yoga and positive thinking training with my team. I was looking at vertical lines (which makes you perform better), I was repeating my mantra, “light on your feet, light on your feet!” — even sending my lightweight brainwaves to the runners I passed on the way up the hill.

But now, 12 hours and 80-some miles into the race, I felt awful. I couldn’t imagine 12 more miles. I couldn’t imagine one more mile. I took ibuprofen, I drank water, I ate two cold potatoes and some mandarin oranges.

Cut to 10:30 p.m. Magically, I’ve made a total mental transformation. I think it was the cheerleading: a teammate and fellow former cheerleader and I started chanting, “T… T R U… T R U C K, keep on truckin’ all the way!” for Olivia. I’m walking to the exchange zone with my teammates and saying, “I’m in the best shape of my life! I feel so incredible,” and they’re agreeing with me, not sure if I’m truly believing this or just working on the positive-speak. When the runner before me comes in I grab the wristband happily and take off, prompting a stander-by to exclaim, “if you keep up this pace, you’ll win the thing!”

As I’m running down the dark Highway 30, through the rather ugly town of Scappoose, past a weedy high school, seedy bars, closed pizza joints and open fast food outlets, I feel amazing. I’m running fast, focusing on my turnover, my feet pounding lightly, “T … T RU … T R U CK …” I say as trucks whiz past in the darkness.

I’m feeling so great, and at some point I notice the white stenciled marking on the ground, lit by my headlamp. “H C 2” it says. Two miles in. I look at my watch and read “15:22.”

Seven. Minute. Forty-one second. Miles.

I’m supposed to be tired. This is supposed to be the hardest part, this second leg, in the middle of the night, when the sleep deprivation and muscle exhaustion start to hit even the best-trained runners. And I’ve run barely 12 (fast) miles each week in the months leading up to the race; most of my endurance training has been by bicycle, and does that even count?

Instead I’m thinking, “I could run six miles every 12 hours for the rest of my life.”

I end up finishing my 5.7 miles in 46 minutes, a blazing pace of just-under eight-minute miles, my outside goal. And I still feel great. We sleep, under the stars, in the midst of dozens of vans and hundreds of sleeping-bag covered runners, waking at 3:54 a.m. to head to the next exchange zone.

For my next leg, the nausea hits immediately before I’m scheduled to take off, and I almost give in. But Keri, the runner before me, comes in a few minutes before I expect her and I don’t have time to think — I have to run up to the exchange zone behind her and I’m off, into what’s rated as the second-toughest leg of the race (but the first-toughest is all downhill). This one is over a mountain, literally. Three-and-a-half miles up, 2.8 miles down.

It’s hard, but I breathe deep and feel strong. The first half-mile is supposed to be extremely steep but it doesn’t seem that bad to me. I look at my watch when I get to one mile. 9:32. WOW. For the hardest mile of the race, that’s great for me.

By this time, elite runners are whizzing past me, doing six minute miles straight up hill. I don’t mind, thinking to myself as they nod-and-dash, “they should be proud to pass me.” The hill is amazing, hard but wonderful. My team stops several times to cheer me on and play the theme from Rocky and “Eye of the Tiger” from the van stereo. The elite runners are slowing a bit, and now they encourage me as they pass me. “Looking strong,” says one. I’m almost to the top of the hill and other teams are spread out over the right shoulder, clapping and cheering for all of us who are cresting the mountain. All I can think about is the way down, how fast I’ll go. I’ve been training for nothing but this.

And I take off, fast, trying to catch the other runners in front of me. I catch one, two, three. Although I’ve been passed by a dozen runners on the way up, only one catches me on the way down. His t-shirt says, “U.S. record-holder seven years in a row,” and I think, oh well.

My parents are waiting for me at the exchange zone, and I finish so strong I wish I could keep on running for another leg. 50-some minutes for 6.3 miles, incredible considering my huge climb. I love this race.

Can we do it again next week?

Author by Sarah Gilbert