How I Prepared for Hood to Coast

My last blog entry was probably one of the most brutally honest pieces I have written in awhile, and I’m so grateful that I had the guts to just say what I freaking needed to say: that running has burned me out tremendously on emotional, physical, and mental levels. Actually, no: injury has burned me out emotionally and physically. The amount of work required to come back from being benched is substantial. First of all, you don’t know where to start. Then you have to fight voices in your head that tell you you are a fool for even trying. You doubt whether you should keep trying because you’re not happy anymore. There’s guilt for letting yourself get hurt and constantly wondering how it happened. Plus, you know, medical bills suck. But I sort of had to self-soothe for the last month or so because I’m running the Hood to Coast Relay race this weekend, and I needed to pull it together fast because there are 11 people counting on me to pull my weight.

The Hood to Coast Relay is “the mother of all relays.” It’s 200-ish miles over 32 hours, starting at the Timberline Lodge 6,000 feet up Mount Hood to the coast of Oregon at Seaside Beach. I am part of a team of 12 total women running that distance with my share being 16.6 miles split into 3 “legs.” I have NO IDEA what to expect, except that there will be a lot of fun and probably not much sleep. And likely a lot of binge-eating. Definitely some drinking and swearing.

Hood to Coast has always sort of been somewhere on my bucket list of races to run, but I’ve never actually set my heart on running it because I’m generally uncool and you need people who are crazy enough to run for 32 hours at all hours of the day and night. However, social media made my dreams come true and, back in December, a runner I follow on Instagram messaged me and asked if I would be interested in joining her team. I don’t understand how this world functioned before the Internet, because there I was saying yes to a total stranger about traveling for two days in a van through the wilderness far from civilization and not even thinking about how odd that sounds. What could go wrong, right?

When I started training for the Hood to Coast relay, I did a Google search for best practices and training plans. I found very few. So, here I am writing a post on how I personally trained to run through the Oregon wilderness from half a mile above the earth to sea level. Generally speaking, it depends on two major things: what kind of shape you are in and what legs you are running. But there are takeaways here.

Starting with the first point, my hips were traumatized after running the hills of Baltimore in the 2015 marathon, so I knew that I had to strengthen my hips, core, and glutes in order to run downhill. So, I did a lot of squats. A lot. Of squats. I did squats every day, at least 30 squats. It’s really easy to get off the couch and just squat while the TV is on. Literally anyone can get up and do it. Physical therapy also helped me with some hip and core strength. I was medically required to do clam shells, bridges, reverse clam shells, single leg extensions, hip dips, monster walks, fire hydrants, all of that. I would recommend doing those as part of a good strength-building routine to prepare for the race. I always did about 2 sets of 10-12 three times a week. Planks and side planks are also critical, and there is no need to overdo it here. Just because you can hold a plank for 3 minutes doesn’t mean you should. 30 -60 seconds each side should do it, the reason being that you want to practice core activation for those downhills. You will need your core and hips to be stable.

Obviously, you also want to practice running downhill. People dread uphills more than downhills, and I don’t know why that is. Running downhill is scary and it’s hard. You have to control your momentum, keep your form, stabilize your core, and keep your pace all at once. If you don’t do it right, you could end up like I did after Baltimore and wondering what was worse— running a marathon or childbirth (not that I know). I ran downhill as often as I could, even adding some un-timed quarter miles at the end of a run just because it offered the chance to practice running downhill. I wasn’t medically cleared to run uphill yet, but definitely practice that, too, as some parts of the relay course are uphill.

That brings me to my next point: it depends on what legs you are running. Obviously, not many people (or anyone yet!) can run a straight 200 miles down a mountain to the coast so the whole course is split between 12 people who run 3 legs of the total 36 leg-course. Each leg is classified as being easy, moderate, hard, or very hard depending on the course conditions, which could be uphill, downhill, over gravel, in the sun, whatever the case may be. The first leg, I hear, is the toughest one. It’s labeled “very hard” with almost 6 miles of brutality. Starting at Timberline Lodge, you run downhill from 6,000 feet to 4,000 feet. If you are reading this and are assigned Leg 1, you should probably have started taking calcium supplements months earlier and have plenty of beef jerky and eggs in your van.

Luckily, I was not assigned to Leg 1. My Legs are 3, 15, and 27. Luckily, my first leg is a great way to transition into the race at a “easy” 3.86 miles of a gradual downhill on a paved shoulder of road. And I’ll lose about 900 feet in elevation. I am slated to run that leg starting around 10:30AM on Friday morning, which I ordinarily hate morning running but I will be on East Coast time so that will feel like a casual 1:30PM jog.

My second leg is Leg 15, which is 7.25 miles of “hard.” I will be on gently rolling terrain along a paved highway shoulder and I am slated to begin running that one around 9:25PM, or past midnight East Coast time. I’m actually very excited for this leg— running at weird hours of the day and night is what Hood to Coast is all about! It’s totally part of the fun of this race, so I’m looking forward to what looks to be a relatively flat course, elevation-wise, with a few uphills (that I have not trained for but am prepared mentally to handle).

My third and final leg of Hood to Coast, Leg 27, is a “moderate” almost-10K run on rolling hills and paved roads with no major elevation gain or loss. I am projected to start running that leg around 8AM, or 11AM East Coast time. In between these legs, there will be change-ups in driving and some downtime at a camp with about 12,000 runners. What have I gotten myself into??

I have to stop here and say that I have literally no idea what to expect from the running part of this relay race. In my mind, I’ve been practicing downhill running and I don’t mind uphills so mentally I am there. I have also run the Goofy and Dopey Challenges at Disney World, and I have to say that the races were not the worst part about those experiences. Waking up at 2AM 2-4 days in a row was the absolute WORST part of those races. I have also not taken on the conventional wisdom of training for a relay race, which is to practice running twice in 12 hours. I only get about 12 hours of rest in between legs, and I have no clue how my body will be prepared for that. While my van will be stopping back at my team captain’s house in Portland for 5-6 hours after running our first legs, beyond that, this could either be a disaster or just the glory I needed to make one hell of a running comeback.

In terms of packing, that might need to be a different post because that’s just a whole balancing act of being prepared and being too prepared. I am not good at either!

Overall, I am so excited and grateful for this experience as I have been looking forward to it for months. It’s my hope and intention to write up as best of a review as I can so that other runners who want to run this race know what to expect in terms of training, packing, running, and the race experience itself.

Wish me luck and, if you want to follow our team on Instagram, search the hashtags #TeamEatOurSparkles or #EatOurSparkles, or the race hashtag #HTC16.

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