It starts in the sky, where individual bodies hurtle down the side of a mountain. These eager lemmings take the first fast steps of a journey that ends where the continent does, slicing through the altitude’s thin air with the burden of a beginning on their backs. The descent asks for speed and, despite the weight of the expectations, they run and respond. In a lodge bathroom, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” plays over loudspeakers, and I am not yet running, save for the piss running down my leg on this Saturday morning as I battle with nerves and bodily functions.
I emerge from the bathroom into a parking lot of vans and runners spilling from them, a scene watched far above by the face of Oregon’s Mount Hood, which sits 50 miles east-southeast of Portland. The test ahead is Hood to Coast, a 199-mile relay race that begins at Mount Hood and ends west at the Pacific Ocean. The miles are divvied up amongst 12-person teams, which are split into two vans of six runners each. Ours, the Beast Coast Crew, is made up of New York media types pulled together by Nike.
As Van 1 we woke early, creeping up the terrain in our vehicle while the others slept. From the start the team is segmented, its halves only to meet at the point where the first six have completed their legs and the next six are ready to run. So the team is something less than whole, at 9:30 a.m., on the side of the mountain in the morning sending our first runner down. A YouTuber named Sam with Snapchat Lenses on his face is abandoned at the starting line.
Vans leapfrog their runners during the race, dropping one off, driving ahead, and then exchanging bodies as quickly as possible. After six runners, a team will briefly become one again, meeting to pass the baton (Which is actually a slap bracelet). After that are precious hours of rest while the active van endures mileage and the other sleeps, eats, or sits in worry. Each runner will complete three legs of varying length and difficulty over the course of nearly 200 miles.
It’s unclear which of the 12 positions across the two vans is least enviable to be in, but mine is not ideal with respect to dread and anxiety. It is the third-hardest of them all, although none of the individual legs are of greater distance than what I’ve run before. As the final runner in Van 1, I wait in silent agony while teammates tick off miles, forced to prove myself last.
Sam fares fine, rolling down a steep incline for his first leg before passing the bracelet to Amy. Clanging cowbells break the morning stillness when our runners glide by. Amy to Claire, who goes into the pine needles and returns for Amanda. Then Amanda to Dean and suddenly, with pure nerves in my stomach, I am in the chamber and ready to be fired off into the open road for seven miles on the outskirts of Portland. Vans gridlock around runner exchange points and so ours slows to a halt and I hop out with Jes, the seasoned coach guiding Van 1, and skitter up the busy roadside, sipping water and neglecting stretches for the sake of time. I meet a waiting Dean and am chided by onlookers for my tardiness; I take the bracelet and run.
Leg 1 – Distance: 7.08 miles. Sneakers: Nike Air Zoom Pegasus 34.
And immediately I am failure. My training and discipline have been sucked out by the summer sun perched above; I have flown too close to it. Every flaw is illuminated by its gaze. My goal is to average a modest 8-minute-per mile pace across my total 17.6 miles. Just one mile into this, a voice from the Nike RunClub app chirps out from my phone a message of recklessness: “Average pace, 6 minutes and 53 seconds.” The haste may have been welcomed on a shorter run, but here—ahead of many more miles—it is a death knell. (Ideally I would have started around 8’10” and progressively sped up.) But I carry on, challenging humiliation to wait for at least another mile: Let me have my moment in the sun, however wretched. The second mile is only slightly slower at 7’02”, another burning red flag.
From two to three, the worries about pace subside, giving way to more acutely physical ones. There is all fire in my side, which feels like it’s developing a new muscle in real time—a novel experience on the feeble body of a writer. There is more in my mouth, a scorched chamber that can conjure no moisture under the afternoon inferno. The only attainable horizon is the four-mile mark, after which comes a three-mile downhill that should be manageable as long as I can survive. I wait for that mark and wish for more saliva to get me there. The hills roll without promise of salvation for my body, which is heavy and dry. Cars on the highway blow by offering only honks or exhaust. I am saved when one brings a clang, cheers, and familiar faces. Van 1 rolls past me slow, our photographer capturing my grimaces and desperate signals for water. He emerges with coach Jes, the both of them passing a bottle to me that I fumble with, inhale, and then discard on the side of the road. (The team photographer and coaches are courtesy of Nike, which has also paid for my plane ticket to be here, my race entry, the various foods I consume over the weekend, and the endless bottles of Fiji water stocking the van. I suspect Nike would probably even pay for my funeral were an errant car to veer from its path and blast me out of my sneakers, into the road, and off this mortal coil in a poetic moment of ultimate speed.)
With new life I climb to four; from there, I speed to seven. Cutting through a small town on the way to meet the first runner from the next van I flout stop lights, offering my body to the road in case it wants to take me. From there I am onto a woodchip path, teammates screaming along its perimeter, and to the waiting Hayley, the first of Van 2’s competitors.
Average pace: 7'22"
And Hayley is already gone. In her wake, an almost fully formed team of Vans 1 and 2 swaps stories. I thank those who saved me on the road, and wish the others strength for what’s to come. Nikki hugs me, Van 2 coach Joe knew I could do it, and Phil is radiant energy. The moment is sweet but quick, as pleasantries traded eat away at what fleeting time to we have to return to our hotel and rest before departing again. Our van, a whole half, recounts the steps so far, spinning yarns into something cohesive about how that first chunk of 36 miles came together.
The hotel break is quick. If training builds you up the actual race strips you down, taking and draining. This is already at work: Notably, my calves and a little bit of my sanity are gone. Minutes peel off the clock and we are in the lobby again, ready for a short drive to downtown Portland at 5:45 p.m. to welcome Van 2 at the end of their first set and take the road again. Sam puts his Lenses back on and the sun is setting.
At the exchange point we meet our other half, crowding around and waiting for Fran, the last of Van 2’s runners, to finish. Already we are less individuals than we were hours before, the vans’ intimate quarters pushing us closer together, forcing us to rely on one another for snacks, water, and validation. We’d spent time together in the weeks of training prior, but none this intense, none so ripe for desperation and the kind of connection built when others pull you from it. Somewhere in the fray, Fran rolls in and hands the bracelet to Sam, who is off.
We drive through Portland’s streets and see Sam again soon. Passing him it feels like his leg is no longer his own, and the team shares more of the experience here. We swell with pride seeing him in the distance, Claire cheers, and Amanda rings the cowbell as we pass.
Sam finishes and our successive runners go further into the night. Amy gets the last of the daylight before Claire braves the dark. Runners transform into bobbing light, strapped with headlamps and reflective vests for safety. In the van we provide support however we can.
"Who needs water?"
"Who needs peanut butter?"
"How do you feel?"
Amanda inherits the bracelet from Claire, pushing for four miles along the side of the highway. From there it’s Dean who takes the bracelet and disappears. We hurry miles ahead to avoid the mistake of making him wait again. My calves are below me but they do not exist. Dean flies through and we botch the handoff, sending the bracelet bouncing to pavement before I can start. I fetch in embarrassment and slip into the dark.
leg 2 – Distance: 5.22 Miles. Sneakers: Nike Zoom Fly.
It’s darker than it seems. The headlamps and vests guiding the steps go from goofy as a spectator to seemingly insufficient as a participant. My way feels barely lit as I dip off the highway and into residential neighborhoods where the occasional volunteer flashes an orange cone to indicate the next turn. It’s 11 p.m. and I am lightheaded from exercise and the thought of adding on another five miles. Every strike on pavement feels heavy. I see lights floating in line up a hill ahead and imagine myself shedding sneakers, skin, and skeleton to became something like a synapse firing up the incline.
The engine roars soundtracking the first leg are traded here for quiet chaos. The setting is sleepy but the inside screams. My ears flare up and embarrassment rolls in again as I glance at the app tracking the pace for an update: 8’30”. Again I am defeated. At least here defeat can be personal—the van isn’t accompanying me on the backroads, so I can crawl into the shadows with my shame secret. In this moment I long for them, my pack to push me up the hills. They don’t arrive but my peril fades somewhat when I check the app again and realize that poor pace was at a single point in time and not an average over the miles covered. Up a hill and still on time. Around a corner and still alive. I find Hayley in the night for the only part of the whole experience that asks for any grace: the exchange of bracelets. Though we spend only seconds together during the 199 miles, we grow in them, with this transaction smoother than the last.
Average pace: 7'49"
My team waits in a parking lot flooded with high beams. I am the only thing standing between us and stolen sleep that will come between the hours of midnight and 4 a.m., and yet they are patient as I hobble behind them. My calves burn from fire to ember as the last energy I have escapes. Jes helps me stretch. I can’t find my pants in the van. In perhaps the greatest exhibition of the bond we’ve formed yet, the crew unites in a search for them. We depart as a snoozing unit, our driver steering us to sleep. I blink out of a dream—I think—to see a deer in our headlights. I am gone again.
Our destination is a vast field lined with vans. We park close to sections roped off for sleeping and turn our backs to the earth under the stars for intermittent sleep. At one point, a race official approaches with a flashlight. He’s asking if we’ve seen a guy in a grey hoodie running around. “We need to talk to him,” flashlight man explains. “Yeah he—he stole a car and ran someone over.”
We sleep for two hours with the fear in the backs of our heads that we will waken to our teammates mangled, with tire treads drawn across their torsos and those legs that were to carry them through mashed, bloody, and boney. There is a man loudly directing traffic and I consider stealing a car and running him over. At some point we legitimately watch a grey hoodie bob by, but slumber stands in the way of any action. We later learn that the man who stole the vehicle was a runner himself, and that said vehicle was a truck loaded with porta-potties. That his mania was so deep that he tried to abscond with the bathrooms—stripping fellow participants of some last amenities and dignity—says a lot about what the race does to the mind. Somehow Sam emerges through this, rising before the sun in a matter of minutes, becoming bipedal again, and grabbing the bracelet. My legs no longer work but I find myself in the van nonetheless.
In these last hours of struggle and dusk the legs belong to everyone. The aches and long distances vibrate through the van, and we try to shoulder some of it when sweeping past our runners with cheers and cowbell. On a few hours of sleep our brains blend together into a collective, and even Van 2 is psychically here in some way, us in their dreams while they rest before their final bout. Sliding into the wooded hills that buffer the coast, we lose cell service. The group text still beats with encouragement for us, only to be enjoyed later when bars return. My last leg curves around the extremities of the my hometown near the coast, meaning I must return to the land I fled as a child and then again as an adult. I wait for pockets of reception and call my father, who is not far away.
Amy has more hills to conquer after picking up from Sam. Claire suits up for the cold morning in her most modest, nearly every inch of skin covered in high-tech sportswear. We welcome them back into the van, their mission complete in one sense and still unfinished in another. The physical contribution has been satisfied, but there is more to give for the runners waiting. Amanda shakes the mist off the morning. In what must be the most grueling obstacle of the whole experience, Dean climbs a three-mile hill and then gallops straight down to finish. “I can’t stop,” he yells while flashing by. At the exchange he is waiting, and I grab the bracelet once more.
leg 3 – Distance: 5.32 Miles. Sneakers: Nike Zoom Vaporfly 4%.
Now, no legs and only torso must fight fatigue and five more miles. The conditions burn off relatively easily—once legs churn and brain is jostled, the overall lack of everything is forgotten. In other moments I needed team, the surrogate family ushering me to the biological one waiting near the end, but here I want solitude. When the van pulls in front to snap photos of me, I want to wave it off. This last leg for me is 5.32 miles, but in my head it ends at 2.5, where a sharp uphill crests and gives way to all downhill. It comes quicker than I expect, and I am free to cascade home. At one point I am about to cry and not sure why and then in the next I am crying somewhere, the emotion mixed up in other physical alerts ringing inside.
The only fear here is that I’ll be passed by another runner, someone on the emerald road who has better managed the dysfunction heaped upon them. My sneakers suggest this, bouncing off the ground with an echo that makes it sound like someone is at my heels. The threat turns tailwind and guides my body through forest vapor. I run beyond the outstretched arms of my father to Hayley again. The bracelet exchange is now animal instinct, a calm knowing in which we are briefly one through plastic connecter that floats from body to body in fluid motion. The race is over and the race goes on.
Average pace: 7'36"
I let my father embarrass me a sufficient amount at the van exchange. Teammates introduce themselves and give me respite. We check on Van 2, which has five more runners waiting for their closing legs. Some are not quite alive and not quite awake. We say goodbye once more before we meet at the end.
Van 1 quietly drifts through Oregon’s last terrain before the Pacific. I narrate some of it, calling out childhood landmarks that have more weight than can be explained in the seconds that they go by us. Our responsibilities to the race have been realized, and with no more cheering needed now, many sleep. We reach the aptly named Seaside for a meal. Sam orders a grilled cheese with a side of ranch dressing, but he is my teammate and I love him no less for it. We wander to the roaring ocean and wait in sun and sand for the rest to arrive. Dean sinks low to sea level in a folding chair, sapped of everything. Van 2 finds the coast and we are nearly one, waiting only for Fran to cross the true finish line. As he nears, we huddle in a small lane where teams meet their closers.
It ends at the ocean, where bodies move in unison, kicking up sand as a pack in ceremony. The experiences merge, into group text, into group hugs, into stories told on social media where we boast of the miles and camaraderie. The crew moved as dots along roads and trails to reach this point, but a zoom out reveals the mosaic. We are: Amanda, with snacks and supplies always ready; Amy, latecomer who quietly crushed regardless; Carlotta of boundless pace and endurance; Claire, supreme motivator whose hair always looks perfect; Dean, Hercules over hills; Fran, majestic closer; Hayley, symbol of relief and every connection; Jes, who probably could have done the whole race herself given sufficient donut fuel; Joe, all-sacrificing shepherd; Nikki, of heroic negative splits; Phil, easily the hard-beating heart of the squad; Rachael, grand puppeteer and impossibly prepared; Sam, who rose from the dead on several occasions; and myself. More than this, we are individuals that have evolved into one.