20 years ago, I was part of a team that was pulled together at the last minute to run the 1990 Hood to Coast Relay, a 1000 team, 200 mile journey from Mt Hood to the town of Seaside, Oregon where Lewis and Clark ended their journey. Teams are made up of 12 runners who run in order 1-12 an average of 6 miles each before repeating the order again and then again a third time. All runners average about 18 miles. The five time defending champions in 1990 were “The Killer Bees.” We named ourselves “Black Flag” with the expressed goal of exterminating the Killer Bees.
When they say the Hood to Coast is the “Mother of All Relays” you really have to believe it. 1000 teams making their way from Mt Hood, through the middle of Portland out to the Pacific Coast. Teams running non-stop from early Friday morning until well into the following night. 15,000 volunteers out in the middle of nowhere manning corners, exchange stations and traffic. An organizational masterpiece.
The race starts in waves on the last Friday of August. Groups of teams start leaving Mt Hood at 6:30 AM every 15 minutes. This goes on for 12 hours. 20 years ago, we left San Francisco at 10:00 PM Thursday, drove all night and arrived in Portland the next afternoon. We started the race later that evening. Once underway, we found ourselves in a heated battle, not with the Killer Bees, but with the “Eugene Team.” This team was put together by Jim Hill and included a wealth of talent including Brad Hudson, Art Bouleau, Don Clary and other prominent runners who hailed from Eugene at the time. Our team had talent as well including Jeff Atkinson, Dave Frank, Marc Oleson, Harry Green and Greg Whitely. The problem was our second tier runners included guys like myself, Mike Livingston and Victor Santamaria. We didn’t compare to the Eugene Team’s bottom half guys that included runners like Pat Haller who would end up 5th in that fall’s NCAA XC Championships for the University of Oregon. Man for man, they had the better credentials.
We waged a fierce battle. Out of the 36 total legs run, we traded the lead with the Eugene Team 17 times. We finally took control on 30th leg. Mike “Nigel” Livingston had been getting his lunch handed to him the previous two legs by Brad Hudson. On the warm-up strides heading into their final leg Hudson looked at Nigel and exclaimed “It’s hammer time Dude.” Nigel is pretty high strung and with that comment he had fire in his eyes. Livingston pulled away from Hudson on a brutally hilly section and we never relinquished the lead. We ended up winning in a time of 16:03 (5:04 pace for 191 miles) which was the Course Record for quite a long time until Alberto Salazar pulled together many of the top athletes from Nike’s stable and took the record down to 15:58. By all accounts, everyone on Black Flag felt is was one of the best team performances we had ever been a part of. A great experience.
Fast forward twenty years and Dave Frank thinks it’s a good idea to get the guys together for a reunion run at the 2010 Hood To Coast. Forget the fact that the majority of original members either hadn’t been running or were hurt. Dave was team captain in 1990, so assumed the role again this time. He emailed the woman in charge of entries and Dave received a response that said we were out of luck since entries closed some 5 months earlier. Undaunted, Dave emailed Bob Foote, the race founder asking if Black Flag could get into the race. Bob responded with much enthusiasm “You guys are the foundation and backbone of this event, of course we’ll let you in!” And with that and our $1,350 entry fee, we were in.
Those who have done the Hood to Coast know two truths very well. Housing in Seaside and vans in the entire state of Oregon do not exist the last weekend of August during the running of Hood to Coast. Of course we had no vans rented and no housing reserved, just an entry. We had four months.
As luck would have it, my wife’s training partner Cristi has grandparents who live in Oregon. They had a conversion van they offered to give Cristi and her husband with the only catch being Cristi would have to find a way to get the van back to central California. When Cristi heard we were looking for a van for Hood to Coast she offered up use of her new conversion van, the only catch being that I would need to drive it back to San Luis Obispo. 1000+ miles of driving after no sleep and 18 miles of running. No problem. We now had one van and a little more than three months until race time.
About this time we were able to secure seven of the original members (Dave Frank, Mike Livingston, Marc Oleson, Harry Green, Kevin Ostenberg, Jeff Atkinson and myself) to run. It was also about this time that Dave called me fairly concerned. “Joe, we have three months to go. We have seven runners and one van, things don’t look very good.” I responded “Dave, there’s no need to worry, we lead charmed lives, everything will turn out fine.” I don’t really remember saying this, but Dave is convinced I did.
During the final month before the race we were able to convince Armando Siqueiros (Jordan Hasay’s HS coach), Ryan Stoll, Bret Kimple, Kevin Searls and Ken Ellingboe to take part. So with a few weeks to go we had a full team and one van. Dave tried very hard to get another van and a place to stay, yet he had no luck. Compounding the problem was Atkinson’s Plantar went south in July and said he couldn’t run. He then headed to Mammouth with the high school cross country team he coaches and didn’t have email or cell access so we didn’t know if he was planning on running or not. The last word we had was he was hurt, so we assumed he was out. Dave had to find another runner which he was able to do two weeks before the race by convincing Tom Fuchs to run. Two weeks to go and we had a full team again and one van. Things didn’t look particularly good.
Eight days until race time and I thought it couldn’t hurt to touch base with John Dimoff our Nike rep who lives in Oregon. His wife was running Hood to Coast, he was meeting her at the finish, maybe he could help us. He sent the following response when I asked if he knew of a place to stay: “Do you know Paul Astorino (adidas)? He and his wife have a place in Manzanita which is about 12 miles south of Seaside. This might be your best bet. See you at the finish. JDimoff”
I then sent Paul the following email:
“Paul, me and a bunch of idiots most of which are, like yourself, 37 Club Members are doing Hood 2 Coast. It’s the 20th anniversary of when we won in an epic battle with the Team from Eugene. Of course we have no place to stay in Seaside. Deep in the recesses of my mind I am thinking you have or had a place there or possibly know somebody who does. Can you assist in helping us find Seaside housing next weekend? We could always drive back to Portland after the race, but that would kill the fun and you couldn’t possibly think that’s a good thing. Any help is greatly appreciated. Hope all is well in the land of adizero. Joe”
Paul responsed: “Hello Joe…as I write this I am thinking about my first beer this evening…held with my left hand of course…Unfortunately someone will be staying in my pad already that weekend, but let me reach out to some folks to see if they have any ideas…Chris Hollis was able to find us a house pretty late last year, so I’ll start with him…hold tight…cheers, p”
The next morning sure enough I get an email from Chris Hollis asking me to call him about a place to stay in Seaside. I called Chris and we had this conversation:
“Rubio, tell me about this team.”
“Well we won 20 years ago and are pulling the team together again. We are in need of a place to stay in Seaside.”
“Who’s on the team?”
“Well there’s Dave Frank…”
“I know Frankie”
“…and there’s Jeff Atkinson…”
“I know Rat. Hey is this Black Flag???”
“Well yes it is.”
“Why didn’t you say so, let me get to work.”
Within 10 minutes I received this response from Chris: “Joe, Worked some magic for you. You have a house for Saturday night on the Seaside Boardwalk. It’s a 4-5 min walk to the party, Sleeps 12. Hollis”
I was headed to my meetings for the day, so forwarded the message to Dave who finalized the deal with Chris. Needless to say, the response I got back from Dave indicated he was pretty excited. Chris was also kind enough to help us with racing uniforms, warmups, some shoes and shirts. So one week to go and we had an entry, a full team, a van, team uniforms and a place to stay. Things looked significantly better.
It was also during this time that Dave’s sister Barb was moving from New York to Portland to assume new duties for Nike. She has just purchased a new Honda Pilot when the salesman said “if you ever need anything, please let me know.” When Barb heard about our need for a second van she called the salesman at the dealership and said “Remember when you said to contact you if I needed something? I wanted to see if I could use your courtesy van next weekend?” And with that we had our last van, an 18 passenger monster. Apparently we were charmed.
Part of the challenge with the Hood to Coast is predicting your overall time accurately. If you miss significantly, they disqualify you, it’s that big of a deal. They want all of the team to finish roughly together and this is how they ensure it happens. Dave predicted 6:15 pace for us, backing off the sub 6:00 pace he expected. “He’s nuts” I thought. Mando and I did our last “long” run the Sunday before the race. I cut it to 8 miles to taper which given the fact I had marginal fitness didn’t make much sense. I needed more miles, not less but given the torn miniscus in my right knee I had little choice but try and minimize the damage. Mando did a final test, he ran the second half of his 10 miler that day hard. He ran 35 minutes, 7 minutes pace and exclaimed “Joe, I’m in trouble next weekend.” Ryan Stoll’s hamstring was going south. He decided to rest it and took the two week off completely heading into the race to give it a rest. Oleson has bad arthritis in his knee so hadn’t run in years. He did a three month fitness program to get ready. Kevin’s hip kept him to short jogs of great pain the final weeks. Needless to say, many of us limped into the event.
We were placed in the final wave, the fastest group of the day that was scheduled to leave at 6:45 PM. This was a concern given the tender nature of many on our team. Kevin started on a brutal downhill section bad hip and all and had us in 2nd to last, 998th in the 1000 team field. Nigel maintained this, Mando lost a place and handed off to me. I took the hand-off officially in last place with close to 7+ miles to run at 9:00 PM at night in the pitch dark. I started off very easy not wanting to aggravate the knee so I went out at 8 minute pace. Just me and the crickets. After the first mile I felt pretty good. Miles 3-5 were covered at 7 minute pace, it was coming easy. The last two in 6:45, then 6:30. I felt great, I even kicked it in, the first time in years.
We all came in looking to have fun, no pressure, just have a good time. We all checked our egos at the door and had great attitudes. The thing is when you have a group of guys that includes Olympians, Olympic Trials Qualifiers, All-Americans, school record holders, Conference and State champions you get runners who are, at their core, competitive. As many of the Black Flag members who hadn’t raced in years started running, they got that old spark back and started racing. You didn’t want to let the other guys down, so you dug deep. You knew it was on when Stoll came in thinking 8:00 pace and he ran his first 6 mile leg at 6:20 pace. If a guy who hadn’t run in two weeks because of bad hamstrings can do it, why not you? Most ran their first leg somewhat conservatively, then raced the second leg hard and hung on the last leg. Some guys ran like it was 20 years ago. Frankie, Nigel, Kimple, Harry, KO and Fuchs all ran swift. Stoll, Oleson, Kevin, Mando, Ken and myself ran not quite as quick, but significantly better than expected. Nobody really wanted to run their final leg, you could tell because nobody did a warm up beforehand preferring to conserve energy. Still everyone ran tough the last round and made it in one piece. Final time for Black Flag; 20:39, 16th overall, second masters team and 6:15 pace for 200 miles.
We grouped up with Hollis in the adidas VIP tent following the race. We ate, drank our share of beverages and enjoyed each other’s company. I had that long forgotten post race feeling of being extremely tired, but satisfied and happy. We had fun that night, enjoyed a late night burger, took a nap and headed out at 8:00 AM the following morning. I dropped a few guy off at the Portland Airport, then headed with Nigel and Mando down I-5. After 11 hours on the road we pulled into Sacramento and dropped Nigel off. Mando and I headed to Martinez to grab his truck and then headed back to San Luis Obispo. 16 hours after I left Seaside in a borrowed conversion van I arrived back home. Overall, another great experience. I’m already looking forward to the 30th anniversary. I’m sure I’ll have more than a few fellow Black Flag members limping into it with me. I’m on vans and housing already.
Special thanks to Chris Hollis, Paul Astorino and the folks at adidas for hooking up Team Black Flag. Thanks to Dave Frank for captaining the crew, Harry Green for doing the team logo and Rat Atkinson for driving van #2. A shout out to the original Black Flag members who couldn’t attend: Rob Anex, Ron Faith, Greg Whiteley, Victor Santamaria, Rick Brauer and our original driver 8 Toby Cook.
Check out Harry Green’s Facebook photo album of our journey here.