12 runners. 2 Vans. 198 Miles.
It’s three in the morning. Eleven exhausted, sweaty runners are crammed into two econovans, fighting for extra inches to extend their bodies into makeshift “laying” positions, sipping Gatorade and eating pre-packaged energy foods in a last ditch effort to stave off nausea, commenting about the nondescript but no less horrible odor wafting from some corner of the vehicle, all while trying to sneak a minute of sleep between bouts of cheering for fellow teammates racing to the runner exchange ahead.
The twelfth runner is close to finishing an eight mile leg, their first of three legs of varying distance over the course of the next 24 hours. He starts his final kick and hands off to his teammate with the simple exchange of a slap-bracelet. The transfer of power from one runner to another is both cathartic and ominous. While it marks the end of your run, it is also a reminder that there are two more legs to run on no sleep, waning willpower, and legs that feel like bricks. This is the Hood To Coast relay.
Since August 1982, Hood To Coast, “The Mother Of All Relays,” has taken thousands of runners on one of the most memorable and adventurous journeys from Timberline Lodge on top of Mount Hood to the beautiful Pacific Ocean nearly 200 miles westward.
Over 1,000 teams of twelve runners set off to race the 2015 Hood to Coast. Most straddle the line between silly and serious, with team names like Puke and Rally and Great Bowels of Fire. Some run the 198 mile-race in tutus, taco costumes and speedos. Amidst the spectacle that Hood to Coast always provides, this year one team set out to win the whole damn thing.
The Jacuzzi Boys Athletic Club (JBAC) is a group of seasoned, long distance track and cross country athletes with two things on their mind: ripping miles off as fast as possible and having a blast while doing it. I caught up with with Scott Olberding, a founder of JBAC, to learn how they got started.
“The genesis of JBAC dates back to fall 2013. A bunch of my former college teammates from the University of Portland wanted to race at USATF Club Cross Country Nationals in Bend, OR, and needed a bona fide club affiliation. Our rental house had a hot tub, so I threw the name out to the guys, and it stuck. We wanted a name that conveyed that we don’t take ourselves too seriously, and I think Jacuzzi Boys Athletic Club fits the bill.
We still train hard and run fast, but most of us have jobs or are in graduate school, so running isn’t our main shtick.
About 70% of the group trains in Portland, OR. The other 30% lives and trains across the country — from New York City to Flagstaff. We get together whenever our schedules align to run workouts and recovery miles; usually some subset of the squad meets 3-5 times per week.”
I was curious what drew JBAC — such a talented group of sub-elite athletes — to an event with complicated logistics, gnarly traffic, sleep deprivation, and a penchant for getting a bit crazy.
“Hood to Coast is such an iconic race, and we’re lucky it’s in our back yard. It’s hard to be a runner in Portland and not get roped onto a team. This is JBAC’s first year as an official team in the race and I think the guys are looking forward to many more. “Going into this year’s race, the goal of winning was a hot topic. Since half the guys hadn’t raced it before, some were understandably nervous.
It’s pretty crazy to sit in a van for six hours and then expect your legs to clip off 5:30 miles.
“The other complicating factor is traffic. The second half of the race is mostly on narrow, one-lane roads that turn into parking lots of Hood to Coast vans. It’s difficult to pinpoint where traffic will be the worst, so I encourage the guys to be flexible and have a positive attitude to deal with whatever comes our way.”
The 2015 running of Hood to Coast went down as one of the most brutal in its 33-year history. An insane summer storm with rain, hail, lightning and 40-50 mph wind gusts knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of Oregonians and closed down the beach at the finish line. I asked Scott about how this affected JBAC’s race for first place.
“The weather at the start was great — cloudy and mild, perfect for running. Around midnight, as we descended towards the Coastal Mountain Range, the weather went sideways — 30 mph wind, lightening, and torrential downpour. Then it just got bonkers windy; I heard it was gusting up to 40 mph.
“I’m really proud of our guys. Russell even had his best leg during the storm, running something like 5:20 pace for seven miles during apocalyptic conditions. I don’t think we really registered how nasty it was while we were out there. We just knew it was crazy, but we were all in the moment.
“We were in the hunt for the win, determined to keep pushing and focusing on pace and turnover. Everyone was cheering, passing out recovery drink, praising each other’s’ performance. That sort of camaraderie is really infectious and helps immensely through the night, as we were all sleep-deprived and losing our cognitive edges.”
With a race of this caliber — both physically and mentally — athletes are inevitably going to go through highs and lows. Being crammed into a minivan doesn’t necessarily help matters. I asked Scott how JBAC handled these highs and lows.
“I like to think there aren’t any ‘worst’ moments, just inopportune ones. After my second leg, my psoas started cramping badly. I had a moment of, “oh man, this could be bad, I definitely didn’t hydrate enough, what if I start cramping again during my third leg, etc.” At the end of the day, you just need to do your best to put that stuff in the back of your mind and push forward since it is such a long race.
“Reaching the beach and reuniting with the other van is always awesome. Everyone is done, and we are all a little delirious. This year was especially exciting since we thought we had a shot to win. I knew everyone laid it all out there. Watching guys like Stephen Kersh rip off 5:01 miles for his seven-mile second leg was pretty awesome.
The bottom line is that Hood to Coast is just flat-out crazy.
“There’s a definite sense of community out on the course, whether you are running 5:30 mile pace or 8:30s, all 1,050 teams are in it together. And every year is so different. The weather this year was so unbelievable.”
As it turns out, the weather didn’t hold the Jacuzzi Boys Athletic Club from blazing through the 198 mile Hood To Coast race in 18:34:12 for an average of 5:36 per mile, just 14:32 shy of first place. JBAC made one hell of a showing as a team at one of the most iconic races on the West Coast. No rain, wind or adverse weather conditions could stop these guys from ripping all 198 miles to shreds.
While the rest of the teams clean out their vans, throw away days-old bags of food and figure out what to do with that lone pair of gold lamé leggings left in the trunk, the Jacuzzi Boys aren’t done making waves this year. With sights on returning to Hood To Coast next year, the JBAC are still training hard and having fun this fall.
“A handful of our team is racing at the Portland Marathon on October 4, many are racing the Stumptown Cross Country Series in Portland, OR. The rest of us are hitting the fall road racing circuit. We’re also be sending a squad down to the 2015 USATF Club Cross Country Championships in San Francisco, so definitely be looking for the Jacuzzi Boys to mix it up down at Golden Gate Park in December.”
Photos from Tim Jeffreys.