No Relay for Old Men: An Inclusive Mountain-to-Sea Race

handcyc1 The Hood to Coast Relay is an annual relay race that begins on Mount Hood in Oregon’s Cascade Range and ends at Seaside, Ore., a distance of about 200 miles. Teams consist of 12 runners who run three legs each — averaging about 5.5 miles per leg — and travel in two vans when not running. The race is continuous, with no regular sleep or meals, just occasional naps or snacks. Max Woodbury, 41, a C6 quad from Portland, took part in the race for the first time four years ago using a handcycle. This is Woodbury’s account of his fourth race, which was completed in late August, 2013. For a few elite runners, the race is serious business. But for most participants, as many as 15,000, the race and the ending party on the beach is a fun event rather than a competition.

The day before the race, I went to pick up our van from Performance Mobility, our local adapted vehicle company. They donated $300 for the rental of what we affectionately named “Little Piggy.” They also had to spend nearly two hours removing the rear seats due to a heat shield blocking the screws so we could put a futon mattress in there for sleeping. I felt bad for all of their hard work so I gave them a case of Ninkasi beer I had left over from a previous fundraiser. It was certainly well worth it, though. Little Piggy was a raised four-wheel drive monster diesel with nitrous oxide to give it that extra oomph. It also had an accessible lift, six-way wheelchair seat base, and hand controls.

Besides participating in this year’s H2C, I was the captain of our team and the catalyst for raising funds for the team sponsor, Oregon Disability Sports. I also planned to do a total of six legs on my quad-adapted handcycle instead of the customary three legs.

Max Woodbury gets ready to race his next leg of the relay.

Max Woodbury gets ready to race his next leg of the relay.

Originally our team name was “Runner & Rollers,” consisting of two wheelchair dudes, a visually impaired woman, and the rest ABs. After seeing all of the adult humor painted on the team vans throughout the race, I realized our name was too tame. There were guys wearing dresses, girls wearing lingerie, even a barefoot runner in nothing but a shiny golden “banana hammock.” To add a little spice to our team name, I looked for something silly to rhyme with my self-endearing term, gimp. I also thought it would be fun to have a team costume. And that’s where the name “Pimps ‘n’ Gimps” came from. We could have been “Cripples & Nipples,” but that might have been pushing it.

Sharing a van with people for a couple of days straight can be tough. My first year I was in a van with only one friend I knew. He received a call after his first leg that his dad had suddenly, unexpectedly died. Even though none of the rest of us knew each other, the situation forced us to fight through an uncomfortable silence and try to lighten the mood. After dropping off my friend to be with his family, we truly had one of those unique bonding experiences. By the end of the weekend, we were giggling at everything like it was our first childhood sleepover.

Bonding is part of what brings teams together year after year for this race. Now that I’m a van leader who chooses the team, I’ve found that it’s more important to find people I enjoy spending time with than finding the fastest runners. It is also important that everyone is into dressing up. We got some great wigs, and my wife sewed up some shiny capes with “P/G” on them. As you passed by the hundreds of runners along the route, you could always pick out our team because of the capes.

At Timberline
Everyone arrived at my house already “pimped out” at the early hour of 5:30 a.m. so we could head up towards Timberline for our 8 a.m. start. We had to stop in Sandy for a quick pit stop. As we pulled through a parking lot, a little hybrid car rolled right in front of me. I quickly hit the brakes, but the hand controls were a different make than my van and I accidentally hit the accelerator. And the horn. You should have seen the look of horror on the driver’s face as this big jacked up 4-by-4 van came zooming toward him. Like a dog sprinting with its tail between its legs, the tiny car barely passed in front of us as I finally found the proper braking direction for the hand control. We all laughed after a few seconds of visualizing our monster truck demolishing a wimpy hybrid.

This crammed van is home during the relay.

This crammed van is home during the relay.

We arrived at Timberline Lodge to the typical madhouse of H2C excitement. Every 15 minutes there’s a countdown and huge cheer as a couple dozen teams officially start their relay adventure. Something about Timberline felt different this year. It wasn’t that we got to pull up to the front to a rock star parking spot. We always get that after we point to the blue disability placard hanging from the rearview mirror. This time it truly felt like everybody was checking us out as soon as we got out of the van. We had our wigs and capes on as we made our way towards the registration tent. People started asking to take our photos. Then more people wanted to have their photo taken with us. A news crew interviewed us. The on-location news team was initially drawn to us by our pimpin’ getup, but then they got more interested when they saw a wheelchair user participating. Funny that this was my fourth year doing the race but the first time a news crew had ever come across a disabled athlete. I’ve seen other wheelchair racers and handcyclists every year. I guess nobody really gets interested unless you wear some ridiculous wardrobe.

Everyone decorates their team vans with window paint to illustrate their team names or team members’ names. Another custom is to record the number of runners you pass on your particular leg, called roadkill, and mark it on your van. It’s always fun to have a goal of catching up and passing other runners. Most wheelers are faster than a majority of runners already. They don’t even allow disabled athletes on wheels to participate in the first two legs because it is so steep and dangerous. So when the wheeler gets to roll legs three or four in Van 1, they get to do some major sleighing. I handcycled both legs three and four this year in just over 30 minutes, averaging around 25 mph as I enjoyed an elevation drop of nearly 2,000 feet. It was a blast and easily the best part of the race. My roadkill on those legs easily crept into the triple digits. I almost felt guilty. But I knew that my next legs wouldn’t be so easy.

Rolling Hills
After a Koi Fusion burrito and a quick nap in Portland, it was time to start our middle legs. I did legs 15 and 16 along the rolling hills of Highway 30. No more cruising at 25 mph down Mount Hood. This was payback. It was a beautiful time of day around dusk, but that didn’t make the hills any easier. I can even keep a decent pace on the flats, but get me on the slightest incline and I slow down to a crawl. It’s just impossible to generate that much power with your arms. It was my turn to be roadkill going up those hills, but I got lots of encouragement as runners passed me by. After cresting each hill I would gather speed and start reeling all of those runners back in. I always cheered them on as well, shouting “I’ll see you on the next hill!” as I rolled on by.

As a C6 quad, lacking triceps, I’m really not doing any pushing on the hand cranks. Instead, I spend all of my energy pulling the cranks. Because I don’t have any finger dexterity or strength, I use adapted handles — appropriately named QuadGrips — that have shifters attached to them. I can shift gears while spinning my cranks. I also use a special coaster brake without taking my hands off the cranks. The invention of these devices is like learning to fly for lower functioning quads who lack finger dexterity but have always wanted to use a handcycle. Not having to take your hands off the cranks to shift is huge, because you can keep your momentum and adjust the gears continuously as the terrain changes.

I have been hit twice on training rides by cars that didn’t see my low profile handcycle. I probably could have prevented those collisions if I’d been able to stop quickly. Now that I have a coaster brake, I’m a little safer on the streets. I still wear bright clothing, use a highly visible flag, and have blinking lights on the front and back. It’s definitely worth being able to cruise the streets in a human powered vehicle, even when you’re as slow as a turtle on the hills.

Missing Mist
There’s a joke about going through the town of Mist: if you blink you’ve missed it. The town is definitely a small place in the Coastal Range, but its name comes from always being soaking wet. It also is where Van 2 exchanges back with Van 1. That means that when Van 1 finishes their legs in Scapoose, they drive ahead to Mist to get some rest and wait for Van 2 to finish their legs.

I drove through the winding backroads in the middle of nowhere while others tried to sleep on the futon in the back. It’s better to sit in the driver’s seat than fall back and forth in my wheelchair as the van speeds up, slows down, and makes sharp turns. We finally arrived at the huge field/parking lot and scored a parking spot close to the bathrooms. Not that I can get into them. I drain my bladder into a portable plastic urinal and pour it out where someone hopefully doesn’t decide to step.

Sleeping in the driver’s seat simply doesn’t work. I try to put my legs up on the dash but they just spasm and hit the horn to startle everyone. Plus, one of our runners uses a CPAP machine to prevent snoring. Unfortunately, it’s not portable. He’s the only one that gets any true sleep. I wanted to get horizontal in the back on the futon but that would only put me closer to a snorer who seemed to want to saw down the whole forest.

Because there is no cell phone reception in the exchange area, we use walkie-talkies to communicate with the other van when we start approaching the expected time for the next runner. So we’re trying to sleep as the rain is pelting down and the walkie-talkie is turned on to listen for our other Pimps ‘n’ Gimps van. “This is Pimps ‘n’ Gimps Van 1, are you out there Van 2?” Unfortunately, there are a thousand other teams doing the same thing. You can imagine the conversation we had with a non-native English speaker who was trying to locate his team. “Uhhh, no pimps … uhhh, no gimps.”

The Finish Line
My third [double] leg is the hardest. It’s all uphill for the final five miles. I’ve basically gotten no sleep in the past 24 hours after handcycling over 20 miles. It’s 5 a.m. and I’ve got 11 more miles before I’m finished. Even though it’s the end of August, it’s still pretty cold. As a cold-blooded quad, it’s not easy trying to get warmed up sitting by the side of the road in my handcycle.

Woodbury’s wife and kids don wigs to welcome Dad at the finish line.

Woodbury’s wife and kids don wigs to welcome Dad at the finish line.

After finishing our last legs, we get to celebrate with mimosas. Since it’s nearly 7 a.m. and Van 2 won’t make it to Seaside until after noon, we hit a dive bar in Astoria for a Bloody Mary and a greasy breakfast. When we finally arrive in Seaside, we’re greeted by my wife Tali and kids (twin boys Noah and Eli, 8 years old, and daughter Opal, almost 4). They are all decked out in wigs of their own.

As great as Hood to Coast is, the finish line is a nightmare for wheelchair users. Soft sand, huge mazes, tons of people. This is where I feel most guilty because my friends have to carry me through the sand in my chair to get to the finish line and the on-beach party. We cross the finish line, take photos, and go straight to the beer garden where a group of folks give us their table as long as we twerk for them in our crazy costumes. After over 30 miles of handcycling in 24 hours, I’m happily exhausted and ready to prepare for my next challenge, hoping to achieve my personal best in my fourth Portland Marathon later this fall.

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