Experience the intensity of running Hood to Coast, with none of the blisters
To an outsider, nothing about the Hood to Coast relay makes sense. Starting with 12,000 runners -- a mixture of seasoned vets and flabby novices -- the world's largest relay stretches through 197 miles of hellish roller-coaster terrain, tree-lined mountain passes, dark valleys and a crowded city, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Sleeping is a luxury. Comfort is virtually nonexistent. Prize money for winning? Nope, nada.
Yet somehow this painful test of adrenaline and stamina has remained a Portland, Ore., tradition since 1982 (it's now in it's 30th year), drawing teams of runners from all over the world to the top of Mt. Hood, where the race begins. If you're curious about the event but don't want to get blisters yourself, then get yourself to a movie theater on Tuesday night for the independent documentary "Hood to Coast." The film is playing at 14 theaters across Los Angeles and Orange County, including Regal Cinemas' L.A. Live Stadium 14 downtown and in IMAX at the AMC Burbank 16 in Burbank.
Opening nationwide for one night only in 350 theaters, the film follows four teams chosen to participate in the ordeal (which is touted by its sponsor, OfficeMax, as "The Mother of All Relays").
For the runners highlighted in the documentary, the process of enduring such an unnatural challenge is a sweaty, bloody, tiresome quest for camaraderie.
"It carries a special thing," said producer Anna Campbell, a veteran Hood to Coast runner whose husband, Christoph Baaden, co-directed the film with Marcie Hume. "People are there for each other in a way that people often aren’t." "Hood to Coast" marks the directorial and producing debut of Baaden, Campbell and Hume.
The Tuesday screenings will include interviews from a red-carpet screening in Portland as well as a recorded panel discussion with professional runners. Baaden says the idea behind the limited opening was to give participants and fans of the race from all 50 states the chance to see it.
Of the hundreds of runners that volunteered to be filmed participating in the 2008 relay (typically held the weekend before Labor Day weekend), four teams were included. In the end, the teams Dead Jocks in a Box, Heart 'N' Sole, Thunder and Laikaning and R. Bowe embodied the diverse, triumphant and comical soul of the race, even if they didn't know it at first.
Jason Baldwin, 29, ran as the pink-haired mascot of Thunder and Laikaning -- a humorous bunch of Portland animators. He admits he was surprised by the directors' interest in his tribe of unfit goofballs who entered the race on a whim with zero marathon experience.
"We just went out for a team run one day, and these people just showed up with cameras," Baldwin said. "I wasn't even sure what was going on, but they sort of followed us around, and they just asked if we wouldn't mind if they followed us around a bit more."
What emerged from 11 months of filming is a juxtaposition of emotional terrain as varied as the race itself. The laughable carnival of costumed runners and race-day gags is spliced with tear-jerking experiences that are both sad and life-affirming.
For R. Bowe, a family team of dedicated runners, the race becomes a way for them to cope with the recent death of eldest son Ryan Bowe, for whom the team is named. Running is also shown as a divine motivator for Kathy Ryan, 67, a retired schoolteacher who suffered a nearly fatal heart attack during the race in 2007. Ryan says participating in the film gave her even more incentive to try the race again despite her doctor's concerns.
"Everybody is a survivor of something," Ryan said. "And if you can come out of it feeling good about yourself, that's the picture I want to show. I may not be as fast as I was, but by gosh, I'm out there."
The race, broken up into 36 legs, requires each team of 12 runners to hop in two separate vans while members take turns running legs that vary from 3.5 to 8 miles on the brutal, scenic route to Seaside, Ore.
The filmmakers faced the challenge of capturing a movie in the most literal sense, and had to use helicopter and crane shots and more than 110 crew members. Even with a solid price tag of just under $1 million, there were some elements of shooting that made the process difficult. The lack of cellphone reception through one-third of the course added to the unpredictable nature of the project as the crews packed into vans with runners struggling with their teams to get across the finish line.
"We knew that as soon as we get out of Portland, like an hour outside to the beach, everyone was on their own," Baaden said. "Everyone needed to know where to be and what was going to happen without being able to call back to the mother ship."
Despite troublesome logistics, the cameras captured the most hellish moments, such as when runner Rachel Larsen, 30, of Thunder and Laikaning, was ready to collapse.
"You're sleep deprived and you're tired and it's the middle of the night and you're cold and you're just like 'I don’t wanna run,'" said Larsen, who since the race has gone from avoiding exercise completely to running three miles a day.
The film premiered at 2010's South by Southwest Film Conference and Festival. Baaden said that although a movie about long-distance running might seem like a niche piece, the heart of "Hood to Coast" thrives as a human interest story.
-- Nate Jackson
Photo: Jim Ekberg of team Dead Jocks in a Box douses himself with water while running one of the many legs of the 197-mile relay race captured in "Hood to Coast." Credit: "Hood to Coast" filmmakers