Free. Light. Happy...and stiff as a board. Sat on the plane on the way back to London from Portland, Oregon after the experience of a lifetime. Thank you Hood to Coast. 198 miles completed relay style in 23 hours 45 minutes and 46 seconds. Let me take a minute before I get too over excited and go in for the kill, I'm going to rewind and go back to the beginning. The beginning all started with Bob. The most colourful silver haired senior I have ever met, bright purple swoosh t-shirt, bright purple Nike chinos, the most eye catching Air Max you'll ever see all topped off with a crisp clean white suit and a huge American style smile. 'Nike Bob' greeted me at the airport and it suddenly hit me what I was about to do. The ultimate ultra running relay renowned throughout America.
I had been selected by Nike Running to join a team that had carefully been put together from all over the world to run from Mount Hood to the Pacific Ocean. Our team was called 'We run free!' After a delicious dinner to get to know my fellow runners my bubble was burst. I spent my first night 'talking in the toilet' as my Danish team mates called it. In other words I was violently sick like you wouldn't believe. My body was convulsing like a scene in the Exorcist. In a word I was upset. None the less after clearing my guts and feeling like I had no organs left I sucked it up and started the day with a shake down run on the Nike Campus. I know, probably not my greatest idea after the night I'd had not to mention the jet lag but the fact that I hate missing out on anything means my mind tends to rule my body.
Bouncing around on the Michael Johnson running track soon sorted me out topped off with a yoga class in the surrounding forest using tennis balls for realising tightness. The best thing I could ever recommend for a runner. This was followed by an exclusive look in the Nike innovation kitchen a top secret facility for testing and as it says on the tin innovating. I didn't care in the slightest about my protesting stomach I was truly inspired and I'd just met 'Mr Nike Free.'
With the quote of the day from the Nike campus 'Not taking risks is the bigger risk' firmly amplified in my soul and the Nike Free's on my feet it was time.
The 6 of us that made up my half of the team piled in our van joining our designated driver, Rob, for the trek up to the start line on Mount Hood. We were all a bundle of hyperactive nerves - non of us quite knowing what to expect. Mount Hood took your breath away accentuated by the booming sound of Robin Thick's Blurred Lines and an over excited American accent echoing team numbers and names through a speaker phone.
I was handed a spray can and marker pen, an hour before the race started, and was told we could pimp our ride. It was becoming evident that the rest of 'We run free' were as crazy, extravagant and creative as me. You only need to look at how loud our van was to see the team I was a part of. Needless to say the 'We run free' wheels got a lot of attention throughout, you could see and hear us coming from miles off. Black van, bright orange tiger strips spray painted from tyre to roof, our names and twitter handles brightly scrolled front, back and sides alongside our graffitied team name in dazzling white.
Our first runner set off to the hooter and our infectious cheers down the mountain at exactly 5.15pm. It was on. Diving in our new look van we raced down the windy mountain road to cheer runner 1 on her way. Our van had a while before it took over the baton responsibilities so after watching the change over between runner 1 and 2 with some more excited screams we whizzed off to our first exchange. This a car park full of other weird and wonderful looking vans and a hub of energised and highly anticipated runners. The beats pill came out, our tunes drowned out all of our competition and we paced nervously. I was up and down like a yoyo, one minute sprawled out across a parking space trying to stretch out, the next minute dancing like I had downed a bottle of tequila at a rave, the next stuffing my face with pretzels and guzzling Gatorade. My first run was predicted to be around 1145 at night. I had a while.
Supporting the rest of my crew was key to me, legs akimbo as I raced from our van to the exchange to greet my tired but ecstatic runner and set the next one off. Elizabeth started our van, an American pocket rocket, ridiculously strong and fast with an amusing passion for subway and mountain dew. Elle was next a gorgeous bubbly Londoner who had found a recent love in running outshone all other runners on her leg. She passed to Knox, an inspiring and intriguing runner from New York who had a running crew called the Black Roses - he was fast and I mean fast. Knox then passed to me. When I say passed it was more slapped - our baton wasn't quite a traditional baton but a bright yellow flick band that you took off your wrist nearing the runner and smacked it on their wrist. I waited for Knox with my Danish team mate who I will introduce shortly - Troels. We anxiously checked that I was ready, my head torch on as is regulation along with my high vis flashing vest. I warmed up as calmly as I could in the pitch dark, it was around 1140pm. We had no way of knowing where our runner was it was all guess work. All of a sudden '272' was balled from one of the race crew on the leg changes. I sprung from some slightly dodgy stretching pose, dashed to the exchange zone - just like on a track relay - and the next thing I know the 'baton' is on my wrist and I am absolutely pelting it through a deep dark forest.
My first leg can only be described as absolutely bizarre. My imagination had a field day. I was desperate to keep up the amazing pace and time that my team had started and felt an overwhelming loyalty to pass the same inspiration and determination onto my next runner that had been passed to me. I had soon lost all other runners and was completely on my own. No race marshals assisting they were only at the exchange points. My leg was one of the few that were completely unsupported due to its location. All I could hear was my heavy breathing compiled by my nerves, my pace and the close humid air. All I could see was the beam of light coming from the torch on my head that was already starting to irritate me. It was dead silent and pitch dark. The thought of werewolves and bears came into my head, I eerily laughed out loud whilst firmly focusing on powering straight in front of me with no idea how far I'd ran or where I was going. On occasion I saw a flashing light from a distance I thought it was another runner to only find I was chasing a post decorated with cats eyes I could only presume that meant I was going the right way and it made me giggle. I must have smiled the whole way, my body felt great, my eyes nearly teared up with joy as I had been in so much pain with injuries and had worked tirelessly to try and fix them - my persistence was paying off and I was having the experience of a lifetime. I soaked every last detail of my surroundings in, the smell of the pines, the scurrying sound of the hidden animals, the stunning stars that set alight the dark sky, the dense lush greens that were highlighted by my presence until all of a sudden I saw an artificial beam of light and heard voices in the distance. It must be the exchange. I ran as fast as I could to feel a spotlight on me, our team number shouted and there was Bruno smiling ready to take over the reigns. He was off, Bruno a Nike influencer originally from Texas with the beards of all beards a heart of gold and legs like a whippets. The captain and foundation of our team.
Bruno was off into the distance and I was greeted by my other team mates with contagious praise and our driver Rob who had very quickly and with affection become part of our team. He checked our stop watch scribbled down some times and we raced back into our van...the further we got into the challenge the less delicate this was becoming, legs and arms hanging out allover the place. We had to navigate to the next exchange to get the next runner ready. There was no time to stretch or cool down.
Troels was our final runner, a tall caring Danish ball of energy with a stride that ate every other runner up and spirit that my own connected with. Troels was a speed demon with a natural athletic gift. Off we sped in our graffitied tiger van we looked like we were out of some MTV Hip hop video bouncing on hydraulics in our supped up ride. We saw Troels turned up the music, our power tunes we started to call them and yelled his name out of the window with words of encouragement.
Team We run free's first legs were complete. If I'd have bottled the energy in our van I'd be a millionaire. Our team spirit was uniquely special and I felt extremely lucky to be a part of it.
It was now around 3am, we had a few hours before we went again. We set off to the next exchange point and a designated rest area. Now let me just pause for a moment and inform you of the strict rules of the Hood to Coast. You could only rest in a designated area. This next one was the worst for me and you'll soon know why. You were only allowed to use porta loos - or porta potties as they are called in the States to go to the toilet and they were only in the exchange areas. You weren't allowed to run with music and finally you had to park your van up in a designated space before your next runner was allowed to get out.
We tried to get some rest. Elle and I wondered around slightly mischievously, shivering, hungry and both desperate for the toilet. My innards had all of a sudden turned to mush and were not happy. This was far from ideal especially due to the rules and I was getting looser by the minute.
My next run was just gone 7am. This was my long one. Knox had ran a flier and now the baton was my responsibility. It is worth noting that in the previous hour I had gone to the toilet on at least 8 occasions, had hardly eaten and was surviving on Gatorade. This though was one of the best runs I have ever done. I felt alive, mentally strong and full to the brim of courage. It started with a 2 mile uphill, I had 5 runners in sight and my van zooming past blasting 'eye of the tiger' out of the window - that was all I needed to power up the mountain.
I feel this is a good time to tell you about 'road kill.' Quite simply a 'roadkill' was the taking over of another person. You then counted your road kill, celebrated it with high fives to your team and marked it out on your van for a collective roadkill team total. You wouldn't believe how much of a motivator this becomes especially on no sleep.
Going back to the mountain, luckily it did have a top and I started to descend down the other side. This was what I was dreading, i'm almost scared of going downhill due to the pelvis injury I have nearly recovered from. It is still sensitive and going downhill has previously set me back with my rehab recovery. This was ridiculously steep up and ridiculously steep down. My roadkill, competitiveness and the developing feeling of needing the toilet soon got rid of this caution. I was steaming down it, the faster I got the more confident I became. Until my bowels had had enough pounding, panic set in, I had to go. You know that feeling? There is literally no element of control with the 'D' word. I started to run even faster, literally sprinting down the hill, arms pumping, feet hardly even touching the ground. I had to get some distance from the other runners. I had to go despite the rules, I had to take the risk - It was either that or a very embarrassing accident in my very tiny shorts. I ran faster still, I looked around I was clear, I'd already done 16 roadkill at this stage - my pants came down in the middle of a mountain. They came back up with just as much haste as I whipped them down, but at least I had got rid of some of the fluid coming out of my rear end. Running slightly scared hoping that nobody had seen me I sprinted my final few miles not even noticing the burning in my chest or the pain that was appearing in my foot.
The baton was no longer mine, greeting my team whilst still running with one eye on a porta loo and a packet of wet wipes - I couldn't contain myself out it came just like on the mountain but this time words as I graphically told my new friends what had happened whilst giggling through my heavy breathing. The diarrhoea story had been shared and our 'we run free' bond was sealed.
Ok lets move on...I'll take you to the field with only one leg left to go each. It was around 11am whilst driving we stumbled across a quiet field under Bruno's instruction, Rob screeched onto the gravel and we all piled out. The stiffness was starting to hit and so was the lack of sleep. We'd been going 17 hours and 15 minutes and had found ourselves with an hour before our final legs began. It was a sight, we all collapsed on the grass like starfish on mats that Rob had stashed in the roof rack. The sun was beating down on our tired bodies the heat really picking up now. I attempted to stretch, it lasted all of 2 minutes I didn't have the energy. I tried to relax and control my breathing. I find it impossible to be still at the best of times never mind when I'm totally hyped up on an incredible adventure having the time of my life. So I fidgeted a bit and found myself humming ' I'm just Jenny from the block...I know where I came from' over and over in my head. Don't worry I'm not a mad Jennifer Lopez fan - zoom up to the carpark scenario and it was sang to me as a resemblance was pointed out when I was acting all tough dancing about in my bandana and baggy tracksuit.
The wet ones made an appearance again this time slightly less out in the open, I at least found a dense bush. We had to go, Elizabeth was about to kick us off for our ultimate race. This time there would be no car park or random field waiting for us, this was the big one - the finish line.
My final run was my hardest. It was the shortest of all my legs 3.4 miles. I set off at a sprint with the attitude of this is nothing compared to what I've just ran, give it everything. After sprinting 1 mile up the hill with the glaring sunshine beating down on me, the previous runs in my legs and the lack of nutrition in my body I started to realise how wrong I was. I was really feeling it and seriously starting to overheat and I love running in heat but there was just no let up and it was hot, very hot. However I had already done 8 roadkills in my first mile, my competitiveness kicked in and overpowered my poor body. I thought just go as fast as you can, hold out and get those roadkills. I started to set myself people as targets. I was probably a little delirious at this stage with the lack of sleep and the amount of adrenaline I had racing around my body but it worked. I ran that hard I nearly threw up when I reached my exchange handing over to Bruno and Troels to take us home. 23 roadkills and 21 minutes for 3.4 miles once I'd cooled down and stopped 'gipping' I was jumping around for joy.
We piled in the van, like a load of chimpanzees high on Gatorade and raced to the finish line. Skidding around corners desperate to meet Troels our final runner so that we could cross the finish line as a team. Team We run free had done it. we'd completed 198 miles and broken 24 hours. We came in with a time of 23 hours, 45 minutes and 46 seconds. We finished 49th overall and 8th out of mixed sex teams. I can't even begin to describe the emotions that came with crossing that line, seeing the elation on my team mates faces, the hugs full of the most extraordinary respect and passion, the rapid chatter about what we had done and the stunning beach that we had stepped in order to complete Hood to Coast. A genuine happiness, fulfilment and peace had completely engulfed me.
And people wonder why I run!