The Hood to Coast (H2C) Relay takes runners from the slopes of Mt. Hood outside Portland, Oregon, to the state’s beautiful, rugged coastline some 200 miles away. Since 1982, the annual event has drawn runners from all fifty states and across the globe participating in teams of twelve, each covering a total of 14 to 20 miles in three legs of varying lengths. Since 2007, Wilmingtonians Cindy Cucuzzella and Annie Pilson have been among the race’s most successful competitors, their Nature Girlz team winning their age group multiple times including the 40-and-over category in this year’s August race (finishing more than an hour and a half before the second place team). TSD tried to jog along Cucuzzella and Pilson, but quickly ran out of breath and decided to finish our interview sitting down.
Town Square Delaware: So what first drew you to this race?
Cindy Cucuzzella: I was introduced to the race initially by my college buddy Karen Wehner who lives in Chicago and had run the race with Team Wheaties 9 times (a group of gals mainly working at General Mills). She had raved about the Hood to Coast for years and when she asked me to join the newly formed Nature Girlz, I literally jumped up and down. I was drawn mainly for the adventure, the beauty, the desire to push myself for a competitive team effort, the hope of meeting some awesome, inspirational women and to experience new friendships and camaraderie. When I flew out west in 2006, I only knew Karen and had never set foot in Oregon, nor did I have any idea what to expect. It was one of the most incredible, adventurous, rewarding weekends of my life (though physically and mentally exhausting). I returned on a high for weeks and had a smile on my face whenever I talked about the race. I was ready to embrace turning 40!
Annie Pilson: My husband Michael and I were originally invited to be part of a California-based team in 1999. While we loved the adventure aspect of the race (varying terrains, times of day, sleeping outside, etc.), we wanted the experience to be more competitive and so the following year engineered a speedy team of late 20 and early 30-somethings from NYC, L.A. and beyond. The secret to most H2C teams is the “friend of a friend” concept.
TSD: Is this the only relay race of this kind that you run?
AP: As Hood to Coast is the granddaddy of all relay races, it’s the first and only one I’ve ever done.
CC: The Hood to Coast is the only relay of this kind that I have run. I would really like someday to run The (Providian) Relay in Northern California that goes from Calistoga in Napa Valley 199 miles to Santa Cruz.
TSD: Presumably you both ran at a very high level in college…
AP: I have never run competitively. My high school did not have cross-country or track teams. So as much as I loved it, running was just a means of conditioning for the sports available to me, like field hockey and lacrosse. In college, I ran every day with a good friend to stay in shape, blow off steam and keep perspective. Everyday, as I walked to our meeting spot, I would see the cross-country team stretching but never consider walking-on. Running was something I chose to do every day, not something I had to do. And that is still the way it is today, it is a personal choice, not an obligation. The busier and older I become, the more running evolves into a privilege.
CC: I did not run competitively in college, but I did run regularly for physical fitness as I played club soccer at Duke. I ran track (mainly sprints) in high school but soccer was really my favorite sport. I started running marathons after my first child Carter was born (now 15) and we were living in Hawaii where my husband Tony was doing a medical fellowship. I then decided to run a marathon after the birth of my other 2 children and I have been passionate about running for the past seven years or so. Like Annie, running to me is a privilege.
TSD: How do you prepare for such an unusual race? It begins in pitch black in the dark of night and you are running downhill and through very different climates.
CC: The race begins on the Friday before Labor Day and teams start between 6 a.m. and 6:45 p.m. in staggered waves of approximately twenty teams every 15 minutes. The Nature Girlz have typically started sometime in the afternoon or mid-morning and this year our start time was 1:15 p.m. It was sunny, cool and breezy up at Mt. Hood….great running weather. I actually ran leg one this year for the first time which drops 2,000 feet in elevation over six miles, a serious decline. The next couple of legs have steep declines and then it starts to level off a little and the rolling hills begin. It was sunny and hot in the mid to late afternoon but turned quite chilly at night….temperatures ranged from highs in the 70s to lows in the 40s to 50s, which is typical for the race. In seven years of running, I have never run in anything other than shorts and a sleeveless tank but I always bring along layers and I probably could have used gloves on my third leg around 4 am Saturday morning. Between the hours of 6 pm to 7 am, all runners must wear reflective vests, blinking red lights and headlamps (or carry flashlights), for safety and to see in the dark! It gets cold at night, especially while we are trying to sleep in the fields so we always have layers, warm coats (I had my North Face winter coat with me), hats, gloves, etc. The temperatures can really vary so you need to pay close attention to the forecast leading up to the race.
AP: Experience and Accuweather are key when it comes to preparing. I always check the weather to get a sense of the race’s high and low temperatures. As I prefer to run “cold” like Cindy, I always run in a tank top and shorts. Then I bring lots of layers, hat and gloves to be sure I’ll be comfortable sleeping under the stars. Typically all the gals have ziploc bags with each of the leg’s gear. So you put on your outfit for your first leg, run in it and seal it away for when you get home, saving everyone the stink and sweaty garments strewn all over the van.
TSD: The logistics on this race are pretty complex – you need a full team supporting you, someone driving, someone handling food and supplies, etc. How does it all come together?
AP: The logistics are something, for sure! Luckily, we have the most Type A, uber-organized gal as our team captain. And every year, we thank our lucky stars for Julie Musselman! She reserves vans at three car companies, rooms at three different hotels, tables at three different … you get the idea to be sure that nothing goes wrong. And nothing disastrous has happened to date. The way it breaks down is that half the team (6 gals) ride in van one the whole race, and the other six in van two. And the two vans only meet after every sixth leg when one van finishes their duty and passes off to the next to start their legs. But you need to remember that at all times in the twenty-four hour window of the race, someone from your team is out there somewhere … running. So it might be 2 am and you and your van-mates are sleeping in a meadow on a country road but … someone on your team is still out there running. Or it might be 10 am and you’re finished all three of your legs and enjoying a latte back in civilization, but … someone on your team is laying it all out there. That’s the best part of the experience, everyone does her part, makes a contribution whether it be zipping down the shoulder of a highway alongside logging trucks at midnight or cruising down a shaded mountain road at noon the next day.
CC: As Annie mentioned, we are very fortunate to have an incredibly organized captain who pays attention to every detail and then some. We already have our Yukons and hotel rooms booked for next year. Julie brings along sleeping bags, polar fleece bags, towels, pillows, car toppers, tarps, foam rollers, stick rollers, you name it. She sends us a detailed itinerary and, based on our assigned start time and predicted pace considering terrain, leg length, time of day…we know almost exactly when we will start and finish running each of our legs.
We usually hit the grocery after arriving in Portland on Thursday afternoon or Friday morning, depending on our start time. We have learned by mistake that you really don’t need a ton of food, mainly water, peanut butter sandwiches, bananas, protein bars, etc. Supplies like paper towels, baby wipes, Advil and band-aids are key too. We have a couple of gals who love to do the driving (thankfully, because it can be very stressful), but as Annie emphasized, it is always a team effort through and through.
TSD: How have you managed to be so successful in this event? Is there possibly anything about your training here in the rolling Brandywine Valley?
CC: We have managed to assemble an incredible group of women, most of whom are excellent runners (as well as doctors, lawyers, PhDs, entrepreneurs…). Our team typically consists of two to four gals from Delaware, two to three from California, and about six from Minneapolis. Sometimes we get someone with ties to the team from another state like Colorado or Illinois or the like. Most of the women are marathon runners, several are also triathletes and Ironman competitors. Thus, H2C is usually not the one and only race for which we are training. Typically the women from Delaware will run five to six times a week with the longest run being about 13-14 miles in length. We do hill repeats and tempo runs and try to hit the track when we can. Certainly training on the rolling hills in Wilmington helps prepare for the hills. This year, since I ran leg one with a steep decline, I trained on the downhill near Hagley Museum along the Brandywine River, which has a steady descent. Annie and I also like to run hill repeats in Rockford Park. We also typically have a couple of days when we run twice a day or three times in twenty-four hours to simulate running our legs and I like to do a couple of runs at night using my headlamp. Finally, it really helps that we are training in the heat and humidity and when we head out to Oregon, it is usually cooler and less humid.
AP: All I can say is that they grow them tough in Minnesota. I have never met such a fit, athletically ambitious and accomplished group of women as the Minnesota contingent of our team! Every year, they make up half of our team and there’s not a slacker in the bunch. Mind you, we Delawareans show up too, but in order to do so, we have to train and seriously. Like Cindy described, I try to run three times in twenty-four hours at least once a week to mimic the experience of the weekend. I also do some kind of speedwork once a week and run long (15 miles being the longest) once a week. The hardest part of training for Hood to Coast each year is always the heat and humidity of a Delaware summer. That combo makes any run twice as challenging and tiring. The hills around the Brandywine definitely help build your baseline strength but typically I train specifically for my assigned legs. So if I have steep decline in one of my legs, then I’ll pick my routes accordingly. Or if I will be running a long leg (8 miles plus), then I’ll prepare specifically for that.
CC: You are sweaty, exhausted, and sore and have been stuck in a van or Yukon for 24 hours with five of your teammates, also sweaty, exhausted and sore. Your only reprieve has been to get out and run while braving the dark, hills, heat/cold, wind, dust, smoke, Port a Potties, (i.e. “honey buckets”), too many Cliff Bars, etc. etc. You can’t wait to finish all three of your legs but you also can’t wait to reach the beautiful beach at Seaside and cross the finish line with your teammates and join the great party! The race literally finishes on the beach about 20 yards from the Pacific Ocean. Since there are over 12,000 runners participating in the race, along with friends and family and participants in other associated races, we are talking about thousands of people at the finish line. There is music, food, beer, wine, team photos and lots of fun.
Honestly, in the last several years, the Nature Girlz have stayed at the Finish Line for about an hour then headed as a team to our favorite wine bar in Seaside where we bring a spread of cheeses and fruits and order some excellent California and Oregon reds and whites and reminisce about the race. It’s great finally getting together with the entire team and hearing the details…sometimes I laugh so hard I am literally in tears. It is one of my favorite parts of the entire four days, when we can finally relax and celebrate our accomplishments. We then head to a resort in Canon Beach a few miles south of the finish where we finally get a shower (another highlight), order pizza, laugh some more, then crash. It is consistently one of the most rewarding, positive and inspirational weekends of the year for me, and always more than worth the hard training and the long traveling.
AP: Even when I was younger, I never went for the beachside bash. Don’t get me wrong, I love mingling with the other teams and runners on the course. But when our team’s last runner crosses the finish line and we’re all together again, I really don’t want to hang with Joe Schmo, I want to relax and rehash with my teammates. The stories, imitations, ribbing are worth every mile of training. I don’t think I laugh as much all year as I do that evening. We are talking about a super accomplished group of women – so athletic, so smart and so, so funny! It’s a privilege to be a part of it, and I just hope I can continue to stay healthy and fast enough to make the cut from year to year. Honestly, it’s a highlight of my year.