The Adventure of a Lifetime

Runners in Oregon relay find strength in community

What started as an idea and a few individuals' dreams turned into an adventure of a lifetime for a dozen St. Thomas individuals - running the 197-mile Mt. Hood relay.

The Hood to Coast Relay is one of the longest major relays in North America and the largest in the world in terms of total participation. The annual 12-person relay adventure runs from Timberline Lodge on the slopes of majestic Mt. Hood, the tallest peak in Oregon, through the city of Portland and across the Coast Range to the beautiful town of Seaside on the Oregon coast.

The race is comprised of 36 legs, each with varying distances and terrain (from three to eight miles). Each team member must run at least three legs in rotation. The runners are transported from one exchange zone to the next by two vans. Van One supports runners one through six and Van Two supports runners seven to 12.

The original 12 - employees, former employees or alumni - were Lisa Burke, Dan Gjelten '00 M.A., Kevin Reardon, Debbie Kimlinger, Mary McGrath '90, Patrick O'Shaughnessy '94, Matt Kimlinger, Phil Anderson, Jed Hastings '97, Tonia Bock, Nate Shuff, Julie Schwalbach and me.

Then one came down with an injury. We found another - current law/MBA student and alum Patrick O'Shaughnessy. We were 12 individuals, planning and training for the better part of a year. Our leader, librarian Dan Gjelten, the "brain child" behind this, had masterfully organized our practices for every Tuesday and Thursday, pushed us to do a 'couple of hills' (which meant four), registered us, changed our start time to be more favorable, took care of our humble finances and gave us the extra encouragement to go beyond ourselves. That is a captain!

We came together as individuals with running and St. Thomas as our common bonds. We represented staff (McGrath, Reardon, Schwalbach and Weiss), faculty (Bock, Nate Kimlinger and Anderson), alumni (Hastings) current MBA and law students, relatives of staff (the Kimlingers), and past associates. For one, this would be her second race, for another this was the second time running Hood to Coast, and for another, this was training for the Twin Cities and New York marathons. Another was training for a major triathlon, another one had always dreamed of running Hood to Coast, and for another it was a vacation and time away from the kids!

We gathered as the 'Tommies to Coast" in our shirts from St Thomas at our send off gathering next to the UST track a week before leaving for Portland.

We wanted each to accomplish our individual goals. But were we really a community?

Three days before race day, tragedy hit. Our captain Dan Gjelten, and Lisa Burke, another runner, were in a tragic car accident (see Page 39). They survived but sustained injuries of sprained ankles, a broken foot, bruised ribs, broken clavicle bone and much trauma. They would not be able to race. After the shocking news, the team members who were already in Portland reached out to help. We searched for two replacements. Leslie Veenstra and Jennifer Lloyd, Oregon runners who were looking for a team, graciously accepted after hearing of our setback.

The six Van One runners rose early on Friday morning to start at Mount Hood, where Kevin ran our first leg. Meanwhile, the six in Van Two met Lisa for breakfast at the hotel and ventured to the hospital to bring Lisa to visit Dan, give them our parting encouragement and hear their good luck wishes. They were eager to hear all of the details throughout the next 27 hours.

Van Two met Van One at leg four when Mary handed off to Patrick. What a thrill; we were finally on our way! I was runner 12 - the last runner to jump out of the cramped van and face the nervous jitters. Our van had successfully navigated the roadmap and made it to the transition spot in Sandy, Ore., for Phil (runner six) to hand off to Leslie (runner seven). Runners would wait in the van, the next person in line to run jumps out and starts running and the person running jumps back in. Then it was time for the Van One runners to eat, rest and catch showers at the hotel if they could.

In Van Two, we were grateful to be finally running. With one of six runners out of the van running, it freed up the back seat! We quickly realized the pressure of navigating and driving the van when we had a runner on the course and one in the queue in the van. There were a few tight transitions, but we made it.

By far, the most challenging handoff involved the van exchanges between runner six and seven and runners 12 and one. As runner 12, I had the longest wait in the van before running. Afterward, we could stop navigating the van and head for a quick shower, eat a "meal" and then rest a few hours before we met up with Van Two.

The night running legs of the race became a blur as sleep deprivation and overall fatigue begin to settle in. And to think that after this leg we would wait six more hours, and then do it all over again.

While Van One was starting the second leg of the relay, our Van Two was off to the hotel to meet up with Lisa, take a much-needed hot shower, eat dinner, catch a little rest, and then go out of Portland to meet Van One for the middle-of-the-night exchange.

Going back to the race, we got lost getting out of Portland (even after being pulled over by the police and given their incorrect directions!) and barely made the exchange. Our sleepy van headed out with each runner equipped with the required reflective safety vest and a flashlight and head lamp to lead the way.

This exchange proved to be the most problematic. Not only were the legs run in complete blackness and quiet, dangerous construction zones, cold and mist, but there was no cell phone coverage. As a result, we were ahead of schedule by a good 15 minutes. Eventually we found runner one (Kevin) and off went Van One again.

As for Van Two, we were relieved to have completed our legs and wanted to catch some rest and a few snacks. Julie drove the distance with Tonia keeping her awake and the rest of us draped over seats, bag, shoes and coolers to catch a few z's. Once at the exchange point we parked, and two exhausted bodies ventured outside to sleep. Another was in the driver's seat, one in the passenger seat and one on each bench seat.

We had a solid two hours rest and were awakened by the sun, smells of breakfast and the ever-increasing sound of morning activity of vans and runners. We received word that Van One was on its way. So we were about to venture upon our final leg of the relay.

Our captain had estimated a 27-hour race. So an 11 a.m. Friday start time would see us finish on the beach right about 2 p.m. Saturday. In reality, 26:56:54 was the final overall time, 302nd out of 1032 (top third) teams and 25th out of 82 in the mixed sub-masters (over 30 years old and at least six females). We did it! As one team member said, "I gave it my all. Dan would have done the same."

Our motivation for running and finishing the relay had changed. The strong commitment and dedication that Dan and Lisa had put into this insurmountable adventure were passed through our bodies. And now, Dan and Lisa were at the hospital but with us in spirit, fighting their own challenges while we were on the course. We struggled to persevere in the dark, cold and mist of legs 13 through 25. Dan struggled to move from his bed to a wheelchair.

After the race, with various members running into and swimming in the ocean, we returned to Portland (driving only!) and visited Dan and Lisa. We left Emanuel Hospital with a true sense of family and community - the St. Thomas community.

The bracelets Dan had given us just weeks before we left Minnesota with the inscription - "The Adventure of a Lifetime" - became true.

As we returned to our respective lives, many of us declared there will be another Hood to Coast on the horizon. This time we'll start with more than St. Thomas running at the starting point because now we have the true sense of an established St. Thomas community.

Melanie Weiss '93 worked at St. Thomas from 2002 to 2005 and is an M.B.A. student here.

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