Teamwork. It’s important in any organization, essential in the military. And once you learn how important it is, you never forget. Even when you’re 70 years old.
My reminder came at the Providence Hood To Coast Relay on August 24-25, 2018 (https://hoodtocoastrelay.com/htc/). Classmates from my alma mater, the Air Force Academy class of 1970, were organizing a team, “Winded Warriors,” to compete and raise money for the sponsoring charity, Providence Cancer Institute. These were people I hadn’t seen in 48 years (and frankly didn’t remember, but that’s not my point). But I got an email, “We need you,” so my only response was “when and where?” I was on a plane for Portland, Oregon at 6:20 am on August 23rd.
The relay covered 199 miles from Mount Hood to the town of Seaside, OR. It was run in 36 legs (no pun intended) of varying lengths and levels of difficulty; each of us was assigned three legs. We had two rented vans which we tastefully decorated with posters. (Van decoration is traditional — many were clever, not all were tasteful.) Six runners were assigned to each van, with Van One being responsible for the first six legs — starting at Mount Hood’s aptly named Timberline Lodge, driving to the exchange point and parking, dispatching the next runner to meet the runner finishing that leg in an exchange zone and receive the timing wrist wrap, recovering the finished runner (which included cool-down time, essential for running follow-on legs) and driving to the next exchange zone. After the required six legs had been run, the second van would take over for the next six legs. And so it went for almost 35 hours. At the end, everyone met in Seaside and finished on the beach together.
To say this was a determined group would be an understatement. One teammate showed up with “Oh, by the way, I had triple-hernia surgery in January, but I’m fine now.” Another postponed a double-knee replacement to join us (and is my new superhero because he ultimately ran four legs). A third is not a natural runner, so he hired a professional coach and got his power-walking time down to 11 minutes per mile. A fourth holds two age-group world records in the 4 x 400 and 4 x 800 meter relays and has authored a comprehensive book on running. I was awestruck to be included.
The event itself was at times exhilarating and frustrating, fun and painful. We met a lot of interesting people. Our military, goal-oriented mentality did lead to some consternation. The weather was ideal for distance running, so the first day we were consistently finishing legs ahead of projections, which meant some delays at getting to exchange points. The second day saw traffic delays. There were officially 1050 teams; multiply that times two and there were a lot of vans on two-lane roads, even with a Friday wave start from 5:00 am to 2:45 pm to spread everyone out. Nothing was more frustrating for us than seeing our runner pass the van while it’s stuck in traffic a half mile from the exchange point.
The most uncomfortable part was nighttime. My van had downtime from about 1 am to 4:30 am. We went to a designated stopover and a section reserved for fundraising teams. Cots were available, but they were outside and the temperature dipped into the low 40s. Sleep was a luxury. For that matter, so were regular meals.
We figured the chances of everyone successfully completing three legs was zero, and we were right. A hip problem flared up for one teammate; to his everlasting credit he finished his leg, but could not continue. Under the rules, there are no substitutes; if someone can’t go, everything waterfalls up in sequence — no deviations are allowed. Eventually, three runners ran four legs. But no big, everyone adjusted as required. That’s the teamwork part.
If you’ve been keeping up and have done the math, you’ve realized we all must be at least 70 years old. That’s correct (with one minor exception at 69 years and 49 weeks). This event started in 1982 (with eight teams), and to the best of our knowledge, there has never been a team this old to finish. To us, the age factor was something to joke about it. Although it did cause one complication — at one exchange it was harder to get a teammate’s attention because he was running without his hearing aid.
It was a great feeling to finish, all together and vertical, marching (mostly because many of us couldn’t run any more), chanting and carrying our class battle flag, team poster, and not forgetting our true purpose, a list of those we were remembering and honoring.
Did we win? Yes, as of this writing we’ve raised $59,000 (and still climbing) for cancer research, which is a team record.
To read more about our team, visit https://www.usafa70.com/, and follow “Winded Warriors” on Facebook.