Hood to Coast | Dirs. Christoph Baaden & Marcie Hume | 102min | Doc | 2011 | US
Hood to Coast, a documentary playing through Thursday at indieScreen, follows four 12-person teams as they participate in a 197-mile relay race in Oregon. The event, which began in 1982 and attracted 12,000 runners in 2008, has evolved into what one commentator calls a “Woodstock on wheels” (the teams travel in vans). A Phish show in running shoes would be just as accurate: preppy fraternity brothers, friendly punks with dyed hair, Old & in the Way men, and lots of other unpredictable characters crowd the gorgeous roads of the route.
Starting 6,000 feet up on Mt. Hood and ending at the Pacific Ocean, the race consists of 36 legs of varying difficulty. Each runner does three, the third on little sleep, suboptimal food, and as one veteran points out, little physical energy. It’s at this point, he says, that spirit enters the equation, because a runner can’t finish the race without it. Plenty of spirit is evident in teams such as Thunder N’ Laikaning, convivial animators from Portland who decide that pub night is their kind of training run; Dead Jocks in a Box, a clan of fit but fading pranksters; Heart ‘N Sole, women over 50 who learn CPR after a teammate’s near death on the course the year before; and R. Bowe, a group of family and friends running to honor and grieve for their namesake, Ryan, who died a month before the 2007 race.
While it’s clear that all of the subjects are participating in an epic trial, it’s not always so engaging to hear them talk about it. Rachel, a member of the Thunder, stares at a map of her assigned leg in two scenes and portentously says, “It’s a mountain,” in each. We get it. The discussion topics at a backyard reunion party for the Jocks are fairly ordinary. And while it feels unkind to have anything but reverence for Kathy, the pixyish Solemate who’s running after her heart stopped in 2007, I’m not sure how much we learn about her inner life, other than her determination to run. The problem may be in the grain: a good story often includes the theme of failure, and by portraying runners who we sense will be triumphant, the film takes a little while to become one.
But at the same time, the commonplace in Hood to Coast is also a strength. After completing a night leg up a gravel road lit mostly by headlights, Rachel can’t manage much more than “Dude…Dude…It’s indescribable.” In this scene, the glow on her face attests to the beauty of her language. Jason, another animator, says that one appeal of the race is upsetting the boredom of routine, and the Dead Jocks grow more likable as they battle the bummer of their diminished abilities.
The film grows more poignant when a still image of Larry Bowe, running the race in 1989, is enlarged to show his 12-year-old son just behind him. A last-minute substitute on his father’s team, Ryan ran in every subsequent race until his death from a heart condition at age 30, weeks before the birth of his son. It’s easy to cry along with the members of Team R. Bowe as they share memories and break down before and during the race.
As the finish line gets closer, the commentary and close-ups get better. Jim, a caustic Jock, notes that when his teammates were in their thirties, they tried to act mature; now that they’re older, they labor to stay young. Back at home after finishing the race, Kathy urges us to “always fight to do what you’re passionate about”—here, a deeper mettle is front and center. The ending also features the growth of Jason, one of the most satisfying aspects of Hood to Coast. Amiable and flabby, he refrains from eating a fast-food burger after his first leg, but happily chows down at roadside after the second. As he runs shirtless during his final leg, the few audience members who chuckled soon fell silent at the stone fact that this man was hauling (and burning) ass. And when Jason laments his speed at the finish, Jim’s earlier observation that the vanity of runners relates to their times comes to mind, and helps us see that the animator, who began the race as anything but a runner, has surprisingly grown into one.
Failure, ironically, comes into focus when the film briefly portrays Team Bowerman AC, a group of in-it-to-win-it athletes who dress in tennis whites and share talking points about being “fast, fresh, and [then] finishing.” Ugh. These guys are much more endearing when they discuss the possibility of puking on the course. Their incongruous presence in the carnival, complete with runners dressed as superheroes and a certain van decorated with a coffin and a jock strap, is proof-positive that the point of the race is to have fun, grow, and be together, rather than win. Now that’s a story.
IndieScreen through Thurs, 7/21 8pm