Every year for the past 27 years, marathoners have flocked to Oregon for the 200 mile relay race from Mt. Hood to the coast over two wild days. Less athletic competition and more gumball rally, twelve person teams deck themselves and their vans out in wild garb — including bearded ladies, costumed characters, and winged angels — and each take on three legs of the 36 leg race. While there are some who do compete for speed and agility — Nike sponsored the “winning” team — for most, the Hood to Coast race is about the victory of participation, of proving that you can endure this grueling jaunt. The documentary Hood to Coast follows four of the 1000 teams running the marathon.
Like most documentaries, it checks off all the expected categories: touching, inspiring, victorious, saucy. The filmmakers obviously chose their four teams based on who’d get a laugh or cause tears to be shed, and the four teams are pretty incredible in their own way. It’s a very solid documentary that’ll tug your heartstrings and tickle your funny bones, but really doesn’t have anything that will resonate with you on a permanent basis. Hood to Coast is like reading a particularly interesting magazine article. You’ll think about it for a few days at most, and then forget about it when the next one comes along.
For the four teams the documentarians focus on, the Hood to Coast is more about proving that you can run the race, whether you’re dealing with grief, age, being incredibly out of shape, or in the case of one team, all three. Dead Jocks in a Box is comprised of a fraternity of older dudes, with a juvenile mentality and a almost lounge lizard like quality of sleaze and overconfidence. I’m not quite sure if it’s endearing or uncomfortable to watch them macking on the young female competitors, offering free massages and hosing other people down with squirt cannons. The team from Thunder and Laikaning was hard to resist, because they consisted entirely of out-of-shape animators. They ran the race to prove that they could, that without training, while eating bagged snacks, cheeseburgers, and swigging beers. Foulmouthed slackers, they ran the race with no lofty purpose other than because it was there. The majority of the contestants run the race for fun, to prove that age or weight are no barrier to pushing yourself the distance.
But it wouldn’t really be a documentary without sob stories, and for God’s sake, they couldn’t possibly have lucked on to two better damn teams. Team R. Bowe ran in memory of Ryan Bowe, an athlete who died tragically young, leaving behind a young son and wife. The team was made up of Ryan’s wife, brother, mother, and classmates from Washington and Lee University, my old alma mater. Ryan attended W&L at the same time I did, but graduated a year ahead of me. It was impossible not to be steeped in poignancy every time a family member ran a leg, because you could see the weight of their grief crushing the tears out of them. Every time you compete for a lost loved one, it pushes you that much harder, and you feel the victory all the more sweetly.
And then there was team Heart N’ Sole and Kathy Ryan. Kathy Ryan died during the previous year’s race, collapsed and then had to be resuscitated. Kathy’s been competing in marathons and mini-marathons for years. She’s had a triple bypass and several stents placed in her heart. And even with her doctor urging her to take it easy, Kathy desperately wants to compete in the race this year, if only to prove that she can’t be brought down. Kathy plods along during the race, a heart monitor on her wrist beeping if she exceeds a certain beats per minute. A teammate actually jogs with her, forcing Kathy to walk if necessary. Kathy is absolutely insane to take such a risk with her life and health, but goddamn if you aren’t gonna get a little misty watching her go.
Director Christopher Baaden — himself a former Hood to Coast competitor — knows that he’s got a stacked deck of emotional manipulation. He doles it out in spades, but it’s never cloying or overwhelming. You laugh just as much as you do that stoic sigh that doesn’t count as crying if a tear doesn’t spill over. For every sad montage featuring R. Bowe reminiscing about their lost son/brother/husband/friend, there’s a moment with spritely and crotchety Thunder and Laikaning. Ultimately, the message of the film is to rise up against the difficulties life presents to you — in the form of competing in a footrace over an insane distance. It’s a pleasant documentary that’s like a moneyless birthday card. The sentiment is touching, but it’ll be gone just as quick.