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'An adrenaline junkie's dream'

Next weekend, while sane people in Baltimore are barbecuing in the backyard, I'll be in Oregon with 11 friends. We're going for a run.

The route starts at 6,000 feet on the slopes of Mount Hood. Twenty-eight hours later, we expect to finish on a wide, wind-swept beach at the Oregon Coast. In between, traveling in two large vans, we'll be running along highways and on trails and back roads for 198 miles. One runner then another. Day then night then day.

The much-anticipated occasion is the 32nd Hood to Coast Relay, a colossal adventure in people-moving and the largest running relay in the world. Alberto Salazar, a three-time New York City Marathon champion, calls Hood to Coast, "an adrenaline junkie's dream." Really, it's the ultimate embrace of nature, comradeship, sleep deprivation and Plantar fasciitis.

Approximately 1,050 teams will be running in this year's race. Almost as many were turned away when, as every year, registration closed in a few hours. Many teams will be from Oregon, a state with a serious running habit. A surprising number come from overseas. (Last year's winners were an impossibly fast college squad from Tokyo). At least one will be representing the Queen City of the Chesapeake.

We'll be running for our beloved running club, the Pacemakers. The Pacemakers are the best kind of organization. There are no dues or board meetings. Attendance is voluntary. You just show up and run. We meet a few times a week, usually before dawn, and run the neighborhoods of Baltimore City, including, probably, yours.

The running is a sidelight. The true attraction of the club is the runners. The Pacemakers are an amazingly diverse group in a city that can use a lot more reaching out. Our members are black, white and brown. They are gay and straight. They're high school track stars and retirees with neon running shoes. They're drawn from almost every walk of life — high school science teacher, physician, professor, scientist, minister, lawyer, voice coach and maestro.

The health benefits of what we do are evident. Running doesn't stop the march of time. It doesn't prevent us from contemplating our mortality. When you run with a certain group of Pacemakers, expect to overhear conversations about colonoscopies and estate planning. But our routine of track work and jaunts on city streets unquestionably has kept us healthier than our non-running friends. As a weight control system, running beats the heck out of the Scarsdale Diet. I joke with Bob Hilson, the founder of the Pacemakers, that through his efforts Baltimore is 10,000 pounds lighter.

Several times a year, the Pacemakers go on running road trips, usually to race in marathons. As a group, we've been to Atlanta, St. Louis, Chicago, Nashville and New Orleans for an eerie and unforgettable marathon a few months after Hurricane Katrina.

A few years back, we got the bright idea to send a delegation to the "Mother of All Relays." Hood to Coast's reputation is so large and luminous that none of us needed to be convinced it was a race worth running. But we were only dimly aware of the adventures that awaited us.

With high hopes, we applied in 2011, got rejected and reapplied in 2012. We made our Hood to Coast debut with a team notable for its maturity — half our team was over 50 years old. The running was difficult at times. Some of the 36 legs (three for each runner) were brutally hilly, turning hamstrings into jelly. It's not a natural thing to be running at three in the morning on 45 minutes sleep. Hours into our relay, the night air was chilled, and on rural sections of the course our headlamps did little to light up the blackness. After running a mile on a desolate stretch without seeing a course marshal or another runner, I remember asking myself, "Am I in Idaho?" Even at uncertain moments, though, the great fun was sharing the adventure with friends from home, all of us seeing this unspoiled place through the same disbelieving eyes.

Our showing was more than respectable. We finished in twenty-eight hours, fourteen minutes, good for 263rd of 1068 teams. Baltimore Orioles manager Buck Showalter would have called it a total team effort. Everyone did their part on the road, in the vans and, when called upon, on their laptops. I'm thinking of Michael, an infectious disease doctor and our team statistician. Michael devised a model for projecting within seconds the finish time for each runner and fed data into his computer while the rest of us goofed off. (Projected finish times are important to keep an even flow of runners on the course.) Bonnie, who works for a local foundation, buoyed morale by leading a singalong of '70s hits (and, when requested, by not singing). Rosemary, a lawyer and victims' right advocate, inspired us with her bravery. For all three of her legs she was chased by a man in a mask (who we learned later was on a team of Sock Monkeys).

Thanks to Michael's statistical drill down, we reached the beach within 30 minutes of our predicted finish time, thus earning automatic entry into this year's Hood to Coast. So we're headed back to Mount Hood. Some of the faces in the van have changed this year. Our team motto is the same: "We're over 50 — and we just passed you."

Mark Hyman is a professor in the sports management program at the George Washington University. His email is mhyman@gwu.edu.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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