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Portland to Coast wrap up

August 30, 2011

2011 was another great year for our Portland to Coast experience. My wife’s team survived with minor injuries–one bee sting and one bout of late-night woozies. The team made good time and had fun, which adds up to a win. And my volunteer experience ranks among the best I’ve ever had.

The Portland to Coast is a relay walking race from Portland to Seaside, on the Oregon coast. This is a companion event to the Hood to Coast relay run, which happens at the same time but starts at Mt. Hood. There’s also a third category, the High School Challenge, also from Portland to Seaside, starting after the walkers have all got underway. To get a taste, I recommend the Hood to Coast documentary movie.

There are something like twenty-thousand racers involved in this thing, There is no way this race could work if it didn’t involve an army of volunteers. That’s where I come in. Every team has to put up three volunteers to work the checkpoints. They do the simple but necessary work that basically boils down to directing traffic and keeping order at the exchange point, the actual spot where one racer hands off to her teammate.

This year I worked exchange point twenty-five in Birkenfeld. I’ve worked Birkenfeld twice before and loved it both times. I drove up to Clatskanie and picked up a Subway sandwich to eat for dinner or after my shift, and then I rolled on into Birkenfeld.

Jumping ahead, that sandwich (w/ mayo) sat in my hot car and I didn’t think about it again until approx one o’clock the next morning when I pulled into Seaside and realized I was famished. I ate half that sandwich and almost immediately proceeded to be sick all weekend. Not quite recovered yet.

I arrived at the exchange point at the last minute and got the one job I’ve never done: organize the parking lot. That job has intimidated me in the past, because if you mess up and create a traffic jam down in the lot, then traffic stops on the road, people get anxious, someone could get run over, everyone has a bad time. So I walked awhile as the sun approached the valley’s western ridge and I put some thought into how I wanted to turn this fenced field into a parking lot.

There used to be an old church at the exchange point, beside the school house, but this year it was gone and I’d need to make sure cars didn’t drive into the cavity of its remains. I was sad the church was gone. It used to be that you’d get around a million swallows flying in and out of there all through the long sunset. This year there were a few dozen swallows overhead. Black bulls roamed the valley’s golden pastures. Falcons and hawks swooped from one tree-walled side of the narrow valley and disappeared again in the greenery across the way. A great blue heron hung in the air and slowly glided west over the river.

Of course, parking lots are simple. The parking lot isn’t the real issue. The real trick is organizing people. If you pull into a parking lot and it’s chaos, then it’s every car for itself, but if you see there’s clearly a system, then you’ll float on. I came up with a system and paced out a few measurements. Then I got everyone together and said this: When a van comes into this parking lot, you need to direct them in what to do. They need you to be in charge. They expect you to be in charge. They want you to be in charge. And if you don’t lead, then they won’t follow.

I fully expected the parking lot to be a disaster. It’s so easy for these things to degrade into anarchy. But this team of eight volunteers–five of them high schoolers–communicated with each other and with the drivers to get vehicles in and out with an orderliness that would have set Rain Man at ease.

So much more happened this weekend, but that’s all I’ve got time for right now. I cannot finish without saying Thank You to my wife’s team for being a great sports and to Peggy & Andy for the Incredible dinner Saturday night! And to Caitlin & Liz for a great lazy weekend on the beach.

Now it’s time to tackle those revisions. Look for another metric-style update soon.


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