The very first scene in the movie will stick with you long after "Hood to Coast" ends.
It's the dead of night, you can hear only heavy footfalls and labored breathing, then a middle-aged female runner appears alone in the darkness. Behind her, a couple of dots of lights jiggle and gain ground quickly. Almost without warning, a lithe young man blitzes past her like she's standing still.
"Whoa!" she says, to no one in particular.
It's an amazing bit of atmosphere, and sets the stage the stage for the next 100 minutes, which follow four of the more than 1,000 12-person teams that competed in the 2008 Hood to Coast. Held annually in Oregon in August, the race spans 197 miles -- from Timberline Lodge on Mt. Hood, elevation 6,000 feet, to a coastal city aptly named Seaside -- and is the world's most popular relay race.
If there's any question as to whether this is worth the $13 asking price for individual tickets to the Charlotte screenings on Tuesday night, hopefully I can lay them to rest. Director Christoph Baaden, a University of North Carolina at Greensboro alumnus, and his wife and producing partner Anna Campbell have created an absolute gem of a sports documentary.
The featured teams were well-chosen: There are the Dead Jocks, old pros who provide context and comic relief; Thunder 'n Laikaning, the goofball team of slacker-underachievers who provide comic relief (one: "I think what we should do is train as little as possible, like don't do any training, just drink and eat and do no training, and then if we do accomplish the race, all the better"); Heart -N- Sole, a group of older women; and Team R-Bowe, consisting of the family and friends of a young man who died of a rare heart attack a month before the previous year's Hood to Coast.
Stars emerge, including Jason and Rachel (of the slacker-underachievers), who before the race could barely run three miles, and Kathy, a veteran of 75 marathons who had triple-bypass surgery after collapsing and nearly dying during her third leg at the 2007 H2C. Several members of Team R-Bowe also stand out. (A warning to those who cry easily: bring tissues. Some of the interviews with the mom, dad, brother, and widow are heartbreaking, and may catch you off-guard.)
But the real star is the event itself. The footage is phenomenal, thanks to crews both on the ground and in the air, and to camera operators with street cred (one is a veteran of TV series like "NCIS" and "JAG," another worked on Michael Moore's "Sicko"). On a good-sized HDTV, Mount Hood looks amazing, the brief glimpses of Portland make the city sparkle -- the scenery in general is breathtaking, and will be absolutely stunning on the big screen. If you've never been to the Northwest, you likely will want to after seeing this film.
"Hood to Coast" is a celebration of camaraderie, of teamwork, of support groups, of fortitude, of doing more than you thought you were capable of. It's somewhat similar to 2007's "Spirit of the Marathon" -- following diverse subjects, building up to big race, providing perspective afterward -- but is cut together more interestingly, more smoothly paced, and just much more polished in general. You always have a clear sense of where each team is at in the race and what's at stake.
You'll also marvel at the immense logistical challenges the race must present to the organizers, and I'll bet you lunch that by the end, you'll be at least halfway considering putting a team together for at least the Blue Ridge Relay, if not the actual H2C (which already was difficult to get into but now will be generating even more interest).
I've never run a relay myself, although it's safe to say people who have will appreciate the film even more. At the same time, my wife -- who is not a distance runner and who generally would be absorbed in the iPad while a movie like this was on at home -- was engaged throughout the whole thing.
And that's actually what makes "Hood to Coast" a success, in my mind. On the surface, it would seem to be a movie about running, for runners; it is that, of course, and I can't imagine a runner who will come away from this unsatisfied. But I think it will very quickly creep up on non-runners, too -- like a lithe young man who comes up from behind in the darkness, it could surprise the heck out of them.
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On Tuesday night, "Hood to Coast" will screen in 360 theaters nationwide, including AMC Concord Mills 24 in Concord and Stonecrest 22 @ Piper Glen at Charlotte. Tickets are $13.50 in advance for the Concord Mills screening and $13.75 in advance for the Piper Glen show. (AMC and Regal use different online-ticketing agencies.) The NCM Fathom Entertainment event also will feature a "live red carpet" from Portland, Ore., and a pre-taped panel with celebrities from the running world shot at Nike headquarters. Total running time is said to be 2 hours, 20 minutes. For more information about the event, click here.