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Sept. 20, 2021

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At Hood to Coast in China, Clark County team finds common bonds with runners

Five local runners help ring in inaugural Hainan event

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The team of Clark County runners, clockwise from top left, Ericka Carlsen, Marlene Ashworth, Alexis Bond, David Belokonny and Katy Belokonny pose at the finish line after completing Hood to Coast Hainan in China.
The team of Clark County runners, clockwise from top left, Ericka Carlsen, Marlene Ashworth, Alexis Bond, David Belokonny and Katy Belokonny pose at the finish line after completing Hood to Coast Hainan in China. (Photos courtesy of Katy Belokonny) Photo Gallery

As the tropical sun glared straight down, Katy Belokonny could barely breathe.

Her throat dry, fatigue was tightening its stranglehold.

That’s when, though not speaking a word of English, a fellow runner recognized her plight. He offered Belokonny his bottle of sports drink, a crucial boost that helped break fatigue’s grip.

Heat wasn’t Alexis Bond’s nemesis. Rather, it was the smothering anxiety of running on a rainforest road in near total darkness after her headlamp broke.

That’s when a fellow runner offered a guiding light, literally. For the rest of their leg, she ran next to Bond with her head at an angle so her own headlamp lighted Bond’s way.

Earlier this month, five runners from Clark County found themselves on the other side of the world, surrounded by foreign climate and culture.

But there was a universal language understood by each competitor in the inaugural Hood to Coast event on the Chinese island of Hainan.

“No matter what country we’re from or all of our differences, there’s just something special about runners in general,” Bond said. “They look out for each other. There this spirit of ‘let’s all do this.’ ”

Far from the humble eight-team inaugural relay in 1982, Hood to Coast has gone global. The “Mother of All Relays” now hosts several overnight relay races beyond the original event, where teams totaling 12,600 runners trek 200 miles from Mount Hood to Seaside, Ore.

Hood to Coast went international in 2016, partnering with a company run by former NBA star Yao Ming to stage an event on mainland China. Similar HTC-sponsored events have since cropped up in Taiwan, Israel and the Netherlands.

This year, Hood to Coast unveiled a new event on Hainan, an island popular with Chinese tourists. Sitting off the south coast of mainland China and east of Vietnam, it’s roughly one-fourth the size of Washington.

Wanting a link to the event’s American origins, Hood to Coast offered to sponsor a stateside team to compete in the Hainan event. In October, a message was sent out on Hood to Coast’s email distribution list, asking interested runners to apply.

The subject line “Win a chance to run Hood to Coast in Hainan, China” caught Belokonny’s eye. It said the first 10 teams to apply would be considered.

She forwarded the email to her brother, David Belokonny, who along with Katy had also completed several Hood to Coast events across the Northwest.

Though they had never traveled internationally for a race, they agreed to give it a shot. Katy reached out to Hood to Coast saying they had a team ready and were interested.

But Katy never assumed it would amount to anything.

“I didn’t even tell my husband,” she said.

But one week later, Katy was informed her group had been selected for the race. Now, they just needed to recruit three more team members and arrange travel to China for the Dec. 7 event, which covered 100 miles.

That wasn’t an easy task for a group of runners with children and full-time jobs.

They reached out to friends. Within a week, Bond, Ericka Carlsen and Marlene Ashworth had agreed to join the adventure. A team of five runners from Clark County was on its way to China.

“I went into it with a lot of trepidation,” Bond said. “It’s a big ask. It’s going to rely a lot on my husband and family.”

As it turned out, the running wasn’t the only difficult part of the journey.

Tensions over the trade war between the U.S. and China had just spiked. Less than a week before departure, the team’s Hood to Coast sponsor informed them they would likely be denied entry upon arriving in Shanghai.

They were urged to instead fly to Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous province that has less-stringent entry requirements for U.S. travelers. From there, they could enter Hainan without a visa thanks to the island’s catering to tourists.

It took roughly 15 hours to fly from Portland to Hong King via San Francisco. The group landed at 5 a.m. and had a six-hour layover.

Not wanting stay cooped up in the airport, the team quickly explored Hong Kong’s harbor area. Aside of graffiti on buildings, the group saw no indication of the pro-democracy protests that have roiled the city for the past six months.

Having arrived two days before the race, the group didn’t slow down once on Hainan. Hood to Coast had arranged a private driver to shuttle the team around the island. They attended a pre-race function along with Hood to Coast executives and were interviewed by local media.

The day before the team’s 2 a.m. start time, the group went zip-lining in a rainforest park.

“When we were walking back, someone says ‘Oh no, we already got 20,000 steps in,’ ” Katy Belokonny said. “This probably isn’t a good choice, but it’s so amazing at the same time.”

The race started in the Yanoda Rainforest Park, a rugged section of the island just shy of 5,000 feet above sea level. Over the next 100 miles, runners would descend to Yalong Bay on the island’s south coast.

Each member of the Clark County team would run three legs totaling about 20 miles. Though the format was similar to American Hood to Coast events, much was different in the Chinese race.

The course was exquisitely marked and secured by a large police presence. During her nighttime leg, Bond noticed groups of police in the dark just off the course, seen only by the red specks of light from their cigarettes.

The checkpoints where teams switched runners were lavish. Many had full buffets of local food, including coconuts with straws to drink their water. Others had professional masseuses and ice baths available to any runner.

“You were being treated like a professional athlete,” Katy Belokonny said.

With little time to train for the event, Katy Belokonny and Bond said they were in decent but not great shape. Along with being jetlagged, Hainan’s hot, tropical climate was a stark contrast to the cold weather the team was used to.

Though there were moments of struggle, the team was happy with how it ran. “Lost in Translation,” as the team was named, finished 44th out of 250 entries, covering the route in 14 hours, 4 minutes and 35 seconds — a pace of roughly 8:30 per mile.

As in the original Oregon race, the team finished together on the beach.

The next day, they were on a plane headed back home. It was a frenzied six-day adventure at the end of a whirlwind month.

Yet, it’s an experience Belokonny, Bond and their teammates will ever forget.

It was also a reminder that people, runners especially, have more in common than different.

“It just was such a grand adventure,” Katy Belokonny said. “I feel like in the type of very normal life that I lead now, I don’t get those adventures where you’re out there. Hard things. Amazing things. Just living life to the fullest.”

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