• Mitch Blatt

Hood to Coast: running toward leadership

by Mitch Blatt

Life can be kind of a funny teacher—we have an experience, and learn what to do or what not to do in that experience next time. But we can also extend those lessons and apply them to any area of our life.

Take Steve Hanamura. He and his wife Becky used to be heavily involved in Portland, Oregon’s annual Hood To Coast relay, a nearly 200-mile run known as “the Mother of All Relays.” In fact, Steve ran the relay for 29 years, and his company Hanamura Consulting sponsored the team for 25 years—they had an excellent run (pun intended).

And, oh yeah, Steve’s been blind since the day he was born.

Born in 1944, Steve was enrolled in a school for the blind near the University of

California, Berkley at four and a half years old; all the while, his parents and brother lived in Los Angeles. Public schools back then wouldn’t accept blind students, so kids “came from all over the State [to schools like the one Steve attended]—today, if your children have a disability they could still live at home [and attend a local school]. In those days kids came from across the bay in San Francisco, Sacramento, and farther south, [from] Fresno and Tulare and Delano, and LA and Long Beach; we came from all over so we could get an education.” The separation was hard on them all. “Now, Mom's heart, when I think back about Mom and Dad,” Steve says, “oh, my god, it must have been equally as hard on them as it was on me. And one time I said, ‘Why do we have to do this?’ You know what Mom's answer was? ‘Because we love you.’ They had a vision for their son.”

Steve struggled in school, but was drawn to the game of baseball. It took him a while to find a teacher that connected with him. “I was a mess!” he says, “It's amazing I got through school, I mean it really is. [...] In fact, I was so horrible, they flunked me in the first grade.” The Superintendent was flummoxed. Fortunately for them both, around 1952, the second-grade teacher intervened and connected learning braille to baseball.

“So she gets me in class. The class would read and write braille. Meanwhile I'm off doing play-by-play baseball by myself—‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen, welcome to today's game!’ And finally, one day she stopped the class—by then I'd fallen in love with baseball, so I knew baseball lineups: the Dodgers and the Giants were not yet on the west coast, nor the Mariners. Brooklyn Dodgers, New York Yankees…I had memorized the games [and] players. So, ‘Stephen?’ said [the teacher], ‘if you don't learn braille, you can't do play-by-play and read the commercials in between innings.’ I said I could do that, and she said, ‘Not unless you learn braille.’ And so I went from the back of the class to the top of the class by the end of that year. I was the second-fastest braille reader in the blind school by the time I left, but I sat two years in the first grade, one year in kindergarten, not doing braille, rocking back and forth, had my fingers in my eyes—very unhappy.”

This was a major turning point in Steve’s life. His love of sport, of baseball, started him on the road to Hood to Coast and a life of athleticism.

High school PE pushed him further.

“Back in the day,” Steve says, “blind students were segregated, people with disabilities were not in public schools. The class that saved me at the blind school was PE. We had a PE instructor who was rigorous. We had a hard workout every day and it included climbing a 16 foot rope, and I was able to do that both straight up, and then we had to do it hand over hand—that means you couldn't use your legs—and I could climb that rope hand over hand, or when I climbed it regular I could do it in 4.2 seconds, 16 foot, as a kid. And then we had to do pullups, so I would do 30 pull-ups. But the other activity was running, and oh, man! It was called ‘running the road’, and there were hills, and we were wasted [worn out]. But I loved it. Oh, my gosh! That was my favorite class of the whole thing. [Steve had] lots of low self-esteem in those days. but PE was my shining moment.”

He was interested in many sports and was introduced to playing baseball, basketball and football throughout his school career. Steve and his teammates innovated an unconventional way to win at football when all the players are blind. “Blind Man's Football is a trip, man, cause [of] the collisions [that happen during matches], and, [...] there was a guy—in fact, I still talk to him today. His name is John Kavanaugh. John is 6 feet tall. We could never stop him. I'm on the wrong team, it’s 40 to nothing, and I call timeout. We're in the fourth quarter. I said, ‘guys, we gotta stop him once. Here's the plan.’ I don't know how well you know football, but [in] football, we have different defensive alignments. Sometimes you have 4 men up front, and then you have middle linebackers and you have defensive backs. I said ‘Everybody up front, all 11 of us on the front line; when they snap the ball, lay down and they'll trip over us’, and my plan worked. We got him! We were horrifically beaten up, but boy, we loved it, and we had a big laugh about it that night at dinner. Sports and PE were quite frankly my savior.”

Steve says that his parents “had a vision for their son.” The distance between them was hard for him and hard for his parents, but it was his learning braille and how to succeed in school that propelled him forward. Steve was able to build a career that allowed him to travel to see his family. “They're gone now. Their son, nevertheless, was a community college counselor. He worked in government, and he had a 35 year consulting career, so I guess their plan worked.”

Thirty-five years. Steve’s been consulting for thirty-five years! And he was able to apply the things he learned from Hood to Coast to every one of his consulting seminars.

“Hood to Coast was a huge part of how I got to do the work. No, no, actually it's very timely, running, because I got to be [on a] team. I was accepted. I was a team member. I ran it 29 times. Twenty-five of those years, we sponsored a team, and I was team captain those years, and it was the epitome experience of what it means to be included, even though I’m a person with a disability. In other words, I was part of a team and [would use] a bungee cord [while running] […] I hold one end, a sighted person holds the other end…now, the way I was able to teach leadership principles, the number one instruction is ‘give instructions in a timely manner.’ That leader had to give me instructions in a timely manner, running Hood to Coast. Up; down; swish the bungee cord, which means ‘get behind me because there's a pole coming up in front of you.’ That had to happen in instantaneous seconds, you don't always have time to call it out verbally, so there were signals. Hood to Coast was a huge part [of his consulting work]. I wrote about Hood to Coast. I used Hood to Coast in my seminars. Wrote about Hood to Coast in our book called I Can See Clearly, and its connection to the workplace. We even made a film documentary about Hood to Coast, and then I taught leadership principles off of that—although the film director over-sensationalized me, and that was not the purpose. I wanted to teach leadership principles—the role of the captain, yes, but the role of the team [also]. So Hood to Coast has been a dominant part of my life. Oh, my goodness! In fact, I talked about it in every seminar speech just about ad nauseum.”

He elaborates on this connection, saying that “You gotta train your sighted person how to run with you, and then you put your life in their hands, basically, and you really do when you're out there, especially with all those cars out there. And sometimes you gotta make split second decisions…So the sighted guide really has to be on it all the time, right? But I have to follow the instructions quickly, right? That's also important. [...] the bungee cord, it has to have a little give to it. I don't know even who gave me the idea, but, boy, that's an important tool. I'll tell you what, let me say it this way. The bungee cost me $2, but it's a 1 million dollar value. It probably would cost today 6 or 8 bucks, way too expensive. $2 is beautiful, and you use it to tie things onto your luggage rack, right? But for me it was the difference between life and death, and even bigger than that, inclusion. Inclusion is a big word today in the workplace. I used Hood to Coast to teach inclusion principles in the marketplace, and leadership, and followership, and team building. Do you see what I’m saying? That's what's so beautiful about Hood to Coast, because it embodies all those different classes I could teach; it wouldn't even matter which class I'm teaching, I could still use Hood to Coast and just change the backdrop: ‘I wrote an article about 6 attributes of effective teams. I wonder where that came from? Oh, an experience called Hood to Coast.’ ‘5 principles of leadership. Some of those principles were driven by my experience in Hood to Coast.’”

He didn’t just learn from Hood to Coast, he changed it. Relay teams would come in two vans, Van 1 and Van 2. “When we started doing Hood to Coast [...], people just showed up and sometimes runners would leave. So I said ‘If you're gonna run on my team, there's some other requirements. You have to come to the team dinner on Thursday night, and everybody has to go up to the top of the mountain on Friday morning, even if you're in Van 2. Van 1, when you're done, you still have to wait, and we cross the finish line together.’ Nobody was doing that then, we started it. [...] We started the whole thing about ‘everybody crosses the finish line together’, and I said on my team, ‘if you’re gonna run with us, you gotta hang till the [end]. On our team, you gotta come to the team dinner, and you have to be able to come to the team breakfast on Sunday morning after the race. If you can't do that, you can't be on our team.’ So then, whole teams are going across the finish line. Few years later, you saw a mixture of 4, 6, maybe 10 teams going across, and now it's become a norm, hasn't it? [...] We were the first team to start this ‘run across the finish line’ thing, and it caught on, and now it’s become the norm of Hood to Coast. And it just happened. People saw it—slowly, but surely, you saw it, and all of a sudden it became the norm.”

As of now, Steve’s retired from both running Hood to Coast and from consulting, explaining that “it was just time [to stop running].” He still exercises regularly and runs with his running partner, Julie Lukesh.

Steve’s marathon through life began with parents visualizing a plan for their child to succeed despite his disability, and teachers willing to engage his interests, and lead to his future career, consulting and supporting many organizations and individuals along the way, learning and imparting valuable lessons from the many Hood to Coast relays he enjoyed. His team came up with the idea to have every team member attend the team meals, arrive at the starting line on the top of Mt Hood together, and cross the finish line together—basically, fully commit to being a team—which spread like wildfire through the rest of Hood to Coast. He spearheaded a transformation in Hood to Coast’s community, and applied those experiences to the consulting world. Of the famous Mother of All Relays, he says, “I've been blessed; over 20 years of being able to do it? Shoot! That's what you give thanks for, right?”

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