The first thing I saw when I arrived at the Hudson Bed Races was an ambulance conspicuously positioned at the starting line. There was another one parked ominously near the race’s finish a block away.
Six teams were vying for the glory that comes with shoving a friend down a steep incline in a wheeled bed faster and with less regard for safety than anyone else, and six teams had to sign waiver forms for the pleasure of doing it. This was the third incarnation of the Hudson Bed races, which existed during the late 1980s and again in the early 2000s, but had been a latent tradition until last year.
Rich “Trixie Star” Volo helped resuscitate the event in 2016, and was back at the helm of the gleefully bizarre competition Oct. 21. Most of the teams were comprised of staff from Columbia Memorial Hospital, the event’s main sponsor.
Rich described the bed races as “crazy, like nothing done ever, maybe.”
“It’s just one big, crazy community event that brings people together from all spectrums of Hudson, and people have a good time,” he said the day before the race.
The six bed-creations were parked at the entrance of Promenade Hill Park, with the participants donning team t-shirts, costumes, or scrubs, which strike me as pretty comfortable athletic clothing.
Robert Hoyt was the rider for the Deep Pink team, and sat on a hospital bed festooned with pink ribbons and chiffon, a breast cancer awareness symbol stuck to one of the bed’s side-bars.
Robert projected his voice from under a pair of comically oversized pink glasses as he told me he wasn’t expecting to be a participant in the race.
“[I] knew we were going to have a bunch of guys coming from the hospital, so we came down a little early for moral support, then I kind of got roped into it,” he said.
I asked him if he was nervous for the plunge.
“I’m fine just not to think about it,” he said. “If it’s going to happen, it’s going to happen.”
There was no prize for the Hudson Bed Races, but the winner got “bragging rights at the hospital,” Robert said.
A little after three, the teams got the go-ahead and began trundling their riders down South Front Street towards the starting line, about 200 spectators gathering along the one-block route from Union Street to the Half Moon bar, a dozen-or-so more hanging out of their windows of the adjacent Hudson Terrace Apartments.
Richelle Martin, who helped organize the to-do, said prior incarnations of the bed races were held on Warren Street during a street fair on Columbus Day weekend when the commercial strip was shut down to vehicle traffic. The bed races during the street fair were big affairs, with hundreds of spectators and up to a couple dozen teams, she said.
The 2016 bed races were also held on Warren Street, but Richelle said the race was moved from Warren to South Front Street after merchants complained. Warren Street was better, Richelle said, because pedestrians with no foreknowledge of the race could gather and cheer the teams along.
Last year, a bed done up like a Viking Ship “took out” a spectator near the finish line, Richelle said, so now there was plastic safety fencing along the route’s end to keep hyped-up onlookers from rushing the road.
The six teams competed in heats of two. The four “pushers” (or whatever you would call them in this sport) gripped the side-bars of the beds at the starting line, then, at the fall of a checkered flag, gave the bed a heave and started sprinting it down the incline.
The beds picked up a terrific speed by the time they crossed the finish line, and the pushers strained to skid the contraption to a halt before it collided with a row of hay bales acting as a barrier. Half of the beds dramatically smashed into the hay bales anyway. Participants were required to wear helmets.
After much cheering and shrieking, the races had come down to two teams: Old Greg and Racing Thoughts. At the drop of the flag, the racers pounded down the asphalt with equal vigor, but Old Greg was a good bed-length ahead as the teams crossed the finish line and skidded towards the hay bales.
Both beds rammed through the barrier, and one of the members of Racing Thoughts tumbled over a bale, eliciting a giant, concerned gasp from the sidelines and taking a small chunk out of her knee. Of course, everyone within 20 feet of her was some sort of medical professional, so she was patched up right quick.
Everyone gets an award at the Hudson Bed Races, and Rich Volo announced the winners at the end of the race. The team Just Discharged got “most innovative;” The Man Flu got “best theme;” Racing Thoughts got “best team name;” Deep Pink got “best decorated;” Admin 1 got “most committed looking;” and Old Greg, as well as winning the actual race, got “most unbed-like.”
Jay Cahalan, who, along with being a runner at Saturday’s bed races, is the president and CEO of Columbia Memorial Hospital, said the teams comprised of hospital staff used old hospital beds that were stashed down in the hospital’s Maintenance Department.
“[The beds] were sort of put into our Maintenance Department as no longer being serviceable, so you know, extras laying around that we use for parts and that type of thing, but nothing that could be actually used,” he said.
Except for bed races. Because nothing fun is safe.