This was a prime destination marathon for me. In 2008 I had completed the Grizzly Marathon in Choteau, Montana, to count as the state of Montana in my 50 state quest. I was eager to return to the state because of its magnificent beauty, and the Missoula Marathon seemed like a perfect reason to visit again. It was also the site of the summer 50 State Club reunion meeting, so many 50 State Club members as well as over 120 Marathon Maniacs were planning to attend.
Our flight did not leave until late afternoon on Friday, but we left early enough to make a stop at the Apple store in JAX to replace my nonworking IPhone. It also gave us a chance to have a satisfying lunch at nearby P. F. Chang’s before heading to the airport. We flew direct to Minneapolis and then on to Missoula; we were fortunate enough to be upgraded to first class on both flights. That made our late arrival at almost midnight somewhat more palatable. It took us about 20 minutes to get to our hotel, the DoubleTree Hilton, on the hotel shuttle, and we checked in quickly, grabbed a warm cookie from the stack on the reservation desk, and made our way to our room. I don’t remember too much after that beyond changing my clothes, brushing my teeth, and falling into bed. Sleep came quickly.
I was up at 5 (ever the early riser) and had some coffee in the room while my husband continued to sleep. It was then I noticed that our room has a balcony with a small table and two folding chairs! I never noticed that last night when we arrived. With a full day ahead of us, I woke Darcy up at 6:30 so we could have a quick breakfast at the hotel restaurant before heading out to the Expo which opened at 8 am. A call had gone out earlier on the Marathon Maniacs Facebook page mentioning that the marathon organizers were looking for additional volunteers to help work at the Expo. I had offered to help and was assigned to give out tee shirts and bags from noon to 4. That meant I had to learn the ropes, find my packet, chip, and bib, visit all the booths, and deposit all my stuff back in the room before my shift began.
Fortunately, the Expo was a short walk from the DoubleTree – it was held outdoors in the Caras Park Pavilion, adjacent to the Higgins Avenue Bridge and along the scenic Clark Fork River in the downtown area. Everything was very well organized; racers first looked up their numbers on several big boards, found the associated numbers at the packet pickup table, and were handed an envelope with their chips and ties and bibs. Then participants made their way to the table where I and a dozen other volunteers handed out tee shirts and backpacks that doubled as drop bags. Tee shirts sizes ran very small – we had to field a LOT of complaints about that – but shirt exchanges were only allowed after 1 pm on marathon day. I had requested a medium and it fit, but barely. I enjoyed working at the Expo immensely. It was fun to meet the other volunteers, most of them from around town, and get some pointers on the race course. I also liked the opportunity to ‘give back’ a bit (since I am usually on the receiving end) and it felt really good to help out.
Close by the Expo was a huge farmer’s market, with stands that sold everything from homegrown fruits and vegetables and fresh baked breads and cakes to handmade jewelry and shawls. The vegetables were amazing and if I lived in town I would have stocked up. Darcy and I exercised a good deal of restraint, purchasing only some olive bread, cheese curds, Rainier cherries, and – for me, for after the race – a serving of rhubarb huckleberry crisp (which turned out to be absolutely delicious!).
The Expo itself was not especially large – certainly not the size of those in bigger cities like New York, Boston, or Chicago – but it had a festive flavor and there were booths selling running clothes, shoes, and other paraphernalia as well as tables for the Maniacs and 50 State Club and Jeff Galloway, who was there as speaker and participant. At the Maniacs table I purchased the latest book by fellow Maniac Malcolm Anderson called, appropriately enough, The Marathon Maniacs: The World’s Most Insane Running Club. This is a compilation of essays by Maniacs and my submission, “True Confessions of a Marathon Maniac,” was included in the book so I simply had to buy it. On the trip home, I managed to read the entire book (the book is only 216 pages and it was a long day with 3 flights) and found myself laughing out loud at some of the pieces.
The 50 State Reunion meeting was planned for 3 pm at the Runners Edge store about 3 blocks from the Expo. Since my tour of duty at the Expo was not over until 4, I sent my husband to be my stand-in for me until I could arrive. I was told that he did a wonderful job representing me when it was to be my turn to introduce myself and give my race statistics – so, thank you Darcy! I managed to get there just as the meeting was ending and Dave Bell, Vice-President, introduced me just before the conclusion.
There was no official pasta dinner but lots of good restaurants in town so Darcy and I headed to one of his top picks, the Old Post Pub, where we had some local beer, soft pretzels, beer cheese, and hamburgers. Then it was back to the hotel to get ready for the race.
This race has an early starting time of 6 am and all runners have to be bused to the starting line in French Town, 26.2 miles away. Shuttles started at 4:15 am and continued to make round-trips until 5:15 am. I always like to be on the first bus, so I was up at 2 am for my bread and coffee. I dressed and tried to relax until about 3:45 when we headed out for the 15 minute walk to the bus pickup at the parking garage on Main Street. Volunteers were already out giving directions and the first bus for both races, marathon and half marathon, were ready to take on passengers. It was important to get on the correct bus, since the half marathoners were also bused to the start but their race covers only the last 9 miles of the marathon course. There was little chance for confusion, however, since there were plenty of signs and people to ask. Bus drivers knew exactly where to go. This is not always the case, I’ve found. The Missoula Marathon gets lot of points for superb organization.
On the bus I met Sally from Missoula, a former runner who was planning to walk this race because of knee problems. We chatted a little on the bus and then later ran into each other about midpoint on the course. She had decided that this would be her final marathon (she was 70 years old – although she looked no more than 40) and wanted to concentrate on half marathons from this point on. She was hoping to place in her age group as a good way to finish her marathon career. It turned out that she was first in her age group – way to go, Sally!
We arrived at the starting line about 4:45 and after making a trip to one of the porta potties (there were lots of them, although as the later buses started to arrive, long lines began to form), I found a spot near a building and hovered there trying to keep warm. The temperature was about 48 degrees, cold for me despite my 3 layers of clothing and a cap and hood (plus my hand warmers). As we drew closer to the starting time, my teeth began to chatter and I welcomed the influx of people into the loosely defined corrals – body heat makes a difference. Just before 6 am, a lady sang the national anthem and at 6 on the dot the race began. A beautiful display of fireworks was our starting signal and it was tempting to slow down and watch them. This was not just one bang but a real fireworks display. I had to tell myself to concentrate on the race and start moving instead of watching the pretty colors.
It took my muscles a few miles to warm up but eventually I started my usual relaxed but steady pace. I saw a lot of people I knew, including Larry Macon, Lichu Sloan, and Lois Berkowitz, and then up ahead I recognized my friend Sheila from Canada. As I drew closer, I wondered if she was okay because usually she is way ahead of me. It turns out that around mile 2.5 she felt her energy suddenly disappear; she was still struggling a little and had decided to walk for awhile. We kept each other company for most of the rest of the course. I realized as I walked up the single notable hill at mile 14 that if I slowed down at all, my muscles would tighten and I would be in trouble. I turned around every now and then to make sure Sheila was doing okay (she was – she even stopped occasionally to take some photos, including one of her and two hotties – and I thank her for allowing me to use some of the pictures in this account). Once we got to around mile 18, we managed to stay together until mile 24, and had a good time chatting about good books and races and grandbabies.
At the 24th mile marker, I got a resurgence of energy and moved forward quickly. I was ready to finish the race and get my medal. A big motivator was the blister that was starting to form on my bunion. I was ready to cross the finish line. The final .2 miles was a slight downhill with a lot of spectators still around cheering me on. I finished in 6:03:00, a little slower than my usual sub-6 but still very satisfying to me.
After receiving my giant horseshoe shaped medal and turning in my chip, I gathered some food (pasta salad, cheese sticks, watermelon, bananas, nuts, energy bars, and cookies) and made my way to the photo area. This race offers a free picture of runners against a cool Missoula mountain backdrop and I really wanted to get one but there were computer and printer problems and a long line of people waiting. I decided that needed a shower and nap more than a picture so we opted to return to our room instead. Our evening meal was at the Tamarack Alehouse and Grill and was extremely satisfying and filling.
Several great things make this race stand out:
• The course is relatively flat but not annoyingly so. Sometimes a course that is deadpan flat can cause shin splints and leg strain. Not a problem here. There is one slight hill about midpoint on the course but it is not especially challenging or difficult and the view at the top makes the climb worthwhile
• The scenery is beautiful. Montana is a beautiful state, Missoula is a lovely city, and the entire course is breathtakingly scenic, amazingly so. I wanted to move there. I don’t think I could handle the winter weather but I loved it in July.
• There are not a lot of spectators along the route but there were plenty of people who came out to cheer us on. They were all friendly and welcoming, with positive comments for all of us. I was impressed. Some brought chairs and sat in front of their farms and ranches and houses and rang cowbells and held up signs.
• Aid stations were plentiful. Water and Gatorade divisions were clearly marked and gels were handed out at 3 of the aid stations. At least one or two and sometimes more porta potties were at each aid station.
• I never worried about getting lost. Orange tape on the streets and arrows on signs marked the course and there were lots of volunteers and police. They were polite and helpful. Even though there were occasionally moments when I could not see anyone in front of me, I never doubted I was on course. This is important when you are near the back of the pack.
• The course is open for a generous 7.5 hours. I think that was one reason why I didn’t feel it necessary to push for that under 6 hour finish. It was fun to relax and enjoy the race.
I cannot think of anything negative about this race; it is highly recommended for walkers.