It’s no secret that Missoula, MT is my favorite place in the world. So, when I found out three years ago that the local running club was planning on putting on a marathon, something that a relatively active community desperately lacked, I jumped right on board. This year marked the third running of the Missoula Marathon and my third time running it. It’s a streak that I don’t plan on breaking anytime soon. If nothing else, it gives me an excuse to go back to Missoula at least once a year. And, as many of you know from last year, I’ve had some success at Missoula.
I honestly didn’t know what to expect from Missoula this year, though. Last year, I tried very hard to keep my goals to myself and then secretly unleashed a Boston qualifying run. This year, I wasn’t being so coy. Now that Boston is out of the way, my running goals have changed and I’ve switched focus from running a fast marathon to just finishing an ultra marathon (the Lean Horse Half Hundred, to be exact). Consequently, my training has changed. Since Boston, I’ve only done two speedwork sessions plus a handful of local 5Ks and 10Ks. Other than that, the majority of my miles have been of the long, slow variety with the goal of teaching my body how to run a long ways rather than run fast. That included running the Bighorn Trail 50K on June 20th and running 18.4 miles and 23.66 miles on back to back days just two weeks before Missoula. But, still, in the timeframe between Boston and Missoula I managed a half marathon PR (1:28:17) at Deadwood-Mickelson and ran the local 4th of July 10K in 40:42, the exact same time I ran there last year just a week before Missoula. So, even though my speedwork was lacking overall, I still had a glimmer of hope that I might be able to squeeze out something close to my 3:09:41 run at Missoula last year. My general plans were to go for a PR if the weather was decent (like in 08) or just get in a nice, easy, long training run for Lean Horse if the weather was blazing hot (like in 07).
This year’s Missoula Marathon trip overall differed significantly from the previous two in that I didn’t go it alone this time. The first two years, I had traveled to Missoula myself and only stayed for a long weekend before heading back to South Dakota. But, this year, we decided to make a family vacation out of it and spend the week after the marathon in Hamilton, MT, where my in-laws live about 40 miles south of Missoula. In addition to me running the full, my cousin John was running his first full, my son Caiden was finishing the kid’s marathon and my wife Shannon was running the full with two of her sisters, Lauren and Kelly.
We left South Dakota on Friday evening, made it three miles before having to wait 35 minutes for road construction and then finally got going at a reasonable pace (i.e. 80 mph), eventually reaching Billings where we spent the night. After visiting friends in Billings on Saturday morning, it was off to Missoula to hit up the expo and make the annual pilgrimage to the Big Sky Brewing Company (for the record, I went there myself…..the kids went and played at the Missoula Carousel). Saturday night, I met up with John and longboat’n (Neil) and four of his high school cross country runners (who were running as a relay team) for dinner at Carino’s. Carino’s has become somewhat of a superstition for me. I’ve eaten my pre-race meal there before 5 of my 12 marathons and never had GI issues during any of those races. I’ve also run 2 PRs and one very near PR (40 seconds short) off of Carino’s.
Getting two kids to sleep in a hotel room when they are all wired up from seeing their aunts and uncles is somewhat of a chore, but eventually we were successful and I managed to sleep reasonably well until my alarm went off at 3 AM. I got up, clumsily downed some coffee, Gatorade and a couple of bagels and then climbed back into bed until it was time to head to the bus loading zone, which was only 2 blocks from our hotel. As I stepped out of the hotel, I though “damn, it’s kinda warm out here”. It certainly didn’t feel like 50s as were predicted, more like 60s.
Upon arriving at the busses, I immediately ran into John and we boarded the first bus to Frenchtown. Although this would be John’s first full marathon (he ran the Missoula half the past two years), he had aspirations of a BQ time (3:10:59). From the sounds of his training paces, he seemed to have the speed to do it, I just wondered if his lack of marathon experience would catch up with him in the late stages. Since we were planning on running roughly the same pace, we figured we would probably run together at least for a little while. The ride to Frenchtown actually went fairly quickly and when we stepped off the bus it was noticeably colder, definitely in the low 50s and the announcer at the start line actually commented that the temperature had just dropped 10 degrees in the last half hour or so. Awesome.
After hitting up the portajohns, John and I found some big rocks to sit on and I started scoping out the starting area for Barkeep (Steve), whom I had drank a significant amount of beer with in Boston. Before long, I located him and the three of us chatted for a bit before it was time to line up for the start. The start of this race always makes me laugh. Rather than firing of a starting pistol, they haul the ROTC cannon out to Frenchtown. This is the same cannon they fire off every time the UM Grizzly football team scores a touchdown, which always makes me want to yell “TOUCHDOWN GRIZ!!!” when I hear it go off. It also always scares the ever-loving crap out of at least ¾ of the runners who apparently didn’t realize that a cannon was about to go off. So, with a blast from the cannon and a gasp from the field of runners, we were off.
It seems like every time I write one of these reports, I break it down in a different way. This time, I’m going for geographical sections of the course. Having run the damn thing 3 times now, I’m starting to become fairly familiar with it:
The marathon starts in the small town of Frenchtown, west of Missoula and follows back roads eastward back to Missoula. The first 9+ miles are all on Mullan Rd. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, but I could really do without this first stretch of this course. It’s just not very scenic. The road is out in the middle of the valley with no trees or really anything else, besides the Smurfit-Stone cardboard plant (which we literally run right under), to look at. And, the fact that you can see Mt. Sentinel and Mt. Jumbo, which lie on Missoula’s eastern edge not far from the finish, from a long ways away makes the whole thing seem very daunting. By the time the 9 miles are up, I’m ready to be on any other road besides this one. Thankfully, the course gets more scenic after we do turn off of Mullan.
In any case, back to the race; I started out feeling pretty good and was laying down a solid pace for the first few miles. John was behind me a ways, but not too far (but also not within talking distance). I kept on trying to find someone to pace off of, but everyone I tucked in behind ended up making me go slower than I was hoping to, so I would pull ahead and try to find someone else. Eventually, I just found myself running alone. There was a stretch where I stopped feeling so good and my stomach felt kind of off and I was thinking that it was way too early to start feeling like this. But, I soldiered on and eventually John pulled up alongside me and we started idly chatting, which actually helped me get back into a groove and we started laying down some solid splits all the way to the turn onto Kona Ranch Road.
1 – 7:02
2 – 6:58
3 – 7:01
4 – 7:05
5 – 7:10
6 – 7:11
7 – 7:12
8 – 7:13
Kona Ranch/Big Flat Roads
Kona Ranch immediately takes you across the Clark Fork River and into the pine trees along the mountainside on the western edge of the Missoula Valley. After a short jaunt on Kona Ranch, the course turns onto Big Flat Road, which is a deceptive name for a road that contains the only significant hill on the entire course. Just past halfway, Big Flat ceases being flat and heads up for a half mile or so before flattening out some with some rollers thrown in and then descending back down another river crossing (the Bitterroot this time). At the bottom of the hill, the full and half marathon courses merge just before crossing the Maclay Flat bridge and entering the western residential area of Missoula.
Every single time I’ve run this marathon this is the stretch where I start to feel the pace taking it’s toll. In 07, it also started getting pretty warm along this stretch, which resulted in me slowing significantly in the final miles. In 08, the pace stopped coming so easily, but I managed to bear down and minimize the pace drift. This time, John and I hit the halfway point together and on pace for a 3:07 finish. Right after we crested the hill, I started pulling away from John and we wouldn’t see each other again until the finish. I slowed on the hill, as expected, but managed to run the next couple of miles at a decent pace. As I was running along the top of the hill, I was feeling pretty damn good and was looking forward to the next few miles. A mile later, I wasn’t feeling so hot and after the course descended down to Maclay Flat, the pace drift began.
10 – 7:08
11 – 7:24
12 – 7:03
13 – 7:12
14 – 7:52
15 – 7:20
After crossing the Bitterroot, the course winds through the western edge of Missoula. Not much to discuss about this section. It’s basically flat, following city streets eastward toward downtown.
I hooked up with another runner along this stretch and chatted for a bit. He was also running his first marathon. He didn’t realize what his Boston qualifying pace was, but when I told him we were close to it, he suddenly seemed interested. However, by this time I was running closer to 7:40 miles so told him if he wanted to go for it, he’d better go on ahead if he could. He could and he did and I never saw him again. The further we went the more my pace slowed even though I felt like I was putting forth the same effort as I had been earlier. I knew by this point that a PR was out of the question. Either my lack of speedwork was catching up to me or I lacked the motivation because the BQ was no longer a primary goal for me. Whatever it was, my pace was slowing markedly and I really had no motivation to push myself to try and stop it from happening. At this point, the race went from a PR effort to a nice, easy long run to help prepare for Lean Horse.
16 – 7:16
17 – 7:44
18 – 7:40
19 – 7:52
20 – 8:14
After a few long stretches of road, the course follows a bike path under Reserve St. and into the main part of Missoula. After this, the course starts turning fairly frequently in order to tack on enough miles to reach 26.2. This section of the course is more shaded than the rest and I actually don’t my the frequent turns because it helps break the course down rather than just running down a long, endless stretch of road. This was where I had my worst moments last year, convinced that I wasn’t going to hold on and qualify. Somehow, I worked through that last year.
This year, I knew the PR was out of the question by this point and it was just a matter of moving forward. I started walking through the aid stations to make sure I downed enough liquid and to give my legs a little break (my calves were getting mighty tight and threatening to cramp up). My pace was drifting really bad, but I didn’t really care. Well, not until I hit mile 25 and realized that if I kicked it into gear I could break 3:20. This was a totally arbitrary goal with no meaning whatsoever, but suddenly it became very important. As I pushed the pace, it did not feel very good at all and at first I thought my legs were going to totally revolt on me, but they didn’t and I chugged forward, figuring that the faster I ran this last mile, the sooner it would be over with. Right around the 26 mile mark, a guy caught up to me and frantically asked me what time I had. I glanced at my Garmin and told him “3:17:14” and asked what time he needed. He said he needed a 3:20 to BQ and asked me to get him there. I said “Okay, let’s go” and sped up around the last turn onto Higgins Ave. We hit the south end of the bridge, with the finish line across the Clark Fork River on the other side, at 3:18:XX and I knew he had it in the bag. He wasn’t so convinced and charged ahead of me. I tried to follow but he was really motivated by that point and outkicked me to the finish. In the end, he got his BQ with time to spare, and I got my arbitrary sub-3:20 with a 3:19:44 finish. Missoula Marathon number three in the books.
21 – 8:14
22 – 8:47
23 and 24– 17:24
25 – 9:08
26.2 – 9:24 (7:43 pace)
Chip Time – 3:19:44
Overall Place – 49th out of 582
AG Place – 8th out of 40
Immediately after finishing I shook the guy’s hand (never got his name) and congratulated him. He thanked me for pacing him (which actually only lasted for one block or so). I met up with my family, got some pictures taken and then congratulated John when he rolled in about 10 minutes behind me. He had suffered from calf cramps during the final miles and although he didn’t get a BQ, he was, and should be, happy with a 3:29 in his first marathon. After that, it was back to the motel to shower and then down to the Iron Horse for the annual post-race lunch/Moose Drool. There, along with the family, I met up again with Neil and Steve and told the obligatory war stories (I’ll let them tell their own versions of it).
Am I disappointed with how things turned out? Not really. I had a sneaking suspicion going into this that it would be asking a lot for my body to bust out a PR given the training I’ve been doing. Marathon PRs and ultra training don’t necessarily mesh well together and I knew that. In the end, it was another great experience and this event just keeps on getting bigger and better, which is great to see. I will say that the competition this year was much stiffer than last year. Case in point, last year there were 3 sub-3 finishers. This year, everyone in the top 10 went sub-3. The winner this year ran a 2:33, ten minutes faster than the old course record he had set in 2007. Last year, I won the 30-34 AG with a 3:09 and the 2nd place guy was 15 minutes behind me. This year, I would have had to run a 2:56 to get THIRD in the same AG. The women’s course record went from the 3:15 set last year to a 2:57 this year. So, while it’s good to see the Missoula Marathon getting some recognition, it does make it harder to take home any hardware.