Monday, July 19, 2010

Missoula Marathon Report

Okay, I have a confession. I have a mistress. But it’s cool, because my wife not only knows about it, she’s fine with it. Most of you know about it already too. Her name is Missoula and every July I make a ridiculously long drive to run a less ridiculously long ways there. Heck, my wife even came along and joined in the festivities last year. Jealous, aren’t ya?

Okay, so it’s well established that Missoula, MT is my favorite place in the world and that the Missoula Marathon has become my favorite race. For those that don’t know, I went to college in Missoula and the only thing keeping me from living there is a job (small details). I mean, I guess I could get a gig at McDonald’s and move the family into a trailer park, but somehow I think that would take the luster off my obsession with Missoula. Or, at the very least, it would definitely take the luster off my marriage. So, I was overjoyed when the Missoula Marathon was created back in 2007, providing me with a perfectly valid excuse to go back at least once every year. It doesn’t hurt that the Missoula Marathon has developed into a damn fine event and was also the site of my one and only BQ run (which is still my PR) back in 2008. All the more reason to run the race every July.

One interesting thing about the Missoula Marathon is that it draws people in from a much wider area than you would expect of a relatively small race in a relatively out of the way location. Other than Boston, where I met a bajillion forumites all at once, I’ve met more forumites at Missoula than at any other race. This year was no different as I enjoyed a pre-race meal and post-race beers/lunch (both of which have become traditions….dinner at Carino’s, beer at the Iron Horse) with Neil and Mike, although I guess I had met most everyone previously. Neil and I have both been present at all four Missoula Marathons and I first met Mike there two years ago. This year, I also got a chance to talk a bit with Sam, who I think I might’ve met in Boston in 2009, but it was a fleeting intro (there were a lot of people to meet). We actually got to talk a little bit this time, although he had to skip out on lunch to catch a plane in Spokane that he ended up not catching….might as well have stayed in Missoula, Sam!

This year I was approaching Missoula with a more casual attitude than my previous three visits. I had no aspirations of a BQ or a PR, I was just looking to put in a solid long run that would allow me to recover quickly and continue on with my training for the Lean Horse 100. In the spirit of ultra training, and as a way of ensuring that I wouldn’t try to do anything stupid on race day, I went for a 10.2 mile trail run in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area on Saturday morning, the day before the race. I used to hike in the Rattlesnake with my dog quite a bit when I was in college, but I wasn’t a runner back then, so this was my first time running them. I’ll just say they gave me one more reason to wish I lived in Missoula; there are some pretty sweet trails up there and I barely even scratched the surface on my 10 mile loop.

I spent the rest of Saturday hanging out at the expo, watching my cousin John’s son finish the kid’s marathon, making my mandatory visit to the Big Sky Brewing Company for some free samples and cruising around the University of Montana campus. Eventually I did sit down and chill for a bit, but I was on my feet for much longer than I would normally be the day before a marathon.

The forecast was looking pretty typical for Missoula in July. Pretty damn hot during the afternoon, cooling off significantly overnight. As we sat in Frenchtown waiting for the start, the announcer said it was 55 degrees. By the time I finished, it was probably in the mid to upper 60s and eventually reached the mid 80s that afternoon. Probably about as well as you can hope for when you register for a marathon smack dab in the middle of summer.

Mike and I had made plans to run with the 3:30 pace group. Sam was pacing the 3:50 group, so our ultimate goal was to not let him catch us, no matter what. My cousin John also decided to run with the group, so we lined up together in the mass of humanity (the race doubled in size after being named by Runner’s World as the best overall marathon in the country last year) at the start line. As usual, the ROTC cannon fired and at least half the field damn near crapped their pants. Then they started running.

Frenchtown to Kona Ranch Road (Miles 0 to 9.4)

This first stretch takes you across open fields near the western edge of the Missoula Valley. Across the valley, at what seems like 100 miles away, you can see Mt. Sentinel and Mt. Jumbo, which butt up against the east side of Missoula and are fairly near the finish. Running 26.2 miles always seems pretty far, but when you can actually see just how far, it makes it seem even more daunting. The first 9+ miles are all on Mullan Road and I’m always happy when they’re over. Nothing against Mullan Road and its residents, but that’s just a long ways to run in one straight direction.

The 3:30 pace took off a little hot and Mike, John and I had to beat feet to catch up with him, which we finally did just before the first mile marker. One of the problems with this race (yes, I will admit there are problems) is the mile markers along Mullan Road. Every year a few of them are off significantly. Our pacer wasn’t running with a Garmin, just a watch, so he was trying to pace according to the splits between markers. You’ll see by the splits that that was difficult and, ultimately, we were running a little too fast for 3:30 pace (8:00/mile).

Mile 1 – 7:40
Mile 2 – 8:09
Mile 3 –7:57
Mile 4 – 7:59
Mile 5 – 8:07 (I stopped at a portajohn to take a leak somewhere in here)
Mile 6 – 7:36
Mile 7 – 8:08
Mile 8 – 6:45 (the pacer actually looked at me and John here and said “is that right??”; no, it wasn’t)
Mile 9 – 7:47

Kona Ranch Road to River Pines Road (Miles 9.4 to 15.6)

After finally turning off of Mullan Road and onto Kona Ranch Road, you hit what I think is the most scenic part of the course. Kona Ranch takes you across the Clark Fork River and then on to Big Flat Road (which includes the only significant hill….go figure). Big Flat takes you up along the hillside into the pine trees with view of the river and the valley beyond it below. What goes up must come down, so Big Flat drops you to River Pines, where the full and half marathon courses merge.

At some point before Kona Ranch, Mike had dropped off the pace a little and John and I continued to run alongside the pacer. Shortly after making the turn onto Kona Ranch, Mike suddenly pulled back up alongside me, but then dropped back again. Just past mile 11 or so, the pacer started to realize that he was going too fast for 3:30 and dropped back a little. John and I kept pushing at the same pace for awhile, but eventually John pulled away as we neared the hill. I pushed and eventually caught back up with John and two other guys he was running with just after we topped the hill and ran with them to the aid station at the bottom.

Mile 10 – 7:31
Mile 11 – 7:57
Mile 12 – 7:49
Mile 13 – 7:24 (made a little push before the hill)
Mile 14 – 8:12 (up the hill)
Mile 15 – 7:25 (down the hill)

River Pines Road to Reserve Street (Miles 15.6 to 20.3)

Immediately after descending the hill, you cross the Bitterroot River and enter the residential area on the western edge of Missoula. From here, the course follows city streets with some long, straight stretches that sometimes feel like they’re taking forever (although they’re really much shorter than the Mullan Road section).

After crossing the river, I was still in a loose group with John and a few other people. But, the pace was starting to feel a little bit faster than I really wanted to go. I had said before the race that I wanted to go no faster than 3:30 and we were ahead of the 3:30 group by this time and pushing further forward (we crossed the halfway point at about 3:23 pace). I thought it would be cool to run the entire race with my cousin and cross the finish line together, but ultimately I didn’t want to feel like hell afterwards and I had a suspicion that continuing at this pace would lead to just that. So, I backed off and let the group go on ahead. As a result, I ended up running the rest of the race by myself. Occasionally, someone would pass me and I would pass someone else, but I never really ran with anyone the rest of the way.

Mile 16 – 7:41
Mile 17 – 7:54
Mile 18 – 7:52
Mile 19 – 8:12
Mile 20 – 8:04

Reserve Street to the Finish (Miles 20.3 to 26.2)

Just after mile 20, the course passes under Reserve Street into what could be considered the central residential area of Missoula. More city street running, although in this area the straight stretches are shorter and there are more turns, which helps break things up a little. Also, there are more trees, so more shade, and there were a ton of people who had their sprinklers set out to run through if you wanted to (it really wasn’t that hot, but still a nice option). Eventually you run north through the neighborhood bordering the UM campus and then make a relatively quick series of four turns that deposit you onto the south end of the Higgins Avenue bridge with the finish just across the Clark Fork River on the north end. The city closes this stretch of Higgins for the race, so there are tons of spectators lining the final stretch and once you get on the bridge, it’s a nice gradual downhill for the last 0.1 or so. Like Mike said to me later, it’s not really enough to have a significant impact on your overall time, but it does at least make you feel fast as you cross the finish.

There’s not really much to say about this section other than that out of four Missoula Marathons, this year I felt the best on this stretch. Technically, this is only the third year the marathon has followed this route; for the first one the final 6 miles and finish line were different. The new route is much better (more shaded), but I suffered some each of the last two years running it. In 2008, I was pushing for a BQ and was not feeling all that super during the final miles. Last year, I was pushing for a PR early on, but started suffering just past halfway and was hurting pretty bad by the time I passed under Reserve. This year was the first time I was able to run this stretch and not be in total agony the entire way. Sure, I was tired, but it was a manageable tired.

Mile 21 – 8:28 (I had a goal of not running any miles 8:30 or slower; came close a couple of times)
Mile 22 – 8:10
Mile 23 – 8:13
Mile 24 – 8:27
Mile 25 – 8:20
Mile 26 – 7:35
Mile 26.2 – 1:33

Chip Time – 3:27:12
Overall Pace – 130 out of 1276
AG Place – 12 out of 91

John finished almost exactly 2 minutes ahead of me in 3:25:16. He was also one spot ahead of me in the AG rankings. I woulda been kicking myself for that one if we had been 3rd and 4th. As for Mike and Sam, well, I’ll let them tell their own stories (actually Sam’s is already posted on his Operation Jack blog).

So, that’s my second marathon as a training run during this training cycle for Lean Horse. The first was a 3:38 at Deadwood in June and I was able to bounce right back from that one and continue training. Would running 11 minutes faster change that? Well, it doesn’t appear so. I had minimal soreness yesterday during the long drive home and ran 9 miles this morning just like it was any regular ole training run. So it doesn’t appear that I pushed too hard after all. Crazy, considering that not so long ago I had to push myself to the brink to break 3:30 in the marathon.

Oh, and I have to share my story of a totally random post-race encounter. As I was standing in Caras Park (just below the finish line, along the river) enjoying my free post-race Moose Drool, a guy walks up to me and says “Are you Chris Stores?” Now, I have no idea who this dude is, but I say “yeah”. Turns out, we lived next door to each other in the dorm our freshman year of college. As soon as he said his name, I knew who it was, but I have no clue how he knew who I was (I’ve lost 60 pounds since then….all he did was cut his hair). He mentioned casually that he had run the half marathon that morning, but didn’t say any more about it. Later that evening, Neil gives me a call and informs that not only did my former dorm neighbor run the half marathon, he WON the half marathon in 1:11. Small details.

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