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Missoula Race Report - The LLLOOONNNGG Version

Posted Jun 13 2009 12:05am
“Eventually, all things merge into one and a river runs through it.”

So, here we go again…. If you read my Fargo report a couple of months back, you know what you’re in for here. If not, here’s the synopsis: A lot of senseless and pointless babble followed by some race stats. Again, I encourage you to skip ahead as necessary.

I included a film reference in my Fargo report, so I feel compelled to do that here also. A River Runs Through It just so happens to be one of my favorite movies, and books, of all time. It also just so happens to take place in Missoula, MT (the movie does anyhow, most of the book is actually set in Helena, but that’s a discussion for a different forum). Like the movie Fargo increasing the general awareness of the city of Fargo (possibly in a not so good way….watch the movie), A River Runs Through It most definitely threw Missoula and western Montana into the spotlight, especially amongst fly fishermen (or, in many cases, wannabe fly fishermen). In fact, many western Montanans now refer to the area as “A Realtor Runs Through It” due to the influx of out-of-staters looking to grab a piece of paradise at relatively cheap prices (for them anyhow). In any case, the story is Norman Maclean’s semi-autobiographical tale of two brothers who led two different lives but were bonded by fly fishing while growing up under the stern but caring hand of their Presbyterian minister father in the Missoula of the 1910s and 1920s. All of the quotes in this report are from the movie or book.

I just so happen to be a native Montanan and lived in Missoula for four years while obtaining my bachelors degree from The University of Montana. I left Missoula the day after graduation to set about finding gainful employment and have been trying to get back there ever since. Unfortunately, a job opportunity that would allow me to do so has yet to present itself, but I do take every chance I get to visit (my in-laws live 40 miles to the south). Missoula is my favorite place in the world and, rest assured, when I do move back there I don’t intend to ever leave again.

The Missoula Marathon was not in my plans for 2007 until sometime in May. This was partly because the marathon did not exist before this year and I didn’t learn of it’s birth until sometime early in the year. By the time I learned of the existence of the Missoula Marathon I had already made plans to run Fargo in May and had been focusing on that as my main goal race of the year. Now, many people will tell you that running is a cheap hobby, which is relatively true. But, as you all know, marathoning is NOT a cheap hobby. Hotels, registration, gas (or airfare), and food all add up. Unfortunately, I’ve got a house and the above-mentioned education to pay off before I have the expendible funds required to run a marathon wherever and whenever I damn well please. So, I had settled on Fargo being my big trip of the year (coupled with a side trip to grandma’s house) and then a local marathon (Crazy Horse) in the fall. Then, just a couple of weeks before Fargo, my father-in-law, in all his saintliness and totally out of the blue, offered to “sponsor” me to run the inaugural Missoula Marathon by paying for my registration and, more importantly, the gas money necessary to propel my 13 miles per gallon, gas sucking, 1992 F-150 the 608 miles from Belle Fourche, SD to Missoula and back (if said truck cooperated…more on that later). The only catch was that I had to bring back a load of my sister-in-law’s junk (I mean, valuable possessions) in preparation of her moving in with us in August before starting college at nearby Black Hills State. Let’s see….free registration, free gas, free lodging, free food and a marathon in my favorite place in the world? SOLD!!

Race Prep

The only dilemma I had with running Missoula was what exactly my goal was going to be. I left Fargo with an 11 minute PR that brought me within 8 minutes of a BQ. With only 8 weeks between Fargo and Missoula I wasn’t sure how quickly my body would recover and, consequently, how many quality workouts I would get in. I knew that I wasn’t going to go for a 3:10 in Missoula, but should I go for a PR? If so, how big of one? Or, should I just play it safe and enjoy myself rather than risk pushing too hard and crashing in a race that I REALLY wanted to run. I used Pfitz’s “8 weeks between marathons” plan, which gave me 3 weeks of recovery, 3 weeks of training, and 2 weeks of taper. Included in that time span were three races: a local 4 miler that featured a whopping six other runners and that I won by nearly 12 minutes without pushing myself, a 5K where I attempted to go sub-20 for the first time in 100 degree heat and came up 35 seconds short, and a 10K eleven days before Missoula where I intended to run at marathon pace but ended up running about 30 seconds/mile faster and finished 9th out of 73 overall and 3rd in my AG. Also included in that 8 weeks was one night of puking more than I can really remember ever puking in my life (I’m talking volume, not number of times) even including my prodigious beer-drinking college days in Missoula. That one-night bout with the flu bug came just two days before the previously-mentioned 10K. Whether it affected my 10K results is hard to say, but I felt great the day of that race and during the race, so any effects were probably negligible. About three weeks before Missoula, the organizers announced that they would have pacers, including one for a goal time of 3:19. I had used running with the 3:20 pace group in Fargo to great advantage so I was excited by this news. I decided then that I would start off with the 3:19 group and if things went well I would be in position to better my 3:18:53 PR from Fargo. If it wasn’t my day, then I would drop from the group at the appropriate time with the secondary goal of not getting passed by the 3:29 group.

The Voyage

Unlike Fargo, this trip was a solo one. My wife, who operates her own home daycare, doesn’t have the luxury of copious amounts of annual leave like I do. Simply put, if she doesn’t work, she doesn’t get paid (she’ll also argue that, being a government employee, I get paid to do not much of anything every day even when I am at work, but she’s just jealousJ). On the other hand, if I don’t use all of my annual leave, they take some of it away, so basically I get encouraged to not show up for work every once in awhile. So rather than having her take two days off of work and subjecting our own two kids to a total of about 20 hours in the car, I set off for Missoula on my own on Friday the 13th (cue creepy music). Now, remember earlier when I alluded to the possibility of my decrepit old truck not making it to Missoula? Flash forward to about 11:00 AM Friday. I’m cruising along I-90 between Park City and Columbus, MT (just west of Billings), almost exactly halfway to Missoula when I see a rest stop ahead. I’d been hydrating and could use a quick stop in the men’s room, so I pull off. As I pull into the parking lot, my truck dies. Just flat out quits running and absolutely refuses to restart. It acts like it’s out of gas, but the fuel gauge says ¾ tank. I try several times to start it, thinking that it’s GOTTA just be some kind of cruel joke and that God is having a grand ole time watching me. When that doesn’t work, I cuss….a lot (sorry God). Hopefully I didn’t scare anyone else at the rest area. I manage to calm myself down and pull out my cell phone, which is showing a big fat zero bars. Great. I try anyway and dial 411 to get the number for a tow truck in Columbus, about 10 miles away. Miraculously, the call goes through and I get a hold of the towing place, which doubles as a mechanic shop (and knowing Montana, probably the post office, mayor’s office, doctor and veterinarian too). I tell the guy my situation and he says it’s probably my fuel pump going bad. That’s actually good news because my truck has two fuel tanks, so I should be able to just switch over to the other tank. But, how’s this for irony, the other tank is totally empty because I had already used it. So, the tow truck heads out and I sit and wait. By the time he shows up about 20 minutes later, I’ve actually managed to get my truck started and running again (who ever said that cussing and hitting never solved anything?) so the driver agrees to follow me into Columbus so I can fill my other tank and if I break down again on the way he’ll load me up. I make it all the way to Columbus, but as I’m pulling onto the off-ramp, just 100 yards from the truck stop my truck dies again. The tow truck driver says. “Aw hell, I can just push you from here.” So, he nudges the front bumper of his truck against the rear bumper of mine and gives me a push into the truck stop, which probably got a laugh out of more than a few other travelers who witnessed it. Once at the truck stop, I was able to fill my good tank, give my thanks (and a $30 service charge) to the tow truck driver, and I was on my way again. The rest of the of the trip was blissfully uneventful….the second fuel pump held out and I was actually able to switch over to the bad one once I got up to speed and use up the rest of that fuel too.

Back in Missoula

I mentioned already that my father-in-law was footing the bill for this one and had offered his place 40 miles south of Missoula as lodging. But, upon learning that he wasn’t even going to be around that weekend (he’s a long haul trucker and consequently is rarely actually at home, especially now that all of his kids are grown), I decided to crash with one of my cousins who just so happens to spend his summers in Missoula (after spending the majority of the year in the Alaska bush). My cousin, John, was coincidentally planning on running the half marathon in Missoula, something I didn’t learn about until I went fishing with my Uncle Russ (John’s dad) for a few days in Minnesota right after Fargo. Also coincidentally, John’s wife and son were out of town for the weekend, so we were both suddenly all alone in the world (cue sad music).

Now, I have to give a plug for, in my totally biased opinion, one of the greatest bands of all time: Russ Nasset and the Revelators. Chances are, no one who is reading this has ever heard of them. Russ is the above-mentioned fishing partner uncle and John’s dad. Uncle Russ sings and plays guitar while John’s identical twin Sam also plays guitar and provides background vocals in one of Missoula’s most popular local bands. They play a brand of bluesy, old school country rock and honky-tonk. If you’re so inclined, check out their MySpace page. I watched them play several times at bars around Missoula when I was going to school there. They also rocked my wedding reception something fierce, but I haven’t had the opportunity to see them since. So, I was giddy with excitement when I learned that they were playing in Missoula the night of the 13th. After relaxing at John’s for awhile and hooking up with my mom and stepdad, who had made the 5 hour drive over from my hometown of Chester, we were off to watch the Revelators rock the house. It was righteous.

Marathon Eve

Saturday was expo day and a chance to check out some of the old haunts around Missoula including the University, Worden’s Market (makers of the best sandwich in the world), and the Big Sky Brewing Company (makers of Moose Drool, Summer Honey and Powder Hound, three of the best beers in the world). I was severely tempted to hike up to the “M”, which sits midslope on Mt. Sentinel about a half mile above the UM campus and offers a spectacular view of Missoula and the surrounding valley and mountains, but didn’t want to subject my legs to the abuse the day before the marathon. Plus, it was hotter than dog snot with the high temp hitting 103. I ended up having breakfast with my ma and stepdad before driving most of the course and then heading to the Big Sky Brewing Company, where I was shocked to find a dry-fit shirt with the Moose Drool logo emblazoned on it. It was, quite simply, something I absolutely could not pass up and I decided then and there that I would commit one of the cardinal sins of marathoning: never try anything new the day of the race. Wearing that Moose Drool shirt at the Missoula Marathon was just too good to pass up.

After the brewery trip, my mom and I hit the expo, which was pretty small and slightly unorganized (no signs delineating half-marathon or marathon packet pickup, which caused some confusion). I eventually got my packet, which was fairly unimpressive. In a first for me, although I understand that other races do it, the race shirt wasn’t included in the packet, but would instead be given out at the finish line. More incentive to not quit, I guess.

From there, I decided I’d had enough of the heat so I headed back to cousin John’s place where he and I had an unofficial contest to see who could pee the most in one afternoon. I’ve never drank so much water in one day in my entire life, but the forecast wasn’t calling for any let up in the heat, so I wanted to be as prepared as possible. We ventured out to Johnny Carino’s (the same place where I ate my pre-Fargo meal) to get some spaghetti and then retreated back to John’s place to guzzle some more water. Upon returning from dinner, I jumped onto the RT forum to check out the traffic and noticed a private message from longboat’n (Neil) announcing that OreSka (Juan, a runango forum regular) had decided to run Missoula at the last minute and that they were both in town. Obviously, it was too late to meet them for dinner, but I called Neil and left a message so that we could meet sometime before or after the race. Neil ended up calling me later and said that he was just spectating, but gave me Juan’s description so I could attempt to find him at the start line. After another bottle or two of water, I was off to bed by 9:30 and slept remarkably well (except for getting up to go to the bathroom).

“In Montana, there’s four things we’re never later for: church, work, fishing and running.”

I was up at 3:45 to give me time to get dressed (the Moose Drool shirt actually felt very light and soft), eat some breakfast (a bagel and some instant oatmeal), drink yet more water, and drive downtown to meet the shuttle bus. I got there in time to hop on the first bus, which hauled us west on I-90 to the small town of Frenchtown, where the race started. From there, we would follow backroads eastward back to Missoula, eventually finishing on the Orange Street bridge downtown.

Right after getting off the bus, I used the portajohn, which was a good move because as more people arrived, the lines became very long. I also set about finding Juan. Neil had told me that he was “fairly short with a red beard”. Sounds easy enough. I spotted a likely candidate, walked up to him and said, “Are you Juan?” He said, “No, I’m Tyler.” I said, “Oh, sorry, I’m looking for a fairly short guy with a red beard.” He laughed and said, “That describes a lot of marathoners around here.” Good point, Tyler. I wandered around some more, chatted for awhile with some people, but never did manage to locate Juan. I also never managed to locate the 3:19 pace group, because, well, there wasn’t one. The fastest group they actually had was 3:29. There was no explanation as to why the 3:19 pacer wasn’t there, they just weren’t. So, it looked like I was gonna have to go it alone.

Promptly at 6:30, they lined all 470 of us up (it didn’t really seem like that many people, but that’s what they’re claiming) for the start. The organizers had mentioned on-line and in the race instructions in the race packet that the start would be signaled by the ROTC cannon. Now, I’m very familiar with the cannon because I’ve been to many a Grizzly football game and they fire it off after every Grizzly touchdown and the Grizzlies are pretty good so they score quite a bit. But, apparently, other folks either didn’t get the message or didn’t really understand what “cannon” meant, because when that thing went off, at least half of the crowd jumped back and gasped and probably a quarter of those almost soiled themselves. It also probably woke up at least half the town of Frenchtown bright and early on a Sunday morning thinking that Al-Quaida was making their move. I bet the letters to the editor are pouring in…. Eventually, everyone gathered themselves enough to start running and we were off.

“…all good things, trout as well as eternal salvation, come by grace and grace comes by art, and art does not come easy.”

Miles 1-9

This first stretch followed Mullan Road from Frenchtown southeast toward the western edge of Missoula. The first several miles were very bland and really not very scenic (at least not to me). Sure, you could see the mountains across the valley, but we were running right by trailer parks and the big Smurfit-Stone processing plant. It was also virtually treeless, so no shelter, but it was still fairly cool (low to mid 60s) along this stretch, so that wasn’t much of a factor. After awhile, I just wanted to be done with Mullan Rd. and get to a more scenic part of the course, which I knew was coming. The field spread out remarkably fast…within the first couple of miles a fast group had charged forward and a slow group had formed behind me and I was left basically all by myself in the middle. I felt good on this opening stretch and was laying down some pretty good, consistent splits:

Mile 1 – 7:33
Mile 2 – 7:30
Mile 3 – 7:38
Mile 4 – 7:36
Mile 5 – 7:33
Mile 6 – 7:41
Mile 7 – 7:37
Mile 8 – 7:35
Mile 9 – 7:36

Miles 10-15

Finally, we turned off of Mullan Rd. and crossed the Clark Fork River for the first time as we ran along the foot of the mountains on the west side of the Missoula Valley. Consequently, there were some pine trees for shade, which was good because it was warming up rapidly. My bladder had been talking to me since about mile 2 and I had been trying to ignore it but just before halfway I couldn’t take it anymore and pulled off to the side of the road to water some thorn bushes. Right after that business was taken care of, I was off and running up the only hill of the course. Now, the organizers have touted this course as flat and fast with just one hill. Well, that “just one hill phrase” can be misleading. The Pikes Peak marathon has “just one hill” too. Of course, the Missoula hill is nowhere as extreme as Pikes Peak, but it was still enough to mark the beginning of the end for me. After a sharp incline, the course leveled off briefly before climbing again and then continuing to climb seemingly without end. Here’s some more irony: The road with the hill on it is called Big Flat Road. If it were up to me, they’d change it’s name to Neverending Hill Road. In all, that one hill took up a good two miles of the course and my splits went to hell in a handbasket.

Mile 10 – 7:44
Mile 11 – 7:33
Mile 12 – 7:43
Mile 13 – 8:01 (bathroom break)
Mile 14 – 8:20 (uphill)
Mile 15 – 8:03 (uphill)

Miles 16 – 23

These miles took us down the hill and back across the Clark Fork River and into the city of Missoula. After the hill, I was seriously doubting my chances of being able to recover and still come in around 3:20. Just as I started the descent back toward the river, a guy who had been following me for awhile finally pulled alongside me. As he eased by I noticed that he was short with a red beard and that his hat mentioned some town in Oregon. I decided to take a chance and said, “Hey, are you Juan by any chance?” He looked surprised for a second and said, “Yeah, you must be Chris!” I had finally found Juan. We chatted briefly and decided to try to push each other to a 3:20, which Juan needs to BQ. This plan got off to an okay start, but by mile 18 I was starting to struggle and knew that 3:20 was out of the question. I was just about to tell Juan to push ahead and not let me hold him back when he asked how I felt. I said “like s**t” and he said “me too”, which made me feel a little better. We continued to struggle along together, now chasing the secondary goal of a 3:30.

At about mile 21, we found Neil waiting for us and he jogged alongside us for awhile. We informed him of the new plan to run 8:30s the rest of the way and come in under 3:30. The next mile was a 9:10 and I knew the rest of the race wasn’t going to be pretty. We wound around the residential areas, running in the shade whenever possible and through sprinklers wherever the locals had them set out in the street. Around mile 22, we passed a runner who was laid out in the shade as medical personnel took his pulse and asked him very simple questions. The sun was beating down by this time and the temperature was climbing fast. Just before mile 23 we hit an aid station in the Southgate Mall parking lot, where I decided I need to stop and walk as I drank a few cups of water. As I was walking through, a medical attendant started questioning me about how I felt. I said, “I feel fine except my calves are tight as hell.” He asked if the sun was getting to me and I said no so he sent me on my way and moved on to Juan. As I left the aid station and started running (okay, jogging) again I looked back and Juan was nowhere to be seen. Turns out, the medical attendant had pulled him over, sat him down and sprayed him down with ice cold water and made him sit for a couple of minutes before letting him continue.

Mile 16 – 7:32 (downhill…finally)
Mile 17 – 7:45
Mile 18 – 7:54
Mile 19 – 8:02
Mile 20 – 8:22
Mile 21 – 8:27
Mile 22 – 9:10
Mile 23 – 8:33 (not bad considering the stop at the mall aid station)

Miles 24-26.2

From the Southgate Mall, we followed a bike path along the railroad tracks back north toward downtown and the finish line. Shortly after leaving the mall aid station, I noticed that both of my calves and my right quad were right of the verge of cramping, something that has never ever happened to me while running. I ran along the best I could but eventually had to stop and walk for awhile to let my legs calm down. At about mile 24, I found Neil waiting for us again. He walked along with me for a minute or so and I took a swig of Gatorade he was lugging around with him. I told him that I had lost Juan at the last aid station, so Neil decided to jog back that way and see if he could find him. I told him that was a good idea and set out jogging as best I could. I was able to run okay as long as I didn’t have to go up or down (like up and over curbs or bumps in the road). Soon after the mile 25 marker, my legs were really feeling like hell, like they were on the verge of an all-out revolt. Then, suddenly, Juan and Neil were back beside me. I started running again, determined to run across the damn finish line, even if it was a pathetically slow hobble-run. As we turned off the bike path onto 4th St. and then left onto Orange St. a volunteer told us we only had four blocks to go. I was doing a straight legged shuffle at this point to keep from cramping, but when I saw the Orange St. bridge ahead, I managed to get into a fairly normal rhythm. Without ever really telling each other, Juan and I were both planning on crossing the finish line together (maybe not hand in hand, but still). As we started across the bridge, Juan suddenly dropped back and started coughing. I couldn’t tell at first if he was just coughing or if he was gonna puke. After a couple of seconds, it became apparent that he wasn’t just coughing. I wasn’t sure if I should stop and wait or keep on going and eventually just went, hoping that if I did it fairly slowly, Juan might catch up by the finish (he ended up with dry heaves….I told him later it would have been legendary if he’d puked off the bridge into the river within sight of the finish). Usually, with the finish line in sight, I like to give it that extra kick but this time I was happy just to not be walking (or laid out in the shade with medical personnel taking my pulse and asking me questions). There was a huge crowd cheering on the finishers on the bridge and I set about looking for my family. I did see my mother in law and sister in law near the finish and managed a wave and possibly a smile as I passed them. Finally, blissfully, I was under the balloon arch and had a medal around my neck. I stopped right in the middle of the finisher chute and turned around to look for Juan, who I saw finishing just behind me. I went back to congratulate and thank him and a volunteer started yelling at me because I hadn’t let them tear off my bib tag yet (no chip timing) and other people were passing me in the chute. I apologized, they apologized and I limped away to the finisher’s area.

Mile 24 – 9:43 (cramping)
Mile 25 – 9:30 (cramping)
Mile 26 – 9:38 (yeah, more cramping)
Mile 26.2 – 1:55 (Running!!)

First Half Split – 1:40:14
Second Half Split – 1:52:13
Total Time (unofficial) – 3:32:27
Overall Place – ??
Age Group Place – ??

I mentioned that they didn’t have chip timing and as of Tuesday morning the official results still haven’t been posted.

Post-Race

I chatted with my in-laws, my mom and stepdad, and cousin John (who pounded out a 1:37 in the half, his first ever road race) for awhile before they all departed for home. As I was wandering around the finisher’s area trying to decided if my legs felt better sitting or standing, I saw Neil and Juan parked on a bench off to the side of the road and sat with them for awhile. The last 8 miles were brutal, to say the least, and having Juan and Neil along for the ride was invaluable. Juan said around mile 20 that misery loves company and he was 100% right. We decided to go shower and then meet up for some lunch and beers at a local brew pub. We got together, drank a couple of pitchers of really good beer (Summer Honey), downed some really good bar food, and shared war stories about Missoula and other races (mostly about Missoula though). Good times with good people….

So, the question is, how do I feel about all of this? Well, okay, actually. Missoula was never a goal race for me, just a race I wanted to do. Sure I would have liked to do better, but it just wasn’t in the cards for me on that day. The weather was a major factor for me. This is by far the warmest marathon I’ve run (the previous record-holder was Seattle, where it was in the 50s and 60s the entire race). By the time I hit the finish just after 10:00, the temp was already in the mid-80s. I’m used to running at 5 AM and am almost always done before the thermometer hits 70. The sun just sucked the speed right out of me.

Will I go back? Probably. I love Missoula and I think this event has potential. For an inaugural event, I think it was very well done. The course could use some tweaking and chip timing next year is a must, but I didn’t see any dealbreaker problems. With over 1,000 total participants between the full and half, it’s already by far the biggest marathon ever held in Montana and has the potential to get even bigger and better.

Thank You

As I type this, I’m on page 9 on Microsoft Word. How many posts am I gonna have to make just to get this thing online?? Believe me, I’m almost done but first I’ve gotta say thank you to some people. First, to my teammates on the X-Squad for your advice and support. Second, to my father-in-law for his “sponsorship” that allowed me to run this race. Third, to my cousin John for a place to sleep. Fourth, to my wife for taking on the not insignificant task of handling our kids by herself for four days while I was off in my personal paradise. And last, but most certainly not least, to Juan for being my partner in misery over those last 11 miles and to Neil for his support along the course and for lunch and beer afterwards. And, thanks to anyone who actually reads this entire thing….you’ve just completed a marathon of sorts yourself (sorry, no medals)!!
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