I’m still not sure how it happened, but back in early February I started toying with the idea of trying to run the Missoula Half Marathon. I tossed the idea around in my head for more than a week before telling anyone about it. Even then it was with a very cautious, tepid, “what if” kind of a statement. I’d started trying to run for fitness on January 5th, the Monday after the holiday season. My seasonal ten extra pounds and I weren’t getting along and it was time to part ways. By February running was starting to click as a positive challenge, not some dreaded chore in the name of getting exercise. But miles on the treadmill and laps around the indoor track at Missoula’s Peak Health and Wellness Center can only take you so far. I needed a goal.
My workplace is one of the many sponsors of Run Wild Missoula and the Missoula Marathon and I’ve got a number of coworkers who are impressive runners and ultra-runners. I was familiar enough with the Missoula Marathon to know we had one, but that’s about the extent of it. Me, run? Ha! In the fall of 2009, I’d also had a casual conversation with a couple of friends about their experiences with the Run Wild Missoula training group. I guess all of that converged in my head in early February to spawn an idea in the form of some crazy, personal challenge. What happened next found its way into earlier blog posts here and here.
Fast forward to the week before the race. Training runs were short and I was getting crazy anxious. Anxious excited, not anxious worried. Our last group training run was the Wednesday before race day and we all ran to Missoula’s Greenough Park for “The Talk.” One part tips and reminders and 10 parts encouragement from our coach. Most of us hung out far longer than normal after completing our four mile run. The excitement was real and we wanted to live all of the moment. I found myself bestowing great wishes of “good luck” to fellow trainees I’d never spoken with before. I find myself now wondering what has made me use the word “bestowing” in a sentence for the first time.
Race day was Sunday July 11. The night before we headed out to a local Italian joint for a great carb-loading meal. Frankly, my regular diet has plenty of carbs in it already, but I don’t mind using excuses for a few more when they’re handy. Handy excuses, that is. The carbs are already handy. Walking through the bar section of the restaurant, I spied all of my friends lined up neatly behind the bar with handles and glasses at the ready. I’d given up beer for the pre-race week to help ensure I’d be plenty hydrated. The taps were beckoning me with their siren call of hops and malt. For a guy who writes a beer blog, that was getting harder and harder each day.
I woke at 3:30 a.m. to shower, eat a bowl of cereal and head downtown. I met some folks at work at 4:20 a.m. to take the short walk over to catch the buses out to the start line. It was dark and cool and exiting with runners pouring in from all directions. We boarded the bus quickly and easily and found some seats. A runner from Oregon took a seat next to me and we chatted about Missoula, the race course and running life for the 15 – 20 minutes it took to get to the staging area. The Missoula Marathon and Half Marathon have separate start lines, joining together at the 2.6 mile point of the Half Marathon. The Half Marathon starts at Peak Health and Wellness center – my gym and where this crazy idea of mine took root. About a half mile from Peak, I spotted the flashing lights of the Highway Patrol cars directing the bus traffic into Blue Mountain Road. That’s when the goose bumps and chills started. This was my first race and I was about to do 13.1 miles with 2,700 other half marathoners.
We stepped off the bus and were treated to pulse pounding music and an announcer energizing the crowd. The atmosphere was festival-like with runners milling about greeting friends, warming up and hitting the porta-potty lines. We were an hour ahead of the start, but it sure beats the anxiety of wondering if you’ll make it on time. Thanks to the super organization of the Missoula Marathon and Beech Transportation there really aren’t any worries, but it felt good to have a few minutes to relax. We checked our race bibs, secured our timing chips, ate some energy bars and visited with a runner from Minnesota making her first trip to Missoula. Her husband was doing the full marathon on his quest to complete a marathon in all fifty states. I think this made number 21 for him.
Twenty minutes before the start I decided to hit the porta-potty line and ran into one of my new training group friends. He asked what pace I was trying to hit and we decided to run together. This ended up being a good move for both of us. At 5:50 a.m. we got the call to be at the start line and found a spot at about the middle of the pack. I had no way to gauge where in the pack I should line up, figuring a large chunk of the crowd had to be faster than me. The national anthem played and the announcer started the countdown to wild cheers from the mass of runners. Precisely at 6:00 a.m. the cannon went off and so did we.
It took more than a minute to reach the actual start line, but that’s the beauty of chip timing. Your official time doesn’t start until the circular, orange chip attached to your shoelaces crosses the force field beaming across the line. Here’s a picture of the timing chip. I thought the “This Side Up” label on the chip might serve as a nice reminder during the next 13.1 miles.
The Missoula Half Marathon course starts with a bit of an easy incline. At the top of that short stretch we were treated to two incredible vistas that nearly had me stopping to snap a picture. To the east, the view was across the Missoula Valley with the Bitterroot River in the foreground and the sun just about to crest Mount Sentinel in the distance. It is an inspiring view any day and more so early in our quest for the finish line. In front of us, the road curves. Stretched out for a half mile was the chill-inducing scene of a multi-colored ribbon of runners in dawn’s early light. Behind us, an equally long line pressing forward.
We quickly realized we had a problem. We’d started too far back in the pack. That awe inspiring sight in front of us was a nearly solid block of runners stretching from edge to edge on the road. How to get through? Over the next mile and a half, we darted and sprinted through every tiny hole we could find, even resorting to the grass in the roadside ditch when a couple of ipod wearing runners couldn’t hear our approach. It was an unexpected challenge, but after about two miles, the pack had stretched out enough to be able to pick a comfortable spot and get a consistent pace. I felt fueled, hydrated, and energized and wanted to push it. My running partner needed solid pacing to help ensure he’d meet his goal to finish in under 2 hours.
The first aid station came at mile 2.6. We’d had plenty of aid stations during our group training runs, but I’d never done one during race conditions. I’d always stopped for a quick rest while chatting and rehydrating. This time, I didn’t want to lose time or piss off any of the thousand-plus runners coming fast behind me. At the first aid station I grabbed a cup of sports drink on the run. Three seconds later my cup was empty, but none of the fluid had made it in me. After a laugh, I slowed to a quick walk, wondered who had just witnessed that fiasco, and grabbed another cup. There’s nothing that screams “new guy” louder than showering yourself with sticky sports drink on the fly. (That’s hard earned sweat on my green shirt, not sports drink. I think.) For the rest of the race, I slowed to a walk at each aid station, made sure my fluids reached their intended destination and took off again. It worked well and certainly wasn’t going to have any real effect on my time.
The next thing did.