I had asked Jen 527 times how we were going to get to the start line on marathon Sunday. So patient, my friend Jen.
The Missoula Marathon starting line was somewhere outside of town, (for a moment I thought we were in Idaho, but whatever), and everyone was required to ride the provided buses from downtown Missoula to the starting line. This was nice for those of us that were visiting from out-of-town because I would have never found this little place off the freeway on my own at 5:00am. That’s right, I said 5:00am. Due to the intense heat Missoula has been experiencing this summer, they moved the start time to 6am. Smart move.
As I do every race, I had a plan. And I must admit that I giggle a bit calling what I do a “race” because I am only competing against myself, but you get the point. Plan A is a “stretch’. Meaning if everything goes exactly perfect – legs feel great, no tummy trouble, weather is good, course is agreeable – I just may make Plan A. Plan B is the more realistic goal. Looking at training, weather forecasts and all that, a finish time goal is named. And, Plan C. Plan C (for me, anyway) is always to finish upright, smiling, with no poop in my pants or vomit on my shirt. Thankfully, I have always been able to do Plan C.
So, the starting line. When we arrived the sun was just starting to peek over the mountains. It was cool and dry outside. The morning was perfect, full of promise. I joined the others at the start line. A man next to me was looking around. He asked, “how long is this marathon, anyway?”, which got a chuckle from many of us. I looked for the pace group I was hoping to run with that morning, but did not see anyone with a 4:00 balloon.
We started off with canons and fireworks promptly at 6am. The fireworks were awesome. They also woke up every part of my body. I kept my race pace for a bit and gradually met up with the 4 hour pace group. The pacer was tall, energetic and wearing a cowboy hat with his five fingers shoes. How I missed him at the start I simply have not a clue. The course went through farmland and ranches. Many cows and horses greeted our group of runners with curious looks. Their owners were also out, lining the road with their coffee and lawn chairs. It was nice to see so many people out at the early hour. About kilometer 12.5 there was a scary looking house befitting Boo Radley from To Kill a Mockingbird. It was grey, broken windows and a big sign stating, “KEEP OUT”. Duh. I looked for a message in the knot of a nearby tree (just like Scout) but found nothing. Continuing on…
We crossed the Bitterroot River and I sang John Denver songs to myself. The one sung most often? Wild Montana Skies, of course. This became an earworm for the entire race. I have the late John Denver to thank for staying with me along the course. (Oh, Montana, give this child a home… Give him the fire in his heart, give him a light in his eyes, give him the Wildman for a brother and the Wild Montana Skies!)
Bragging time.. I killed the first half in 1:58. My legs felt great, my body was warmed up and I had a thought that I may just make Plan A of a sub-4 hour finish time. Then, just past the half way mark, the Hill. Or, as our ever sun-shiny pacer stated, “We are coming up on a little bump in the road. Mind your legs and stay hydrated!” It was about 500 yards long and got steep for a small part. The pay off was the view from the top. There were ranchers on their horses that had come up to say “Good Morning” and green rolling hills all around us. Though I felt good as I reached the top of the hill, still with the pace group, I knew the Hill had taken a lot of my energy. Thankfully, there was also a downhill. It got steep at times as well. Again, the pace leader let everyone know ahead of time the downhill was approaching. He reminded everyone to keep their legs under them to avoid slipping and we carried on.
As we came up to the next aid station, I decided to walk through and take more nutrition and water. The pace group did not walk through. I thought as long as I kept the pacer in my sights that I still had a chance to finish at about 4 hours, but over the next 8 kilometers, I lost the group. I simply needed another walk break and could not maintain the pace of the first half of the marathon. No matter, as Plan B was to PB (personal best) at around a 4:10 finish time. Feeling good about my adjusted goal, my pace quickened a little. The next part of the course brought us into town. The neighborhood was full of mature trees, stately homes and flowery roundabouts in many intersections. I took walk breaks when needed and carried on at a pretty steady pace. People were outside lining the streets. Many had their lawn sprinklers turned into the street and due to the rising temperature, I ran through almost all of them, (thank you, people of Missoula). The signs were a source of amusement as well. My favorite was worn by a man riding a bike alongside the course. He had music blaring from his backpack and his sign stated, “Psychotic Wife Support Crew”.
The thing about running in unfamiliar territory is that you’re not sure what to expect. Where is there another turn? how much further? any more hills? and, of course, where is the finish line anyway? In this case, the finish line is on the Higgins Avenue Bridge in downtown. Rumor had it the bridge will be lined with people and the air will be electric, (totally true). I saw a sign stating 4 MORE TURNS UNTIL THE BRIDGE. So helpful. I had something to count, something on which to keep my mind occupied other than my legs, which were starting to ache from my hips downward.
3 MORE TURNS. I start to wonder if JB and the kids went for a hike in the morning and if I will see them on the bridge.
2 MORE TURNS. Muscles in my legs are starting to get tight. I question, for the first time, why I am running this marathon anyway.
1 MORE TURN. I remind myself how much I love to run and that I want to be a good example for my kids. Also, almost done!
LAST TURN. The bridge! I could hear the festivities going on around the finish line area. I wanted to be there SO BAD. And then, I turned on to the bridge. In my mind I was sprinting (totally not the case). The bridge was lined with people, all yelling, and I felt like a rock star. I heard Jen’s husband yell out to me. I smiled and waved. Then I looked to my right. There was my husband and kids, all cheering. JB took a few pictures. I raised my hands in the air. A personal best on a glorious sunny, cool morning in Missoula.
Montana, if only for 4 hours, 8 minutes and 53 seconds, had indeed given me a home. So grateful.