Sunday, June 30, 2019

Race Report: 2019 Missoula Marathon

On June 30th, I ran the Missoula Marathon.  This is a popular race for runners who want to run marathons in all 50 states.  The course isn’t as difficult as most of the other marathons in Montana.  The elevation isn’t as high, and the course is relatively flat, with only one tough hill in the middle.  It’s a large well-organized race, and there aren’t as many of those in the middle of the summer.

I flew to Missoula on Saturday.  My flight was delayed, but I still had time to check into my hotel before going to the expo.  I stayed at the Holiday Inn downtown.  This is the same hotel where Deb and I stayed when I ran this race in 2010.  It’s only a few blocks from Caras Park, where the expo was held.  It’s also close to the finish line.

One of the first things I saw walking over to the expo was the big M on the side of Mount Sentinel.  In 1908, students from the University of Montana hiked up the mountain and placed stones in the shape of an M.  Later, the stones were replaced with a large wooden M.  When that blew down, it was replaced with a stone version.

The expo was under a large tent in Caras Park.  It was a relatively small expo, so I was able to get my race packet quickly drop it off at the hotel before going back out to explore the downtown area.

The Clark Fork River flows through the downtown area.  This is the view from Caras Park.

I had dinner at Tamarack Brewing Company, after learning from a friend that they have good pizza.  I had a BBQ chicken pizza and a flight of their beers.

The race started at 6:00 AM, but we had to take a bus to the start.  Buses started loading at 4:15, so I set my alarm early.  I was able to get to sleep early, so I was hopeful I could get enough sleep.  Then I woke up a few hours later, and I was awake for most of the night.

I never know how a poor night’s sleep is going to affect me.  Often, I shake it off and have a good race.  There have been a few times, however, when I felt sluggish.

The Holiday Inn did two nice things for the runners.  First, they had to-go bags in the lobby with bananas and water bottles.  I didn’t have anything else I could eat for breakfast, so it was nice to get the bananas.  They also had the hotel shuttle take us over to the university, where we needed to catch a bus to the start.  I could have walked there, but it was quicker and easier to take the hotel’s shuttle.

I still remember my first marathon in Montana.  The temperature at the start was in the 30s, but it warmed into the 70s by the time I finished.  I dressed for the colder temperatures, not realizing how much it would warm up.  Needless to say, I suffered in the late miles.  I’ll never forget how quickly it warms up in this climate, once the sun comes up.

The start was in Frenchtown.  I was on one of the first buses, so we got dropped off before 5:00.  They had a table with water coffee and some snacks.  They also had an adequate number of port-o-potties.  When there was enough light to see, I noticed an F on a nearby hillside.  I guess that’s Frenchtown’s answer to Missoula’s M.

The temperature at the start was 47 degrees.  I knew it could easily be 20 degrees warmer by the time I finished, so I was careful not to dress too warm.  They had a gear check in the start area, so I was able to wear warm clothes until about 15 minutes before the race started.

I went into this race with modest expectations.  In April, I ran my fastest time in two years, but I haven’t done much since then to improve my time.  I already have a fast enough qualifying time to get me into next year’s Boston Marathon, so I’ve shifted my focus to building my mileage base and losing weight.  If I could run fast, that would be great; if I couldn’t, it was no big deal.

They had a 3:30 pace group, so I started the race with them.  There were two pace leaders, and they did a good job of keeping us right on pace.  They didn’t even need to look at the watches.  They each had a good feel for the pace and could run it naturally. 

The first several miles were fairly flat, so I was able to stay in a nice consistent rhythm. I didn’t know how the pace would feel in the second half, but it seemed like a reasonable pace to run in the early miles.

We were running through a valley, with lots of wide open space around us.  We consistently had views of tree-covered hills.  Occasionally, we saw some local residents who came out to cheer us.  Some played music.  One guy played a banjo.  Another played a fiddle.  Later in the race, there was a grand piano.

There was also recorded music at some of the aid stations.  Twice during the race, I heard Sweet Child O’ Mine by Guns N’ Roses.

At about 10 miles, I decided to pick up the pace a little to get ahead of the pace group.  I knew there was a tough hill just past the halfway mark, and I wanted to be able to slow down on the hill, if necessary, without falling behind the group.  Over the next three miles, I got about 30 seconds ahead of the group.

I reached the halfway mark in 1:44:07.  Then the hill started.  It was gradual at first, but eventually got steeper.  When I reached the steep section, I had to slow down.  I slowed down so much that the 3:30 pacers both passed me.  I tried not to get too far behind, but that hill really took something out of me.

Just past the top of the hill, I reached the 14 mile sign.  I was relieved to see I was still a few seconds ahead of the pace I needed for 3:30.  Now we began a long downhill section.  The pacers held back on the downhill, and I was able to catch up to them.

At 15 miles, I was still just a few seconds ahead of schedule.  The next mile was all downhill, and there was a steep section.  I’ve learned to take descents at my own pace.  I got way ahead of the group.  At 16 miles, I was more than a minute ahead of schedule.

As the road leveled off, I found myself struggling to find my rhythm.  My next two miles were a little bit slow.  I assumed the pace group would eventually catch up to me.

Shortly after the road leveled off, we came alongside the river.  We had been following it since Frenchtown, but we were never close enough to see it.  Next, we turned to cross an old one-lane bridge over the river.

At 18 miles, I found my rhythm again.  I was still about 30 seconds ahead of the pace group.  I picked up my effort to keep up with the fastest runners around me.  It wasn’t easy finding someone I could follow.  A lot of runners were slowing down in the second half.

I started pulling away again, gaining about 10 seconds per mile until I once again was more than a minute ahead of the pace for 3:30.

At around 20 miles, I saw the M on Mount Sentinel.  It’s one thing to watch the mile markers and know how many miles are left.  It’s another thing to actually see a landmark that’s near the finish line.  I found it easier to lift my effort.  I knew for sure I would hang on to break 3:30.

With five miles to go, I passed a friend who’s usually faster than me.  I knew I was having a good race.  By now, we were sharing the road with runners who were doing the half marathon.  I also got a shout-out from a friend who was doing the half.

With four miles to go, I started feeling pressure in my intestines.  It was only a matter of time before I would need to make a bathroom stop.  I didn’t want to stop before the race was over.  That would not only cost me valuable minutes, but it would also take me out of my rhythm for the rest of the race.  I had to be careful not to run too hard.  I balanced my effort, while trying to hold it in.

Late in the race, I noticed some unofficial aid stations with beer or other adult beverages.  One had a big sign that read, "Adult Aid Station."  That got a big cheer from people who were near the back of the pack of the half marathon.  Many of them stopped, but I kept going.  One of the men there asked me if I wanted a shot of whiskey.  There are some races where I'll stop to imbibe.  This wasn't one of them.  Not when I was having a surprisingly good race.

In the last three miles, I was mostly running by myself.  One side of the street was used for the half marathon, and the other side was used for the marathon.  Most of the intersections had roundabouts, which made it difficult to see if there were other runners ahead of me.  For one block at a time, I was the only runner on my side of the street.

At 24 miles, I realized I could run negative splits.  I just needed to keep up my effort for two more miles.  I was working harder in that mile, but I was still surprised how fast it was.  I ran the 25th mile in 7:30.  Now, I knew I would run negative splits.

The last mile has some turns, so you can’t see the finish line until you’re almost there.  I knew the last turn would be a right turn onto Higgins Avenue, to cross the Higgins Bridge.  As I came to a right turn, I was disappointed to see it wasn’t Higgins Avenue.  I had to run a few more blocks.  Then I made a left turn and saw Higgins Avenue a block ahead of me.

I had passed several runners in the late miles, but now there was a runner near me who was accelerating as we made the last turn.  I wanted to stay with him, but the approach to the bridge was slightly uphill.  I couldn’t match his pace running up to the bridge.

I was halfway across the bridge before I could finally see the finish line.  I kept up my effort and finished in 3:27:03.  I ran negative splits by more than a minute.  I also had my third Boston qualifier of the year.  It’s been four years since I last had more than two BQs in the same year.

My time was just four seconds slower than my best of the year.  That’s OK.  I’ll have other chances later in the year.

After receiving my finisher medal, I waited for the 3:30 pace group to finish.  I thanked the pacers.  I also congratulated the runners who fought hard to stay with them and finish in 3:30.  Then I found the nearest port-o-potty for a long overdue bathroom stop.

There was a post-race gathering in Caras Park.  Runners had tear-off tags on our race bibs for food and beer.  Friends and family could buy food from various food vendors around the park.  In addition to the permanent seating at the park pavilion, there were tables under a big tent and more tables outside.  It was still before 10:00 AM, so I stayed awhile to talk to other runners.

I don’t fly home until tomorrow.  Tonight I’ll have dinner with a few friends at a pizzeria that we ran past just before turning to cross the bridge.  It’s called Bridge Pizza.

Race Statistics
Distance: 26.2 miles
Official Time:  3:27:03
Average Pace:  7:54
Lifetime Marathons/Ultras:  376
Montana Marathons:  4
Lifetime Boston qualifiers:  124

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