Thursday, July 29, 2010

Missoula Marathon July 11, 2010

It’s Monday, July 12, the day after the Missoula Marathon, and my friend Joanna has come up with a great idea for spending the afternoon: let’s drive the 40 miles over to the old Lolo Hot Springs resort so I can soak my legs in the natural hot springs and mineral water. I ponder this for a moment but a higher priority intervenes: I want to drive to Big Flat Road and get a more relaxed look than I did the day before of that three-mile uphill section on the otherwise relatively flat marathon course. And so we did, cell phone camera in hand, for a sweet tour of this scenic area (adding on a hike around Maclay Flat, a nature preserve a mile southeast of there next to the Bitterroot River ).

In my view, the oddly named Big Flat Road is the marquee section of the race. It offers wonderful views of the Clark Fork River valley below, and it is a real challenge to both your race preparation and race day strategy. I haven't done that well with either. Both years I’ve run this race I’ve overestimated my preparation for maintaining pace up to the highest point on Big Flat, at mile 15 or so, and let’s just say that is pretty much a guarantee of several grueling miles before finishing, as flat as the latter part of the course may be.

The first 11 miles are a fine warmup to this section. Ample numbers of busses have previously taken 1,500 of us out to Frenchtown, a few miles west of Missoula , where the 6:00 a.m. Army cannon sounded the start. You then start running essentially due east on level road, with a splendid view of the rays of the rising sun that turn the mountains ahead of you all the various pastels you could hope for. You soon may be able to make out Mount Sentinel on the far eastern edge of town many miles straight ahead. That’s the mountain with the big “M” that casts its morning shadow down on the University, just as it did throughout my college and law school years in the 70s, and as it apparently still does to this day. When this big valley was under a glacial lake 20,000 years ago, Mount Sentinel was a mere island poking out of the water, the big “M” no doubt obscured by that deep, cold water.

At about mile 4 we run through the edge of the Smurfit-Stone paper mill, with a decidedly different look this year now that it has closed in bankruptcy. We see dozens of hard hats tied to the wire fence, left behind by the workers as they clocked out of their final shift. We make the right turn at about mile 10 to cross the Clark Fork River and head to our climb up Big Flat and those amazing views that I will not fully enjoy until the next day. We won’t be seeing Mount Sentinel again until the last few miles of the course, and only then if we make a point of looking up -- sometimes hard to do at mile 22 or 23.

The downhill section of Big Flat ends before mile 16, and before you cross Maclay Bridge over the Bitterroot River, which will be joining the Clark Fork a bit north of there. Drive about 10 miles south up through the Bitterroot Valley to the town of Lolo and you can visit Traveler’s Rest State Park , said to be verified by physical evidence as the only identified campsite of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 1804-06. The captains and their crew stayed there in September 1805 before heading west over Lolo Pass and the endless snowy peaks of the Rockies, almost starving to death in the process, and again in June the following year, just before Lewis split off with a separate contingent to follow the Bitterroot to the Clark Fork and go upstream through downtown Missoula and then over the continental divide for a return to the Great Falls of the Missouri. Lewis and Clark might have thought this marathoning to be rather odd business indeed. However, I do remember reading that their men enthusiastically engaged in footraces with Indians in what is now Washington State before beginning the eastbound return journey in 1806 -- obviously viewing a good run as an enjoyable and effective way to get back into condition after a winter of relative inactivity. Sound familiar?

After mile 17 a series of turns through several friendly neighborhoods follows, featuring abundant sprinklers of many residents for the runners needing some cooling off to run through, as I did with the sun bearing down in full force the last 10 miles. The last several such turns are in the University district, before heading to a welcome and fitting finish over the Higgins Avenue Bridge -- and one last crossing of the Clark Fork -- into the funky and revitalized downtown area. The finish area included showers, a medal, a finisher's handkerchief with the course map imprinted on it, and a pose for a free finish photo by the official race photographer. Hydration, pasta, and popsicles were also offered. Then it’s down the steep stairs to the park under the bridge for the award ceremony, free beer, and other festivities. Watching runner after runner limp down those stairs was worth the price of admission -- it was humorous, at least, after you were done limping down them yourself.

The Missoula Marathon had a lot to live up to after having won the polling in Runner’s World for Best Overall Marathon earlier this year. I must say that’s a big part of why I returned. A lot of people may have come expecting something really off the charts – a bit of a wrong-headed approach, I think. (A marathon is always 26.2 miles, and isn't it always tough?) I noticed a few critical comments in questioning the award, but c'mon folks, let's keep things in perspective (says I from my biased point of view). It’s Best Overall Marathon , which means it’s really good in pretty much every category. It didn’t win most scenic, but it is very scenic. It doesn’t have the biggest crowds, but it has excellent crowds for the town’s size with plenty of eager volunteers, and believe me, the whole town knows about and supports the marathon. Everyone -- from the barista making my latte to the clerk at the Post Office -- responded positively when I told them I was in town for the race. And I’ll bet a lot of Missoulians now know who the Marathon Maniacs are. The expo is small and you won’t find a lot of different vendors besides the Runner’s Edge, the local running store, but it’s more than adequate, and it’s creatively placed in an outdoor pavilion in the park right next to a wonderful Saturday Farmer’s Market, which is staffed by tables and tables of vendors of organic vegetables, rhubarb pie, and other enticing homemade goods. This is the "green" culture of Missoula , and your goodie bag and technical shirt are attractively made of recycled and natural products. In addition to the free finish area photo, an extra 10 bucks at registration gets you access to all your photos taken throughout the course. (Mine are now safely tucked away in my computer, most never to see the light of day.) And don’t forget to top off your marathon with a tour of Traveler’s Rest, Glacier Park , or whatever outdoor glory may suit your fancy.

For my money, the race organizers outdid themselves this year in every detail and delivered a great race. It’s not a New York or Chicago race; it’s a Missoula race through and through. To me that's a good thing, a very, very good thing. Just train and strategize properly, and the race will bring its best for you. Don’t train properly and, well, it’s still well worth it.

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