Friday, July 16, 2010

And A Big Flat Road Runs Through It: The 2010 Missoula Marathon

I did not start 2010 with intentions of making a twelve hour drive to Montana, nor did I stay up late at night dreaming of the chance to run a marathon in the crisp, cool month of July. Once these plans were made, I even had second thoughts and wondered what business I had running a full marathon on what was essentially training consisting of marathon recovery from Boston followed by a bit of base-building, short buildup, and strange hodge-podge two week taper. Sometimes the best experiences, though, come from plans made on the fly, which was the case with our family's trip to Missoula for a long weekend together.
In the weeks leading up to our trip, I was wondering if I'd be in way over my head in this race, and was considering what to do if the weather was terrible. Caught between not wanting to give myself a free pass to make this a fluff training run "race" and also not wanting to wind up pushing to the point of sickness, ER visits or painfully long race recovery if it was very hot, I decided that this was going to be one of those useful experiment races. My tendency is to start aggressively and fight to hang on, but this seemed like a great time to play around and see what might happen if I went with a purposely conservative marathon start. I also wanted to treat the race as something I was doing over the course of the weekend with my family-not "the family's coming to Montana to watch me run a race."
With that in mind, we loaded up the family truckster bound for a hotel that boasted an indoor water park among its features. While two waterslides might be a stretch when it comes to calling something a "water park," they were two AWESOME waterslides, with a three story climb to the top. The kids scoped it out two seconds after our arrival and I have to say we were all pretty excited at the prospect of playing there. More on this water park later.

We hit up the expo early on Saturday, and also got the three younger kids registered for the "Kids Marathon," which was actually a 1.2 mile race. Don't start groaning about labeling a 1.2 mile race a marathon just yet, though. For the schoolkids in Missoula who were registered, this was to be the final 1.2 miles to complete their "marathon" after logging a total of 25 miles in training. Kind of a fun concept, and I liked the idea that it's not just about the race, and that the process of getting ready for the big day is just as important and fun. Right away, we were impressed with the "I don't know the answer to your question, but I will find out for you right now" helpfulness of race volunteers. It takes a LOT to put on a good race and everyone was working hard to make it happen, and work the problems when they came up.

After tooling around for awhile it was time for the kids to do their thing. This was not without drama as my son tried to use his head as a battering ram during the race warmup, accidentally getting thrown headlong into a bench in the stampede of kids who were supposed to be jogging, but instead seemed to be racing down to one lightpost before turning back to the warmup area. My middle daughter frantically trotted him over to me, and oh wow...he had a GIANT goose egg coming out from his head. A race volunteer found me a bag of ice and even though I knew what his response would be, I said "I think it might be a good idea to sit out for the race and ice your bump." That lower lip pout immediately came out and he dropped the ice bag. He was totally with it, no dilated pupils or signs of a serious injury, so I told him to go ahead, line up, and be careful not to get trampled.

All three kids lined up, ran the course, and seemed to have a blast. My husband ran with our not-quite-4-year-old, and he said that she had actually turned to him at one point as she trotted along, saying "Daddy, this is FUN!" I cracked up, though, because her bib was almost bigger than her.

We went back to the hotel after the kids race, and boy did we have a blast on the water slides. One was an open slide, but the other one was an enclosed tube that sort of freaked me out the first time I slid into the pitch black, feeling claustrophobic and wanting to be back out in the open. I swore I wouldn't go down that one again but didn't want to be a big chicken in front of the kids, so I did go back and actually tried to turn it into a calming pre-race activity by just closing my eyes and enjoying the total silence for those fifteen or so seconds.
Not wanting to wear out my legs, I eventually stopped sliding and watched the kids and husband from the hot tub. All in all, this day-before race strategy seemed like it was going to yield that desired result of tired kids who would crash into a deep sleep, and leave me loose and ready to go. After a dinner with a handful of RWOL forumites at Carino's we headed back to the room for an early bedtime with my painfully early 3:50 a.m. wake-up call beckoning.

I had stressful thoughts in the days before the race over the possibility of a bad night's sleep, or the ultimate racemare of sleeping through alarms and missing the start, but this was not to be. After all the water play I did get one of those quality nights of sleep where I may not have been out for eight hours, but still found that very deep sleep that allowed me to wake up alertly at 3:30 a.m., feeling that punchy race day energy where you're ready to get moving.

I got dressed quickly, gave the husband a quick kiss and snuck out to get a van ride to the start. We thought the whole family might have to wake up to get me the few miles down the road, but perk #2 at this place was that they were offering special shuttles outside their normal hours of operation for runners. As it turns out, I was the only person ready to go at 4:10 a.m., so I basically had my own personal car to get to the parking garage in downtown Missoula. My driver guy was playing the radio and I found myself singing along to Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" as we pulled into town.

When we arrived at the garage, I easily found the line of marathon buses, with the half buses just around the corner, and chatted with a friendly seatmate for our ride to Frenchtown. As it turned out she seemed to be one of those "hybrid" runners like me, living in a mountain area and hitting up both roads and trails. She had also run Boston, had a husband who has run the Imogene Pass Run, and had recently relocated to Missoula. It really helped kill any potential for the bad kind of nerves to be on this bus with a bunch of folks who all seemed to be like me-excited to be running in a beautiful setting in a race that they felt compelled to do after reading positive reviews.

When we got off the bus in Frenchtown, I though WOW, it feels warm out here this early. I watched the marathon walkers get going at 5 a.m., and as I wandered around and kept the legs loose I realized I was starting to feel a little chilly. I figured out it wasn't just me when the starting line announcer said the temps had actually dipped a bit in the past hour from a little over 60 to about 53. PERFECT! Maybe the weather wasn't going to suck after all. I took my pre-race S-Caps packet, chowed down on some sports beans and started to get my game face on. It was almost time for the big show.

I've never run with a pacer before, but decided it wouldn't be a bad idea to follow the 3:40 guy. He said he was going to run even splits and this would all work with my plan today to avoid being Captain Aggressive. The next pacer up was 3:30, I had nothing to indicate this was likely today, and it might give me something on which to focus if the going got rough. I chatted behind the pacer with a lady about my age from Texas who like me already had a BQ with nothing major at stake other than just wanting to do her best out there at some race in Montana that sounded like a fun summer getaway (noticing a theme yet?). Soon it was time to get going. Several of us in my immediate vicinity said good luck and have a good race to each other, and then I was fifth marathon was now underway.

Right from the get-go, the pacer kind of launched ahead and I was stuck in what was a surprisingly tight crowd for the first mile or two. I knew the marathon had doubled the number of entries from the year before, and it seemed as if almost all of them were running in the front of the midpack, where I was. I finally just tried to relax for the time being and keep the guy in my sights. Still a long way to go, so I didn't want to waste lots of energy on side-to-side weaving. I was feeling not great...almost bad. Yet another reason to stick to the conservative pacing/even splitting goal.

Mile 1: 8:30
Mile 2: 8:21
Mile 3: 8:13

Ew. I just felt really icky. For the first time ever in a marathon, I found myself thinking "oh man...I have another 23 miles to go!" I nipped that thought right in the bud before that mentality could take over and basically shut the brain off, running and not thinking of anything. At almost four miles in, I passed the last of the marathon walkers, a young woman on crutches using just one leg. As myself and another runner passed her we said "hi" and "looking good." We passed a few remarks between one another after passing her about how that pretty much destroys anything in the excuses department to see someone out there who didn't have much to work with today but was still out there with what she had. I considered my attitude adjusted and went on with things. I got a little ahead of the pacer, and instantly felt a bit more relaxed to not be smashed in with all the people following the guy.

Mile 4: 8:21
Mile 5: 8:18
Mile 6: 8:15
Mile 7: 8:22

The first ten miles or so of the course is just about as flat as a pancake as it meanders through the wide open spaces dotted by small homes and farms, with Missoula off in the distance. Normally, I like relative silence and the few- and far-between fans at this point, but just feeling a little bit off at this point I actually could have used some good cheer. The pace group wound up easing past me again but I could still see them, and runners had strung out enough that I was no longer shoulder to shoulder with other runners. I tried to shake out the arms, stay loose, and do anything I could to find the rhythm I needed.

Mile 8: 8:12

Hey, that "Doubters Can Suck It" sign next to the wig-wearing cowbell guy was pretty funny. I cracked a smile and was sort of enjoying myself for the first time.

Mile 9: 8:18
Mile 10: 8:23

Ten miles in! Woohoo! This was a small victory. I was through the section where the road just kind of went on forever, and had a chunk of the race behind me. I think the first sprinkler on the edge of a homeowner's property appeared somewhere in this stretch of the race. I'd been told that the sprinklers would be all over in the final miles but this was a very pleasant surprise. I ran right through the sprinkler, and said thanks to the woman out in the yard who returned my words with a smile.

I can't be certain, but I also think that my first "Chuck Norris Facts" sign sighting occurred around this point in the race. For those who are not familiar, this is one of those bizarre pop culture phenomenons where people have come up with "facts"-AKA, ridiculous and sometimes funny lies about the magical powers of Chuck Norris. I'm not a fan of Chuck Norris the guy but the facts are a different story. I chuckled and moved along in better spirits.

Now we were starting to go gently uphill, though not doing anything that would constitute a true hill climb.

Mile 11: 8:22
Mile 12: 8:34
Mile 13: 8:29

I was now running along Big Flat Road, which weaved upward through the trees, providing welcome shade and some nice scenery. Though I wasn't gaining speed at all, I was feeling stronger than I did at the beginning of the race. Soon I made my way up the one really significant hill. It was steep but relatively short-nothing that would have a person quivering in their boots. Upon cresting the hill, I saw a man in a cowboy hat riding his horse next to the road, looking at the marathoners running by, and got an amazing panoramic view down across Missoula and the surrounding areas. This was my Montana moment, for sure. It was pure awesomeness.

Mile 14: 9:19 (the hill mile)

Okay, I was feeling pretty upbeat now. I was feeling a normal amount of tiredness for this stage of the race but was thankfully NOT feeling like the wheels coming off was imminent. More Chuck Norris signs. I laughed out loud at "Chuck Norris Once Visited The Virgin Islands. They Are Now Called The Islands."

Mile 15: 8:33
Mile 16: 8:15
Mile 17: 8:33
Mle 18: 8:32
Mile 19: 8:42

We were moving toward more populated areas now, and the sprinklers along the road along with folks hanging out in yards to cheer for, feed, and entertain the runners were becoming a more common sight now. It was warming up but there were opportunities here and there to run in the shade. Twenty miles came and went with another feeling of triumph.

Mile 20: 8:41

Physically I was getting to that point where I knew it would be hard work for the last 10K, but I was feeling like I was building mojo and getting that mental game at just the perfect time. I passed the sign that indicated we were now within the city limits of Missoula, and I thought okay...less than an hour until I finish and get to see my family! I hugged the side of the road where I could run in partial shade, and hit up as many sprinklers as possible.

Mile 21: 8:39

I was still feeling pretty even stephen, and quite surprised. I'd obviously slowed a little bit but I just thought I'd be really hurting, crashing and burning by now when I was really just in base building mode for my fall marathon. I believe there is definitely something to be said for experience, and putting together all the little things that have worked for me in the first four marathons. A good fueling and hydration strategy was helping me out a lot today, along with knowing I wasn't trained today for a PR attempt.

Mile 22: 8:45
Mile 23: 8:51

Ah, so there it is...not the wall but just really getting to the point of being pretty physically spent, and really needing to crank up the mental game. We were now criss-crossing through the neighborhoods near downtown Missoula. Random fiddle players, a banjo player, residents on their lawns and sprinklers dotted the route. It brought me back to the feeling of making all those turns through the neighborhoods in Boulder for our tiny little 10K that takes place there every Memorial Day. Another Chuck Norris sign..."Superman wears Chuck Norris Pajamas."
I just focused on that whole incessant forward motion thing, and kept running ahead to the next sprinkler in the road so I could do the little leap-through.

Mile 24: 8:45

The route was getting really thick with the last of the half marathon walkers now, and sometimes they'd be two and three astride so I did a bit of weaving here and there. It wasn't really bad, but in mile 25 of a marathon every bit of extra work really hurt. I knew the end was near, though, and just pushed the tired legs to keep turning over at the same rate they'd been going.

Mile 25: 8:49

Oh, man. Ready to be done. More threading my way through walkers. I saw a bunch of high schoolers near the bottom of the road where I'd make one of the last turns. They had big foam hands and were trying to high five people going by. Yes. Time to slap some foam hands and feed off their energy. I got to them and made the turn and knew I was coming up to the home stretch.

Mile 26: 8:47

For those who are unfamiliar with the Boston Marathon, the last two famous turns on the course are the "Right On Hereford, Left On Boylston." Well, I was amused that we had kind of the reverse here in Missoula. It's left on Fourth, then right to turn and run down Higgins Avenue and across the Higgins Avenue Bridge to the finish. After running a course that is gently net uphill for most of the 26 miles, it was a nice payoff to hit a flat to very slightly downhill piece of road to sprint in to the finish. Coming across the bridge, I saw my husband and all the kids, who smiled and waved. I could see the time clock, and that I was going to make it in under my BQ time for my age group, something I wasn't sure would be entirely possible between all the factors involved with me, and this race. I hauled buns as fast as I could into the finish.

Last bit of road was at an 8:00 pace, measured as .3 miles by Garmin in a time of 2:23. My Garmin, which I'd started at the cannon blast to begin the race, read 3:44:11. Final official chip time, 3:43:52, 9th out of 82 in my age group. Not a bad way to ring in my "fifth marathonversary."

I got my free finisher photo after the race, headed through the covered tent where runners could pick up lots of free food (watermelon, pasta, bananas, fresh fruit popsicles and lots of water and powerade), and caught up with my family a few minutes later. I'd been so worried about this race being an epic disaster, and though it was the 4th slowest of my five marathons, I think the day couldn't have been better. This was my kind of course, and it provided a perfect setting to try my pacing experiment. Other than the Rim Rock Marathon, where a negative split is almost a given because of the uphill then downhill course, I think this was my smallest positive split to date, though I haven't looked at the numbers yet. What this seems to tell me is that when I am fully trained up (and hopefully free of injury) for Boston next year, I should really think about holding back a little more in the first half. I have crazy thoughts of a true even split or (gasp) negative split second half, and find myself believing that it could be possible after this Missoula Experiment.

I really enjoyed the rest of the weekend in Missoula, including the leg soak in the river I'd been dying to do. There were a number of like-minded runners who had also made their way down to the river, some just soaking their legs, and others going for a full swim in the delightfully icy waters. The guy in the upper left corner of the first photo below was so blissed out that he said he didn't know if he'd be able to get himself out of the water. It really felt like all the pain was being frozen and numbed in my legs, and it was just fun to be down there with the other weary but happy runners.

We spent part of our last afternoon in Missoula playing more in the water park at the hotel, which I believe is another reason why my legs feel so springy and alive less than two weeks after the race. I did a ton of three story stair climbs to slide and splash around in the cool water, alternating with soaks in the hot tub, and I think my legs just never had the chance to tighten up completely. It was a good way to unwind with the kids and just keep moving the body without forcing anything painful.

After an early dinner, we ended our day at The Big Dipper for ice cream cones. I'd highly recommend them if you're ever in Missoula for this race, or any other reason. They have a ton of interesting homemade flavors, and picnic tables where you can sit, chat, and enjoy your surroundings.

Now I'm back home and hitting the roads and trails again, and gearing up for my next challenge-the running and beer study. I hope I'm up for the task. The things I'm willing to do in the name of science. Oh, and one last detail. I was curious, so I did a little research on the Chuck Norris signs. Here is your lady responsible for the on-course giggles. Don't know if it's a fact that I am tougher than Chuck Norris, but I'll accept this as truth for the time being.


Oz Runner said...

as usual, great race report, and great race...sounds like a fun getaway with the family, and a good race to do.....funny about the chuck norris signs...

AgileToes said...

Fantastic race report! It sounds like it was such a fun weekend for the whole family! I love that the kids have the 1.2 "marathon" event, very neat how they incorporated the 25 miles of training for the kiddos. Nice job! I'm all about scenic races, this one might be going on the "to do" list...

Lesley said...

Enjoyed the race report! Congrats on the marathon--well done!

Alan said...

Thanks for your comments on my race report over at Growler Fills. I've got Part II up now. I'm glad your first trip to Missoula was a success all around. I'll be interested to know if your experiment pays off in future races!

RunKathyRun said...

Fantastic race report; congrats on an awesome finish time! I really enjoyed the race as well; although took it much slower than you. We also hit "The Big Dipper" for ice cream on marathon night.

I'll be interested in following your Boston training; it is always interesting (i,e, wet) to train through the winter in Oregon,

The Newsham's said...

Great job! I hope to run my first half marathon in December.

Jennifer in Texas
check out my story at