Monday, July 14, 2008

Race Report... Missoula 1/2 Marathon

When the alarm went off, I'd already been awake for 10 minutes. I tip-toed around the house putting on my outfit I'd set out the night before, gathered up my water bottles and PB&J, and snuck out the door.

It was chilly enough that a sweatshirt felt good. I hopped in my car and headed for town, driving over the Start line for the full marathon in Frenchtown. As I cruised down I-90 in the early morning silence, a song popped in my head and I started humming it to myself. Not satisfied with my rendition, I grabbed my music player and cued it up: Eye of the Tiger. I played it twice as I drove, singing aloud at 4:30 a.m.

Arriving downtown, I caught glimpses of reflective running shoes in my headlights. Parking was already tight, as runners were arriving to catch the shuttle buses out to their respective starting lines. I parked and found the bus stop on Main Street, and stepped up on the stairs of the first bus in line. "Is this going to the Half Marathon start?" I asked the driver. "Nope, this is the Full." So I stepped down. Not this year, at least.

I found the right bus, and took a seat in the dark next to a stranger. The passengers were pretty quiet, sharing a few muted comments about the weather or wondering when the last time they were on a school bus at 5:00 in the morning. But for the most part the ride out to Blue Mountain Road was pretty quiet. And long. Were we really going to run all the way back into town from out here?

I got off the bus and started walking around, partly to try to warm up (the temps were in the high 40's and I had on just a sweatshirt over my running shorts and tank), and partly to try to warm up my bowels so that I could get things moving before the race started. Amy arrived shortly thereafter, and caught up with me in line for the porta-potty.

I tried and tried to make myself need to use the bathroom. Tried being nervous, but I wasn't. Tried thinking about running. Nope. When I finally reached the blue box, nothing happened. Durn. I knew I'd have to stop somewhere along the way. Oh well, can't force Mother Nature.

We lined up at the start and took of at a slow jog when the cannon started. A lot of folks passed us in the first half mile or so, but that was okay. We were taking our time, enjoying the beauty of the river of colorful runners winding around the base of the freshly sunlit hills. It was stunning. And a bit chilly for that first mile or so, but we started to warm up after a while.

The course followed the Bitterroot River for the first few miles, which was just stunning. We jogged along at an easy steady pace. Nice and comfortable. Around mile 3 or 4 we ran over a bridge crossing the river, and cheesed it up for the photographer. Around mile 5, we were beginning to get into more tightly-spaced houses, and of course, that's when I began having urges to go. We passed a porta-potty, but there was a line, so I decided to hold out for the next aid station.

By the time we reached the aid station at the half-way point, there was no holding it any more. Amy decided to eat her Sport Beans while I waited in line for the potty. There were 4 girls in front of me!!! I waited for over 3 minutes, uncomfortably dancing around trying to hold it. Ugh! Finally I got my chance, did my duty, and popped out of the box ready to go.

Bummed that we'd taken so much time out to wait in line, I decided to pick up the pace a little bit. We started taking 10 seconds or so off each mile, which actually felt good. But I was hesitant to push our pace too much, knowing that the 6.5 mile marker isn't actually the half-way point in a half marathon-- it's the 9 mile marker that really marks the split between two parts of the run. The first nine miles are pretty comfortable; it's the last 4 that can really test your preparation.

We were winding through tree-lined neighborhoods in the early morning hours. At several houses, folks were sitting on their porches having coffee, watching the runners pass. Some shouted encouragement, some just smiled and nodded. Some had music blasting. And one house was even wafting the smell of bacon out into the streets (for once, bacon didn't smell good-- not after running for so long!)

All was going well until right after the 9 mile mark, when my side cramp reared up its ugly head. It wasn't too bad, so I kept running and breathing, hoping it wouldn't get worse. At the same time, Amy's knees were starting to pain her a bit. Yep, this is where it begins to get hard. Do we run faster and hope this all ends sooner, or do we keep it slow and not risk increasing the pain?

Well, we decided on a little of both. We kept increasing our pace ever so slowly, and by mile 10 were doing better. It's just a 5k now! We started noticing how many people we were passing... one or two every few minutes. Folks we'd been following the whole time were starting to slow, or at least weren't picking up the pace like we were. Others were tiring and starting to walk.

Around mile 11 it began to get fun. We started running through the University district, where more fans were out and more folks had music playing. Gold's Gym had parked their Hummer along the route and it was blasting out "Groove is in the Heart." Whoo hoo. That music really got me going. We cranked up the pace a good bit more, walked through our last aid station to revive ourselves for the final push, and then let loose.

Well, as loose as we could given that we'd already run over 11 miles. But we went hard enough that we weren't able to chat easily anymore. Conversation was limited to "you're doing great," and "wheww..." and "almost there."

The finish line was terrific. The last 0.3 miles or so took us down Higgins Ave, one of the main streets in Missoula, which had been closed off for the occasion. We could see the arch of baloons, hear the announcer in the background. Fans lined the bridge across the Clark Fork River and cheered us on as we ran strong to the finish. We High-Fived each other as we crossed the finish line, and I appreciated my second-in-a-row race finish in which I didn't immediately fold over and gag!

Craig found us at the water/PowerAid tank, and gave us a congrats. We spent the next half an hour or so wandering around in a semi-daze, our minds clouded by the exhaustion of the long run and the buzz of the crowd. The Good Food Store had a food tent set up, so after my stomach calmed down a bit and I got my appetite back, I grabbed a small plate of pasta salad and a couple slices of watermelon.

After a quick photo shoot, Amy and I parted ways. I returned to the bridge to watch the marathon runners and half-marathon walkers coming in. As I sat there, the river running below me and the mountains filling the background, I got a little misty-eyed. I thought of how fortunate I am to live in such a beautiful place, to have good supportive friends and family, and to have a body that can take me nearly anywhere I want to go. And I also welled up with pride for the perfect strangers who were running by-- what great accomplishments they'd made.

Looking back now, it was a good run. Definitely felt easier than the first half I ran-- probably because I knew what to expect! It actually felt pretty good to run faster for the last few miles, and made me want to go out and see how fast I can really run a half. And made me ponder more about whether or not I'll ever want to do a full. We'll see...

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