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Marathon #8: 2009 Missoula Marathon (2009/07/12)

The Missoula Marathon in Montana was a complete change of scenery from my previous 7 marathons. It was my first "back country" race of any type.

Missoula, Montana is a college town straddling the Clark Fork river with a population of 57,000 (according to the 2000 U.S. Census). Its name is derived from the Native American Salish tribe name for the river. The town is most known as being the home to the University of Montana Grizzlies.

This year was the third running of the race. The previous two years experienced unseasonably high temperatures, reaching a high of 102 degrees in its inaugural year. Lucikly, Missoula has a 6am start time. When Wei, Rick, and I boarded the marathon shuttle in Downtown Missoula, the Montana night sky was pitch black, though it was a pretty sight. Our shuttle bus ride to Frenchtown took only about 20 minutes to cover the 26.2 miles we were about to embark on.

Missoula was my first point-to-point (non-loop) marathon. It was Wei's second in a row since he had run Grandma's in Duluth, MN only a few weeks prior.

Due to our proximity to the state of Washington, and Missoula being the most highly rated Montana marathon on Marathon Guide, there was an abundance of yellow jerseyed Marathon Maniacs including Rick and myself.

Rick and I hiked up Mount Sentinel, adjacent to the UM campus, the day before to witness the Big Sky view of the campus and the ancient glacial lake basin that Missoula was comprised of. The hike took half an hour each way, but the view was majestic. We could see the brownish green mountains which enveloped Missoula and see as far out as Missoula airport, 20 miles away! Needless to say, this trek up the mountain tired our legs enough to prevent Rick from PR'ing by a mere 2 minutes and contributed to me slamming into "the wall" sooner than I had in any previous marathon, making its appearance at Mile 17. We both agreed though, that the hike was worth it and would do it again. It's not everyday that we have a chance to hike Sentinel!

As with the Delaware Marathon, Missoula's set off with the 'boom' of a canon. We started off from a parking lot in Frenchtown along Route 263. The mountainous skyline with the Montana Big Sky backdrop led to this marathon to being my most scenic by far. The course had a slight upgrade over its entirety and maintained the same scenery, full of natural beauty, for the first 16 miles of the course. One exception was a processing plant which reeked of industrious odor.

I was intent on PR'ing this low-humidity high-elevation (3200' above sea-level) mid-summer marathon and had maintained pace with the 9 min pacer for the entire first half. After we crossed the half marathon timing mats, we soon encountered the only big hill of the race, along "Big Flat" Road, quite a misnomer. My pace then dropped to 10 min until Mile 17 when the wall had dropped its full weight upon my Sentinel-weary legs. At this point forward I had to negotiate between walking and running, wavering between a 11 to 14 min pace. The wall also coincided with our race entering the city limits of Missoula and slightly zigzagging through it. Finally, we headed north across the Clark Fork River over the Higgins Ave Bridge, providing a great end to a marathon with such a picturesque first half.

Missoula's Marathon Expo was held under the tent at Caras Park Pavilion and was a decent venue along the river, it was lacking in vendors however. The post-race festivities also took place underneath the permanently erected tent where marathoners were given complimentary post-race photos and surprisingly decent pad thai (yes, in Montana).

This marathon was combined with a marathon relay, and the half runners ran the same back half with us, but intereference from these two running segments was minimal. The view atop our lone hill after the half point overlooking the undulating river and surrounding hills sans man-made structures in sight was my single biggest highlight of this race.

Along Mile 6 a tall Greek Maniac named George Tchakanakis befriended me and we shared our maniacal enthusiasm over marathon running. At Mile 10, we passed a 50 States Marathon Club member with "Larry" written on the back of his running shirt. As soon as I ran passed him, I instantly recognized his face as none other than Mr. 105 Marathons in A Year himself, Larry Macon! I was honored to greet him. We happened to bump into each other again later that day at the Missoula Airport on our way back to our respective homes.