Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Missoula Marathon Review

2011 Missoula Marathon
July 10, 2011
Missoula, Montana
12th Marathon Completed
Overall Rating ... 5 out of 5 Grizzlies

Spoiler Alert...
  • Runner's World Magazine's Best Overall Marathon in United States for 2010
  • Beautiful course through the "Bottom of Glacier Lake" along Clark Fork River
  • Great organization & friendly volunteer staff
  • Maybe the best Expo I have attended with an awesome festival atmosphere
  • One of the better crowds of spectators lining the finish line area that I've experienced
  • Gear bag pick-up after the race & water stops could be improved a little
  • Jeff Galloway in attendance for training and conference
  • Perfect 45 degrees & no wind at starting line
  • Almost got hit by a car during the race
  • 3rd best overall performance to date ... one of my favorite races so far!!!
Finisher Medal ...

Missoula, Montana ...
Nicknamed the "Garden City", Missoula is a beautiful Northwestern town of about 66,000 residents located in the Northern Rockies in a valley between the Bitterroot and Rattlesnake Mountains, and the Sapphire and Garnet Ranges along the Reservation Divide.  The valley is believed to be the dried up lake bottom of a prehistoric Glacial Lake.

Missoula is also home to The University of Montana Grizzlies, the state's largest university with about 15,000 students.   Like most towns located in the mountains, you immediately notice the smell of pine everywhere.  And as you would expect, there are endless outdoor activities including great hiking trails and camping & fishing located just outside of the city. Downtown Missoula features a ton of "ma & pa" type shops, bars & restaurants, and unique local art on display.  And there is definitely an old-town feel with street musicians performing live music along the beautiful Clark Fork Riverfront area. Missoula, Montana is truly one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited, and it was one of the most enjoyable stays I've ever had for a marathon.

I love to drive, but unfortunately Missoula was 22 hours from my home in Kansas City ... and I drove there and back.  It was easily the longest trip I had ever driven.  The drive was probably more exhausting than the race.  But even though there were many hours in the car, the trip was broken up by several interesting stops along the way like Mt. Rushmore, Deadwood, South Dakota, antelope watching in Wyoming, and tornado-like conditions with 100mph winds as I approached the mountains just outside of Billings.  The winds were mixed with a down-pour of rain like I had never experienced in all my years living in Tornado Alley in the Midwest.  As all traffic came to a dead stop on highway 90, I literally thought it was going to turn my car over.  I don't ever remember being as scared from a storm - but it passed pretty quickly.  But other than that, it was just hours and hours of driving.

Race Expo ...
The Missoula Marathon featured one of the best race Expos that I have ever attended.  It was held outdoors at the Caras Park Pavilion along the Clark Fork Riverfront area of downtown, and featured many different elements including a Kid's 5K, live music, and a farmer's market.  The actual Expo was held under a giant pavilion tent and was very well organized with the typical vendors and race promotions.  Also in attendance was author, coach, and Olympian Jeff Galloway who spent time training local runners for the race in a specialized training program.
Jeff Galloway at the
Missoula Marathon

But probably the coolest thing about the Expo was the festival atmosphere that surrounded it.  It literally smelled like a carnival with kettle korn, hotdogs, and fried goodies being sold everywhere.  (Plus I smelled a little weed in the air ... little bit of a hippie element to the farmers market, but that's another story) When I showed up to pick-up my packet, there was a Kid's 5K wrapping up, and of course dozens of proud parents gathering at the finish line to take pictures and congratulate their youngsters.  As you walked a little further, you heard various local musicians playing live as crowds stopped and gathered.  And yet a little further, there were three different farmer's markets featuring fresh fruit, vegetables, baked goods, and hand-crafted arts.

There was a big deal made on the marathon's website about the unique mile markers for the race.  They were individual creatively designed runner's legs.  I think they held some significance, but I never figured it out.  The legs were on display at the Expo and are pictured above. I looked for them during the race, thinking they would be featured in some way at each mile, but I never saw them.  Maybe I just missed them.

As you made your way up the stairs from the Riverfront area to the main street, there were families, bicyclists, walkers, and tons of other people mingling everywhere.  There also happened to be Circus in town over the weekend, so there were people in town for that as well.  It was like the whole State of Montana was in downtown Missoula celebrating together. The temperature was perfect.  The mountains were in the background.  And you really couldn't ask for a much better pre-race experience.  This one will definitely be hard to top!

Lodging ...
Like most marathons, I stayed at Hampton Inn.  It was conveniently located on Reserve Street, directly off of Interstate 90, which is the major highway along the Northern city limits of Missoula.  Not much to report here.  Clean.  Courteous.  Professional.  I'm a fan.

When it comes to hotels for a marathon, I'm not really that picky.   I travel for my job and always stay at Hampton.  So if there's one close and available, I will always prefer it simply because I know the routine, and I can often stay free which is nice.  But for the most part, I'm not a "hotel snob" like my wonderful wife.  I have stayed in some dumps for races, but as long as I don't wake up with a weird rash or bed bug bites ... it's all good.

Missoula featured various hotels along Reserve Street as well as in the downtown area.  Most of them were of course sold out due to the city's busy weekend.  As I drove around before the race, I also saw several bed & breakfasts if that's your thing.  I'm not a fan.

In most cities, I'm not much of a tourist before a race.  Let's face it, I'm really not that much of tourist in life in general.  I promise you I'm one of the most boring people you know!  Here's picture of me doing what I do before a race ... just sittin' in the room tossing an orange in the air.  Yep, that's about it until game time!

Race & Course ...
Buses to the starting line, located at French Town, left downtown Missoula at 4:15am.  So I requested a wake-up call and set my alarm for 2:30am!  At most marathons my restless mind & nerves wake me up about an hour before the alarm goes off.  But for this one, I slept right through until the alarm.  I thought 2:30am was a little ridiculous to be getting up for a race, but the gun sounded for this one at 6:00am, and there was no other way to get to the starting line other than the shuttles provided by the race, so it was an extra early rise-n-shine.

There was free parking in downtown Missoula all weekend. And I found a parking garage about 100 yards from the bus that I took to the starting line.  And this same garage was also only about 300 yards from the finish line, so there really wasn't a lot of walking pre and post race, which was great!

I didn't talk to anyone on the shuttle bus. I never do.  However, I find it really interesting to eavesdrop on other runner's conversations ... rude, probably.  But it's a lot better alternative than listening to someone firsthand brag out their last 25 marathons, or their current IT Band problem, or blah, blah, blah.  I'm not much of a conversationalist.  Sorry.  On this bus though, there was a lady who was 72 run/walking the full marathon.  She was very interesting to listen to as she spoke with another runner.  But I didn't interrupt their conversation ... just eavesdropped.
We got to the starting line about 90 minutes before the race.  It was dark and a little chilly ... about 45 degrees.  Perfect for running, but I had a long-sleeve shirt and jacket on over my running clothes for just sitting around.  I met a guy from Dallas, TX and a lady from Scottsdale, AZ.  They were both doing the 50 States thing too.  He was on his 33rd.  She was on her 16th.  This was  my 12th.  We sat and compared notes on the best and worst marathons we had ran.  They were both really cool and it made the hour and a half pass fairly quickly.

This was a relatively small race with only about 1,000 runners, so the starting area was not crowded at all.  There were plenty of port-o-potties for everyone with only about a 2-3  minute wait.  And the gear drop boxes were only about 10 steps from the starting line, so I waited until the last minute to take off my jacket and line up.  When the gun sounded, there were some small fireworks that went off in front of one of the smaller mountain ranges, which was really cool.

Awesome finish line!
This course  reminded me a lot of Grandma's in Duluth, MN and The Top of Utah in Logan, UT.  It was a point-to-point race that basically featured about 15 miles of mountains, rivers, huge pines, and beautiful scenery before you saw a spectator.  Don't get me wrong, the scenery was awesome, but sometimes I find races like this a little boring.  That probably makes me a bad person ... I mean how dare you say that about running through the mountains.  But I've just found that I run better when there is more visual stimulation to take my mind off of the pace.  Although beautiful, looking at trees and streams for two hours before you roll into town gets a little monotonous for me, although I know I'm in the minority with that.

Overall, the course was fairly easy.  It was a gradual uphill from start to finish, with only one 250 ft hill at about mile 14.  This race was a little unique for me in that I went into it with no real time strategy or pace plan.  I had just decided to run close to my typical splits, and try to come in under 3:25 or so, but I wasn't going to kill myself.  However, at about mile 16 I looked at my splits and realized that if I pushed it I might be able to PR.  So I started to pick up the tempo a little.  I felt strong and my heart rate was low especially considering the 3,200 ft local elevation.  That's not huge, but considering I basically train at sea level, I expected a little beats per minute bump ... but like Logan, UT last year, it didn't seem to bother me at all.

On a point-to-point race like this, it's very tough for the organizers to shut down both lanes of traffic.  So at Missoula, only one lane was closed off.  One of the biggest problems with only running in one lane of traffic is it really narrows the water-stops, and Missoula was no exception.  The volunteers were great and did what they could, but at many of the stops, runners just stopped in the middle of them to drink their water ... a big pet-peeve of mine! This always causes bottle-necking or minor crashes.  In fairness, some of these stops were really narrow and runners didn't have much of an option, but it's still really frustrating avoiding stoppers when you're trying to maintain your pace.  Unfortunately, when the race directors don't have much space to work with, there aren't a lot of good alternatives.

At mile 22 I was literally almost hit by a car!  There were two police officers in the intersection directing traffic.  But as I made my way under the traffic light, an ambitious driver decided to ignore the officer and try to beat me through the intersection.  I was probably running about a 7:10-7:15 pace at that point and didn't want to slow down so I kept my speed up.  I literally braced myself on the hood of her Jeep as I jumped out of the way to keep her from hitting me. (Note:  If you are under the impression that I am REALLY NICE GUY, please skip to the next paragraph at this point.) This really pissed me off and I swore at her ... really loud! (Sorry Madi)  The cop looked back at me and shouted, "Ah man, so sorry about that!", and then proceeded to give the lady a "What the heck are you doing?!!!", through her rolled down window.  Speaking of the local law enforcement, they were probably the best I've had for any race!  They were actually clapping, waving, and telling you "Good job!" as you passed.  Thank you Missoula officers ... you really went out of your way!

Great post-race atmosphere at the Missoula Marathon
Despite the "near death experience" at 22, I felt good all the way to mile 24 and knew I had to run the last two at approximately 7:00 each to PR.  I think at another marathon where I was a little more focused, I might have had it in me, but not at this one.  I ran mile 25 at about 7:30 and realized I wasn't going to PR, so I shut it down and just enjoyed the last mile, which was fine! I finished in 3:22:32, which was my third best race to date.  And considering I really didn't push myself at all until a little at the end, and wasn't sore at all the next day, I considered it a huge success!

The finish line area for Missoula was awesome!  Spectators lined both sides of the last quarter mile as you ran across the Higgins Avenue Bridge over the Clark Fork River, into the heart of Missoula.  The spectators were cheering louder than most races, and the P.A. announcer called out every runner as they crossed the line.  Post-race, there were plenty of volunteers, a nice tented sit-down area, and plenty of food and water.  As many of you know, one of my favorite things to do after going back to the hotel and showering, is to come back down to the finish line area and cheer for some of the folks finishing up their race.  This is typically at about the 5:30 to 6:30 point in the race.  And honestly, at most races its just me and a few family members waiting on the last few runners.  But at Missoula it was different!  At about 6 hours into the race there were still several people at the finish line which I thought was awesome for the final runners!

One of the few criticisms of the race was the location of the gear bag pick-up.  It was back down in the Caras Park are along the Clark Fork Riverfront area ... which was located under the bridge ... AT THE BOTTOM OF THREE FLIGHTS OF STAIRS.  I heard a lot of moaning and groaning as tired runners made there way up and down the climb after the race.  It seems like they could have placed the bags closer to the finish line.  But this is just a minor detail, it in no way changed my opinion of this wonderful race.

Summary ...
I don't know if this is the "Best Overall Marathon in the United States", as awarded by Runner's World Magazine, but it for sure ranks up there!  Although it's not really close to anything other a few Montana and Washington cities, it's definitely worth the trip.  I couldn't have asked for much more in a total marathon package and would HIGHLY RECOMMEND it to everyone for a top notch race experience.  Great job Missoula!
... be great today!


  1. looks like my kind of place...nice and green...why do I live in Southern California....

    45 degree no wind...my dream race conditions..no chance of getting that here...EVER.

    somehow Jim, I highly doubt you are the most boring person I know!
    please ....you ran Boston and 11 other marathons...nothing boring about that. My husbands friends..now THAT is boring, I promise you.

    I do like you on shuttle, I talk to nobody but I listen....

    the car thing...that happened at my last race on the 4th...I cussed also...all in french though...

    hey did you see the pics I posted from the ball game? we had really great seats this time!!!

    great RR as always!!!

  2. That sounds so fun! I think I need to add this to my "To Do" list.

    I'm also a fan of Top of Utah, looking forward to running it again this year.

    Great job!

  3. Montana is amazing. Congrats on your uphill marathon!

  4. Seriously? You intentionally did a net uphill marathon?

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. Oops....can't stay away today....forgot to say, GREAT finish time!!

  7. Congrats on another great race. You are always so detailed in your RR that you make it easy for a person to decide whether or not they want to travel to a particular marathon and that is awesome.

  8. Great race! I love the recap - I felt like I was there. Sounds like a marathon to put on the bucket list :)

  9. Congrats on the race, minus the brush with the car. All uphill, not a fan of uphill races.

  10. That's so cool that you go back to the finish line to cheer in those runners!
    You may have talked me into trying this one next year. Sounds like a great race!

  11. Sounds amazing, other than the close encounter with a car.

    And I couldn't ask for better race conditions. Glad it was such a great experience for you overall!

  12. Amazing! My friend did Grandmas and loved it.

    And eerily enough youre the SECOND persons blog I've read that was almost hit by a car in a race!!!

  13. I think I'm more jealous of you running this race than Boston. Seriously. I bet the view was amazing.

    Next time I'm going to position myself near you on a bus and talk about nothing but tampons and Depends for the ENTIRE ride. HAHAHAHA! Eavesdropper!!

  14. That sounds like my kind of race: pine-scented, friendly, chilly temperatures (even in July). If Top of Utah and Houston don't work out for me, I'll sign up for this one....maybe I'll even do it if they don't just for fun...sounds like a great place for a family vacation too.

    BTW, after my half on Sunday, I plan to start religiously poring over your TOU race report from last year. :^)

  15. Wow! Almost a PR on an uphill course. You are TOUGH! I'm horrible on hills, and I train on them most of the time, but it doesn't translate to my racing. It's still fun anyway.

    Sounds like my kind of race. Not too big, and beautiful scenery. Yes, I must add it to my list.

  16. Great race report Jim! Congrats on another finish and another state. Crazy to think you had such nice weather in the dead of summer! Chris and I will add this rac to our list. Also- I hope you hit the hood of that ladies car (not hit it likefell on it, but hit it hard with your hand while swearing at her). The officers really should have given her a ticket- hopefully they did. Congrats again!

  17. Awesome report and great race. You are really getting stronger and faster as a runner and it is exciting to see. Although you didn't PR this time I have a feeling you know your body well enough and will for sure next race.

    P.S. I am totally one of those people on the shuttle that likes to talk. I really just want to distract myself from driving up what I will be running back down. :)

  18. Hey there, just wanted to comment on the legs... they used to use them for mile markers, but as the race has grown they haven't been as visible, so they switched to the flags this year. Hopefully that helps clear that up! Seems like you enjoyed your visit, thanks for coming to Missoula!

  19. Glad you didn't get hit! People are idiots!

    Love the medal.

  20. looks like a beautiful race, love all the pictures. thanks for sharing.

  21. Wow, 1000 runners is an insanely tiny marathon. I might have been bored by not having enough people around, I start to go crazy if I don't see people or have someone to talk to during the race.

    Interesting that they run the race on the uphill direction, couldn't they run it the other way to have it be net downhill? I guess it has to finish in town, so that idea wouldn't work, lol

    Does sound like amazing scenery in Missoula!

    45 degrees does sound like perfect weather for a race! Sounds like the race pretty much went great for you overall.

    Interesting that you don't talk to anyone on the bus out to the race, I thought you would be the big talker on the bus. I am pretty social, so I am usually one of the people talking to others on the bus. I guess I get bored if I'm not talking, lol

    About Hampton Inn - like 8 years ago I stayed at a Hampton Inn for a wedding in Washington state, and we had more than a few adult beverages, and ended up tossing the patio furniture into the hotel pool, haha The hotel guy walked into the pool area and says "you guys are banned from this Hampton Inn forever!" He was furious, and rightfully so. Never went back to that Hampton Inn yet, haha

  22. Nelly, I've seen you picture in quite a few Hamptons ... right above the caption "Don't EVER EVER EVER let this guy in here!!!"

  23. lol, the guy might have actually said that we were banned from staying in all Hampton Inn's across the whole USA, I forget! haha

  24. Stumbled upon your blog... WOW! THis is awesome. Would love for you to review our site and we will send a tech t-shirt your way for your trouble.

    50 after 40 absolutely AWESOME! That is inspirational.
    Thanks for your contribution to the marathon and running community. :)

  25. I love how you put together the picture collages.

    You write the best race reports.

    Congratulations on another successful race and I'm glad that car didn't hurt you!

  26. Sounds like you had a GREAT race! Congratulations!


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