By the time race day for the half marathon rolled around, the only thing I was left wondering was how it would feel to run a race with 2,400 other half-marathoners. Sure, there were a few jitters and "what ifs" parsing through my brain, but I'd already run the distance three times. I wasn't worried if I could do it. The only real question was how it would go. It wasn't easy, but running the race and crossing the finish line felt like a celebration of what I'd already accomplished. Throughout training I was determined to get to a point where there was little left to question.
Fast forward six months to January 1, 2011, only mid-way through the coldest, snowiest winter of my 18 years in Montana. My running in November and December had plummeted to next to nothing. Thick permafrost covered the roadways. A new treadmill to replace Cheryl's unresponsive hunk of a rickety machine sat ready for action. I'd declared my goal to train for the marathon and complete it in under four hours. And that's when it hit me.
The biggest difference in running my first half marathon and my first full marathon is the unknown.
Nevermind that working up to a 22 mile training run seemed as foreign as sunshine on a midwinter Missoula day. Race day meant going 4.2 miles farther than ever before while running all 26.2 miles at a pace never experienced. Yeah, THAT unknown.
For the second year in a row, I signed up for Run Wild Missoula's Marathon Training group. There's no way I was doing this alone and if there's a better training group out there anywhere, I'd be shocked. After two months of five-days-a-week training on the treadmill, it no longer mattered that the temperature one week before the class was 5 degrees with snow flying. I needed to get out on the roads and train with people who were similarly crazy enough to dive into the unknown.
And train we did. We trained through snow storms and cold rain. We trained up hills and across the valley. We trained with laughter and pain, highs and lows, excitement and fear. We experimented with pacing, nutrition and hydration while sharing tips along the way. Training runs rose from 13 to 15 to 18 to 20 to 22 miles. We learned to respect the distance when our second 20 mile run landed on the first warm day of training and we crashed and burned.
It's funny how cavalier we became during the training. Twenty miles? Ah, that's nothing. Been there, done that. Then the training gods throw something new into the mix, like heat, and you're left standing at mile 17 with nothing left in the tank and looking for a ride. How am I going to go 26.2?
There's the unknown again. It messes with you. It laughs. When you build up some confidence, it smirks.
Only two things can counteract it: do the training and trust the training. The second one is surprisingly harder.
Race day arrived on July 10 with clear skies and an amazing temperature of 42 degrees for the 6:00 a.m. start. There's a lot you can control in preparing for a marathon. There are a few things you can't and they're doozies. Weather is a huge one. Forty two degrees inspired a lot of confidence.
As I stepped to the start line following the national anthem, I ran through a mental checklist to remind myself I was ready to go. Training? Check. Race plan? Check. Nutrition and hydration? Check. Weather? Check plus. Fresh legs? Uhh . . . . . .
Something didn't feel quite right. Maybe it was nerves, or perhaps a touch of the allergens that had taken hold of everyone else at the house, but I didn't feel particularly strong or energetic that morning. In the first mile after the cannon went off, my legs felt heavy, particularly my quads. I'd come to the start line with two plans. Plan A, assuming everything lined up, was to shoot for a sub-4 hour time. Plan B, in then event it didn't, was simply to finish. Despite the heavy legs, I decided to stick with Plan A for as long as it would take me.
|Ross, Alan and Mike|
The first turn, onto Kona Ranch Road, is a welcome one because it gives you a llittle something to do and changes up the scenery. A bridge takes you across the Clark Fork River and a couple of turns later you're on Big Flat Road, wondering who came up with the name. Big Flat Road has the only significant hill in the marathon and presents a bit of a challenge just after the half way point.
The hill comes shortly after the the half way point and shoots sharply up for a few tenths of a mile. I'd planned to walk it, thinking whatever I'd lose in time I'd gain back in saved energy. I had run the whole thing during a training run and thought a good power walk would serve me better. Just as I slowed to a walk, a voice I recognized said "I like your style"as he slowed to join me. It was a good friend, Mike, and the company was more than welcome.
We resumed running after the steep stretch, but the hill is a bit deceiving. It continues to rise over the course of another mile and a half with several false summits, lending a bit of frustration. Fortunately, the drop down to the Bitterroot River finally arrived and allowed us to gain back a fair amount of the time we lost while walking. I checked in with my heavy legs. They weren't any better, but they weren't getting worse. I'd banked some time in the miles leading up to the hill. I'd only lost one minute overall and was still on pace for sub-4. But it was still only mile 16. The unknown was still six miles away.
weird dream I'd had in the week prior. A man in a full tuxedo sat playing a grand piano under a shade tent. It was a perfectly ridiculous surprise that gave us a good laugh and provided a bit of a lift over the next couple miles.
Maclay's Bridge over the Bitterroot is one of the many scenic spots along the course, but it also signals the start of a stretch of the course where it is easy to lose focus. Fatigue is starting to make an appearance and the course is a series of straight stretches that do nothing to take your mind off things. Fortunately, Mike and I spent the stretch talking about life and running while also taking advantage of the free high fives offered up by a volunteer in the middle of Clements Street.
Mike and I made the turn onto 3rd street where the shade returns and the course gets interesting again. It's also where mile 20 hits. I did some quick mental math and realized we'd banked some more time. It was the first point I let myself start believing I might hit my goal. I told Mike we could both hit a sub-4 time, also his goal. Legs were staying the same, nutrition felt good and the temperature still held cool. With the time I'd banked I figured I could survive a minor setback or time fade. Was the infamous wall waiting up ahead?
I came out of the tunnel under Reserve Street and realized Mike was starting to fade a bit. From here on out, I was on my own. Not really my choice, but I had a goal to reach. We'd run this stretch of the route many times in training, intentionally making it second nature for the tough going. Mile 21 passed and I was holding pace while hitting as many sprinklers as I could, mostly just for entertainment. Mile 22 came and went on 4th Street and I started smiling. New territory. Farther than I'd ever run. No wall in sight. Time in the bank. Here comes the unknown.
Smiling is one thing. Continuing to run is quite another. The last 4.2 miles were a total test of focus and determination. I prefer to walk through the aid stations, but starting back up was getting progressively harder. Losing time at the aid stations made it necessary to run faster to make up the time. Fatigue made just thinking difficult. I heard my name called out several times over the last four miles, but could only manage a weak thumbs up in response. Bonner Park loomed up ahead. At Bonner Park, runners take a right, away from the finish line for a 3/4 mile detour of mental head kicking. A left on South and another left on Hilda and you're headed back toward Bonner Park. Only a mile and a half left. The home stretch. Start believing.
I clicked off the garmin, slapped some more high fives and collected my medal. I celebrated some with Cheryl before turning to look for training group friends who finished ahead of me and those who were still to come. Like everything at the Missoula Marathon, the post race food is top notch and the free Big Sky Brewing Co. beer never tastes better. Hours later, while celebrating at home with maybe a couple too many great craft brews, I reflected back on how important the people I met during the training group had been.
There's Shannan, whose unfortunately timed visits from in-laws and a nasty sinus infection left her disappointed in her performance, but the rest of us amazed and proud at her perseverance. There's Rod, running his first marathon in 27 years, who taught me the value of a good power walk. Thurston, having shed 70 pounds in the months leading up to the training group, followed up his first marathon success by getting a full arm band tattoo bearing the numbers 26.2. There's Kara, a mom to two, rocking a 3:27 finish, whose ridiculous speed quietly became evident during the training group despite always slowing down to visit with the old guys.
There's Cody, who took a month off from training to bike across Montana, demonstrating what youth and natural talent can do for a guy with a sub-four hour performance though he'd never run more than 17 miles in a single run. Ross, whose youth and penchant for hills provided plenty to envy, was the picture of selflessness, often holding back to run with others purely for the community of it all. And Scott, bandanna man, always upbeat and training for his first marathon at age 52, whose dream goal of a sub-4 hour time got dashed by nasty cramps around mile 20. He drew the short straw that day. Yet, no one more than Scott embodied what our training group had become. After hobbling through the last six miles while watching the minutes tick away, he was more interested in how the rest of us did and more proud of our accomplishments than dwelling on his own turn of luck.
These are all people from different places, at different points in their busy lives, with different goals, but brought together in a common quest. The training is tough. The physical challenges are daunting. The mental wrangling is exhausting. But we did it together, working on individual goals while surrounded by community support.
I think Cheryl is glad I've stopped incessantly talking about the training and the race, but her patience and support were never taken for granted.
I signed up for the marathon and got the t-shirt.
I trusted the training and stepped over the start line.
I crossed the finish line and solved the unknown.
The pictures of the horse riders and piano player were taken by Ryan Snyder, a Marathon Maniac who snapped a ton of great photos while running the race.