Wow, where are we going? I’m on the shuttle bus, heading west on I-90, to the start of the Missoula Marathon. The course is point-to-point: We basically start 25 miles west of town and make our way back following the Clark Fork River Valley (The Clark Fork of the ____ River). But the ride seems really really long. I mean, I guess twenty five miles does take a half hour, but it’s an unexpected reminder that yep, a marathon is a long way.
I stumbled on this race by chance—just in town to visit my friend Jena on my way out to Portland. And, since the race wasn’t sold out, I was able to sign up yesterday at the expo. And I figured, why not the full? Only costs ten more dollars than the half. The only problem being that I haven’t really trained, or run, much in the last month, with being on the road. But I have been doing a lot of backpacking, carrying fifty pounds on my back for ten miles, for three days, surely must count for something! But, I’m fairly certain that I will finish—I did run a marathon about a month ago, and I did some others before then, and at this point, three years into running heavily, I have the ‘mental’ part down (meaning that I may be ‘mental’ to want to run marathons, but ok). No, really, it’s just a question of how much time this will take.
We arrive in Frenchtown, a little village with a gas station, some restaurants, some bars, and a small casino (which are ubiquitous in Montana). The bar even looks open at five o’clock in the morning Because, oh yeah, the race starts at six. Brutal. Although giving the advantage of cool temps Supposed to get up in the 90s late in the afternoon, but right now it’s about 60, and I’ll be done sometime after ten. Still early!
I’m starting to like the organizers, because they have arranged for a plethora of ‘blue lagoons’ here—I don’t even have to get in line! Yes! And, fireworks! Which, the announcer dude says, will go off on every quarter hour. These are going off to start the five o’clock start for the marathon walkers: silhouettes right now, though some of those silhouettes seem to be running!
And...we just wait around. I’ve come in on one of the early busses, more pull in every ten minutes or so. I’m got a ‘shell’ jacket on, and my moccasins, and am warm enough. The race organizers have given us drop bags, so we can ditch our cold weather clothes and pick them up at the finish. Nice. I wait through two more sets of fireworks before stuffing the jacket and mocs in and dumping my bag in a box, leaving me with just shorts and a t-shirt. Yep, no shoes. I have barely an idea of what this course is like, but I feel it a moral imperative to run this barefoot, and show these Montucky folks how we do things back in Michigan.
I think we are under five hundred runners, though not sure on exact numbers. There are also relayers. I did hear that the halfers, who are starting at the same time only half-way up the line, number close to 3,000! But, at the expo I asked, and was told, that the course is all on pavement. Good enough! No gravel! I think my feet bottoms are actually in good shape, since much of the hiking and backpacking I’ve being doing has been barefoot. But, we’ll see what kind of pavement actually happens. The course is overall flat though, and we are basically going downriver, so a long gradual downhill overall. Yes, with all the gorgeous mountains around here, we are sticking to the flatlands.
Did I say gorgeous? This is good country. My impression of the people who live here are of folks who like the outdoors: hikers, boaters, mountain bikers, campers—plus ranchers, and those most filthy of all beasts, wildland firefighters.
As an added bonus, Missoula is apparently 60% women, and as my friend Jen told me, ‘They’re all cool.’ The ones gathered here are certainly pleasing to the eye. I will say no more, at the risk of saying something inappropriate. But goddamn, women who run are just...yowza.
We finally line up. I’m already hearing the faint, and not so faint, whispers of, ‘That guy’s barefoot!’, although, it’s respectful, followed sometimes with, ‘That’s awesome!’
We all duck. What the hell was that? Oh, there is apparently a starting cannon. I thought Al-Quaida was attacking. Bout gave me a heartattack!
We’re off! I’m back in the 4:30 zone. I’d be happy to finish in this time, but I’m also just going to warm up and maybe speed up after a while. And yeah, the road is....well, it’s not super rough, but if the whole course is like this, I may be going a little slow at the end. It’s ok now, but I’m just thinking about when my feets get more on the raw side later on. We’re also running in one lane, so that running on the paint line is not as convenient, though ha, that said, people seem to be spreading out to both lanes anyways. Kinda have to, since some people, especially those darn Marathon Maniacs!, tend to run four abreast, so that we solo folks have to scoot around them. But even the paint line isn’t that much more smooth. Oh well. It is what it is.
Some more comments from runners. I wave when I hear them. Some people, guys, sometimes sidle up to me and half ask, half comment, on the bare feet. Stuff like, ‘That must hurt, huh?’ Well, no, it must not if I’m doing it, right? I never know if they’re being sincere, or kind of passive-aggressive, but I try to be polite. I’d be more than happy to talk and explain my reasons for running barefoot, but nobody ever asks why. I think they just assume I’m trying to be a badass, when really it’s the opposite: two years of plantar fasciitis made me incapable of running in shoes without pain, so I just got rid of the shoes.
Orange cones sit in the middle of the road, with ‘Runners Keep Right’ signs on them. One guy, obsessed with staring down at his GPS watch, runs right into one and does a face plant on the pavement. He’s ok, so it’s funny. I think there’s a lesson there though. Jena and I had convo yesterday about ‘associative’ and ‘disassociative’ runners, or running, and how associative types are the ones who are good at discipline, and keeping track of speed, and distance, and planning, whereas she and I are disassociative types, where running becomes a form of meditation, a place to ‘zone out’ and think. The associative types are the ‘better’ runners, but I think we have more fun. And, you know, we don’t fall over cones.
As I warm up, I’m moving up in the pack, passing the 4:15 mob, and then there’s the 4:00 mob up ahead. Do I dare? Why not? I push it, getting ahead of them, though really, despite my multiple potty breaks before the race, I’m having to urinate again. Argh. Well, the good thing is that out here there is forest and trees to do so. Poor women. They simply can’t take advantage of this. Though, of course, I’m the wimp who can’t hold his bladder.
Meaning I end up back behind the 4:15 mob again, but grr, no, I will pass them a second time! The 4:00 pacer dude is actually wearing Five Fingers, and I’ve heard some rumors that one of the other pacers up ahead is wear flips-flops, which I suspect are actually huaraches. I also overhear a convo, inspired by me, about a previous Missoula Marathon, in which the woman who came in third overall did so barefoot. Right on!
Good news: the road gets a lot smoother! Yes! Oh please let it be like this all the way in!
The community seems to be getting into this race. We’re still out in boonies, with cows and horse and ranches, though also with ‘regular’ homes with grass lawns surreal-y plopped down in the middle. But people are coming out and sitting in chairs, or in backs of pickups, cheering us on. And even better, they’re setting out their sprinklers to give us some cool misting. The air isn’t super hot, but still feels good.
And lo! As we get on in miles, a hill! And then it plateaus out. And then it’s a hill again. The road gets a little rougher in here, and I’m zig-zagging back and forth to find the smoothest parts, and I end up kinda cutting off a woman behind me, who’s just coming up straight. I apologize, and try to explain, and she’s cool about it. We talk a little She’s down from Helena, and has a funny line about ‘seizing the hill’ though the hill seems to be seizing us. But we do not walk!
She zips on ahead, alas, as the course levels out. Somewhere in here is where the halfers joined in. They started on a side road, ran a couple miles, then merged in here, and are way up ahead by now. I’ve been passing walkers this whole time. Gotta give it up for them. They’re going to be out here all day. Seems like if I were going to walk 26 miles, I’d go out in the woods, but the view is still gorgeous, and I can tell that this is a goal for many of them. The ‘signing up’ part, and spending the money, helps motivate them to actually do it.
Aid stations are every two miles here, and will turn into every mile later on. Very cool. Another kudo to the organizers. I’m carrying my Amphipod bottle, but really didn’t need it for this one.
13.1! Check the stopwatch: 1:58. Ok, well, that’s ok. If I can maintain any semblance of this pace, I’ll actually be doing a lot better than I expected! Legs are feeling a little weak—they haven’t been used like this in a while. Am I heading to a total blowout? As of now, I’m basically neither passing nor being passed, mostly. Except for the damn relayers, who come sprinting by. Or, I think they’re relayers. Can’t see their bibs, but because of that, they make me feel like I’m slowing down. Grr.
Yes, the slog has begun. We are getting more into the suburb-ish area of Missoula, with house and lawns, though there are of course the occasional ponderosa pines, and a fair amount of shade. Heat still not a problem, especially with the still generous sprinkler set ups from some people.
I pass a house where a large family is hanging on their porch watching, and a little girl says, loudly, ‘Daddy, why is that man have no shoes?’ I laugh, which the family sees, which makes them all laugh.
I’m getting a lot of ‘Good jobs’ and ‘Wow, barefoot!’s’ both from other runners, but a lot now from the onlookers. People love it. Maybe for the wrong reasons (i.e. that it’s hardcore and difficult and something they could never do) but I’ll take it. I’m feeling good though. Haven’t been caught by the 4:15 pacer, so am somewhere behind a 4:00 finish. Nice! And, I think I can even sustain this pace. I’m going to do better on this marathon, which I didn’t train for, than the Ann Arbor marathon a month ago, which I at least made some semblance of training for. Go figure.
Except, with our entry into the burbs, the roads get a little rougher. Again, not paralyzing, yet, but not my precious smooth road from earlier. But, more paint lines, and even sometimes some sidewalks. But also sometimes just having to grin and bear it, bending my legs, getting my cadence up, and trying not to spend too much time touching the ground. Ha.
There hasn’t been much music so far—nothing organized anyway, but now we’re getting the occasional single person, men and women, playing an african drum. One in particular has a good steady beat, really gets me in a different state of mind. Hard to describe, but it seems to summon some energy in me. Not so much that I’m up for speeding up, but a steady kind—I’m going to be able to keep this pace. Probably even speed up at the end, as I like to do.
As I’m coming up on one man standing on the sidelines, he yells out, “Hey, another barefoot runner!”
I do a double take. “There’s more of us up ahead?”
“Yep. Another guy.”
Cool. I wonder if I’ll seem him.
More people lining the roads, cheering us on. With about four miles to go, the course does a bunch of zigging and zagging in town south of the river, so friends and relatives can be out here and still be able to head to the finish line before their runner. My name gets called out, which surprises me. It’s one of Jena’s friends who I met the other night, sitting on the curb. I don’t’ remember her name, but I say hello. Nice to be recognized. And a little ways up, one of the volunteers says hello—another friend of Jena’s. Nice to know someone in the know!
And at the 24 mile mark, what should I hear but, “Hey barefoot runner!” Here’s Jena herself, done with the half and still finding the energy to come out and cheer me on. She gives me a hug real quick, an energy boost for the final stretch, and she says she’ll see me at the end.
Feels like the runners around me are feeling the same way as I. Seems like we’re all picking up our pace a bit Except for one young woman who is walking. Her boyfriend is on a bicycle next to her, talking to her. “Come on, don’t get discouraged.” Which, to my mind, sounds like the last thing she needs to hear right now. But who knows, I don’t know them. Seems like he could be more positive though.
Passing lots of walkers too, from the halfer pack. One older woman has just way too much energy, singing and raising her arms, talking with onlookers. But cool.
I’m picking up my pace, though unsure when to kick in the afterburners, we’re making so many turns, I don’t have a clear sense of how far out we are, until I see the street sign coming up: Higgins. That’s it! That’s the home stretch up into downtown. I make the left and yep, there’s the Finish Line up across the bridge. With the sounds of ‘Go barefoot runner!’ I switch into leave-it-all-out-on-the-course mode. Fortunately the road it blessedly smooth. I can increase my stride, and my foot strike.
Onlookers on both sides now, and when they see me sprinting in barefoot they cheer. I’m passing some trudgers and walkers. There’s Jena on the right. We give each other a double thumbs up, and I sprint on in! There’s a preliminary chip-reader strip, so the announcer can call out people’s names as they come in, but I’m going too fast. He does get in a, “And here comes a barefoot runner!’ right before I cross.
And I cross!
Whew! Kinda woozy, but I get my medal—in the shape of a horseshoe, ha. I think I’m a little bit more dehydrated than I thought—the thought of drinking even water makes me nauseous, and ditto for food, except that (and this is the best thing about the race, and another kudo to the organizers) along with the more traditional free food, they have popsicles made out of real watermelon. So good.
My time: 4:06. Heck yeah I’ll take that. That’s pretty good for me, and about a half hour better than I thought I’d do. I’ll have to not train for marathons more often.
Jena finds me. We hang out in the tent and eat multiple popsicles while I rest and let my muscles totally stiffen. A couple fellow finishers approach me and congratulate me on the barefoot finish. A few people are walking around barefoot, though I think they’re just airing out their feets after the race. Still, I’d argue that if it feels so good to shed the shoes after the race, why not shed them before? But I don’t spot that other barefoot runner.
Jena and I head over to the nearby park, where they’re already handing out trophies to the various winners, for age and overall. And man, the men and women in their 60s and 70s do not look like they’re in their 60s and 70s at all. I want to be like them when I grow up. Everybody looks young and fit, especially the young and fit ones. Over all winner was around 2:30, a tall skinny guy in his early twenties, but most impressive are the two women who won second in their age categories, and this was their first marathon!
My feets are ok. Dirty of course, but not that raw, except for my usual soft spot on left ball of my foot, and even then that’s not too bad. Overall, a very fun marathon!