Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Race Report: Madison Marathon

(This race report was nearly done, when I accidentally deleted the entire thing without any way of recovering it.  Here's my second attempt at writing it, this time from memory, since my notes from the race were deleted, too.)

Putting the Madison Marathon into my calendar was a last minute decision.  I had a goal in 2017 of reaching the 10-star or "Titanium" status in Marathon Maniacs, which required a combination of 30 different US states, Canadian provinces, or unique countries within a 365 day period.  Ultimately, I also wanted to make sure the race I reached that status was Australia.  The Madison Marathon crept into my calendar on a whim, since I ended up having to rearrange my calendar after DNS'ing a marathon in April and cutting short a full marathon down to a half, both following getting sick at the Bataan Memorial Death March.

I came upon the Madison Marathon when trying to locate July marathons, and the month, for one, has a dearth of races.  After reading a few race reports, and seeing accounts, like the one at that touted it as one of the "Toughest Road Marathons in North America."  All runners start the race at a jarringly high 9,200 feet in elevation, and within a few miles, peak at 9,600 feet before undulating up and down, before finishing at 8,550 feet. The average elevation along the course is well over 9,000 feet above sea level. There are two to three mile up hills and down hills on the route.

What took the cake was this great video that highlighted the incredible scenery I'd be able to run through:

After getting registered, the order confirmation gave me a window on what to expect.  "First, we can almost guarantee you a PW. The elevation will KICK YOUR ASS, but you won’t care. Second, the reason you won’t care is that this route is drop dead gorgeous. It’s incredible. It’s beautiful and you’ll remember this race for the rest of your life. Third, on a clear day and that’s almost all we have in Montana, you can see for 100 miles. Every corner you turn you get a new view of life’s possibilities."

We also received a very detailed race packet to understand just exactly what we were getting into (LOL). This race is operated under special use permit with the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, and therefore only allows a very limited amount of registrants to participate in this event - a maximum of 200 people for both distances.  Included was a very interesting warning required by the US Forest Service to be distributed to the participants as part of the permit provided to them regarding sheep and sheep dogs that are found on the Gravelly Range.
The Great Pyrenees Guard Dog is a [breed] of dog in use as Sheep Guard Dogs on top of the Gravelly Mountains. They are trained to guard the sheep. They will chase you if you run. If you have a dog with you, the guard dog may see it as a threat to the sheep. They are not pets. The sheep herders have little control over them. They may be seen anywhere. 
If you come upon one or it comes up to you. STOP, stand still, let the dog sniff you and check you out. Tell it to “GO TO THE SHEEP” It will then most likely wander away. WAIT for the dog to move off and leave a far distance. Then resume your travel. DO NOT RUN when the dog can see you. DON’T FEED IT, DON’T TRY TO PET IT!
Needless to say, I was ready to do this race, whether I liked it or not.

Landing in Bozeman
Flying to Montana is not affordable by any means.  Having come to the state in July 2016 for the Missoula Half Marathon (my 50th state for half marathons celebration), I really fell in love with the state, but of course noticed the price tag that came along with flying domestically to this remote destination. For this trip, I paid for a Delta one-way flight that connected through Minneapolis before landing in Bozeman late Friday night, and then booked a return flight home on Sunday night that went direct on United (who knew these actually existed -- apparently it's a seasonal route!) using miles.

After landing in Bozeman, I picked up my car and cautiously drove my way to my Airbnb at an isolated house located five miles off of the highway.  We landed as the sun set late in the day, which brought out the bugs en masse - during the 30 minute drive from the airport, I watched in horror as insect corpses began to adorn my windshield.  I also took care of the fact that this was also the time of day when nocturnal wildlife in this part of the country (where there is plenty of) like to come out and sometimes unknowingly wander into busy traffic.  I made it safely to my Airbnb and immediately crashed for the night, knowing I'd be getting up VERY early the next morning to head to the shuttle pickup spot in Ennis.

It was a one hour drive down to the pickup spot, located near the Exxon Town Pump gas station, where those of us who couldn't pick up our bibs the day before could also get our bibs for the race.  We parked next door at the Ennis School, and then boarded the buses for the 1.5 hour long bus ride up the mountain to the Clover Meadows Campground, staging area and finish line for the race.  Oh yeah, by the way: Ennis, elevation 4,941 feet.  Clover Meadows, elevation 8,430 feet.  Only 35 miles between the two places, but a slow slog in school buses up the mountain.  Our bus even got lost at one point, so we had to tail the caravan of vehicles for most of the way there.

We reached Clover Meadows a little after 7:30, and still had 13.1 miles to go further up the mountain, at least another 600 feet - at most, 1,200.  After a quick bathroom break, as well as retrieving a number of runners who decided to camp out on the mountain, we re-boarded the buses for the trip to the startline. On our way up we began to encounter runners who took the early start, who were probably not thrilled by all the dust that was picked up as our caravan rolled by.  Our 8:30 start was a bit delayed; once everybody disembarked, we got assembled before a makeshift startline, and race director Sam Korsmoe got up on the back of a pickup truck to make some announcements.  After him, Eduardo Garcia, an amputee and cancer survivor, as well as participant in the morning's race, spoke to the runners at the starting line about turning corners and overcoming obstacles.  He also asked for a show of hands of people who came from outside of Montana to run the race, and it seemed like nearly everyone raised their hands.  He then asked how many came from out of the United States to run and many hands also went up.  It was inspiring to see so many runners from all over come to this little known but absolutely picturesque part of the world.

In the shadow of Black Butte
Then it was my turn.  Only a few days before the race, I reached out to Sam about singing the national anthem and graciously allowed me to perform.  Going into it, I knew I’d never sung at this high of elevation, so when I was finally there, holy cow it was hard to breathe.  I sang the “Star Spangled Banner” clinging to every breath I could, managing to squeak out my higher notes notably with less grace and control as I normally can at sea level.  It turns out, having to project my voice loudly (due to a lack of sound system) would cause me to go sharp... and to make matters worse, I ended up starting the song a whole step higher than normal.  A G# at 9,300 feet is no easy task. And then we were off, under the shadow of the majestic Black Butte Mountain, standing at 10,546 feet and dominating the skyline.

Startline... and an uphill. :(
Twenty seconds after our mass start, most of us were already walking because in front of us was a steep uphill climb.  It wasn’t a long climb, but boy was it a lung burner. Before long, the road topped out and was flat for the next mile.  A 15 minute first mile… joy of joys.  But how could I be angry with this incredible view in front of me?

My second mile ended up being the fastest mile of the entire race for me – a 9:20 mile - because we were treated to a good long downhill.  With Black Butte mostly behind me, we had a slight tailwind as we descended from 9,373 feet in elevation to 8,900 feet.  But before me was a very long looking climb toward the highest point on the race course – climbing 700 feet up to 9,600 feet at Monument Ridge.  Thankfully, the dirt and gravel road wasn’t too tough to run on.

Early miles of the Madison Marathon
Looking back toward the towering Black Butte Mountain
Reaching Monument Ridge
All around us, we were treated to magnificent views.  Wide open country, true to the “Big Sky” moniker that Montana has adopted.  While I struggled on the climb through to the five mile mark of the course, I managed to have short conversations with fellow runners, including Kim from Idaho, as well as a group of ladies who enjoyed my rendition of “America the Beautiful” with my out-of-breath-due-to-elevation squeaking. Once again, the views were jawdroppingly gorgeous, and even seemingly a little different from a few miles ago.  All around us were enormously long and steep valleys, easily reminding me that I’m running a marathon in a place that many people don’t get to see.

Mountain ranges nearly 30 mi away
From miles 5 to 8, we had a section rolling hills, with long sections of flatness. To our left (the west), we could see the Snow Crest Mountains and Ruby Range, and to our right (the east), the Madison Range, both nearly 30 miles away in either direction.  The skies were practically cloud-free, so we could easily see the snowcaps on the tallest mountains.  From mile 8, we had a nice downhill along a section that dropped just as much as the mile 2 mark, giving me my second fastest mile in the race, at 10:16.

Fields of wildflowers
We rolled up and down over the next 1.5 miles, followed by yet another nice long downhill section, but now, the terrain had changed.  The gravel was a bit larger and more jagged, and I could feel the uneven terrain underfoot.  Hoping to not twist my ankle, I gingerly made my way down the mountain, and my feet were cursing me for the miles I had already slowly slogged through. At around mile 11.5, we could see the final stretch of road to the finish line at Clover Meadows, which I would end up having to run past, as I still had a 6.55 mile out and back to go in front of me. Many of those congregating in the campground had already finished the half marathon. As we descended into a section of tree stands, I stopped at an aid station conveniently located near the finish, scowled at the already finished runners, and continued on – to my dismay, but to the cheers of those urging me on.  The prophecy of the PW could be coming true – I clocked in a 3:13 half marathon time, and still had a lot more to run.

Be Bear Aware!

More beautiful views
It became pretty lonely as I continued on past the halfway point.  We had a slight uphill as we went through the trees, and at about my 14 mile point, I saw a young man running in my direction, the first place runner in the marathon.  He was running toward the finish at a fairly strong clip, with the elevation seemingly giving him no duress.  I'd later find he'd finish the marathon in a strikingly fast 3:39:40.  His twin brother would come in second place about nine minutes behind him.

Changing scenery
The course continued on with the next mile mostly flat with some slight uphill sections.  Our views began to change as we headed further north along the course, with the land opening up a bit more.  For a third time, the terrain began to change, with less gravel and more dirt, and most of that dirt a bit looser and harder to walk on.  Along the way, I saw other friends coming up the way, including my friend Cade, whose streak of 161 consecutive sub-four hour marathons was in the process of getting broken by this tough course, going over the four hour mark by 11 minutes.

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The last stand of trees
before the turnaround
A few times we also had to cross about four cattle guards - depressions in the road covered by a grid of metal bars three inches wide with gaps the same size, meant to provide a barrier to cattle or livestock from passing through certain areas due to their reluctance to walk on the grates.  The elevation continued to rise and fall over the next several miles, the sun definitely making itself known.  By mile 18, we reached a section called "Devil's Lane," cruelly true underneath the heat of the sun. We passed through another section of forested area, looking different than any other tree stand we had passed through, and likely partly damaged by fire, as some of the tree trunks were ashy and discolored.  By then, it seemed like everybody had passed me, and I had a feeling I was the last one on the course, with nobody behind me. If I had passed anyone, they were either doing the half or had decided to stop at the halfway point rather than continuing on to do the full. We had a few more climbs before we reached another small stand of trees at the end of an uphill - after clearing that, we had a nice steady downhill with the turnaround point at mile 19.55, and an aid station at the bottom.  A volunteer checked off my bib number from a list of marathoners which they'd later correlate with results.  By this point, I was 5 hours and 10 minutes into my race, at 2 in the afternoon.

Tough terrain

Beautiful views
I retraced my steps back through the past 6.55 miles, to take me to the finish line, firmly realizing that I was the last one left on the course.  Over the next nearly two hours, I'd struggle to get myself back to Clover Meadows, walking practically the entire way. As I continued on, several cars headed back down the mountain passed me as I hugged the edge of the road, while I covered my face as the dust from their wheels picked up as they drove past.  The afternoon sun was TOUGH on me.

Victory Headstand!
Eventually, Clover Meadows was finally in view.  Sam's son Colter drove up in a truck to check on me and urged me on in my final mile.  I made the final turn back into Clover Meadows, and crossed the finish line in last place, real time.  After 7 hours and 7 minutes, I completed THE HARDEST race I've ever done in my life.  I'd later find out a marathoner who took the early start had finished the race in its entirety about four minutes longer than me, so I wasn't actually last, though! However, it doesn't matter that I finished real-time last, that this was my worst marathon time to date, or the fact that I walked most of it... I finished it, and it's all that counts. And I got to experience some of the most remarkable views I'd ever gotten to see; sights I would've never been able to see or even known about if I hadn't done this race.  I was handed a much needed cold beer as I rested my tired legs, and Sam helped me as I ceremoniously "checked off" the back bib I was wearing, marking my last five races before reaching Titanium.

The crazy elevation I dealt with for over seven hours.
It was already past 4pm, and everything was being packed up to prepare for the following day's race; Sam had set up a double marathon weekend, where runners could run TWO Montana races, and the second day's course, the Big Sky Marathon, would be more downhill. Starting near the turn around point of the Madison Marathon, the race would descend 3,651 feet down to the Lion's Club Park in Ennis.  One of Sam's volunteers, Nick, drove me back down the mountain back to my car.  I headed back to my Airbnb, exhausted and needing a shower.  After a much needed nap, I went into Bozeman to have a celebratory dinner and some ice cream (yum!), and then crashed for the night as I would be leaving Sunday afternoon to head back to New York.

College M Trail
Sunday morning, I slept in, and upon waking FINALLY met my Airbnb host, whose schedule hadn't coordinated with mine.  After some coffee, I packed up my stuff and headed back into Bozeman and decided to do one last thing before heading to the airport for my flight home - the popular College M Trail, a hike that takes you to the top where the letter M sits high above the Gallatin Valley as a symbol of pride for Montana State University.  I chose the less steep, 1.5 mile long trail, but because of the limited time I had before my flight, I only got half a mile up before I came back down. I still got some 400 feet of climb and descent, and a mile of recovery in.

Mmm.. Local beer!
I headed back to the airport for my flight, but unfortunately we had a really long delay due to storms in the northeast.  Three hours after our intended departure, we finally left.  During the delay while waiting for Newark air traffic control to let our plane leave, I headed to the airport bar and passed the time enjoying a couple local beers with fun names!  I didn't get back to the east coast til 9:30pm, and still had a long trip back into Queens... but Montana was finally checked off!

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