Monday, October 10, 2016

Race Report: Missoula Half Marathon - my 50th State!

I AM SO BEHIND.  I know.  This one was just really hard to write, there was so many things that happened over the weekend.  And SOOOO many pictures!

The second weekend of July was the weekend I've been waiting for all year.  In Montana, I would be running my 50th state, completing a journey that took a mere 28 months to finish... running a half marathon in all fifty states.  I made the decision way back in October 2015 to make Montana my 50th state; in 2014, I completed races in 11 states and then went a little nuts in 2015, finishing 31 states within the calendar year.  Only 8 states remained for 2016, and the calendar worked out to make Missoula be the race to commemorate my accomplishment, a race I had heard from so many people being so beautiful and well managed.

I reached out to the organizers back then about making their race be my 50th state, and about my attempts at singing the national anthem in every state, and they were open to the idea of me singing.  But being so many months out, they had me re-contact them in June, about a month out from the race to formalize the details.  We confirmed my participation as the national anthem singer, and they also had a reporter from KPAX TV, the local CBS affiliate in Missoula, reach out to me for an interview.

I lucked out in finding a travel deal from Newark to Missoula via Los Angeles and San Francisco for 12,500 miles, later switching to a Newark-SFO-Missoula flight because of some flight changes United pulled on me. It arrived very late in San Francisco, forcing me to stay overnight in the airport until the early morning flight to Missoula, so I found a place to sleep in the terminal near my connecting gate.  At the gate, I ended up running into my friend Melinda, who decided to register for the race after learning it would be my 50th state!  Upon boarding, I lucked out with a first class upgrade on the flight to Missoula!  SCORE!

Flying over Montana.  There's a reason Montana's name is derived from the Spanish word for mountain...

Coming in for a landing, with the city at the foot of Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo
Pretty, Lynne, and I at the M trail!
The flight in was great, being treated to the perks of first class, as well as being afforded with beautiful views flying across northern California, eastern Oregon, and across Idaho into Montana.  We landed around 11am, and I got my rental car at the cute Missoula airport, where I ended up running into another set of friends - Erin and her husband Mike, who ended up surprising me as I had not expected them to be in Missoula for the weekend!  I met up with Melinda and another friend in town to help me celebrate, Pretty (who I had only "met" online through other friends), for lunch at Iron Horse Bar & Grill, which we followed up with a hike from the foot of the Mount Sentinel on the campus of the University of Montana, up 0.7 miles on several switchbacks for an uphill of about 660 feet to the hillside "M" that overlooks the campus.  We went another 0.3 miles up and 200 feet of rise until it got far too steep and we realized how much harder it would be to come down.  After a little rest at the M again, I decided to go ahead of Melinda and Pretty and RUN down the mountain.  It was steep, and had a lot of uneven ground, and being that I still had a (few) races to run, I took it as easy as I could despite the technical nature of the trail.

The beautiful view from the M on the side of Mount Sentinel!

A little further up the trail and you can see eastward along I-90
The crew at the beginning
of the Beer Run!
That night, we embarked on an unofficial relaxed 5k that the marathon organizers were putting together, dubbed the "Beer Run."  The course started at the Caras Park Pavilion, where the race's little expo and packet pickup is located.  Caras Park is along the Clark Fork River and is also the site of the post race festivities on on race day.   The event was free, and was part of the Missoula Marathon’s Big 3 Challenge – running the Beer Run on Friday, the Missoula 5K on Saturday and the Missoula Marathon or Half Marathon on Sunday. It was a very relaxed "run" as I started off with several of my friends walking alongside the path along the Clark Fork River, as it meandered through Bess Reed Park and Kiwanis Park.  At a half mile in, we crossed a footbridge underneath the Madison Street Bridge that went over the Clark Fork River, and then followed some dusty trails through Madison Park before following the Campus Drive that took us on a tour around the campus of the university, passing by the stadium, main library, and then even through the quad as well, before returning back over the footbridge and to the paths back to Caras Park.  At the end of the run, we got a fun "Beer Run" keychain as a memento for completing the first run of the weekend.  Kimberlee, who had driven in all the way from Boise, was there at the finish waiting for us.  I cheered as the rest of my friends came running in, and then altogether, we went for some delicious barbecue at the nearby restaurant "Notorious P.I.G." - a restaurant name so amazing, I ended up getting a hat with it emblazoned on it!  We also had some amazing ice cream, and also got to play around on Missoula's famous carousel, a beautiful hand carved and volunteer built carousel that also contains the largest band organ in continuous use in the United States.

With Hollie and the "Charging Forward" statue made
of car parts outside of the stadium!

Montana corgi spotting!
Beer run complete!

Having far too much fun on the Carousel!
(Photo by Erin Bliss Thompson)
Saturday morning 5k Startline!
Saturday morning was the Missoula 5k, starting on the Higgins Avenue Bridge.  From the start, we raced down toward 4th Street, and then took a couple turns on some city streets before hitting the 1 mile mark and embarking onto the parking lot of Ogren Park at Allegiance Field, the baseball stadium where the Missoula Ospreys of the Pioneer League play.  Behind the stadium, is the Kim Williams Nature Trail, which follows the river for 1.3 miles, which we ran on.  The rains overnight dampened the trail a bit, which made it muddy at points.  We returned onto the north side of the river crossing the footbridge underneath Madison Street, and then followed the Riverfront Trail to the finish line in Caras Park.  Nearing the finish, I spotted Diane, a friend and fellow Front Runner from New York, who just happened to be in town on holiday with her parents (her brother lives in Missoula), which was a happy surprise!  Her parents were both running their first 5k, and she was going to run the half marathon the following day like myself. On Saturdays, a farmer's market takes over the parking lot on the other side of the Higgins Avenue Bridge, so I made my way around to check out the beautiful colors and tasty-looking food ready for consumption!

On the Kim Williams Nature Trail

Making faces with Hollie as we pass the campus of the University of Montana

A nice surprise seeing Diane at the finish!

Fresh Clark Fork Market offerings! Huckleberries, morel mushroms, and carrots!
After the race, I decided to do a little drive out to check out a couple sites before returning to Missoula for my big celebration party.  First, I drove an hour out to the Lolo National Forest (and at points through a hellish rainstorm that lasted a few minutes!) to a place called Lolo Hot Springs, a commercial hot springs site, where folks can go to soak in the natural pools.  Now, I've been to a few hot springs around the country, including the nicely equipped Lava Hot Springs in nearby Idaho, and this place was kind of a dud.  It resembles a public swimming pool, and doesn't seem all that sanitary.  Not only that, but I just happen to come out to Lolo Hot Springs on the one weekend where a humongous crazy festival is happening, Pirate Party Montana, a Burning Man-like three day festival with over 3,000 attendees, many of which were in various states of intoxication - alcohol or otherwise.  I decided to stick around for an hour and enjoy the warm pools, despite the crazy nature of everything happening around me.  A few ladies who were in town for the race had also made the trip out to Lolo Hot Springs, and were caught unaware of the same event, but still stuck it out.  As I was leaving, I ran into Pretty and Lynne, who had just arrived, and I warned them that it was not really worth it.

Billboards along the roadside!
With more time still on my schedule, I decided to drive out east of Missoula, about an hour and forty minutes to the town of Clinton, Montana.  When I was in Denver, my friend and Montana native Melissa had told me about this aptly named town, and the fact that it was the location of the Rock Creek Lodge and the notorious "Testicle Festival," a yearly event commemorating one of the tenets of Montana's regional cuisine, Rocky Mountain Oysters... aka bull testicles! Upon arriving, I really wanted to try out these "delicacies," but unfortunately, the kitchen was closed.  Why? Because they had a wedding happening on the grounds of the lodge, and the reception was HAPPENING IN THE BAR.  Seriously.  While I was bummed I couldn't try them (maybe? maybe not? LOL), I did manage to snag a few photos, well worth the visit.  As well as the guests leaving the wedding... Hahahaha!
Shenanigans at the Testy Festy.
Seen in Clinton, Montana

All the crew who joined
in my celebration!
It was early evening when I returned to Missoula, and headed straight to Rumour Restaurant, a brand new restaurant located in the Rose Park neighborhood of Missoula, just south of downtown.  I had contacted Rumour a few weeks earlier about hosting my party, and they were kind and gracious enough to reserve a large room for me, in addition to crafting selections off of their expansive menu specifically for my party.  The restaurant used to be the site of Elbow Room, a longtime sports bar and grill, which closed in 2014 after over fifty years in business.  Purchased in the following year by John and Colleen Powers, former owners of The Ranch Club (a golf course, restaurant, pool, and surrounding development), they opened Rumour in May, offering an upscale menu of New American food, and an expansive, nearly twenty-page drink menu highlighted by the fact that they have several different wines on tap, with a wall at the bar lined with spouts. They are unique also, operating with "hospitality included" in all of their food items, meaning there's no line on the check for tipping the server. The thinking is explained on an separate sheet of paper that comes with the menus, explaining their thoughts of tipping regulations being inequitable to cooks and other behind-the-scenes staff. According to the owners, "Not implementing tipping will allow us to compensate our employees more equitably, competitively, and professionally, and provide clear paths for professional advancement for every role on our team."
With owners of Rumour Restaurant, John and Colleen Powers

Mementos meant for a 50th birthday, lol
Being interviewed at the restaurant
(Photo by Kimberly Danchus)
The room was HUGE.  And accommodated the nearly 30 people that came to celebrate with me!  I had planned on meeting with the reporter from KPAX at the restaurant, and we held the interview right there in the room as the servers got drink orders while friends started arriving.  We had such an amazing time, and everybody remarked how amazing the food was.  The amazing part was that every person was able to have a separate check, as well!  Thank you to Lynne, John, Pretty, Pamela, Nadia, Darlene, Dee Dee, Deb, Juan, Lisa, Deana, Seth, Hollie, Kimberlee, Kimberly, Jim, Donna, Karen, Brian, Loan, Kristi, Danielle, Kristine and her husband, Erin and Mike and friends, Donni, and Diane, for all coming to celebrate!  Your friendship means the world to me :)  Since everyone was running different races between the half and the full the next day, I wanted to regale everyone present with the national anthem, since I was going to be given the chance to sing at the start of the half marathon.  Not only that, but I also had a little surprise in store for the runners, as I had gotten in touch with a local "celebrity" during race day, and had planned out a little impromptu song along the course, so I previewed that for them as well -- more about that later.

The startline!
The evening died down, and by 8pm we were all heading back home. The following morning's races would begin at 6am, so we were up by 4am or thereabouts, and catching 5am shuttles. Seth joined me at my Airbnb that night, so super early the next morning, we both got up to get ourselves to the University of Montana parking lot where we could pick up our shuttles to get us to our respective starts. I easily got onto a bus, and we arrived to the trafficky start to the sight of a night sky lit by fireworks commemorating the beginning of the race (oh, the residents at the start must have been FURIOUS!) Wea assembled int he parking lot of Alpine Physical Therapy, located at 5000 Blue Mountain Road, just west of the Bitterroot River, very close to the countryside.  I met with the race coordinators at the start, who were positioned on a scaffolding where I was going to perform, as well as the reporter from the night before, there to take some footage of the start, as well as some of me prepping for my big race and for the anthem.  Just before 6am, I sang my heart out and then my friends attached the humongous "50" balloon that I decided to attach behind me, which ended up being quite a sight for much of the race.  As soon as I finished the anthem, more fireworks signaled the start of the race, and then we were off!

Friends all ready to start the half marathon!

The beautiful views at the start of the race, going into the countryside
More beautiful views!
I raced at a manageable pace, as some folks wanted to run alongside me until we got to a point about three miles into the race.  The views for the first three miles were ABSOLUTELY GORGEOUS, and it helped that they were kind of downhill, but honestly, the race course was mostly flat - the difference between the highest and lowest parts of the course was a mere 112 feet.  After making our first turn off of Blue Mountain Road onto River Pines Road, we had reached our first water stop, and just a little further down the road, I knew I was going to stop because that was where I was to find Gary Bowman, known to many who have participated in the Missoula Marathon and Half Marathon as Missoula's own "piano man."  For the last six years, Gary has played at a grand piano in his tux and tails alongside the course, usually right at the same spot in the front yard of one of the properties on River Pines Road. My friends Dan and Paula, who had run South Dakota with me, told me about the "piano man" who played alongside the course, copying a concept that is famed from the Big Sur Marathon near Big Sur, California.  Through some research in newspaper articles, I was able to get a hold of him about a month before the race and thought up the idea of singing an impromptu song when I got to his piano - we had decided to do "New York State of Mind," except I changed up the lyrics to make it running centric and commemorative toward my 50th state celebration.  We actually got a chance to rehearse the song the day I arrived, as I went to the music store he owns, Morgenroth Music Center, pretty much right after landing at the airport.  The song went off quite well, and then I continued on, to rack up the mileage at the pace I was used to!

Me and Gary Bowman after singing my song!
Crossing the Bitterroot River
We crossed the Bitterroot River, crossing a bridge that finally into the western reaches of town, just south of the Clark Fork.  The next three miles through western Missoula were long stretches of flat road with homes and farmland on both sides of the street.  Occasionally, we had some residents cheering us on from their yards.  We only had two major turns on these straight stretches of road, and with it being so flat, there was not much to remember sightless other than the mountains surrounding us.  There was one big cow statue along the side of the road at one of those turns. Running into town, we zigzagged along several streets that weaved their way through the unmistakably distinct city grid of downtown Missoula.

8 year old half marathoner, Eli!
At mile 7.5, we moved off of the road temporarily, and turned onto the Milwaukee Trail, a former rails to trails line that took us through a tunnel underneath Highway 93. There was a small pasture area after the tunnel where there were some happy cows that decided to come right by the fence and inspect the runners running by, which many a runner took a picture.  Around mile 8, I ran by a woman with her young son, Eli. Apparently, he was the youngest participant in today's race, and he's 8 years old, running in his second half marathon!  I made sure to snap a picture of him, and he didn't finish too far behind me.  The kid's got guts, running this much distance at such an early age - bodes well for him as he grows up!

Happy cows by the fence

Mount Jumbo and the hillside "L"

Always fun to have some live entertainment on the course!
And now the "M" on Mt. Sentinel!
As we neared the finish and ran through town, I got more and more congratulations and strangely enough, a WHOLE LOT of "Happy birthdays" to which I would respond, "It's not... it's my 50th state!" through heavy breaths.  The "M" and "L" on Mount Sentinel and Mount Jumbo were in clear view for much of the entire way.  The last two miles of the course took us down familiar streets, parts of the 5K courses we ran in the days prior to the half.  As we made the final turn onto Higgins Street, we crossed over the Clark Fork River, with the finish line in sight, and I was announced as finishing my 50th state and having sung the national anthem at the start.  Seconds later, the first person finishing the full marathon crossed the finish line.  I completed the half marathon in 2:25:20.  I stuck around the finish line and waited for every single one of my friends to finish - the least I could do for many of them coming all the way out to help me celebrate!

With Tony Banovich, Missoula Marathon race director

Official finisher photo.  And now a 50 state finisher!

Victory Headstand!

After finishing the race, I headed back to the Airbnb for a much needed nap, since I had been awake since 4. After a couple hours of z's, I joined Donna and Hollie for a late afternoon lunch at Iron Horse (where I had my first meal a couple days earlier).  While we were eating, it began to rain, and rain rather heavily; thankfully, this had held off and not occurred during the race in the morning!  After lunch, I went off with Donna to pick up her stuff and then we went to find a good location for me to FINALLY do my headstand -- I had completely forgotten to do it earlier in the day as I was waiting for my friends to come in to the finish. In the midst of the light rain, I managed to do my headstand (with the M in the distance) and then decided to bid adieu to my big "50" balloon with a symbolic float off into the clouds. I then dropped Donna off at the airport for her flight home.

With a little bit of time left in the day, I met up for drinks with another bunch of friends who remained in town at Highlander Beer/Missoula Brewing Company, then decided to stop off for dinner back at Rumour, to properly thank the Powers' for their amazing hospitality at my party the night before.  Plus, I got to try what was supposedly the best fish in Missoula - and that it was!  An ahi tuna, rare. With soy-mirin glaze, garlic rice, wasabi avocado cream, and pineapple ginger chutney.  Mmmmm.  I turned in for the night, since my I had a full schedule for my last day in Montana.

Driving northward to Glacier
Early the next morning, I decided to drive off to Glacier National Park, an easily 3 hour drive northward, and for this morning, through overcast clouds and rain.  On the suggestion of my Airbnb host, I decided to drive up to the Flathead Valley through Seeley Lake, a route that would take me through the Flathead National Forest and into Big Fork from the east.  I stopped in the town of Big Fork for a delicious breakfast at Pocketstone Cafe - which seemed to be a pretty busy place that Monday morning.  I didn't have it, but I did notice their homemade cinnamon rolls, which may be something to try if you stop into this restaurant!  Big Fork also has some beautiful views of Flathead Lake, famous for cherries harvested along its shores.

At the entrance to Glacier National Park
I continued northward and entered Glacier National Park through the town of West Glacier.  As I gradually lost cellular signal heading further north, I drove past the massive Lake McDonald, stopping to take some pictures and revel in the beauty surrounding me.  While I had a very minimal cell phone signal, I still managed to do a one-way Facetime with Mom, as she delighted in seeing the pretty landscapes, but I couldn't hear a thing she was saying from her side.

Big Sky over Lake McDonald
The Glacier valley from The Loop
I drove further up the aptly named Going to the Sun Road toward "The Loop," one of the iconic picture spots in Glacier where cars make a hairpin turn and look over a MASSIVE view of the valley below.  At 4,400 feet in elevation, the road takes a hairpin turn and continues on an upward climb towards Logan Pass, which sits at 6,646 feet, and is located along the Continental Divide.  The drive up was harrowing and white-knuckled, as I gradually drove myself into a literal cloud.  The further I continued, the worse the visibility got, eventually passing above the treeline, with melting glaciers providing a constant waterfall flow sometimes onto the narrow street I drove on... one, even named "the weeping wall."  I got to the top of Logan Pass, where the temperature was several degrees cooler and outerwear was required... at one point, the clouds dissipated, offering a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains, but it didn't last very long, as the clouds came right back, limiting visibility once again.  I dropped into the visitor center quickly, and then made my way back down the mountain to give myself time on the return drive to Missoula.

Waterfalls along the road, and driving into a cloud
Views off of Going to the Sun Road

Driving back to Missoula
It was a long drive as I navigated myself back down the mountain and then headed down a different route back to Missoula, deciding to drive through Glacier's "gateway" town, Kalispell.  There, I made a quick stop at Kalispell Brewing Company to try their tasty Snow Slip Stout.  I continued further down, again past Flathead Lake (with a quick stop for some of those legendary Flathead Lake cherries) and made another brewery stop at Flathead Lake Brewing just outside of Big Fork, to try a couple half-pints of the Painted Rock Porter and the 369' Stout.

I made my way back to Missoula with more than enough time to spare, as we headed to Seattle, and then rushing to my redeye flight home, which was slated to leave only 35 minutes after landing from Missoula.  It was also around here where my stomach rebelled against the beer and cherry consumption, but I still made enough time to make my flight.  I managed an upgrade to Business class on my flight home and had some late dinner, which was a great way to cap off a fantastic and celebratory weekend!
Collection of bling for the weekend - both earned, and commemorative for finishing 50 states!

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