Tag Archives: Missoula Marathon

Home from Vacation: Paying Witness to a Most Inspiring Achievement

When a man dressed in tux and tails rolls his baby grand piano into a meadow, and plays classical music for passing runners while the sun rises to herald a 55-degree morning in Southwestern Montana, you know it’s going to be a good day for a half marathon.

Loading onto the buses at 5 a.m.

Loading onto the buses at 5 a.m.

Somehow, this very unusual sight made perfect sense for a day that could have been a real bummer, but turned out to be one of the more memorable feel-good experiences I can recall.

This past weekend, we were in Missoula, home of the University of Montana, to celebrate my return to the Boston Marathon. So I thought. Missoula was my qualifying race, and as of a month ago, I was primed to run around 3 hours, 20 minutes, easily below the 3:30 standard for 26.2 miles that I needed to get into my fourth Boston. All I had to do was stick to the workouts, rest and recover, taper down, avoid injury …

Avoid injury. Like a runner in Missoula told me Saturday, “that’s half the battle to get to the starting line, isn’t it?” Well, I didn’t avoid injury. I developed a sore heel, Achilles tendinitis, and a strained calf muscle. That erased my final five weeks of training, so I had to watch fellow competitors cross the line to the cheers of thousands. What a major, demoralizing disappointment …

Only, it wasn’t.

I switched focus to the positive, and was it ever positive. I watched my sweetheart, Martha Halda, add another notch to her ongoing legacy of life, which she is chronicling in her memoir, A Taste of Eternity, now being reviewed for publication. Martha entered the Missoula Half-Marathon, a miracle in itself when you consider that in a 1999 car accident, the impetus of A Taste of Eternity, she broke her pelvis and hips in many places (among many grievous injuries) after her Ford Expedition landed on top of her. She’d overcome a “you won’t walk again” diagnosis to walk the Dublin Marathon in 2003. Now, ten years later, she was trying the long stuff again … only this time, she would walk much faster, and do more than walk.

While Martha made her way around the picturesque 13.1-mile course that wound into the Norman Rockwell-like neighborhoods

Half marathon race leaders at 7-mile mark

Half marathon race leaders at 7-mile mark

of South Missoula, my job was to cheer her on and shoot photos. I’ve ‘caddied’ for others before, joining Martha in a 5K last Thanksgiving Day, course-hopping like a jacked-up rabbit to urge on the Union County High cross-country teams I coached, and helping my friend and former UCHS cross-country coach Jeff Brosman complete the Evansville Half Marathon in 2008.

This was different. First of all, I’m not 100% healed yet, so just getting onto the course played into the day. Four days before, while hiking in stunning Glacier National Park, I’d felt my calf twinge during a steady uphill climb, which forced our party of four (my high school running coach Brad Roy, his wife Susan, Martha and me) to take an easier, flatter route. It was by no means a safe bet that I would do anything but sit at the finish for three hours and wait.

I mapped out a shortcut from the finish to the halfway point, and ran five easy miles to get there. All good: no pain in the ankle or calf.  A police officer saw me heading west with my Missoula Marathon shirt on (they gave full and half runners different colored shirts), and she cracked, “You’re going the wrong way!” I heard that more than once …

After arriving, I shot photos for awhile, cheered on passing runners, and waited for Martha.

Martha pushes ahead of the pack at the halfway point

Martha pushes ahead of the pack at the halfway point

She wanted to power walk at 14-minute mile pace, which is a little more than 4 mph – a very fast walk. Since I was sitting at the 6.5-mile mark, I expected to see her 85 to 90 minutes into the race. I talked with spectators, fumbled around with my iPhone camera, stretched my legs, soaked in the tall field grasses, oaks, cottonwoods and blue spruce …

She charged around the corner. Running, not walking. I looked at my watch: 78 minutes. Already well ahead of goal pace! I scrambled to get ahead of her and shoot photos as she ran past. The glow on her face was sublime; happiness and joy never wore a more beautiful expression.

For the next four miles, we ran-walked the course together (the wonderful Missoula staff and volunteers were incredibly nice about letting ‘caddies’ amble alongside their racers for short periods of time). Martha kept pushing and throwing short running intervals between her walk segments. I was surprised, because a week before, we’d nearly argued while on a long walk together, due to my analytical breakdown of paces and finishing times. Or, as Martha would say (and did), “ANAL-ytical”. You know, “If you average 14 minutes per mile, you’ll finish in 3 hours, 4 minutes.” When you’re walking the backside of Oceanside Harbor on a sweet summer morning, seagulls and boats bobbing in the still, warm water to your right, it’s best not to go scientific on your loved one!

Kids cheering on runners with their signs

Kids cheering on runners with their signs

One of the many Victorians on the course route

One of the many Victorians on the course route

As we ticked off miles, I watched her stride, body alignment, and the looks on her face. The coach in me. She talked with others as they passed or she passed them, kept her eyes focused straight ahead, smiled and enjoyed the amazing old Victorian homes, and kids offering gummi bears, lemonade, smiles, and cute signs. I marveled at the turnout. In all my years of racing, I’ve never seen a bigger on-course crowd for a race in a small city. It exceeded many big-city races as well. Nor have I seen greater enthusiasm, with the possible exception of Boston. It was obvious why Runner’s World magazine anointed Missoula the nation’s top marathon (in 2009).

Martha looked strong. Very strong, in spite of the fact her hips were hurting, and she grimaced every time she slowed from a running interval.

Refueling on gummi bears at mile 10

Refueling on gummi bears at mile 10

Still, she wouldn’t change her strategy. She smiled, lengthened her long stride to compensate for a slight slowing down of pace, and moved forward. One thing I know about this girl: She will finish what she sets her mind to do. Whenever possible, she’ll do so with the same ‘I love life’ smile on her face as she wore on the Missoula streets.

As we passed 10 miles, it was almost time for me to leave the course for my next task: Shortcutting to the finish line, across the bridge from Clark River (named for William Clark of Lewis & Clark fame), to shoot photos of her finish. Her pace had slowed, but she’d gained more than enough time earlier “to do something very special,” I told her. “Just hold this pace for three more miles, stay out of the aid station traffic jams, and even if you don’t run anymore, you’ve got it.”

We kissed and I headed off, but not before texting Brad and Susan Roy, who were following Martha’s progress through my text messages. “She’s on 2:55-56 pace. Looking strong. She’s got it,” I texted.

“WOW! Fantastic!” Brad texted back. That’s where I learned my supportive, ever-positive coaching philosophy from … the Master.

The ambiance of Missoula, including throwback ice cream walk-ups

The ambiance of Missoula, including throwback ice cream walk-ups

A few minutes later, I immersed into the pandemonium of the finish line. Crowds were lined four deep from the tape to the start of the bridge, a good 200 meters away. Every time a runner charged across the bridge, the PA announcer called the name and the fans cheered. Every time.

Soon enough, Martha reached the bridge and broke into a finishing kick. As a former collegiate 800-meter runner, she knew how to kick. She was between two packs of runners, each 20 meters away. She ran alone, which lit up the PA announcers – and the fans. As they cheered her across, I felt shivers in my spine. If only they knew her story, I thought. But they will, when her book comes out.

Martha pushes for home in front of large crowds on the Clark River Bridge

Martha kicks for home in front of large crowds on the Clark Fork River Bridge

I shot photos as pride and joy surged through my heart. As she hit the tape, I looked at the clock time: 2:58. Her actual chip time would probably be a couple of minutes faster, since it takes two or three minutes to get to the starting line when you’re amongst a field of 3,500. “I think you ran 2:56,” I told her. An achievement-filled, adrenalin-aided smile broke across her face.

Martha’s goal was to finish the half marathon in 14-minute pace, or 3:04. Her official time was 2:56:00.7. By anyone’s measure, that’s busting the doors down.

Since I run for time and place in these races, and usually finish in the top 5 of

Finished!

Finished!

my age division, I never see what happens in the middle of the pack. This entire experience took place in the middle, and opened my eyes to the whole point of tackling a challenge, or a goal: to see if you can do it, and then to push yourself to exceed expectations. I’ve always recommended that serious racers jump into the pack to support someone who’s out there because they want to cross the finish line of a half marathon. For me, it’s a reminder of the joy of running.

In this case, it turned what otherwise would have been a disappointing morning into one of the greatest days of my running life. The best part? I get to experience the afterglow of accomplishment as it shines from Martha’s face every day – even though she winces every time she has to walk downstairs or downhill. Ah, the exquisite agony of sore muscles after a long race well-run …

How sweet it is!

How sweet it is!

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The Morning After … From This Boston Marathoner

Normally, the morning after running a Boston Marathon looks and feels like this: a smile that no one can wipe off your face, an appetite that keeps crying for more food, fresh memories of the faces and sights of the past 26.2 miles, a phone that won’t stop ringing or pinging with text messages, and stiff legs that would protest very much if they saw stairs, or any uphill or especially downhill grade.

Most of all, there is the sense of achievement and satisfaction that a dream of years or decades, backed by months of hard, lonely miles on roads and tracks, came true at the most storied of all marathons. I can’t tell you how many great conversations I’ve had on the Boston course along these lines, before the Newton hills quickly took the wind out of our talking moods.

Running_01I’ve rejoiced in the Boston “morning after” on three different occasions – 2005, 2007, and 2009 – and I plan to experience it again in 2014.

But right now, like the rest of America and the running world, I have a different feeling this morning. One of sadness. Shock. Anger. Disgust.

This is not how it is supposed to feel. It is supposed to feel like it did yesterday morning, when I watched the Boston Marathon elite race online, saw the parts of the course I’ve come to know well, and marveled at how Rita Jeptoo made up a 90-second gap in the span of three miles to win her second women’s title going away; or how Lelisa Desisa waited until 800 meters from the finish, before outkicking his two pursuers to win the men’s title by just five seconds.

It’s supposed to feel like it did in 2005, 2007 and 2009, when I turned onto Boylston Street, pushed the throttle one more time with the last of my energy, smiling and hurting all at once, and drove 600 meters to the finish. Like the other runners, I was privileged to run the ultimate gauntlet – tens of thousands of cheering spectators packed like sardines on the sidewalks and viewing stands. In 2005, those fans included my mother, brother and sister-in-law, whose birthday we celebrated beforehand. They cheered me in from the exact spot where the first bomb went off, twenty yards from the finish line, after I’d seen them 10 miles earlier at Newton Lower Falls.

From the exact spot where the first bomb went off. I can only pretend to imagine what the 4:10 marathoners felt when, so close to achieving their dream, they heard the concussive blasts and saw the smoke – and in some cases, were blown to the side as by a hard wind. It’s not supposed to feel like this.

I watched this year’s race with memories and pride, a Boston Marathon t-shirt on to mark the occasion, hoping the ten friends or so in the race would have great days. The thing about Boston is this: The hardest work is in qualifying to get there. If you don’t run a qualifying time, you don’t go, unless you’re a superb fund-raiser. I’ve raced Boston hard, all three times, setting my personal best in 2009, but it’s always felt as much a celebration as a race. So I knew my friends were welling up inside, so happy to be there, thrilled to see spectators along all 26.2 miles spanning eight towns, maybe snapping photos with their smartphones. The guys would be thoroughly stoked when they came upon the Wellesley girls at the 12-mile mark, the co-eds more than happy to bestow everything from a hand-slap and scream of support to a fat kiss. All would be thrilled when they crested Heartbreak Hill and came upon the Boston College co-eds, who might even run up and naively but good-naturedly offer a beer to a passing runner (as one did to me in 2007).

Now, my friends and 24,000 others have to head home with a different picture in their minds, one that I pray and hope will be erased in time by their achievement. It’s not supposed to be like this.

I also watched yesterday’s race with building anticipation. After three years of dealing with injuries and an on-again, off-again attitude toward my own running (thanks, in part, to focusing on the many great high school and middle school kids I coached), I’m marathon training again. I just ran 18 miles Sunday, my personal homage to the Boston field, my longest run in two years, and felt the engine really roar yesterday. With my qualifier in Montana still three months away, a 20-minute 5K under my belt, and early long workout paces tracking below the 3:35 I have to run to get back in, I’m licking my chops.

So this morning, I planned to begin the visualization process for the 2014 Boston, to start bringing the reality of the race home. Marathon racing is 80% mental, and it starts well before race day. When you race a marathon, the last things you want to deal with are surprises – or any major changes to how you planned out and visualized the race.

Instead, on the suggestion of fellow Boston Marathoner and good friend Kathryn Van Arsdall, I found myself running an 8.26-mile memorial run in my black Boston Marathon windbreaker – 8 miles for Martin Richard, the 8-year-old boy who died yesterday, and .26 to commemorate the length of the marathon. One friend, Southern Indiana running ace Tim Roman, did the same – and added two steps at the end for the final two-tenths of a mile. It is not supposed to be this way.

Yesterday was four years since my last Boston – which happened to be my last marathon. I’m now committed to having one last flurry of races, and have even coaxed my great high school track and cross-country coach, Brad Roy (who ran Boston in a near world-class time of 2:22 in 1979), into coaching me. Seems things have changed the past four years – starting with recovery time and foot speed – and Brad’s guidance is already proving huge. After the Missoula Marathon in July, I will race my hometown run, the Carlsbad Marathon, in January. Then, next April, one year from now, Lord willing, I’ll be feeling the exquisite joy of another completed Boston, just outside my 55th birthday.

But when the 25,000 other runners and I gather in our corrals in Hopkinton on Patriot’s Day 2014, the mood will not be quite as festive. We’ll have our race strategies, ways of celebrating on the course, levels of excitement, and joys and feelings of achievement. However, if I know the running community, I know hearts will still be heavy and prayers will be plentiful.

Then, when we head into Boston a few hours later, we will smile, laugh and cry as we charge down Boylston Street, hear the cheers, cross the line and receive our unicorn medals. We will walk to our designated buses to grab the gear bags we left behind in Hopkinton. In my case, I will then hop the fence (cramps and all), and find my sweetheart, Martha, amidst the throng. She knows the feeling; she competed in the 2002 Dublin Marathon. I’ll indulge in my favorite post-race drink – a Starbucks hot black tea. After that, we’ll head on to a celebratory dinner with family members who live in the Boston area and New England — a few of whom might meet up with me earlier for another Boston Marathon tradition, our 30-second photo session, as I run up to the Exxon station just beyond the halfway point in Wellesley.

That’s how it’s supposed to feel. And when it does, we can begin to erase the horror all of us are now feeling.

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