Runners Magazine touted the Madison Montana Marathon as the “Most Scenic Marathon in the U.S.” It truly was, at least what part of it I saw before the constant uphill incline, swarms of bugs, 9600 foot elevation and fear of being eaten by a bear blurred the view of the race. I had only hit the ‘wall’ during a race once before this one, during my very first marathon in Salt Lake City. Now this would be marathon 9 in my 7th state. I wasn’t sure if I would be able to finish this one. I finished the race with the amazingly slow time of 8 hrs 20 minutes, but at least I finished.
This race was probably cursed from the get go. I accidentally booked this marathon on top of my wife Lynette’s 30 year high school reunion. I was in the dog house for a while on that one. I told her I would skip the Marathon in order to go with her to the reunion, but she insisted since I had already signed up that I should go. My daughter Danielle and my son in law Adam drove with me to the marathon. We read that runners could camp in the “park”. I was expecting a “park”. Apparently in Montana the word park means large open field up in the mountains without water or toilets. The good part was that the “park” was where we caught the buses to the starting line. So all I had to do was roll out of the SUV, put on my shoes and hop on the bus. Easy, peasy! The bad part was my daughter is 5 months pregnant, you can imagine all the fun she had in the “park”. Did I mention the swarms of horse flies and mosquitoes? Anyway no time to take care of her I had 26.2 miles to conquer.
As soon as the bus began to drive toward the starting line I began to feel a little uneasy. We drove at a fairly steep decline all the way down hill on a dirt and gravel jeep trail. The bus created a large cloud of dust behind us. There are three things a guy with a prosthetic leg like me can not run on. Number 1: A rough, uneven dirt or gravel trail. Number 2: Steep uphills. Number 3: Heat. These are the death of one legged runners. The bus came to a stop, we all got out and something was terribly wrong…I could barely breath. When I do my ‘long run’ on my training days I’ll do 20 to 25 miles and won’t be won’t be out of breath yet here I was sitting in a bus doing nothing and I had the need to suck wind! I turned to one of the local runners I had met on the bus and they explained that we were at nearly 10,000 ft. elevation and that there was no air. Great, add another number to my list. Number 4: I don’t do thin air. My head was splitting and my stomach felt noxious. Apparently these are all side effects of high altitude.
We lined up at the bottom of a fairly large hill for the start (remember 1?) on a very rough jeep trail (2) at 9:00am. Most of my races begin at 5:00 or 6:00am to avoid the heat of the day but not this one. By 9:00am it was already 85 degrees (3). All my 3 dreads were present including my new number 4 dread, high altitudes. It was a very challenging first half. I completed it in 2 hrs 45 minutes. Certainly not my best but not bad considering what the course was like. As I came to the half marathon finish a feeling of complete exhaustion hit me with the force of a Chuck Norris round house kick. I had another 13.1 miles to go and I had hit the wall. There was only one water station along the way and I was dehydrated. I was completely wasted. Danielle and Adam were there cheering me on but all I could think about was giving up.
My daughter and her husband were giving me all kinds of kudos from the side line but in the middle of it all I yelled to them, “I’m done!”. Immediately they both shouted positive encouragements to make me change my mind but I just kept insisting that it was over. My head was spinning and I felt so dizzy from the lack of oxygen I knew if I didn’t stop I would fall down. After the 3rd time I insisted I had to give up Adam, wearing long jean pants and vans tennis shoes ran onto the path next to me to encourage me to keep going. His plan was to stay with me a mile or two to get me motivated again and then go back to his very preggo wife.
With my head spinning and my stomach feeling like I needed to barf I continued on. My son in law Adam had never run more than a few miles in his whole life so if he was willing to stay by my side to keep me in this race I figured I better not stop. After several miles we came up on an old man who had passed out on the path. There he was sprawled out on the dirt, white as Casper the Ghost. I thought he was dead. He turned out to be a Guinness Book of World Record holder for running several hundred marathons. He was at least in his 80’s. Rumor has it he was 98 but I don’t know that for sure. As it turned out, when we stopped to help he was very much alive. A forest ranger/EMT tried to get us to put him in her jeep and take him to the hospital but he yelled, “The hell you are! I’ve never not finished race and I’m not about to start now!”. So after 3 attempts he stood up and dragged his poor old body up the path and on to the finish.
The scariest moment for me came when we were at about mile 23. A truck pulled up and said there was a grizzly bear about 50 feet in front of us up the path! He said we could hop in the bed of his truck and he’d drive us past the bear and to the finish line which meant quitting but at least we would not be eaten by a bear. Now, we had been told at the beginning of the race that a lady who was up in this area camping just 5 days earlier had been killed by a bear. So I face the very real possibility of being mauled to death by a grizzly bear so with my legs aching and with only about 3 miles to go I told him no thanks that I’d finish this on my own, bear or no bear.
We ran past the area where the bear had been sited with no incident and then on to the finish line! And by the way my brave son in law, Adam, ran the entire second half of the race by my side. The race directors were so impressed by him that they gave him a medal for completing a half marathon and I got my medal for completing the full marathon. If I had know how hard that race was going to be I would have picked an easier one somewhere else in Montana. But it’s over now and I can move on to another state.