MONTANA, Number 42 - Hot, Hilly, High Altitude!!!
When I was a teenager, I took a road trip with a school friend and one of the places that we went through on our way back from California was Montana. Ever since that trip, 40 years ago, I have dreamed of going back. The state is the 4th largest in the USA, but it boasts 44 out of 50 in population density. I have long made the joke that I would like to live somewhere where my nearest neighbor is a zip code away and grocery shopping has to be done by helicopter…so that’s who I am! Well, I decided to work on July 3rd and take off July 4th and 5th, so that we could enjoy a four day weekend in Montana. That was a GREAT choice!!! I made all of the arrangements, as you recall, Brian was the travel agent for New Hampshire and that didn’t go that well, it’s ok, he fired himself before I even said anything! Our flight left O’Hare at 7:45pm on 07/03/2019 and we had a direct flight to Great Falls, Mt. If you don’t know Montana…Great Falls is in the middle third of the state and it is surrounded by a whole lot of nothing! We were a little bit delayed and I had not been able to get two seats together, so Brian and I were supposed to be sitting one behind the other. As we scanned our boarding passes and started down the gangway, we were quietly detained by the ticket agent who noticed that we were traveling together but not sitting together so he was a real sweetheart and put us together…and…wait for it…moved us to FIRST CLASS…because coach had been oversold!!! So that happened! I have NEVER sat in first class; let me tell you, it is nice, especially for my freakishly tall husband! I was unable to sleep because I was excited…you know, first class, race, four days off. We arrived in Great Falls International Airport, with a total number of 6 gates at about 10pm and Brian grabbed the luggage and I grabbed the rental car, which was upgraded for free to a full-sized pickup truck. We drove the 9 minutes to our hotel…well…we actually tried to go to a different hotel (they all look the same when they are next door to each other). It was a really nice Marriott and we relaxed for a little while and off to sleep we went. The next day, being July 4th, we decided to go into the downtown area of Great Falls and check out the July 4th festivities. We found a spot on the street, sprayed ourselves with sunscreen and walked to the main drag and were able to find a prime spot in preparation for the July 4th parade that came through an hour later. A businessman who was hanging out in front of his store started chatting with us, told us the history of his store, when the parade would be coming through (10AM), indicated to us where the bar was (right in front of us and open with a full bar at 9am – HELLO GREAT FALLS!) and also told us that there is a great little food and drink festival to go to in between the parade and the concert that would be held later at 4pm. Ike, filled us in on all that we needed to know for a great July 4th in Montana. We waited around, watching people and greeting dogs for the hour and we were then treated to a July 4th parade that had AMERICANA written all over it. I haven’t actually ever seen a July 4th parade; though I have been in many with band and horses, I have never actually sat and watched one. Brian (being the basketball phenom that he was) had also missed the spectator side of a parade in his life. What a treat! There were floats, political figures, war re-enactments (with gunfire), Fire trucks (with water spray guns), police cars, bands, motorcycles, scooters and horses. Candy was thrown, pop was handed out and all and all it was a pretty fun time. Brian and I would say that our only complaint was that there were ONLY 8 horses…it’s Montana, we were kind of expecting a better horse representation, but, at least, there were 2 draft horses…big beautiful black Percherons. At the conclusion of the parade, we bid farewell to Ike and headed the 12 minutes to Black Eagle, Mt to check out the food, fun and frolic that he had told us about. This little festival followed their parade and it was set up in a small park. There were 2 main food trucks, 2 booze trucks, face painting and a slide for the kids. It was adorable. The line for the food was super long so we got in the booze line and had a couple of drinks while sitting in the shade and enjoying a gorgeous day with plenty of sunshine and a nice breeze. Honestly, the two of us have been working so hard that we pretty much chilled…seriously…we just sat under a tree in the grass and did nothing. It was marvelous!!! I was checking out the face painting and noticed that the lady doing it was pretty good and super fast, so I said to my husband, “you know…I’ve never been a spectator at a July 4th parade and I did that today…I’ve also never had my face painted and it’s only 6 tickets, you’ve got 6 tickets that you aren’t using so I’m gonna go get in line!”. He thought it was hilarious and got in the long food line while I did it. I am proud to say, that according to the face painting lady, I was the oldest to get my face painted with the next oldest being some 42 year old gal! You can see the results in the picture! Brian grabbed us a couple of burgers and chips and they were really tasty. The slide was looking pretty fun, so I did that a couple of times too…it was NOT smooth! Brian saw Ike and said Hi while I was getting my face painted and since we had pretty much done all there was to do we decided to head back to Great Falls for the concert at 4pm. They carded us at the street and I expected that we would be paying an entry fee, but we did not! Granger Smith was the performer and his name sounded familiar, I remembered that night that he is the country western singer whose 6 year old son drowned a month ago. A sad story, but he performed unbelievably well and we really enjoyed it and the people watching. We turned in pretty early that night, it was hot all day and we were out in it all day, but it was a rare do-nothing day for us! I had been scoping out things to do and we decided to go to the Highwood Mountains and do some hiking the next day. It looked to be directly between Great Falls and Geraldine as the crow flies, but not so much as it turned out. We navigated off the paved road and across a couple of narrow wooden bridges and then across a couple of fairly shallow creeks and one pretty deep creek and found the entrance to a trail. Our journey began with slogging through a shallow creek, so I took my shoes off to keep from getting blisters for the race the next day. Man…that water was cold. Then I put my shoes back on and we crossed so many creeks and through so much wet grass that I just didn’t bother to take them off again. By the end of the hike (3 miles…1.5 up…1.5 down) my feet, socks and shoes were completely soaked, but I took them off in the truck, threw them in the bed and dealt with it later. When we got back to the truck we had no cell signal…not really sure how we navigated to the parking lot with signal and lost it while hiking, but whatever, so we set off in the general direction of Geraldine, Montana to do what we always do…figure out where the race starts and where I pick up my race packet. We drove until…the road ended and then we backtracked and found a camp host at a campground who gave us, “do you see those 2 red rooves in the distance” directions and we set on our way back onto the paved road (yea, it took 45 minutes for us to find pavement) and we drove for another 45 minutes to Geraldine. Geraldine is a SMALL town, population 298. We met about 1/3 of them on Friday. We asked around and found the place to get the packets tomorrow and saw port-o-lets all around the area, so we knew where most of the activity would be. They had a couple of food trucks running already so we found ourselves a pork chop sandwich with a pineapple, honey, mustard sauce on it that was amazing. We visited the senior center and met Lenny and Kay and talked about the quest with them. Lenny told Brian to come find him when the bus left to take us runners up the mountain and they could visit.
We were running out of things to do in this tiny town so we headed back to Great Falls, it takes a little more than an hour and this time, we drove the whole way on PAVED roads. That’s ALWAYS easier!!! We stopped in Ft Benton for Brian to check out the local Bourbon, Big Horn Bourbon, made in Ennis Montana. Back to the hotel we went and hunkered down for a little down time, it was time for a shower and we got all cleaned up and headed out to eat. Everything was closed. Apparently the weekend before July 4th is a big weekend in Montana, the weekend after, all the shops close and all those people spend time with their families. We finally found a place to eat and stopped to get the essentials…you know, banana, Lara bar, bottled water, before heading back to get some rest. I was asleep in no time, but staying asleep the night before a race is always hard. I’m just too excited for the day to come!!!
I woke up bright and early, got ready and did the usual. We had an hour drive, so I woke Brian up and we were out the door just a bit after 6am on 07/06/2019. Our drive was uneventful and we found our start/finish and packet pick up. I nervously walked around and hit the port-o-lets a few times. Kalyn, the race director, gave us a run-down of what to expect. The funniest thing being that there were two port-o-lets on a trailer pulled behind a pickup that were going to the top of the race and then they would be at the 10 mile mark if we needed them…and no, they were not coming off the trailer, there were stairs to get up on the trailer…wooden, green indoor/outdoor carpeted stairs (you see it in the picture?)…hilarious. She told us that if we needed in between to squat in the weeds but that Montana does have snakes to be aware and look before you….you know…I hit the porto one last time and headed to the bus, kissing my crew/husband goodbye. Brian turned around and there was Lenny, as promised to join him for coffee and keep him company for a while. I sat next to the oldest person running the race, Nina, 72, from Florida. She talked the whole time. We were riding in a rattling old school bus, so I may have heard half of what she said. I enjoy quiet time before a race to settle my nerves and get on my game face, oh well, I didn’t get it. We rode up to the top of the mountain behind the truck pulling a trailer with portos on it. Around one curb the porto door on the right flung up and a roll of toilet paper went flying out…I can’t make this stuff up! Finally we were at the top of a long dirt road, the portos parked the school bus let us twenty hardy runners out and we stood around nervously flipping and flopping our legs and arms like runners do. Rock, the driver of the portos and the father of the race organizer sent us off at 8:30am. There was a tall red-headed guy we had met from New York, we referred to him as the “Kenyan”, he was in front and out of sight in minutes. Yea, he won it! The first 3-4 miles were rolling hills up and down a little more than Kalyn had said, hilly to me, flat to someone from Montana, I guess. After that it flattened out for a couple of miles and that flat section is where I started to feel the altitude. I train at 650 feet above sea level, this race at 4,600, I could feel. Air was thin and I felt pretty gassed. I stopped and leaned over and breathed while giving myself a pep talk on getting down this mountain. “listen…you didn’t come all the way to Montana to puss-out, so get it together”. Motivational speech completed and off I went for a ¾ of a mile climb that I walked at about the halfway point because I had no air. I had taken a gel at 3 and I took another at the top of the hill at 6. From then on I just slowed down and took my time. I took a minute at each of the water stations to pour water over my head and fill my bottles as the air was thin and the humidity was low. I felt like I was going through a lot of water and didn’t want to add dehydration to my puny feeling. At ten I ran into the portos, parked at the side of the road, I made the decision to use one, not because I had to potty, but because I wanted to say that I had used a porto on a trailer on a mountain ½ marathon race in Montana, seeing as that would not likely happen again in my life! I went in, squeezed out 5 drops of pee and moved on towards town, 3 short miles away. At this point, I was pretty much on fumes but I just gutted it out and crossed the finish line (yes that finish line is made with elk antlers). Brian had been chatting up all the people around the finish line and I was exuberantly welcomed by random strangers calling my name. A newspaper reporter from a nearby town stopped me seconds after my finish and asked me a few questions and with that finally taken care of, Brian and I headed back to the truck to dump some of my stuff and look for food. I had taken another gel at 9 miles, even used one with caffeine, but it didn’t really perk me up like it usually does. 42 ½ marathons complete. It wasn’t the hardest one, but it was a hard one. I should have paced myself better in the first 3-4 miles because I burned out too early, but that is a lesson learned and it will, no doubt, be useful in Wyoming and New Mexico, the last 2 states where I have to contend with high altitude. So, here are the stats: 20 participants, 02:26:58 (they didn’t have any further information on my results). Not my fastest, not my slowest…as my husband says…DONE!!! We flew back to Illinois on Sunday morning. As we were driving north from O’Hare Airport we sat silently in the truck. I finally said what I knew Brian was thinking, “I miss the wide open space”, “Me too” he said. Montana is now our number one choice for retirement…I like a state with so much wide open space that you can watch a dog run away for 3 days! Next race, Number 43 – Wyoming in September.