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How a marathon brought roadies and trail runners together to create a thriving running community in Missoula, Montana.
Professional triathlete Lindsey Corbin running just north of downtown Missoula with Lolo Peak in the background. Photo by Tom Robertson.
MISSOULA AS A PERSON
If Missoula was a person he would ride a bike in the winter, vote blue, have a freezer full of ungulates, pile paperback books written by the Wallace Stegner and Wendell Berry beside his bed, and own more bikes than ties. She would not get manicures but might paint her toenails, would spend money on organic cotton and plant her own garlic. He would drink beer from growlers and pigs. She would own a chainsaw, wear sunscreen even on overcast days and be able to start a fire in the rain.
If Missoula was a person, he would be a he, at least that’s what you’d think if you listened to the single guys talk about the gender ratio. They say things like, “You don’t date; you take your turn.” He would have lines beside his eyes, behind his Smith sun- glasses. His feet would be zebra-striped from Tevas worn on the river.
Missoula is wiry, with no flab and little flash. Missoula hangs back—doesn’t jump into the conversation unbidden. Missoula doesn’t want your stamp of approval, or your tax dollars.
Missoula suffers from the “insight” of tourists, those who come for a quick stop and think it’s full of scrappy cool people and scruffy trustafarians. These sages, most of whom have never visited, many of whom live in, let’s say, the not-so-desirable places, these mostly stay-at-homes who are not, perhaps, so happy with their own life choices, make condescending claims: “Missoula is the kind of place where everyone has moved because they visited it and loved it and gave up a lucrative corporate gig to bus tables and plop foam on a cappuccino and spend their days running in the mountains.” The locals nod and smile and say, “Hope you had a good visit.”
Fact is, if Missoula was a person, he would be too smart to make such reductive statements. The people who visit and see a postcard of progressive eco-drunk natural beauty and Patagonia-wearing Ivy Leaguers don’t see the tweakers and the business suits and the graduate students who moved from Manhattan and wear all black and complain that you can’t go out to dinner at 10 p.m. They don’t see all the writers who stay in to write, the academics who flee to Paris once the semester is over, the farmers who chair the boards of the symphony and the conservation trusts. They don’t see the Fox News watchers. They don’t see the Indians, and they don’t know that the Indians call themselves Indians, not Native Americans. They don’t know about the kid who was beaten up and cursed as a “fag” and the guys who race down the main drag in pickups at 2 a.m.
Tourists don’t believe anyone grew up in Missoula. Except for Norman McLean. They know he fished the rivers in these parts, but they don’t know that when he was skimming his flies into the gelid water of the river that runs through it, just upstream was the Milltown Dam, which became the largest Superfund site in his- tory. Fifteen years ago, the Blackfoot River, a tributary to the Clark Fork, was declared one of the top 10 threatened rivers in America. Because the people of Missoula fought and lobbied and acted, they were able to get the dam removed and the water cleaned. George Orwell said that one of the dangers of clichés is that they “think your thoughts for you.” To those who say that Missoula is just another mountain town, a playground for the young and fit, I say: Grow up. Life—people and places—is so much more complicated and interesting than that. Life is both/and, not either/or. Life is a network of trails under ponderosa pine and Doug fir and drunken assaults on young girls and unemployment. The imperfect is our paradise, said poet Wallace Stevens. Let us be sophisticated enough to understand that.
But as imperfect as a town like Missoula may be, when so many people are content to live there, the air smells different. I have never run to one of the peaks in this area of five valleys and not stopped—not had someone in the group stop—to thank whatever it is you believe in for this place.
Looking down Higgins Adventure in downtown Missoula toward the Bitterroot Mountains. Photo by Tom Robertson.
The Hellgate cross-country team training in and around downtown Missoula is a common sight.
WESTERN EXCEPTIONALISM AND WESTERN RESERVE
When I moved to Missoula from Durham, North Carolina, on a Friday in August 2004, I thought I was pretty fit. Two days laterI showed up at Dean’s house, having been given his name and number by a guy I met while pac- ing at the Western States 100 the month before. Turns out, I was not so fit. At least, not by com- parison to the group who did the Sunday morning run each week. I could run with them, sure, but then they went off and biked a zillion miles and then swam for hours. I had, through web searching, network- ing and good fortune, found Team Stampede, a local triathlon club. Now, I don’t do triathlons. I mean, I would, except for the biking and swimming parts. But I did meet a whole bunch of great people, mostly guys, who were exceptional athletes but weren’t “runners.” Not the kind of trail runners or marathoners I expected to find.
Missoula was not a running town when I first moved there. People ran, plenty of them, by themselves and in small groups. There was no discernable running society. Missou- lians had organized themselves into pods: the river people, the climbers, the skiers, the cyclists, the triathletes, the gardeners, the birders, the bird hunters, the getters of game. It’s not easy to break into these groups or to bring them together. I moved to town believing running would, as it had done in other places, give me instant access to a community, one beyond the graduate students whose ranks I would be joining and with whom I did not expect, necessarily, to want to spend all my free time. Graduate programs in writing are great places for intellectual and creative stim, but they tend to be filled with vigorous drinkers with pale skin and nicotine- stained teeth. I like that, but I also like to be with the people who can drink a lot and still run far the next morning.
But I discovered, once I’d settled into the place locals call Zootown or The Zoo, that there was no running community. I managed to pry my way into a number of little groups—the triathletes, a knot of lawyers who did ultras, the few grad students who liked to play outside—but I couldn’t find the tight group of runners, fast and slow, hardcore and recreational, I was used to seeing in other places. Per- haps Western exceptionalism explained the lack: the West, I learned, differs from other parts of the country.
When I got to Missoula, you could still drive with an open container and there were no national chain stores or restaurants on Higgins Avenue, the main commercial strip. People kept to themselves. I speculated that Western reserve might be as much a thing as Southern hospitality. Then I remembered how much I’d learned about the complexity of the flavors of geniality in the South. “Never be rude unintentionally,” a friend told me his mama had taught him.
We are tempted to think in clichés because they are easy. And regional difference might account for some of what goes on in other small Western towns, but Missoula has a good mix of long-time Montanans and a dose of transplants from all over. Without, some of the more newly arrived locals might be tempted to add, the Califor- nication that has taken hold of places like Bozeman and Whitefish.
The fact is, plenty of people were out enjoying the trails and I have never run to one of the peaks In thIs area of fIve valleys and not stopped to thank whatever It Is you belIeve In for thIs place.
the roads but there was nothing to bring all the runners together until a young local guy named Anders Brooker dropped out of the University of Montana and decided to open Runner’s Edge.
The North hills offer rules of trails from a trailhead just minutes from downtown Missoula. Photo by Tom Robertson.
IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WILL COME
In 2001, it may not have seemed like the most brilliant idea. Brooker was warned by retail veterans that the town of 60,000 was too small to support a specialty running store. He didn’t know jack about marketing. He found a small space off Higgins next door to a porn shop.
Brooker knew, however, how to bring a runner’s discipline to retail. He knew how to be coached. He talked to a whole lot of people and got a whole lot of help. He contacted Kurt Kinghorn of Spokane’s successful store, Runner’s Soul, who remembers Anders and his dad coming over the first time and thinking that this might not be the best idea. But they asked good questions and kept coming back and, Kinghorn says, “They were such nice people,” he’s not surprised it has worked out so well.
When I moved to town, I checked in at the store. I tend to do that when I travel to a new place; it’s a good way to get the low-down on the local scene. I collected a scant pile of race brochures, and had a chat with Anders’ dad, Tim, also a speedy runner, who gave me advice about trails to run and people to get in touch with. It was a good store, but it didn’t provide the locus I sought.
What I couldn’t see was that Anders had been planning for years to put on a marathon. He talked with customers as he sold them shoes, and began to build a slate of people who would become instrumental in planning and executing the Missoula
Marathon. They included Kevin Twidwell, a boy-faced ultrarunning lawyer who grew up in Butte, Montana, went to law school, practiced in Seattle then moved to Missoula. He can’t resist helping anyone who asks, and sometimes even those who don’t.
At the time, there was a desultory organization, the Missoula Road and Track Club, which had let its corporate registration with the state lapse. Anders wanted the marathon to be a non- profit, and needed a structure separate from the store. So they changed the name of the club and set up something called Run Wild Missoula. Twidwell cranked out paperwork the way he grinds away at the miles, and set up bylaws and articles of incorporation and applied for 501c3 status. It took, he says, forever for this to come through. But he’s an ultrarunner, a patient man. They tapped a director for the new club and got to work planning a race. In the beginning, it was more, “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show,” than a real professional operation. Five or six runners sit- ting around in a bar. It worked.
The start line of the 2012 Missoula Marathon. Photo by Tom Robertson.
A MARATHON RUNS THROUGH IT
The first Missoula Marathon was in 2006. Even though the weather was unusually hot for a state that has seen snow in every calendar year, it went off without a hitch. The point-to-point course, designed by Canadian Olympic 10K runner Courtney Babcock, starts in the small town of Frenchtown and has only one hill. Dean McGovern put together pace teams and the race attracted a large number of the “50 Staters.” In 2010 Runner’s World named it the “Best Overall Marathon in the U.S.” and Bart Yasso came to announce the news. Registration has grown to 6000.
But you know what? Lots of places have great marathons. It’s easy to forget how hard it is to pull off the organizational night- mare that planning and directing a race can be—until you run one where the miles are mismarked, where’s there’s not enough water, where the results get messed up. A well-conducted marathon is nothing to sneeze at, but the Missoula Marathon is the least of
what Anders Brookers achieved when he put it together. The main effect of the marathon was that out of the Balkanization of a place replete with different niche sports and hard-to-penetrate pods of people, the race, the club and the store created community.
Run Wild Missoula (RWM) now hasnearly1500members,making it one of the largest running clubs in the country. In addition to raising money to bring in speakers, they have a trail committee dedicated to promoting the use of open spaces and pass some coin to the city government to develop connector trails. That, perhaps, is the best analogy for what the marathon has done—it has connected athletes to each other, and perhaps more important, connected roadies to trail runners.
David Brooks, a member of the Adams State 1992 cross-country team coached by legend Joe Vigil—the only team in America to achieve a perfect score in an NCAA championships—who came to Missoula after a stint as a professional runner and now has a PhD in history, says of the town, “This is the only place I’ve ever lived where I can run from my front door to trailheads in almost every direction. Most runs lead you up from the river and creek bottoms through grasses and shrubs, then the shade of conifers, then ascend to open rock outcroppings and ridgelines, or the occasional boulder-strewn peak if you care to go that far, before dropping back through the various layers. You almost always finish near some creek or river that offers a cold pool of clear water for soaking tired legs.”
The easy access to trailheads means that most people don’t drive to get to them. So everyone, even the most devoted dirt heads, have to cover some road to get to where they’re going. “In Missoula we have hundreds of miles of trails within five minutes of wherever you are. People are surprised at how quickly you can access trails here,” says Brooker. That makes a difference to the kinds of shoes he chooses to stock: “You can be on pavement, hard pack, singletrack, jeep roads.” What the marathon has done is to show people that life is better when it’s trails and roads.
The marathon, directed in the first years by super-organized Jennifer Straughan, served as a platform for Run Wild Missoula to take off. There are all sorts of RWM training groups that leave from the store. In addition to beginning runners programs, there are also groups for those who are trying to break three hours in the marathon and those who are going for Boston qualifying times. Thirty people show up each session to take the eight-week trail- running class first taught by local trail runner and professional trainer Rhea Dahlberg. Each week they leave from a different trailhead; in the spring they train for the Pengelly Double Dip (“a vertical half marathon”) and in the fall for the Blue Mountain 30K. Dahlberg has recently turned over the class to an employee of Runner’s Edge whose full- time job is to promote trail running, not just in Missoula but in all of Montana.
Mike Foote (see Making Tracks, page 22) approached Brooker in 2009 about helping him coach the high-school cross-country team. Brooker knew immediately that Foote was going to be a good fit and then hired him to work at the store. The cherubic 29-year-old runner broke the course record at the 2012 Bighorn 100-miler, taking it from Mike Wolfe, who recently left his job as an attorney in Helena and moved to Missoula to train. Foote was also the first American to finish in the 2011 The North Face Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB), placed third at Colorado’s 2010 Hardrock and won the Bear 100 in a time that remains the course record. He finished third overall at the 2012 UTMB and won the TNF Ultra Maraton de los Andes in Chile.
“It doesn’t make financial sense to have a full-time employee doing this,” Brooker said, but his ambitions go beyond just selling shoes. They’ve set up a website called 406running.com to bring together trail and road runners from all over Montana. Foote spends a lot of time traveling around the state scouting locations for future races and spreading his enthusiasm. Foote says, “The typical Missoula trail run starts and ends with good friends, has views of multiple mountain ranges, involves a cool off in one of the many rivers meandering through town and is followed by an obligatory trip to the local ice-cream hangout, Big Dipper!”
He’s also been busy inviting his friends to come visit. Krissy Moehl recently spoke to a standing-room crowd and Scott Jurek is coming. In a benefit for the Five Valleys Land Trust, Foote organized a screening of the film Unbreakable about the 2010 Western States race. He got three of the four lead guys to come, and, after the show, Hal Koerner, Anton Krupicka and Geoff Roes fielded questions (Q: “What do you eat?” A: “Everything.”) and entertained an audience of 600 people who came to see a film about a race with 400 entrants. It was the biggest showing for the film. Hal Koerner was impressed by the place: “It was kind of a tour-de-force weekend, hanging and running trails for hours on end and then entertaining a sold-out theater. Not to mention eating antelope sausages and gorging on fresh elk tenderloin while visiting a different brew house every night, but I got the feeling that perhaps that’s just the norm in this unassuming little town in the middle of nowhere.”
The use of the venue, the historic Wilma Theatre, a baroque Louis XIV wonder, was donated by the Rocky Mountain Development Corporation, two of whose owners are trail runners. One of them, Rick Wishcamper was, with Dean McGovern and several other Mis- soulians, part of a contingent that went to do the 2010 Copper Canyon Ultramarathon, got friendly with Caballo Blanco (aka Micah True), and invited him to come to what writer Bill Kittredge called “the last best place.” The man who called himself horse came and ran and conquered the hearts of the gang. This year, the Pengelly Double Dip, founded in honor of a trail-hounding mountaineer, David Pengelly, who died mountaineering, was also a tribute to Micah True. Among the sponsors of the race are Wishcamper’s Rocky Mountain Development Corporation, and Momentum Fitness, co-owned by Rhea Dahlberg and Keifer Hahn, who has twice won the Missoula Marathon and holds the course record at the race, and the law firm of Garlington, Lohn & Robinson, where Kevin Twidwell, the director of the race, and his partners kick in support in all kinds of ways, including staffing the aid stations. At the course’s highest point, runners are treated to a tiki bar with free margaritas and leis handed out by folks in hula skirts.
When it came time to find pace group leaders for the marathon, Team Stampede’s Dean McGovern turned to the trail hounds. “They just see it as another long run and don’t care about racing,” McGovern says. “Trail runners enjoy the camaraderie of running, want to be helpful—and are sometimes chatty. Perfect for pacing.” So Wishcamper, who started trail running in his early 30s as, he says, “a way of connecting with nature,” led the 4:30 pace group. Hahn led those who wanted to break three hours. In all, McGovern corralled about a dozen runners to lead pace groups.
Not long ago McGovern organized a 33-mile trail run in the Rattlesnake National Recreation Area. They climbed 4500 feet in nine singletrack miles to Stuart Peak and then zipped around in the wilderness area. The group of 11 people (10 men; one tough woman) included lawyers, computer geeks, a bus driver, a retired military guy/rancher, a sub-three-hour marathoner who’d never run trails, a speedy 5K-10K dude who’d never run double-digit mileage and a Cairn terrier named Tallulah. They had, it has been reported, a blast. All these people were serious runners. But until recently, they didn’t know each other. Montana is a small town, but somehow, before the marathon, Missoula wasn’t well integrated.
If Missoula was a person, he would show up on the Sunday runs and go from Dean’s house for hours in the trails on Mount Jumbo, Mount Sentinel, Pattee Can- yon, Deer Creek, the Rattlesnake and, on easier days, Waterworks Hill. He would ride his bike home at closing time from the bars on Higgins, even in the winter. She’d show up at the Tuesday night track workouts where, joined by professors of economics and exercise science, by doctors and car dealers, she would be coached by an Olympian. He would go to poetry readings and Gillian Welch concerts. He would have a job, and would know that it takes work to make a place work. Natural beauty goes a long way, but it does not create community. If Missoula was a person, she would be grateful to all the people who have come together to turn the town into something so much more than a cliché.
Rachel Toor’s most recent book is Personal Record: A Love Affair with Running. She teaches creative writing at Eastern Washington University in Spokane.