When it comes to places to travel to see pure natural beauty and amazing scenery, it’s hard to beat the Western United States. Don’t get me wrong – there are plenty of other beautiful areas around the world. The thing is that very few of them are so expansive (hundreds of miles of mountains and valleys in every direction). And even fewer are home to such laid back, friendly people. This year, I’m fortunate enough to be able to do four races out west:
- The Zion Canyon Half Marathon in Utah in March
- The Grand Teton Half Marathon in Wyoming in June
- I’ll be doing the Golden Leaf Half Marathon in Colorado in September.
- And to keep with the western theme for 2015, I also did the Missoula Half Marathon in Missoula, Montana in July.
Add in the Sedona, AZ Half Marathon from a few years ago and if I were to make a list of the most scenic races I’ve ever done in my life, the ones in this region would easily dominate it. In Missoula, not only was the course beautiful, but the town’s residents are among the friendliest people I’ve ever met.
A Little Missoula History
12,000 years ago, the area that’s now known as the Missoula Valley was submerged under a 3,000 square mile glacial lake. Various Native American tribes occupied the area from the time the lake drained until European settlers arrived in the early 1800s. The conflicts between Native Americans and settlers trying to pass through the Missoula Valley were so fierce that in the early days, the area was known as “Hell’s Gate”.
Hell’s Gate area was renamed Missoula in 1866, and Fort Missoula was established a few years later. When Montana became a state in 1889, Helena was named the state capital, but not long after that, Missoula was awarded the charter for the state’s university.
Today, the University of Montana is the largest employer in Missoula, and the city is home to museums, literature, film, and music fests. It’s proximity to mountains and rivers also make it a perfect location for outdoor activities.
The Missoula Marathon weekend consists of three races:
- A Beer Run on Friday night
- A 5K on Saturday morning
- A Marathon and Half Marathon on Sunday morning.
Olympian Runner Jeff Galloway has had a partnership with the race organizers for several years. He’s involved in a number of different events throughout the weekend. This year he hosted a hike up to the M on Mount Sentinel on Friday morning, had a meet and greet / book signing and running clinic at the race expo on Saturday, ran the marathon on Sunday morning, and celebrated his 70th birthday and 200th marathon on Sunday evening. There were plenty of opportunities for runners to talk to him and get autographs and photos.
On Friday night, runners gathered at the Holiday Inn at 6:00 pm to kick off the weekend with the Missoula Beer Run. The Beer Run is a fun run through part of downtown Missoula, along the Clark Fork River and through part of the University of Montana campus. Runners have the option of doing either a three mile or five mile loop.
This is truly a fun run – there’s no registration, no official timing, no race numbers, and no finisher’s medals. If you want to do the run, you simply show up and join in. There are about a dozen tour guides who do the run as well. They’re ready to answer any questions that runners from out of town have about local plants and animals, historic landmarks and university buildings.
The Beer Run was a lot of fun and it also had a great turnout. Runners who finished it got bottle openers. There were also Missoula Beer Run shirts and beer glasses for sale at a merchandise table inside of the Holiday Inn lobby. After the run, there’s a party where runners can get food and locally brewed craft beer from Big Sky Brewing Company. Anyone that’s planning on participating in the 5K on Saturday morning can also pick up their shirt and race number at the post run party.
The 5K starts at 8:00 am in downtown Missoula on Saturday morning. Runners who weren’t able to pick up their race packets at the Beer Run the night before can pick them up on race morning. The start line is right outside of the Wilma Theater. The course starts on a bridge that crosses over the Clark Fork River. Most of the first mile goes through some local neighborhoods and the rest of the course runs alongside the river. The finish line is in Caras Park, which is a city park in downtown Missoula.
As far as 5Ks go, I have to say that this is probably the most scenic one I’ve ever done. The riverside trail is a lot of fun to run on and the views are spectacular. It rained a little bit during race morning but that wasn’t enough to ruin the fun. The 5K finisher’s medals are also amazing. This medal is actually nicer than some of the half marathon medals that I’ve gotten in other cities.
The race expo is also in Caras Park, so runners who do the 5K can pick up their marathon or half marathon packet right after crossing the finish line. I have to say that as far as race organization goes, this is one of the most convenient systems I’ve seen – for three days in a row, you can do a race and then get everything you need for the next one on your way out. The expo is all day on Saturday, so runners who aren’t able to do all three events (or don’t want to) have plenty of other packet pickup options. There’s even an option to email the race organizers and ask to pick up your marathon or half marathon packet at the airport if your flight isn’t going to arrive in time for you to make it to the race expo.
Marathon and Half Marathon
Both the marathon and half marathon courses are out-and-back courses that start near the base of the mountains and head towards the city, finishing downtown. The two courses start in separate locations but meet up around mile 16 (marathon) / mile 3 (half) and go the rest of the way to the finish line together.
The logistics for out and back courses are always a lot more difficult than they are for looped courses but the Missoula Marathon Race Organizers have a pretty good system set up for this one. On race morning, there’s no parking at the start lines, but that’s fine since it really makes more sense to park closer to the finish line anyway. The university parking lot is open and has plenty of parking spots available. There are shuttle buses that will take runners from there to the start lines. The university is about a mile from the finish line though, so another option is for runners to park along the streets or in the parking garages in downtown Missoula to avoid having to walk so far to get hack to their cars after the race. Honestly though, my suggestion is to stay in one of the downtown Missoula hotels. If you do that you might not need to worry about driving or parking at all for the entire weekend (more on that in a bit).
As far as the shuttle buses go, there were plenty of them and while the lines appeared to be long when I got there, I only actually stood in line for about 15 minutes before I was able to get on a bus. That said though, the race organizers did recommend getting there as early as possible to make sure you get to the start line in time.
The marathon and half marathon both start at 6:00 am. The reason for the early start is because it’s usually really hot in Missoula in July. The race organizers want to make sure as many runners as possible make it across the finish line before the sun comes out and the temperature starts to warm up too much.
This year the weather was fine. Better than fine, in fact – it was as perfect as it could be for a race out West in the middle of July. When I got to Missoula on Friday, the temperature was in the 90’s, but after a few storms passed through the area on Saturday, it had dropped to the mid 60’s by race morning. There was still some rain in the area on race day along with a little bit of drizzle during the race but the rain actually felt refreshing. I heard a couple people say that it was humid… but compared to Chicago, the humidity in Missoula was barely noticeable to me.
Both courses are mostly flat although the marathon does have a hill around the halfway point. The half marathon starts uphill but the course goes downhill pretty quickly and the hills on the rest of the course are negligible. The elevation is mildly challenging (3600 feet), but compared to Zion Canyon (5000 feet) and Grand Teton (6000 feet), I didn’t think it was that bad.
A few other course highlights:
- A cannon fires to start both races.
- The Marathon starts further back at the Clark Valley Fork Bank and most of the first half runs alongside the river and through some of the local forests.
- The Half Marathon starts at the Maclay Bridge and runs alongside the river for several miles and offers spectacular views of the mountains.
- Parts of the course go through Lolo National Forest. I saw a pair of deer around mile 7. I’ve heard that it’s not uncommon to also see moose and elk from time to time as well.
- Other parts of the course go through farmland so runners will also see a lot of open areas along with other animals like horses and cows.
- Around mile 4/16, a man in a tuxedo plays Chariots of Fire on a Grand Piano in his front lawn for runners passing by.
- There isn’t a lot of crowd support at the beginning of the race… but that’s perfect since that part of the course mainly runs through the forest alongside the river. Runners can enjoy the scenery and the zen feeling that comes with running through an area like that. As the course gets closer to downtown Missoula, the crowds get continually larger and by the end of the race, the are hundreds of spectators waiting near the finish line to cheer everyone on.
After the race, there’s a big post race party in Caras Park. There’s free food, free beer, results, and race merchandise. Anyone who participated in all three running events throughout the weekend can also get a commemorative race poster.
Getting to Missoula
This is a little bit tricky. Missoula is a small city, and the Missoula Airport is not very large either (it has 5 gates). There are limited flights in and out of Missoula, most of them are not direct and they tend to be on the pricey side. In a case like this, I would usually recommend comparing the prices on flights into nearby cities. That probably won’t work in this case though. The closest major airport is in Seattle and that’s around 500 miles away. There are regional airports in Butte, Helena, and a few other cities in Montana and Idaho, but even those are over 100 miles away and flights aren’t likely to be much cheaper than flying directly into Missoula. So unless you already happen to live in the area, you should plan on your travel costs being a bit high.
Prices aside, flying into Missoula is extremely convenient. The airport is a ten minute drive from downtown and there are no crowds whatsoever. It also has really short security lines. In Chicago, you need to get to the airport two hours before your flight to make sure you get to your gate in time. On my way home from Missoula, I got to the airport less than an hour before my flight and I was still able to get to the gate in time to grab a bite to eat before getting on the plane. The airport also has a pretty cool outdoor lounge with nice views of the mountains.
Where to Stay in Missoula
There are a few hotels that are close to the airport, but if you stay at any of the hotels in downtown Missoula, almost everything you’ll want to do throughout the entire weekend will be in walking distance. The Holiday Inn is probably the most convenient hotel to stay at since it’s right next to Caras park and only about a five minute walk from the shuttles on Sunday morning. It’s also a bit pricey though, so if you’re trying not to spend too much on travel, there are at least half a dozen other hotels in the Missoula city center. The majority of restaurants, shops, and parks in Missoula are also just a few minutes away from the downtown hotels as well so as long as you can get transportation to and from the airport, you might not need to worry about renting a car.
What to do in Missoula
Aside from the race, the one thing you should make sure to do while you’re in Missoula is to hike to the “M” on Mount Sentinel. Mount Sentinel is next to the University of Montana and the giant concrete M on the side of it has been a landmark since 1908 (although it was made out of wood in the early days). The M trail is fairly easy to hike – it’s 3/4 miles from the trail head to the M and there are a lot of switchbacks which help to keep the elevation change gradual. You can get up and back in less than an hour and along the way you’ll get spectacular views of the university campus, the Clark Fork River, and downtown Missoula. If you visit Missoula without hiking this trail, you are robbing yourself.
Most people who hike the M trail turn around and head back down after they get to the M, but if you want, you can continue on the trail for another 1 3/4 miles to get to the top of Mount Sentinel. This part of the hike is significantly steeper and tougher than the first part, but it’s also totally worth it. From the top of Mount Sentinel, you can see the entire Hellgate Canyon, all of downtown Missoula and the Bitterroot Mountains off in the distance.
If you get to Missoula on Thursday evening, there’s a hike that’s associated with the race that you can do with a bunch of other runners on Friday morning. Jeff Galloway also did the hike this year. I didn’t get there until Friday afternoon so I missed this, but I hiked to the top of Mount Sentinel on my own after the 5K on Saturday. My legs were not very happy about this during the race the next day but that’s all good – the views were breathtaking and I got some amazing pictures. If you’re planning to do this hike, your best bet is to either get into town a couple days early and do it at the beginning of your trip or stay a couple extra days after the race and do it at the end.
In addition to housing the M trail head, the University of Montana campus is also home to the Montana Museum of Art and Culture. Make sure to stop by and check it out after your hike.
The original Fort Missoula is a bit outside of town but it’s definitely worth a drive. The fort has been converted into a historical museum where you’ll find information not just about the fort itself but about Missoula and Montana in general. Some of the original buildings from the fort are still standing and open to the public. There’s also a military museum and some old trains and steam engines.
Lastly, aside from the M, there are hundreds of miles of trails in and around Missoula that you can hike or go mountain biking on. You can also go tubing, fishing or paddle boarding on the rivers. If you like the outdoors, you’ll be in heaven.
What to Eat
There are dozens of great local restaurants around Missoula. These are just a few of them:
- El Cazador is on the corner of Higgins and Front Street (right near the start of the 5K) and has great tasting Mexican food.
- If you’re looking to carb up before the race, you can check out Ciao Mambo, which is also on Higgins or head a few miles West on I-90 and grab a bite to eat at Mackenzie River Pizza Co
- If you want to grab a beer and a burger after the race, you’ll find some great food at Iron Horse Pub downtown.
- And if you’re looking for vegetarian options (or if you just like really good sandwiches), make sure to stop by Doc’s Sandwich Shop.
Most of the places around town that serve alcohol will have Big Sky Brewery craft beers on tap. Big Sky also has a trailer set up that serves beer at the post race party. Make sure you grab a Moose Drool Brown Ale or an IPA. You won’t regret it. Some of the other microbreweries around Missoula are Kettlehouse and Draught Works and if you’re interested, you can go on a bike tour and visit them.
I tried to come up with some cons about this race, but other than the flights being a little bit on the pricey side, I really couldn’t come up with anything. The race is a lot of fun, the courses are beautiful, the medals are awesome, and Missoula is a great location for a run. If you ever have an opportunity to do this race, don’t pass it up.
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