I decided this summer to race a few half marathons.  Usually when I race, it’s a big production.  I train for months and months.  Tempo runs, hill repeats, 800 repeats, long runs at marathon pace.  I stretch and strength train and clean up my diet.  I have goals and expectations and training plans that go on for pages and pages.  And while there is a lot I love about intense training, I have also realized that intense training creates a lot of pressure for me.  I feel pressure to get in all the runs, pressure to meet my goals, pressure to perform.  And sometimes this takes away the fun of training and racing.  So this summer I decided to do something different.  I would sign up for a few local races and just run them.  Sure, I would train but not intense, crazy, full of pressure training.  I would run 4-5 times a week, throw in some strength training, and throw down some pace work when I felt like it.  I would show up at race day and just run.

My first test run happened at the Governor’s Cup (see previous race recap).  Despite the hilly course and lack of specific training I did manage to pull off a half marathon PR at 1:56.  It didn’t really feel fun, though, mostly because I spent far too much time looking at my GPS watch and worrying about my splits.  I felt the pressure again.

Round two was the Missoula Half Marathon five weeks later.  I wasn’t even going to run this one despite it being my real hometown race.  It was on a summer weekend and I had more camping, hiking and beer drinking to do.  My running partner gently talked me into it, pointing out that I had to do a long run anyway so I might as well run the race with her.  We showed up at the start line more than just a little rough around the edges.  I had been camping for the past week without a shower or a cell phone (which is divine). She had spent the week dealing with her father-in-law’s untimely death.  We had no expectations about how this race would go.  Our big plan was just to run.

If you’ve never run the Missoula Marathon or Half, you really, really should.  Online registration is easy and packet pick up is a breeze with a nice race expo.  The start line was well equipped with an assortment of port-a-potties, music and pre race fireworks.  The course for the half starts on a short incline but soon flattens out and then you drop downhill over the first mile and a half.  It is a glorious way to start a race.  The first 4ish miles are spent running along the river and over a single lane bridge.  You then wind through a rural neighborhood before entering the town of Missoula.  The course winds through residential areas, by a city park and along the university district before turning onto the Higgins Street bridge and heading to the finish line.  Aid stations are frequent and well stocked.  Locals are out in force.  There were bands, a grand piano and bagpipes along the way.  There were wet sponges and lots of sprinklers turned on.  There were creative signs and lots of encouraging spectators.  I’ve run a lot of races now and I think Missoula has some of the best local crowd support I’ve ever seen.  It makes a big difference.  After the finish line there are medals, water, and food.  There’s beer if you want it.  It’s a perfect summer Sunday in Missoula.  For those of you who don’t know, the Missoula Marathon was rated the #1 Marathon by BibRave 100 and for good reason.  It’s a fast, scenic, world class race in one of the most beautiful and friendly places in the country.  This is a feel good kind of town and a feel good kind of race.  It’s the kind of race that makes me proud to be a runner in Missoula.

It was the perfect race for us to just run.  We were tired and a bit distracted which I think played in our favor.  We started out just running and after quite a few miles were surprised to glance down at our watches and realize just how fast we were running.  Hmmm.  Well, let’s just roll with it.  We carried on, running at an effort that felt moderately hard.  By mile 10 my lack of sleep was starting to show in my legs.  My lack of specific training was making me work harder than I probably should have had to.  The beauty of the half, though, is that it doesn’t totally punish you for the gaps in your training like the full marathon does.  So we looked at each other and agreed to push through the last 3 miles as hard as we could.  It was painful.  My muscles ached, my back strained, my mind wandered into “let’s quit” territory.  My lungs burned and my chest heaved.  We turned the final corner and hit the incline of the bridge.  We kicked hard and ran strong to the finish.  Our time of 1:55 was a PR for both of us.  The run was exhilarating, the kind of exhilarating that comes after you have been all out for 13.1 miles.  The run was also freeing.  This “just run” strategy was a total departure for me but it worked beautifully.  I don’t think this will be the last time I run this way.