Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | July 27, 2010

Second? I’ll take it.

St Ignatius, Montana, is not known for many things. It is a small town, roughly 800 people, nestled up against the Mission Mountains on the eastern edge of the Flathead Valley in Northwest Montana. It lies in the heart of the Flathead Reservation, surrounded by pine-covered mountains on one side and miles of open farmland on the other. Tourists come to St. Ignatius to admire the historic St. Ignatius Mission.  Locals, however, come for Good Old Days, an annual summer celebration punctuated by a pancake breakfast, parade, quilt show, fireworks, and the Buffalo Run Road Race. Good Old Days also offers dog races.  In fact, there are more dogs racing during Good Old Days than there are people. That, however, can work to the slow runner’s advantage. And I, of course, am a slow runner.

Last year, I ran the Buffalo Run Half Marathon for the first time, and it was quite an experience. The flyer said the race started promptly at 7AM.  I had not registered in advance, so I figured I would need to leave some extra time. I pulled into St Ignatius around 6:15AM only to find that the race organizers hadn’t even set up tables yet. In fact, no one was there. Clearly, this ain’t the Chicago Marathon. To kill time, I drove over to the St. Ignatius Mission, sitting serenely in the early morning light. I admired its peaceful simplicity for a while. Then I checked email on my phone.

At 6:40 I headed back to the start, and I was still the first person there. I filled out my registration form and got my race number.  Slowly, a few other people showed up. As the announcer counted down to the start, I counted my fellow runners. There were 16 of us, plus one dog, a black border collie running with her owner. Needless to say, they were all faster than me, including the dog. All except Bob, that is, a septuagenarian who had just run the Missoula Marathon the previous weekend. Bob and I hung in the back the whole way, with the local ambulance driving ominously behind us. I told myself that the ambulance was there for Bob, but really, I was struggling more than he was. At mile 10, I faded and Bob passed me. I was left to run all by myself (cue the music) and I was Absolute Dead Last. But then Bob missed the turn back to the finish! Ha! I sprinted ahead, filled with the dream of Not Being Last. I crossed the line in the wonderfully slow time of 2:19, with Bob (having realized and corrected his mistake) just behind me. And yet, miracle of miracles, I was first in my Age Group!  The fact that I was the only one in my age group was a minor technicality. The dog who ran the race (with her owner) was the overall female winner. I thought about complaining that the dog should be disqualified for urinating on the course, but I let it go.

So this year, I returned to St Ignatius to defend my Age Group Championship Title. Like Uta Pippig or Bill Rodgers returning to Boston year after year to defend their titles, I knew I had to return and carry on my legacy. This time, I had experience on my side. I knew not to arrive until 10 minutes before the race start.  Still, it required getting up rather early, and I wondered if it was worth it when my alarm went off at 5:15. As I drove to St Ignatius, the sun was still on the far side of the mountains to the east. As I progressed, it started to illuminate the tops of the peaks, making the lingering snow patches glow brightly. The mountains looked like towering steep-gabled purple houses with the lights in the attic left on by accident. I thought to myself “I should really get up at dawn more often.” Yeah, right.

I arrived at the race a comfortable 15 minutes before the start, got my bib number and scanned the crowd of 18 people. I assessed the competition. Bob was there again, although the dog who won last year was not. As I looked around, my eyes fixated on a woman who appeared to be – gasp – my age.  I got closer and looked at her bib. Sure enough, she had a blue circle sticker too – she was in my age group. Dammit!  She was thin, she was fit, and much to my dismay, she was very nice. We chatted at the start line while in my head I imagined ways to eliminate her. Trip her? Send her the wrong way on the course? Lock her in the Port-o-Potty? Alas, before I could formulate a plan, the race started and she left me in the dust. She smoked me before we even got to the first turn. My hopes of defending my title evaporated. So my new goal was not to be Absolute Dead Last. I figured this year, Bob The Septuagenarian would be more familiar with the course and wouldn’t miss the final turn. That meant I had to pick it up a little. Game on, Bob, game on.

Fortunately, Coach Nina has had me doing speedwork. Now, I had tried doing speedwork on my own while marathon training last year, but mostly it consisted of me running slightly faster for, oh, about 10 seconds, and then going right back to lumbering along. Nina, however, has me doing real Fartlek workouts. Hard ones. I hate them, but honestly, I think they might be working. The Buffalo Run was sure to be the test.

There was a chill in the air as we started out, 48 degrees on the way to 90. The heat was destined to come with the sun which had not quite made it over the Mission Mountains yet. As we ran along, the sun slowly moved higher in the sky, streaming between the mountain peaks and casting large swaths of light and shadow on the road. We turned northward and the slower runners, a fair number of us, coalesced into a group at the back. The Contenders drifted out of view in front.

We ran along through open farmland, where spectators were few and far between. There was one couple, near the start, sitting in lawn chairs watching and clapping. There were two children in need of a good scrubbing standing at the end of a dairy farm driveway. They stared at us as if we were insane. Although those unkempt kids did not even crack a smile, we all picked up our pace, not because of the spectator enthusiasm, but because the scent of cow manure hung heavy in the air. We passed lots of cows, most eating voraciously, some glancing up to look at us with their vacuous dark eyes. There were also several horses grazing along the route. The horses were a tough crowd, roasting us with withering stares as if to say “You call that running? With your two stubby legs? We scoff at your running.”

Our Back of the Pack group plodded along, energized by the bovine crowds lining the course. There was a girl in a red shirt in front of me, and another gal with a gray shirt off to my side. The girl in gray dropped back. It was just me and Red Shirt Gal, alone in the front of our little pack. Clearly I have been watching too much Tour de France coverage because I couldn’t help but think she was Andy Schleck and I was Alberto Contador. Suddenly I became aware of a woman wearing a running skirt tucked in behind me. Who is she? She must be Denny Menchov, the Silent Assassin. As we hit a small rolling hill, Red Shirt Gal slowed. Ha, I thought, she was not Andy Schleck, she was Carlos Barredo and she was fading fast. That meant I was Andy Schleck!  OK, so then Running Skirt Gal behind me was actually Alberto Contador, or was I still Alberto? I was starting to confuse myself.

Realizing that my pace had slowed, I decided to shake off Andy and Carlos and Alberto and concentrate on running. Then, as I knew it would, the course turned eastward onto a washboard gravel road with a long steady elevation gain. The glare of the sun, now gazing at us from just above the mountains ahead, was impossible to avoid. It was a long few miles uphill to the base of the mountains. Fortunately, I knew the course and I knew our road conditions would change: when we turned south, we would have pavement and a downhill. I just had to get there. I needed a fast tempo song to help me along. In a fit of good timing, Paul Westerberg’s voice screamed through my headphones and thought, “Ah, Punk Rock Runner would be pleased.” Finally, when I was almost ready to give up and walk, I made the turn, just in front of the Back of the Pack group. The worst was over.

I plodded along, admired the scenery and flipped through songs on my iPod to keep myself moving forward. I made steady progress, and quickly realized I only had a few more miles to go.  My mind, however, once again started to mess with me as more Tour de France thoughts popped into my head. It was Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen commentating on my run.

“Well, it looks like she is really putting the hammer down here, Paul. The question is, can she sustain it?”

“With 5 kilometers left to go she may very well be able to make it, Phil. Unfortunately, we have just heard over race radio that she has a blister the size of Texas on her left foot and that will certainly come into play.”

“Yes, indeed it will. Speaking of Texas, we haven’t heard from a certain competitor named Lance Armstrong this morning, have we?”

Gah! No more TdF! I love Phil and Paul but I needed to put them out of my head. The time had come to break out HellaSound on the iPod to keep my cadence steady for the last several miles. I made the second to last turn back toward the town of St Ignatius and Red Shirt Gal was still with me. Running Skirt Gal had dropped back. I glanced over my shoulder and the Back of the Pack group was stretched out in a long thin line behind me. I headed towards the finish with Red Shirt Gal and crossed at 2:10, not particularly fast, but 9 minutes faster than a year ago. And I was not even last! Several people crossed behind me. Running Skirt Gal came in at 2:14. Bob The Septuagenarian came in a few minutes after that. Truth be told, Bob is an amazing runner and I would be honored to be beaten by him. I just didn’t want to be Absolute Dead Last.

So as it turns out, last year I was second to last overall but first in my age group. This year, I come in closer to the middle of the pack but I was second in my age group. Second? I’ll gladly take it. At least I didn’t get beaten by a dog.

Mission Mountains at Sunrise

Mission Mountains presiding over The Buffalo Run


  1. Oh Paul Westerberg, is there anything you and/or the Replacements can’t make better?

    This was an EPIC post.

    All the best,


    • Thanks Ron, I knew you of all people would appreciate the Paul Westerberg/running combo. (Although I doubt any of The Replacements were ever big runners….)

  2. What a great race report! You are an amazing writer, Sue. Great job on the race AND a PR too! Way to go.

    • Thanks Gina, It was a nice little race, and fun to write about.

  3. Better Phil Liggett than Phil Collins, right? “So take a look at me nowwww…. Her blister’s an empty spaaaaace…. Her coming back to me is against the odds unless she can maintain her paaaace”


    • Oh, no, guess what song is going to be stuck in my head now? Thanks, John. At least I like those lyrics better than the original!

  4. Seriously, big ups on the race! You’re right, we gotta start our own races where it’s me, you, and a bunch of 5 year olds. I would like to be able to push over the 5 year olds if the mood strikes me. Fair enough?

    • We can call it the Half-Pint Half Marathon, advertise at all the preschools, get a bunch of kids to sign up and then have Popsicles at the first water stop. The kids will all stop and fight over what flavors while you and I sprint ahead and crush them! Yes John, victory can be ours, we just need the right race.

  5. Beautiful race report…nice small little field!!! 🙂 Love your blog!

  6. So, my friend married the drummer from The Replacements. Technically, he was the replacement drummer for The Replacements because the first one died. And actually my friend’s husband died a couple years ago too – so its kind of a weird thing. Two drummers from The Replacements died and had to be Replaced. But I digress….

    You always make it sound like you’re crossing the finish line on your hands and knees. This kind of ruins it for us tendon disabled folks who can’t even walk the whole length of an aisle at Costco without limping. I challenge you to write about your strengths in the next blog post…

    • My strengths? I’m a prodigious sleeper but I’m having trouble translating that into an interesting blog post. I’ll sleep on it and see if I come up with something.

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