Posted by: Sue D. Gelber | July 29, 2011

The Buffalo Run: Failure Leads to Success

Dawn came early Saturday morning. Well, I guess technically dawn came at the proper time, but for a change, I was up to see it, my alarm having gone off at 5:00, many hours before I would normally be rolling out of bed. And, as usual, I briefly thought about how much easier life would be if I didn’t sign up for races. But this race was worth getting up for, one of my favorites: The Buffalo Run Half Marathon, part of the Good Old Days celebration in St Ignatius, Montana.

The Buffalo Run is near and dear to my heart, partly because of its great name and because it’s the only race where I’ve ever placed first in my age group. Granted, I was the only runner in my age group that year, but I consider that to be a minor detail.

The Buffalo Run Half Marathon, you see, doesn’t get a lot of runners. Usually just around 20. Last year, however, another gal in my age group showed up and she smoked me. This year, I was determined to regain my first-place standing. My strategy? Praying that no one else in my age group showed up.

I had to win by default, because I knew I wouldn’t win based on speed. Last year, I’d spent my entire summer training for a Half-Ironman triathlon and a marathon. This year, however, I’m not training for anything. As a result, by the time July rolled around, I was not in what you’d term top running form. What’s more, instead of running, I’d been doing things like hiking and waterskiing with a vengeance, having foregone those activities last year out of fear of injury.

Unfortunately, that meant I had sore legs going into this year’s Buffalo Run. Instead of tapering for the race, I’d spent all day Monday waterskiing for the first time in two years. I then spent Tuesday popping Advil and limping around the house, amazed that I’d somehow strained muscles I didn’t even know I had. On Wednesday I went for a long hike, which included some pretty significant elevation gain and loss. I spent Thursday on Advil again. Friday I went to do my pre-race workout to prepare for the Half Marathon, and I could barely walk, much less run. Maybe my legs will loosen up tomorrow, I foolishly thought to myself.

Heading to the race on Saturday morning, I ignored the soreness in my legs and tried to forget about the fact that I was completely under-trained. Instead, I focused on the early morning scene around me, admiring how the rising sun cast a slight pink tint on the lingering snow fields at the top of the mountains.

I got to St Ignatius about 15 minutes before the start of the race, just as the sun was starting to streak over the mountains.

I got my bib and counted the competitors: 22. I saw one other gal in my age group, and she looked fast. She had arm warmers on. Rats.

The crowd at the starting line, pre-race.

I jogged for a few minutes to warm up. Ouch. My quads were not happy. But I had no time to whine. The starting gun fired and we were off. We headed north, then turned onto the aptly named Airport Road and passed the St. Ignatius airport.

The one and only runway

The airport entrance. Easy to miss. You can just make out the cow grate in the lower left corner. Please leave all liquids, gels and aerosols over 3 ounces in the mailbox.

We then headed a little further north, past some fragrant dairy farms, and turned east towards the mountains.

Fans lined the course.

Their energy added to the excitement of the race.

Heading eastward towards the mountains, my pace was slow. Painfully slow. My legs were killing me. I looked at my Garmin, did some calculations and realized that a PR was out of the question. Today would not be the day for me to have Buffalo Run glory. In fact, I’d be lucky to make it to the finish. The course turned southward, giving me what would have been a welcome downhill stretch, except for the fact that my quads were sore from too much downhill hiking earlier in the week. The long, gently sloping descent was not my friend.

Fortunately, I had some lovely scenery to distract me.

I laughed when I saw a sign like this along the very rural Foothills Road,

because so many people in St Ignatius Montana cross the street carrying a purse and briefcase.

I also passed a Ten Commandments sign like this,

a common sight here in Northwest Montana.

At that point I had only about five miles to go, which worked out to one Commandment per half mile. Not bad. I only saw one Ten Commandments sign on the Buffalo Run course, but there’s a section up by Kalispell where there seems to be a Ten Commandments sign around every corner. I started to think about organizing a Ten Commandments 10k, with the course passing as many signs as possible. I even envisioned themed water stations based on the Commandments. One would have Gatorade that runners couldn’t drink, because it would be someone else’s Gatorade, and you shouldn’t covet thy neighbors electrolyte drink.

I spent a mile or so thinking about the Ten Commandments 10kTM, dreaming up T-shirt designs and slogans. I even started working on race instructions: “Thou shalt affix thy bib number securely in the front, not the back.” Finally, however, I realized that all my fictitious race planning was distracting me a little too much. I was going even slower (something I hadn’t thought possible). I tried to refocus on the race at hand.

In the distance you can see the road for the Bison Range snaking along the mountain

The course finally turned west, and I was grateful to be nearing the end, small tears of joy, or possibly pain, forming at the edges of my eyes. I passed through quiet farmland, whining and cursing out loud.

Water stop for the desperate.

As I got into the homestretch, my quads were screaming. I was determined not to walk, but as I got to the Finish Line, I realized it was my worst half marathon time EVER. A personal worst! I grabbed water from the hospitality table and walked over to the board. Huh, no finish times posted for my age group yet. Could it be?

I waited, and yes, they put my name up first! And then – get this – they put another name up below mine. And then, the icing on the cake – a third name! Not only had I gotten first in my age group, but there were actually OTHER RUNNERS IN MY AGE GROUP. I had beaten someone else. Go figure. My worst, and I was first.

I’ll still never get the coveted Golden Buffalo statue – those only go to the overall top male and female runners.

But at least I got this nifty blue ribbon, so I can always remember my worst Half-Marathon ever.


  1. Congrats on the blue ribbon–and for the great story.You should send it to “The Leader”

  2. Congrats on the first place despite you thinking it was the worse one yet. Still a great accomplishment! Great blog — with pics as well — great job!

  3. Who but you would come clean on the “worst first”? I want to come cross the street in pumps, pearls and pocketbook, since they so concerned about my safety, and as it turns out, my moral (or religious) compass too.
    Good job and great pics!

  4. Your posts this summer make me want to move to Montana. No, seriously. Great job!

    • Thanks Kelly! But I also have a post about running with the bears that might make you not want to move there – or at least not go running there! Hopefully will have that one up in a few days…

  5. I have run this race many times, and I really enjoyed your write-up! It is a real Montana classic race, and all the funny things you have about it are what keeps me going back. (I won a couple years back, and it was by default, because the next year the winner was 20 minutes faster, so I can really relate). I think it is funny that almost every year the leader gets lost on one the first few turns(or the last few like in 2012). Great job!

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