A fully unfurled American flag followed Jess Dickson across the Missoula Marathon finish line Sunday, billowing just above the “combat vet” label on her pink camouflage jersey as she dashed down the Higgins Avenue Bridge.
An Army sergeant who works as a Veterans Administration health technician here, Dickson ran 8.2 miles as part of a VA employee relay team that included Jenny Murney, Holly Claussen and Susan Curtis.
The women exchanged hugs and smiles as they walked off the 26.2-mile course.
Dickson rolled up the flag and propped it on her shoulder as she explained her motivation to run.
“It’s to promote wellness for veterans. I just wanted to do something to get the VA in the spotlight, to do something for our veterans,” she said. ”We owe them a lot.”
An abundance of gratitude and goodwill – and endless gumption – came running north across the Higgins Bridge Sunday morning, as almost 4,000 runners and walkers tackled either the half or full Missoula Marathon courses.
Missoulian Matt Shyrock was the first, winning the men’s half marathon with an official time of one hour, nine minutes and 51 seconds. Chiara Warner, a two-time State B cross country champion from Townsend, won the women’s half in 1:21:59.3.
Collin Fehr, a Corvallis native now of Missoula, won the day’s big race, finishing the full marathon in 2:32:39.6, with Jimmy Grant less than a minute behind. Missoula’s Trisha Drobeck won the women’s marathon, with a record finish of 2:49:47.8.
The full marathon began at 6 a.m. on Mullan Road in Frenchtown, where a cannon shot and fireworks cued runners to head east into the dawn.
“He made me,” said Brian Panian, pointing to coworker and running mate Chuck Martin before the two walked through the brisk morning air toward the starting line.
“It’s good for a couple of old guys like us,” said Martin, 46.
The 26.2-mile course took runners from Frenchtown toward Blue Mountain and finally to downtown Missoula and the Higgins Avenue Bridge – where the huge crowd gave marathon winner Fehr goosebumps.
“The best part was running across that bridge. ... I had a huge adrenaline rush,” Fehr said.
Fehr ran Sunday with the “GAN warriors,” helping to raise money for a Bitterroot Valley family fighting to raise awareness of a rare genetic disorder affecting their three young boys.
Levi, 7, and 4-year-old twins Alan and Aaron all suffer from Giant Axonal Neuropathy, a rare genetic disorder that causes progressive nerve damage. Fehr and the other GAN warriors want to raise $150,000 locally for GAN research.
The boys sat high atop the shoulders of the philanthropist-runners at marathon’s end, their blond curls bobbing under the hot sun as Drobeck crossed the finish line to win the women’s marathon. Her time set a new course record.
Hours later, Christi Forest took 10 steps to finish her 26.2-mile journey. The 31-year-old Missoula woman suffered a traumatic brain injury 12 years ago and has been relearning how to run with the help of her parents and a team of physical therapists. In recent months, they helped Forest log all but a few steps of the marathon distance.
Then on Sunday, the encouragement of runners and spectators from across the country helped carry Christi the last few inches across the finish line.
Brian and Tiedji Baker, of Boise, Idaho, were taken aback by the generosity of spectators all along the course.
“This whole town comes out. It’s really great to see the community effort. You’re not just a few weirdos running out in the woods,” Brian Baker said. “I love coming around the corner to the bridge where you see the fans, the cityscape. It’s so inviting.”
And the Bakers have been to more than a few marathons. The Missoula event was their seventh in seven months.
“We’re doing 12 marathons in 12 months for 2012,” said a sweaty Tiedji Baker.
Dylan Brown, Cris Winner and Willy Carter all took on the 26.2-mile task for the first time. They ran together in board shorts and collared shirts.
“It’s our first marathon so we thought that we should look nice,” said Brown, who noted the afterparty was in the Clark Fork River.
The Missoula Marathon broke a participation record this year, with around 1,250 people running the full marathon, 2,700 running the half marathon and 29 relay teams participating.
Frenchtown’s Brody Marcure, 10, was one of the youngest finishers, crossing the line with mom Connie after a solid breakfast of “Cheerios and a banana.”
Before they left to rest up for their reward dinner at MacKenzie River Pizza, Connie summed up her favorite part of the race in two words: “The end.”