Missoula was a sight to behold early Sunday morning when a record-breaking number of runners gathered in the pre-dawn hour to run in the fourth annual Missoula Marathon and Half Marathon.
Almost 5,000 athletes laced up and made their way to the starting line beginning at 4:30 a.m., to stretch and get their hearts and minds around the day's challenge: 26.2 miles or 13.1.
They arrived from nearly everywhere.
More than 2,000 came from across Montana, with another 2,500-some runners representing all 50 states, and far away lands such as Australia, Chad, Chile, Singapore, Kosovo, Russia and Hong Kong.
As the morning unfolded, it would be Kiefer Hahn of Missoula, who would be the first to finish the full 26.2 miles and shatter the marathon course record with a time of 2:30:37.
It would be a first for many others, like Galt and Lynne Pettett, who would run 13.1 miles together, all the while pushing their 8-month-old daughter Annbelle in a buggy. "Our first family marathon," Galt would quip while crossing the timing wiring and high-fiving his wife.
Or like Dayel Dunning, who would run her first half marathon and cross the finish line crying, knowing that two years ago the pain in her back was so severe she couldn't walk for 12 months. "It was awesome," Dunning would later gush about her marathon experience. "It was the farthest I've run in my whole life."
Or Gene Wray, from British Columbia, who would be so astounded by the beauty and camaraderie he experienced in his first Missoula marathon, he vowed to come back next year.
"Missoula is just unbelievable. You feel very special being here," Wray said. "It's absolutely the best race I've ever been in, and I've been running since 1971."
Although organizers executed a successful event, Mother Nature stepped in to provide a perfect morning for running. At 6 a.m. the race began with clear skies, sunshine - and the race announcer noted it was 55 degrees.
Just before the starting cannons set the event in motion, Pat Cross took in a deep breath of cool morning air and smiled.
"I'm a wildland firefighter and I hope that fire season starts late enough every summer so I can train and run this," Cross said. "It's a great event and the fun part is watching all the volunteers. Everyone is really helpful and it's just fun to be a part of."
Missoula high school buddies Lauren Crandall and Emily Rolston used the marathon as a chance to tackle a first-time challenge, stay fit and reconnect during their college summer break.
"We thought it would be fun to do together," Rolston said. "We had to run and train separately at first because of our school schedules, but once we were both here in Missoula we trained together and even though the miles got longer, the runs got shorter and faster because we were doing it together."
Just back from Kenya and Tanzania, where he volunteered in health clinics with a University of Montana student group called the Global Grizzlies, Ben DeMarois decided to join his friends in the early morning adventure.
Although he hadn't really trained for the event, running 13.1 miles didn't seem so daunting after experiencing Africa's poverty first hand.
"This is easy compared to that," he said.
Veteran runners Pat and Julie Hoglan came from Spokane to support Missoula's marathon, which they read about earlier this year when the event captured the title of Best Overall Marathon in America from Runner's World magazine.
About once a month, the couple seeks out a half marathon to run together. After running in the Seattle marathon with 27,000 people, they learned to find smaller races.
"This race is perfect," Pat said. "It's a great size, it's well organized, everyone is friendly and Missoula is a nice town to visit."
For many, it was a day to champion a cause and do their part, in their own small way, to build a better world.
Those on such a mission were easy to spot: Their shirts told their story.
Among the many fundraisers sharing the marathon's limelight, Run For Our Sons, to cure Duchenne muscular dystrophy; Team McCaul/Simpson Global Syndrome, to support research for a rare congenital hypothyroid disease; Team 316, a nonprofit that works to improve the lives of the homeless in Missoula and Nakuru, Kenya; Run 4 Kids, to benefit Missoula's Youth Homes; and the Heaven Couldn't Wait Fund, to help underprivileged Missoula kids participate in youth sports.
Josh Krone and 14 of his companions were there, running in honor of the United States of Hope, a Missoula nonprofit that supports veterans and families affected by war.
Missoula Area Youth Hockey was there, but not running.
Instead, the young hockey players and their parents manned the aid station at mile marker 18, handing out water and encouragement to every single runner.
"This community gives so much to these hockey kids and we wanted to give back and say thanks," said Rochelle Knapp, a hockey mom. "Seeing the smile on runners' faces when they see the kids who are here to help them is just great."
Busy filling paper cups with more water, Danny Lochridge, 13, said he was inspired by the runners.
"I'd like to run this," he said. "I see a lot of people I know going by.
"I see a lot of team work - and I'm having a lot of fun."
Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.