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Jolene Rebel shivered in the predawn chill, quietly considering the challenge before her.

Although she wore only shorts and a thin T-shirt, the goosebumps on her arms and legs were not because she was underdressed for the 40-degree Sunday morning.

With arms wrapped tightly around her chest, she looked around at the swell of runners who had gathered, like her, at the start of the 2011 Missoula Marathon.

"I've had hard times in my life," said Rebel, the 34-year-old first-time marathoner from Washington. "I know if I can do this, if I can run 26.2 miles, I can do anything."

"It's a super-emotional day for me," she said, "and I'm nervous."

When the clock struck 6 a.m., more than 1,200 runners took off from Frenchtown and set out on the 26.2-mile Missoula Marathon course, turning and twisting through the Big Flat area, then through the middle of Missoula before reaching the finish line at the foot of the Higgins Avenue Bridge in the heart of downtown.

At the same hour, another 2,600-plus runners began the 13.1-mile half marathon course, which started at the base of Blue Mountain and joined up with the full marathon near Maclay Bridge.

Together, more than 4,000 athletes took part in the fifth annual Missoula Marathon, that would, by day's end, break several course records.

Jeramy Westhoff traveled from Great Falls with the hope of qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

His sister-in-law talked him into entering the Missoula race, but it was his wife, Michela, who gave him the impetus.

"I'm pretty new to running and my wife did a marathon while I was overseas with the Navy in Kuwait and Iraq," Westhoff said. "The sense of accomplishment she had was amazing and I was inspired by her."

*****

Eager, but not nervous, Craig Smith looked forward to mentoring a friend and helping him achieve his first marathon.

Sunday was the 53-year-old's 53rd marathon, and another milestone to prove his doctor wrong.

In 1991, Smith suffered a seizure so severe he fell to the ground and broke his back. Brain surgery followed the incident, with hopes it would put an end to the seizures.

"The neurosurgeon said I would never be able to run," Smith said. "I started to run as part of my rehabilitation and when I finished the Chicago Marathon I gave my doctor my medal.

"I've been running ever since - because I can."

As the runners hit the road, their fans and family lined the course to cheer.

Near the former Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. paper mill, Jennifer Simon waited for her husband Pat, holding a sign that read "No Walls. Go Pat. We Love 26.2 and Pat."

She didn't mind the wait or the chill in the air.

"It's a great temperature for runners," Simon said, "and it's a beautiful course."

Jenny McGillis was there to cheer on her mother, Debbie Miles, who was running her first marathon in memory of her son, Keaton, who died in a car accident four years ago, and to raise money so underprivileged Missoula children can participate in sports.

Accompanied by her cousin, McKinly Kramer, and her friend, Emily Costello, McGillis led a motivational bicycle and sign brigade to cheer on Miles - and the other runners.

Deidad Wright walked from her Spurgin Road home and parked her chair along Clements to watch the entirety of the race.

She didn't have anyone in particular to cheer on - she came to support every runner.

"I love this," Wright said. "I have come every year to support these people because I think they are amazing.

"There are people of every shape and age who come and do it - and it makes me want to do it."

As the hours ticked by, Wright was still in her chair, shaking a rattle her young daughter made by filling an old plastic bottle with beads.

Shouting out words of encouragement to the back-of-the-pack runners, Wright said: "I feel everybody deserves to be cheered, and I feel the last people are the ones who really need the cheers."

*****

The friendly vibe and the community support is what makes the Missoula Marathon so special, said Kacie Grue, a Bozeman runner who finished the half marathon with her sister, Kristen.

After catching their breath at the finish line, the sisters were all smiles.

"This is such a great course and everybody is super friendly along the way," Grue said, "and the volunteers are awesome."

"And it's so beautiful," chimed in Kristen Grue. "I loved running next to the river."

As the runners made their way across the finish line and over the timing wire, each celebrated in their own way.

Some pumped fists in the air, friends and lovers held hands, others stopped to take a picture, one person danced across the threshold, more than a few hollered with joy, and many shed tears of happiness.

Ruschel Hilmo ran the whole way with her 8-year-old son Mason, and when they finished, Hilmo could hardly find the words to express her joy.

"It's so overwhelming right now," said the Rock Creek resident. "Mason is the one who pushed me, and I am so proud of him."

Tired but thrilled, Mason said the experience was incredible.

"I just loved having all the people cheer for me," he said. "And I like running with my mom."

Tanny Plemmons of Lolo was so overcome with the reality of achieving her first half marathon she stood and wept openly while she fingered the medal around her neck, a medal each and every race finisher was awarded.

"I did it," she said. "I knew that I could, but it was harder than I thought. "It was so frickin' long."

 

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