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Jo Ruby jangled a cow bell for the Missoula Marathoners with so much intensity, she figured she and a friend might get sore from simply cheering.

“We might get cow bell blisters today, but it’s OK. It’s all worth it in the end,” said Ruby, a running coach ringing away for racers – some of whom she had trained.

On Sunday morning, nearly 4,000 runners and walkers set out to compete or meet fitness goals in the sixth annual Missoula full and half marathons, and countless others turned out to root them to the finish line, gain inspiration or just cool them off on the 90-plus-degree day.

Water bottle in hand, 8-year-old Connor Hansen planted himself alongside the course and offered a dousing to runners going past.

“Anybody want to be dumped? Anybody? Anybody want to cool off? Want to cool off?” said Connor.

Connor stood in front of Betty Yorton’s yard, which had become a cheering section bright and early in the morning. Yorton lives along the Missoula Marathon course, and daughter Larae Hackney admitted to starting the party.

“My poor mom. I said, ‘Hey, guess what? You’re going to have company at 6 a.m,’ ” Hackney said.

Yorton, 84, didn’t mind.

Sitting under a tree in her yard, she watched the runners, in awe of their large numbers and inspired by their abilities. Yorton herself dances, walks and exercises to stay fit, and she especially appreciated seeing the older competitors.

“That gentleman right there? He has to be in his 80s, late 70s,” Yorton said. “It’s really something.”

The community’s zest for the race is one reason Runner’s World magazine named the Missoula Marathon tops in the country in its January 2010 issue. Along the course, spectators set out sprinklers, handed out refreshments, and called out as many words of encouragement as possible to friends and strangers.

“Way to go, barefoot man.”

“You’re almost there. Finish strong.”

“You got a bridge, dude. You got a bridge. That’s all you got.”

Mo Hendrickson, of Palouse, Wash., had her partner, mom and sister all cheering her on with pride in their smiles and white erase boards propped on their feet: “Lucky 7!!” “Go Mo!!” and “RUN.”

Laura Schultz, her sister, said Hendrickson set out to live a healthier lifestyle, and she had just hit her 100-pound weight loss mark. The support crew knew her running the Missoula Marathon was a big milestone, too.

“I’m just super proud of Mo,” said partner Aimee Stormo.

“Oh, we all are,” said Mo’s mom, Mary Kay Rolwes. “It’s been a joy to see her do this.”

***

At the corner of Fifth Street and Gerald Avenue, Missoula Police Lt. Richard Stepper directed traffic, and he rooted on runners at the same time. Many racers thanked him for helping out, but one of them offered her perspective on his call of “great job.”

“The great jobs have already taken their showers,” the marathoner replied. “I’m gettin’ it done.”

Other runners also bantered with the folks urging them to the finish around just two more corners.

“Is it Moose Drool time?”

“You can’t have any more fun and be legal.”

For some, like the Spartans, even the 5:30 a.m. wakeup couldn’t dampen the fun. For the first time, the Sentinel High School football team pulled on purple and gold jerseys to work an aid station.

Timmy Compton, who will be a senior at Sentinel, said the football team gets up early anyway to lift weights, and the task of the day was rewarding.

“It just feels really good to give back to the community,” said Compton, a wide receiver and linebacker. “They donate a lot of money to the program, and they cheer us on Friday nights.”

As racers rounded the last corner to the finish, the Missoula Youth Homes met them with multiple signs of thanks. Many runners race every year to bring in money for Youth Homes, and this year, the tally came to more than $70,000, according to the nonprofit.

“It’s our biggest fundraiser of the year,” said Lacy Frey, a staff member on the course.

Andrew Filicetti, a Youth Homes resident, was impressed with the work of the pacers, who run like clockwork so others can follow and make their times. This year, he was one of four folks holding a giant “Youth Homes/Thank You/Run 4 Kids” sign, but next year, he just might lace up his racing shoes.

For one thing, the folks who run for Missoula Youth Homes inspired him.

“Plus, living there, I’ve eaten so much of their food, I’ve got to give something back,” Filicetti said.

Reporter Keila Szpaller can be reached at @KeilaSzpaller, 523-5262, keila.szpaller@missoulian.com or on MissoulaRedTape.com.

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