The Missoula Marathon is well known for its scenic route that takes runners through farmland, low river valleys and the heart of a charming mountain town.
For two years in a row, the marathon has been ranked No. 1 in the country by BibRave, an online review site, and the half has been in the top 10. Runners have rated the marathon among the top 10 most beautiful races as well, alongside courses like the Big Sur Marathon in Carmel, California, and the Sedona Half Marathon in Arizona.
“We’re playing with the big boys as far as scenery goes,” said Tony Banovich, Run Wild Missoula's executive director. “It’s just such an amazing course.”
Banovich, along with Tammy Mocabee and Danelle Gjetmundsen, have run the race in each of its 12 years, and they gave us their thoughts on each section of this unique course.
The Start: Frenchtown
Runners line up for a 6 a.m. start at Trail West Bank in the heart of Frenchtown, some 10 miles outside of Missoula. Banovich likes the start in a “classic, small rural town” that gives runners a good view of the entire Missoula Valley, from Mount Jumbo to Blue Mountain.
The mood is subdued, as runners mentally prepare.
“It’s very quiet, early in the morning. Super quiet,” Banovich said.
Mile 2: Mullan Road
Runners take off down Mullan Road, passing through the Grass Valley, home to alfalfa fields, a few cows and horses, and plenty of agriculture.
This is Mocabee’s favorite section of the race, “coming in through the open fields with the animals, as the sun’s coming over the hill and starting to rise.”
That section is so peaceful, she said, and feels great since you’re not too tired (Gjetmundsen agreed on both points).
The “thwip, thwip, thwip” of farm sprinklers is nice and meditative, Banovich added, and there’s a little eeriness as well.
“One thing that’s so unusual is what’s left of the mill,” he said.
Shuttered a decade ago, the old pulp mill is there and gone in a strange sight rising up from the farmland.
Mile 10: Kona Ranch Road and Big Flat Road
The course transitions here to a low floodplain, which is also more shaded and dark than the open fields off Mullan Road. Runners follow Big Flat Road for most of this section, which dips and rises around some country homes.
“You change direction on the course, you’re in a different frame of mind,” Gjetmundsen said. “From there, I think, the work begins.”
Banovich likes how quiet and secluded it feels on Big Flat Road, where the dense pine trees allow him to lose himself in thought.
If runners look to their left along the high point of the road, they can see down to the Clark Fork River, which they’ll soon be right beside.
“Right at halfway, you climb up this hill and you’re on this bench,” Banovich said. “All of a sudden you’re in this pine forest.
“You drop down that big hill, and now you’re back down in that river area.”
Half Marathon Start: Peak Fitness
The half-marathoners begin their race at Peak Fitness, off U.S. Highway 93, running up Blue Mountain Road toward Big Flat to join the marathoners.
There’s around three times as many half-marathon runners as full-marathoners, Banovich said, so the race is quiet and peaceful no longer as a crowd of people make their way down the country road toward the Orchard Homes neighborhood across Maclay Bridge.
“They are right next to the river,” Banovich said. “It’s spectacular.”
Plus, runners are serenaded by Gary Bowman, owner of Morgenroth Music, playing a baby grand piano on River Pines Road.
Bowman, along with a pair of residents who sit astride their horses to watch the runners, are high points for Gjetmundsen.
“I know it’s coming," she said. "It always puts a smile on my face.”
Mile 16: Orchard Homes and River Road neighborhoods
“As soon as you cross the bridge, you’ve left that rural and semi-rural area and you’re transitioned immediately into suburban Missoula,” Banovich said.
Runners will start to see more of an audience at this point, too, with unofficial aid stations handing out drinks and snacks, and yard sprinklers spraying the route with cool water. Children line up to give high fives and words of encouragement.
The race goes through the Reserve Street bike path tunnel and into the River Road neighborhood, following Wyoming and Fourth Street.
“Now you’ve gone from those suburban tract houses into a little more dense neighborhood,” Banovich said.
Mile 23: University District
This is where the impromptu aid stations, hoses aimed over the road and camp chair audiences really amp up.
“We encourage it by word of mouth,” Banovich said.
He’s heard of unofficial aid stations that hand out shots of Fireball whiskey, or other adult refreshments. The marathon itself keeps water (of course) along with Popsicles and other cool treats at the finish.
“It’s great fun,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement.”
Mocabee picked the U District as a favorite spot as well.
“Just the energy from the crowds,” she said. “The energy pushes you through.”
Race volunteers amp up their encouragement as runners near the finish, passing historic homes and Hellgate High School.
“By then, you’re focusing on block-to-block, not miles,” Gjetmundsen said.
Mile 26: Downtown Finish
“All of a sudden, you turn into downtown Missoula,” Banovich said. “In a block, that happens.”
Runners really get the full finale when they crest the hump in the middle of Higgins Street Bridge, racing downhill toward the blow-up archway, tall buildings and North Hills.
Friends, family and other audience members fill the sides of the bridge (which is closed to traffic) to spur runners toward the finish line.
“As soon as you can hear the announcer and see the people, you’re floating,” Gjetmundsen said. “It’s just a burst of energy.”
“It’s a crazy finish,” Banovich added.