The 2019 Missoula Marathon won’t come to an end Sunday until the very last participant crosses the finish line over the Higgins Avenue Bridge. When that happens, Pam Gardiner will be there, clapper in hand.
“We wanted to use cow bells, but the announcer said he wouldn’t be heard over them,” said Gardiner.
For the past nine years, Gardiner has led Run Wild Missoula’s Back of the Pack group. Created as a way to cheer on those who take a little longer than two hours to cover 26.2 miles — or a lot longer — BOP has grown to include weekly buddy runs and monthly social events.
The idea of showing support for anyone with the endurance to complete a race came to Gardiner while she volunteered for the Sweathouse Half Marathon in Victor. She noticed a 20-minute gap between the second-to-last finisher and the last finisher. During that 20 minutes, the race seemed to end early.
“The finish line area was abandoned. The snacks were all gone. The beer had stopped flowing. The music had stopped playing. And this individual came across the finish line having given totally everything,” she said.
At the conclusion of the Rotterdam Marathon, those who come in last place receive a hero’s welcome, complete with confetti, a roaring crowd and a police escort.
Gardiner, who ran her first marathon at 54, said race organizers in Missoula could do better, and this year, the Missoula Marathon also is hoping to increase the crowd along the bridge and final stretch for slower finishers.
Marathon race director Tony Banovich is encouraging people who finish the half or full marathon early to return to the bridge later to give the participants who aren't as speedy a celebratory end to their achievement. Last year, the people who brought up the rear took six, seven and even nearly eight hours to cross the finish line after a 6 a.m. start.
For the 2011 Missoula Marathon, Gardiner and a handful of “ad hoc cheerleaders” waited at the finish line line with clappers and snacks for the final 100 runners. Cheerleading during the last hours of the race has since become a formal volunteer position filled by more than 40 people every year.
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That same year, Olympian Jeff Galloway began a partnership with Run Wild Missoula for the next seven years. During that time, the running club adopted Galloway’s half and full marathon training programs. Galloway, who trained in Missoula for the 1972 Rome Olympics, developed a “run-walk-run” system ideal for those new to running. Gardiner immediately volunteered to be the program coordinator.
“I was really fortunate to be at this nexus of events,” Gardiner said. “I wanted to become more involved with Run Wild Missoula, and Galloway came with this program that's perfect for people who have never run in their life, were prone to injury or were just generally a bit slower than the average marathon runner.”
Gardiner trains under the system herself, running and walking in intervals of 15 seconds.
After the partnership with Galloway ended, the 72-year-old continued as the program’s coordinator. According to Gardiner, those involved in BOP make up almost the entirety of those enrolled in the two Galloway programs. The 2019 Missoula Marathon will mark her final year as part of the 24- and 19-week training sessions.
“Even though a lot of the running world still debates on how effective it is, the Galloway program is an incredibly accessible way to train. That’s especially the case if you’re going for endurance over speed,” Gardiner said.
Banovich, also head of Run Wild Missoula, said he'd like more people to join BOP members this year as they root for the athletes who will cross after the longest time on the course. He also said BOP has gained traction since 2011 because of its philosophy of letting anyone join who wants to be a part of it.
“It takes people who would otherwise not be runners and gives them a way to be a part of the sport. There’s certainly a physical component, certainly, but there’s also a social and emotional component as well. Pam has done a great job of fostering that sentiment and shepherding the program along through its development,” he said.
Gardiner, who also serves on the board of directors for Run Wild Missoula, will run the half marathon Sunday before waiting for the last runner on the course to follow.
“A lot of these people have been through hell, training in the ice, wind and snow. A marathon finish is evidence that they can do something for themselves,” she said.