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SEELEY LAKE - Their cheetahs runneth over.

As usual, Lynn Carey set a crowd of crazy winter runners off on the 13-plus mile jaunt known as the Snow Joke Half Marathon with a shotgun start Saturday.

That is, Carey pointed a shotgun to a surprisingly promising sky and fired it.

What happened next was unprecedented.

More than 660 people and a goodly number of dogs surged into motion. That smashed last year's record of 402 for this late February celebration of fitness, the great outdoors and self-molestation.

Snow Joke turned 31 years old and Cheetah Herders like Carey and Pat Caffrey who've put it on all these years could only scratch their heads at the explosion.

"A mild winter, and I'm going to say it's a quality event," ventured Caffrey, after he climbed down from his announcer's perch - a blue pickup parked by the Seeley Lake Elementary gym from yet another rousing sendoff.

An hour later, at the six-mile marker on North Boy Scout Road, Collin and Karen Rose pulled Chloe the Pug to a stop at a water table. Chloe is a Pug, maybe 10 inches tall with legs correspondingly shorter. Her wrinkly, pug-nosed face gazed up at the Roses. Let's go, she seemed to say.

This was Chloe's second Snow Joke, Collin Rose said.

"She loves it, but it would be better if it was 20 degrees cooler," he said.

There were few complaints about the weather this day. The race circles Seeley Lake, the lake, once counterclockwise, heading north along Highway 83 from Seeley Lake, the town, for 5 1 /2 miles. The route follows Boy Scout Road along the back side of the lake before finishing up back at the elementary school.

Unlike some Snow Jokes, the road was almost devoid of snow and ice, and a thinly-veiled sun heated things up to 40 degrees or more.

Missoula's Trisha Miller took advantage. She broke the women's course record with a time of 1 hour, 24 minutes, 59 seconds and, for the second year in a row, earned induction into the Royal Order of Cheetah Rangers, replete with the honorary fur sash, by winning the Bushman Division title (for women aged 16-39).

Paige Gilchrest of Ovando lopped more than 2 1/2 minutes off the girls' course record with a time of 1:40:02.

Jimmy Grant of Missoula repeated as overall champion in 1:12:51.

***

It was a good day to be out and about for Kim Lugthart of Missoula, too. She stopped at the first water station to show off the back of her forest green 2010 Snow Joke shirt.

Above an overlay of the course map - "If you get lost you can always look on the back of your shirt," Caffrey had advised at the starting line - were stenciled the words "Happy Birthday EWL."

"I'm 53 today," Lugthart said cheerfully, as she and friend Ivy Baker of Choteau stopped to chat at the water table.

Alas, the veteran runner was walking the back road, by orders of her coach and daughter, Sierra Weese of Bozeman. Lugthart said she started feeling ill after the first five miles.

Take it easy on that hill up ahead, she was advised as she and Baker turned to go.

"Oh, we have hills for breakfast," laughed Lugthart.

Bullhorn in hand at the starting line, Caffrey had welcomed the teeming masses of runners to Camp Cheetah, the USA Track and Field Montana's half-marathon championship this year.

When running on Highway 83, he said, "Please keep left so we won't get arrested."

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At the end, he said, don't mess up the timers by crossing the finish line twice.

"Repeat after me - ‘I will not cross the finish line twice,' " he said.

Don't ask for your times today, either. "I will have a nuclear meltdown if you bug my timers."

Results will be posted on the Cheetah Herders Web site within a week.

"If you call me and ask when the results will be ready they'll be posted next year."

At the end of his seven-minute greeting, Caffrey announced he was introducing a new feature to Snow Joke.

"I may look silly up here doing this, but we ain't going until you do it," he said. "What I want you all to do is turn to the Cheetah in front of you and in back of you and on each side of you and give them the Cheetah Herder greeting, which is -"

(from a Cheetah crouch)

"WHUDS UP?"

The antsy crowd got into it, administering 660 greetings times four. Then Carey fired the shotgun and the joking was done.

Kim Briggeman can be reached at 523-5266 or at kbriggeman@

 

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