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It's not every marathon when the top two runners strike up a friendship while competing.

That's Montana for you. And the Missoula Marathon, which has a way of bringing out the best in everyone from the champions to the fans that wake up early to cheer.

Kalispell's Elliot Welder shattered the course record in the fifth annual Zootown showcase race Sunday with a time of 2 hours, 26 minutes and 25 seconds. Afterwards, he credited his new buddy, runner-up Jimmy Grant of Missoula, for helping push him along.

"Jimmy was great," said the 23-year-old Welder, a former Princeton steeplechaser. "We introduced ourselves to each other within the first mile and worked together for the first 14 before starting to lose track of each other.

"He was very supportive and helpful and I really want to congratulate him."

Grant, 33, was disappointed in his runner-up performance in 2:36:32 after winning the half-marathon last July. But he had nothing but praise for Welder.

"It was kind of funny because we went right through the half together," Grant said. "Then he made a pit stop and somehow comes back and makes his move on me right around mile 14. After that it just kind of took some wind out of my sails a little bit.

"But (Welder) is a class act. He was thankful for all the people. I could hear him saying thanks when everybody cheered him on, even the walkers. Nice kid."

Former University of Montana student Katherine Georger of Boise won the women's marathon comfortably in 3:10:30. Mike Bresson of Spokane won the men's half with a course-record time of 1:10:20 and Emily Shertzer of Jonestown, Pa., set a new women's standard at 1:21:27.

Competing in what he called his "first big marathon," Welder wasn't sure what to expect. Four months ago he was teaching English in Mongolia, unable to run at all because of the extreme air pollution.

"In February I decided I was sick of being sedentary, so I wrote down I wanted to try to win the Missoula Marathon, having no idea what I was going to do about training," said Welder, who credits his former high school coach, Flathead's Paul Jorgensen, with inspiring him as an athlete.

"One of my friends hit 2:30 at the New York City Marathon in November, and that kind of planted a seed in me to go for a faster time today."

Race officials speculated Welder's time may have been the fastest in a Montana marathon in 20 years. His pace per mile was 5:36.

Georger, 26, was competing in her first marathon. She accomplished her ultimate goal to post a qualifying time for the Boston Marathon, and in the process got a big bonus in winning.

"It was a great race," she said. "It started out cold (about 41 degrees) but it was perfect watching the sun rise.

"It was a little painful toward the end for me because my hip was starting to seize up a little bit. But the crowd was awesome. Missoula is awesome."

Bresson, who focused on soccer as a college athlete, started getting into running 12 years ago and it has since become his passion. The 39-year-old finished way out in front of the half-marathon pack Sunday, and credited the fans afterwards.

"What a great environment," he said. "The people here are really second to none.

"This is probably the best volunteer race I've seen, support-wise. It helps a lot figuring out where you are on the course."

Missoula Hellgate junior-to-be Adam Peterman made his presence felt in the race with a 12th-place finish.

"I was definitely happy with my time," he said. "I wanted to go under 1:18 and I finished in 1:17:35. It was just staying consistent. I had a bunch of friends to run with like Jake Turner and Carter Montgomery, so we just all ran together."

Shertzer, a former runner at Moravian College, was in town representing the National Guard marathon team. She was thankful for the cool conditions Sunday.

"It's been so hot and humid in Pennsylvania that this was just fantastic," she said. "I really didn't know what to expect today. I ran my first marathon in May and then took the rest of May off and then the team asked if I'd do this and I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I'm not ready to race.' "

Missoula's Courtney Babcock was the second woman to cross the line in the half-marathon in 1:23:49. Decked out in a festive pink outfit that included long pink socks, she barely looked winded minutes after the race.

"I never get a chance to run in Missoula and run with other people," said the University of Montana cross country and track coach. "I just took any expectations off myself and wanted to go out and have fun and talk to people along the way and try not to hurt until the last few miles.

"My family is on the course and people you know and just running here in Missoula in this atmosphere is so much fun."

Hellgate junior-to-be Paige Gilchrist also turned in a strong performance. She finished seventh in 1:27:30.

Marathon registration director Vic Mortimer said overall numbers were "comparable" to last year when a record was set. The half marathon drew 2,675 entrants. About 1,200 signed up for the marathon and 500 for the kids' marathon on Saturday.

Bill Speltz can be reached at 523-5255 or bill.speltz@lee.net.

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