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More than 1,200 runners take off Frenchtown at precisely 6 a.m. for the start of the 5th annual Missoula Marathon.

It’s the equivalent of the Super Bowl for area distance runners.

The Best of the Wild West, if you will. That’s the tag race officials have proudly attached to the Treasure State’s marquee road race, the sixth annual Missoula Marathon.

“I just love to see the energy that it brings to the Missoula running community,” race director Anders Brooker said. “We’ll have close to 5,000 people all together and over a quarter of those folks are from Missoula. So it’s just a real exciting time to see people that maybe would never have trained for a half or full marathon now want to be part of it because it’s in Missoula.”

To say the big event starts on Sunday at 6 a.m. is a tad misleading. Granted, the half and full marathons are slated for that time slot and they’re the main reasons for the hoopla.

However, race organizers have put a lot of effort into bolstering Saturday’s annual 5K run, which has been moved to the morning.

“It kind of opens up the Expo,” Brooker said of marathon eve attractions that include live music at Caras Park. “The Expo opens at 8 a.m., the 5K race starts at 8 a.m.

“I don’t think the timing for the 5K was perfect in previous years, on Saturday night. The goal with the 5K is to give people that maybe aren’t ready to do a half or full marathon an opportunity. Just let them still be part of the event and encourage that.”

Race registration director Vic Mortimer said 300 runners had signed up for the 5K by midweek. The race may reach the cutoff point of 500 with last-minute signups on Saturday morning.

“This year will be the most,” Mortimer said of the 5K. “I don’t think we’ve had more than 150 people signed up for it before.”

* * *

Fans of Sunday’s marathon have plenty of reasons to wake up early and watch the spectacle. Local favorite Jimmy Grant, 34, is in the men’s field. He finished second last year to Kalispell’s Elliot Welder, who will not be running after shattering the course record in 2 hours, 26 minutes, 25 seconds.

On the women’s side, Trisha (Miller) Drobeck of Missoula is back after a year absence. She won the marathon two years ago in 3:02.22, roughly eight minutes faster than last year’s winning time turned in by former University of Montana student Katherine Georger of Boise.

The women’s half marathon field will include Missoula’s Meg Lerch, who won two years ago but was sidelined by hip surgery last July. She may provide some of the toughest competition for defending champion Emily Shertzer of Pennsylvania, who holds the course record at 1:21.27.

Michael Bresson, 40, of Spokane, is back to defend his title in the men’s half marathon. He set the standard last year, finishing in 1:10.20.

Some of Missoula’s best high school runners will also participate. The list includes Hellgate standout Paige Gilchrist, a senior-to-be who finished seventh in the half last year in 1:27.30.

The marathon will feature competitors from all 50 states. Runners from Canada, Germany, Norway, Sweden and China will also participate.

“I think we may have maybe a couple hundred more in the marathon,” said Mortimer, alluding to last year’s total of 3,875 entries in the half and full marathon. “The (full) marathon is over 1,200 now and we may get to 1,300.”

* * *

One of the most endearing aspects of Sunday’s event is the way Missoulians support the runners. There’s a connection that’s unique to the Garden City.

“It makes a big difference,” Brooker said. “The more people we get out on the course, the more support those runners can have, the better.

“People don’t come up to western Montana expecting to have the whole course lined with spectators. It’s not New York City or Boston. But having folks out there encouraging them, whether it’s with music or a hose to cool them off or just an encouraging remark, it goes a long way. It really does.”

It’s hard to measure the impact of the marathon on the local economy the entire weekend. A study conducted several years ago indicated the event generated $1.2 million. Marathon officials have paid to have a new study this year.

“We take a lot of pride in the financial impact it has,” Brooker said. “That was a big thing from the beginning was to create a healthy lifestyle event that would be a nice thing for the city.”

The marathon was voted best overall by Runner’s World magazine in 2010. One big reason is the work of volunteers on race day and beyond.

“We have a committee of over 40 people that work all year long on this thing,” Brooker noted. “They’re essentially all volunteers that don’t have to do it but love being part of the race.”

Sunday’s full marathon will begin in Frenchtown at the Clark Fork Valley Bank. The half marathon will start at Alpine Physical Therapy on Blue Mountain Road.

Both races will finish in downtown Missoula on Higgins Avenue at Front Street. Awards ceremonies will begin at 10 a.m. with recognition of the half marathon winners.

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

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