With adjustments, Montana Marathon reaches its 40th year
Adding the the COVID-19 related concerns, the organizers of this year’s Montana Marathon also had to consider how to proceed amid smoke from wildfires that have devastated parts of the western United States.
However, by Sunday morning the smoke had cleared out and runners who came to Billings from across the state and the country took off from Molt under pre-dawn skies for the 40th running of the Boston Marathon-qualifying race.
Under blue skies at the finish line in Pioneer Park runners reacted with grimaces and smiles, some stopping with their hands on their hips, others walking around the park to cool down. One man found a spot in the shade and fell asleep.
The usual post-marathon festivities were muted this year, and event workers wore masks. Refreshments after the race were available at a table and spectators weren’t allowed into a runners area directly after the finish line. Spectators were also asked to socially distance and encouraged to wear masks. Participants also had to fill out health screening questionnaires on race day.
Those were just a few of the many changes made to the race this year to accommodate the novel coronavirus pandemic that has killed 200,000 Americans, including 57 in Yellowstone County.
Kim Kaiser, CEO of Billings Family YMCA, described some of the other steps event organizers took to try and mitigate the risk of COVID-19 spread.
An increased number of shuttles were used this year to bring racers to the starting line in order to ensure limited capacity and socially distanced seating on buses.
Event staff kept track of where each runner sat on the shuttle buses, in case contact tracing becomes necessary. Windows were left open on the buses in order to maintain ventilation.
Runners were also broken down into multiple waves in order to limit the size of each running group.
Kaiser said that the race plans were also submitted to the county health department for suggestions.
“We felt like we could make this happen with our current COVID restrictions here in Montana and Billings. And give people the sense of normalcy, right?” Kaiser said. “We were very, very adamant with all of our stuff. Either follow this, or do not show up.”
She said that runners were grateful for the chance to compete and that some even bought tickets to fly out a day before the race.
Participation overall for the event, which includes races of other lengths, was down over previous years, but it was almost double in the marathon category, according to Kaiser. They’ve had as many as 150 people run in the marathon in past years. This year 245 people registered to race.
Four hundred people have typically run the half marathon in the past. This year about 277 signed up.
In the case of Glenda Doster, the Montana Marathon was a backup plan after other marathons she had planned on running were canceled. A friend of hers, who also ran in the race Sunday, found the marathon online. Doster said she didn’t know much about Billings before signing up for the race. She has only been running competitively since last year. After qualifying for the Boston Marathon last year Doster found herself among hundreds of other runners whose chances at competing were put on layaway after the marathon was postponed due to the pandemic.
A compliance coordinator with a food bank in south Texas, Doster has seen firsthand how many people are struggling right now in her part of the country. The food bank where she works has seen as many as 20,000 people a week come through in need of food, she said.
She said she’s grateful to be in a position to help people in her community, and that she’s also grateful to have a chance to run in a competition. She described running in general as a stress reliever that remains important in the face of an increasingly busy work life.
“Every week we have massive, massive distributions. So I’ve been busy. Pretty much working, running, working, running,” she said.
Jeff Bollman, a local runner, said he didn’t train very much for Sunday’s race in part out of concern that like many of the others he had signed up for, it would be canceled.
“I kept thinking it would get canceled, because I had all my races earlier get canceled,” Bollman said. He figured that ultimately the relatively small size of the Montana Marathon, a few hundred runners, compared to other marathons with thousands of runners, was an advantage under the current circumstances.
The wildfire smoke was something Bollman was also keeping an eye on. Bollman is a member of Marathon Maniacs, which is a group of marathon runners who have run three marathons in a 90-day period, said he has different goals for different races.
This year he said he simply wanted to go out, challenge himself and see how well he could do.
The Montana Marathon also has a 10K run and a half marathon. The 10K was virtual this year, but like the full marathon, the half marathon also took place under modified racing conditions.
Running in the half marathon Sunday were Natalie Waller and Christy Gerdes. Waller is a teacher who lives outside of Atlanta. Gerdes is a nurse from Huntley. They’d been Facebook friends for a few years but had not met in person until the weekend of the race.
The two met online as brand ambassadors for INKnBurn, a California athletic apparel company that specializes in creatively designed gear. Both Waller and Gerdes wore brightly colored running shirts designed to look like the pattern on a butterfly’s wing. Waller also had a mask made by INKnBurn, something she said the company started manufacturing to help their business amid the pandemic.
Waller lamented that they couldn’t be in the same running group, but she still enjoyed the race. Gerdes took second overall in their age group and Waller took third. They both described themselves as having competitive mindsets.
Both typically run solo, so the pandemic hasn’t changed that aspect of their training very much. For Gerdes it’s ranch roads around her hometown of Huntley, and for Waller it’s the suburb streets near where she lives.
“Honestly, it’s just amazing to be able to get out and race again,” Gerdes said.
Waller said she had an afternoon flight to begin her trip back to Georgia, but that at one point in her life she thought about Montana as more than a place to visit.
“I thought I wanted to live out here when I was growing up,” Waller said. “And then I realized that I never could have handled the cold at all.”