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Winded and angry update: This just in! Half marathons are hard.

By Jamie Balke Explore Big Sky Columnist

About a year after my return to running, I completed the Run to the Pub half marathon this March. It was as difficult as I imagined it would be.

One of my greatest running-related fears is that I’ll finish a race dead last. From a theoretical standpoint, I believe even attempting a race is an accomplishment, but I don’t love hearing, “Well, the important thing is you finished.” At the start of my half marathon, circumstances brought this fear to the forefront of my mind.

As one might expect before the start of a 13.1-mile race, the line to the bathroom was quite long. Anxious about the rapidly approaching start time or perhaps feeling free in the anonymity of a crowd, some broke from the line and made for the bushes. The idea caught fire, and before long an intrepid cell phone photographer started taking pictures of those eschewing the privacy of the port-o-potties in favor of snow banks and sparse vegetation.

Having waited 45 minutes to use one of the bathrooms, I felt committed. Naturally, the race started while I was in the port-o-potty. When I emerged from this inglorious location, I found that although there were still a few people in line behind me, the majority of runners had departed, and the bagpiper was packing it up into the van.

As my brother John and I crossed the start line, the psychological toll of starting the race significantly behind was profound. I encouraged John to take off at his quicker pace, and settled in for what turned out to be a lonely experience punctuated by the kindness of friends.

The first few miles of the course were on a slight uphill, and for a short while I could see the main pack of runners in the distance. Before long, the majority of the evidence I had of being in a race – rather than an extended solo run – were the discarded green stick-on mustaches and tutus left beside the road. I should probably mention that I didn’t carry water with me before mentioning that as I became dehydrated, I enjoyed imagining this festive flotsam as the aftermath of a St. Patrick’s Day-themed apocalypse.

Cruising slowly through the mountain-ringed landscape, I occasionally encountered other runners, usually as they passed me. Feeling drained, I arrived at a water station somewhere between the 8- and 9-mile marks. There, a friend dressed as a banana was handing out water and fruit.

This was my turning point.

As I approached, she reached in one surreal movement into the belly of her banana suit and produced an actual banana that she had saved just for me. This snack, along with a sign that she had brought encouraging me to run the next mile for my pet guinea pig Joey, bolstered me against the overwhelming urge to walk the rest of the way.

Jogging while exhausted and simultaneously trying to eat a banana is tough. As I plodded away from the water station, I noticed that others had discarded their peels alongside the road. Still quite dehydrated, the notion that no matter what, I would not litter took hold of me. I clutched the peel for about a mile, puttering my way toward the second of three friends that gave me hope along the way.

As I crested the top of the last big hill where she was stationed, my friend noticed my death grip on the banana peel and asked me quite sincerely if I was OK, while gently relieving me of this burden. I lied and told her I was fine, all while fighting the urge to crawl into the back of her car and go to sleep.

A few blocks before the finish line, another friend who had run the 10K stood by the side of the road. He encouraged me not to waste my energy on talking after I made an exhausted, ill-timed “your mom” joke, and jogged with me until the end.

Half marathons may be terrible, but I felt lucky to have friends along the way, and at the finish line waiting for me.

Jamie Balke has signed up for a daunting 232-mile team relay this summer. Her goal is to do well enough that no one says, “Bless your heart, you finished.”

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