My Bozeman host gives me a ride to the bus. Our lunch has been fillling and enlightening, and I’m grateful for the company and the lift to the station. As we approach the bus, he’s told that “she needed to check in.” I’d rather be spoken to directly, so I walk toward the bus and hand in my ticket. The driver wants to put my backpack under the bus, but I want to keep it with me. It takes some convincing, but I get to keep it with me.


No one knows what the fuss is – the bus has six occupied seats. Other passengers chat, I read, and the bus arrives in Billings two hours after it leaves Bozeman. When I leave the bus, the driver insists on taking my bag, and insisting on carrying it myself does nothing to change his mind. I make my way to the package pickup counter – my gloves were sent here by my Butte host – and I sign for my package.


Jay, my guide runner for tomorrow’s race, meets me at the counter. Jenny’s restless and unfocused, and acts like she’s never heard the “steady” command in her life. As we make our way to Jay’s truck, Jenny is determined to get wherever we’re going as quickly as possible. Jay makes his way to my AirBNB, and after a brief period of confusion – how to get to the back door – we haul my backpack downstairs, along with a couple of packages I had shipped to Jay as preparation for race day.


Jay and his daughter Emily have both agreed to guide run tomorrow – and both are running with me tonight to iron out some wrinkles. The sun is bright, and it’s quite warm outside, and I’m grateful that today’s run will be short and easy. Emily apologizes for the shape of the sidewalks, and I laugh; I’ve run through Helena and walked through Butte, and these sidewalks are smooth in comparison. Jenny, after a brief period of poor focus, settles in for the run. We figure out placement, lead time for information, and actually run the finish line. We are ready for tomorrow. Back at the AirBNB,, I eat a light meal of snacks from my backpack, and head for bed early; tomorrow will be here before I know it.


My alarm goes off at 5:00. I wake up with a headache, and swallow an Advil. The old-school coffee pot sizzles and pops as the water heats up. I down one cup of coffee, unsuccessfully scour my room for my deodorant, pour another cup of coffee for the road, and almost leave the house without my race bib. I calm my nerves, grab my race bib, and mentally run through everything I’ll need for the race. Today is the day… and now I am ready.


Jay is waiting at the back gate, and we walk over to the bus. Its 6:30, and the bus is making its way to the start line. There’s a runner from Atlanta who wants to run in all 50 states. She’s easily the funniest passenger on the bus, marveling about the sunrise, expressing surprise at the cows on the side of the road, asking where the police are – the standard response to everything: “This is Montana!” We are all laughing and preparing and cheering for each other’s goals.


The bus drops us off, but the start line is nowhere in sight. We walk past the porta-potties, which someone has tipped over – an amusing alternative to cow-tipping! The sun rises, and the air heats up. As start-time approaches, we all breathe, mentally prepare, and wonder where that start line is. With fifteen minutes to go, we finally locate the start line, and start moving toward it. I leave my windbreaker in Jay’s drop-bag; I doubt I will need it, and it will only slow me down. Jay congratulates me for making it to the starting line, and I realize how profound that is; you can never finish unless you start.


The gun goes off, and half of us don’t hear it. When we do, we start running. I hear a “beep” as I cross the start line, and from that point on the clock is ticking.


The first three miles, I can only describe as “magic.” I run them each as 10-minute miles, something I have never done before. My first 5 km are run in 31:28, another first. Whatever happens today, I can take immense pride in how I’ve started this race. We hit a snag with traffic on the road, the air heats up, and my race pack is starting to rub against my back. I’m still overwhelmed by the speed I am running, and how easy it feels. Jenny’s keeping the pace and watching for cars, ignoring the dogs that are accompanying their owners who are cheering us on.


7 km in, we’ve hit the subdivision. Emily joins Jay and I, ready to step in if Jay’s not able to. We hit a water station at the 5-mile mark (8 km),, and Jenny drinks straight from the paper cup. We’ve slowed slightly for the water break and the traffic in the subdivision, but I’m still thrilled with our pace. The pathway we encounter next (9.66 km, or 6 miles in) is crowded with runners and walkers. Jenny ignores the groundhogs that make noise right beside her, weaves around as many people as she can, but we’re slowed down in this crowd.


We settle in for the mid-run slog – the part that’s always been a mental struggle for me. Water stations are conveniently located on sidewalks, but so are their extra supplies. After another period of straight road running – where I shout encouragement to “Atlanta” from the bus – we make our way into the city, where high curbs, traffic, and sidewalk supporters slow us down even further…


But I have to finish! I can feel that finish line as the kilometers click by. Jenny insists on running the sidewalk, rather than the road, and I spend some time redirecting her; eventually, I follow her lead, an she guides me around water stations, mailboxes, and other obstacles on the sidewalks. Every mile, Jenny and I are offered water, but after mile 11 we’ve hit something of a groove and have to keep going. After 20 km, I hit another milestone on my running journey – my longest run ever! The hill we ran yesterday approaches, and I’m moving! My feet cross the finish line, I hear my name called… and I run right past my medal. Jay and Emily – who’ve done an amazing job – retrieve it for me. It is done!!!


A volunteer grabs me a water – and one for Jenny – and some fruit for my lightheadedness. Now that the hard work is done, it’s time to relax and rebuild. A band plays pop medleys as runners and supporters cheer as more names are called at the finish line. Emily grabs a sticker with my finish time (2:36:01) and sticks it on my race bib. We are all happy and a little emotional, buut it’s now time to walk it off. Emily has a ride home, but Jay walks me back to my AirBNB. As we walk, we are both overcome with what has been done today – we’re still talking about those first three miles.


Jenny and I relaxing in the grass


Jay and I, with medals, arms around each other


Jenny is exhausted! She’s worked so hard, and she needs to recover. Within three minutes of unlocking the door, she’s sprawled out on the tile floor. Thirty minutes later – as I’m fielding congratulatory messages and phone calls – she curls up into a tiny ball on the carpet and sleeps the afternoon away.


My body is in surprisingly good shape, though I have blisters on at least three toes. That area on my back that was in contact with my running pack has a nice 4-square-inch raw patch. But there’s no major injuries to myself or Jenny; another victory in a series of victories today.


Monday morning… THAT’s when I hurt. My blankets are so comfortable that I am reluctant to get up in search of coffee. I don’t want to know what muscles will be angry with me. But coffee! Immediately, I feel stiffness in my ankles, calves, and thighs, and funny twinges in my toes and arches. And I’m walking a kilometer for coffee. This had better be good!


After Bozeman, I wonder about my ability to travel confidently and safely in this state. Thankfully, I get to the Ebon Coffee Collective without incident,, even traversing an angled crossing easily (Jenn gets credit for that one). Jenny “finds coffee!” and I meet Ty behind the counter. He says he saw me cross the finish line yesterday and thought Jenny was awesome! I order a coffee and pull up a chair beside Ryan, whose young daughter is fascinated by “the puppy!” Over the next two hours, I drink two cups of coffee, eat a baked oatmeal, and chat with Ty, Ryan, Ryan’s wife Ana, and three American missionaries who are performing missions work in all 50 states. Ty seems to know everything and everyone in this city, and has never met a stranger. I’m absolutely enchanted by him and the vibe of this coffee shop.


A question I get asked a lot: “What brings you to Montana?” or “Why here?” One of the missionaries – Derek – asks this question during our conversation. I tell him about the Epic Road Trip of Awesome, describing it as “four introverts and a dog.” We laugh about that trip becoming a book on the best-seller list (Derek, here’s your google search result!!) When Derek and his friends leave, my second coffee is gone, and it’s time for me to take off.


I make my way to Straight N Arrow, a shop that sels Native American art, jewelry, clothing and other items. At first glance, the shop is small, but as I work my way through it continues to expand. After a pleasant 30 minutes, I leave with a slim bracelet, an promise to come back tomorrow and make a final decision on a piece of art.


I’m getting hungry, and I had wanted to go to Red Robin yesterday to celebrate a successful race. But I was so tired last night that I ordered from an Italian restaurant and had it delivered. So today, I’m heading to Red Robin! The transfer point for the bus is just a couple blocks away, so I make my way over there… and find all the buses running, doors closed, no drivers inside and no passengers to ask what route the buses are. Despite arriving early, I miss my bus, and am waiting for the next one when a woman approaches me. She stands right in front of me, grips my arm, and asks how much vision I have. Startled, I tell her that’s a personal question, and can she please not touch me like that. She says she needed to touch me so that I knew she was addressing me, and by the way she is the bus driver. I board the bus and ask for the Red Robin, and can practically hear her wringing her hands while asking me how I will ever find my way there from the bus stop. No explanation will allay her concern, and I half-expect her to go off route and follow me there when I get off the bus.


After enjoying some fried food I haven’t allowed myself in weeks, I leave Red Robin happy, full, and a little bloated. It’s a beautiful day, so Jenny and I walk back to our AirBNB along a busy road, take a wrong turn when we approach our street, but find the AirBNB with ease. Tomorrow will be a jam-packed day, so we lay low for the evening, connecting with friends, family and husband, listening to pre-season hockey, and enjoying the quiet of a Billings Monday evening.


I don’t sleep well. Tuesday comes early, and I make my way over to Harper and Madison, a very well-known breakfast stop. I’m only a few blocks away, and I look forward to trying them out. For an hour or so, I sip coffee, eat a “hash”” with potatos, eggs, pork belly, and arugula, and enjoy the vibe of the restaurant. It’s charming in its way, and the staff is attentive and the food excellent, but it doesn’t have the openness of the Ebon Coffee Collective from yesterday. When it’s time to hit the road, I’m glad I spent some time there.


Jenny’s got that massage booked today, and I can either walk there or take a calculated risk on the bus. The bus gamble pays off – you stand at any corner along the route and the bus stops for you – and pulls up five minutes after I arrive on the corner. For the next hour, Jenny’s muscles get treated to some TLC, and I’m given a couple more stretches I can do at home. Just as I suspected, her right hip is stiff; to my surprise, so is her left shoulder. She gets up from the mat, relaxed and happy, thrilled to enthusiastically greet everyone. I pay and leave, knowing she’s been in excellent hands.


We gamble with the bus again,, and this time, too, it works out. The driver from earlier is headed downtown. When I get off the bus at the Transfer Centre, I walk the few blocks to Straight N Arrow. I choose a sand painting, pay for it, and make my way to the Moss Mansion to meet my could-have-been AirBNB host.


My could-have-been host? Yup! I booked her place, corresponded with her for months,,,,, and then life intervened. Due to unforeseen circumstances, I was unable to stay with her… and this all happened the week before departure! There was no hard feelings, but we had hoped to meet, and here was a perfect opportunity!


We tour through the Moss Mansion for a little while, and I take a rare opportunity to play a grand piano. We walk through formal and informal rooms, and I’m amazed at the display of old wealth in front of me.


It’s lunch time, and we decide to head to the Burger Dive. It’s a casual burger joint, with unique – and award-winning – burgers. I eat an excellent burger with bacon, bleu cheese, onions, and spicy sauce. It’s delicious!


We spend the next couple hours chatting, walking, looking through antiques… I feel a sense of sadness that I could not spend mmmore time with this warm and interesting woman. But I am also glad we’ve been able to connect at all. When she drops me off at the back gate, we hug goodbye and promise to keep in touch.


I spend the next little while tidying up and getting ready to go. It’s hard to believe my time here in Billings is almost over already. After fighting with technology, packing as much as I can, making arrangements for my transportation to the bus in the morning, I mmake my way downtown for dinner and a beer. I spend a pleasant couple hours on a patio, with the bar door open behind me, music and conversation over my shoulder. My beer is paired with a spicy Mac & Cheese, and when I’ve had my fill, I walk out into thhee Billings night, sorry to see this town behind me.


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