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For more than 40 years, the Governor’s Cup has attracted elite athletes, recreational runners and families looking for a fun weekend activity to the streets and surrounding roads of Montana’s capital city. And the 2017 edition is expected to once again provide all of that and more.

Activities kick off at Centennial Park (1200 North Last Chance Gulch) at 10 a.m. Friday with packet pickup, which will be followed by the 1-mile Kids Marathon and Fun Run at 6:30 p.m. From 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., pre-registered participants can collect their race number and race T-shirt, and those who haven’t signed up can still register there.

Overnight and into the early morning hours of Saturday, volunteers will be busy putting on the finishing touches along the various race courses, which will host thousands of runners. The first starter’s pistols will sound at 6 a.m. Saturday with beginning of the marathon and marathon relay in Marysville, and the half marathon on Birdseye Road. At 7 a.m., the 10K will get underway at the corner of Cruse and 6th in downtown Helena, which will be followed by the 5K at 9 a.m. All four races finish at the south end of Last Chance Gulch, next to the Lewis and Clark County Library. At 10 a.m., top finishers will be honored at the awards ceremony near the finish line.

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“We expect great racing weather and some really fast times,” race director Janet Robinson said. “The Governor’s Cup has made a lot of history in its 43 years and, hopefully, it makes some more this weekend.”

The Kids Marathon, a six-week training program at area elementary schools that culminates with the 1-mile run Friday, already made history with about 1,500 participants in the third-year program. In its first year, 500 students took advantage of the free program for participating schools. And last year, 1,000 youngsters trained alongside their peers in pursuit of tokens, T-shirts and finisher medals.

“We love seeing the kids getting outdoors and enjoy being active,” Robinson said.

And if they keep running and staying active, someday those kids might join the elite field in the longer races that take place Saturday.

“Our elite fields this year rank among the best in the event’s history, and we can’t wait to see them toe the line and test themselves at the four unique distances,” said Jesse Zentz, assistant race director and elite coordinator. “And we hope that adds some excitement for the other runners in the field, who will get a chance to share the course with some outstanding athletes.

“That’s something that makes road races like this unique. It’s unlikely any of us will ever get an opportunity to share a basketball court or baseball field with athletes of this caliber, but running allows everyone to share the same course.”

In the 5K, Olympic Trials marathoner Heather Lieberg will be pushed by NAIA All-American Leah Esposito, and both women call Helena home. In a unique twist, they share the same coach in Carroll College’s David Morris, who owns the men’s 10K record at the Gov Cup. You can read more about that in Saturday’s Independent Record. A runner to watch for on the men’s side is South Dakota’s Ismael Arzola, who was an NAIA All-American at Dickinson State.

In the 10K, some of Montana’s top high school boys distance runners will go head-to-head against standouts Mike Kaiser (Helena), Evan Eck (Helena) and Sam Read (Bozeman). Kaiser ran collegiately for the University of Montana, Eck is among Montana’s top triathletes and Read ran at Montana State University.

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The half marathon field, meanwhile, arguably features the best balance of male and female standouts.

On the women’s side, 2016 marathon champion Mary Owen, of Billings, will likely be tested by Keely West and Reagan Colyer, to name just a couple.

West, who lives in Great Falls, won April’s Icebreaker 5-mile – edging Lieberg there – and ran collegiately for Montana State University. West’s younger brother, Cooper, is running the 10K. Colyer, meanwhile, is coming off her third season at the University of Montana. She capped the track season with an eighth-place finish in the 1,500 at the Big Sky Conference outdoor championships, and won the 800 indoor championship in 2014.

On the men’s side in the half marathon, Bozeman’s Silas Talbot enters as the favorite, but will likely see some competition from Helena’s Shiloh Hernandez and Missoula’s Micah Drew, among others. Talbot enjoyed a strong running career at Dartmouth with personal bests in the 1,500 of 3:45.02 and in the 800 of 1:51.07. But he’s transitioned smoothly to the longer distances and ran a half marathon in 1:13 in 2015 and won the Sweet Pea 10K in Bozeman last summer in 32:49.

In terms of depth and strength, however, the men’s marathon field is unrivaled in this edition of the Governor’s Cup. Four runners enter with personal bests of 2:33 or faster, which equates to about 5:50 per mile over the course of 26.2 miles. The Governor’s Cup record is 2:20:35 and the race hasn’t seen a winner run faster than 2:33 since Matt Rothermel won in 2:24 in 1991.

Kansan Kory Cool leads the field with a personal best of 2:27, while Missoula’s Jimmy Grant and Mark Messmer own bests of 2:29 and 2:31, respectively. Richey’s Cesar Mireles, meanwhile, enters with a best of 2:33, but he’ll be running in just his third marathon. Also in the field are Helena’s Matt Roberts, who’s hoping to run in the low 2:40s, and Oregon’s Kian Messkoub, who arrives with a best of 2:43.

“We’re all excited to see what these runners can do Saturday, but they are honest courses that challenge the best runners the same way they challenge first-timers,” Zentz said. “We will be cheering loudly as the elites make their way toward the finish line, but we celebrate everyone completing any of the four distances equally. Good luck to everyone.”

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