The temperature at the start was 12 degrees with a 13 mph wind making it feel 10 degrees colder, but the mood was festive among the 550 runners dancing around to keep warm on the start line of the Millinocket Marathon and Half in northern Maine on Saturday.
A bonfire crackled nearby and the runners were sheltered by fully-loaded logging trucks that flanked the start and finish line, both donated by locals who came out to support the race.
It isn’t just the mid-winter date and woodsy vibes that makes this event unique: None of the entrants paid a dime to enter. The brainchild of race director Gary Allen from Cranberry Island, Maine, the race was created in 2015 to bring people to the town and region, which recently lost the two large paper mills that had dominated the economy since 1900. The mill closings have resulted in drastic declines in employment opportunities, property values and population.
Last year, with little planning, 52 runners came and ran. This year, the word got out and Allen had to cap registrations at 1,000 in “about two weeks,” with 953 confirmed going into race day. The cold kept some of those away, but the tenfold increase made this year’s race feel like a big event, with cars filling main street and runners everywhere you looked.
In lieu of paying to run the race, participants were encouraged to come, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants and spend at least the amount of a typical marathon entry fee in the town. Race administration services were donated by companies and individuals across the state and covered by volunteer help from the community, which embraced the event with open arms. (3C Race Productions of Merrimack, N.H., donated the chip timing and drove six hours each way to time the event.)
While it’s hard to put a total dollar figure on the impact of the race, Allen says every hotel and motel bed in the region was filled and local restaurants were filled. Even if every runner spent as little as $200-$300 on food, lodging, gas and souvenirs, that’s roughly $200,000 to $300,000 that was put into local businesses.
“I think the economy got a huge boost,” Allen said. “We told runners in lieu of an entry fee to spend and they did. We told them to tip to 100 percent! Millinocket has little to share, but they shared everything.
“Honestly I have run a mile or two but have never seen the positive power of running for more good in a place that needed it than this.”
“Welcome runners” signs graced the front of every business, and the townspeople hosted an impressive list of activities over the weekend, including a spaghetti dinner with entertainment from the school music and dance classes, an artisan fair, a short film festival, and two post-race dances. On race day, residents were out in full force, standing in the cold for hours cheering on runners.
Even though every runner seemed to share in the spirit of the cause, it was also a race, and an enjoyable one for many. Paul Collins of Portland crossed the line first in the marathon, clocking 2:45:57 in his first serious attempt at the distance, he reported having run a 3:20 previously. His joy at the victory and PR far overshadowed the icicle hanging off his chin.
“The course was awesome,” Collins said. “Especially when we got on the smooth section coming back down into town with the wind behind us.”
The first half may not have been as fast, but it made up for speed in scenery and challenge. After the start, runners headed out of town, quickly turning onto “The Golden Road” a partially paved, private logging road that heads north for 96 miles to the Canadian border. The race covers the first 6 of those miles in a series of long ascents, with increasingly impressive views of the snow-capped peak of Katahdin, Maine’s highest mountain and the centerpiece of Baxter State Park and the new Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
After navigating a short, pretty, snow-packed cross road, the field headed back into town on a rolling highway. The finishing mile took runners down Main Street, reflecting both the town’s hardships in the many boarded-up store fronts, and the hopeful future with new store and business openings such as the Design Lab, a graphics design firm. The 112 full marathoners headed back out for a second loop.
Mike Wardian, a runner from Arlington, Va., known for his prolific racing, ventured up for the race and battled the cold by running in a pair of Hoka One One Tor Ultra High WP all-weather hiking boots and finished third in 2:55:25. (That could be some kind of a record for a marathon in hiking boots, by the way.)
Women’s marathon winner Leah Frost, a new Maine resident fresh from a victory in the JFK 50 miler, had a bit more trouble with the weather than Collins. She lost all feeling in one hand during the race and feared frostbite she said. By the dance that evening, however, she had recovered feeling and had a big smile for the event.
Residents seemed to share that smile. They’re too realistic to believe this will change much long-term and know that the town has a long road toward transforming the economy. But, at least for one day, the race filled the town with energy.
“I got emotional when we turned onto Main Street, to see so many cars and people,” said Gwen Coty, who has lived in Millinocket for 40 years and whose husband used to work at the mill. “It felt like how it used to be.”
At a local restaurant the morning after the race, Gary Allen was still buzzing as runners and residents came by to thank him and talk about their experiences.
“The race exceeded all expectations,” Allen said. He’s wildly enthusiastic about next year. The island boy always quick with an aquatic metaphor, during the weekend he repeatedly referenced that all he had done was throw a pebble into a pond and watched the ripples.
“The ripples have become waves,” he said on the morning after. “Surfable waves.”