Just four years after it started, a race that was meant to breathe some new life into a former mill town continues to balloon, with this weekend’s Millinocket Marathon and Half expected to draw more than twice as many runners as last year’s race.
Some 2,600 runners are slated to run the mountainous course on Saturday, up from about 1,200 who came from across the country to run it last year. The races, which are 26.2 and 13.1 miles long, will start at 10 a.m. at Veterans Memorial Park in Millinocket.
Racers don’t need to pay a registration fee; instead, organizers have urged them to support local restaurants, shops and hotels. They started the race in 2015 with the goal of bringing economic activity to a region that was battered by the closure of two paper mills.
Since then, participation has blown up among runners and the businesses that are prepared to offer them food, board and entertainment.
Like last year, a number of local establishments are stepping up to feed and entertain the runners and their fans, offering spaghetti dinners, a variety show, an artisan fair, an ugly sweater party and other events from Friday afternoon to Saturday night.
“Everything that’s happening is just being done better,” said Gary Allen, the race’s founder. “The town is becoming more and more actively involved with dinners and breakfasts and dances, and actively looking at it as an opportunity to welcome people to their town. Just as runners train for competitions, I think the town is becoming an expert in hospitality and welcoming people.”
About 50 runners participated in the race in its maiden year, 2015. The next year, more than 500 runners braved a deep freeze that swept across northern Maine, creating icicles on their hair, backs and necks as they navigated the course. Now, more than five times that number are slated to show up this year.
“It’s a race unlike any other,” said Sarah Mulcahy, a 33-year-old from Fort Kent who has run the marathon all three years and hopes to do so this weekend, after flying to the West Coast last weekend to run the California International Marathon.
Mulcahy recalled the 2016 race, when she was pregnant with her son and it was so freezing that she had to wear three shirts, a couple pairs of pants and hand warmers. That year, she finished third in the women’s race.
“Even in frigid weather, people come out and cheer, and they were thanking us for running,” she said. “It’s not so much what you get out of it as a runner, but you get so much out of it as a runner.”
Mulcahy also won the overall marathon in its first year and the women’s race last year, but she said the event is not about the competition. After running it the first year, some participants were eating at the Sawmill Bar & Grill and decided to pick up the tabs of residents who happened to be eating there, Mulcahy said.
“The whole point was to give back, to put back into the town,” she said.