MILLINOCKET, Maine — The descent down Route 11 into the heart of this former milltown usually reveals a relatively quiet community in the weeks leading up to the holiday season.
It was anything but that on Saturday morning, as more than a thousand runners and their supporters converged on the Magic City for the fourth annual Millinocket Marathon and Half-Marathon.
Clear skies and a majestic view of Mount Katahdin eclipsed the temperature of 10 degrees and an increasingly biting wind from the northwest during the event, which veteran race organizer and entrepreneur Gary Allen created four years ago to help provide an economic boost for a community hard hit by paper mill closures.
While fifty runners completed the inaugural Millinocket Marathon in 2015, some 1,300 runners crossed the finish line of either the marathon or half-marathon in Year 4.
“I’m sure the cold kept a few people away,” Allen said. “But I think the spirit of what we’ve created here has really inspired people to think that it might be cold but we still want to come and make a difference.”
“We created some ripples in Year 1, and I think those ripples now have become surfable waves,” Allen said.
The chilly temperature and the layers of clothing required for protection from the cold left few runners likely to set personal records for either the 13.1-mile half-marathon — a one-loop course that began downtown on Penobscot Avenue, went back up Route 11 and then out the famous logging Golden Road before returning to town — or the two-loop 26.2-mile marathon.
But that wasn’t really the point.
“It’s a great idea,” said Christine Hein of North Yarmouth. “Having grown up in Maine, I love this state and want to see towns be able to thrive despite economic changes. It’s fun to be able to do anything to be part of that.”
The races didn’t lack for star power, either.
Derrick Hamel, 35, of Newmarket, New Hampshire, who won the overall title by nearly 10 minutes with his time of 2 hours, 40 minutes and 25 seconds, was barely a month removed from finishing 30th at the New York City Marathon in 2:25:43.
“I had a couple of friends who were doing it and they invited me last minute and I said, ‘Why not?’” said Hamel, who previously visited Millinocket in 2012 while hiking the Appalachian Trail. “Considering the terrain and weather today, I’ll take that time. I’m happy with it.”
Women’s marathon champion Sarah Mulcahy, 33, of Fort Kent had been even busier. She qualified for the 2020 U.S. Olympic women’s marathon trials just last Sunday with her 2:44:28 effort at the California International Marathon in Sacramento.
“I took a few days off and was waiting to see how my legs felt, then I called my mother and asked if she’d watch the kids and she said, ‘Are you kidding me?’,” said Mulcahy, who was timed in 3:21:03 while becoming the only runner to run all four Millinocket Marathons held to date. “She wondered if I was really going to do it, but I just decided to play it by ear.
“I thought at the half I might ditch it, but I was feeling OK so I kept going and then I ran with a couple of people back up the Golden Road and that helped.”
Hein, a doctor at Maine Medical Center in Portland and Maine’s top women’s finisher at the 2017 Boston Marathon, won the half-marathon in 1:27:38, 24 seconds ahead of Portland’s Eliza Tibbits.
“I’d never been to Millinocket and I’ve lived in Maine all of my life, so I was happy to come,” said Hein, whose grandfather was a logger. “The race is totally different than other races because the course conditions are so hard that you can’t run as fast as you normally would. It’s actually a lot of fun just grinding it out and having the challenge of the hills — and that view is incredible.”
Bartholomew Rust, an 18-year-old Bates College freshman from Croton-on-Hudson, New York, won the men’s half-marathon in 1:13:18, with Bangor’s Richard Sukiennik finishing second with a time of 1:16:28.
For most participants of either race, their goals had little to do with winning or losing.
“I came last year and had such a good time, and this is such a community-oriented event that there was no way I wasn’t coming back for a second time,” said Robert Toonkel of Elmira, New York, who completed his 43rd marathon of the year and finished with a time of 3:52:01. “If you’re here to set a world record I don’t think this is really the place, but it’s got beautiful views and this race is about the community and enjoying yourself and having fun.”
Runners and their friends and families began arriving in this northern Penobscot County community on Friday, in part to support the community’s restaurants, motels and other businesses — Allen’s request in exchange for making the races free to enter.
“During the shoulder seasons like this time in December and in the springtime, any time we can have an event like this in the town and bring a few thousand people it certainly helps right before the holidays,” said Jamie Brundett who, with his wife Michelle, owns the Katahdin General Store on Bates Street and was busy with shoppers on race day at their pop-up store along the final stretch to the finish line.
“The town does fairly well during snowmobile season, that kind of carries us through the winter, but late November into December can be a tough time of the year so it’s great to see that many people in town.”