Runners burst out from the starting line during the fourth annual Caribou Marathon on Sept. 15, 2019. Credit: Chris Bouchard / Aroostook Republican

CARIBOU, Maine — Caribou has canceled its fifth marathon following a COVID-19 surge in Aroostook County that has left Cary Medical Center unable to spare enough nurses to act as health and safety volunteers at the race.

Cary Medical Center is a major sponsor of the Caribou Marathon, which is a Boston Marathon qualifying race that has drawn runners from across the country to run in northern Maine. The city canceled the event on Tuesday, just days before the Sunday race.

The hospital has traditionally stationed nurses at water stations and medical tents throughout the course. But Aroostook County is experiencing its worst spike of COVID-19 cases since the start of the pandemic, and hospitals have been overwhelmed and exhausted with the sudden influx of patients. This is the second year in a row that Caribou has had to cancel the marathon, after calling off the event last year due to pandemic safety concerns, as well.

“We are experiencing an influx of patients with COVID-19, and the numbers aren’t getting better,” Cary Medical Center CEO Kris Doody said. “It was just too great of a risk to our staff, patients and community. We are proud to sponsor and support this community event that promotes health and wellness, and hope that we can return next year.”

A total of 264 people had signed up for this year’s events, though that number is down from nearly 700 racers in 2019.

The city will continue to work with Cary Medical on future marathons, Caribou Events & Marketing Director Christina Kane-Gibson said, adding that race organizers know that the circumstances are beyond anyone’s control.

“COVID throws a wrench in that whole planning thing,” Kane-Gibson said.

Although the city cannot officially host a race without medical support, some of the runners who had already booked flights and hotels are still planning to come to Caribou and run the course independently.

Kane-Gibson and City Manager Penny Thompson plan to be at the start line to cheer them on Sunday morning.

Caribou is also offering a virtual option, which Kane-Gibson said was somewhat popular among runners.

Even though the organizing team had to cancel the event at the last minute, Kane-Gibson said the flood of support she received from people who had signed up for the race was overwhelming.

The day she sent out emails to the runners, Kane-Gibson said she cried at her desk — not only did the event take months to coordinate and plan, but it was to be her last marathon before she leaves her job with the city this fall.

The next day, her inbox was filled with supportive responses from the racing community.

“I am not a runner, but what I can tell you, being someone who has been adopted into their lifestyle and culture, they are probably the most fun, accepting, hard-working, absolutely authentic people you will ever meet,” Kane-Gibson said. “The event is not only good for the community, it’s good for your soul to be around these people and their really positive energy.”

Hannah Catlin

Hannah Catlin is a reporter at the St. John Valley Times/Fiddlehead Focus in Madawaska, Maine.