Christina Kane-Gibson (left) explains the route the race takes through Caribou's downtown to runner Craig Beaulieu. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

CARIBOU, Maine — In the quiet chill of Sunday morning in Caribou, Christine Decker of San Jose, California, took off to run 26.2 miles with nobody watching.

The marathon’s starting ceremony was a chat with the race officials at a folding table in front of the recreation center, and the medals were pre-packaged in gray plastic bags. The participants looked like residents out for a routine morning jog.

Decker was one of a handful of runners who took on the Caribou Marathon, Half Marathon and Relay race course on Sunday despite the official event being canceled earlier in the week. Cary Medical Center, a major sponsor of the race, pulled out of providing medical support volunteers for the marathon in order to handle the increased caseload due to the worsening spread of COVID-19 in Aroostook County.

A yeti mascot standing at the front of the line of the Caribou marathon. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

Without the proper support staff, the city could not host the in-person marathon — the second cancellation in as many years. A total of 264 people had signed up for the race. But some runners were undeterred by the change in circumstances. After 18 months of COVID-19 disrupting plans and altering their way of life, going through with the race brought these participants a sense of normalcy and accomplishment.

“Through all of this, running has been kind of a stress reliever,” half marathon runner Nick Flavin said. “If I don’t have a real target, like a race or something to shoot for and train for, then it just kind of falls off and peters out. This is kind of that target.”

Caribou is a unique race — it’s the northeastern-most marathon in the country and a Boston Marathon qualifier, so it winds up on the to-run lists of people across the United States.

Decker is on a mission to finish a marathon in all 50 states. Maine is state no. 31 for her, and she chose Caribou because she prefers running in rural areas where she can get out into the open and away from crowded city streets. She wasn’t about to cancel her trip from California, even though the official race was called off.

“I have stared at northern Maine for well over a decade,” Decker said. “For me, nowhere is somewhere… it’s something that I choose.”

Another competitor, Craig Beaulieu of Hampden, turned 50 last week and is going to celebrate by running three half marathons in three weeks. Caribou is the first, next is the Flight Deck Half Marathon in Brunswick and then the Maine Half Marathon in Portland the first weekend of October. As of Monday, Brunswick and Portland were still planning to host their in-person races.

Caribou marathon participant Christine Decker (left) and a running partner take off on the first leg of the race course on Sunday morning, despite the cancellation of the official event. Credit: Hannah Catlin / St. John Valley Times

Throughout the morning, runners stopped by the Caribou rec center at the start of the course to park, pick up their T-shirts and medals and in the most unassuming manner possible, tackle a remarkable athletic feat. Others dropped by just to pick up the participation packages for a later run.

People who weren’t able to pick up the packages in person will receive them in the mail in the coming days.

Caribou Events & Marketing Director Christina Kane-Gibson was devastated to cancel the race, but said she supported the decision from Cary Medical Center 100 percent. Although it was a difficult call, the running community is resilient, Kane-Gibson said, and seeing the participants still with smiles on their faces Sunday morning put her mind at ease.

“I’ve lost a lot of sleep in the past couple of days, but I feel like tonight I can just rest. My heart is happier,” Kane-Gibson said. “You can only do what you can do and it feels like everyone understood that.”

Hannah Catlin

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