Frank Sternberg’s hamstrings were on fire despite the cold weather as he crossed the finish line around 1 p.m. on Saturday afternoon to win the Millinocket Marathon, having completed the 26.2 mile double loop on the Golden Road in 2 hours, 47 minutes, and 53 seconds.
It was the 24-year-old Bangor resident’s first marathon ever, and Millinocket’s first since COVID-19 forced the cancellation of the race last year.
“It feels amazing,” he said, as he celebrated with his partner and friends who had driven up to support him.
Maine Running Hall of Famer Gary Allen, who lives on Mount Desert Island and founded the Mount Desert Island Marathon, founded the Millinocket Marathon and Half in 2015 as a way to shore up support for Millinocket and the Katahdin region as the area has shed population following the closure of both its storied paper mills and struggled to regain its economic footing.
Saturday’s marathon was as much about the runners who braved cold temperatures to complete the race as it was about the community meant to receive an economic injection from the race that began six years ago.
“It feels very Millinocket,” Allen said of this year’s race. “They’ve overcome so much, losing their mill, and their identity.”
The marathon is now one of Millinocket’s most anticipated annual events. A small economy has sprung up around the marathon, which has pumped almost $2 million into the Katahdin-region economy over the years, according to Sheila Brennan Nee, the director of the Maine Sports Commission.
Jessica Masse, who sits on the board of Our Katahdin, the nonprofit group that owns the site of the former Millinocket paper mill, said the race was a “big morale boost” after COVID forced the cancellation of last year’s race.
Unlike most races, the Millinocket race doesn’t have any entry fees. The marathon, a 13.1-loop that participants complete twice, is a Boston Marathon qualifier, but there are no prizes such as winner t-shirts or medals, Allen said.
“We encourage runners to, instead of coming to see what they can get, come to see what they can give,” Allen said. “We encourage runners to stay in the Katahdin region, to tip generously and do those kinds of things.”
Allen’s intention when he started the race was that participants would put whatever money they would’ve spent on registration and merchandise toward shopping at the town’s businesses and staying at its hotels.
Around 2,000 people registered to run in this year’s race, Allen said, though not all 2,000 showed up to run.
Runners and supporters came from all over Maine and the country. The number of participants has increased by hundreds every year since its inaugural race drew 48 participants, and the average runner is accompanied by 2.5 people, adding to the economic impact, Brennan Nee said.
Evening Dupre, a runner from Portland who was waiting on Saturday morning to run her first Millinocket half-marathon, said she first heard about the race on a podcast.
“I feel awesome,” she said. “The town is fantastic, and the people are really good bakers. I’ve had lots of yummy treats since getting here.”
Beth Lebel, a Waterville resident, came this year to cheer on college friends who were participating, but had run the half-marathon back in 2016, when it was 11 degrees below zero.
“The atmosphere of Millinocket is just special,” Lebel said. “You try to explain the atmosphere of this race to others but I don’t think you can really fully understand until you’re here.”
Leah Malcolm, the owner of the Appalachian Trail Cafe, said the business she reopened this past July has benefited from the Katahdin region’s outdoors economy. She spoke as a mix of Millinocket residents and supporters from away filled up on breakfast and coffee on Saturday morning.
“We’ve had really great support from our local community as well as people who have rejoined the Appalachian Trail and started hiking again, coming to visit,” said Malcolm, who bought the cafe from the previous owners after they closed it in March 2020.
Anita Mueller, who co-owns Moose Prints Gallery, said Saturday was busier than any day she had had in August, when Millinocket typically receives visitors stopping in on their way to Mount Katahdin and Baxter State Park.
Normally she has one or two people helping her at the store. She had five people assisting on Saturday.
An artisan fair accompanied the station where registered runners picked up their bib numbers at Stearns High School. The high school also hosted a toy drive and food drive on Friday and Saturday, and local businesses hawked their wares to runners and spectators.
Rachel Roland, a math teacher who lives in Levant but is originally from Millinocket, was selling her sea glass jewelry at the fair on Saturday. There weren’t as many people as in previous years but there was still a “steady flow,” she said.
“It’s nice to come back and see your hometown come alive again,” she said.
Buffy Ware, an Eddington vendor who specializes in wooden signs, said she too was seeing fewer attendees this year but loved seeing runners from out of state.
A quarter of the 2,000 people who registered for this year’s race were from out of state, while another 40 percent were from other regions of Maine that were at least 2.5 hours away from Millinocket, according to the Maine Sports Commission.
Kathy Morrison, a former mill worker, stood outside her mother’s house on Poplar Street cheering on the runners plodding their way up the hill to the first mile marker.
“I’m thankful for it,” she said of the race’s impact on Millinocket. “It’s a breath of fresh air.”