Sometimes… an event is… more

Every so often in the course of human existence… something truly beautiful happens. It’s not always obvious and you don’t always know it’s happening. Sometimes, people can pass right through it and be none the wiser. But those who catch a glimpse… and realize what’s going on… know they’re witnessing, or perhaps understand that they’re a part of… something truly special. That, FitFriends, is what has been happening in the small Northern Maine town of Millinocket…

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“Be kind, do good”

When we’re little we’re taught a lot of very simple rules to live by. Brush your teeth before bed. Don’t push, hit, or hurt people. Say please and thank you. So many things, all just like that, which essentially boil down to “be kind, do good”. It’s simple, core values like this that seem to have taken root in what has fast become a truly impressive, rather transformative weekend each December in sleepy little Millinocket, Maine.

downtown millinocket 2015

All it takes is one man to start a movement.

Three years ago, a man named Gary Allen from a small island off the coast of Northern Maine got an idea. He had read about a town not too far from his own that was devastated by the mid-2000’s closure of it’s once proud and bustling paper mills. Aside from your typical set of small businesses… these mills, you see… had been the primary source of jobs for the town and the immediate area. With their closure, many were out of work and the town of Millinocket saw a quick decline.

Most people would agree that the “Main Street” of any town can be taken to represent the pulse of the place, so to speak. Penobscot Avenue is, by all rights, the “Main Street” of Millinocket… and in Gary’s words, by 2015 it looked like it was flatlining. Gary, having taken to heart those simple lessons we all learned as kids… wondered what he could do to help.

Soon, an idea, and a marathon, was born.

As a runner, a simple solution occurred to Gary – a marathon. As the race director for the Mount Desert Island Marathon, Gary had many friends and contacts in the Northern Maine running community and beyond. He came up with a race course, sought out some friends, and set off for a spontaneous mid-December Northern Maine marathon. A total of about 50 – 60 people ran that race, and the idea was simple. Instead of paying an entry fee… spend that money in the town. Put some money into the local economy and give the people a chance to earn some money instead of just giving a hand-out or donation. Despite the fact that most locals didn’t have much of a clue of what was going on… the idea was pretty successful. What would happen next… Gary couldn’t possibly have predicted.

millinocket marathon welcome bannerThis is the part that doesn’t often happen.

Over the course of 2016, people heard about the “Millinocket Marathon”. Word started to spread. The word “free” tends to grab everyone’s attention, if only for a second, and the concept of a marathon with zero entry cost was at the very least an intriguing prospect. Magazines started writing about it. Podcasts started talking about it. Soon enough people started to really read into it and understand the concept… and it would seem they latched onto it. That December roughly 700 people came to Millinocket for the Marathon and Half-Marathon. Attendance had increased tenfold. They rented hotel rooms. They bought groceries and race supplies. Went to restaurants and bars. Ate at the community-hosted pasta dinners and pancake breakfasts. Purchased knick-knacks, crafts, and gifts at local shops and the race weekend artisan fair. Filled their cars with gas at the local pumps. The idea was a wild success.

And somehow, the magic didn’t end there.

Registration for the 2017 Millinocket Marathon & Half was opened within days of the close of the 2016 edition… and within 72 hours over 1,000 people had registered. By the time Thanksgiving 2017 rolled around registration had reached around 1,800 people. As you might expect with a “free” event, everyone and their mother was signing up to run but, of course, many ultimately would not actually follow through. The emails began going out asking those who no longer planned to attend to simply… let the Race Director know. At the end of it all, come race day there were roughly 1,200 participants between the full and half marathons.

Once again, attendance had ballooned beyond imagining and, once again, the people embraced the idea. They not only rented hotel rooms… they rented virtually every hotel accommodation within a half-hour radius as well as houses and rooms in town available through AirBnB. They once again bought groceries and race supplies, went to restaurants and bars, ate at the community-hosted meals. The people bought the knick-knacks, the crafts, the homemade gifts at local shops. They drank all the coffee, all the booze, and filled their cars with all the gas. But it wasn’t just the purchasing and spending that made the 2017 edition of this event so special…

The people created a community and embraced it.

You see, the Millinocket Marathon and Half is not like any race you’ve ever ran in. Sure, it has a start and finish. Yes, there are water stops, aid stations, and port-o-johns. Of course, there’s chip timing, winners, and a podium for them to stand on. But this race has developed something else… something more. This event… has a soul. People of all ages, backgrounds, beliefs, and skill levels came out to participate in not just the race… but the weekend as a whole. They came to support the town of Millinocket and, in doing so, created their own little community. In the town before and after the race… runners and spectators alike found themselves unusually talkative, friendly, and open. Everyone was meeting new people, making new friends, and just generally putting themselves out there. During the race itself people were sharing stories, running together, and supporting each other through what was, indeed, a tough race course. But it wasn’t just the community and bonds formed that made the weekend so special…

millinocket marathon mile marker 3The people built it and nourished it.

Everything at this race is donated, provided, or created by the people. The timing services, the big logging trucks at the start/finish, the water, sports drink, and snacks on the course… all donated. The finishers medals, available for purchase, made by a local artisan. Mile markers created by local businesses and supporters. Shuttle services were provided this year to accommodate the massive influx of participants. Beyond that, the extra events that make up the schedule of the weekend… are all created, organized, and provided by locals or those coming to town. There was a pre-race pasta supper at the American Legion and race-morning breakfast at the local snowmobile/ATV club. The “How Was Your Run Today?” podcast came to town and hosted the “Crankle 2K” shakeout run the night before the race. I rolled in and did a q & a with the race director right after that. And after the race… dance parties, karaoke parties, and more. The race weekend calendar was filled not by the race director… but by everyone else.

And now, the future looks bright for Millinocket.

Before we came to town for the 2017 marathon… the effects of this event had already been felt in Millinocket. Businesses once struggling were now doing ok. Storefronts on Penobscot Ave. once closed were now open. A struggling public library now had funding. People who had moved away for financial reasons… moved back, and new residents found their way into the town. Millinocket, it seems, is on the rebound. Not only that… but this event, and the press and buzz surrounding it… had done wonders. Millinocket and the Katahdin region was now on the map for many people who, before, didn’t know it existed. My wife and I are planning to take a weekend trip to the area over the summer to enjoy the warm weather outdoors-ing, and a hike up Mt. Katahdin. We, I am sure, are not the only ones making plans like this. All of a sudden, what once was a busy mill town gone defunct is finding itself reborn as a vacation destination.

Next year promises to be more of the same.

Soon after the close of the 2017 Millinocket weekend, it had already begun. People had arrived home but were still riding the high of the weekend, feeling the love, and looking for ways to help build this into something even greater. Discussions were had on social media about all the things we could do for 2018. Sweeping the course for lost clothing items to be donated. Additional trash pick-ups and water stations. Creating a bag drop. Supporting an animal shelter. The list goes on. These are race participants having these discussions and looking to do these things. The race director, Gary, is simply watching his social media feeds erupt with these outpourings of support and he encourages us… “bring it”. Millinocket Marathon weekend 2018 looks like it will be everything we’ve come to love and more. I’m sure attendance will increase to suit.

All because we remembered… “be kind, do good”.

I am just… floored… by what I have witnessed in this event. The human kindness, the love, and the coming together of people to support their fellow man is something that we simply do not see enough of today. It’s on us now to help ensure this thing lives on for many years to come. We must continue to nourish this thing and keep it alive, and we can do that, of course, by simply continuing to be kind… and do good.

For the full chat on this check out the podcast episode using the buttons below. Don’t forget to hit “subscribe”!

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What’s in this episode:

  • We chronicle our trip to Millinocket, Maine for the 3rd annual Millinocket Marathon & Half
    • We catch part of our drive into town and what we’re excited about
    • Darrell chats with Jen and Trish from the Moose Drop In
    • Have a live podcast with race director Gary Allen
    • And recap our experience afterwards
  • If you were there or you’re thinking about going, you won’t wanna miss this!

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