It was a rainy afternoon on Sept. 28 when Matt DeLaney of Millinocket finished running all the trails in Baxter State Park. With mud splattered on his legs, he trotted into Trout Brook Campground and signed out of the hiker registration log: 40 miles in 11 hours. And that’s just one day of many.
Baxter State Park is home to about 210 miles of trails, and DeLaney ran all of them this year.
Actually, because of the way the vast trail network in the park is designed, he had to run many of the trails twice. In all, he thinks he covered about 300 miles, scaling dozens of mountains.
“The park is such a big, spectacular thing with such a rich history,” DeLaney said. “Many people, I assume, have tried to do similar things to what I did here. I was just excited to see the park.”
The 36-year-old moved to Millinocket about three years ago from upstate New York to become the director of the Millinocket Memorial Library. Since then, he has made quite an impression on the small community, starting innovative programs such as the Katahdin Gear Library and Katahdin Story Booth.
In April, he was elected onto the board of Friends of Baxter State Park, a group that was established in 2000 to support the park through education, research, trail work and funding for things like search and rescue efforts. Being on the board is one of several reasons DeLaney decided to run the park’s trails.
“Thinking about what’s happening in Millinocket and how significant Baxter is to the future of Millinocket, I was really honored to be invited to be on that board,” he said. “I’d been in the area for three years. I was 20 to 25 minutes from Baxter, but I’d spend very little time there because I was working so much at the library.”
Long-distance running is one of several outdoor activities that DeLaney enjoys. About 10 years ago, he completed two marathons, then took a break from competitive road running and dabbled in trail running instead. It was time for another challenge.
“I wanted some goal that didn’t revolve around grant writing and library construction and programs,” he said. “I needed a personal thing outside of that.”
So, as crazy as it may seem, the idea of driving to Baxter State Park on the weekends and running the park’s rugged hiking trails, section by section, appealed to DeLaney in a way that no other challenge did. It would introduce him to the park in his backyard, and it would test and improve his abilities as an athlete.
He was well aware of the risks the endeavor presented. Filled with jagged rocks, exposed tree roots and narrow bog bridges, the park’s trails are not designed for trail running. On top of that, the park is home to several of Maine’s tallest mountains, and some of the most remote backcountry experiences to be had in the state.
“I was going to write a letter to myself at the beginning that was like, ‘Well, you broke your ankle, but it’s OK,’” DeLaney said.
Fortunately, that particular misfortune didn’t come to pass. Though he did fall a few times, resulting in some nasty bruises and scrapes.
“A lot of it is chance,” he said. “But a lot of it is also building up to long miles of climbing. So it has to do with strength and aerobic capacity and foot-eye coordination, the actual technique of trail running. And it has to do with patience. A big thing for me was understanding my body and the maintenance of it.”
DeLaney ran the first trail in May, beginning with some of the easiest trails in the park — the paths around Abol, Daisey and Kidney ponds. He then worked his way up to more technical trails and higher elevations.
“If I had skipped right to some of the crazier trails, I know I would have gotten hurt,” he said.
Throughout the summer, while explaining his project to others or passing people on the trail, he would often be told to “stop and smell the roses.” Many of the people he met struggled to understand why he would want to run the trails.
“In the beginning, I felt a little defensive about it,” DeLaney said. “But I had so many hours out there running, and I really thought about it. I think the way a lot of people explore Baxter is with binoculars or slowly studying plants and wildlife, and that’s very valid. But the way I experienced it was absolutely full body, bombing down hills and sometimes tumbling through bushes, and I really felt connected to the park in that way. It was such a visceral and wild experience, and that’s what the park is about.”
For the most part, DeLaney ran alone, which may have been riskier than running with a companion, but it allowed him to travel at the exact pace he felt comfortable with.
Sometimes that pace would not be considered “running,” and DeLaney had anticipated that.
On Katahdin and several other large mountains in the park, some sections of trails are simply “unrunnable.” The routes become so steep and rocky that they require hand-over-foot climbing, and sometimes, the trails travel along the edge of cliffs, where running would be especially dangerous. In those places, DeLaney slowed down and exercised caution.
His mantra: “Run what you can.”
“I just kept thinking that whenever I had to stop and scramble and use my arms or ford a stream,” DeLaney said.
As a precaution, he always told his partner, Emilie Tisch, his exact route for the day, and he never veered from that plan. He also ran with a SPOT personal tracker, a device that tracks its user by satellite and can be used to message for help. In a place like Baxter State Park, where cellular reception is hard to find, cell phones cannot be relied upon in case of an emergency.
Furthermore, DeLaney always signed in and out of trail registration logs, which are located at park trailheads and are used by rangers to determine how many hikers are on a trail at any given time. And when he had the opportunity, he would speak directly with the rangers to tell them his plans.
“Every night before I went out running I would study the map,” he said. “I’d think about how many miles it was and the elevation, and I’d calculate the calories I’d expend and plan for that.”
In addition to specific food, DeLaney carried survival gear, including a first aid kit, water filter and headlamp. He believes that a key to his success was taking care of his body throughout each run, especially when it came to drinking plenty of water.
“Whether it was stretching, eating, drinking or making adjustments to my pack, I never got lazy about it,” he said. “I always just took the time to do things right.”
It was during one of those moments, when DeLaney was taking the time to filter water in Russell Pond, that he saw one of the most iconic creatures in the park.
“I had my head down. I’d done 20 miles and was done for the day,” he said. “Then I heard some people nearby say, ‘Do they come here often?’ I decided to look up, and right in front of me, there was a moose eating and drinking from the pond.”
DeLaney said through his running, he gained a greater appreciation for the park’s trail builders and maintainers. Without their work, his project would not have been possible.
Some of his favorite trails were those that led to lesser-known destinations, such as remote ponds, old-growth tree stands and small mountains — places that few other people have seen. For that reason, it’s fitting that he ended his challenge in the north end of the park, running up and over the inconspicuous Wadleigh Mountain and along the quiet Frost Pond and Freezeout trails.
“There were so many beautiful parts of it. It’s hard to describe,” he said. “It’s pretty remote, and there’s a sense that its an area not very well traveled.”
Watch: Katahdin Hunt Trail in Baxter State Park