More than 1,200 runners leave the starting line Saturday for the Millinocket Half-Marathon. Credit: Ernie Clark

MILLINOCKET, Maine — The Millinocket Marathon and Half-Marathon got off to a rather anonymous start back in 2015, according to the only runner to compete in all five editions of the event.

“We were just a random flash mob of about 50 people who showed up in town and ran a marathon,” said Sarah Mulcahy of Fort Kent, who on Saturday won her fourth women’s marathon title in five years.

“Nobody knew what we were doing, we just kind of ran around and we all had direction cards because we didn’t know where we were going.”

Mulcahy was one of just six runners to finish the inaugural 26.2-mile jaunt on the outskirts of Baxter State Park that begins in the heart of the former milltown and takes runners out the historic Golden Road straight into the imposing presence of Katahdin.

How times have changed with this race, created by Cranberry Island entrepreneur and distance runner Gary Allen to help the Magic City cope with the economic downturn caused by the closure of the Great Northern Paper Co. mill.

More than 2,300 runners pre-registered for this year’s races, and while not everyone finished, the 1,459 participants who completed one of the races were greeted at the finish line along Penobscot Avenue with a party-like atmosphere full of music and other merriment.

“I think if you had told me five years ago that you’d ever see this many people up here in this little town in northern Maine for a marathon in December, you could have called me crazy and I’d have believed you,” Allen said during a break in his race director’s duties. “This is awesome.”

Marathon men’s champion Andrew Schroeder — who finished in 2 hours, 53 minutes, 25 seconds — came from Madison, Wisconsin, to race in his wife Angela’s hometown. He was captivated by the energy throughout the community.

“We really enjoyed being in town and walking around and going in all of the shops and having a bite to eat at the Appalachian Trail Cafe and looking at all the names [of the Appalachian Trail thru-hikers] they’ve got written on the ceiling and just dreaming about enjoying the wilderness and being outside,” he said.

Much has changed in Millinocket since the marathon began. The region continues to rebound from the demise of its paper mill with an emerging economy based on outdoor recreation, including the opening of the nearby Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.

The races fit into the scope of that rebirth as runners register to run free of charge in the hope they will spend money in the community’s shops, restaurants and motels.

By all accounts, that tradeoff is working.

The Woods & Waters Shop located on the Millinocket’s main street usually has one cash register open at this time of year. But as runners were out on the road Saturday their friends, families and other race supporters filled the store — partly to warm up on a 20-degree Fahrenheit day but also to shop in such eager numbers that three cash registers were pressed into duty.

“We have a little slow period between the end of fall and Thanksgiving until snowmobile season comes,” said Susan Mathias, a local artist who also works at the shop. “Last Saturday, we had a few stragglers coming in and out, and then the marathon comes around, and ‘boom,’ we’ve got tons of people in here.

“There’s tons of excitement in the air and people are running around everywhere, going to restaurants and shops. The businesses were full of people, and it’s a blast,” Mathias said.

Local organizations also have broadened the scope of the event far beyond just an athletic competition.

Mulcahy is appreciative of how the region has warmed up to the chilly races.

“I try to hit as many fundraisers as I can: the spaghetti supper, the snowmobile club breakfast, the craft fair and every 50-50 raffle,” she said.

Mulcahy used Saturday’s race, clocking 3:08:38, as a training run for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta on Feb. 29, 2020.

“This race just has a different feel because nobody’s in it to get anything,” she said.

The marathon offers the added incentive of being a qualifier for the U.S. Olympic Trials and the Boston, New York City and Chicago marathons, but few runners actually use Millinocket to qualify for those major events.

“I think people aren’t necessarily coming to qualify for the Olympic Trials or to qualify for Boston although they can,” Allen said. “I think they’re coming for an experience and to give back.

“What we’ve done is empower people and change the formula. A typical race is people pay their entry fee and expect A, B and C. Here the entry is free, and we expect them to put whatever they want to put into helping Millinocket rebound, and people are being really generous and kind, and the town likes it.”

The event also has morphed into a major social event for runners. Pre-registrants for this year’s races represented 39 states and three Canadian provinces.

“It’s been my experience that they want a challenge, number one, and they want a badge of, ‘Hey, I did this race at 20 degrees with snow on the ground,’” Mathias said of marathoners in her family.

In addition to the serious runners, some Millinocket participants also show off their lighter side wearing costumes ranging from holiday garb to flying squirrel suits.

One costume motif featured full foresters outfits, complete with chainsaws, worn by five participants who ran the half-marathon to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation.

Mike Thurlow, 64, of Lee began that tradition in 2017, and has since been joined by Terri Coolong of Lincoln, Andy Wood of Hampden and Tom Fox of Orland along with Thurlow’s son Ty, a veteran marathoner who is the principal of Sumner Memorial High School in East Sullivan.

Last year, the group raised $8,200 to fulfill the wish of a young lady from Millinocket, and the goal was to raise a similar amount this year.

“This is a big deal for me,” said Mike Thurlow, whose logging suit and chainsaw added 23 pounds to his weight for the race. “I’m a lifelong logger. I’ve cut wood all my life for these mills that are now closed in this area, and it was just an idea I had. I’m not really a good runner, but I just wanted to do something to help people out.”

Helping the community was the goal behind Allen’s idea to bring a marathon to northern Penobscot County on the brink of winter each year, and he’s admittedly stunned by its growth.

“This is really way more than an athletic event now,” he said. “This is participation tourism, and the tourism economy is one of the biggest in the state of Maine, so why shouldn’t these milltowns get on that train?

“I think we’ve changed a lot of minds, that’s all I’m saying. I think we’ve opened people’s eyes that, ‘Hey, this isn’t so bad.’”

Allen believes the Millinocket Marathon will have staying power long beyond its first five years.

“If you think about [the] Boston [Marathon], they started out with 10 or a dozen runners that first year, and it’s grown into something special,” he said. “Maybe, just maybe, because this event doesn’t require a huge infrastructure — it’s sort of participant driven — this race can go on for a hundred years.

“I won’t be around to see it, but I don’t think it will put a burden on the region because the runners will do most of the work.”

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...