Get FREE tickets to the 10/21 Travel Show - use code TSFWP at checkout

Runners Give Tiny Millinocket, Maine, A Boost And Warm The Hearts Of Community

The coffee shop's jaunty sign beckoned, promising warmth and hot coffee, but on a recent Saturday morning, when we peered closely at the door, we realized that it was closed. The Appalachian Trail Cafe looked great but it was only open in the summer, when the hikers come to Millinocket to climb Mount Katahdin or to hike the Appalachian Trail.

There are a lot of empty storefronts on Main Street. Great Northern Paper closed its plant in 2008. Many people lost their jobs. Others lost their retirement benefits. Many left. Some turn off their heat at night and bundle up when they go to bed. And it's cold in northern Maine.

It was minus 11 with the wind chill when we set out – some friends, me and some 550 other runners from all over the country — Dec. 10 in the most improbable of settings to run the second Millinocket Marathon and half-marathon. The 13.1-mile loop ran up what locals call the Golden Road, a dirt logging road, toward a majestic view of snow-peaked Katahdin, then down the other side back into town.

We ran the half. The marathoners, God bless them, had to do it twice.

Did I mention it was cold?

Michael Wardian, the four-time USA Track & Field ultramarathoner of the year from Virginia who won the Hartford Marathon in 2010, finished third Dec. 10 in the marathon, with icicles clinging to his beard.

"The conditions were pretty rough," Wardian said. "But it was really about being there. It was fun to just be a part of it."

Gary Allen, a Maine race director and marathoner, organized the first race in 2015 after hearing about the plight of the town after its largest employer closed. After a month of planning, about 50 people showed up to run last December.

The race was free; the only stipulation was that runners come to town and spend money. Runner's World magazine picked up the story and quickly, this year's race sold out with 1,000 runners.

And then the magic began. The townspeople joined to welcome the runners. Fundraising pasta suppers were planned. A post-race dance at the Elks Club. A craft fair at the high school, where Wardian bought a hat with a pompom on top and some mittens, which he wore for the race, even though he has plenty of high-tech cold weather gear supplied by his sponsors.

"I never buy anything at expos normally," Wardian said. "But I bought two hand-knit hats and two pairs of gloves from the mitten lady. I wanted to try to do what I could to help support the economy."

Businesses in town got creative. For mile marker 17, there were tires stacked on top of each other, spray-painted white to look like snowmen. There was a working gear wheel for mile marker 20.

"Even though Gary saw us as a struggling community, a poor suffering mill town, this town has so much spirit and pride," said Marsha Donahue, a race volunteer who owns North Light Gallery in town. "Given a little bit of energy, we said, 'We've got to give back to this group.' I think the sense of pride in the community came out."

And on race day, the people of Millinocket poured out of their homes, handing out cups of water that froze as the day went on, honking their horns, cheering and welcoming the runners as they crossed the finish line, where the finish banner was strung between two logging trucks.

"Oh, my word," said Tricia Cyr, whose Moose Drop In craft store on Main Street did a brisk business in race T-shirt sales over the weekend, "they got back their pride. Their self-worth. Dignity. The town has always had compassion. This was just an amazing thing.

"People don't go out in minus 12 wind chill just for fun. There were so many people out there, checking that the runners were OK. I know it was something to boost our economy, but it was so much more than that. It showed the town that people care."

According to a 2014 New York Times story, unemployment in Millinocket runs 10 percent to 21 percent and the town's population, once over 7,000 in the 1970s, was down to 4,466, and that population is aging.

"It's cold," said Cyr, who has lived in Millinocket for 16 years. "A lot of people don't have jobs. A lot of people are struggling to make ends meet. Praying they have money to put oil in their barrels so they don't freeze. Trying to buy basketball shoes for their kids.

"We do our damnedest to take care of our own the best we can. Sometimes people feel like they're alone."

Cyr's father-in-law worked in the mill. She grew up in a neighboring town and remembered what a big deal it was to go to Millinocket, where there was a downtown and a department store.

"It was a status thing here to be from Millinocket," she said.

Mainers are a resilient lot, although how to restart the economy in the town and the surrounding area was perplexing and frustrating. And then along came Allen, a longtime marathoner who has raised money for numerous charities and organizes the Mount Desert Island Marathon.

"Gary taught us to look outside the box," said Mike Madore, the town council chairman, a fourth-generation Millinocket resident who worked in the mill before he went to college. "No idea is a bad idea. I think that's what the town needed to see. People loved this idea and they were fascinated by it."

The question we runners were asked the most was: "Do you normally run in this weather?"

There were holiday decorations up, somethingthe town hasn't done much of lately. The windows of an empty car dealership, highly visible to out-of-towners on the way to Main Street, were festively decorated instead of abandoned and empty.

"The marathon meant more to people of the town than the marathoners will ever understand," Cyr said.

"No, it's not going to solve the problems. It's not going to solve anything right now, but it's going to boost morale and how people feel about themselves. And that's where it's going to start solving problems.

More than 1,000 people have already signed up for the race next year. And yes, I'll be there. It can't be any colder, right?

Copyright © 2017, CT Now
66°