by Ryan Goebel
The Millinocket Marathon might not be Maine's fastest or most competitive marathon, but it's probably the most famous. Race director Gary Allen started the race in 2015 as a way to help support a Maine community that has struggled since the closing of its mills. Inspired by the ethos of the Burning Man Festival, Allen came up with the innovative idea to make the marathon free to all runners, but with the tacit agreement that they spend money at the shops, restaurants, and hotels in Millinocket and the surrounding area. The inaugural 2015 race, which was only promoted through Facebook, attracted 6 finishers in the full marathon and 42 in the half marathon. Runner's World wrote an article about the first year's race, and the race has continued to grow and attract runners from around the country since then.
Back in 2015, I wasn't living in Maine and had never heard of Millinocket, but I remember seeing that Runner's World article and being intrigued about running this free marathon in a strange, exotic locale known as Millinocket. Lo and behold, a couple years later I found myself moving to Maine. I signed up for the half marathon that year, because a full marathon in the winter in Maine is just too crazy (right?), but my job at the time had other plans and decided to send me out of state that weekend so I couldn't run it. I ended up running the Santa Hustle Half Marathon in Portland the weekend before instead. Although it was cold, it wasn't Millinocket cold. Also, running in the area around the Maine Mall wasn't near as scenic nor fun as running the Golden Road in Millinocket.
I signed up for the Millinocket Half again in 2018, because a full marathon in the winter in Maine is just too crazy (right???) and I was running the New York City Marathon that November. Well, my overconfidence in how many races I could run in one year eventually caught up with me. About a month before New York, I started feeling some pain in my hip/groin area. I still ran the New York Marathon, but had to pull out of the Millinocket Half.
In 2019, I didn't even sign up for Millinocket because I was still injured.
In 2020, I was still struggling to recover and get back into shape from that injury. Also, there was a pandemic raging across the world with no vaccines, so the Millinocket Marathon and Half was cancelled.
Enter 2021. I was slowly getting back to running on a regular basis again. Covid vaccines had entered the world. Although I had a series of freak non-running injuries over the summer, myself and the world were slowly returning to racing. I ran in a few of the Quarry Road summer races and the Doc & Mardie 5k. I wasn't running fast, but I was running. I signed up for the Mount Desert Island Marathon as my "big comeback goal race", but then it was cancelled in early September due to concerns regarding the strained medical and emergency services in the area. I immediately signed up for the Millinocket Marathon.... the FULL marathon. As previously stated, running a full marathon in northern Maine in December is crazy. However, with my return to racing, I really, really wanted to finish a marathon before the year ended. I no longer cared about how cold it was going to be or how challenging the course was going to be. For the first time when running a marathon, I wasn't going to care so much about what my finish time was going to be, rather just that I finished.
Fast forward to December. I'm still not injured and my training really started clicking in the last month or two before the marathon. I'm ready. I have no idea what my goal marathon pace is, but I'm ready.
Standing at the start line while the national anthem was being sung, the cold (and nerves) started getting to me and I began shivering. Once the cannon went off to signal the start, I ran out with the opening pack trying to warm my body up. My fingers were especially cold and my toes were numb, but I was excited to be back to running a marathon. Relatively quickly, I fell into roughly 12th place. In my mind, I was running a slightly faster pace than I felt like I should be running, but I just wanted my body to warm up. It took close to five miles until I could fully feel my toes.
Normally in a marathon, you don't have to constantly think about where your feet are landing and what the footing is like; however, the Golden Road is effectively frozen dirt and an ice storm went through the area two nights before the marathon. As veteran Strider and Millinocket runner Julie Millard pointed out, "It was the first time I’ve ever raced in Yak Tracks. The conditions on the Golden Road were either the worst I had experienced or it just got inside my head. I was pretty freaked out."
Despite the frozen toes and icier-than-normal road conditions, running up the Golden Road that first time is pretty magical. There's the beautiful view of snow-covered Mount Katahdin and a surprisingly large number of spectators and volunteer water stops along the way.
By the time I got to the turn off the Golden Road just after Mile 6, the magic was starting to wear off. Having already climbed over 500 feet, I was ready for the downhill part of the course. Also, by this point, I was solidly alone in the race. The nearest runners ahead and behind me were at least 30 seconds in either direction. Heading back towards town on Millinocket Road, it was great to be back on pavement, even if there were still a lot of icy patches. However, there were suddenly way less spectators and water stations. It was lonely out there and although this section of the course is "net downhill," there are still significant uphill portions.
Soon before town, I was caught by surprise when the first of the half marathoners passed me (they had started ten minutes after the full marathon start). I didn't try to keep up with him or the next couple half marathoners that passed, but was nice to have someone up ahead that I could see. On one of the hills closest to town, my left calf muscle started tightening up. "Oh no, I'm not even half way," I thought to myself. The calf muscle tightness went away almost as quickly as it had begun, but the thought of it stayed in the back of my mind. I was briefly distracted from those thoughts as I ran down Penobscot Avenue through the center of town. I did my best to soak up the energy of the cheering spectators along the street.
As I approached the end of the Golden Road, I passed a full marathoner for the first time since the opening miles. This gave me a huge energy boost and I passed another as we ran under the inflatable archway that the Army National Guard volunteers had set up at the top of the Golden Road. Neither of those guys ever caught back up with me.
Back on pavement, I lost count of how many body parts were hurting. I couldn't wait for the race to be finished, but the only way for it to be finished was to keep running. Passing half marathoners who had obviously taken advantage of the free shots of Fireball along the way provided me with brief moments of needed entertainment. As I passed, one of them said, "Dude! Nice ice beard!" Hadn't this guy ever seen a bearded guy get a frosted beard while running in the winter? Eventually, I'd realize that my "ice beard" wasn't your standard frost beard.
By Mile 25, I just wanted the marathon to be over. This point in a marathon has always been painful, but I've never wanted one to end so badly as I did when I ran down the short, but very steep hill just before Mile 26.
Someone (possibly Martha Nadeau) yelled "Go Striders!" to me a couple blocks before the finish. I gave it everything I had going towards the finish line.
If you ever decide to run Millinocket (which I recommend that you do), don't forget that there's also the Crankle 2k the night before (where participants are encouraged to run in costume). I couldn't make it this year since I had to attend an online class at the same time, but I've heard from Julie Millard, Martha Nadeau, and others that it's a lot of fun. Also, shopping at the craft fair and all of the businesses in town before and after the race is well worth it.
Millinocket isn't the easiest marathon or half marathon, but it is perhaps the most magical. After all, Millinocket has the nickname of "The Magic City."
Sorry if we missed any other Striders in the results. Full results for all runners are found here.