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Run a mile (or 26.2 of them) in their shoes: Millinocket Marathon & Half prepares for fourth year

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The 2017 Millinocket Marathon & Half. The 2017 Millinocket Marathon & Half. (photo courtesy of DesignLab)

MILLINOCKET - It is nearly December and the Millinocket Marathon and Half is right around the corner.

Runners across Maine and across the country are preparing for the cold weather race. The marathon, in its fourth year, is held on the scenic Golden Road - the 96-mile private road that stretches from Millinocket all the way to the Canada-U.S. border. This year’s race takes place on December 8.

The marathon and half has become a massive success. In its first year back in 2015, around 50 runners from Maine and New Brunswick came to the race. The next year, it became USATF certified, making it a Boston Marathon qualifier.

Nearly 1,000 runners came out to run in 2016, and more the following year. Gary Allen, creator and race organizer told the Maine Edge in an interview that he expects around 2,400 runners this year. There is no admission fee for the race, making it the only free Boston Marathon Qualifier in the country.

It all started from a simple idea - to help the people of Millinocket.

In 2015, Allen made a Facebook post stating that he had been researching Maine mill towns and after learning about the history of Millinocket, inquired: “Who wants to run a marathon in Millinocket?”

Anyone who has been paying attention is aware of how Millinocket has been struggling since the Great Northern Paper Company paper mill closed in 2014. At its peak in the 1970s and 1980s, the Maine-based company produced 16.4 percent of the newsprint made in the United States. As one of the only employers in the area, the economic impact of its closing has been devastating to the people of Millinocket.

“It was my hope to help a few neighbors I had not met in a town where I had no connections,” said Allen. “I figured if we could brighten one person’s day it would be worth doing and as our short history has shown we did!”

Allen, in his modesty, is right – year after year, the marathon has proven to be a substantial economic boost to the town of Millinocket.

The Millinocket Marathon and Half was recently honored as a 2018 Champion of Economic Impactin Sports Tourism by “Sports Destination Management.” According to the article, the Marathon and Half has brought in roughly $200,000 to $250,000 to the local economy in previous years. The article adds: “Over the years, the event has grown and has come to include a strong mindset of runners ‘paying it forward’ by contributing to two local charities, eating in the area’s remaining restaurants, patronizing local companies, tipping generously and generally supporting the area.”

Allen took inspiration from his experiences at Burning Man and applied what he learned to the marathon.

“The inspiration for all of this came after attending a temporary, experimental city of 70,000 far out in the Nevada desert, where everything is built by we the participants and where money has no value – i.e. everything is free! There is a seismic shift in how people interact and what we create when we all work together.”

Allen has seen great success with this philosophy. Things seem to be growing quickly, and with no sign of slowing down. The number of participants has grown significantly each year. In the first year, there were around 50 runners in total and just six finished the full marathon.

One of those six was Sarah Mulcahy, a Mainer and high school math teacher. Mulcahy won the 2015 full marathon with a time of 3:14:20. She ran at steady pace and finished eight minutes before the next runner despite having fractured her fibula a few months prior. Mulcahy has attended every edition of the race since then and has run the full marathon each time despite some physical setbacks.

“The first year only 6 of us ran the full, and I won, being only a couple months after I fractured my fibula,” remembered Mulcahy. “The second year, when it was frigid cold, I was 5 1/2 months pregnant with my son when I ran. Last year, Millinocket was my first race back after breaking my hip without a whole lot of training. So it was a bittersweet race for me.”

Since its beginning the Millinocket Marathon has fostered a relationship of generosity and support between the locals and the runners. Mulcahy was there when it all began. She described the relationship, drawing from her first-hand experiences.

“I absolutely love the nature of this race,” she said. “It’s not about what you as a runner will get out of the race, although I believe you will get more out of this race than any other race you participate in. Rather, it’s about what you can do for others through the passion of running. I cannot get over how many local people come out and support runners, even though we don’t expect that, sometimes in ridiculously frigid temperatures like 2016.”

In all the races, noted Mulcahy, locals came out to support the runners when they did not expect anything.  

After completing the 2015 marathon, Mulcahy, Allen and other runners went out to eat at the Sawmill restaurant.

“As we were eating, I looked at Gary and said, ‘I see some locals, I’m going to cover their meals.’ So others followed suit as well and we did just that. I also tipped the waitress way more than what my bill was because it was the spirit of the whole day. These were hardworking people, not asking for a thing, but who deserved to be recognized.

“The race keeps on growing, but the expectations from local people do not,” she added.

This year Mulcahy plans to compete at both the Millinocket Marathon and the International Marathon in Sacramento, California - which is a qualifier for the 2020 Olympics.

To Erik Knickerbocker, races are his happy place. If there’s a race - schedule permitting - he will be there. Knickerbocker first heard about the Millinocket Marathon and Half from a friend. Familiar with Gary Allen’s work on previous races, Knickerbocker did not hesitate to sign up for the 2017 Millinocket Marathon and Half.

“Gary Allen and Mary Rupp of Crow Athletics put on great races so if I can fit them in my schedule I'll be there,” Knickerbocker said. “December is extremely busy for me so I back off of training a bit so this is a great race to end the season for me.”

Knickerbocker placed first in the half marathon with a time of 1:17:16 and maintained a red-hot pace of 5:53 minutes-per-mile.

“I never go into a race expecting to win, but I knew I was in good shape and that morning I was extremely focused so I expected to be in the mix,” he said. “A win is a good reward for the early morning and hard workouts. I love the atmosphere, the focus I get beforehand, and the competition. Runners are my people so most likely where runners are gathered I'll be there.”

Following in the footsteps of runners before him, Knickerbocker did his part to support the town. Responding in kind, the locals supported him, too.

“My friend Chris Holt and I went up a week before the race and ran the course,” said Knickerbocker. “Everyone we saw while running was so nice and thanked us. After we ran we did what runners do and went out to eat. The locals seemed to know we were runners and they treated us like kings. I also donated to Our Katahdin and the library.”

On the day of the race, Knickerbocker ate at a local restaurant, bought a t-shirt in a store, and browsed the craft fair. The people he was with, Knickerbocker noted, did similar things.    

To Mulcahy, Allen, Knickerbocker and many other runners, the race is about giving back to the town and supporting the people who live there by boosting the economy. But Will Prescott plans to give back in another way.

Prescott is a fourth-year student at the University of Maine and long-distance runner. He plans to run the full marathon in December. He was born and raised in Maine, so the cold weather does not bother him. Prescott has been an athlete for most of his life, but began running seriously in early 2017. Starting with the Wellspring Recovery 5k race in Bangor, he began a personal journey to challenge his mind and body.

For Prescott, running has become much more than exercise; it has become symbolic of living a healthy and clean life. For years, he has struggled with drugs and alcohol, beginning in high school when he was prescribed oxycontin after a minor hockey injury. Prescott described his personal struggle.

“It was sickeningly easy and I remember laughing all the way to get the prescription filled - 14 years later as a junkie I wasn’t laughing anymore,” he said. “I had destroyed my family relationships, was in and out of jail, overdosed badly a few times and nearly died.”

Things came to a head in early January of 2017 when he was called by his doctor for a routine urine test and pill count.

“It was a week into the month’s prescription and the pills were gone,” said Prescott. “I had been on a bender for a week straight and stolen everything that wasn’t nailed down and was a complete mess. I was so ashamed and hated myself. I had prayed to god for so long to ‘help me get clean’ and this was the moment and decided I was done. I went the next day to that appointment and was finally honest, it felt incredible.

“To my amazement, even after I showed him the evidence of my drug use, he still wanted to keep prescribing drugs to me and slowly wean me off,” he continued. “I told him I don’t think I will ever build up the courage to go through this again and that no matter how painful it was I would never put another drug in my system again. I went through hell with withdrawals and didn’t sleep for 40 days. God willing, I will celebrate two years clean in January 2019.”

Prescott believes he was given a second chance at life. Today, he honors that chance by honoring his body.

“I love health and wellness of all kinds and love being able to have reclaimed my body so completely. Most of the addicts I knew and the people I grew up with are either still using, in prison or dead. I run for them.”

Having completed many races across the country - the Santa Hustle half-marathon in Portland and the Rock & Roll half-marathon in Nashville, to name a few - Prescott is ready to attack his first full marathon this December.

“I’m super excited to try the full marathon in Millinocket, and I am prepared for the cold,” he said. “I used to play outdoor hockey up there and it was crazy cold. We all wore long johns and ski masks under our equipment – it was nuts!”

After two years of competitive running, Prescott has learned that training and diet crucial to his performance on the road. In the weeks leading up to the marathon, he reins in his training from a broad range of exercises to a specific schedule.

“My training for the race is one long run a week and two or three short, brutal, interval runs. The long run is slightly slower than race pace and each week I add on another mile or so each week to slowly start working in the 17-18 mile range. I don’t actually even come close to the full 26 in training because it will just wear my body down. I’m 34 and my body doesn’t recover like Wolverine anymore!”

The economic impact of the marathon is nothing to shake a stick at. In the short history of the Millinocket Marathon, this has been proven. Many runners will surely come out to support local business with their patronage - but Prescott plans to give back in a different way.

“Whenever I travel for races I network with others in that recovery community and try to help any way I can,” he said. “There are amazing people in the recovery community in the greater Bangor area that help me and to stay clean. I feel an obligation to help the recovering addicts in prison and fresh off the streets, and I do that regularly. The reminder of where I come from and the gratitude it produces is powerful, as is the feeling of purpose it gives me to give back what was so freely given to me.”

The Millinocket Marathon and Half is more than just a race. It is an opportunity, a chance to give to a community in need and the people who live there. It makes sense - after all, it is held in the season of giving.

Last modified on Wednesday, 28 November 2018 13:50

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