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More than 1,100 runners finished Millinocket’s marathon and half marathon races on Saturday — 214 and 942 respectively — impressive numbers for a three-year-old December race in central Maine.
But the numbers tell only part of the story. This is race that's already become emblematic of the Katahdin region's can-do spirit as it works to rebuild a local economy devastated by the permanent closures of its two paper mills in recent years.
“This is the feel-good story of maybe the decade, and not just in Maine,” race founder Gary Allen told a group of town officials as they waited for Friday’s race news conference to begin.
Allen, touched by the Katahdin region’s economic plight, conceived the race in 2015 as a boost to the area. Its first year, 52 runners showed up for the bare-bones, unofficial run. Last year, it drew 552 runners and national attention, including an article in Runner’s World. This year, 1,856 runners from around the world registered for the race.
While specific numbers aren’t available, the economic impact is obvious, said race spokeswoman Gail Fanjoy, past president of the Katahdin Area Chamber of Commerce.
“Every hotel bed is full, restaurants are overflowing,” she said in an email Saturday afternoon. “The boxes for toy donations were overflowing when I saw them today, businesses on Main Street were crowded before, during, and after many people had crossed the finish line.”
The race is a running-based model of participation tourism, organizers said.
The area’s recent revitalization push includes that type of model — encouraging visitors to take advantage of not only well-known attractions like Baxter State Park and the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, but smaller venues, too, highlighting the area’s natural beauty and opportunity for a variety of four-season outdoor activities.
The race doesn’t charge an entrance fee — runners are asked instead to spend at area businesses what they would normally spend on registration.
While that may not seem like a big selling point, it cost $295 to run the New York Marathon in November; the Boston Marathon’s fee is $180 — and runners may spend far more than that on hotels and transportation. Even the smaller races can be expensive. Runners can expect to spend between $60 and $300 to register for a marathon or half-marathon, according to Health magazine.
Fee money pays for things like timing services, portable toilets, fencing, shuttle transportation, municipal services and other incidentals. Many of the services for the Millinocket race were covered by a variety of supporters, or donated, including timing by 3C Race Productions. Timing services can cost between $5,000 and $10,000, Allen said.
Registration money also pays for shirts, medals and other perks runners expect. At the Millinocket race, runners who wanted shirts or a medal bought them.
“A traditional race wouldn’t work,” Allen said. “It would be a burden. As soon as people pay entry fees, they expect things.”
Runners, as well as family and friends who accompanied them, were urged to visit a two-day artisan fair at Stearns High School, as well as local businesses, many of which had “Welcome Runners” signs.
The race drew runners from states as far away as California and Hawaii, every Canadian province, and even Switzerland. Town Council Chairman Joe Clark estimated that 2,000 to 3,000 people would visit Millinocket and neighboring towns.
The Maine Sports Commission estimates that the average runner in a race the size of Millinocket’s spends between $130 and $200 in the community, the Bangor Daily News reported earlier this year.
At Friday’s news conference, Allen said, “Every dollar spent, every dollar raised matters … money isn’t a bad thing.”
Fanjoy said the economics and other intangibles work together.
“There is no doubt that the town benefits economically, but more importantly, we come together in ways unexplainable to make runners and their supporters have a great experience,” she said. “And in the process, we raise ourselves up.”
The race starts downtown and then out to the Golden Road, the logging route built by Great Northern Paper to move the timber when the river drives ended in the 1960s and ‘70s. The route is not a coincidence — the timber industry’s role in the town’s rise and recent tough economic times is part of every conversation about economic recovery. The race even featured two loaded logging trucks at the finish line.
One of Friday’s speakers was Mike Thurlow, of Lee, a 62-year-old logger who ran the half-marathon Saturday in his logging gear, toting a 25-pound chain saw, to raise $3,000 for Make-A-Wish.
He watched his two sons run last year and was inspired to run this year, though he hasn’t run for the sake of running since high school.
“I’ve been running through the Maine woods for 40 years cutting trees, so a few hours tomorrow morning running this chain saw around the course shouldn’t be so bad,” he said, to laughter. But he also drew tears when he added, “I want to recognize all those good people who worked all their lives in the woods.”
Thurlow, and Steve Bender, a firefighter from Avondale, Pa., who is in his second year running the race in full firefighter gear, also for charity, are just two out-of-towners who were drawn by the race’s story.
The races' two official donation causes this year, Our Katahdin and Friends of the Millinocket Memorial Library, between them raised more than $20,000, from runners and those who heard about the race. As of Sunday night, $11,952 had been donated to Our Katahdin, which funds microgrants and other revitalization projects. The library, which sustained a $80,000 cut in this year’s town budget, had raised $9,595.
Fanjoy said the town had deep gratitude for Allen’s contribution as well as runners “who are inspired to visit our little town and help us heal financially and emotionally.”
“I have no words,” she said.
Allen, though, said Friday that he “just had a little idea that could do a little bit of good.”
Before the news conference, he told the town officials that it was area residents’ hard work that was bringing the town’s economy back. “You’ve literally changed history in your town, for good.”