Second Wind: Ailing Millinocket Pins Its Hopes on a Free Marathon

Dec 9, 2016

On Saturday morning, runners will line up for the inaugural Millinocket Marathon. Not only is it likely to be one of the coldest races of the fall marathon season, but organizers say it’s also the only Boston Marathon qualifying race — that they know of — that isn’t charging any fee, something that can cost a runner anywhere from $50 to $500.

Instead, participants are being asked to spend that cash in the host town. Residents say the idea is kindling some hope for a post-paper future in Millinocket.

Millinocket has seen its share of hard hard luck in recent years, with the loss of the Great Northern paper mill. But people still talk about the good times.

“I grew up in the heyday of it all, the ’70s, ’80s, where you didn’t know what poverty was living in Millinocket,” says Jennifer Murray, who with her business partner Tricia Cyr call themselves “The Two Broke Moms,” and they’re only half kidding. Neither has been able to draw salary yet from the gift shop they opened more than a year ago, called the Moose Drop In.

Vacant shops line the street, something Murray says you never saw when the mill was operational. But this week? It’s feeling a little more like old times.

Business has been brisk — not just for them, but all over town.

“One of my children works at Dunkin’ Donuts and they’re all — she’s like, ‘We’re already seeing people we don’t recognize,’” she says. “Because this is such a small community, you know everybody.”

Jennifer Murray (left) and Tricia Cyr.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

Murray and Cyr say they’ve been receiving messages, orders and inquiries from people all over the state, the country and beyond who had never even heard of Millinocket until they learned about the marathon. Race T-shirt orders alone are keeping the pair busy. They actually went out and bought a machine so they could print them up in-house rather than having to order them from away.

That’s exactly the kind of thing runner and race organizer Gary Allen wants to hear.

“I’m not even sure this is about running or about paper mills, or anything. I think this is about how one person or one idea can make a difference for a lot of people,” he says.

The Millinocket Marathon was Allen’s idea, and his enthusiasm seems to be spreading. A new arts and crafts expo is scheduled for Saturday. Also, the Maine Short Film Festival, which kicks off in Rockland Friday, travels next to Millinocket on Saturday night. And several organizations have planned fundraising suppers and dances all weekend.

Gary Allen (left) and Jesse Dumais in August.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

Allen says Millinocket already seems different from the one he read about more than a year ago — the one that inspired him to start the race in the first place. The town he read about had lost its mill and its identity, lost its hope, and gained a bunch of empty store windows.

“I felt like, I couldn’t unread that. And you know, heck, I gotta go do something,” he says.

Allen wanted to help, but he didn’t have a manufacturing plant or a mill to offer. So, he did what he knew how to do. He organized an informal road race.

It was sort of a trial marathon — more like 50 or so athletes piling into cars and descending upon the town without much warning last December. Allen says people seemed a bit baffled by the sudden influx of people trotting past in spandex, but pleased they were there and spending money in town.

This year it was made official. Authorities from USA Track and Field, which regulates running sports, came to town in August to measure and certify a 26.2-mile course, and the Millinocket Marathon was officially created.

Downtown Millinocket recently.
Credit Jennifer Mitchell / Maine Public

“As far as I know, I haven’t heard one negative thing. And that’s good,” says town councilor Jesse Dumais.

Dumais says on the heels of the controversial declaration of the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument just up the road, this is a piece of good economic news that hasn’t come with any baggage.

“We need all the positive news and publicity we can get and, more importantly, more dollars spent in Millinocket,” he says.

There are a total of 1,000 spots in the race. Currently, registration is full, with runners from all 50 states and Canada expected to attend. Allen thinks the starting line for the marathon is symbolic of a new beginning.

“And where that finish line is, we don’t really know,” he says.

Allen says he’s heard from high schoolers who told him that having a Boston Marathon qualifying race in their small town has actually given them some hope that “good times in Millinocket” isn’t just something their parents talk about.

“I mean that feels big to me. I think when you inject the word hope, it’s way bigger than a race,” he says.