Somewhere around mile eight, an angel appeared. She was manning a water station and appeared to be holding a sign. As my tired legs brought me closer, I saw she was also handing out candy bars. The sign came into full focus: “WORST PARADE EVER,” it read.
I downed the water and chocolate and trudged on. Just five more miles to go, after all, in this, the difficult, cold, and ultimately satisfying 2017 Millinocket Marathon & Half.
I signed on for the half-marathon not out any sense of passion for marathoning, or even running. I’ve been a runner at various points in my life, but at 40 years old, I’ve never run more than five miles in a day. I’ve always regarded endurance runners as a different breed—maybe even superhuman.
No, I signed up for this thing simply because I wanted to do it.
The Millinocket Marathon was organized in 2015 by Gary Allen as a way to entice people to the economically-beleaguered region. Unlike some other marathons, there is no fee to enter—instead, participants are asked to spend their cash in the community. The first year saw about 50 people enter the race. The next year, about 600 participated.
In all, about 1,155 people took part in 2017’s event. Runners hailed from all over the country, from places close to home to more far-flung locales like Jacksonville, Florida; St. Louis, Missouri; and Los Gatos, California. It’s a qualifying event for the Olympic trials and the Boston, Chicago, and New York marathons.
The scene in downtown Millinocket on race day is like an open-air circus. The streets teem with people in wind-resistant clothing of every color like flags hung from parapets. A DJ pumps music from between two logging trucks. Family members huddle together in the 28-degree chill as runners stretch and catch up with old friends from the running circuit.
Me, I have no friends from the running circuit. So when the time came to line up for the half marathon—13.1 miles traversing hills, valleys, and a portion of the Golden Road—I was alone. And when the gun went off and the bright mass of runners heaved forward through cheers and booming Top 40 hits, breath rising in clouds above us, I stopped thinking about it. Crowd mentality takes over. And you run. You just run.
I found a nice, sustainable rhythm somewhere around mile 2 along the Golden Road. I was making a good pace. Above and below me was a steady stream of runners in various states of satisfaction and misery. Eventually, you fall into a sort of waking dream—the world becomes this. You move on toward a defined but distant goal, and everyone else is doing the same. An army of people, all running together but engaged in wholly separate personal events.
Around mile 5, the Golden Road opens up and snow-peaked Katahdin appears through the trees. Cars dot the road at intervals, some to hand out water and some for simple encouragement. A man stands with a sign reading “Where are my STRIPPERS?” and you wonder about the meaning of this. You keep running.
Long distance runners talk about “hitting the wall,” that moment when your legs become concrete and your will begins to drain. For me, the wall came around mile 10. My stomach begged for calories and my joints felt like a truck’s worn suspension. The angel’s candy bar had long since metabolized. It seemed useless—maybe this was all folly. Maybe this was, in actuality, a Bad Idea.
Suddenly a crowd appeared at the top of the hill. Volunteers had set up a water station along with (oh thank god) pancakes and sausage. It was enough to power my aching legs through the next three miles and, eventually, through the finish line into cheering crowds back in downtown Millinocket. I had finished the half marathon in just under two and a half hours, and placed 74th in my age group.
The pain you experience from stopping your legs after 13 miles of perpetual motion is nothing like the next day’s agony. A sharp, localized stabbing settles in your joints and you find yourself walking like an inebriated toddler. Stairs become major obstacles, and warm baths your salvation. Despite it all, you find your thoughts turning back toward the race, its sights and people, and you smile inwardly a little.
And when someone asks you, “Would you do it again?”, you huff up your chest, strike an air of bravado, and reply with a resounding “Maybe.”
*This story was originally published in the BDN Maine Weekly, Dec. 14, 2017.*