I have always wanted to do "that free marathon" up in Maine, ever since I first read about it in Runner's World when it started in 2015. The race is famous for being free to all runners in order to attract people to the central Maine town of Millinocket, also known for being home to Baxter State Park and Mount Katahdin, in December, an otherwise very slow time for the area and its businesses.
"Don't Run Millinocket for what you get; Run Millinocket for what you give!"
As the race slogan goes, the whole concept of the event is to put on a certified, professionally run race that will draw athletes to the area from across the country. Spoiler: it is and it does! However, the race is more than that. It brings the community together at the annual artisan fair/bib pickup where there are thousands of (mostly) hand crafted items on sale by local artists, crafters, photographers, knitters, bakers, wood workers, etc. The extent of the items available was quite surprising and everything was beautiful. Children from several youth/school groups also participated to raise funds for their various organizations.
More than just selling their crafts, locals opened up their homes to runners, created unofficial water (and fireball) stations, stood outside in the freezing cold to cheer everyone on, and so much more. Businesses ran specials on food/drinks for post race activities. The race held official pre/post race events with live music, celebrities, and just all kinds of excitement.
I decided to go ahead and register and run the race pretty much last minute, as has been my typical strategy this year, by signing up on the last day registration was available. Just under a month before the race. Just coming off of a painful 1/2 marathon that morning (Woo and I ran the Manchester NH 1/2) where I was under-trained and out of shape. A few days before the Manchester 1/2 I figured "hey - if I can sneak a half in under 1:30, I would give it 4 more weeks and try to pull out a BQ in Millinocket." Although I ended up with some positive splits and a solid bonk in Manchester, I still ended up running a 1:28:something...so, I came home and registered for the full marathon in Millinocket, basically knowing nothing about the course except looking at results the last couple of years. There weren't a lot of sub-3 hour performances, but there were some, which gave me hope.
Originally Woo was going to also do the race so we could go up for a couple of days and enjoy the area, however, family travel plans changed that a bit so she wasn't going to be in town. To further add complication to the matter I had both of our dogs, and really nobody to watch them while I went away for a race. I did some looking, but with limited housing available in the area and me signing up late, there wasn't anything nearby that was dog friendly for the Gdogs. As such, I ended up having to drive up early morning the day of the race and come back afterward, without spending as much time in Millinocket as I would have liked. However, it wasn't my first trip there and it won't be my last, so I'll make it up to them next time.
Onto the race...
With an 11am start, I didn't have to get up too early even with a 3 hour drive ahead of me. I arrived into Millinocket around 9:15am, found a parking space and went into the gym for bib pickup and wandered around the artisan fair for a while. I knew several people who were going to be in the area from the Six03 Endurance and Trail Runners of Midcoast Maine groups, but somehow I didn't manage to see anyone I know! I did touch base with a friend Maureen to jog over to the race start with though. Being a multi-year veteran of the race she also gave me some good intel on the 6 mile section of the course on the Golden Road through Baxter State Park. That along with some tips from Darren, another Midcoast Maine runner, led me to decide to run in my Hoka One One Speedgoat lighter treaded trail running shoe. The Golden Road was covered in light powdery snow, sand, ice, and is very hilly. I knew my Cliftons or my new Carbon X's would not give me the traction I would need to get up the steep hills and maintain consistent footing on the downs. They would be heavier and more aggressive for the rest of the road sections of the course into and out of town, but I think overall it was a much more positive tradeoff than any time I lost on the pavement.
After hearing of the conditions on the Golden Road, I pretty much knew before I even got into town that my hopes of a BQ would be well out of reach; however, I decided I would let my body tell me what to do during the race and go from there. I figured I would try to save some energy on the first of the 2 loops and see what happened. The race itself begins on a quick 1/4 mile downhill (seen above) before making a sharp left turn and heading up a massive 1 mile hill with about 7% grade and 160 ft of elevation gain. Once at the top you make a turn onto the Golden Road for some beautiful miles through the state park with Mt. Katahdin looming in the background pretty much the whole time. Although the footing was terrible, the views were non-stop amazing.
Hands down, the best part of the race, was when I saw my first Maine MOOSE!!! There I was, minding my own business, running along the Golden Road, about mile 4, in a spot very much like in the above photo (but I actually think the hill right before it) when all of a sudden a bull MOOSE came from my left out of the woods and onto the Golden Road no more than 10-15 yards away. It took a few steps out and then hit an ice patch and literally fell on its moose butt! There was 2 other runners near me at the time, we were running about 5-7th place, and we all just kind of looked at each other and couldn't believe what we were seeing. After the moose scrambled around on the ice for what felt like minutes it finally made its way back onto its feet and took a couple more steps into the road. At this point the 3 of us slowed mostly to a stop and watched as moose can be aggressive so we didn't want to get to close if it was coming in our direction. Then it just turned around and walked back into the woods and on his way. During the whole event, I fumbled through my gloves, pocket, ziploc baggie, and just couldn't get my phone out quickly enough to get a photo of it happening. Still kicking myself for that!
After that, the race got pretty uneventful. I averaged about 7:15 pace for the first 7 miles coming off the dirt/sand/snow/ice Golden Road and then heading back to town. The next 6 miles back into town were a net downhill, but still had their share of long climbs (which I was totally not expecting), where I averaged about 6:50-6:55 pace, which was my original goal pace. Though, I knew I had to make up time if I still had any chance to get a Boston Qualifier in, but wanted to save some gas for the second lap and the snow/ice. I hit the halfway mark in about 1:32, which if I could hold onto that pace, would maybe, just slightly get me in under the 3:05 marker. I knew it was unlikely.
Mile 14 (that big steep uphill mile to start the race) basically crushed my soul. I ran a 7:40 before hitting the Golden Road for the 2nd lap. Sadly this lap was less eventful with no photographers, far less spectators, and no whiskey or fireball being handed out on the course. The environment was no less beautiful, but my spirits were far less enthused for 6 more miles on the snow. I'm still glad I had on my trail shoes, as I think that was the best decision I made all day. The worst decision I made all day was running the first half on BQ pace. I would have been less miserable and probably finished several minutes faster if I hadn't had a 1 minute per mile positive split (1:32 first half, 1:45 second half of the race), but alas, I would have wondered if I could have held on for long enough. Now I know, I could not with the amount of training I put in. Or rather, did not put in. As my good friend Kass said: "you gotta earn it kid" and she is right. There is no cheating your way to a Boston Marathon qualifier.
As I ran the second loop, I tried to take in the scenery more and just enjoy my surroundings but my impending failure was imminent. After making the turn at mile 7 FINALLY onto the pavement, I was mentally in a better mood but my legs were spent. I put my head down and tried to move forward as quickly as I could. Averaging about 8 minutes/mile the second half was pretty painful. I've run 50+ mile races quicker, but of course I had put in the time and effort to get there. For Millinocket, I did not. I knew this going in, but I tried to shortcut and hope for the best, but I should have known better. After taking nearly 6 months completely off running this summer while we spent time building up our business at the 22 room Maine bed and breakfast Craignair Inn, deep down I knew that I didn't have the endurance or leg speed to make it work. Lesson learned.
In the end, I still ended finishing 7th place overall in 3:18:51, met some new people, and saw a f-ing moose! That alone made the trip and everything all worth it.
After finishing the race, I watched a few finishers, but was too cold to stick around long. I was walking back to my car, literally arms wrapped around myself shivering when someone stopped on the side of the road to offer me a ride back over to the school where everyone was parked, about 1/2 mile down the road. I don't think this was a mere coincidence, but is exactly the community that this race is built around.
The fact that I had my worst race ever (in terms of positive split) should not and does not take anything away from the race itself and how spectacular it was to be able to run a marathon in the winter in Maine with great athletes and beautiful surroundings. I would highly recommend this race and will absolutely do it again next year, and 100% train better too!
Strava data from race here.
Sidenote: the Millinocket House of Pizza is vegan friendly and had some of the best vegan pizza I've ever had! Maybe it was because I was getting post-race hangry, but I doubt it. Great little spot if you're ever in the area, and they even had some delicious beers to go with it!