The Magic City is a mystical place of incredible, humbling beauty, where the rivers run clear, the trees are tall and plentiful, and the mountain ranges and landscape are vast. It is also a place of extraordinary opportunity: to have a high quality of life, to raise a family, to hunt and fish and hike. Never heard of it?
How about a small town in Northern Maine called Millinocket? The name means “the land of many islands” in the language of the native Penobscot people. It is surrounded by lakes and rivers and sits in the shadows of Katahdin, the “greatest mountain”. It is about as stunning a setting as one could imagine or even invent.
In the early 1900’s, the town of Millinocket sprung practically fully formed from the depths of the dense, wild woods to become a thriving paper mill town. Because of its virtually spontaneous creation and rapid growth it came to be known as the Magic City.
The views of Katahdin from Millinocket and the natural wonders and wilderness setting of the Katahdin region are enough to earn it the magic moniker. For a time, the bounty afforded by the papermaking world of the Great Northern Paper (GNP) Company was also magical. For years, Millinocket boasted the highest per capita income in the state. There were papermakers balls, an opera house and movie theatre, open access to GNP land for hunting and fishing, and the guarantee of a lucrative job waiting for high school graduates. At its peak, GNP was the largest landowner in Maine.
If you have heard of Millinocket at all, chances are you’ve mainly read the dire headlines about how tough they’ve had it there since the paper industry, the one industry in town for a century, foundered and eventually closed in 2008. U.S. Census data reveals that Millinocket’s population increased rapidly through the 1970s and has declined each decade since. The balls and opera house were long gone by the 1990s when I first showed up there. Now so too are the jobs and the tax base. And, swiftly, the hope, many of the young people, and much of the magic have drained from the region.
But this is a story about finding hope in unexpected places. And the Millinocket of the past decade, with its bleak headlines, empty storefronts, vacant homes, and abundant for sale and for rent signs, surely is a place where hope has been more difficult to find.
However, in 2015, Gary Allen, a Mainer from the coast, had an idea. And that idea was to hold a Marathon. In Millinocket. In December.
That’s right. 26.2 miles in a relatively remote part of Northern Maine where the weather graph looks like this:
Because of Allen’s connections in the running world, 50 people ran in 2015. But it wasn’t only runners who showed up that day. The people of Millinocket did, too. And with that, a new connection, a new relationship, was formed, and Gary Allen’s idea became a spark that has transformed in the intervening years to become one of the small wins this region, this town, desperately needed.
The Millinocket Marathon and a Half is now a certified USATF course. The race will take place on Saturday, December 8, 2018, for the fourth consecutive year. It is the only marathon that takes place in New England during the winter and it is fully subscribed with over 2,400 people registered to run. No entry fee is charged for this Boston Marathon qualifying event. Race organizers hope that instead racers and their fans will spend money in the town. The concept is: “Don’t Run Millinocket for What You Get; Run Millinocket for What You Give”.
Meanwhile, being the Mainers that they are, the locals dove right in to welcome the runners. They have organized an Artisan Fair with over 45 crafters. There are spaghetti and pancake dinners planned, a variety show, and a pre-marathon breakfast. Multiple local establishments are hosting parties after the marathon as well. If you want to see Millinocket and northern Maine hospitality shine brightly, this is an amazing opportunity to do so.
This marathon is a vote of support and an influx of interest and money just when the town needs it most. It’s a remarkable demonstration of what a little idea, some hope and determination, and a few connections can make happen. Kind of like magic. Just think what could happen if we all thought, every day, about what we could give versus what we could get.