By Ryan Collins, special to the BDN
Winning the Millinocket Marathon was never the goal. I arrived to help boost a region rich in history and natural beauty that has provided my family and friends with a lifetime full of adventures.
Summiting Katahdin via the Knife’s Edge and swimming at Blueberry Ledges in Baxter State Park, rafting the Penobscot River and getting dumped in the Cribworks with the New England Outdoor Center, trying to take pictures of moose eating dinner while avoiding mosquito swarms on the Golden Road and eating too much at Nugent’s Camps on the Allagash Wilderness Waterway have cultivated in me a deep connection to this place. When there is a chance to pack up and head north to Millinocket, I don’t think twice.
When I heard of the Millinocket Marathon, I rushed to sign up, thinking this would be another great adventure, a way to get in some miles and to spend some cash in Millinocket, as suggested by race director wizard and native Mainer, Gary Allen.
My first marathon was Boston in 2005. Then, I was taking time off from college and my father suggested we run to raise money for the Liver Foundation — his dad had recently died of liver disease. When I finished that marathon, I knew it was a special achievement.
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Over the past decade, I have trained and raced on-and-off, always allowing life to get in the way. All the while, I have had an inkling that running was my sport, understanding that the longer I go, the stronger I perform. From early on, I have always watched with awe the marathon and the athletes that stride for 26.2 miles, sometimes being conquered and sometimes doing the conquering. Since moving to Portland over the summer, I have been running a lot — up to 90 miles a week — with a great running community that has helped the mileage to pile up quickly.
As race day came closer, and the noise grew, the thought of a long run in the woods and drinking beer in a local watering hole became a chance to run with a world-class ultra marathoner, Michael Wardian, and to take part in a party of a lifetime thrown by the people of Millinocket.
After the cannon went off and we turned onto the Golden Road, I started to realize how cold the day was going to be. At mile four or five, I also realized that I had never seen Katahdin this way — ominously shrouded in snow and wrapped in temperatures dipping far below freezing. Coming through mile 10, I ran alongside Michael Wardian and Matt Garfield, and the wind we faced on the way out helped us click off the miles heading back toward Millinocket. At no point were we alone on the course; residents and business owners of Millinocket offered water, Gatorade, beeping horns and heartfelt cheers. We looked at each other with appreciation.
At mile 18, I was cold, beat up by the wind and trying to refuel with energy gels that were unhelpfully frozen. After another four miles, I repeated in my head “This is supposed to be hard!” like a mantra. I took the lead at mile 22, and I ran the last 4.2 miles in terror — assuming I was going to crash — and astonishment of how the day was unfolding. Turning onto Penobscot Avenue in downtown Millinocket, I was greeted with cheers and a block party atmosphere. I could not contain myself. I whooped like a madman. I was running as hard as I could out of sheer joy. I felt like a kid crossing the finish line, more energized than before the race started. Someone put a first place medal around me, and I was greeted by my sweetheart, Sasha Mackey, and close friend, Darren Fishell — we did not believe it.
After the race, we did Millinocket right. We stopped at the Scootic In Restaurant for pizza and beer, we stopped at the art fair buying incredible pieces created by the local talent, such as woodworker Tim Messier and nature photographer Mark Picard. We went back to the Baxter Park Inn, and we enjoyed the heated pool and cozy hotel room, along with steaming hot showers. In the evening, we continued celebrating at the New England Outdoor Center’s River Driver’s Restaurant, where I was given an impromptu congratulatory chocolate cake, more beers than I could consume, and a permit — scrawled on a napkin — to cut down a Christmas tree in Millinocket to take home. To top off the night, we stopped at the Blue Ox Saloon to share beers and two helpings of sausage and eggs at 1 a.m. with the late-night revelers.
It was cold, it was hard, it was perfect. I came to boost a community, but I walked away feeling like a million bucks. I won my first marathon and qualified for the Boston Marathon in a place that was already bursting with memories, and I celebrated a place with people who welcomed us in a way that made it hard to leave.
Cheers to Millinocket. I will remember this one for a while, or until I am back in 2017 when it is colder, bigger and better than ever.
Ryan Collins is the winner of the 2016 Millinocket Marathon and competes with Dirigo Running Club. He lives in Portland. Registration for the free 2017 Millinocket Marathon opened Monday.