(Note: All of the photos taken on race day were taken by other people. My phones, and my fake GoPro, all froze. Many thanks to you who took photos – other runners, and Photography By Mike and Far North Photography – for the beautiful photos.)
You know the story of Stone Soup? Where there’s this genesis of an idea, but how? Implementation seems so hard when you have an idea. How do you make it a Thing? How do you make a marathon and half marathon in rural, northern Maine in December a Desirable Thing? Gary Allen made it free, and asked that everyone participating spend the money they would have spent on the race, on local things. Meals, tipping, buying local things, supporting Millinocket. Not asking one single thing of the town. Like Stone Soup, so many people decided they wanted in, and wanted to contribute to make it a Great Thing. And the Greatest Thing is, it’s not just the runners, though it’s them too. They came, they helped organize and implement, they ran, they spent, they BECAME Millinocket. (I might be carried away here… I can only speak for myself.) The locals did too! They were out in full force, enveloping us in this big bear hug (see what I did there?). They made mile markers and made – and continue to make – souvenirs for the visitors, talked and played pool and hung out and danced with and treated us as one of their own, fed us with the most amazing food and the most wonderful smiles. I’m from New England. I know the reputation we have. We’re not friendly, we’re cold, we’re not particularly welcoming to those from Away. SO NOT TRUE. I’m willing to bet that anyone in Millinocket this past weekend would say that’s the furthest thing from the truth.
So many memories. This, my 11th marathon finish, is the hardest race I have ever done. Physically and mentally – and I’m still recovering, days later. (I’m pretty quick at bouncing back post-marathon, usually.)
Before the marathon, the day before – we already started to bond. Being picked up at the airport. Going around town, the course, the mile markers, the craft fair, dinner. The Blue Ox! Oh what a place that is. How much fun the night before. It doesn’t feel like the night before a marathon. It’s cold as hell though, and it’s 7 at night and feels like midnight. But it’s so warm inside. And meeting new friends, it’s so great.
At the official 10 am start, it was 12 with a 2 above zero windchill. I started at 7 am. I took the early start because I knew it would be an early sunset at 3:51, with total darkness by 4:30, and I wanted as much daylight as possible – and I wanted to be done in time to go to the dance party after. I think it was 7 when I started, before the wind chills. I was so surprised to see Pattie maybe a tenth of a mile in… made me happy. She took pics! They are almost the only ones I have. Everything died… phones (even though I carried them close to me), even my GoPro. So I got no pics. All my pics are from other people.
It was hell. The first seven miles, basically, is uphill, and on a road that’s incredibly windy, shady, and long. You are rewarded with amazing views of Mt. Katahdin (that I couldn’t photograph, she was cloaked in white). I’m not sure that was enough for me. Trudged along… alone. As the morning progressed people beeped at me – runners who were driving into town to start at not-slow-people-time. I wondered what they thought of me. It was so cold… so very cold! My thighs and knees and butt. I had a pair of tights and another shirt in the drop bag, and I vowed to put these on before the next loop. As soon as I turned off the Golden Road I used the first portapotty. I almost didn’t leave because it was so nice in there without that wind. (Golden, my ass. Why they didn’t call it the Ice Road…) Turns out I could have followed the Golden Road another 95 miles or so and hit Canada.
(Note – I’m not in these photos or the ones below… they’re just to show you how it looked on the Golden Road, how it was.)
The miles seemed SO long… but when you turn it’s so much better. Mentally I had a picture of this race course and that helped a lot. The next turn mentally felt like the home stretch even though home was a long way away still. I finally did get to the aid station and portapotty at mile 11. There was an aid station set up, and I had some ice water. It was so interesting – how even though it was so cold, and I had my own Tailwind, and it stayed relatively warm (thawed at least), that ice water tasted so good. All day all the ice water tasted so good! Amy came into town on her way to the craft fair and encouraged me. Kate stopped and asked how I was doing and if I needed anything. I didn’t realize Kate was going to be my guardian angel at the time, and I just kind of grunted I was okay, like I’d been doing. I’m not a very nice person when I’m in the middle of a marathon. I’m not a terrible person, I’m just not really shiny and nice and rainbows and butterflies. I’m kind of a mess, a slob, sort of an animal, and I have meltdowns sometimes. Thank God Kate forgave me. Anyhow. I kept wondering when I’d be overtaken by the other runners, the fast ones, the ones who started on time.
It started happening about mile 11.5 or 12. Just as I began to come into town. And as many of them passed me, they shouted back words of encouragement to me. “Great job!” “Keep it up!”. I’m very nearly mortified now… now that I’ve seen myself, and how I looked, “running”, I’m not even sure how these elite superstar fast people even realized I was a runner too. Maybe the same way Great Danes and Chihuahuas know that they are both dogs? Anyhow, then there was the woman who became known as the Cookie Lady and Cookie Hill… she offered me a cookie and – get this, who DOES this – I didn’t take one. I said, “no thank you”. WTH is WRONG with me! This was mile 12.5 or so, I cannot even blame this on marathon brain.
And then there’s the final turn into town… it’s funny, what you remember. There’s this guy talking on the phone outside of one of the houses. He’s loudly complaining about something… and he has this really thick Boston accent. Not Maine (and I can tell the difference, thank you). But real, old style Boston. And my head whips back (in my mind it whipped back, probably it was like a slow, Jabba the Hut style turn of the head) and then he’s going off about people and how no one minds their own business anymore… and I’m thinking, is this aimed at me? So then why yell your conversation outside? Oy. And then that faded behind because there’s the police officer stopping traffic and my Moose Drop In ladies yelling and squealing and jumping up and down and running me in (truth be told I was more like walking), and I remember saying I didn’t know if I could do this again… and one of them told me she’d see me on the next loop and peeled off. Then they all did, and I was left to decide, do I go straight to the finish and call it a successful half, or do I turn the corner and keep going, without confidence that I could really do this. I thought about the other pair of tights. But for that I would have had to take off my gloves… it probably would have taken half an hour. I cried to Leslie and some other people… I don’t know if I can do this again, what should I do… drank some water… and kept going.
Midway up that hill, before the hospital, I thought, hmm. Hospital. This is a good thing. And then I thought, wow. I should just turn around and go back and finish. But I didn’t. Then it was back on the Golden Road. This time with people. And this was so, so hard. The hardest thing ever. At one point we saw this sled pulled by dogs, but I think it was actually an ATV. That was really cool. That damn road. It was only – well, maybe 6 miles. Not even a 10k. But it took forever and felt terrible. So demoralizing. So many people stopped and checked on me. Runners, people in cars. Walked some steps with me, talked to me, took some selfies and told some jokes. Offered gels, beer, warm water, cold water, HotHands. That’s what kept me going. Slow marathoning is such an intensely lonely experience. Every interaction raised my spirits so much. Heidi caught up to me and I could tell she wanted, needed to move ahead, but didn’t want to leave me. So much of this is mental and Golden Road almost defeated me. I can tell because so many people were so concerned. It almost beat me, the cold and wind and neverending uphill and signs of sunshine that never made it to me to warm me, slowed me nearly to paralysis.
And this is where, if I want to be super critical and say this shouldn’t count, or where I feel guilt about it, this is where. Twice I sat in heated cars for a while, after making sure they were in park and that we were not going anywhere. I don’t know how long. Ten or fifteen minutes? In those cars I rearranged and put on more clothes, peeled off my jacket and drank my Tailwind, got new HotHands opened up for me, had a little conversation. Then I went back out. I feel bad about that. I rationalize by thinking, it’s like going to the warming tent or to medical for a little bit during a race, then going back out. But it still feels like weakness. The coldest thing on me was my forehead, just over my eyebrows. I couldn’t pull my hats (yes plural) down enough to reach, and you can’t stick a HotHands on your eyebrows. I had icicles on my eyelashes and eyebrows from condensation from my breathing. Score on the Tailwind though… under my jacket, nearer my body, and blowing back into the tube, I was able to keep it from freezing for the entire marathon.
The forest is LOUD. Especially when you are alone! I have no idea what makes such noises. I didn’t want to look… I kept looking and seeing nothing. But things were there.
The home stretch… only 10k left and it took SO LONG. During this time on Millinocket Lake Road, it got dark. There were no more aid stations. I had a headlamp and a kickass reflective jacket, so I was prepared.
(reflective running jacket)
My friend Jenny passed me and made me take a Huma gel. It was good. Mango. I was so happy to see her, and spend some time walking with and talking to her. I was so glad she was doing this race, it’s been a tough year for her. Holly and other people stopped for me… I was so afraid they’d get hit. One woman – I don’t know her name but she wanted to help so badly. She offered me a ride and I said no, she said, yes I know your pride and everything but it’s getting so cold… but I was like, I’m at mile 23. She wanted to do something. She kept asking if I was drinking enough. If I wanted a whoopie pie. Which I desperately did, but couldn’t take anything without removing my face mask, and couldn’t stuff in my Sparkle pocket without removing my ski gloves. (Note to Gu, Sport Beans and others: You need to have a cold weather formula. One that doesn’t freeze, and one that you can open with astronaut hands.) So she settled on a knit infinity scarf that she double layered over my neoprene face mask which was over my original balaclava, giving me essentially a cervical collar. I couldn’t move my neck and I had to look a sight. But it sure kept me warm, I’ll say that!
And then Angel Kate came again, and suggested – emphatically – that I run in front of her vehicle, and she would go slowly and be behind me, to keep me safer and more visible. I took her up on it – also, it’s weird. This part of the road… it can feel really scary. Creepy scary. When you are all alone on it after dark. It was so good to know I wasn’t alone and someone was looking after me. Even though we weren’t talking or anything since I was in front of her and she was in the truck. I had to go to the bathroom, had for miles. I was way too cold to use the portapotty (the mile 11 pit stop was gone but the portapotty remained). My gloves were beginning to get stiff and my fingers were cold despite liners and HotHands. I didn’t need those heat packs the first loop, but by the middle of the second I sure did. I told Kate I was going to try to use Saw Mill Bar and Grill. I felt awful asking to use their bathroom, but I was desperate. Kate waited. So I went in, and told the waitress I know I was like only two miles from finishing but the portapotties were done (there weren’t any more after that pit stop) and had to go, could I please use their bathroom. The waitress said of course, and I went and used it. It took so long, much longer than anticipated. Three layers on the bottom half and trying to get it so it didn’t chafe, then trying to tuck shirts into each layer – my hands and arms were beginning to fail at dexterity. But I got myself together and exited.
What did I exit to! This is something I wish, I wish I could do-over. Or at least see it from outside. This is a blur. I can barely believe it happened. I came out of that bathroom and it was like that end scene in Titanic, when she’s old and is either dreaming or she died, and all the people are there applauding her. All these people in Saw Mill – all standing there, giving me a standing ovation, high fiving me, cheering me, congratulating me. A lot of these people were runners, I could tell, and I was so embarrassed because I hadn’t even finished yet. And I was trying to tell them, don’t high five me, don’t congratulate me, I’m not done. Someone said, “I know”, and I was wondering why everyone was cheering me then. I still can’t figure that part out. I thought I might have died but I was in too much pain, I thought, I can’t be actually dead and still hurt this much. I also don’t know how these people knew who I was. Kate said she didn’t say anything. I sure didn’t say anything. Being DFL is not something you brag about. And then I was leaving and a man approached me and tried to give me money and – and I feel SO bad about this so someone please, if you know him, please tell him, I didn’t know who he was or what he was doing, it was all a blur, I didn’t understand, and thank you so much for what you did – I waved it away. I thought – I don’t know what I thought, I had no idea why someone would be trying to give me money. So I completely failed to recognize and appreciate $2 Bill Guy. Kate told me a little about him and took the $2 bill from him for me, because I was too much of an idiot to do it myself.
Kate followed me a little longer, then she went to get Heidi, who had been recovering from her own super badass marathon (that she finished hours ahead of me) at the hotel; they were back in a flash. By this time I was in town and about to go onto Bowdoin, where it was well lighted and there were plenty of houses to go to if I needed to, but I was a mile out at this point, so I waved them ahead. The uphill on Bowdoin didn’t seem as bad this time. The Cookie Hill downhill was much worse though! As I summited, a woman stood on her porch calling to me, asking if I needed to come in and warm up a little before continuing. I thanked her but said no, I just need to be done. The last few miles, that’s all I need… to be done. The finish line. It was so very kind of her to offer. That’s the kind of town this is. You can leave your car running and go to a store and it’ll still be there when you get back. You can offer sitting in your car to some random runner stranger and be confident nothing will happen to you. You can be the random runner stranger and get into cars with other strangers and nothing will happen to you. This is what I love, this is what I miss with my heart and soul. This is why I didn’t want to leave, and why I’d like to stay. This is Millinocket.
And on Penobscot, on my way back in… another woman, in a jeep, short hair and a fluffy dark jacket, stops and says something encouraging. And says she’ll buy me a drink at Blue Ox after I cross the finish line. I grunt something affirmative and cheery (I hope – see above about my lack of congeniality during marathons), but don’t think anything about it. Remember this, though. And then she drives off and there’s the intersection and all the cars are lined up – they have the right of way but no one’s moving, they’re all honking, but it’s not pissed off honking, it’s cheering me on! There’s two dozen people, more, on the corner of Central Ave. and there’s Tricia and my Moose Drop friends and they are surrounding me, escorting me. What the what! There are SO many people. Who are these people, what are they doing, it’s COLD! Heidi and Kate I knew, but the others… wow. These people came BACK for me, or never left at all. They’re cheering me and chanting my name and then there’s a high five person chute to run through and they all follow me as I run up the hill (this was UP! why was the finish UP!?) to the finish line and then there’s Gary, he’s clocked my finish time.
And I’m surrounded by so many people and they are all happy and some of them I remember and some of them I don’t and I’m sorry, it was a blur and it was dark and then a man comes forward and gives me a prize for being last, a homemade jar of Maine blueberry jam from his wife. I am amazed and speechless and so… wow. Someone commands that we have to go inside NOW, so we go to Blue Ox and people are cheering and buying me drinks and congratulating me and best of all, letting me sit down. And this woman, remember I said to remember her, the one with the short hair and the fluffy jacket, we talk a while, her and Kate and me and Jenny and her husband and some other people whom I can’t remember, and the fluffy jacket lady says she’s going to go, and when I hug her goodbye, she says to me, “Welcome home. Welcome home.” And this is what I carry with me the most from the weekend. She got it right. Home. This is home.
And wow. It didn’t stop there. Tricia came through again, taking care of us and arranging for us the best postrace dinner I’ve ever eaten. The hot tub. The dance party. I wasn’t really up for it like I thought I would be… I think I was still in something of body shock. But oh how I wanted to party it up and hang! The next morning. I didn’t want it to end. And at breakfast, it didn’t. Talking with the other runners. The fellowship. The respect.
So many people to thank. So much I didn’t realize at the time it was happening, and how much of an impact it had on my psyche. This is partly my attempt to rectify that, because I feel badly that I didn’t appreciate – or have the faculties to express appreciation – at the time.
Obviously, Gary Allen. Rockstar race director. Gary likes to use the metaphor of tossing pebbles (stones?) into a pond. Michelle, who kept the energy going with her support group!
People who were there for me, who were friends going in and who were also strangers going in but friends coming out. Alisha and Tanya, who started out giving me a ride from the airport but ended up hanging out and eating dinner together and driving the course setting up mile markers in the cold – immeasurable bonding there… Heidi and Kate. I’ve known and loved Heidi for a while… she inspires me so much, always. Like I’m the never good enough little sister who always tries to emulate her big sister. (Even though the only way Heidi is bigger than me is height and leg length.) So much Kate, who came with Heidi and helped me immeasurably. Helping me dress in adding layers, do I need anything, letting me sit in her warm car for a while after the second Golden Road, following me slowly on Millinocket Lake/Bates in the dark. Amy, who came up with the idea of a chase car. Leslie, who volunteered in the cold, let me melt down a little and then encouraged me during the transition to the second loop, and then went to check on me. And kept doing so. Pattie, keeping track of me. Jodi, with your finish line video and Michelle with the support group for us! (I think we may need a postrace support group now…)
People who had no idea that they were instinctively giving me what I needed at the time – and I didn’t realize it either. I am an extrovert. A really extreme one. And every encounter buoyed me, helped me go on. People on the course who offered their warm vehicles to sit in for a few minutes. Warm water. Gu and beans and hand warmers. People who didn’t know me at all, weren’t there for me but took it upon themselves to look after me anyhow. You runners who walked a few steps, yards, or quarter mile with me during the times I was really struggling – who were really concerned whether I was okay. Holly, Bryan, Firefighter Steve from Philly, the runners whose names escape me or whose names I never knew, and all the other people who finished their races and drove by to check on me, offer me things. The lady who wanted to help do anything, in any way… whoopie pies, hand warmers, water. Who ended up wrapping a beautiful infinity scarf around my neck. The people at Saw Mill Bar and Grill, who when I came out of the bathroom, gave me a standing ovation and congratulated me (“but I haven’t finished yet! don’t congratulate me yet!”). I am so sorry I didn’t understand what you were doing or your significance, $2 Bill Guy. I do now. The people who honked as they drove by and shouted encouraging words out the window. The cookie lady – I think it was you – who offered me a cookie the first loop, and stupid me didn’t take one, then called to me from your porch to ask if I needed to come in and get warm for a few minutes.
Tricia and her Moose Drop In crowd. Tricia… you are amazing. How you do it all is beyond me. I am in awe of you. Forget about me (and all the super amazing things you did, like long before I ever came to Millinocket, special order shirts in my size and patiently deal with my in and out of the country connectivity issues, watching for me and escorting me and finding me on the course and halting traffic and sending your minions out and checking on me, and making everyone in the Moose Drop In leave so everyone could cheer me as I came in oh so late at the end, and making sure we were taken care of for food – omg this Ruthie’s food!!!)… what you did, do, have done and continue to do for this race and for this town… you may have been overwhelmed but you handled everything with a smile, and with wit and wisdom and I love you.
People in the end… all these people. I think there were dozens of you and I cannot recognize or thank you personally. The ones who were a safety net for me, who watched over me from afar, from your cars as you drove past, from your aid stations wondering where the last sighting of me was, from phone calls to one another making sure I was still okay, from the craft fair and from town. The ones who I have no idea who you were but you were there and because you were there I had a real finish for the first time in who knows how long. I have never ever had a caboose award, and this time I won. I can’t wait to eat that blueberry jam. You cheered me when I walked into the Blue Ox. You bought me drinks. You made me feel like I had done something worthy… when all I am is really just a slow-ass runner who happens to also be stubborn.
This woman. In a jeep, on Penobscot, you stopped and cheered me on, said you’d buy me a drink at the Blue Ox after I finished. I probably mumbled something unintelligible in response. But after the finish, in the Blue Ox, you were there, and you brought me a Fireball, and before you left you hugged me and said something to me that makes my heart so full. It’s like you KNEW. You said “welcome home”. I still think of this all the time. I feel like I have a place, like when I am there, I belong. Thank you for that. That acceptance, your instincts.
Two days later, after the coldest, hardest race most of us had ever experienced and ever will, the race director reports that the race is already almost at capacity for the numbers that were limited this year, for next year (unless he expands registration). I’m registered.