“We started very organically in the pre-internet era. It was sometime around 1991. There were 4 or 5 of us in the car on the highway en route to some race. That’s when we spotted them on the highway–the crows–and it really made us reflect on their existence. They were fearless, edgy, and hungry in this environment. In fact, they were a little bit smarter than you thought they were too. For us that day, we identified with their symbol. And we knew that other runners wanted to identify with the deeper meaning of the symbol too. So we nicknamed ourselves the “road crows” and it became more formal when we established the organization behind the Mount Desert Island Marathon. That’s how the story began.” -Gary Allen
It’s typically fitting to introduce Gary Allen through individual accomplishments–like the 700 miles he ran from the top of Cadillac Mountain on Mount Desert Island to Washington, D.C., for President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in January 2013. Yet, there is an even more compelling side to Allen. For his work as the co-founder of Crow Athletics, he has been hailed as one of the “most creative minds and race directors” in the running community. And in conversing with him, you notice a certain prescience in the way he introduces the ideas and principles for his organization. The success of his latest creation, the “Millinocket Marathon”, has locally revolutionized the strategy for social and economic renewal in former mill-towns and possibly introduced a cultural shift within the running community as a whole. For many, the idiosyncrasies of his running imagination could not have arrived in a more consequential period for the state of Maine.
I had the privilege of speaking with Allen over the phone last week about his most recent work in our running community. This week’s blog post reflects that conversation.
The Golden Road (To Unlimited Devotion)
“The Golden Road” is a 96 mile-long logging track stretching north from Millinocket to the Canadian border. Built by the now-defunct Great Northern Paper Company during the late 1960s and early 1970s to deliver raw materials from the North Woods directly to their factories, the road’s namesake is often attributed to the immediate access to abundant natural resources for the nearby timber industry. But similar to Millinocket’s monicker as the “Magic City”, the Golden Road’s distinction in today’s economy evokes a forlorn, frustrated hope for so many locals who wonder when, or even whether, the town will become great once again.
The path to revitalization has been hotly contested, with debate in recent years centering over proposals that could alter the historical characterization of a region that has been defined by the paper industry since the turn of the 20th century. So when Allen reflects on the organic, grassroots support for the Millinocket Marathon, the unified crowds during the 2016 rendition on this section of the course stands out as one of the most iconic moments.
“[The 2016 event] had one of the most nerve-racking, pre-race build-ups that I have ever experienced because we didn’t have the logistical blueprint for an event like this. Who would show up? Would we disappoint the community? When I think about it, the magnitude of community pride for this event was demonstrated by the local turnout on the remote and rugged sections of the Golden Road. These were hostile conditions to race, let alone spectate in. The solidarity here between the runners and fans was something special.”
The Horses Still Wanna Run
50 years ago, Millinocket was the definition of a “boomtown”. As one of America’s leading centers for paper production, prosperity was ubiquitous here. But the gradual shuttering of the mills, caused in part by increased international competition and incremental changes in industry policy, drove the region to destitution. Witnessing the fade didn’t sit well with Allen.
“I just couldn’t get it out of my head, couldn’t live with myself without doing something. We weren’t talking about a third-world country, we were talking about an area just down the road. We were talking about our neighbors. So I asked myself, ‘what am I good at?’ Well, maybe I could get a bunch of people to go run. The no race fee would mean ‘just go run and please spend some money’. I told my runner friends: ‘tip 100 percent when you’re in Millinocket’. It made a difference.”
From the 2015 edition, the first annual running of the race which Allen described as a “flash-mob” appearance of 40 or 50 runners, he recounted the poignant post-race scene of an emotionally-stricken local woman who was watching the racers pack up. Allen approached her, wondering whether any of the runners had given her trouble.
“No”, she answered. “I’m a single mom and this race has given me the money to afford Christmas presents for my children.”
There were additional reports that servers made more on marathon weekend than they did all winter season, but that particular moment sealed the deal for a return the following year. Allen vowed to make the 2016 edition a real wave, using all the tools and networks at his disposal to recruit more runners to come.
Registration for the 2016 edition would balloon to nearly 1,000 runners who didn’t just show up to run. They filled up hotels, patronized businesses and restaurants, and generally immersed themselves in the culture. In the process, they built a lasting relationship with the area. Allen said the legendary generosity of the runners was matched by the locals who took pride in the event and came out in force to support the runners.
“Millinocket is the ‘Magic City’ and what’s transpired here these past two years has absolutely been magical. When it was all over, there was this sort of “hand-slap to the forehead” moment because we realized how successful and important the race had become. It’s a worthwhile model that activates people’s kind hearts while empowering the locals, you know? We might have been overcomplicating some of the steps needed to get this town back on track. The horses still wanna run.”
The New Paradigm
With the stunning scenery of the Mount Desert Island Marathon and the remoteness of the Great Cranberry Island Run, Allen has already established his genius in the realm of “adventure” and “destination” races. And as a gateway to the Allagash Wilderness, Appalachian Trail, Mount Katahdin, and the newly formed Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument, you could classify Millinocket in those same fields. But Allen likely represents the vanguard for another brand at work here, one that could dramatically shift the focus of the race-directing industry towards work in community restoration. Neither of us were aware of any precedent for this kind of race, especially at this level of magnitude. Explaining the rapid mobilization behind his latest race, Allen felt he was simply articulating and acting on a sentiment already shared by many runners.
“Something is in the works. Is it a concept that’s’ light years ahead of the current racing scene? Perhaps. But it’s not about being the pioneer, it’s about touching the community that’s closest to home. I’m noticing a demand to move beyond the bling and the bigger medals. People want to run for stuff now. They want to be a part of something that makes a difference. This right here might be the new paradigm moving forward.”
With all the economic uncertainty in rural Maine, Allen senses a cottage industry in the works that could transform an entire region of former mill towns through innovative development.
“As far as the language of tourism goes, we need a new term: participation tourism. In the traditional sense, if it’s rural, you want to look at a mountain or view. If it’s urban, you want to experience the art, the cuisine, the nightlife. But I think for us endurance runners, we want to participate, we want to feel what’s under our feet, and we want sweat running down the brow in the process, you know? We want to become part of the landscape, not just look at it.”
Allen proudly highlights the grassroots influence of this race with the fact that the 1,500th person to register for the 2017 race is from Switzerland. Whether this person shows up is somewhat irrelevant, he advises, because the essential benefit is the power of conversation and that fact that the race is generating positive worldwide recognition for the Katahdin region again.
The Capital of Endurance Running
All of this talk begs the question: can this concept of restoration through racing be presented to the general public and other struggling mill towns across the state as mode for reliable economic development? And if so, is there room for expansion to, say, Monson for the 100 Mile Wilderness, Presque Isle for Aroostook State Park, or Rumford for Grafton Notch? Road and Trail Marathons are growing in popularity by the year. Recent data show that 500,000 runners finished a marathon in 2012. And the Maine Sports Commission has recently estimated that individual runners spend between $130 and $200 for races the size of Millinocket. That means upwards of $200,000 can be spent over the course of a race weekend, without factoring the spending trends of family, friends, and race crew. In recent weeks, Allen has fielded calls from community development officials across the state on this topic, and certainly thinks it could work.
“I think these endurance races speak to a deeper human need. That might be why we see the uptick in the number of marathon finishers you noted. I just think there is something built into our DNA that requires moving beyond the nice job or home for greater achievement and existential fulfillment. And you know what? Maine is the perfect place for this. We could be the capital for endurance running, if we wanted.”
Many runners here dream big about the next great “exotic” place to race and journey on in Maine. Interestingly, when asked about the idea of branching out from the roads into the market for trail and mountain running, Allen said that everything is on the table, that he really loves it all, but that there are core principles to maintain along the way.
“It’s tough to say when or if I will start another new one, because the environment has to speak to me–the vision has to be amazing in my mind. I’ll know something is in order if I see a map, a landmark, or a finish line, and think ‘woah, where can we put the starting line in order to get here?’ That tends to be how these ideas flow. “
For admirers of his course creativity, Allen is without a doubt the iconoclast in an era where many race directors appear content with a contrived course that technically constitutes the marathon distance. So I finally asked Allen how aspiring race directors and visionaries for this kind of development could replicate his venture in Millinocket. He remains adamant that most runners are ready to move beyond the material for something greater.
“Don’t worry about the t-shirts or the medals–we already have closets full of those in this sport–just focus on making the event your own. Toss a couple ideas in a still pond–and wait for the ripple. Look at the natural features in your town or region. If you have a structure, or landmark in your town that you stopped really seeing, but that when someone gets here they notice–it’s pretty important. These days, runners, cyclists, snowshoers are looking for a combination of challenge, competition, and natural experience to round out their race day. Maine has all of that to offer. Proceed from that vantage point.”