Milestone Miler

In its 35th year, the oldest continuously run marathon in the state is famously downhill, especially in those end miles when runners of the 15K race join in and follow the valley road along the Carrabassett River to Kingfield.

At 4:30 a.m. the alarm starts its tune. It’s May and the weather has been wacky. We’re up in typically cool mountain climes, but the thermometer reached the 90s a couple days ago. It’s been a weather rollercoaster lately.

On this dawning day, just as light is coming across the Sugarloaf peaks, the air is in the chill 30s. I make hot oatmeal and step outside to test the warmth of my gear. Leg warmers and an extra shirt are needed on the way to the starting line. To get there, I join the sleepy crowd wearing sweatshirts and pinned-on race numbers in the lobby at the Sugarloaf Mountain Hotel.

In turn, we board a fleet of school buses that is picking up runners for the Sugarloaf Marathon and 15K. Each takes passengers to either the marathon’s start at Cathedral Pines Campground in Eustis, or the 15K’s start at Ayotte’s Country Store in Carrabassett Valley.

It’s my first time at this mountain race, and I’m here for the 15K, which joins the marathon route for the last 9.3 miles as runners make their way from the store to a park in downtown Kingfield. While everyone’s warming up with short jogs or stretching, I hear the steady rumble of an engine and watch as a small biplane rises up from the valley’s regional airport across the street. The sky is bright and clear, and I realize that I’m lucky to be bouncing around trying to keep warm early in the morning in a parking lot with mountain views.

Known as a beautiful and fast route with plenty of downhill sections, this increasingly popular run sold out in preregistration. The 1,600 participants for 2017 arrived from 41 states, plus Canada and Guatemala, and the number of runners here for the weekend is just shy of the number of year-round residents in the towns where we’ll run the final miles, Carrabassett Valley and Kingfield.

Cathedral Walk, Valley Stops, and Nachos

Arriving the day before the race to pick up my race number and t-shirt, I immediately set out in the sunshine to do some exploring with photographer Peter Frank Edwards along the marathon route, which follows the main road through the valley. Outdoor adventure possibilities dot Route 27 for dozens of miles, including at Sugarloaf and a segment of the Appalachian Trail. At the village of Stratton we follow along the shoreline of Flagstaff Lake and the snaking causeway that crosses the reservoir lake— near the boat landing and access point for the Northern Forest Canoe Trail—and we continue the drive into a wooded area in Eustis where the trees are so tall that the road looks like a tunnel of shade. Finally, a little more than 26 miles from Kingfield, we reach the starting point at the Cathedral Pines Campground.

Several other cars have pulled over here, too, and I notice many running-garb- wearing passengers wandering about just like us. Some are inspecting a history marker about Benedict Arnold’s pre-traitor- era stop when he rested his army here in  the 1770s on the way to an attack on Quebec City. A trailhead across the street is where I want to head next. The two-mile loop is Cathedral Pines Pathways, and it’s no misnomer. Mature red pines tower straight up toward the sky, and the trail surface is unpaved, naturally cushioned forest floor.

I immediately know that it will be a perfect surface for running. So I change shoes and go for a short jog, happy to be alone with my pre-race thoughts and surrounded by such majestic trees and quiet. All the while, I’m breathing deeply for more of the piney, energizing air.

On the return to Carrabassett Valley, we stop at the busy Mountainside Grocers for peanut butter, oatmeal, and bananas to add to the coffee I’ve brought for breakfast. The place is packed with more of the running crowd, and everyone’s walking the aisles looking eager to find something—sports drinks, bagels, or whatever else is each person’s ritual, before-the-race foods. Some runners eat nothing in the morning, but I’ll have to have something wholesome for energy. At least that’s what I tell myself as I make my purchases.

A couple hours later, after we notice a band playing on the deck at the Sugar Bowl, my prerace food regimen gets more lenient. We end up ordering nachos and eating every last cheese-dripping chip from a platter-sized, piled-high plateful, along with a couple of pints of Shipyard beer. I’m still mulling over whether nachos and beer were a good choice to fuel me for the run when I talk with Casey Hoatson, 29, whose family had shared an order, too. She casually mentions that she’ll be running the marathon. (I’m vindicated!)

Her dad and brother, Tom and Zack Hoatson, are the two musicians who are finishing a rendition of “Free Bird” with guitar solos and the famously long song’s crescendos. Her mother, Kim Hoatson, is also there, and tells me that the family has owned a house for several years off the Sugarloaf Access Road that they use for active weekend pursuits including skiing, snowboarding, and trips year-round. “It’s the best place on the planet,” Casey says, and then talks of Tufulio’s Restaurant, another favorite food and drink place in the valley that they’d also like to get to that night. “Dad, you can’t play much longer,” she calls out. “We’ve got marathon runners who need to eat dinner!”

Sugarloaf Springs For It

“The Race,” is what Carrabassett Valley town manager Dave Cota calls it. He’s run it about 15 times with his sister, Jeanine Cota May, brother, Ken Cota, and other family and friends. And he says it’s practically a rite of spring for the community. Just as the fruit trees are blossoming in orchards and meadows, and the tulips are blooming in the yards of historic houses in Kingfield, the weekend crowd of visiting runners gives a boost to the local economy between the ski season and summertime.

Local residents dig in and help to make it all happen each year. Sugarloaf and
its employees join with individual volunteers, businesses, local schools, clubs, and organizations to pull the Sugarloaf Marathon and 15K together. That includes dozens of people from the towns of Carrabassett Valley, Eustis, and Kingfield who spend the day before the race picking up trash from both sides of the road along the entire 26.2-mile race length. “The clean-up effort itself has become a big community gathering,” he explains. “As many as 60 volunteers clean up the roadside and then celebrate with a barbecue at the Carrabassett Valley Town Park that afternoon.”

In all, Cota says, it’s a great community event that brings hundreds of people to the area to race, “and for what may be their first trip to the western Maine mountains.”

Tom Butler, the director of skier services at Sugarloaf, is another fan of the event. He has run in the 15K before and says the course is memorable and spectacular, especially since runners get so many views along the Carrabassett River, which he notes is “wicked pretty” in May. The course includes some of his personal favorite spots and stretches on Route 27, he says, including what locals call the “dancing tree” that bends over the river, a seasonal waterfall along the rock face at the Ira Mountain bridge, the Kingfield town sign, and “the evil little incline” just past the DOT lot around mile eight of the 15K.

Running in Sun, with Stars

I’ll get to know the sting of that final hill during my own running of the 15K. My strategy is to lean forward for as much free fall as possible during the elevation- descending run—the finish is touted as about 300 feet lower than the start. And every time there’s a table of volunteers handing out water and Gatorade, I make a point to slow down enough to take a cup and at least have a tiny sip. This is both to hydrate and to give me incremental goals. I’ve run 10Ks and a few half-marathon races, but haven’t tried the much less common race length of 9.3 miles before. My goal isn’t speed, but to have a good time and to finish feeling good.

Along the way, besides enjoying the scenery that’s glinting and warming up in the sunshine, I get into the rhythm of running with a line of other runners of all shapes, sizes, and ages. I also think of the superior Maine runners who gathered even earlier this morning, under the tall pines for the marathon’s start. Olympic gold medal marathoner Joan Benoit Samuelson is in that group, and she’s celebrating her 60th birthday by running with marathoner Michael Westphal, who’s also turning 60. The two have been friends for decades. They both grew up on Maine’s coast and became friends through Westphal’s sister, Joan Westphal, also an excellent runner. “He was a track standout,” Benoit Samuelson says, “and his sister was my biggest competitor.”

Westphal, who runs even though he faces the challenges of Parkinson’s disease, explains that when Benoit Samuelson saw that he was running again in the Boston Marathon in 2016, she said, “I’ve never run a marathon in Maine, and when I do, I want it to be with you.”

At Sugarloaf, an injury kept him from being ready for the marathon, so he opted to run the 15K portion while raising money and awareness for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, something he’s done through a series of runs. Meanwhile, even though “Joanie” is a familiar face on personal training runs on Maine’s southern coast and at the TD Beach to Beacon race that she helped found in Cape Elizabeth, it’s the elite runner’s first-ever marathon in Maine, and she’s also running it to help raise funds for the Michael J. Fox Foundation.

I’m inspired by this friendship and by Westphal’s determination. He’s living his life to the fullest. In the post-race festivities at a grassy field in Kingfield, his smile and warmth quickly make any tremors caused by Parkinson’s irrelevant as he greets new friends and old.

A few yards away, I have the chance to meet the fastest woman in the marathon, Leah Frost from Portland, who tells me that she and her partner camped the night before. “We froze in a tent in Cathedral Pines, and I didn’t get much sleep,” she says, adding that it was 32 degrees at the Eustis start. “But it’s beautiful here. It was worth it.”

Kingfield’s Artful Finish

After returning to the Sugarloaf condo to change clothes, I want to see some more of Kingfield before we head home. I’m still wearing my race medal when we get to Longfellow’s Restaurant and sit for a lunch of lobster rolls and a Thai quinoa salad on the sunny deck overlooking the rushing Carrabassett River—a couple of people are fly fishing out there.

Also in town, we step into Red Barn Upcycled Market that’s at one end of the blue-painted, circa-1918 Herbert Grand Hotel and check out the interesting wares, including antique silver, sap buckets, earrings fashioned from found feathers, and sparkling necklaces made with pieces of chandeliers.

Then we notice the barn door open at the Stadler Gallery on Main Street and stop to have a look. Owner and artist Ulrike Stadler greets us and explains the gallery won’t officially open until June, but that we’re welcome to look around while she and her intern, Kingfield native Tatiana Maxsimic, are busy with some organizing (Stadler) and painting (Maxsimic).

Stadler is a petite presence in the massive wooden barn filled with precisely stacked woodpiles and sketches, sculptures, and tall paintings of people, landscapes, and flowers. Born in Germany, she tells us in a still-thick accent that she moved first to New York City in the 1960s and then to Maine in the 1980s to create her works here in this commodious barn in Kingfield.

It’s a finish of a different sort to end the running trip with fine art, but as we drive off, I consider that in a span of two days and 40 degrees around Sugarloaf, I’ve run in the Cathedral woods and along a river valley with hundreds of other people from across the country, and then stood looking at Stadler’s art while the barn doors and windows are open wide to the fresh mountain air. What a terrific way to celebrate spring, invigorated from physical exertion and inspired to keep waking up early and following dreams.