The MDI Marathon--Extraordinary Natural Beauty Gives You the Most Scenic Distance Run in the USA
The Mount Desert Island Marathon runs the most beautiful marathon course in the United States. It is presented in the best possible running tradition—a challenging and unbelievably gorgeous point-to-point. The MDI Marathon tours spectacular Down East Maine and a storied island everyone wants to visit.
Posted Saturday, 28 August, 2004
Mount Desert Island: “Everything naturally beautiful on this continent is right here along this course,” said a veteran marathoner following a tour of the island course. “And every reason I run, the challenge, exhilaration, camaraderie, and sense of accomplishment, are tied into a challenging event such as this marathon.”
Mount Desert Island is a true Island, the largest rock-based island on the East Coast. It is home to ten mountains over 1,000 feet, including Cadillac Mountain, the highest point on the Atlantic north of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. It has pink marble cliffs, and the highest headlands on the Atlantic. The only true fjord on the Atlantic Coast is located here. And it is home to Acadia National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi. Are you curious? The Carnegies, Rockefellers, Astors, Morgans, Vanderbilts, Pulitzers, and many other affluent people who could go anywhere in the world, chose to spend their summers on this island.
And now there is one more reason to visit this island paradise—the third annual Mount Desert Island Marathon, running Sunday, October 17, 2004. There is not a more beautiful course in North America. The quaint fishing villages, other offshore islands, rugged and colorful cliffs, mirror-like lakes, domed granite mountain peaks, wooded shoreline, and radiant fall foliage make this course unique in the USA. It has been named the “Big Sur of the East”. In only its third year, the reverse label could also apply—Big Sur could be named the “MDI of the West”. Yes, Mount Desert Island is that unbelievably beautiful.
The course is challenging and hilly, and that is part of the beauty of it. The hills allow runners to view and experience the many unparalleled scenes that make this island so uniquely spectacular, including many miles along the only true fjord on the Atlantic coast. And leg muscles are less likely to tire over the 26.2 miles with the sloping, changing terrain. Most importantly, the scenery is so overwhelmingly refreshing there is no time for tiring—even in the late miles.
Beardsley to Speak at Pre-race Dinner
Dick Beardsley of Boston Marathon fame (2:08:54, “Duel in the Sun”) will speak at the Pre-race pasta dinner, to be held at the Mile 26 Café (Mount Desert Island High School). The dinner is a real treat, run by the MGI High School Music Boosters for the benefit of the school music programs. There will be a silent auction, to include the 26 mile-marking banners, unique works of art from creative local artists. They will be hung along the course during the race, weather permitting. And there will also be a raffle, awards, and other festivities.
The Mount Desert Island Marathon is exclusively that, a marathon. There are no accompanying 5K’s, 10K’s, half marathons, or marathon relays. The volunteers and race committee will concentrate only on your marathon, although there will be a walkers’ marathon, which will step off an hour before the runners. This is an unusual touch, because the walkers then become cheering spectators when the runners come roaring by. Everyone out there will be traversing the same distance.
The weather will likely be ideal. The average low temperature on October 17th is 39 F; the average high is 56 F, with the mean temperature of 48 F. Sunrise is 6:52, and sunset 5:45. On 18 of 31 October days, on average, the weather is partly sunny to clear.
The main event will blast off from Main Street in world-famous Bar Harbor at 8:00 a.m. on Sunday, October 17, a short walk from many of the excellent accommodations in town. It will be as friendly as it is scenic, a magical journey touring of one of the most beautiful spots in North America.
This will also be a journey back in time, back to when marathons were an adventure and a challenge. No “flat and fast” course, this. It is a rolling challenge. Despite the hills, this marathon had the fastest times of the Maine marathons last year. In my view, the rugged shear cliffs and the 26 mountains (eight of them over 1,000 feet), make the course seem more steep than it actually is. It is actually a net downhill course (by 50 feet); with the highest hill less than 200 feet of elevation change. There are similarities to Boston’s hills, although there are a few more of them, and the view of the landscape, cliffs and mountains, is much more open. By the way, there is no desert.
The field is limited to 1,000 runners for obvious reasons. Race Director Gary Allen and his top-notch race committee want every participant to enjoy this experience to the fullest. They have designed more than a gorgeous marathon course; they have built a complete distance running experience. The field is just the right size, and volunteers are friendly, enthusiastic, and helpful to the highest degree.
“This is a tough, challenging marathon route designed to both test and exhilarate the best of runners”, said Allen. “We think you might be distracted by our beauty to where you’ll forget you’re running a marathon. We are a true runners’ race, and one of the top true destination marathons in the country”, he said.
David Herr of Canaan, Vermont has won both editions of the MDI, posting a 2:34:31 in the inaugural, and 2:34:24 last year. Kim Pursley Goff, a master runner from Gilford, New Hampshire won the first race with a clocking of 3:09:42, and hometown hero Lara Judson of Bar Harbor won the 2003 event (3:07:03).
The Course and the Setting
The marathon is a paved, certified, point-to-point course that is everything except flat and boring. It is the easternmost--and most beautiful--of all marathon courses in the USA.
The first mile out of Bar Harbor is slightly downhill, which will allow runners to warm up before the first hill, a 150-foot climb from mile one to three. This incline will carry runners over the ridge between Champlain and Dorr Mountains. Mount Cadillac, the highest point on the immediate Atlantic coast at 1,532 feet, will cast its shadow on the early miles of the course.
Route 3 then gives back a downhill sweep from three to six miles where runners meet the sea, and those famous ragged cliffs and headlands at the southeast tip of the island. The small hill from six to seven will not be noticeable because runners will enjoy spectacular scenery along the Ocean Trail cliff walk.
There is a long, gradual downhill from seven to mile nine, then a series of rolling, curving vistas overlooking seal harbor, and the five Cranberry Islands. At 10 miles rolling hills reveal unparalleled scenes, and Northeast Harbor is visible across the cove. Runners will enter Northeast Harbor, one of six towns along the course—quaint and attractive all—and reach the halfway mark just beyond the town.
The halfway is also near the mouth of Somes Sound, the granite-lined fjord that nearly bisects the entire island. The second half of the race is literally on the edge of this remarkable topographical marvel.
The low point on the course, about 37 feet MSL, will come at mile 16 along the eastern shore of Somes Sound. This is followed by a slight rise to mile 17, and then a sharp incline from 17 to 18, heading up to the cliffs of the interior end of the fjord. Running hills makes for powerful camaraderie. Mile 19 is a giveback downhill, and then the gradual ascent from mile 20 to 25 begins in Somesville, the quintessential New England village.
Mile 25 will be the high point of the course, literally and figuratively—about 243 MSL—affording great views. And it will be all downhill from there. The final 1.2 miles to the finish line in charming Southwest Harbor descends; yes, that last 2,000 meters will be all down. But what a sky-high feeling of accomplishment it will bring.
There will be a shuttle bus from Bar Harbor to the finish for spectators, and then runners, walkers, and spectators can all ride the shuttle back to the start in Bar Harbor.
Hand carved granite awards will be given in 24 (5-year) age groups through 80+. All participants will receive commemorative T-shirts, unique MDI medals, and a certificate of completion.
Mount Desert Island is the largest rock-based island on the east coast, one of 1,300 islands on the coast of Maine. It is roughly 14 by 8 miles, or approximately 107 square miles, 65 of which are Acadia National Park (47,000 acres). Nestled between Blue Hill Bay to the west and Frenchman Bay to the east, MDI holds ruggedly beautiful mountains, breathtaking pink granite cliffs, and woodlands to the shoreline—unbelievable scenery in every direction. It is 37 miles southeast of the City of Bangor.
The Native American name for the island was Pemetic, or sloping land. It is where mountains meet the sea. Samuel de Champlain (Lake Champlain is named for him) gave the island its current name, calling it “L’Isle des Monts Deserts”, which means island of barren mountains. The highest peaks were bald granite even then, in 1604. The French also settled the region in that year, 16 years before the Plymouth Colony.
In addition to the marathon course and the various other roads, the island boasts “the most scenic seaside roads in the eastern US”. These include the National Park auto loop (27 miles). There are 44 miles of graded carriage roads (ideal for running or biking [no motors allowed] with 17 unique stone bridges), and 120 miles of trails for running and hiking.
This island is a runner’s paradise. For cross training use the hiking trails and climb the 26 mountains in the park, or kayak the 26 deep blue lakes—three of them over 100 feet deep. Twenty-six seems to be the magic number here.
In addition to the only true fjord, MDI has the highest headlands on the East Coast, where the enormous energy of the Atlantic is constantly battering the 420-million year old cliffs with a pounding roar.
MDI is a haven for wildlife with 52 species of mammals, including whales, dolphins, and seals, often visible. There will likely be deer along the course. There are 273 species of birds, including at least six types of hawks, ospreys, and cormorants, along with 52 species of fish.
Other Names and Numbers
Acadia National Park, the first national park east of the Mississippi, was established in 1916 as Sieur de Monts National Monument. It was given National Park status in 1919 as Lafayette National Park; it was changed to Acadia National Park in 1929.
Acadia was the French Province and series of colonies, including much of Maine, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia. It was a battleground between the British and French from the early 1600’s until 1763 when the French ceded all of Canada and Maine following their defeat in the French and Indian War (Seven Years War). The French Acadians were expelled in 1755.
Mount Cadillac was named for Antoine de LaMothe Cadillac (1658-1730), a French trader and explorer who lived in the area before moving west to found the city of Detroit. He was later the governor of French Louisiana.
Mount Cadillac is the highest point directly on the Atlantic coast (1,532 feet), and receives the first morning rays of sunshine in the USA from October 7 through March 6. The mountain is the only one in Acadia with an auto road to the summit. It affords a spectacular 360-degree view, including Mount Katahdin and the Bay of Fundy, not to mention all of MDI and Penobscot Bay.
Some of the other mountains on the island include Sargent (1,373), Dorr (1,270), Pemetic (1,248), Penobscot (1,194), and Champlain (1,058).
Alive with History
The beauty that today is Mount Desert Island was created by tremendous natural forces over millions of years. The granite cliffs and bald peaks are over 420 million years old. Built by tectonic and volcanic forces, the island of today was ground down and shaped by glacial activity, including the latest ice sheet that was more than 1.5 miles thick. The last glacier finally receded about 10,000 years ago.
People inhabited the area about 6,000 years ago, leaving mounds of shells 30 feet high and 60 feet long, indicating many generations of bounty from the sea. Legends tell of visits by Vikings about 1,000 years ago, followed by European explorers in the 1500’s and 1600’s.
It was New France long before it was New England. Then Maine was part of Massachusetts during the colonial period and until 1819, one of only two states previously part of another state. Maine is the only US state that has only one bordering state, although it also borders two provinces, New Brunswick and Quebec.
Islanders in historical times have earned their living from the forests and wood products, from farming, and the sea. And finally, thanks to conservation on a massive scale, tourism has also become a major industry (there were 30 hotels by 1880). One affluent resident, George Dorr, spent 43 years and much of his family fortune on preserving the lands now incorporated into Acadia NP. John D. Rockefeller, Jr. built many of the carriage roads. Some of the trails were used for centuries by natives; others were carved by FDR’s Civilian Conservation Core during the Great Depression.
Maine makes up nearly half the territory of the six New England states, with 33,215 square miles to 33,393 for the other five states combined. It has 228 miles of linear coastline, which measures 3,478 miles of actual shoreline. It has over 1,300 Atlantic coastal islands, 2,465 lakes and ponds; and seven major river systems, including the Kennebec and Penobscot.
Mount Desert Island is a vacation destination for couples and for families. Give yourself enough time to relax and truly enjoy the island and the distance running experience it offers. This is a land of beauty, contrasts, and diversity—a rare and dynamic land. It is all the more beautiful with vibrant fall colors contrasting with ocean waves and spray, with foliage reflected on glassy ponds and lakes. You will want to visit again and again. I’ll bet you can’t come to Mount Desert Island just once! It is a magnificently gorgeous location for a marathon, whether it be your first or 101st.
“We invite you to come run the Mount Desert Island Marathon and see for yourself,” Gary Allen said emphatically. The marathon is about 27,000 strides, 8,390 rods, 138,435 feet, or 42.19 kilometers. No matter how you measure it, this marathon adds up to an unforgettable experience.