Down East, Uphill: The Mount Desert Island Marathon
A new marathon in and around Maine's Acadia National Park promises hefty portions of scenery, New England culture, vibrant fall colors and, yes, hills aplenty.
Posted Tuesday, 11 June, 2002
Rugged mountains tower above Maine's Frenchman and Blue Hill
Bays, where a chiseled granite coast gives way to dense forests, broad meadows, spectacular cliffs and glacial lakes. This is Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park, where the dramatic landscapes and rolling forestlands have drawn tourists and naturalists for well over a century.
On October 20, it will also draw marathoners for the first time, as several hundred runners descend for the first Mount Desert Island Marathon.
"To me, it's long overdue," said local runner Peter Keeney. "This marathon has the potential to become something really special, a great showcase of the area."
There's plenty to showcase. A roam around Mount Desert gives the impression that Mother Nature somehow conspired to pour all of her favorite elements of New England into this picturesque Maine island.
"It's beautiful," said Keeney. "You walk out your door and you have mountains and oceans and trails right at your doorstep."
Beautiful, yes, but no stroll in the park: This marathon promises to take your breath away in every sense of the phrase, since the very aspects that make Mount Desert Island beautiful to visit also make for a desperately challenging marathon course.
"I'm telling everyone to be sure and train hard and be prepared for a difficult course," said race director Gary Allen, whose magazine ads for the marathon proudly market the event as "One Tough Mother."
"It's absolutely beautiful here, a wonderful place to run, but it's really difficult to plan an easy run on Mount Desert," said local runner and marathoner Heather Jones. "It's very, very, very hilly. Every run really gives you a sense of personal accomplishment."
"The course has fairly long stretches of uphills -- nothing really steep, but it may seem like it by mile 22," said Kevin Johnson, who organizes weekly track workouts for the local running club.
An Old-School Marathon
"A marathon should be a real test, a challenge," Allen said, "and I think that's been forgotten by a lot of race directors who are obsessed with designing the fastest or easiest course.
"This is an old-school marathon," Allen continued. "For the people who ran and organized the early marathons -- the Boston Marathon, the Yonkers Marathon -- a marathon was about testing yourself over a certain section of road, no matter how long it took you. That aspect of the marathon as a journey has gone away in some people's minds, replaced by the idea that it's just about trying to cover 26.2 miles as quickly as you can. There's more to a marathon than simply trying to lower your time."
And so Allen has set out to craft a full-blown marathon experience. Early buzz about the new marathon refers to the course as "Big Sur East," a reference to California's Big Sur Marathon, which combines spectacular scenery with notoriously challenging terrain. Designed to be challenging but not impossible, the Mount Desert Island Marathon promises hefty portions of scenery, New England culture, vibrant fall colors and, yes, hills aplenty.
"It's not as though we set out to say, 'Let's be as sadistic as we can get,'" Allen chuckled. "It's going to be a challenge, but it's going to be a great experience. It's going to feel like a journey, and I know there aren't going to be any complaints about the scenery."
"The comibination of the ocean and the mountains and the foliage is going to make it really great," said Cliff Evans, a local masters runner considering the new marathon, which would be his first in two decades. "The drawback is that if you're looking for a marathon to qualify for Boston, well, this is not the marathon for you."
New England Variety
Amid the bright peak of the foliage season, the marathon passes beneath the constant gaze of Cadillac Mountain, the island's tallest peak, through evergreen forests and beside shining lakes. Meantime, the frequent sight, sound and scent of the ocean is a constant reminder that you are, after all, on an island.
"It's a marathon that will, I think, feel really community-based," said Keeney. "You go through these four little towns on the island, and you get to peek at part of people's lives, from the fishing industry to the big vacation houses."
The point-to-point course starts in Bar Harbor, the seaside village whose shops and Down East ambiance have long made it the focus for visitors to the area. Soon after the start, runners find themselves rolling over the hills of Acadia National Park, climbing the saddle between Dorr Mountain and Champlain Mountain before dropping downhill into the village of Otter Creek.
As runners hit the 10K mark, they encounter the ocean for the first time, skirting the island's rocky coast along the boardwalk into scenic Seal Harbor. Heading west from the village, the course passes Long Pond, which affords a spectacular mountain view of Acadia to the right, and a dramatic ocean view to the left. The next several miles along the south coast take runners past the summer cottages of the East Coast's upper crust, including the retreats of the Rockefellers and a more recent arrival, Martha Stewart.
'Horror Show' at Mile 18
After rounding the posh village of Northeast Harbor at the halfway point, runners turn north along magnificent Somes Sound, the cliff-lined bay that is the only fjord in the eastern United States. Somes Sound is embraced by three mountains, which provide a dramatic setting but, for a while, blessedly few climbs. Just before leaving the sound, though, things start to get nasty around mile 18.
"The inland end of the sound is a horror show at 18 through 20," Allen said. "Gut-wrenching hills there."
"That length of Route 198 is going to hurt," said Jones, "There's a lot of pretty big hills through there and only slight downs and flats."
The town of Somesville provides a brief, peaceful respite from the hills, along with the full New England treatment of mill pond, white church steeple and simple clapboard houses. Then it's back to business with a two-mile climb along the cliffs bordering Echo Lake.
"It's very straight and a very long climb; that's where most people will hit the wall," predicted Johnson. "That's where you want to have any family or friends to support you and get you up that last hill."
"The final downhill mile into the finish at Southwest Harbor should be a sight for tired legs," Allen said of the fishing community that marks the end of the race. "When runners get to Southwest Harbor, they're going to feel that they've been through a marathon in every sense of the word, but what a sense of accomplishment. It will be a marathon they'll never forget."
Preparation and focus
"Anyone coming here should definitely be prepared for the hills," said Keeney. "If you go out fast you're going to have a tough second half of this race. You're going to have to be smart and consistent. This course is going to be a challenge, but to me, that's what distance running is all about."
"Nobody sould come here thinking they're going to set a PR," said Johnson, "but for people interested in running a marathon in a beautiful area, it's definitely the race to consider."