Road Runners Club of America has selected the Great Cranberry Island 50K Ultra Marathon to host the RRCA’s 2013 National Ultra Championship, an event that could draw elite ultra marathon runners from around the world.
Great Cranberry Island is also the venue for this year’s RRCA Eastern Region U.S. Ultra Championship.
An ultra marathon is any distance over the 26.2 miles that defines a marathon.
GCI Ultra’s organizer, Gary Allen, said the designation as national championship host came as a pleasant surprise.
“We were blown away, because it’s a big thing,” he said. “It changes things. It suddenly brings a lot more attention to the event and, with that, the hope that more sponsors would be involved, and more, and potentially better, runners. And ultimately, which is near and dear to me, it helps the island.”
Road Runners Club of America “is the oldest and largest national association of running clubs, running events, and runners dedicated to promoting running as a competitive sport and as healthy exercise,” according to the club’s mission statement. RRCA has more than 1,400 member clubs and events, representing over 200,000 running club members.
The GCI Ultra is co-directed by Allen and Mary Ropp, who are also responsible for creating the award-winning Mount Desert Island Marathon. Both are hosted by Crow Athletics, a Mount Desert Island running club that has grown to include members across the nation.
The 2012 GCI Ultra, now in its sixth year, will be held on July 21.
Allen said he organized the GCI Ultra as a way to help his community. He grew up on Great Cranberry and his family goes back to one of the island’s first settlers, Benjamin Bunker, in the late 1600s.
“Some Maine islands are struggling as year-round communities,” he said. “More and more people are moving off and, in the case of Great Cranberry, it’s down to fewer than 40 year-round residents. For me personally, having a long family history out there, I feel like it’s something I can do for the island, even if it’s only for the day—having all that positive energy.”
Allen attributes the nationals designation partly to its good reputation and also the recognition the GCI event received in 2011 from Runner’s World magazine. That acclaim came after 2010 GCI Ultra ladies champion Amanda LaBelle and filmmaker Daniel Quintanilla submitted a 60-second video about the event to a video competition called “Best Race Ever,” sponsored by Runner’s World, Run All Night Productions and Hood To Coast: The Movie. The short video won the contest.
“We applied to host the regional championship,” Allen said. “It was one of those things of, ‘Sure, we’ll apply, but they’re not going to choose this place.’ But they did. But for the nationals, they chose us. I don’t think we ever would have applied to host the national championship.”
GCI has a history of creating running events. In the 1970s and ’80s, the GCI 5K was named one of the top 25 races in the United States by Runner’s World.
The inaugural edition of the GCI 50K Ultra drew 13 runners. That number grew to 73 finishers in 2011. The racecourse consists of the island’s only road, which is about two miles long. The start and finish line is located half a mile up from the town dock. Each complete island circuit is four miles through a terrain of rolling hills, wildflower meadows, woods and ocean vistas. Runners complete the circuit seven times to finish the 50 kilometers.
“I guess we thought, ‘Build it and they will come,’ maybe,” Allen said of the GCI Ultra’s origins. “I think the reputation of the event and the island have grown beyond anyone’s comprehension. And here we are.”
Great Cranberry is one of five islands of the Town of Cranberry Isles. It is roughly two miles long and a mile wide.
“It’s probably the smallest place on earth that would host a national championship and you can’t get more isolated than that, but it speaks to the passion of runners that they like unusual running places,” Allen said.
This year, the event, as the eastern regional host, has drawn almost double last year’s number, with close to 150 runners expected. Allen said the regionals will be part of the learning curve for helping him and Ropp gear up for the nationals.
“For the national championship, we’ll be under the microscope that much more, and we’ll need to fine-tune things,” he said.
Among the details to be worked out are boat transportation.
“We’ll need to hire extra boats and have them on call, to get everyone out,” he said.
Another thing runners love about the GCI Ultra event, he said, is the post-race lobster feed, a big bonfire and the opportunity to camp out overnight on the island’s community field. Nearly all runners to date have opted to sleep overnight, he said.
The post-race revelry often goes late into the night “and can be both loud and rowdy at times,” according to the event’s website. “Even we wonder where runners get the energy to run all day and celebrate all night.”
Another facet of the GCI Ultra event for 2011 and 2012 is the Ladies Aid Society breakfast the following morning.
“One-hundred percent of the profits go to the Ladies Aid, and the other island businesses directly benefit from the race, so I think we look at that and feel that we’re doing something that’s good,” Allen said.
According to Allen, the number of entrants for the nationals will be limited within the venue’s parameters. He doesn’t know yet what the number will be. There will be enough spots for the world’s elite ultra runners, he said.
“For the nationals, it’s not our intention to overrun the island,” Allen said. “We don’t want anyone to feel invaded. We want everyone to feel it’s a really good thing for the island.”
To date, the starting field has been determined by lottery application. Lottery bids are accepted based on several criteria, including experience, past participation in the GCI Ultra and an essay.
Marathon racing has become a popular sport over the years, and ultra marathoning is one of the fastest-growing sports as well, Allen said. Still, “the real ultra marathon crowd that would have a chance to place highly gets pretty narrowed down, so it’s a more distinctive group.”
“There’s every reason to believe we might get some international runners,” Allen said. “People are somewhat shocked at how global running has become, and runners do travel to the ends of the earth to do different events.”
Laurie Schreiber is a freelance contributor living in Bass Harbor.