CRANBERRY ISLES — It’s a race unlike any other—31 miles on a 2-mile road. And it’s the last time for the event.
Organizers of the Road Runners Club of America’s 2013 National 50K Ultra Championship, which will be held on Great Cranberry Island on July 27, are expecting 192 runners. They will come from 30 states in the U.S., along with Canada, France and Korea. Another 300 or so support crew, friends and family are expected to join them.
GCI is probably the smallest and most isolated local for a national championship of this type, said Gary Allen, who co-directs the event with Mary Ropp.
Allen is a veteran distance runner who has logged more than 100,000 miles and completed nearly 100 marathons. Earlier this year, he ran 700 miles, from Maine to Washington, D.C., to raise funds for the victims of the Newtown, Conn., school massacre, wounded veterans and cancer research. He had completed the Boston Marathon, in April, and was not far from the finish line when the bombs went off.
“It is and will forever be horrific,” Allen said. Out of respect for the victims and others who were affected, he said, the upcoming GCI ultra will forego the usual “boom” that starts the event.
An ultra marathon is any distance over the 26.2 miles that defines a marathon. Fifty kilometers, the distance of the island race, is 31 miles.
Allen and Ropp also created the award-winning Mount Desert Island Marathon. Both events are hosted by Crow Athletics, a Mount Desert Island running club.
RRCA “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,” the club’s mission statement says.
The GCI Ultra has grown from its inaugural year in 2006, when 13 runners participated. The course consists of the island’s only road, about two miles long. The to-and-fro of four miles—seven times to finish the race—takes runners past wildflower meadows, woods and ocean vistas.
The nationals will mark the final GCI marathon, Allen said.
“That, coupled with being named the ‘Best Race Ever’ by Runners World Magazine, has left us, we feel, with no place higher to go,” he said. “So we made the tough decision to end our event right at the peak of its existence, so it would never grow old or get stale—like the lasting legacy of the Beatles, who only were around for a short time but their music will forever be timeless. We are calling this, our final edition, ‘The Best Race Forever.'”
Logistics is everything when putting on a running event, he said.
“Add a Maine island in the mix, and you’ve got a boatload of work. We are up to the task. We literally have to barge all the race materials out to the island,” he said. “The boating companies can expect an extremely busy weekend. We put on a post-race lobster bake and the [GCI] Ladies Aid hosts a breakfast as a major fundraiser for their work. Everyone camps in the ballfield right at the start/finish line.”
GCI has a long history of producing both runners and running events.
“We could argue that our island, per capita, has had more runners qualify for and compete in the fabled Boston Marathon than from any town or city on earth,” Allen said. “Our population is 36 and we have had 12 run Boston over the years. Do I feel this is the last incarnation of races on GCI? Absolutely not. We simply are ending this one race and will likely start building another event the moment the last finisher crosses the line. Running on GCI is as predictable as our tides and always will be. I have a few ideas.”
To further distinguish the event, GCI organizers will make signs with each racer’s name and hometown; these will be displayed the length of the island.
“Runners become part of our island, and we encourage them to collect their signs at the conclusion of the event,” Allen said. This year, they are adding over 100 U.S. flags, one on each phone pole, to celebrate the nationals.
Elite runners participating in the event will include returning champions of GCI and MDI marathons in recent years, including two Nova Scotia men who won their division in 2012. The elites have a record of running to excellent finishes in a variety of marathons, including Boston, New York and elsewhere.
There will be an Olympic trials qualifier and a number of people who are expected to run the event in under 3 hours. Maine is well represented among the elites; they include Amanda Labelle of Rockland, the 2010 GCI Ultra champion and 2009 MDI Marathon winner; and David Goodrich of Houlton and Cliff Rodgers of Ellsworth, the only two runners who have run every edition of the GCI event.
“Running an ultra marathon is both hard work and incredibly rewarding,” Allen said. “This event mirrors the rugged, never-say-die, attitude of Maine islanders.”
Organizers make sure each runner leaves with “a small piece of our actual island”—a cast lobster claw medal/belt buckle and a stone rounded by the waves—”so they always remember.”