Sorry this recap is almost 2 weeks after the race – there was just so much to say about my time in Bar Harbor, and so many photos, this post took forever to finish. But I was determined to get this recap done before this weekend’s NYC Marathon. Good luck runners!
I’ve wanted to run the Mount Desert Island Marathon ever since I saw a little ad in Runner’s World touting it as the “most scenic” marathon in North America. I also knew it was supposed to be very hilly, so it scared me off until this year, when I threw out all pride and time goals and decided take on the MDI challenge.
On the Friday before the race, I flew into Bar Harbor in a little prop plane (9 seats including the one passenger who sits in the “co-pilot” seat and who has to keep their hands and legs clear of the moving yoke, lest they kill us all). My seat-mate on that tiny flight was another marathon runner, so we shared a cab into town, chatting a little but mostly listening to our cab driver tell us stories (e.g. her lobster fisherman boyfriend made $200,000 so far this season). That night I strolled the town a bit (soooo cute! tons of tourist shops and more homemade ice cream shops in a ten block radius than I have ever seen in my entire life) and got lots water and fruit at the Hannaford grocery store (so convenient!). For dinner I went to Rosalie’s pizza which was supposed to have the best pizza in town. It was only an okay pizza, but I ended up eating it cold from my hotel’s mini-fridge for several days after that, so overall it was a win. I stopped by Ben & Bill’s Chocolate Emporium for some chocolates, too (I took a pass on the lobster ice cream).
Saturday morning brought the best part of the whole MDI Marathon weekend, and yet a surprisingly “unknown” event – the 1.6 mile run from the MDI starting line in downtown Bar Harbor to the Expo at the Atlantic Oceanside Hotel, followed by a buffet breakfast (with eggs, sausage, bacon, French toast, and blueberry pancakes). The run was free and the breakfast was only about $12. I’d say a group of about 40 of us jogged together (10:30 min pace) from the start to the Expo, led by the race director, Gary Allen. Gary also gave a funny and inspiring impromptu speech at breakfast, mentioning that he ran from Maine to Washington, DC, by “staying in the mile [he] was in.” I repeated that a lot to myself during the marathon – stay in the mile you’re in! Don’t think about mile 20, or 24, or 26 – just stay in the mile you’re in. It was a good mantra and definitely helped me finish the race with less mental fatigue than usual.
Besides the good advice, the Saturday morning run was also an opportunity for a nice little dress rehearsal for the main event, letting me test a new piece of gear I was considering to hold my cell phone for the race – the Level Flip Belt. It performed well on the test run so I decided I would take my phone with me for the whole 26.2 miles (I only ended up fishing it out once during the race, so in hindsight I should have checked it in my bag). The run and breakfast also gave runners a chance to meet and chat, and I had a chance to meet Ironman triathletes as well as other 50-staters. Overall, it was an incredibly pleasant way to spend the morning, and I highly recommend it if your schedule permits.
After picking up my race packet (a re-usable bag with my bib, an olive oil sample, and a thin, zippered jacket instead of the typical race t-shirt), I wandered the tiny expo as much as I desired, then headed back to town. The free shuttle buses that typically swarm Mt. Desert Island were already shut down for the season, so I decided to walk back, coincidentally with my tiny-plane marathon friend. It was actually a very nice walk back to town since the road had a sidewalk, and we stopped for several photos once we reached the waterfront.
I went back to my hotel to shower and rest a bit before heading out for lunch – I wanted a view of the water since it was a crushingly beautiful day, so I went to Galyn’s Restaurant and had a fish sandwich (okay) and an Indian pudding dessert (very strong mollasses flavor) while looking out the second floor window across Agamont Park and the harbor. I took a long, leisurely stroll through the shops on my way back to my hotel, then rested and read a bit before dinner. I read a bunch of online reviews of the local restaurants and ultimately chose Guinness & Porcelli’s (located almost directly in front of the MDI starting line) where I sat at the bar and had a very good beet salad and an excellent bowl of pappardelle and bolognese. The place was packed, so if you plan on eating there the night before the MDI Marathon with a group of people, you’ll definitely want reservations.
After dinner I went straight back to my hotel, set up all my gear for the morning, and went to bed early. The morning of the race I ate as much as I could manage (1 full Bonk Breaker bar, 1/2 Clif bar, 1/2 Pop Tart, 1/2 banana), then headed out early so I could check a bag (I was worried it would be cold, rainy, and windy at the finish). I left my room too early, leaving me standing in the rain, waiting for the start. I even used the public restrooms next to the park, but I used them too early and drank too much so by the time the race started, I already had to go again and had a feeling I’d have to make a stop somewhere soon.
It was raining before the start, but it was only a light rain, and at the starting time of 8 am it had basically stopped. The runners quickly gathered at the start, self-seeding themselves in the crowd (I started back, way back), the horn sounded, and we were off. It was a relatively small crowd, so it thinned out almost immediately after the starting line and never felt congested for a moment.
I thought I started strong but was shocked to find my first three miles were a pokey 11 minute mile pace – and that was on the flat and downhill portions of the race! I wasn’t too concerned, though, because I was still aiming to simply finish in under 6 hours, and I planned on doing a lot of walking on the uphills anyway, so a slow start was fine by me. Besides my solitary ten minute mile 4 (when I think I started chatting with a Marathon Maniac and 50-Stater, and thus sped up without realizing), my first 17 miles were all 11-something pace. I just got slower after that (12, 13, one 14 minute mile…).
I was expecting spectacular beauty during the race, and I was rewarded a few brief times – once going past a pond covered with lily pads, the fog cascading up and over the granite mountains above; once through a hilly, narrow, windy road where the forest looked like a carefully constructed diorama from the Natural History museum, so perfect, moss-covered, and ancient; and once or twice along the coast, where the pine-scented air would be blown away by heady salt-spray and you could see green islands, black rocks, and endless ocean. But most of the course was not so spectacular. A lot of it was simple rural roads – some trees, a few houses, no ocean to be found. And the last six miles was along an open two-lane highway, with cars driven my angry drivers whizzing past. There might have been something to see during those last 6 miles, but I was pretty focused on not getting hit by a car to notice.
The course was also hilly, but not as extreme as I had expected, either. There were only a few very tiny sections where it was steep – but there were also very few sections where it was flat, either. Basically, it was endless, rolling hills. End. Less. Training in Central Park was actually pretty good preparation. If I had to compare it, I’d say the hills were a lot like those in Central Park, but longer (both the downs and ups), with fewer flat stretches. There was no way to walk all the uphills, because that would mean walking almost the entire course, but most runners near the end seemed to be walking the long uphills, so at least us pokey-slows had company.
But any disappointment I had in the course was my own fault – I knew the course route but it didn’t sink in how little would be along the coast. They also said multiple times that the roads would be open, but that didn’t really sink in, either. I’m re-thinking just how nice Fresno, Route 66, Baltimore, and Vermont City really were now, as I don’t remember open roads during any of them (or certainly not for the entirety of the last 6 miles). MDI also had very few porta potties along the course. I was able to stop around mile 7 or something at a public restroom, but bathroom options for women were few and far between. I also would have liked a few extra water stops near the end, but that’s a minor nit and only because I was overdressed at that point, since the sun came out and the highway was pretty warm.
Regardless, I finished about 40 minutes faster than I expected, but still over 5 hours. The finish area was uneventful. I chugged a chocolate milk and ate a 1/4 bagel with cream cheese, then found my bag (unmonitored in a pile inside the school) and got in line for the shuttle back to Bar Harbor. I wanted to enjoy my free beer but the tiny BBQ & beer area was jammed with runners and their families and had a huge line, so I skipped it to wait in another huge line instead. I didn’t make it on the first shuttle, so had to wait a full hour for a standing-room only shuttle ride back to town (several friendly runners offered their seat but really, we all deserved a seat at that point, and I wasn’t going to steal it from another runner). Luckily, all this standing and waiting was done in beautiful, sunny, warm weather – I cannot imagine what it would have been like in the rain.
And that was the MDI Marathon! After I got back to my hotel and showered, I ate cold pizza in bed with ice packs on my knees (no room service hamburger this time). I did manage to walk around town that evening, but I ended up eating so much in my hotel room that I wasn’t hungry for dinner.
The next day I was supposed to go on a whale watching tour but it was cancelled due to rough seas, so I went on a bus tour of a few major sites in Acadia National Park instead. I also walked along the Shore Path in town – a nice little stroll along a well-groomed path along the harbor. On Tuesday I woke up early to walk the land bridge to Bar Island, then went on the whale tour, which was still very rough (many people got seasick) and there were no whales to be found, but my ticket is good until 2017 in case I make it up there again. On Wednesday I rented a bike and went into Acadia and biked along the carriage trails built by John D. Rockefeller, Jr. (highly recommended, maybe my favorite thing I did that week). On every single day I had ice cream, usually from the shop that was promoting “99 cent scoop days” where a cone of some of the best ice cream I’ve ever had cost only $1.07 with tax. Needless to say, I highly recommend a trip to Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park.
Thinking of running the MDI Marathon?
Despite my somewhat harsh review, I think the MDI Marathon is worth doing. I think I’m in the minority in not finding this the best race ever. I do think Bar Harbor and the general area is fantastic, and I would definitely encourage anyone to do this race and stay for a vacation afterwards. The lesson I learned is manage your expectations and don’t ignore the obvious (like maps of the route and route descriptions) when you’re imagining the race.
All categories on a scale of 1-10, 10 being the best.
- Getting There (Transportation & Walkability) – 8/10 – I flew from NYC to Boston to Bar Harbor Airport (BHB) which is only about a 15 minute drive from downtown Bar Harbor. (Airline ticket from NYC to BHB was $370.) You can also fly into Bangor, but it’s about an hour and a half drive away, and was the same price, airline-ticket-wise. Rental cars at BHB were very expensive, starting at $60/day without taxes and fees, but it’s very do-able without a car (taxi one-way from BHB to downtown was about $35, and once you’re in town you don’t need a car, although a car to sightsee would be nice). So walkability is high, but getting there is a bit more difficult. Also, if you visit during a time when the free shuttle is still running, the whole island becomes your oyster.
- Staying There – 9/10 – There are a ton of hotels in Bar Harbor, and the town is so small, just about any of them would be considered walking distance from the starting line. Also, because it’s off-season, you can find good value hotels at $70/night (e.g. the Acadia Hotel, which is where I stayed), but make your reservations early (there were weddings in town that weekend, too, so most hotels were fully booked).
- Cost & Registration – 9/10 – Registration was a simple, no lottery. It opens early (already open for October 2014 now) and costs $75. You get a very thin jacket instead of a typical race t-shirt, plus the medal. The jacket runs big, FYI.
- Organization – 7/10 – The race director is a wonderful guy, and the Saturday pre-breakfast run was excellent, but the marathon course needed more bathrooms and maybe a few extra water stops near the end. Also, as you know I really disliked the final 6 miles on the open highway, but there might not be a better option.
- Course – 7/10 – It was fine. Sorry, but I was clearly expecting too much. It was somewhat hilly (about 1,500 ft gain and 1,500 loss, so about 3,000 feet elevation change over the 26 miles), and a few miles were along the coast and beautiful, but most of it was through rural streets and the final 6 miles were along an open, ugly highway.
- Crowd – 4/10 – Sparse, as expected, but those who were there were great. Many of the water-station volunteers wore costumes.
- Other Factors – 9/10 – Bar Harbor and Acadia are awesome destinations, and I already want to go back. They made the trip special.
- Overall Rating – 7.5/10 – I hate giving any race an overall rating, because it’s such a personal decision. I will have many fond memories of the MDI Marathon, and I hope all my nitpicky comments will make you enjoy it even more than I did.
General Travel Reviews/Notes:
Late October is the end of the season in Bar Harbor. Many restaurants and shops were already closing while I was there, and almost everything shuts down Oct 31st. It’s also high-time for cruise ships – when a ship was in port (which was every day, sometimes more than one ship a day, but never at night), the town was overrun with cruisers. Also, the free shuttle bus that runs around MDI had already shut down by Oct 19th (info online says it runs “through October” but I guess that just means “into October”). However, the end of the season does bring other perks – beautiful foliage, less crowded parks, cheaper hotel options, occasional end-of-season deals on food/souvenirs, and a less crowded town at night (both good and bad, I suppose). It’s definitely not a bad time to visit, and if you’re going there for the MDI Marathon, you don’t have much of a choice, anyway!
Acadia Hotel – nothing fancy, it’s like a giant house with individual bedrooms, but does have free WiFi, cable TVs, and mini-fridges, plus an ice maker on the ground floor, and it’s 1 block from the marathon starting line. The shower was microscopic (I’ve showered in larger showers on a small boat), and the soap they provide is literally thinner than a pencil, but for $70/night I thought it was a fine deal. (With the money I “saved,” I bought regular soap & cheap shampoo at the grocery store.)
List of Activities (many of the below are discussed in more detail on Trip Advisor)
Bus Tour of Acadia – there’s Oli’s Trolley and Acadia National Park Tours – they’re basically the same thing – a big bus tour of some major spots in Acadia (e.g. top of Cadillac Mountain, Thunder Hole, Sand Beach, etc.), lasting about 3 hours with a couple of 15 minute stops. It’s kinda rushed, but at least it gives you an overview of some of the park. It starts and ends in downtown Bar Harbor and only costs $30 for one adult, which is a lot cheaper for a solo traveler than hiring a taxi or renting a car. In October, your fellow tour-mates will be mostly cruisers.
Shore Path – it’s a simple, very groomed path along the shore of the town (from the bottom of Agamont Park to Wayman Lane) – it’s easy to find, you can’t get lost, and it’s worth a stroll if you’re in town.
Land Bridge to Bar Island – get a tide schedule (easily available at the vistor center or probably at your hotel) and pick a time around low tide to walk the bridge to the island and climb the (maybe) 1 mile path up to a lookout point – I thought it was worth it, and you can reward yourself with a big breakfast afterwards.
Bike or Walk/Run the Carriage Paths – the highlight of my visit, there are several shops that rent bikes in town, and all seem to get good reviews. I rented a bike for a half day (4 hours) for $17 (helmet included), and the guy at the shop gave me a map and advice on where to go. The hardest part was biking up and into the park (the way home was all downhill and fast). The carriage paths are smooth, finely crushed gravel – easy to bike or walk, no hiking boots needed. I might have packed a lunch and stayed out longer but I had to catch my flight back. I would definitely do this activity again.
Whale Watching Tour – if the company warns you it might be rough, take heed! You can always reschedule for another day. While we didn’t see any whales and a lot of people got sick (luckily I did not, but I wasn’t feeling awesome, either), the tour guide was great and kept up a nice chatter for the trip, and passed around baleen and answered questions on our way back. I would definitely give it another shot – late October is really late in the season to see whales up there, so if you’re going to Bar Harbor for the whales, pick another month.
Shopping – there are a ton of souvenir shops in Bar Harbor, most of them selling t-shirts and little junky tourist items. There are a few higher-end shops selling art and jewelry, and several good sporting-goods stores. There’s also a good-sized grocery store and a Rite Aid and local drugstore, so no worries if you forgot to pack anything.
What I wish I had done while I was there…
See a movie at Reel Pizza Cinerama – they show current but not new release movies (like they had The World’s End with Simon Pegg when I was there) for $6 and have a full pizzeria so you can have dinner during the movie.
Gone kayaking – the last day of kayaking by the last outfitter that was still running was Monday morning, and I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to go kayaking on cold water early in the morning the day after the marathon. So, I missed it. If you’re really interested in kayaking while you’re there, make sure to find an outfitter that’s open and schedule it when you can, maybe even the Saturday before the race. It’s your arms and core anyway, not your legs, right?
Visited more of the bars and restaurants – I heard good things about Havana restaurant, Blaze bar and restaurant, This Way Cafe (supposedly the best breakfast in town according to locals, but it was closed before I got a chance to visit), and Side Street Cafe (I did go to Side Street once, but there were so many good-looking options I wanted to go again). I liked Guinness & Porcelli’s a lot, but I didn’t love McKay’s Public House (kinda weird and “fancy” but the food wasn’t great) and I didn’t love Rosalie’s Pizza. I really liked Jeannie’s Great Maine Breakfast, but despite the raves, I didn’t love 2 Cats (I think I ordered wrong there, getting the breakfast burrito instead of the benedict). The best thing I ate all trip was the ice cream from the shop attached to Acadia Outdoors. Every flavor I tried was amazing, and extra good because it was only $1. But because I was so spent from the marathon, I ended up skipping a few meals and just snacking in my room, so I missed out a couple of times.
Seen the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain – this would have required a car, or a shuttle, or me willing to spend $100 for a taxi up there (and waiting, and back). Next time.
Gone on a longer tour of Acadia and MDI in general – again, requires transport or a tour with a company, which I should have done but just kind of slipped my mind (and by the time I remembered, it was too late).
Eaten more ice cream and visited every chocolate shop – yes, even more than I did. Never enough. So good.
Thinking of running the MDI Marathon or visiting Bar Harbor? What are you waiting for, go for it! And if you’re reading this as a subscriber, please check out the website for a LOT more photos!