Salena Chatman has never traveled farther north in Maine than Kennebunkport, but on Friday she and her husband will make the six-hour drive from their home in Middletown, Connecticut, to Millinocket for a most unusual road race.

The second annual Millinocket Marathon and Half Marathon is scheduled for Saturday, with nearly 1,000 entrants registered. The runners are attracted not so much by the absence of an entry fee as by the chance to help out a down-on-its-luck mill town.

“Running has done so much for us,” said Chatman, 39, who plans to run one loop of a 13.1-mile course that includes views of a snow-capped Mount Katahdin and several miles on the Golden Road built by the paper-making companies that once ruled the region. “If we can help a town by doing something we love, it’s just easy.”

Chatman and her husband, Chris, who will not run because of a calf injury, plan to stay at a bed-and-breakfast for two nights and patronize local shops and restaurants.

Gary Allen, founder of the Mount Desert Island Marathon, says that in starting the Millinocket race, "The whole concept was to spend money in town, go for a run, and maybe bring some cheer to these people."

Gary Allen, founder of the Mount Desert Island Marathon, says that in starting the Millinocket race, “The whole concept was to spend money in town, go for a run, and maybe bring some cheer to these people.” Kevin R. Morris photo Kevin R. Morris photo

“We bought dance tickets and we’re planning on going to the spaghetti dinner,” Chatman said. “We’re fully ready to spend money. We’re actually very excited.”

That was the thinking behind an idea hatched by Gary Allen on Thanksgiving 2015 after reading about the devastating effects of mill closures in Millinocket and East Millinocket over the past decade.

Allen, a prolific distance runner and the founder and race director of the Mount Desert Island Marathon, posted the idea for a marathon and half-marathon on social media. He used Google Earth to map out a course. There would be no entry fee and no medals or amenities.

“The whole concept was to spend money in town, go for a run, and maybe bring some cheer to these people,” said Allen, 59, of Great Cranberry Island. “It was just fun and a good thing to do.”

LAST YEAR, ‘SORT OF A FLASH-MOB MARATHON’

Allen was one of six runners who ran two loops of the course for the 2015 marathon. Another 44 runners ran the half. People in town, tipped off by Facebook posts, made signs and put together a makeshift water stop.

“It was sort of a flash-mob marathon last year,” said Jessica Masse, who grew up in Caribou. With her husband, John Hafford, she opened a graphic design and social-media marketing business over a decade ago in Medway. They recently moved the business, called Designlab, to Millinocket.

“It was very impromptu,” Masse said of the 2015 road races, “but that’s Gary. He has faith in people and has faith in the stars aligning and just goes for it.”

A few weeks later, a Runner’s World article about the race appeared. The story went viral in the running community, and Allen soon had interest from runners in every state. He brought a USA Track & Field surveyor to Millinocket to get the race certified as a Boston Marathon qualifier.

As of Thursday, he had 943 race registrations. The National Weather Service forecast for Millinocket, which has about 5 inches of snow on the ground, says Saturday will be sunny but with a high of only 16 degrees.

Allen laughs at the absurdity of a marathon in northern Maine in early December, as if that ever would have emerged from a formal meeting.

“It struck a chord,” he said. “It’s the proximity to the holiday season and the fact that people really do have a giving spirit in them.

“People can reflect that we’re all maybe a paycheck away from hard times, that we’re all neighbors, that these mill towns in Maine are not so far from Portland, not so far from Bar Harbor.”

TOWNS ARRANGE A WEEKEND OF EVENTS

The folks in Millinocket, East Millinocket and Medway are prepared this year. There are waffle breakfasts and pasta dinners, strolling carolers and the Maine Short Film Festival – an entire weekend of events. Marsha Donahue, owner and founder of North Light Gallery in Millinocket, helped organize 45 local businesses that are putting on a variety of promotions, including Millinocket Floral offering $5 cash-and-carry bouquets near the finish line to give to runners.

Nine of the 17 artists who display their works at Donahue’s gallery will be painting there Saturday, and she noticed that everyone put up their Christmas decorations early. In recent seasons that hasn’t always been the case, if the decorations have gone up at all.

“For a town that’s been on the ropes for several years, it’s been hard,” she said. “But this year, it looks wonderful around here.”

Masse, the graphic designer and volunteer organizer, envisions a future of outdoor recreation that includes distance running, mountain biking and cross country skiing to augment the traditional hiking and snowmobiling that are popular in the Katahdin region.

“Not everything is doom and gloom,” she said. “We think this race is the start of a new era, where people think of this as more than a mill town.”