They’ve Made the Mayflower Marathon a Community Tradition
Mike Baxendale, the on-air personality known to all simply as Bax, says it started as a radio promotion. But it quickly became a community event.
And now, it’s a huge community event, involving individuals, families, businesses, institutions, area schools and colleges, and more.
He was referring, of course, to the Mayflower Marathon, staged each year in the days just before Thanksgiving to benefit Open Pantry. For 30 years now, the event, organized by and staged by the staff at Rock 102, has collected food and monetary donations to help those in need.
It started with one Mayflower trailer — hence the name — and each year, with a few rare exceptions, such as the height of the Great Recession in 2009 and the height of COVID in 2020, it has grown bigger and collected more to combat food insecurity.
And in 2023, the marathon, in its relatively new home at MGM Springfield, shattered all previous records, collecting more than $234,000 in food and monetary donations and filling nearly six trucks.
That number, and the level of support needed to reach it, speak to both the growing amount of need in the region amid higher inflation and growing financial issues facing many in the 413 and the manner in which the staff at Rock 102 have collaborated with others in recent years to take the marathon to new levels, with a comedy night at MGM Springfield and a Mayflower Marathon Night on the Springfield Thunderbirds schedule.
“They’re incredible; they truly have such huge hearts to make sure our neighbors get fed. The Open Pantry would never be able to serve that many people without the Mayflower Marathon.”
“Ultimately, the goal is to raise more and more and more to help those in need,” said David Oldread, vice president and general manager of the Springfield Rocks Radio Group and Northampton Radio Group, which includes Rock 102. He noted that the marathon involves difference makers on many levels, including those who donate everything from the trucks to the portable toilets to the tents; those corporate supporters, many of which have been part of this since the beginning; and the volunteers who help collect the donations and load the trucks.
But it is the staff at Rock 102 that is being honored the Difference Makers award this year, and deservedly so. The station conceived the idea back in 1993, and it has been the driving force in continuing the program and orchestrating its strong growth pattern.
And it’s a company-wide initiative, a true team effort, said Oldread, noting that it is “all hands on deck,” especially in the weeks and days leading up to the event, with each staff member making important contributions to the effort, with work starting months before the marathon begins.
Bax and Steve Nagle, morning show hosts, entertain the audience — and inspire it — for 52 hours during the marathon; Erin Buehler, promotions director at Rock 102, plans, organizes, sets up, and executes the event; Alex Byrne, program director, coordinates the entire broadcast; Joshua Smith, engineer, sets up the technical side of the broadcast and keeps the show on the air; Dan Williams and Pat Kelly, on-air hosts, produce the broadcast at the station in East Longmeadow; the sales staff members rally their clients to get donations and volunteer their time at the event … and on it goes.
Overall, the marathon has become a powerful collaboration between Rock 102 staff members and the community to come together for a great cause, said Buehler, adding that this collaboration grows stronger each year.
Nicole Lussier, executive director of Open Pantry, agreed. She’s been with the Springfield-based agency for nearly 30 years, and thus has been involved with the marathon since the beginning. She’s watched it grow and become an increasingly larger force in the agency’s ability to carry out its mission. And she noted that the staff at Rock 102 brings passion to its work of making the marathon happen each year.
“To be able to tell Nicole Lussier what we had just done — and she had been there every minute of the event — to be able to tell her that we had raised at least $217,000, with more on the way … to see her reaction, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I got choked up on the air.”
“They’re incredible; they truly have such huge hearts to make sure our neighbors get fed,” Lussier said. “The Open Pantry would never be able to serve that many people without the Mayflower Marathon; there’s no way we would be able to distribute that much food.”
Such sentiments help explain why the team at Rock 102 is being honored not for putting on the marathon, necessarily, but for rallying a region, a community, around a cause — and, in the process of doing so, becoming a true Difference Maker.
He called it the “chicken wing.”
This was the very effective submission hold developed by former pro wrestler Bob Backlund, who administered it to Bax during one of the marathons a few years ago.
“It’s very painful,” he said with a look that conveyed as much, adding that Backlund is one of many colorful guests who have made appearances during the marathon over the years, and his application of the chicken wing is one of the more intriguing ways that the airtime has been filled.
Others in the guest category include mayors, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal (a regular each year), comedians, New England Patriots wide receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster (who stopped by last year), and many others. As for memorable moments, there have been plenty of those as well, as the marathon has persevered through all kinds of weather, power outages, equipment glitches … you name it.
But what is remembered far more are other moments in time — the ones that reflect the generosity, caring, and spirit of collaboration that have come to define the marathon and explain why it was conceived all those years ago.
Moments like the announcement of how much was raised last November.
“At the end of the broadcast, we give an unofficial total, with this year  far exceeding anyone’s expectations — I don’t think anyone expected anything close to this,” Bax recalled. “To be able to tell Nicole Lussier what we had just done — and she had been there every minute of the event — to be able to tell her that we had raised at least $217,000, with more on the way … to see her reaction, I can’t speak for anyone else, but I got choked up on the air, and so did Steve. When you realize where this is going and how many people it helps…”
He didn’t finish that sentence, but didn’t really have to. And this sentiment speaks to how and why the marathon was launched three decades ago.
The idea, said all those we spoke with, was to raise some money for Open Pantry, which today operates several different programs, including am emergency food pantry, holiday meals, the Loaves & Fishes Kitchen, a teen-parent program, and many others.
It’s unlikely that anyone at the time could have imagined that it would grow, evolve, and become, as Bax noted, a community event, said Byrne, adding that the marathon has continually broken through new barriers — be it with trucks filled or the total dollar amount raised — that were previously thought impossible.
And every employee at the station, roughly 25 at last count, is involved on some level in making it happen, said Oldread, noting there are many moving parts with this production.
“There’s an awful lot that goes into this,” he said, “from making sure you have power and internet access to getting trucks and RVs and security, and feeding volunteers, and signage and traffic plans. You have to start around Labor Day in order to get things where they need to be in the days before Thanksgiving.”
“We’ve developed our own little tradition with this game, and we want to continue it and expand it. It’s a testament to the work they’re doing at Rock 102 — they’re driving a huge amount of food to the Open Pantry, which lasts almost an entire year.”
The staff, and the marathon, has persevered through recessions, a pandemic, rough weather, and, most recently, the need to find a new home when the Basketball Hall of Fame informed those at the station in 2022 that it could no longer host the marathon in its parking lot.
In many ways, that search for a home crystalized just how much the community had embraced the marathon and wanted to help it live on, said Oldread, noting that, as the station’s on-air personalities went public with the need to find a new home, there was an outpouring of support and commitments to help take the program to a new, much higher level.
Food for Thought
Indeed, Beth Ward, director of Public Affairs for MGM Springfield, said the station received several offers to host the marathon, so many that there was almost a competition for the right to become its new home.
MGM Springfield prevailed, she said, and it has been a privilege to stage the marathon, an event that has become part of the philanthropic culture at the resort casino.
“When we got the call, it was like Christmas morning; we were so excited that we were chosen,” she recalled. “There are so many of us here at MGM that live in Western Mass. and are familiar with this event and have taken part in it and donated to it. Immediately, there were so many people who were thrilled and excited to be there and support it.”
She said MGM Springfield set a record when it comes to volunteer hours donated by employees, and a big reason is the Mayflower Marathon, with many of the casino’s workers on site early (as in 5 a.m. in some cases) to help collect donations and load them into trucks.
“Our employees want to be part of this; they want to help make it successful,” she said, effectively summing up the sentiments of many others we spoke with.
That includes Nate Costa, president of the Springfield Thunderbirds, a Difference Maker himself last year. He told BusinessWest that the team has long had a solid relationship with Rock 102, knowing that its listenership boasts many hockey fans. That relationship was taken to a new level when the event lost its home and then found one with another of the T-Birds’ partners, MGM Springfield.
The team soon dedicated the Wednesday night game before Thanksgiving to the cause, branding it Rock 102 Mayflower Marathon Night. That Wednesday is traditionally a time for family gatherings and “bar gatherings,” as Costa called them, but the pull of the marathon and Open Pantry has brought more than 5,000 fans to the arena the past two years for “one last push” for donations.
“We’ve developed our own little tradition with this game, and we want to continue it and expand it,” he said. “It’s a testament to the work they’re doing at Rock 102 — they’re driving a huge amount of food to the Open Pantry, which lasts almost an entire year.”
Costa, Ward, Lussier, and others credit the staff at Rock 102 — the on-air personalities especially, but everyone that gets involved (and that is everyone) — with bringing a region together behind a cause as few other events in this region have.
“Over the course of the past 30 years, it’s become a full-blown community event, where it almost has nothing to do with Rock 102 or any of us,” Bax said. “It has everything to do with different segments of the community getting involved in something special — collecting food.”
Well … it has something to do with the team at Rock 102. Indeed, they have made this happen, not just when it comes to logistics, but from the standpoint of shaping an event that not only serves a community, but creates a stronger community, Oldread said.
And that’s why the team can collectively share the title of Difference Maker.