AuSable Marathon to start on Saturday night
Annual 120-mile race from Grayling to Oscoda to feature 84 teams (if no more drop out)
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
‘A challenge on a beautiful river.’ Grayling to Oscoda. Hundreds of fans, thousands of dollars in prize money, 120 miles. More than 80 paddling teams. Some of them will be attempting the race for the first time. Others have started it more than 30 times. How many of them will make it to the finish line this year? Will it be another close race? Find out this weekend during the 71st AuSable River Canoe Marathon.
For it to happen one time was rare. For it to happen two years in a row? It was historic. It couldn’t happen a third consecutive time. Could it?
The AuSable River Canoe Marathon, in its seven decades in existence, has featured a one-second margin of victory, a sprint to the finish line at Oscoda to determine a champion, only three times. The first one came in 2005. It didn’t happen again until 2016. Last year, it happened for the second consecutive time.
Two years ago, Christophe Proulx of Quebec and Ryan Halstead of Grayling edged the team of Andrew Triebold of Grayling and Jacob DuBois of Texas by one second for first place. Last year, during the 70th AuSable River Canoe Marathon, Proulx and Samuel Frigon of Quebec finished a few inches in front of Steve Lajoie and Guillaume Blais, both of whom are from Quebec, in an all-Canada photo finish.
Proulx described the 2016 win by a slim margin as “crazy” and “amazing.”
Proulx said he and Frigon planned for the possibility of having to sprint to win in 2017 following Proulx’s experience the previous year.
“It was awesome to be up there again,” Proulx said. “Being on a sprint for a second year made me little more confident. I knew I’ve done it before, and Sam is a really good sprinter. We also before the race made plan in case we have to finish on a sprint. I felt awesome to make it work.”
Proulx and Frigon are registered for the 2018 AuSable Marathon as a team. A few other teams that could vie for the top spot? Triebold and Lajoie are together again for the Marathon; as a duo, they’ve won the race nine times, including a streak of eight consecutive first place finishes from 2008 through 2015. Based on some of their previous finishes, the team of Blais and Nick Walton of Eaton Rapids could challenge for a top spot; they have four second place finishes combined (two each) with other partners in the last five Marathons.
“Very competitive field this year, with 25 of the top 50 paddlers – as ranked by the North American Canoe Paddler Rankings – signed up, including eight of the top 15,” said Ryan Matthews of the AuSable River Canoe Marathon Committee.
If no one withdraws between now and the start of the Marathon on Saturday night, more than 80 teams will attempt to complete the race’s 120-mile course this year. The 2018 AuSable River Canoe Marathon will mark the race’s 71st year.
This year’s AuSable Marathon will have a diverse field, featuring paddlers from Australia, Canada, Missouri, Kansas, Massachusetts, New York, Virginia, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Wisconsin, Florida, Connecticut, Texas, Ohio, and Indiana.
Paddlers have to put in hundreds of training hours to get ready for the 14 to 19 hours of non-stop racing it requires to finish the AuSable Marathon. During the race, the weather can bring rain, cold, heat, or fog. The paddlers have to eat meals out of plastic baggies and thermoses. Fatigue, sickness, pain. Why do more than 160, sometimes close to 200 paddlers, go through it, and then come back next year to do it all over again?
Lynne Witte has returned to the AuSable River Canoe Marathon more than almost everyone else in the history of the race; she’s competed in the Marathon 38 times. Why?
“Ability to participate in such a challenge on a beautiful river with so many friends I have met paddling,” Witte said. “We race each other but are friends – that makes it so enjoyable.”
The Short Race Before The Long Race
Before the AuSable Marathon teams race from Grayling to Oscoda, they race from Penrod’s to the Old AuSable Fly Shop and back to Penrod’s on the time trials course during the annual sprints for starting position event. It takes most teams between five and nine minutes to complete their sprint.
Time trials are held on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday during the week of the AuSable Marathon every year. It used to be a two-day event, but in 2011, after three consecutive years of record breaking participation numbers – 76 teams in 2008, 90 teams in 2009, and 94 in 2010 – the AuSable River Canoe Marathon Committee added a third day in order to accommodate the event’s increasing number of teams.
The Marathon changed its sprint course in 2016. In previous years, the looped course for time trials had paddlers going downstream first, turning around at a buoy, and then finishing the loop paddling upstream. The new course – it goes from Penrod’s to the Old AuSable Fly Shop and back – is shorter, and it allows spectators an opportunity to view the turnaround at the halfway point.
Is the buoy turn the hardest part of the sprint? The upstream paddling? The shallow water? All of it put together?
“The most challenging part about them for me was the shallowness of the water. When you’re unable to get the full blade of your paddle in the water, you have to change the way you’re applying power on your stroke, which is easier said than done,” one paddler said.
“I consider the most challenging part of time trials the buoy turn. It takes a lot of practice to get it right and if you get it wrong it can cost you a lot of time,” said another.
“Biggest challenge is nailing your buoy turn. Picking the right line, sticking your paddle, and of course not tipping,” said another.
“The most challenging part of time trials is the shallow water. It is very easy to break an expensive paddle during your sprint,” said another.
“The most challenging aspect is the turn. If you get caught up one or two seconds it can make a big difference on placement on the start line,” said another.
“The most challenging aspect of the Marathon time trials is the buoy turn. The river is narrow and you are coming into the turn with a good amount of speed. You want to keep your momentum and get around that buoy as fast as you can but one wrong shift in body weight or placement of your paddle and you can ruin the whole turn,” said another.
“Everything about the time trials is challenging. The water level, the pressure of everyone watching, everything that is at stake. It is one of the hardest five minutes in paddling,” said another.
What is the key to having a successful sprint?
“Getting a paddle you can push off the bottom with and not break is really helpful,” one paddler said.
“Being sure you don’t start at too high of a pace in the beginning. It is a sprint but it is very easy to empty the tank before you are halfway done,” said another.
“The key to a good time trial is the upstream. Knowing the technique involved to keep a good glide in just a few inches of water is the difference,” said another.
The Running Start
During the start of the Marathon, teams will line up on Peninsular Avenue near the post office, five teams per row, for the run to the river, an event that features the paddlers carrying their canoes downhill to Ingham Street and then heading for the dock at the Old AuSable Fly Shop. Starting positions for the run are not random; they are determined by the time trials competition on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. The running start is an exciting event for the fans, but it can be a challenge for the competitors, especially those in the middle and in the back of the pack.
“I have always loved the start of the Marathon; the energy of the crowd and the anticipation of the race makes the air almost crackle with excitement. There’s nothing else like it I’ve ever experienced,” said Heather Tait, Co-Chair of the AuSable River Canoe Marathon Committee.
What’s it like for the paddlers having to run to the water with their canoes in front of hundreds of cheering fans?
“The running start is crazy. The best strategy is just to survive. Stay in the moment and stay calm. The race is long,” said one paddler.
“The running start is fun and the support from Grayling and paddling fans is amazing,” said another.
“The running start is fun, nerve racking, hard, long, quickly over, it’s many things all in one,” said AuSable Marathon competitor Mike Hale. “The challenges of the running start can stem from not having a good sprint, leading to starting further back. Just like on the river, the more boats in front of you on the run, the more traffic you have to deal with and the harder it can be to get into the water where you want. Case in point, last year I got shoved off the dock into the water about 20 yards earlier than we had planned. One of the cool things about being in the streets for the start is the dead silence in the final minute before the gun goes off. Usually one or two of the paddlers like to holler something fun and exciting to get us all going in that last minute silence, but then once you hit the corner, you can really hear and feel the crowd cheering you on, it’s a feeling that’s hard to describe once you hit the dock at Ray’s.”
“HUP” All Night
The 2018 AuSable River Canoe Marathon will start at 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 28. After piling into the water at the Old AuSable Fly Shop, teams have hours and hours of paddling ahead of them, including several hours in the dark of night.
Once the teams are in the water, what are some of the keys to having a successful race?
“Calm the nerves,” one paddler said.
“Stay on a positive vibe” and “stay motivated and focused,” said another.
“Keep eating and drinking,” said another.
“Be prepared, have your feeders informed of what you’re going to need and might need. I think the key to a successful Marathon is to make it out of town safe and steady, eat and drink during the night,” Proulx said. “Real game start in the morning.”
“Expecting the unexpected,” Witte said. “Over so many years I have learned things can go wrong from your plan but you need adjust and move forward.”
For fans, there is still a lot to see during the nighttime hours of the race. The field spreads out. There are portages. There are viewing locations on bridges and dams.
“I enjoy watching the Marathon in the small hours of the morning at Camp Ten, Connors Flat, McKinley, and 4001 Bridge. Typically, there are only feeders, race officials, and diehard fans at these locations, and there’s a chance to see teams up close and personal. Alcona Dam is where the sun rises during the Marathon, and it’s my favorite location to photograph. The water is usually as smooth as glass and it’s just gorgeous to watch teams paddle across the pond,” Tait said.
The Finish Line
Based on decades of AuSable Marathon results, some of the teams that start the race on Saturday night will not reach the finish line at Oscoda on Sunday. Reasons? Fatigue. Injury. Illness. Equipment failure or boat damage. Not enough speed. The Marathon has checkpoints with specific timing criteria, and failing to meet them results in disqualification.
In recent history, approximately four out of five teams that start the race make it to Oscoda in the required 19 hours.
Last year, 80 teams started the race. Of those 80, 73 were recognized as official finishers. In the most recent 18 AuSable River Canoe Marathons (2000 through 2017), 1,331 teams started the race and 1,100 finished (83 percent). The highest finish percentage during that span was 91 percent (in both 2017 and 2006) and the lowest was 71 percent in 2001.
While both the start and the finish of the Marathon both have hundreds of fans, the atmosphere is not the same. For the start, it’s about anticipation and excitement. Running, splashing into the water, paddles and canoes hitting the river. At the finish line, it’s relief. The sense of having achieved something. Handshakes. Hugs. Crawling out of the canoes and into the water for a soak or a swim.
“At the finish line, there is a sense of camaraderie and accomplishment. The crowd cheers just as loudly for the first team as they do the teams at the back of the pack. Everyone starts together at the beginning of the Marathon, but they trickle in over a period of hours at the finish line, which makes the vibe a bit different. Overall, the finish line activities continue to improve,” Tait said.
“The largest difference between the start and finish is that the teams are all bunched up at the start, and spread out by the finish,” said Matthews. “And as such, the crowd is spread out towards the finish, all following their favorite racers. I would say that there is a similar energy in the air at both locations though, even with the people at the finish line having been awake all night. This year there is construction going on at the Mill Street Bridge – the bridge near the finish line – so the dynamic might be a little different with how things will be organized around the area. But there will still be Kevin Allen announcing each finisher as the William Tell Overture plays, with cheers from the crowd as the teams cross the finish line.”
The AuSable Marathon is the second leg of the Triple Crown of Canoe Racing. The first leg – the General Clinton Canoe Regatta – is held during Memorial Day weekend in New York on the Susquehanna River. It’s “a one-day, nonstop 70-mile race from Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, to Bainbridge, New York,” according to the Marathon’s website. The third leg of the Triple Crown – La Classique Internationale de Canots de la Mauricie – is a three-day race conducted in three different stages on the St. Maurice River in Quebec during Labor Day weekend.
Support crews provide foods and beverages to the paddlers during the AuSable River Canoe Marathon, and some of it is not what you might think.
AuSable River Canoe Marathon paddlers need food and liquids during the 120-mile race. How do they get it? Feeder teams. Bank runners. Pit crews. Dedicated people who stay up throughout the night and deliver it to the canoes at various points throughout the race.
Sometimes the paddlers need other things. Clothing. Pain relievers. Materials to patch a hole in the boat. A new light for the canoe. Things happen during the AuSable Marathon; the feeder crews have to be ready.
“The most challenging is making sure we are in the right spot at the right time and have all the supplies on hand if the paddlers need anything,” said Brian Kartanys, who’s been a feeder during six different AuSable Marathons.
Kartanys said the key to having a good Marathon as a bank runner is “communication.”
“As a team, we sit down and plan out each feed point – what food, drink at McKinley, Mio, etc. If your team isn’t on the same page, it can be a real quick race,” Kartanys said.
“We’ve had a few mishaps over the years but thankfully nothing too serious and no injuries. We had one feeder wander a little too far from shore at McMasters Bridge and find a deep spot. One minute he was in waist deep water, the next he was coming up for air. Another time, think it was our first or second Marathon, our paddlers asked for more water as they were portaging Alcona Dam. So I took off at a dead sprint to the vehicle, grabbed their stuff, then dove in and swam out to meet them as they were already back in the water,” Kartanys said. “Then there was the time when our paddlers came into McKinley with a hole in their boat. We did the lighter fluid, duct tape repair. As we were getting ready to light the fluid, Steve – one of the paddlers – said ‘nothing like lighting your $5,000 boat on fire.’”
Sometimes, the most popular viewing areas also happen to be feeding spots, forcing pit crews to deal with traffic on the roads and near the river.
“One of the biggest obstacles is fighting through the crowds, especially at Mio. Some of the checkpoints are party spots with a lot of drinking going on. But hats off to the police for cleaning those areas up. It is so appreciated by the teams that we can get to our spots easier and quicker. And the volunteers do such an amazing job each year getting everything ready. It’s crazy how many hours they put in for that race,” Kartanys said.
“Overall, I am blown away each year by the Marathon. It’s really just an amazing event. People from all over the globe show up, help each other out, look out for each other, and everyone just wants to see each team have a successful race whether they finish first or last,” Kartanys said. “The most enjoyable part is being with your friends and cheering them on all night. The comaraderie amongst not only your own team but with other teams. It’s a race to see who can go fastest but we are all pulling for the other teams also.”
So what do the paddlers eat and drink during the Marathon?
“We use a variety of foods – energy bars, goo, pasta,” Kartanys said.
“Foods have changed for me and I have learned sometimes plain cold water is the best,” said Lynne Witte, who’s competed in the Marathon 38 times. “I have warm soup at Mio and McKinley. A PBJ along the way is good.”
A common element among most of the foods that paddlers eat during the AuSable Marathon? It needs to be something that can be consumed quickly. It’s a race, and sometimes every second counts.
Some paddlers tend toward salty items, some prefer sweet items, and some use a combination of the two.
According to several paddlers and feeders, some of the most common food items for Marathon competitors during the race are: fruits (bananas, strawberries, grapes, melon, cherries), protein bars, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, mashed potatoes, pasta, and a variety of soups.
GU Energy Gel and similar products are popular substitutes for solid food.
What about beverages? Plain water is one of the most common drinks for AuSable Marathon paddlers. Other popular drinks include electrolyte products like Gatorade, Powerade, Cytomax, SmartWater, Pedialyte, Vitaminwater, and HEED. Many competitors mix their electrolyte drinks with water in order to dilute the sweetness.
Many paddlers drink protein/nutrient beverages such as Ensure, Boost, Perpetuem, and Sustained Energy during the AuSable Marathon. Some like to get an occasional caffeine boost from 5-hour Energy or sodas such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, or Mountain Dew.
Some paddlers also like to drink coffee, hot chocolate, and iced tea at different stages of the race.
Sometimes paddlers have odd food cravings during the Marathon. According to an assortment of Marathon competitors and feeder crew members, unusual foods for paddlers in recent years have included olives, cheeseburgers (and other fast food sandwiches), doughnuts, Jell-O, pizza, Skittles, gummy candy, beef jerky, and egg salad.
“I guess the only oddball was our paddlers wanted dill pickles one year. Think they just wanted to add a different flavor. The only bad thing is some of the pickle juice got mixed in with the pasta so they ended up with dill pickle noodles,” Kartanys said.
An explanation of some of the products mentioned in this article, according to various online product descriptions: Hammer HEED (High Energy Electrolyte Drink) is “an all natural electrolyte sports drink.” Hammer Gel is a “carbohydrate energy gel.” Cytomax, Gatorade, and Powerade are “electrolyte” sports drinks. SmartWater is “electrolyte enhanced water.” Vitaminwater is a “nutrient enhanced” water. Pedialyte is a drink designed to “quickly replenish electrolytes” and “prevent dehydration.” Boost and Ensure are drinks high in protein and vitamins. Perpetuem and Sustained Energy are drink mixes from Hammer Nutrition that have carbohydrates and protein. GU Energy Gel has carbohydrates, amino acids, and electrolytes to provide “long-lasting energy” and “essential nutrition” for athletes during competition. SIS is “Science In Sport” products, which includes powders and gels for athletes. Clif bars are organic energy bars.