C-2 race from Grayling to McMasters Bridge on Sunday to cap weekend of canoe competition
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
Which would you rather do? Paddle in an all-out sprint for three to four hours or paddle at a steady pace for 14 to 19 hours? Many paddlers, in the next two weekends, will do both.
First, the Spike’s Challenge C-2 Paddler’s Tribute event. It’s a race from Grayling to McMasters Bridge slated for Sunday, July 21.
Local restaurant and tavern Spike’s Keg ‘O’ Nails started the Spike’s Challenge C-2 race in 1991 as a shorter daytime version of the AuSable River Canoe Marathon. In general, Spike’s Challenge C-2 teams reach the finish line in 2.5 to four hours.
The Marathon, a 120-mile race from Grayling to Oscoda, has been in existence since 1947. It takes 14 to 19 hours to complete the course.
For Marathon paddlers, the length and pace of the event make the Spike’s Challenge a different kind of endurance test. A few paddlers say the Spike’s Challenge – even though it’s much shorter – is more difficult than the Marathon.
“For the paddlers it is a hard race,” event organizers said. “It is really a three to four-hour long sprint. The course offers many challenges from cuts, shallow suck water, to deep runs and lots of eddies to survive.”
Many AuSable Marathon teams use the Spike’s Challenge as a warm-up race. It gives fans, feeder team members, and race organizers a daytime look at the paddlers on the first part of the Marathon’s race course.
“The biggest challenge is to protect your boat and body for the Marathon. Many teams use Spike’s as a practice run for the Marathon and have their feeders practice drops in the daylight. This helps feeders, Marathon night, have an idea of the river conditions,” said Cheryl Lucey, one of the organizers for the Spike’s Challenge. “Spike’s has tended to be a good indicator of where teams will end up in the Marathon.”
“I think it’s a good practice to get in sync with your partner on how to do all the turns with so many boats around,” said AuSable Marathon paddler Sarah Lessard.
It can also offer paddlers practice at running with their canoes to the water and entering the river at the Old AuSable Fly Shop, since the Spike’s Challenge has the same starting style as the Marathon.
The 2019 AuSable River Canoe Marathon is slated for Saturday and Sunday, July 27 and 28. It starts at 9 p.m. at the Old AuSable Fly Shop.
The Spike’s Challenge C-2 race isn’t just for AuSable Marathon teams. The event also features paddlers who want a shorter race than the Marathon, or teams that might want to attempt the Marathon in future years.
Participation numbers overall for the Spike’s Challenge have been steadily rising since the event’s inception.
The first Spike’s Challenge C-2 race in 1991 featured 34 teams. The numbers moved into the 40s during the late 1990s and then into the 50s during the early 2000s. In 2008 the race featured 70-plus teams for the first time. In 2010 and 2011 the event had more than 80 teams.
The 2016 Spike’s Challenge C-2 race had 84 teams, a new all-time participation record for the event. In 2017, the race had 66 teams, a number that was a little lower than normal. Last year, numbers rebounded with 80 teams participating.
In the last 10 Spike’s Challenge C-2 races – 2009 through 2018 – the event has had an average of 75.5 teams per year.
Organizers are expecting around 80 canoes again this year.
“I figure we should have about the same number of teams this year as last year,” Lucey said.
Like the AuSable Marathon, the Spike’s Challenge determines its starting positions for the run to the river with a sprint event, but the Spike’s sprints are held on a different part of the river and they offer their own set of challenges, including a buoy turn at the halfway point that can be tricky.
The Spike’s Challenge C-2 sprints for starting positions are held at the city park. During sprints, teams paddle a looped course, going upstream first, then downstream, paddling under a railroad bridge twice, and finishing near the city park’s pedestrian bridge. Finish times usually range from 4.5 to seven minutes.
This year’s Spike’s Challenge sprints for position event will start at 9 a.m. on Saturday, July 20. It takes a few hours to complete all of the sprints. There are breaks between heats to allow upcoming sprinters a chance to practice on the course.
Andy Moore, Chairman of the AuSable River Canoe Marathon Committee, has worked the starting line for the Spike’s sprints for several years. He said challenges this year could include objects just under the surface with water levels being high, and having to go through the railroad bridge twice.
“I think the water back there isn’t as fast moving as the downstream. There’s a lot of things just under the water they have to look out for,” Moore said.
“Some of the teams like to paddle where they did in past years but the course has become more of a river since they took out the dam. So there is not as much water in these areas and people hit things that can tip them or put a hole in their boat,” Lucey said.
Times at the sprints for position event on Saturday usually provide a strong forecast of which teams will finish in the top places during the C-2 race on Sunday.
Last year, all of the top 12 teams at sprints also finished in the top 12 during the C-2 race. In 2017, all of the top 13 teams at sprints for position also placed in the top 13 during the C-2 race. In 2016, 12 of the top 13 teams at sprints were also top 13 finishers during the race.
The importance of sprints? Spike’s Challenge teams have to run with their canoes through the streets of Grayling to the river. It can be a challenge getting to the water and getting into the river due to the large number of competing teams and the limited amount of space. It can be a significant advantage to start near the front since it is less congested, especially in a race like the Spike’s Challenge that takes only a few hours to complete.
The 2019 Spike’s Challenge C-2 race will start at 9 a.m. on Sunday, July 21. Teams will line up with their canoes on Ingham Street and run to the water at the Old AuSable Fly Shop during the start of the C-2 race. Based on past results, most teams will reach the finish line at McMasters Bridge between 11:30 a.m. and 1 p.m.
Spike’s Challenge weekend also features a C-1 (one-person canoe) race. The C-1 event, which runs from Grayling to Burton’s Landing, is scheduled for 6 p.m. on Saturday, July 20. It begins at Joe Wakeley’s house, which is located next to Borchers AuSable Canoeing.
After the C-2 sprints and prior to the C-1 race, the Spike’s Challenge will feature a youth C-2 race from Grayling to Burton’s Landing at 5:30 p.m.
“We might have a good youth race this year. As of now it looks like we might have two girl teams going head to head. Natalie Kellogg and Katie Mahaffy won the race at the Muskegon Throw Down and Ally Doederlein and Kaitlyn Moore have started training. This race could be a sprint out at the finish line,” Lucey said. “Jeff Kolka is encouraging his youth paddlers to participate in Spike’s on Saturday night, 5:30 p.m. Katie Mahaffy is one of the youth of the Paddling Club from Hanson Hills, and she has come a long way since last year. Last summer after the Marathon, Lynne Witte and I started working with Katie, Kaitlyn, and Ally. It was fun to go out and help them and watch them grow as paddlers.”