Can this year’s AuSable River Canoe Marathon approach last year’s record numbers?
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
Last year’s AuSable River Canoe Marathon was the biggest in the event’s history with a total of 95 competing teams. Will this year’s total approach or surpass that record number?
Heather Tait, Chairwoman of the AuSable River Canoe Marathon Committee (Grayling), is expecting fewer teams than the 2016 record total “based on trends from past years.”
“We expect between 75 and 80 teams to register this year,” Tait said. “It kind of goes in cycles like that, not something to necessarily worry about, just the nature of the sport.”
In 1997, the AuSable Marathon had a spike in numbers with 58 teams; it was the event’s 50th anniversary. The previous four Marathons, 1993 through 1995, featured 45, 40, 52, and 46 teams.
In 1998 and 1999, the event had 53 and 57 teams, respectively.
In the year 2000, the AuSable River Canoe Marathon had another spike in participation with 67 canoes. The next few years featured 59, 51, 65, 59, 52, and 64 teams.
In 2007, another spike. The 2007 AuSable Marathon – the 60th race in the event’s history – featured 75 canoes. The following year, 2008, featured another record field with 76 teams. In 2009, numbers jumped to 90, and in 2010, 94 teams started the AuSable Marathon, setting a record for participation for a fourth consecutive year. The Marathon featured 90 canoes in 2011.
Numbers dipped for a few years in comparison to the huge numbers in 2009 through 2011. Seventy-one in 2012. Seventy-seven 2013. Eighty-two in 2014 and 84 in 2015.
Last year, numbers spiked to 95, setting another participation record for the race. It is unknown whether this year’s AuSable Marathon – the 70th in the event’s history – will approach record or near-record numbers.
As of Friday, June 30, 73 paddling teams were signed up for the 2017 AuSable River Canoe Marathon. In 2016, during the record-breaking year, 71 paddling teams were signed up for the race as of July 3, so the registration numbers this year are comparable to last year’s pace.
It takes 14 to 19 hours to complete the AuSable River Canoe Marathon, 120 miles on the water from Grayling to Oscoda, with a few portages to get past hydroelectric dams along the way. Many of those hours are spent paddling during the darkness of night.
It takes a lot of training hours leading up to the event to get ready for the race, and not just paddling in a canoe. During the winter months paddlers use activities like cross country skiing, weight training, snowshoeing, yoga, running, and riding exercise bicycles to get ready for the outdoor paddling season.
This year’s AuSable Marathon will likely feature more than 150 paddlers, possibly 180 or 190. Goals will differ between competitors. Some have a realistic shot at placing first or finishing in the top 10 or top 20. Some are looking to place in the top half of the field. Some just want to reach Oscoda by the 19-hour cut-off and be recognized as an official AuSable Marathon finisher.
“To me, the appeal of the Marathon is the challenge it brings to each person individually. Each person usually has their own goal in mind when they decide to race it. And even then, for racers that do it year after year, that goal can change from year to year,” said AuSable Marathon paddler Mike Hale.
Based on past results, not all of the teams that start the 2017 AuSable River Canoe Marathon will reach the finish line at Oscoda. A lot of things can happen during the race. Boat damage. Illness or injury. Missing a feed. Fatigue. Failing to meet one of the timing checkpoints.
In the modern era of the AuSable Marathon, approximately four out of five teams that start the race are able to finish it. The exact percentage varies from year to year.
In the 1990s (1990-1999), 79 percent of teams that started the Marathon reached the finish line.
In the most recent 17 AuSable River Canoe Marathons (2000 through 2016), 1,251 teams started the race and 1,027 finished it (82 percent). During that span, the finish percentage has ranged from a high of 91 percent (2006) to a low of 71 percent (2001).
What are some of the keys to having a successful AuSable Marathon?
“For me, to have a good Marathon is to be able to stay on a positive vibe even when you’re in the dark and have no clue where you are and how long to go. If you stay motivated and focused you’re going to have a fun and a great race, whatever your finish result,” said Christophe Proulx, who finished first during last year’s AuSable River Canoe Marathon with Ryan Halstead.
“Keep eating and drinking. Don’t have low spots. Keep a steady pace and don’t wear yourself out for no reason. Make sure your canoe is comfortable,” said nine-time AuSable Marathon competitor Michael Schlimmer.
“Have a good clean run and entrance to the river and make it out of town as smooth as you can and settle in as soon as you are able. When you calm the nerves from the start, the race then gets easier for you in the early parts of it,” Hale said.
The “good clean run” and “entrance to the river” may depend somewhat on what happens during the AuSable Marathon’s time trials event. At time trials, each team paddles a looped course and the times determine starting positions for the AuSable Marathon’s run to the river. Teams line up on Peninsular Avenue, five canoes per row, near the Grayling Post Office. Teams close to the front have the opportunity to get to the water at the Old AuSable Fly Shop before it gets crowded. Teams in the middle and toward the back of the pack have more teams near them for the run and for the entrance into the water.
The AuSable River Canoe Marathon Committee changed the time trials course last year. The change will stay in effect for this year as well, Marathon officials said.
The time trials course starts at Penrod’s. Teams paddle upstream first, turn around at a buoy at the Old AuSable Fly Shop, and then finish the loop coming downstream. The old course sent the paddlers downstream first, and the buoy turn was not in an area that was easily accessible to spectators.
Many AuSable Marathon competitors cite the buoy turn, upstream paddling, and areas of shallow water as the most challenging aspects of time trials.
“Times trials are very important. You definitely want to have a good starting position; the longer the run, the more boat traffic you have to deal with in front of Ray’s (the Old AuSable Fly Shop),” Hale said. “The new course seems a little tougher because of the area of the buoy turn. There seems to be less space than the old course’s turn, so even a small mistake on this course seems to be amplified a bit more and could mean the difference in five to 10 starting spots.”
“The upstream is probably the part of the time trial where you can lose time if you’re not efficient. Buoy turn is important but if you have the best buoy turn it won’t make you first,” Proulx said.
This year’s AuSable Marathon time trials event is slated for Wednesday, July 26, from 3-5 p.m. and Thursday, July 27, from 3-7 p.m. and Friday, July 28, from 2-4:30 p.m. The end times for these days are approximate and may change depending on how many more teams register for the Marathon.
There are three registration deadlines for the AuSable Marathon. The Early Entry Registration period ended on June 16, and the Main Entry Registration period ended on July 1. Teams now have until noon on Monday, July 24, to register for the race.
The 2017 AuSable River Canoe Marathon will start at 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 29. Presenting Sponsor for this year’s race is Consumers Energy.