More than 75 teams signed up so far for 2018 AuSable River Canoe Marathon
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
Seventy-something? Eighty-something? Somewhere in the nineties? More than 100 for the first time ever?
As of Tuesday, July 3, 77 teams were signed up for the 2018 AuSable River Canoe Marathon, a 120-mile non-stop race from Grayling to Oscoda held annually during the last full weekend of July. Last year at this time, 73 duos were registered for the race.
The overall numbers for the Marathon have been rising for many years, with peaks and valleys along the way.
Going back to the 1990s, the event featured 29, 27, and 34 teams in 1990 through 1992. The Marathon had 45, 40, 52, and 46 teams in 1993, 1994, 1995, and 1996.
In 1997, for the event’s 50th anniversary, numbers spiked to 58.
In 1998 and 1999, the event had 53 and 57 teams, respectively.
In the year 2000, the AuSable River Canoe Marathon had another jump in participation numbers with 67 teams. The next six years featured 59, 51, 65, 59, 52, and 64 teams.
In 2007, for the 60th race in the event’s history, numbers jumped again, this time to 75 canoes. The 2008 Marathon featured another record field with 76 teams.
In 2009, numbers reached 90, setting another record. In 2010, 94 teams started the AuSable Marathon, setting a participation record for a fourth straight year. The Marathon had 90 teams in 2011.
Numbers for the next four Marathons were 71, 77, 82, and 84.
In 2016, the event had its largest field ever with 95 duos.
Last year’s AuSable River Canoe Marathon featured 80 teams.
How many this year?
“My guess for teams this year is high seventies, low eighties,” said Heather Tait, Co-Chair of the AuSable River Canoe Marathon Committee.
What keeps this race going? Why do paddlers keep coming back year after year? How does it continue to attract new competitors at such a high rate?
“Once you’re part of this event, it gets in your head and it’s hard to divorce yourself from it,” Tait said. “Canoe racing is part of the culture here and new paddlers are attracted to that energy. It’s an event like no other, that’s for sure.”
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 night.
It takes a lot of training hours leading up to the event to get ready for the race, and not all of it is spent 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 season. Then, it’s paddling time.
“I usually get to the Marathon with 80 to 100 hours of paddling. I work hard in the gym all winter,” said Chris Proulx, winner of the last two AuSable River Canoe Marathons.
Lynne Witte, who’s competed in the AuSable Marathon 38 times, said she paddles “about five days a week” with a “mix of distances paddled, intervals, and races.”
“I like to have about 200 hours by Marathon start. I mix in some running and biking,” Witte said. “Off season I switch to training sled dogs and racing them. My winter weight training is now lifting water buckets and dogs. Running dogs has strengthened my mental thoughts of what I can extend myself to do.”
This year’s AuSable River Canoe 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 2018 AuSable River Canoe Marathon will make it to Oscoda. A lot of things can force a team out of 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, 79 percent of teams that started the Marathon reached the finish line.
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.
What are some of the keys to going all the way and having a successful AuSable Marathon?
Witte’s advice for those new to the race: “Be mentally ready for the aches and tiredness that can overcome you, but work as a team to get through those times. You can go farther than you think.”
Make “goal number one to finish,” Witte said. “Everything after that is a bonus.”
“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. Real game start in the morning,” Proulx said.
Making it “out of town safe and steady” may depend somewhat on the results of the AuSable Marathon’s race-within-a-race: the time trials.
At time trials – held on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday during the week leading up to Saturday’s AuSable Marathon start – each team paddles a looped course and the times determine starting positions for the Marathon’s run to the river. Before the run, teams line up on Peninsular Avenue, five canoes per row, near the Grayling Post Office. When the race begins, they have to carry their boats downhill and make it to the docks at the Old AuSable Fly Shop, where they enter the river.
Teams close to the front of the line have the opportunity to get to the water 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, which can make it difficult to get a clean beginning.
“Being in the front row is critical if you have a performance in mind. Especially last year with the new dock that’s really high and the grass that we couldn’t run on it. First boat to jump in have a significant lead,” Proulx said.
The AuSable River Canoe Marathon Committee changed the time trials course two years ago. The starting area and finish line are still at Penrod’s, but the rest of the loop is different following the changes instituted in 2016.
Now, 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 they had to finish coming upstream. In the past, the buoy turn was not in an area that was easily accessible to spectators, but with the changes, spectators can now watch the buoy turn at the Old AuSable Fly Shop.
Many AuSable Marathon competitors say the most challenging aspects of time trials are the buoy turn, the upstream paddling, and the areas of shallow water on the course.
“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 25, from 3-5:15 p.m. and Thursday, July 26, from 3-7 p.m. and Friday, July 27, 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 River Canoe Marathon. The Early Entry Registration period ended on June 15, and the Main Entry Registration period ended on June 30. Teams now have until noon on Monday, July 23, to register for the race.
The 2018 AuSable River Canoe Marathon will start at 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 28. Presenting Sponsor for this year’s race is Consumers Energy.
To see which teams are signed up for the 2018 AuSable Marathon, visit the event's official website: https://www.ausablecanoemarathon.org/2018-entries/