Near-record field to start AuSable Marathon on Saturday night
Annual 120-mile race from Grayling to Oscoda could feature more than 90 teams
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
Last year’s AuSable River Canoe Marathon – a 120-mile non-stop race from Grayling to Oscoda – featured a few record-breaking performances, including a team establishing a new record for most wins by a duo in the history of the event, and a few more records are likely to fall during this year’s Marathon.
In 2018, Andrew Triebold of Grayling and Steve Lajoie of Quebec won the Marathon for the 10th time as a team, making them the most prolific duo in the history of the race. Going into last year’s AuSable Marathon, the team of Triebold and Lajoie was tied with the duo of Jeff Kolka of Grayling and Serge Corbin of Quebec; each team had nine wins. Kolka and Corbin won the Marathon eight consecutive times in 1996 through 2003 and they won their ninth title together in 2005. Triebold and Lajoie won as a team in 2004. Later, they posted their own streak of eight consecutive victories in 2008 through 2015, tying Kolka and Corbin at nine.
Triebold and Lajoie, now with 10 wins as a team, will try to make it 11 this year; they are registered for the 2019 AuSable River Canoe Marathon.
Last year’s Marathon also featured a significant individual record with Michael Garon of Washington Township adding to his own mark of most consecutive finishes. Garon, with Joel Mack of Grayling, finished 38th last year; it was his 20th consecutive finish, two more than the next closest streak (18, Lynne Witte, 1995 through 2012), according to Marathon records. Garon is registered for this year’s race (with Doug Gillin of Adrian).
Three Marathon veterans owned streaks of 16 consecutive Marathon finishes going into last year’s race: Al Widing Sr. (1988-2003), Serge Corbin (1990-2005), and Rick Joy (1991-2006). Two more paddlers – Triebold, and Nate Winkler of Traverse City, who placed 44th with Rebecca Sutter of New York in 2018 – reached the mark of 16 consecutive finishes during last year’s Marathon.
The 2018 AuSable Marathon field tied the race’s record for most Women’s Division teams with five. The race also featured five all-female duos in 2013, 2016, and 2017.
The 2019 Marathon has nine Women’s Division teams registered, so a new record is almost certain to be established this year with regard to all-female teams in the race.
If no teams withdraw between now and the start of the Marathon on Saturday, July 27, 91 duos will attempt to complete the race’s 120-mile course this year. The 2019 AuSable River Canoe Marathon will mark the race’s 72nd year.
This year’s AuSable Marathon will have a diverse field, featuring paddlers from Alaska, Australia, Canada, Florida, Great Britain, Indiana, Ohio, Massachusetts, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, Texas, and Wisconsin.
Paddlers have to put in hundreds of training hours to get ready for the 14 to 19 hours of effort required to finish the AuSable Marathon’s 120-mile course. During the race, the weather can bring rain, cold, heat, or fog. The paddlers have to eat meals out of plastic baggies and thermoses. They have to deal with fatigue, sickness, and 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?
This year’s field will feature two paddlers who are approaching Widing’s record for most starts in AuSable Marathon history (41): Lynne Witte, who has 39 previous starts, and Bill Torongo, who has 34 previous starts.
Early in his run of AuSable River Canoe Marathon appearances, Torongo told people he wouldn’t do it again.
“That was about 30 years ago,” Torongo said.
Torongo said the fun of the event, the rich history of it, and the paddling community keep him coming back.
“I love it. It’s fun. It’s fun to be part of the tradition. I dig it. It’s history,” Torongo said. “Paddlers are just a good bunch of people.”
Witte said she got into the Marathon by watching it with her father, and she enjoys the annual challenge that the event offers.
“After my first Marathon, my passion to compete yearly continues,” Witte said. “I thoroughly enjoy training, competing, and working as a board member to encourage others to race as well.”
“The Marathon is a challenge like no other, combining mental and physical challenge where men and women compete on a level playing field,” said Bryan Bearss, who’s racing in the Marathon for the third time this year. “I’ve competed in the 1,100-mile Iditarod and numerous other sled dog races in the remote reaches of Alaska, but never had the combination of the mental challenge to overcome the physical exertion and fatigue experienced over 120 miles.”
Michael Schlimmer, from New York, said he enjoys the challenge and “paddling through the cool night and watching the sun come up.”
“It’s one hell of an adventure,” Schlimmer said.
Rebecca Davis, whose parents and aunts and uncles have raced in the Marathon many times, will be racing in the event for the 10th time this year. Her reason?
“Being on the river with 150 to 200 other people who all think this crazy race is cool,” Davis said. “Feeling the glide of the boat after hours of paddling. Getting to know and spend time with a partner. Feeling in shape, strong, and capable. It’s fun. I probably won’t do it every single year, but I am on my 10th already, and that went pretty fast, so who knows?”
The Race Within A Race
Before AuSable Marathon teams race for a long time, 14 to 19 hours non-stop from Grayling to Oscoda on Saturday and Sunday, they will race for a short time in the event’s time trials on Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.
Time trials are sprints on a short, looped course that determine starting positions for the Marathon. The course runs from Penrod’s upstream to the Old AuSable Fly Shop and then downstream back to Penrod’s.
It takes most teams between five and nine minutes to finish the course and 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.
Marathon officials changed the course for time trials 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 is shorter, and it gives 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 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 are the keys to having a successful sprint?
“Don’t make any major mistakes. Missing a buoy, flipping on the turn, breaking all of your paddles, these things cost a lot of time,” Davis said. “Warm up well so you don’t cramp up. Visualization is big for me, so I run through the course, and practice each maneuver in my head. I am a stern paddler at heart, so the last two years in the bow make me a little more anxious. If you make a mistake, don’t sweat it – there is a 16-plus hour race to make it up.”
This year’s time trials are slated for 3-5:30 p.m. on Wednesday, July 24, 3-7 p.m. on Thursday, July 25, and 2-4:30 p.m. on Friday, July 26.
On Saturday night, the AuSable River Canoe Marathon’s pre-race program will begin at 6:30 p.m. – 30 minutes later than usual – at the Old AuSable Fly Shop.
“In order to better conform with the festival events schedule and encourage visitors and locals alike to attend all the festivities, the race committee has opted to push back the start of the pre-race program to 6:30 p.m. This will not affect the start time of the race, but merely shave off some time and content from the program,” said Camren Wilson, who’s part of the pre-race program team.
The pre-race program will feature presentation of colors, music, paddler introductions for all of the Marathon teams, and more.
“We will be announcing this year’s scholarship winners, introducing the 2019 (AuSable River Canoe Marathon) Hall of Fame class, recognizing Consumers Energy’s continued sponsorship and support of the race, and we will be giving away T-shirts and doing some cheers and crowd games to pump up the paddlers and spectators,” Wilson said.
Paddler introductions will begin at 7 p.m. At 8:45 p.m., the pre-race program will announce the winner of the Marathon’s 50/50 Raffle.
The Running Start
For 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 to get into the water. Starting positions for the run to the river are determined by the three-day time trials competition. 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. Many paddlers say it’s an advantage to post a fast sprint time and secure a spot near the front of the pack. Others say there are both positives and negatives to starting later in the group.
“Overall there isn’t a huge effect if you have a lower start number. You end up expending close to the same energy. If you are further back at the start than where you finish, you generally rest between trying to pass people, which saves energy but might do more muscular damage. On the plus side, if you start further back, you might not get tempted to chase someone early on that is going too fast for you. Overall you might lose a few minutes on your finish time by starting further back. Another downside is your pit crew has a harder time finding you in the chaos,” Schlimmer said.
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 fun and a great way to get the heart pumping prior to hitting the water,” Bearss said. “For me, running in the stern forced me into tunnel vision, having to trust my bow paddler for setting a good pace and route. It’s crazy rounding the corner at (the Old AuSable Fly Shop) and jockeying for a spot on the boardwalk and timing the safe entrance into the river. One miscalculation and a paddler or a canoe could be damaged by landing wrong on a rock, the dock, or another team. Once in the water the river no longer resembles a gentle flowing river, but instead it becomes a washing machine of waves sloshing from every direction, and bouncing off the river banks. These waves throw the canoes to and fro, making steering and getting a good catch a challenge, compounded by having other canoes so close you may take your next paddle stroke inside of a competitor’s canoe.”
“If you are near the front of the pack that limits the number of canoes you have to maneuver around on the boardwalk and puts you with the faster teams once you get in the water. Riding with the faster wakes makes you faster. Trying to catch up with those fast teams once you fall back is like trying to climb a mountain while they are running on level ground. It’s probably a race you’re not going to win,” Bearss said.
“HUP” All Night
The 2019 Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon will start at 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 27. After piling into the water at the Old AuSable Fly Shop, teams have hours and hours of paddling ahead of them, including several hours after it gets dark.
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.
“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,” said another.
“Expecting the unexpected,” said another.
Bearss said “getting over the walls” is the biggest challenge he’s faced so far with regard to paddling all night and into the next morning.
“There are two walls I’ve experienced: the physical wall when your muscles feel like there just isn’t anything left in your energy stores, and the mental wall when your mind is overcome by circadian rhythms or your mind cannot handle the idea of pushing for X-number of hours. Both of these walls are temporary but unless you’ve experienced them before they can be debilitating and threaten to end your race,” Bearss said.
Lessard said an illness in 2016 was the biggest challenge she’s ever had to overcome during an AuSable Marathon, but she also has arm troubles every year.
“The main challenge that comes back every year is the pain in my wrists and forearms. I don’t know if the shallow water makes it worse, or the fact that I have to guide the boat more because it’s so twisty. I tape my forearms and take an Advil and hope for the best,” Lessard said.
Schlimmer said the toughest challenge he’s had to overcome during his previous Marathon finishes came in his first attempt.
“During my first Marathon, someone gave me a sleeping pill instead of an ibuprofen before I crossed the last pond. It was a bit windy that day and my seat was high so it must have been hell for my brother to keep the boat upright,” Schlimmer 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.
In the most recent 19 AuSable River Canoe Marathons (2000 through 2018), 1,415 teams started the race and 1,167 finished (82 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 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,” said one AuSable Marathon official.
“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. 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,” said another.
The AuSable River Canoe 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.