2019 AuSable Marathon to feature record number of Womens Division teams
Nine all-female teams registered for this year’s race, including several of the best women paddlers in the history of the event
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
The 2019 AuSable River Canoe Marathon – a 120-mile non-stop race from Grayling to Oscoda – will feature the most Women’s Division teams in the history of the event, including a few of the fastest female paddlers ever to compete in the race.
Nine all-female teams were signed up for this year’s AuSable Marathon – the 72nd race in the event’s history – as of Monday, July 8. The previous record for most Women’s Division teams to start the race was five (in 2013, 2016, 2017, and 2018), according to www.ausablecanoemarathon.org.
This year’s race will likely also break the AuSable Marathon record for most women overall to compete in the event. The current record is 32, established in 2016, according to Marathon records. As of Monday, July 8, there were 39 women registered for the 2019 AuSable Marathon.
Teams can still sign up for this year’s race. The final registration deadline is noon on Monday, July 22. Teams may also drop out before the start of the race, so the final numbers will not be known until the night of July 27 when the Marathon gets underway.
Women raced in the full AuSable Marathon for the first time in 1973, according to Marathon records and coverage of the race in the Crawford County Avalanche.
“In a special June meeting, the Michigan Canoe Racing Association voted to change the rule barring women from competition,” according to an article in the July 26, 1973 edition of the Avalanche.
The 1973 Marathon – the 26th race in the event’s history – featured the first professional division female competitors, the first all-female team, and the first pro division female finishers.
“The wife of a veteran canoe racer and a Lansing woman will team up as the first female duo. Donna Buckley of Mt. Pleasant, wife of John Buckley, one of the state’s top canoeists, will team with Truda Gilbert of Lansing,” according the July 26, 1973 Avalanche article.
Donna Buckley and Truda Gilbert reached the finish line in 22 hours, 12 minutes, 20 seconds, taking 17th place out of 22 teams that finished the race. Twenty-six duos started the 1973 AuSable River Canoe Marathon.
“For the first time ever, the gate was opened for women to compete in this grueling race. (Truda) Gilbert of Lansing, and Donna Buckley of Mt. Pleasant, reached the finish line as the first female duo to compete in the canoe race,” according to an article in the August 2, 1973 edition of the Crawford County Avalanche.
In 1974 through 1982, the Marathon did not have a Women’s Division team, according to www.ausablecanoemarathon.org.
In 1983, Valerie Fons of Woodenville, Washington and Anne Kobylenski of Condon, Montana won the Women’s Division with a time of 16:50:17. Fons and Kobylenski finished in 10th place, a mark that still stands as the best overall placement for an all-female team.
“The women’s team of Anne Kobylenski and Valerie Fons drew the most cheers from spectators, finishing at 10th place in 16:50:17. They smashed the previous women’s record of 22:12:20,” according to an article in the August 4, 1983 edition of the Crawford County Avalanche.
Their record of 16:50:17 for fastest Women’s Division time did not last long.
After two years of no all-female teams in 1986 and 1987, Lynne Witte of Mount Clemens and Nancy Shelhorse of Virginia Beach, Virginia won the division with a time of 16:24:31 and an overall placement of 11th, according to www.ausablecanoemarathon.org. Witte and Shelhorse won the Women’s Division again in 1987, placing 14th with a time of 16:56:57.
There were no Women’s Division teams in 1988, 1989, or 1990, according to Marathon records.
In 1991, Witte and Connie Cannon of East Lansing set a new finish time record for a Women’s Division team at 16:04:59; they placed 15th.
In 1994, Cannon – with Carrie Trudgeon (Montgomery) of Oscoda – posted a finish time of 15:26:14, placing 17th, according to Marathon records. Their mark of 15:26:14 would stand as the best Women’s Division time for more than 20 years.
Rebecca Davis of Homer and Edith MacHattie of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, in 2017, broke the record with a time 15:17:39. They placed 16th overall. In 2018, Davis and MacHattie posted the second fastest time in AuSable Marathon Women’s Division history at 15:25:42.
“I never thought too much about the records before setting the women’s time in 2017,” Davis said. “The women’s record and the mixed record fell that year after standing over 20 years. Those records needed three things to fall into place in order to be broken: one, a fast team; two, good water conditions; three, a nearly perfect race. We hadn’t expected to have a shot, because Edith and I had never raced together before the AuSable (Marathon), and we weren’t setting our expectations to break a record time set by an excellent Marathon team of Connie Cannon and Carrie Montgomery in basically flooded conditions. The other great women’s teams hadn’t even come close, and we just wanted to have a good race, so that wasn’t even a thought for us going in.”
“We had a good sprint time, so our goal at that point was a top 20 finish. Then we flipped over right after putting in and were about 55th place going under the first bridge. I thought our race was going to be tough after that, but we both just relaxed and kept it together. Once we made it to halfway, we really started to feel good and match up, and then it seemed like every team we passed was moving in slow motion. When we got to Foote Dam we found out we were ahead of the record for the first time in the whole race. It made the last section pass really quickly, and I still get chills thinking about the comeback we had that year. I am almost as proud of our 2018 race, when we broke the old record a second time in worse water conditions. It proved to both of us that we really ‘earned it’ and we were able to appreciate our connection as a team; the first year we didn’t know what we were capable of, and the next year we were able to savor it a little more.”
Overall, according to Marathon records, Witte has the most Women’s Division wins with 11. Cannon and Trudgeon-Montgomery each have six wins in the division.
Cannon and Witte own the record for most AuSable River Canoe Marathon Women’s Division victories as a team with four.
This year’s AuSable River Canoe Marathon will feature the fastest Women’s Division team in the history of the event, Rebecca Davis of Homer and Edith MacHattie of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, who posted a time of 15:17:39 in 2017, placing 16th overall.
The division will also include the duo of Lynne Witte of Luther and Gwen Hills of Traverse City. Witte has won the Marathon’s Women’s Division 11 times – five more than anyone else. She’s started the Marathon a total of 39 times, just two fewer than Al Widing Sr.’s 41, the all-time record. Witte has finished the AuSable Marathon 37 times, which is more than anyone else in the history of the event, according to Marathon records. Hills has raced in the Marathon six times, finishing as high as 24th.
Holly Reynolds of Rochester, New York is racing with Gloria Wesley of Pittsfield, Massachusetts this year. Together, in 2013, Reynolds and Wesley posted the fourth fastest time in the history of the Marathon’s Women’s Division with a finish of 15:37:07. In 2011, they posted the 13th best time in the history of the division with a finish of 16:11:32.
Kristi Treston and Katie Treston, both of Traverse City, have each started the Marathon four times and finished it four times, posting the 21st best Women’s Division time at 16:25:59 as a duo in 2017.
Kaitlin Jiral of Spring Branch, Texas is paddling with Virginia Condie of Martindale, Texas this year. Jiral, paddling in her first AuSable Marathon last year, finished 21st overall with partner Michael Schlimmer. Condie will be competing in the Marathon for the first time this year.
Phoebe Reese of Oneonta, New York is paired with Sylvie Nadeau of Quebec. Nadeau has six previous Marathon starts; Reese will be paddling in the event for the first time.
Three Women’s Division duos this year will be “rookie teams” with neither paddler having a previous Marathon start.
They are: Shannon Issendorf of Dripping Springs, Texas and Mollie Binion of College Station, Texas; Tanya Rice of Grayling and Heidi Farmer of Grayling; Nicky Krucinski of White Cloud and Jessica Pieri of White Cloud.
Witte said she got into the Marathon by watching it with her father, and she enjoys the annual challenge that the race offers.
“I watched the AuSable Marathon with my dad and was intrigued by the race. After my first Marathon, my passion to compete yearly continues. Once I gained skills I raced to be competitive. I thoroughly enjoy training, competing, and working as a board member to encourage others to race as well,” Witte said.
Davis started paddling at age five, but she didn’t start serious training until approximately 10 years ago. She said family members – including Connie Cannon, her aunt, and Roxanne Barton, her mother – and other female paddlers served as role models.
“I raced on and off growing up, whenever one of my parents or some poor soul needed an out of shape young paddler, but I didn’t get into training and racing at a high level until 2009. I had gone to college and felt really out of shape and I didn’t like it, so I started to train for my first General Clinton. I haven’t stopped since,” Davis said. “I have had the opportunity to train and race with so many women. Truda Kruger really paved the way for us ladies in Michigan, and Lynne Witte is our still-competing legend, not only paving the way in canoeing, but also in sled dog races. My mom, Roxanne Barton, is my biggest paddling idol; I will never live up to her legacy, but I am so happy to celebrate her successes over a 50-year paddling career. My aunt, Connie Cannon, is a huge influence. The first year I wanted to race the AuSable (Marathon, in 2009), she raced with my dad instead, and I spent a lot of time chasing them down the river and learning first hand.”
“Out of state, I have been incredibly inspired by Beth Schluter, Gloria Wesley, Sylvie Nadeau, Nicole Owens, and my 2019 partner Edith MacHattie. I think these five women are probably the toughest competitors I know, and they are some of the nicest and accessible paddlers I have met. Jennifer and Judy-Ann Parke really opened the door for me as to what was possible. I watched them race at the Classique for years and saw how they hung in there with the men’s teams, and I wanted to be like them,” Davis said.
“Even some of the younger girls are incredibly inspiring – JoAnn Olney, Briana Fitzgerald, and Rosalie Frigon are all so young and accomplished in our sport already. Emily Broderson and Kaitlin Jiral have done some of the hardest races in the world at under 25 years of age; the stuff I have done is nothing compared to the challenges they have taken on and excelled at. It won’t be long until I am chasing these women down the course. Women in the paddling community are excellent in reaching out to each other. We try to share our love of the sport with others. It is really competitive, but we also actually enjoy spending time together, so I think it is kind of infectious. We celebrate each other’s successes,” Davis said.
Witte said it’s “amazing to see so many women’s and mixed teams” in the Marathon, and she said the rise of the Mixed Division – more men paddling with women – has helped lead to increased numbers of female paddlers and more Women’s Division teams.
“It is great to have more females competing. When I began there were minimal numbers of female paddlers. It is encouraging see more young girls interested in competing. An increasing number of competitive males are more willing to race with a female. It is great having at least nine female teams this year. It is an honor for me to be competing in a race with so many highly skilled and competitive young women,” Witte said.
Davis said female paddlers like Witte and others, combined with a supportive paddling community, have helped build a positive environment for women in racing.
“The women the generation before us paved the way: Truda Kruger, Lynn Capen, Roxanne Barton, Connie Cannon, and Lynne Witte, to name a few. On top of that, it was really inspiring to see Jennifer and Judy-Ann Parke become the first women’s team to complete the Triple Crown as a team in all three races in 2013,” Davis said. “Each race has made an effort to be more inclusive to women paddlers, and the prize money is starting to come our way as well. Not only that, but the women’s paddling community is so inclusive and supportive that we want to paddle together. The fear of being slow, or alone, isn’t there anymore.”
Witte said she has had a lot of fun paddling with a variety of female partners throughout the last four decades.
“I have had some of my best races and certainly shared many awesome memories and friendships with my female partners. 1986 and 1987 with Nancy Shelhorse from Virginia was an example of friendship and partners. Nancy and I met (through a) mutual friend. Memories of the amazing female athletes like Nancy, Kathy Maniza, and Karen Levitte-Pleasant, Stephanie Larson, Sylvie Nadeau, and Karen Simpson. Connie Cannon and I raced multiple times. Connie had the best mix of outstanding athletic ability and competitiveness blended with a great sense of humor,” Witte said. “This year it is a privilege to race with Gwen Hills. We carry lot of traditions and memories with us to Oscoda.”
Davis said she expects a close race for the top spot during this year’s AuSable Marathon Women’s Division.
“I have raced Gloria and Holly in 2013, and we weren’t able to hang with them past Parmalee. Gloria and Holly are built for marathon racing, and they are one of very few women’s teams that gets faster in deeper water relative to the men’s teams. This means that the race really won’t be over until it is actually over. Plus, they are just fast – two of the best women paddlers, and they match up so well,” Davis said. “Paddling is a unique sport as two plus two equals five or sometimes two plus two equals three. They also both really trust and respect each other and their contributions to the team, which means mentally they don’t crack. It is two really experienced women’s teams with four of the best paddlers racing on a course that they both excel at, with similar strengths. I’m both nervous and excited to be part of this piece of paddling history, and I can’t wait to see how it turns out.”
Other up-and-coming teams could also vie for the top spot in the division.
“Of course, there are quite a few women’s teams from all over that may be up there. Katie and Kristi Treston are improving in every race. Kaitlin Jiral and Virginia Condie are Texas Water Safari royalty, and are coming ready to compete. I believe seven of the nine teams are experienced distance paddlers between Safari, General Clinton, and AuSable, and the other two are women’s rookie teams, which is equally impressive,” Davis said.