The Biggest AuSable Marathon So Far?
Wed, 07/27/2022 - 10:37am caleb
Grayling to Oscoda. Hundreds of fans, thousands of dollars in prize money, 120 miles. A possible record number of teams with 96 signed up. Will this year’s race feature a lot of record-breaking performances like last year? Find out this weekend.
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
The return of the AuSable River Canoe Marathon in 2021 – following a one-year hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic – featured several record-setting performances, including a new mark for all-time best finish time, and this year’s race will likely include several more records being surpassed.
With 96 teams signed up for this year’s Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon as of the final registration deadline on Monday, July 25, it is possible that the 2022 Marathon – the 74th in the history of the event – will establish a new mark for most teams to start the race. It is possible that a team or two could still withdraw from the Marathon; the entry list on Monday listed 103 teams with 96 still in the field and seven that had dropped out.
Going into this weekend’s 2022 AuSable River Canoe Marathon, the record for most teams to start the race is 95, a mark that was established in 2016.
One of the paddlers in this year’s field, Lynne Witte of Cheboygan, can set a new all-time mark for AuSable Marathon starts – 42 – by participating in this year’s race. Last year, Witte tied the record of 41 starts, a mark that was established by Al Widing Sr.
Michael Garon of Washington Township has an opportunity to add to his record number of consecutive finishes this year. Garon, by finishing in 2021, extended his record to 22 straight AuSable Marathon finishes, four more than the next closest streaks (Witte, 18, 1995 through 2012, and Nate Winkler, 18, 2003 through 2021), according to Marathon archives.
Last year, in addition to Witte tying Widing’s start record and Garon adding to his own consecutive finishes mark, several other records were set during the 2021 AuSable Marathon, including a historic finish time for the champions.
Jorden Wakeley of Grayling and Matt Meersman of South Bend, Indiana won last year’s AuSable River Canoe Marathon with a time of 13:54:09. Their record finish time was four minutes better than the previous all-time mark of 13:58:08, which was established by Serge Corbin and Solomon Carrière in 1994. The mark of 13:54:09 by Wakeley/Meersman and the mark of 13:58:08 by Corbin/Carrière are the only two instances in which the winning team has posted a time under 14 hours (with the exception of 1961 when the race was conducted on a shortened course from Camp Ten to Oscoda).
Meersman said he heard reports as early as Mio Dam – approximately five hours into the race – that he and Wakeley were on record pace.
“It didn’t mean much to me at that point, but that was the first I heard,” Meersman said. “I just didn’t think the water was that high. It wasn’t on my mind, even with all that rain on Saturday. I was caught up in the race and what kind of race we were going to run.”
It was late in the race when he thought breaking the all-time record might be possible.
“Five Channels or Cooke, it was like, ‘wow, we might be able to do this,’” Meersman said.
Meersman and Wakeley – once they hit McMasters Bridge and beyond – reset all of the Marathon’s point to point records. Meersman said he was surprised they were able to break so many of those records since usually point to point records are set by a team that is trying to “make or break a race” or “gambling” to move up, and usually teams either save up stamina to make those moves or pay for them later in the race.
“The fact we were able to maintain a record pace across all those ponds is kind of validating,” Meersman said.
According to Marathon timing results, Meersman and Wakeley started setting checkpoint records approximately two and a half hours into the race. They posted record split times at McMasters Bridge (2:37:46), Parmalee (3:39:30), Camp 10 (4:41:15), Mio Dam (5:05:38), McKinley (6:48:05), 4001 Bridge (7:38:04), Alcona (8:14:26), Loud (10:01:54), Cooke (11:27:41), Foote (12:37:48), and Oscoda (13:54:09).
“In hindsight, the later part of the race, the river doesn’t matter that much; the big ponds are the big ponds. It’s surprising we were able to maintain that,” Meersman said.
Also in 2021, AuSable Marathon teams set two new division time records.
Eric Batway of Grayling and Mike Bradford of Lapeer set a new record for best Seniors Division time with a mark of 15:00:42, according to Marathon archives.
“A Seniors Division team consists of two paddlers who are both 50 years of age or older,” according to the AuSable Marathon’s official website.
The Veterans Division also had a new record set in 2021. Fred Mills and Tim McClure, both of Roscommon, completed last year’s Marathon in 15:52:00, according to race records.
“A Veterans Division team consists of two paddlers who are both 60 years of age or older,” according to the Marathon’s website.
The 74th AuSable River Canoe Marathon – a 120-mile non-stop canoe race from Grayling to Oscoda – will be held on Saturday and Sunday, July 30 and 31. The Marathon will begin at 9 p.m. on Saturday at the Old AuSable Fly Shop and teams that are able to complete the course – on average in recent years, four out of five duos that start the race are able to finish – will reach Oscoda between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. on Sunday.
“The teams will paddle non-stop at 50 to 80 paddle strokes per minute for 120 miles while battling the river’s natural obstructions, at first in darkness then in the next day’s glaring sun, and will portage six Consumers Energy hydroelectric dams. Potentially inclement weather, possible injury, and sheer exhaustion all take their toll,” Marathon officials said.
This year’s AuSable Marathon will feature paddlers from Michigan, Indiana, New York, Texas, Florida, Wisconsin, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Ohio, Alaska, Hawaii, New Hampshire, California, and Canada.
AuSable River Canoe Marathon paddlers train for hundreds of hours to prepare for the 14 to 19 hours of effort required to finish the event’s 120-mile course. During the race, the weather can bring rain, cold, heat, or fog. The paddlers eat meals out of plastic baggies and thermoses. They deal with fatigue, sickness, and pain. Why do they go through it, and then come back the following year to do it all over again? Marathon competitors have listed a variety of reasons for racing in the Marathon every year, including the challenge, love for the AuSable River, the camaraderie, and the hospitality of the Grayling area.
“I love it. It’s fun. It’s fun to be part of the tradition. It’s history. Paddlers are just a good bunch of people,” one competitor said.
“Ability to participate in such a challenge on a beautiful river with so many friends I have met paddling. We race each other but are friends – that makes it so enjoyable,” said another.
“The Marathon is a challenge like no other, combining mental and physical challenge where men and women compete on a level playing field,” said another.
“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 another.
“Everyone is so nice and so welcoming. The Marathon is not just about the night of the race. It’s also about the entire week of meeting, talking, and sharing time with amazing people,” said another.
“It’s one hell of an adventure,” said another.
Before AuSable Marathon teams race for a long time over the weekend, they will race for a short time during 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.
Time trials 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 time trials course 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 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.
This year’s time trials are slated for 4-6 p.m. on Wednesday, July 27, 3-7 p.m. on Thursday, July 28, and 2-4:30 p.m. on Friday, July 29.
On the night of Saturday, July 30, the AuSable River Canoe Marathon’s pre-race program will begin at 6 p.m. at the Old AuSable Fly Shop. According to event schedules, the pre-race program will feature paddler introductions for all of the Marathon teams at 6:45 p.m.
During the beginning of the AuSable Marathon – what event organizers describe as a “thrilling LeMans-style running start through the streets of Grayling” – teams will line up on Peninsular Avenue near the Grayling Post Office, five teams per row, for the run to the river, and paddlers will carry their canoes downhill to Ingham Street and then run for the dock at the Old AuSable Fly Shop to get into the water.
Starting positions for the “LeMans-style” 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,” one paddler said.
“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,” said another.
The 2022 Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon will start at 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 30. After piling into the water at the Old AuSable Fly Shop, teams have hours and hours of paddling ahead of them, including several hours in the 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.
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 21 AuSable River Canoe Marathons (2000 through 2021, no race in 2020), 1,588 teams started the race and 1,321 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.
While both the start and the finish of the Marathon have hundreds of fans, the atmosphere is not quite 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. The start lasts a few minutes; the finish takes hours.
“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,” one AuSable Marathon official said.
“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.
AuSable Marathon officials said the “dedication of its fans” sets the Marathon “apart from other ultra-endurance events.”
“Up to 50,000 fans are expected to catch at least some part of the race in person. Regular radio updates are carried by Black Diamond Broadcasting’s 98.5 UPS and the other AuSable River Marathon Radio Network stations. There are GPS trackers on each canoe entered allowing online spectators to follow their favorite teams down the 120-mile river course and there is significant social media coverage of the race,” Marathon officials said.
For more on the race, check out the AuSable River Canoe Marathon’s Facebook page or its website at www.AuSableCanoeMarathon.org.