Close to 90 duos expected for 2019 AuSable Marathon
Seventy-nine teams were signed up for this year’s 120-mile canoe race from Grayling to Oscoda as of June 27
Caleb Casey | Managing Editor
Close to 90 duos expected for 2019 AuSable Marathon
Seventy-nine duos were signed up for the 2019 AuSable River Canoe Marathon – a 120-mile non-stop race from Grayling to Oscoda held every year during the last full weekend of July – as of Thursday, June 27, including a record number of Women’s Division teams, and paddlers still have a few weeks to sign up for the event.
There are three registration deadlines for the AuSable Marathon. The Early Entry Registration period ended on Friday, June 14, and the Main Entry Registration period ended on Saturday, June 29. Teams now have until noon on Monday, July 22, to sign up for the race.
Event organizers are expecting the final number of teams to be in the high 80s this year.
“There are 79 officially entered as of today,” said Andy Moore, AuSable River Canoe Marathon Committee Chairman, on Thursday, June 27. “Looking at somewhere between 86 and 88 is what the committee is expecting.”
The overall numbers in recent years are approximately double those of the early 1990s.
The Marathon featured 29, 27, and 34 teams in 1990 through 1992. The event 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.
The 2017 AuSable River Canoe Marathon featured 80 teams and last year’s race featured 84 duos.
Going into this year, the AuSable Marathon’s record for most Women’s Division teams was five, a mark first established in 2013 and then matched in 2016, 2017, and 2018. As of Thursday, June 27, there were nine Women’s Division teams signed up for this year’s Marathon.
One of them? Gwen Hills of Traverse City and Lynne Witte of Luther. Witte has started the Marathon 39 times – second only to Al Widing Sr.’s record of 41 starts – and she’s won the Women’s Division 11 times.
“When I began there were minimal numbers of female paddlers. 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.
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’s a test of will and endurance. Why do people do it?
Zach Cheney, who will be paddling in the Marathon for the first time this year, said the fierce competition and seeing friends in the race sparked his interest.
“Watching my friends from high school – Darin Nicholas and Carson Burmeister – compete in the Marathon the past few years made me want to race. I ran a few half-marathons since graduating high school, but nothing closely compares the level of competition I faced on the wrestling mat as canoe racing does,” Cheney said.
(Cheney was a wrestler as a student and he owns the Grayling High School record for most varsity wrestling victories.)
Sarah Lessard, of Les Cèdres, Quebec, is preparing for her seventh Marathon. She said it’s the people associated with the race and the challenge that keep her coming back.
“The people I have met in Grayling. It’s like coming to see your family at Christmas. My feeders! I love them so much! And, of course, the river is very interesting and entertaining,” Lessard said.
Bryan Bearss is back this year for another run at the Marathon.
“It’s the paddling family that keeps me coming back,” Bearss said. “The first race of the season, the Klondike Challenge, has the feel of a family reunion. The paddling family is welcoming and encouraging. I’m always stunned when one of those superstars of the sport will encourage me by name. Them knowing my name would be like LeBron knowing the name of a player in the D-league.”
“The other appeal is the zen experienced on the water. There’s nothing better for me after a stressful day than to go out and hit the water. Once out there the only thing that matters is the canoe and the water immediately ahead. What happened two strokes ago no longer matters because all you have control of is the current and upcoming paddle stroke. It’s a good reminder for life’s challenges,” Bearss said.
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.
“My training has changed because I have a baby now,” Lessard said. “But I like to go out paddling three times per week. I run two or three times per week and do another random sport once per week. I used to do more long shots but now with my baby it’s quite hard. I mostly do C-1, not because I want to, but because I have no one to train with; my boyfriend and I both paddle but we don’t always want our baby to be babysit.”
Cheney has also done a lot of prep in a C-1 (one-person canoe).
“My training consists of primarily C-1 workouts around one and a half to two hours long during the weeknights, mixed with a night of C-2 and then the MCRA races on the weekends. I try to run a few times a week to keep up on conditioning, too. During the winter months, I rely on a treadmill and rower, except for Florida training camp in March,” Cheney said.
This year’s AuSable River Canoe Marathon will likely feature more than 160 paddlers. 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.
Keys to having a good Marathon?
Lynne Witte, who’s finished the AuSable Marathon more times than anyone else in the history of the event with 37, said a good strategy is to make “goal number one to finish. Everything after that is a bonus.”
“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,” Witte said.
“I’ve finished one Marathon and made it halfway through another. As a relative rookie, I’d credit preparation as the number one component,” Bearss said. “Paddlers must be sure to try everything they will experience during the race in their training, from water types, weather, food, drink, feed exchanges, portaging, clothing. Get into some races before the Marathon; Spike’s and the Curley races are two great ways to prep and learn about the start and finish of the Marathon including the LeMans-style start.”
Based on past results, not all of the teams that start the 2019 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 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.
Before they race on the 120-mile Grayling to Oscoda course, AuSable Marathon teams will compete in time trials, a sprint event that determines positions for the Marathon’s run-to-the-river start.
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 that runs from Penrod’s to the Old AuSable Fly Shop and back to Penrod’s.
The AuSable River Canoe Marathon Committee changed the time trials course in 2016. On the old course, teams started at Penrod’s, paddled downstream to the halfway buoy, and ended at the starting line at Penrod’s paddling upstream.
Now, teams paddle upstream first. They turn around at a buoy at the Old AuSable Fly Shop and they finish the loop coming downstream.
In the past, the buoy turn was not in a place that was easily accessible to spectators, but with the 2016 changes, spectators can now watch the buoy turn at areas near 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.
“People practice the buoy turn 20 times and it’s only one small part of the course and it won’t always go the way you have practiced it. The hardest part I think is managing the stress the hour before you do your sprint,” Lessard said.
“The time trials have been my nemesis,” Bearss said. “Until this year I’ve really lacked the skill to properly navigate and help propel my canoe through the course. The force of the current isn’t unreasonably strong, but combined with the shallow water makes it very tough to get a good deep catch and power. I do love the buoy turn and the rush from the first few strokes getting up to full speed coming out of the buoy.”
This year’s AuSable Marathon time trials event is slated for Wednesday, July 24, from 3-5:30 p.m. and Thursday, July 25, from 3-7 p.m. and Friday, July 26, 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.
On the night of the Marathon, teams will 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 traffic near them for the run and for the entrance into the water, which can make it difficult to get a clean beginning.
“If you are near the front of the pack that limits the number of canoes you have to maneuver around on the boardwalk, less waiting time lost not moving forward, 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.
The 2019 AuSable River Canoe Marathon will start at 9 p.m. on Saturday, July 27. Presenting Sponsor for this year’s race is Consumers Energy.