Training started months ago. During winter, racers can be spotted on the AuSable River, paddling first against the current, then back downstream under the snow-covered pines of northern Michigan. On days they don’t paddle—when a partner is busy, or a car breaks down—paddlers find other ways to train, jogging along back-roads or snowshoeing on Grayling’s frozen Lake Margrethe. And as soon as the ice melts they’re out there paddling too, up and down the shore.
|Lightweight racing canoes|
The AuSable River Canoe Marathon is 120-miles, from Grayling to Oscoda, finishing where the river runs into the cold water of Lake Huron. The race takes between 14 and 19 hours to complete, during which, for periods, paddlers will stroke as many as 120 times per minute. In 2004 the temperature dropped to 32 degrees in the middle of the night—in the middle of summer, mind you. If the cold doesn’t get to you, exhaustion or delirium might. Officials routinely pull racers from the river when their bodies fail them. Still some are able to convince the officials to let them continue, at which point they’re strapped into life vests in case they lose consciousness and fall into the water.
If they reach the finish line in Oscoda, racers arrive shell-shocked, tailbones bleeding from friction, and bodies torn by a race that takes them from the verge of hypothermia to near heatstroke. Their muscles visibly twitch and spasm as they drag their waterlogged bodies from the finish line to the recovery area. Over long stretches of race, if they have any fluid left in their bodies, paddlers routinely piss on themsselves to avoid stopping and losing time, which has to be washed off in Oscoda. During the early stages, before cold and exhaustion drill into their bones, racers seem to enjoy the crowd’s cheers. By the time they reach the finish, they’re lucky if they recognize their own families.
The Beginning of the End
The racers take their positions, and the fans line the street. The pistol sounds and teams lift their canoes and carry them on shoulders or at their sides, sprinting through the heart of the city in a crowded footrace, jockeying for position while fans scream their names. The panicked dash for the river might just be the worst imaginable way to begin an endurance race, but it certainly pumps the crowd full of adrenaline. Spectators yell as loud as they can, for no particular racer, for every racer. It’s a moment of pride for the city. Fans seem to cheer for Grayling, and even to cheer for their own cheering. The paddlers run as though the entire race hinges on the footrace to the river.
At a shallow entry point downtown, racers splash into the headwaters of the AuSable, and paddle furiously to get out of town and separate from the crowd. The spectators, for their part, sprint up the street to the first bend in the river to watch the paddlers speed by in a confused, violent cluster. Paddlers, at this early stage, bump each other, run into low hanging branches, and create furious wake that laps into the yards of riverfront homes. Fans continue to yell, though it’s tough to say whether any of the messages are received.
Then, as suddenly as the race begins, the racers are past and the crowd, after considering the calm river for a moment, turns and leaves downtown. Some fans go home, some crack open a beer and begin a long night of partying at bridges and dams soon to be as crowded as Mardi Gras. Feed teams, meanwhile, finish preparations and depart for pit stops along the river to tend to their paddlers, and the paddlers begin, as Jim Harrison described in a 1973 Sports Illustrated article, a night of “unmitigated punishment.”
All Night Long
Teams paddle rural stretches of river, past cabins and fishing camps. During the night, boats stick together to help light the river and to drift off each other’s currents. It’s a competition, but a friendly one (for most). In many ways this is like car racing. Only the elite teams, who everybody knows by name, are vying for one of the top spots. Last year’s defending champions, Andy Triebold and Steve LaJoie, are expected to win again—it’s nearly a foregone conclusion. The rest are fighting against personal records, and to prove something to themselves—to say they did it.
Feed teams (think pit-stop crews) drive to predetermined spots and wade armpit deep in the rushing waters of the AuSable to hand off dry clothes and food to their paddlers. Eventually, the yellow glow of a flashlight will come bobbling through the thick black night, and the holler, “hup,” a call from the back paddler signaling the front man to paddle on the opposite side of the canoe. For the best teams, the hand-off of food items, the disposal of drink containers, it’s seamless. For the rest, it’s a struggle to make a pass without stopping, or worse, tipping.
In 2008 I followed my first canoe marathon. I fed for Sean Casey, then 29-years old, and his 83-year-old racing partner, paddling legend Al Widing Sr. There were a lot of fans cheering Al at every stop—the city loves him, understandably, and it does put the feed team under some pressure. At Luzerne, a busy stop for feed teams, Sean stopped the canoe. Al yelled at him to keep going, but Sean back-paddled and demanded a dry shirt for Al, who was shivering in his thin frame. Before paddling onto Mio Dam, Sean, who typically has a happy-go-lucky demeanor, said very seriously to the feed team, “hot soup at Mio.” When asked if he wanted ice cubes in his soup he said very matter-of-fact about the soup he would carry between his legs, “just let me know if it’s a ball-scorcher.”
While paddlers paddle and feed teams hustle, casual fans head from bridge to bridge to cheer the race, and to drink. Party buses, cars, and floodlights line bridges that, during any other night, would be pitch dark. Fans have their own rituals, their own pit stops and watering holes. This year will be my first year following the race as a true fan, not as a member of a team. In Luzerne—at least as I understand it—there’s a traditional stop at Ma Deter’s for shots and beers. I’m planning to embrace the fan experience, so if you’re in the neighborhood, stop by and say hello.
Mio Dam: Welcome to the Family
I married into Grayling—canoe racing is not in my DNA. Yet, for my first marathon I somehow ended up on the feed team of a legend. My specific job was "bank runner.” When canoe number 09 portaged at the dams my job was to run next to Sean and Al, hand them food rations, ask for requests, and shout down instructions to the rest of the feed team standing in the river waiting to hand out Gatorade, soup, dry shirts, flashlights.
At 3 a.m. I found myself standing on the spillway of Mio Dam, watching tiny lights come into view on the opposite side of the pond with not a clue how to proceed. With nerve-wracking limited instruction, I squinted across a fog-covered pond, hoping to see the tiny flickering light of my canoe. I cheered for their arrival, I dreaded their arrival. My task was to clean the spillway after they dumped the contents of the canoe, then sprint next to them down the dam’s steep incline.
Cleaning up the mess on the spillway was one concern, but what most worried me was that I would be running next to Al’s canoe, a man who garners more respect from the city of Grayling than Bo Schembechler would if he rose from the grave and returned to Ann Arbor. If I were to accidentally trip him—and I thought this over and over for 30 long, dark minutes—my wife’s entire hometown, drunk since 9 p.m. and pumped full of nervous energy, waited for me. They’ll never find my body, I thought. Do not trip this man.
Simple Pleasures of Morning
For a member of the feed team, morning brings a bit of clarity to what, since 3 a.m., has been a hallucination of pine trees, two-tracks, and frigid, fast-moving waters. At 6 a.m., after waking from a 20-minute nap in the backseat of a car, it’s a nice relief after what for so long had been a dark, swirling mystery to step out and see the water in daylight.
In 2009 I was just awake, and watching paddlers go by at the end of a boat launch. A canoe came around a bend, and while reaching for supplies from the feed team, the paddlers tipped. They stood in waist deep water, like a baptism I thought, and the front paddler yelled, “Why the fuck did that have to happen,” quite literally to the sky, as if God had ordained they be punished. Just when the day was bound to warm, they were dipped in the freezing water by an unseen hand. The racer punched the water until his team forced him back in the boat. Up until that point I had been cold, wet, tired of the sand in my shoes. Suddenly, my life didn’t seem so bad.
By late morning paddlers enter the Huron National Forest. The sun is hot, and beats violently on paddlers who just hours before had been all but frostbitten. At this point, finishing is all in the mind, a section of race that Sean Casey said is “peaceful and quiet, like zen.” Paddlers run smoothly along the wide, flat AuSable, and periodically throw themselves over dams, run down spillways, and get back in their tiny racing canoes—the action seems almost automatic, at least to the remaining spectators, who peer over the high banks at scenic lookouts and cheer. The race seems all but over, but of course, it’s not. At Whirpool, the last viewing spot, 40 minutes before the finish, leisure tubers—drinking beer and unaware of the marathon’s existence—enter the river, creating floating obstacles for blind-tired paddlers, what racer Nate Winkler described in 2009 as “God’s last cruel trick.”
If racers can navigate the last obstacle, they’re nearly finished. At the end of the race, paddlers roll out of boats and wash their urine off in the river. After parking their canoe onshore and gathering their bearings—if they can—teams enjoy a hearty meal, and a cheap motel room in Oscoda. Racers and feed teams tell war stories, swim in Lake Huron, and sleep if off. Beer will never taste better in your life. The few fans who make it to the finish line eventually go home, and as quickly as the racers vanished into the northern Michigan woods to start their night, the race is over. For the fans, next year’s race is a long way off. But for the paddlers, training has already begun.
Prepare for 2011
The 64th annual Weyerhaeuser AuSable River Canoe Marathon starts July 30 in Grayling and finishes July 31 in Oscoda. Total prize money this year promises again to be over $50,000. For more details visit www.ausablecanoemarathon.org, and read “A Machine with Two Pistons” by Jim Harrison in the SI Vault. As reception and battery life allow, I’ll post updates during the race on Twitter at @TimChilcote, and last year’s hashtag was #ARICM. On you mark, get set, paddle —
Racer’s Perspective of the Start