By TIM CHILCOTE 

NORTHEAST MICHIGAN - Training started months ago. During Northern Michigan winters racers can be spotted on the AuSable River, paddling first against the current then back downstream under snow-covered pines.

On days they don't paddle, when a partner is busy, or a car breaks down, paddlers find other ways to train, jogging along backroads or snowshoeing on Grayling's frozen Lake Margrethe to keep up their cardiovascular strength. As soon as the ice melts they're out there paddling up and down the shore.

I'm relatively new to Grayling. Before I moved here, I thought of paddling as a summer leisure activity, an excuse to drink beer and get a tan while floating down one of Michigan's many rivers. Boy was I wrong. For competitors in the AuSable River Canoe Marathon, paddling is a year-round test of endurance. They race for the physical challenge, for the thrill of being on the water at night and, in some cases, to punish themselves. Mark Koenig, a paddler from Woodstock, Illinois, once explained in his racer bio, “It looked like it hurt a lot and I like pain.' 

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 time paddlers will stroke as many as 120 times per minute. In 2004 the temperature dropped to 32 degrees in the middle of the night.

If the cold doesn't get to you, the threat of exhaustion and delirium are ever present. Officials routinely pull racers from the river when their bodies fail them. And even then, some racers 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 manage to reach the finish line in Oscoda, racers arrive shell-shocked, their tailbones bleeding from friction against the seat and their bodies torn by a race that takes them from the verge of hypothermia to near heat stroke. 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 themselves 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 applauding families.

The Beginning of the End

By mid-afternoon on race day fans have staked their claim along Grayling city streets and on banks of the river. Spectators line the streets in a crowded mass waiting for the 9 p.m. start. Canoes are taken from storage, having been prepared in the morning with lights, food packs, batteries, electrical wiring, lots of tape and a small collection of first-aid items, and then checked by race officials.

Racers stretch and hug families then carry their canoes to the positions they earned in the sprints the previous day. 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 is undoubtedly 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 and 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 pack. 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 a 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 gone. The crowd, after considering the calm river for a moment, turns and leaves downtown. Some fans go home, others 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 the paddlers who have just begun, 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. The Andy Triebolds and Steve LaJoies have been consistent winners, but that win won’t come without a fight from several strong contenders. The balance of competitors vie for personal records, or just to prove to themselves they can do it.

Eventually, the yellow glow of a flashlight will come bobbing 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. Feed teams are river pit-stop crews who 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.

For the best teams the hand-off of food items and the disposal of drink containers is seamless. For the rest it's a struggle to make a pass without stopping, or worse, tipping. Canoes are equipped with drink holders, where feed teams place bottles connected to hoses that stretch to the paddler' mouths, usually filled with some variation of watered-down Gatorade.

The feeding-tube bottles are convenient for paddlers but a nightmare for feed teams who, by rule, must hand off drinks without touching the canoe; also clean up old bottles floating in the river. Paddlers are mostly conservationists and littering is not tolerated.

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 Senior. At Luzerne, a busy stop for feed teams, Casey stopped the canoe. Widing yelled at him to keep going but Casey back-paddled and demanded a dry shirt for Widing who was shivering in his thin frame.

Before paddling onto Mio Dam, Casey, who is known for his happy-go-lucky demeanor, said very seriously to the feed team, ‘Get hot soup at Mio.' When asked if he wanted ice cubes in his soup, he said, about the soup he would carry between his legs, “Just let me know if it' a ball-scorcher.”

While paddlers paddle and feed teams hustle, casual fans head from bridge to bridge to cheer the race, and to mostly, to drink. Party buses, cars and floodlights line bridges that, during any other night, would be pitch dark in the Michigan wilderness. Fans have their own rituals; pit stops and watering holes. In Luzerne there' a traditional stop at Ma Deter's for shots and beers. Fans need fuel too.

Mio Dam: Welcome to the Family

Mio, Michigan is home the first dam on the AuSable, and thus the first portage of the race. Racers arrive in the middle of the night between midnight and 4 a.m.

I married into Grayling canoe racing – it’s 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 Casey and Widing, 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 or 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-rackingly limited instruction, I squinted across a fog-covered pond hoping to see the tiny flickering light of canoe 09.

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 Widing's canoe, a man who garnered 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, my wife's entire hometown, out and cheering since before the start of the race, would be waiting 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 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 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, they tipped. They stood in waist deep water, like a baptism I thought.

“Why the f--- did that have to happen,' the front paddler yelled, 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.

Things do get better, at least for spectators, because not far away is the “Chat n Chew” in Glennie, home to the best sausage, egg and cheese biscuit known to man. No breakfast could taste better after a long uncomfortable night.

About this same time the morning fog sets over the dammed-up ponds, making water navigation confusing. A few racers have GPS equipment, but most don't. It's not unheard of for paddlers to circle aimlessly on the pond for long periods, made more dangerous because the water on the pond is deep enough to drown a paddler whose arms are already on the verge of failure.

So, you eat your breakfast biscuit, thankful for the gifts bestowed upon you, and if you're clever, savor fresh drip coffee brewed with power stolen from a hydroelectric dam. By late morning paddlers enter the Huron National Forest. The sun can get hot and beats violently on paddlers who just hours before had been all but frostbitten.

At this point finishing is all in the mind. It' a section of race 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, then climb back in their tiny racing canoe. The action has an almost automatic quality, 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, unaware of the marathon that started the day before 100 miles upstream, enter the river, creating floating obstacles for blind-tired paddlers. It's what racer Nate Winkler described as, “God's last cruel trick.”

At the finish line under a bridge in downtown Oscoda, paddlers roll out of boats and wash off in the river. After parking their canoe onshore and gathering their bearings, teams enjoy a hearty meal, and a cheap motel room.

Racers and feed teams tell war stories, swim in Lake Huron and sleep it off. Beer will never taste better in your life. The few fans that 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 the Race

The AuSable River Canoe Marathon takes place July 17 at 9 p.m. For more details visit ausablecanoemarathon.org, and read A Machine with Two Pistons by Jim Harrison.

  • Tim Chilcote is a freelance writer based in Grayling. Follow him on Twitter  @TimChilcote.

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