“I bet you can’t paddle to the lake!”
According to Phil Weiler, the AuSable River Canoe Marathon was born with those words and a friendly wager.
It’s now been 73 years since the inaugural canoe race, and what was once a friendly competition between a group of friends has become an international event, drawing professional canoe marathon paddlers from across North America. The race is so significant in the sport, it’s simply called ‘the Marathon.’
The grueling 120-mile race begins in Grayling, Michigan, and follows the Au Sable River to the finish near Lake Huron in Oscoda. It begins in the evening and stretches into the next day, forcing athletes to navigate the obstacle-filled waters with only flashlights. They paddle nonstop, save for six portages at the hydroelectric dams along the river.
Weiler is the spokesperson for the marathon. He says the marathon’s popularity exploded once he and a few others formed the Triple Crown of Canoe Racing and implemented standardized canoe measurements. Alongside the marathon, the Triple Crown includes the General Clinton Canoe Regatta in New York and the La Classique de Canots de la Mauricie in Quebec.
“Back in the day we used to have 26 to maybe 30 teams total in this race,” Weiler said. “We pass the Triple Crown specs, and in our very first year we had 80 entries. And now we’ve been up between 90 and 100 almost every year.”
The marathon’s popularity has grown as well. Weiler estimates that over 15,000 people gather along the road and riverbank to watch the start of the race each year. Thousands follow the paddlers all night in their cars, stopping at bridges and dams to cheer on the racers. It’s given the marathon a reputation as the “world’s toughest spectator sport.”
Unlike the other Triple Crown races, the marathon uses a Le Mans-style start. Paddlers line up in the street based on a sprint time-trial conducted earlier in the week. When the gun goes off, they sprint a quarter mile to the river, rounding two turns and jockeying for position before plunging into the water.
“There’s nothing, nothing, that beats when they round the corner. The river is literally 30 feet wide, and you have anywhere from 80 to 95 boats fighting for that intersection piece to the river,” Weiler said. “I tell people it’s the most exciting three to five minutes in the beginning of a sporting event you’ll ever see.”
Weiler says that an event of this scale wouldn’t be possible without the support of sponsors and the community through a base of around 2,000 volunteers. Often, entire families get involved.
“The biggest part of this whole thing is everybody wants the marathon to succeed, and everybody wants to be a part of it,” Weiler said. “I can’t tell you enough about the communities, the businesses. Everybody gets behind this.”
A Family Affair
Weiler has been involved with the marathon for over 30 years, and it has only grown closer to his heart over the years. He himself paddled the race in 2017, and his son Austin Weiler has raced for eight years.
Austin says that growing up around the marathon, it was kind of hard not to get involved.
“I literally grew up around it,” he said. “I grew up around the organizing aspect of it, helping with sponsor signs and the media, and just being around all of that, it’s kind of infectious. Everybody talks about getting the bug, getting the marathon bug, and it’s kind of hard not to when it’s such a large part of your upbringing.”
It’s a sense of connection and a feeling of accomplishment that keeps Weiler racing year after year. He points to the late Al Widing, Sr. as an example of the spirit of perennial paddlers.
“He attempted his last marathon at 89 years old,” he said. “That’s crazy, but you know, it’s the community, it’s what you do, it’s part of northern Michigan, it’s part of our DNA. It’s just what we do.”
It’s a similar story for Katie and Kristi Treston. They’re sisters, and this year they raced their sixth marathon together.
“For us, this is very much a family event,” Katie Treston said. “Our mom is our team captain. All my marathons have been with my sister. It just makes it even more special than it already was.”
Treston says that competing in the marathon with her sister makes their close bond even stronger.
“As siblings, you learn how to fight but how to get over it really quickly,” she said. “We have some knock-down-drag-outs while we’re in the boat, but two minutes later we’re laughing. Suddenly we have memories to last a year that we can laugh about and reminisce about.”
Growing up in Grayling, Treston has fond memories of watching the marathon and cheering on the paddlers. She points to Lynne Witte, who currently holds the record for most finishes (39) as an inspiration, and Treston hopes to be an inspiration for other female paddlers herself.
“Watching how much of a badass woman she is, it’s just so inspiring. If I can get more females in the boat, I’ll do it every year,” she said.
Family traditions extend beyond the organizers and paddlers too. John Tuttle and his family travel to the marathon every year to watch the start.
“We don’t go on the bridges, and we’re not part of the teams, but it’s just a great tradition with the kids and with the family to come out here on the last Saturday of July every year and cheer on these folks who are great contributors to the community,” Tuttle said.
Tuttle has attended the marathon on and off for almost 40 years and with his family for around 15. This year, Tuttle and his wife Abigail brought their two children, ages 3 and 1. They attended with Robert Tuttle, another family member.
“This is a little slice of Americana,” John Tuttle said. “It’s a unique festival, unique to Grayling and northern Michigan, but it attracts people from around the country and around the world.”
This year’s AuSable River Canoe Marathon occurred on July 24, and next year’s race is planned for July 30. Find more information about the marathon, including this year’s results, at the race website.
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Featured image: Cecili Bugge and Holly Orr (canoe 96) power forward as other paddlers enter the river at the start of the AuSable River Canoe Marathon. (Photo Credit: Crystal Brabant via AuSable River Canoe Marathon)