International canoe race brings families together – Great Lakes Now

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“I bet you can’t paddle to the lake!”

According to Phil Weiler, the AuSable River Canoe Marathon was born with these words and a friendly bet.

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, attracting professional canoe marathon paddlers from across North America. Running is so important in sport that it is 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 non-stop except for six portages at the hydroelectric dams along the river.

Weiler is the spokesperson for the marathon. He says the popularity of the marathon exploded once he and a few others formed the Triple Crown of canoe racing and implemented standardized canoeing measures. Along with the marathon, the Triple Crown includes the General Clinton Canoe Regatta in New York and the The Mauricie Canoe Classic In Quebec.

“At the time, we had 26 to maybe 30 teams in total in this race,” Weiler said. “We passed Triple Crown spec and in our very first year we had 80 entries. And now we’ve grown to between 90 and 100 almost every year.

The popularity of the marathon has also increased. Weiler estimates that more than 15,000 people gather along the road and riverbanks to watch the start of the race each year. Thousands of people follow the paddlers through the night in their cars, stopping at bridges and weirs to cheer on the runners. This gave the marathon the reputation of “the toughest spectator sport in the world”.

Fans cheer as Jorden Wakely and Matt Meersman, this year’s marathon winners, approach the finish line in Oscoda. They won with a record time of 13 hours, 54 minutes and nine seconds. (Photo credit: Rick Joy via AuSable River Canoe Marathon)

Unlike other Triple Crown races, the marathon uses a Le Mans-style start. Paddlers line up on the street based on a sprint time trial completed earlier in the week. When the shot goes off, they sprint a quarter mile to the river, making two turns and arguing for position before plunging into the water.

“There’s nothing, nothing that beats when they turn the corner. The river is literally 30 feet wide and you have 80 to 95 boats fighting for that intersection with the river,” Weiler said. “I tell people that’s the most exciting three to five minutes at the start of a sporting event that you’ll ever see.”

Weiler says an event of this magnitude would not be possible without the support of sponsors and the community through a base of approximately 2,000 volunteers. Often entire families get involved.

“The biggest part of it all is that everyone wants the marathon to be successful, and everyone wants to be a part of it,” Weiler said. “I can’t tell you enough about the communities, the businesses. Everyone is behind it.

A family matter

Weiler has been involved in the marathon for over 30 years, and he’s only gotten closer to his heart over the years. He paddled the race himself in 2017, and his son Austin Weiler raced for eight years.

Austin says growing up around the marathon, it was pretty 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 contagious. Everyone talks about catching the bug, to catch the marathon bug, and it’s kind of hard not to when it’s such a big part of your upbringing.

Katie and Kristi Treston smile before the start of the 2021 AuSable River Canoe Marathon. (Photo credit: Rick Joy via AuSable River Canoe Marathon)

It’s a sense of connection and a sense of accomplishment that keeps Weiler racing year after year. He points the the late Al Widing, Sr. as an example of the spirit of vivacious paddlers.

“He attempted his last marathon at 89,” he said. “It’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. That’s just what we do.

It’s a similar story for Katie and Kristi Treston. They are sisters and this year they ran their sixth marathon together.

“For us, it’s really a family event,” said Katie Treston. “Our mother is our team captain. All my marathons have been with my sister. This makes it even more special than it already was.

Treston says running the marathon with his sister makes their close bond even stronger.

“As siblings, you learn to fight but recover very quickly,” she said. “We have a few spills while we’re in the boat, but two minutes later we’re having a laugh. Suddenly we have memories to last a year that we can laugh at 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 to other paddlers herself.

“Seeing what a badass female she is, it’s so inspiring. If I can get more females in the boat, I will every year,” she said.

Family traditions also extend beyond organizers and paddlers. John Tuttle and his family travel to the marathon every year to watch the start.

“We don’t go to the bridges and we’re not on the teams, but it’s just a great tradition with the kids and with the family to come here on the last Saturday in July every year and cheer on these people. .who are great contributors to the community,” Tuttle said.

Tuttle has been running the marathon on and off for nearly 40 years and with his family for about 15 years. This year, Tuttle and his wife Abigail brought their two children, ages 3 and 1. They participated in it with Robert Tuttle, another member of the family.

“It’s a little slice of Americana,” said John Tuttle. “It’s a unique festival, unique to Grayling and Northern Michigan, but it attracts people from across the country and around the world.”

This year the AuSable River Canoe Marathon was held on July 24th and next year’s race is scheduled for July 30th. Find more information about the marathon, including this year’s results, on the race website.


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Feature Image: Cecili Bugge and Holly Orr (Canoe 96) move 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)

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