BY MIKE DUNN
Special to the Record-Eagle
---- — GRAYLING — When the 66th annual Au Sable River Canoe Marathon kicks off Saturday night at 9 with the traditional LeMans-style sprint to the waters of the Old Au Sable Canoe Livery, five-time defending champions Andrew Triebold and Steve LaJoie will be part of the 77-team field.
For several weeks leading up to the grueling, two-day, 120-mile race that winds along the twisting Au Sable River from Grayling to Oscoda, there was some question as to whether the pair would be part of this year’s race.
The suspense mercifully ended Monday, the final day of registration, when Triebold, 37, of Grayling and LaJoie, 37, of Mirabel, Quebec, officially signed their names on the dotted line.
“They showed up and registered and that automatically changed the whole dynamic of the race,” said race spokesman Phil Weiler on Wednesday. “Betting against Andy and Steve is like betting against (Michael) Jordan or LeBron James. Until somebody beats them, they’re still the team to beat.”
In recent years, Triebold and LaJoie have been in a class by themselves in the Au Sable marathon. They have outpaced the competition by an average of 15 minutes while winning five times in a row. The pair also won in 2004, giving them six Au Sable titles altogether.
Triebold and LaJoie appear to be in top form as they prepare to defend their title again. On Memorial Day, they recaptured the 70-mile General Clinton Regatta on the Susquehanna River in New York in the first leg of the so-called Triple Crown of Canoe Racing, beating the field there by more than 12 minutes. They also finished faster than anyone in Sunday’s Spike’s Challenge on the Au Sable, covering the 26-mile distance between the race’s starting point in Grayling to the McMaster Bridge near Mio in an economical time of 2 hours, 38 minutes, 11 seconds.
Weiler acknowledged that Triebold and LaJoie are the clear favorites to make it six in a row but he believes the champs will be challenged this year.
“There are still six to eight teams that should be in the mix,” Weiler said. “If they’re smart, they’ll talk among themselves and come up with a plan to pack it in and work together. If they take turns pulling, they can put pressure on Andy and Steve.”
One of this year’s strong contenders is the team of Ryan Halstead, 26, of Grayling and Mathieu St. Pierre, 25, of Shawnigan, Quebec. Halstead is competing in his 11th marathon race and has been runner-up three times, including the past two years with other partners. This is the second marathon for St. Pierre, who came in seventh last year as a rookie with fellow first-year partner Samuel Frigon.
Going into Friday’s final day of time trials, Halstead and St. Pierre had recorded the fastest time. The pair will either be in the No. 1 seed position for Saturday’s sprint or somewhere very close to the front.
Another strong contender looks to be the Grayling team of Josh Sheldon, 32, and Matt Strieb, 49. This is Sheldon’s ninth marathon and Strieb’s 11th and both have recorded high finishes in the past. Sheldon was runner-up with Halstead last year and Strieb came in fifth with partner Matt Meersman.
Sheldon and Strieb were sitting at second in the time trials behind Halstead and St. Pierre heading into Friday. The duo also turned in a strong time in the General Clinton Regatta, taking third overall, 12 minutes behind Triebold and LaJoie.
Other contenders this year include Colin Hunter, 32, of Grayling and Jason Hatfield, 35, of Grayling, who also have a combined 26 years of racing experience and finished third in the Spike’s Challenge; Mike Davis, 22, of Homer and Pete Mead, 32, of Traverse City, who have 16 years of combined experience and came in fourth in the Challenge; Fred Blais, 26, of Shawnigan, Quebec and Ben Schlimmer, 24, of Brockport, N.Y., who were runners-up in the General Clinton Regatta; Ted Smutek, 45, of Luzerne and Matt Gabriel, 29, of Grayling with 18 combined years; Michael Schlimmer, 26, of Cortland, N.Y. and Frigon, 17, of St. Boniface; Cameron McClain, 30, of Grayling and Patrick Armstrong, 35, of Lac-a-la-Tortue, Quebec; and Sean Casey, 34, of Wyoming and Brad Wilson, 31, of Rockford with a combined 22 years between them.
Last year, Triebold and LaJoie posted a winning time of 14 hours, 42 minutes, 43 seconds, beating out 70 other teams. According to the “River Report” link on the Au Sable race website, this year’s winning time is projected to be about the same given the somewhat low water levels and anticipated weather conditions.
Of the 77 teams participating in this year’s Au Sable race, there are five women’s teams, 10 mixed teams, 11 masters’ teams and 10 seniors’ teams.
One prominent face that will be missing this year is the famed “Iron Man,” Al Widing Sr. of Mio. Widing, 88, completed his 40th marathon race last year.