GRAYLING — Pete Mead’s training for this year’s Au Sable Canoe Marathon began with a ton of snow on the ground, standing on a pair of cross country skis.
That’s a far cry from the conditions of the past few days.
Hot weather and little rainfall have left the river in less than stellar shape with one week to go before more than 70 paddlers hit the water for the marathon. Before that, though, competitors will get a taste for how the river is going to be for Saturday’s Spike’s Challenge preliminary race.
“It lets you know how your fitness is going in before a 122-mile adventure,” Mead said of Spike’s Challenge. “It’s pretty much the same start as the marathon, but we only go 2½ hours down. It’s a pretty good indicator (of how you’ll do in the marathon). Some teams take it extremely serious, others do it to learn the upper stretch of the river and really don’t care how they place. If you do well in the Spike’s, you’re going to do well in the marathon.”
Mead, who will team with Mike Davis of Homer, is one of five area paddlers from the area who will be putting their physical and mental toughness to the test. Traverse City’s Amy Solak and Nate Winkler and Interlochen’s Tim Chapple and Lauren Chapple are entered as well.
Mead, 32, is doing the marathon for the 14th time and is coming off an 11th-place finish last year.
“Placement-wise, if everything went great, I’m hoping for a top-five finish,” he said. “Worst-case scenario top 10. I’ve never been in the top five, but I’ve been in the top 10 several times.”
Tim Chapple, 39, and in his ninth marathon, is hoping to place in the top 10 after a 13th-place finish a year ago. Chapple is teamed with Canadian Pierre-Olivier Quesnel, who is only in his second Au Sable Marathon, but has an abundance of experience on the water. The two teamed up in the General Clinton Canoe Regatta in New York over Memorial weekend, finishing 13th.
“He’s consistent,” said Chapple. “He’s been racing a little while. He trains with (defending champion) Steve Lajoie. Overall, he’s good. We seem to move well together.”
Quesnel has only been on the Au Sable twice before Saturday so Spike’s Challenge will be key for the duo.
“This is a good opportunity for him to get a feel for this river again,” said Chapple. “Just kind of play it cool for this race. Go hard, but not go crazy. For us, try to get our feeling back in terms of being in the boat together.”
Davis and Mead are new teammates in the Au Sable, but they teamed up in last week’s Harry Curley race — they placed fifth — and for a race in the Upper Peninsula last year. Davis, 22, is competing in the Au Sable for the fourth time and could be the perfect fit to achieve a high finish.
“He’s an up-and-coming star,” Mead said. “I’ll bet in the next year or two he’ll be pushing the top five year-in and year-out.”
Mead has done his share of training for the race between cross country skiing in the winter and paddling on various waters recently, including roughly a half-dozen trips down the Au Sable. Mead indicated the river is getting low in spots and could push some times into the vicinity of 18 hours. The cutoff for finishing is 19 hours.
“Probably the top three boats will still be sub-15. Then, probably the top 10 will be 15 1/2 hours,” Mead said. “The first two hours will be really shallow, then it deepens up for an hour or so and then it gets shallow again and it does that all the way to Mio. After Mio is pretty good water, but it can still be affected. It wouldn’t hurt my feelings if we got 6-7 inches of water. That river can jump 2-3 inches rather quickly.”
Chapple said poor conditions can make a tough race even more challenging.
“This past weekend it was a little low,” Chapple said. “If it’s low it’s terrible. You have to pull off the bottom. It’s really difficult.”
Difficult is one word to describe the Au Sable Marathon, called “North America’s Toughest Canoe Race.” The event begins in Grayling and goes overnight until racers reach Oscoda.
“You have to be willing to go another level that no one else is willing to go to,” said Mead. “You’ve got to be able to endure more pain than anybody else. It’s not hard to get your body in shape for it. It’s your mind that takes a few years to get that right before you’re ready to go as hard as you can for hours and hours on end.”
Lajoie and teammate Andrew Triebold are not yet entered in this year’s race, but everyone expects them to be a part of the marathon before all is said and done and to be one of the favorites to win it all once again. Lajoie and Triebold won the General Clinton, the first of the three canoe marathons.
“They’re just good,” said Chapple. “They’re disciplined in training. It’s top shelf. Not to say we slack, but they train hard. Their technique is good and obviously them together, they move really well.”