Some recent changes, at least in the scope of the history of the AuSable River International Canoe Marathon, have made the “world’s toughest spectator sport” a little less tough, but not much for it to lose it’s famous moniker.

The race, which recently concluded its 72nd year, runs from Grayling to Oscoda, where two-person canoe teams race 120-miles throughout the night and into the hot summer morning down the river, over dams, through wilderness, to the finish line in Oscoda.

There are thousands of spectators who follow the racers throughout the night on the course, which runs through extremely rural parts of the state. Spectators battle adverse weather, rough road conditions, insects, other people, fatigue – you name it – to watch these racers. But the advent of GPS on the canoes, and the ability of the public to monitor the racers with this technology, has made the marathon a bit easier to follow, but not by much. 

Anyone with an active Internet connection can log into ausablecanoemarathon.org and go to an active map to see the canoes on the river, represented with little “pips” on a map to see where the canoe is on the river. What is more is the race will show the average speed of the racer, the distance to the next checkpoint, and other valuable race statistics as they are happening.

The information is invaluable for a few reasons. One is when you’re out trying to follow the canoe race, and you have no idea where your team is in the darkness, it can be hard to plan ahead. This is especially true for “feeder teams” that help out the racers with fresh drinks, medical care, food and other items during the race. If you do not know where your racer is, it’s hard to get them what they need, and they fare worse than other teams without the support.

With a smartphone connection one can find out where the team is instantly. For someone like me who has to take photos of the event, it’s good to know where they are relative to the river when I venture out to find the teams. When you’re covering the race for a local newspaper, it’s important to get coverage of the local teams in the race, and knowing where they are so you can get a photo, or make sure you do not miss them, is a godsend.

But, just because there is enhanced tracking of the teams (it’s also a safety feature to let the race officials know if there is an issue with the team) there are still issues in the covering the race that a person has no control over, and that was the same this year. I would argue that the main issue this year was the weather, and no one can control that, unfortunately.

Just seconds after the start of the race, heading back to my vehicle in Grayling, big, fat and icy-cold rain drops began to fall from the sky. I only had seconds before unlocking my vehicle and getting in before the deluge of water came down overhead. I got really lucky, but the thousands of others heading back to their vehicles to follow the race, were not so lucky.

As I headed out to the expressway there were droves of people walking, soaked and forlorn, trudging through the rain to get to their cars. After the storm the humidity, which was already high, cranked itself up and the dampness and heat were unbearable. 

The following morning, there was more heat, more humidity and even worse, full sun to scorch the racers and those who decided to come out and see them. By the end of the race you could tell the individuals who opted to stay up all night and watch the race, versus those who went home, got some rest (I was among their ranks) and then followed the race back in the morning.

In some cases those fans looked just as tired as the racing teams getting off the river. I think it’s a good thing that despite the advent of technology getting involved with the marathon it’s still tough as hell and kicks the butts of the spectators. Spectators for the marathon wear a badge of honor that they were tough enough to spectate the race. You feel a little bit of shame when people find out you have not spent the entire night following the race.

Those who do follow all night compare notes. If you slept for a few hours, you’re deemed just a bit weaker than the person who didn’t sleep at all. There is a camaraderie that is present in canoe racing with the racers and spectators. To be sure there is competitiveness, but a lot of times there isn’t an “us versus them” mentality, but more of an “us versus the river” attitude that brings everyone together. I think no matter what technology is brought to the race as it grows older and more renown, it’s still going to be tough to follow and people still deserve their badge of honor for doing so.