GRAYLING, Mich. — It takes a lot of calories to paddle a canoe 120 miles nonstop through midnight thunderstorms and blazing midday heat. And while the 92 teams that entered the 120-mile Au Sable River Canoe Marathon have various nutritional strategies, many have one energy source in common: “Chicken noodle soup. That’s my secret,” said Bill Brundage, a 60-year-old canoe racer from Traverse City, Mich., who will paddle the event with partner Doug Gillin of Adrian, Mich. “My wife makes it for us. She purees it, and that makes it a bit easier to get down. It’s comfort food.”
Two-paddler teams lined up for two blocks along a street near downtown Grayling. At the starting gun, they picked up their canoes and sprinted to the river. The nonstop race started at 9 p.m. July 30, and the first boats pulled into the finish about noon the next day.
Earlier in the week, the teams competed in short races to determine their places on the starting grid. That especially was important to the top teams in the professional division, because starting at the front of the pack means reaching the river first and getting away before the narrow stretch jams with people trying to get their boats in.
Brundage was a high-level amateur athlete with a stack of 26-mile running marathons and 50-kilometer cross-country ski marathons under his feet when he entered his first Au Sable Canoe Marathon two years ago.
“This is different, but it’s just as challenging. I’ve been doing more adventure races, and this is a very technical sport,” Brundage said. “I’m just beginning to feel that I’m getting it.”
In addition to soup, Brundage and Gillin down electrolytic drinks, energy bars and commercially prepared “goos,” which have the consistency of jam, are easily swallowed and provide a quick hit of energy.
Like long-haul bicycle and running races, the competitors depend on outside help for most of their nutrition. In the Au Sable race, paddlers are supported by teams of “feeders” who follow the boats in cars and wait for them in the river at designated points.
As the canoes approach, the paddlers call out the clothing and the food they want and slow down just enough for the feeders to toss it into the canoe.
The Halstead brothers from Grayling, Rodney, 26, and Ryan, 24, were among the favorites this year.
They said their diet on the water includes a lot of fruit and energy drinks like Hammer Heed and Perpetuem.
“We eat solid things like Hot Pockets, and I might have them get me a hamburger in the morning, after the sun comes up,” Rodney Halstead said. “You want things that are easy to eat, and you have to eat about every 90 minutes, whether you feel like it or not.”
Ryan said, “If you don’t eat and drink enough, by the time you realize you’re hungry or thirsty, it’s too late. You’ll never be able to catch up.”
Joey Kimsel, 30, of Oscoda, Mich., was in his eighth Au Sable race and partner Mike Hartman, 35, of Grayling, his 10th.
“I usually don’t eat a whole lot when I’m paddling,” Kimsel said. “I grab a muffin every now and then. But I drink a lot. I like Ensure, because it gives you a lot of energy and makes you feel full.
“I do have a thermos of chicken soup that I’ll drink during the night. It really feels good then.”
The field included paddlers from 14 other states and three Canadian provinces. Among the visitors are the father-and-son Bauer team, Jim, 66, from Spokane, Wash., and Brad, 37, from Seattle.
It was Jim Bauer’s sixth Au Sable event and his son’s seventh, and Brad Bauer said, “This is the big one. This is what you train for all year.”
Both are longtime cross-country ski racers who came to Michigan to do the Vasa 50-kilometer marathon when they heard about the Au Sable race. Jim Bauer said, “Canoe racing is really a great sport for guys like me. It’s gentle on your joints. Look, I’m 66 and I’m doing this with my kid.”
He said their diet included “the usual goos and chews” along with an energy drink concocted by his brother Nick, who studies nutrition.
“It’s a lot easier to eat in a canoe race than in a cross-country ski race,” Brad Bauer said. “But you have to make sure you keep the food going in.”