With 38 Finishes, Lynne Witte Masters the Au Sable Marathon
With 38 Finishes, Lynne Witte Masters the Au Sable Marathon
(With surprise videos at the end!)
By Dave Foley
Editor’s Note: Dave Foley, long-respected in the world of silent sports, impresses with his desire to give credit to others. He wants you to know the following: that frequent Silent Sports contributor, Rebecca Davis, and her racing partner, Edith McHattie, hold the women’s record for the Au Sable Marathon with a 15:15:3 finish in 2019. In what follows, Dave shines his spotlight on the Au sable Marathon, focused on the amazing Lynne Witte.
Just finishing the Au Sable Marathon is an achievement. The race starts at dusk with a 600-yard sprint to the river, where paddlers launch their canoes and begin the 110-mile race cross-state to the finish in Oscoda some 14 to18 hours later. Along the way, paddlers will make six portages over dams, and may encounter windswept reservoirs hidden in fog. A grueling competition. I did it once and that was enough. Lynne Witte has gone the distance 38 times, the most finishes by anyone in the race’s 73-year history.
“I saw my first marathon in 1967,” Lynne said. “My family was vacationing in Grayling. It seemed like there were hundreds of people cheering at the start, watching the racers running toward and then throwing their canoes in the river. I knew right then I had to do that race.” In 1974, 20-year-old Lynne made her canoe-racing debut, competing in an event sponsored by the Michigan Canoe Racing Association. “I finished that and right away started thinking about the marathon,” she said. Working on her college degree and starting work in Mt. Clemens as a second grade teacher limited her canoe training. Five years later, she was ready to try her first marathon.
“I was a total rookie,” she said. “I had no idea what I was doing when I did that first marathon in1980.” With help from 5-time marathon winner, Butch Stockton, Lynne became an accomplished racer. “Back in the 1980s and 90s, it was hard to find men that wanted to paddle a race with women. When Steve Landick agreed to team with me in 1984, that was a big deal.” She and Steve won the mixed division category that year. She would go on to win that category four more times. “Now, women have gained respect as paddlers,” she said. “Good male partners are more willing to team with them.” Two years later, with Nancy Shelhorse, she notched her first of 11 victories in the women’s division.
In 1988, I got an up-close look at the race as part of Lynne’s bank feeder crew. It was then I began to get an idea of why the race is known as the world’s toughest spectator sport. There were more than a thousand people at the start, jammed on the riverbank to watch dozens of canoes drop into a river that looked too narrow to accommodate all of them. With the race underway, it seemed like virtually the entire crowd jumped into cars to follow the paddlers.
While spectators gathered at bridges to cheer the paddlers on, we joined the other feeder crews, driving backroads and two-tracks, trying to meet our racers. Our team was feeding Lynne and her partner, Jim Myers, almost every hour. We’d wade into the river and pass them food, drinks, clothing, and whatever they needed. We stuck bottles in cupholders behind the paddlers, who used plastic tubes so they could drink without breaking off their 60-70 stroke cadence. The food, broken into bite-sized pieces so it could be eaten in one bite, was placed in a plastic bowl balanced on each racer’s lap.
A good feed crew makes it so their racers never stop paddling, except to climb up on dams and run their boat over the top to the next landing. Feeder crews are critical to a team having a good race. That year, 1988, when I was a bank feeder, Lynne and her partner covered the course in 15:04:26, finishing 4th overall, setting the mixed-team record. That record stood until 2017 when Mary Schlimmer and Andrew Triebold finished with a time of 14:37.45.
When I asked Lynne what part or aspect of the race made her most anxious, she told me it was the fog. “GPS has helped,” she said, “but crossing Alcona Pond when the mist is swirling about and you see nothing but gray ahead of you, that can be scary. One year we became so confused that we ended up paddling the wrong way. Another canoe came by so we followed them and got across the pond.”
For many racers, their most harrowing experiences come when the wind starts to blow. Cooke and Foote Ponds are big bodies of water, and the shortest way across them is down the middle. Racing canoes, with their narrow contours and lack of free board, are designed to go fast, but they are ill-equipped to deal with wind and waves.
It’s not unusual on a gusty day for paddlers to become swimmers when their boats swamp in the middle of these ponds. Lynne recalled paddling with Tom Cannon one year when winds churned up Foote Pond. “We probably should have headed for the sheltered side of the pond and paddled the extra distance, but we wound up in the middle. We were really getting bounced around. I kept thinking we would swamp. When we reached the side of the dam, the waves were rebounding off the wall. How we got on the dam without falling in or getting our boat smashed still amazes me.”
At 66, Lynne has no plans to give up the marathon. “I enjoy the training. It gives me focus. As I get older, staying at the top level of competition is more difficult. But standing next to my canoe in Grayling, waiting to hear the siren start the marathon, I am exhilarated. Looking around at the other paddlers, I see so many friends. They are like family.”
When the canoe racing season shuts down in the fall, Lynne begins working with her ten Alaskan huskies, getting ready for a winter of sled dog racing. For Lynne Witte, there is no off- season.
Actually . . . check out a video sample of what Lynne does do in the off season:
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