July 23, 2014 at 1:00 am

'Talented field' challenges duo in AuSable Marathon canoe race

A three-peat is a rarity in any sporting event.

In canoeing, Grayling‘s Andy Triebold and Mirabel, Quebec, native Steve Lajoie are the standard-bearers. The pair boast a six-year run — two three-peats — in the AuSable River Canoe Marathon.

And they’ll go for their seventh straight AuSable title — eighth overall — this weekend in the 67th running of the event.

The grueling 120-mile overnight race, which stretches from Grayling to Oscoda, lasts 14-19 hours, beginning at 9 p.m. Saturday. The paddlers race through the darkness and into the morning, from the LeMans-style start at the Old AuSable Fly Shop to the Huron in Oscoda.

Triebold is going for his eighth straight title, having won the 2007 race with Matthew Rimer. A victory would tie the record of Steve Corbin (Saint Boniface, Quebec) and Jeff Kolka (Grayling).

Triebold and Lajoie, both 38, have won every major event in the triple crown of canoe racing — AuSable Marathon, New York’s General Clinton Canoe Regatta and Quebec’s la Classique Internationale de canots de la Mauricie.

“It’s like Michael Jordan; everybody is in awe of Michael Jordan but they want to beat him,” AuSable Marathon spokesman Phil Weiler said. “We have a talented field — half a dozen boats that can put some pressure on the champs.”

Time trials began Wednesday and continue through Friday.

The fastest times determine the starting order at the LeMans-style running start of about a quarter-mile from downtown Grayling to the river.

“With 80 teams, you want to get as close as you can. At the start, it’s only about 18- to 20-feet wide,” Weiler said. “Picture a backup on I-75 at 5 (p.m.) in Detroit. You want to be in front of that as much as you can.”

Thousands of fans line the course route, which also includes six running portages, where the competitors carry their carbon-fiber canoes, most of which weigh less than 30 pounds.

“Everybody knows the river; as soon as you get there, it’s amazing how the spectators support everyone,” Weiler said.

“Everyone has highs and lows, but the fan support throughout the night and cheering gets them through bad times.”

The event, which began in 1947, features 82 teams this year, with three women’s pairs, 17 mixed teams, 20 seniors duos and nine first-time competitors. The total purse for the race is $50,000 in cash and prizes, with the winning team getting $5,000, second receiving $3,500 and third $2,500.

Among those teams will be some experienced AuSable paddlers. Mio’s Al Widing Sr., 89, will be competing in his 40th race, paired with his son, Al Jr., 61. Luzerne, Mich., native Frank Smutek, 80, will team with rookie Travis Kent, 38, of Houston.

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Marathon schedule

When: 9 p.m. Saturday, lasting between 14 and 19 hours

Course: 120 miles between Grayling and Oscoda

Field: 82 two-person teams

Purse: $50,000 in cash and prizes ($5,000 winners)

Defending champions: Andy Triebold and Steve Lajoie