Exposure

14 Hours at the World’s Toughest Spectator Race

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Photo: Erik Olsen
Grayling, Michigan, is a small dot on some maps. The quaint tourist town is best known for its fly-fishing history and for being the epicenter of "up north" in the Midwest. Its other claim to faim: hosting a popular event that claims to be "the world's toughest spectator race."

The Au Sable River Canoe Marathon wrapped its 69th running the weekend of July 30. At 120 miles, it is the longest nonstop canoe marathon in the United States. Approximately 100 teams compete in the 14-plus-hour challenge, which starts at 9 p.m. Only masochists need apply.

This year, photographer Erik Olsen found himself in the muck with spectators as the group followed the racers downriver through a hot and humid night on the Au Sable River.

Photo: After an all-night canoe watch, spectators sleep whenever and wherever.

Photo: Erik Olsen
People arrive hours before the start to grab their favorite spot and watch the mad dash to the water.
Photo: Erik Olsen
The essentials of survival. The official spectator packing list includes a music player, lawn chairs, binoculars, insect repellent, soap, towel, toothbrush, toilet paper, pillows, alarm clock, rain gear, food, flashlight, and a portable scanner that can tune in to live updates of team times throughout the race.
Photo: Erik Olsen
Teams wear their pride on shirts that show off their team names. Pictured are Jacob Roetter and Alex Lulias of boat number 44.
Photo: Erik Olsen
The marathon-style start happens in downtown Grayling. All the competitors carry their boats in a mad dash to the water.
Photo: Erik Olsen
A building mural depicts the race’s course map. Grayling residents truly love this event and their river.
Photo: Erik Olsen
Last-minute preparations at the starting line in downtown Grayling.
Photo: Erik Olsen
Fans cheer on the start of the Au Sable River Canoe Marathon as racers dash into the river.
Photo: Erik Olsen
The lodges and resorts dotting the river host spectators eager to catch a glimpse of their favorite teams.
Photo: Erik Olsen
Feeders mingle with spectators as rain begins to fall on the river. Feeders deliver nutrition to teams as they pass by.
Photo: Erik Olsen
Trolls and timers: Spectators and volunteers record split times hang out below bridges at all the crossings.
Photo: Erik Olsen
2 a.m.: The Mio Dam is a crowd favorite—a narrow trail through the dark woods culminates in a climb onto the dam and your first view of oncoming racers. Headlamps are a must.
Photo: Erik Olsen
Racers arrive out of the dark and leap into the light. There is a jolting flurry of action as a team runs back into the dark on this challenging portage.
Photo: Erik Olsen
Nutrition is key to keeping up with sleeplessness and continual action. Caffeine and sugar in high doses appear at sunrise.
Photo: Erik Olsen
Home is where you park it. Spectators bring food for themselves and sometimes competitors as well, like Gatorade and coffee in homemade hydration systems for sipping.
Photo: Erik Olsen
The finish of the 69th Annual Au Sable Canoe Marathon. In first place was canoe number two, paddled by Christophe Proulx and Ryan Halstead, with a time of 14:29:26.