Just like the Detroit Tigers, Kyle Stonehouse and Rebecca and Mike Davis make an annual pilgrimage to Florida for their own spring training.
But instead of sharpening their skills for a grueling 162-game baseball season, the trio, who have made the Florida trip for a decade, are getting ready for a punishing, but thrilling 120-mile canoe race – also known as the Consumers Energy AuSable River Canoe Marathon.
“I go down with some friends who are paddlers and I work on details and different techniques that help me for the year,” said Stonehouse after a recent one-week stint in the Sunshine State, where he joined Rebecca and Mike Davis and about 90 other canoers. The group paddled up to six and a half hours a day on the Suwanneee River.
Many of the Florida crew make up the more than 100 teams expected to participate in the 75th Marathon, which runs from Grayling to Oscoda on July 29 and 30. Some will try to dethrone the defending champions — Steve Lajoie and Guillaume Blais, who both live in Canada. Last year was Lajoie’s 12th title and the first for Blais. They reached the finish line in not long after 14 ½ hours.
The reason Stonehouse, who will team with Texan Kyle Mynar this year, puts in the dozens of hours in the weight room and in the canoe: to finish in the Top 5.
“Florida gets me ramped up and my juices flowing for the canoe races, including the AuSable River Canoe Marathon,” said Stonehouse, who lives in Grayling. “I can tell right away when I get down there if I am in shape or not and what I need to do to get ready.”
A Valuable Experience
Rebecca and Mike Davis have been going to Florida to train since they started doing the Marathon in 2010. The couple said it teaches them to stay calm and be patient – traits that are necessary to succeed during race weekend.
“Getting some volume in a boat in warm weather really helps,” said Rebecca, who also trains by cross country skiing. “It gets you feeling good about paddling and getting ready for the race season. Getting in the hours of practice and learning how to deal with things that go sideways during a race is a top priority every year. Things will not always go smooth.”
The three also have participated in the other two Triple Crown Races:
- The General Clinton Canoe Regatta – staged Memorial Day weekend on New York’s Susquehanna River – a one-day, non-stop 70-mile race from Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, to Bainbridge, New York.
- Classique Internationale de canots de la Mauricie – staged Labor Day weekend on central Quebec’s majestic St. Maurice River – a three-day, three-stage race from La Tuque to Trois-Rivieres, Quebec.
There is a communal feel to the make-shift camp set up in Florida, Rebecca added.
“Being around a close-knit group, who help push me and figure out ways to improve has been a valuable experience,” she said.
Mike Davis, who will partner with Blais in this year’s race, said he looks forward to the Florida trip and seems to learn something new every year.
“It’s great to get out on the water with people from all over who are passionate about paddling,” he said. “It’s all about putting in the work to get better, and it’s nice to be part of that.”
Physical vs. Mental
The trio agrees that conquering the race mentally is equally as important as the physical aspect for experienced paddlers. And that’s where training helps reduce mental strain and physical barriers on race day.
Stonehouse has a few stories about beating the odds to even finish the race, but one stands out.
It was 2021 and Mynar was his partner. Buttheir race almost ended before they even got in the Au Sable River.
While making the about 300-yard sprint to the river, Mynar tore a calf muscle. Stonehouse asked his partner if he could continue, Mynar nodded.
Despite limping on one leg, the tandem was able to get the boat in the water.
“He didn’t talk about it the whole time,” said Stonehouse. “It was like it didn’t even happen. That guy is one tough dude, and ever since then I really believe the race is 50 percent mental and 50 percent physical.”
The duo finished in seventh and it landed Mynar in a walking boot for weeks.
“I was ecstatic considering the hand we were dealt with,” he said. “Hopefully, we will do even better this year.”
Mike Davis said no team can win by physical talent alone.
“You do need a minimum level of fitness to win this race, no doubt about it,” he said. “But the difference between first and 10th might be somebody who was able to push through a little more mentally. Fighting through it is a big part of canoeing and it’s why those who put in the time are successful.”
Competitive canoeing has provided Rebecca Davis, who has raced with her husband in the past, with invaluable life lessons.
“You really have to remember the pain is temporary, you can get through it,” she said. “You really have to set your mind and understand you are a team. It’s a literal lesson that you have to navigate through some tough times to come out on top.”