On Aug. 5 nearly 300 stock outboard runabouts will wind up their snarling engines and take off across Mullett Lake (below) for the eighth running of the wide-open Top O' Michigan Marathon. Some of the drivers have spent months getting their boats ready for the 87-mile test; but statistics of past races give them less than a 50-50 chance of getting through the submerged stumps and right-angle turns that mark the course. Last year, for example, only 70 of 260 starters made it to the finish line.
These disheartening figures seem to have no effect on the marathoners except to bring them back year after year for more of the same, not only in Michigan but also in Miami, Vicksburg, Miss., Stockton, Calif. and Sammamish, Wash., to name only a few of the 50 towns where major marathons are held each year. Unlike conventional outboard racers, who fight it out over a fixed course on open water, the marathoners compete on any body of water big enough to float a boat. In Miami they head up the Inland Waterway to West Palm Beach. In Bermuda there is a marathon that runs through the surf around the island. And then there are the kind like Sammamish and Top O' Michigan, where the course winds through shallow swamps and meadow creeks. Glenn (Skip) Forcier, whose runabout D-13M (right) has more than once conked out on the engine-tearing marathon turns, holds one particularly vivid memory of the Top O' Michigan. "There's a stump field about a mile long in the Cheboygan River," he remembers. "There's a channel but it's poorly marked. Most of the guys try to go outside the channel and through the stumps. You can save about half a mile if you make it. But you can really get hung up on those stumps. I've seen a guy sitting on top of a stump that had come right up through the bottom of his boat."
Headed out from starting line, marathoners dart across Mullett Lake in tight formation as they bear down on dangerous stump field in Cheboygan River at head of lake.
Knocked out of race by dead engine, Ray Lenk of Detroit consoles himself by lighting up cigaret as speeding rival stands boat on edge to make U-turn at Devil's Elbow.
Two-Way traffic at bend in Crooked River finds slow boat (top left) heading for halfway mark meeting leaders on way back. Submerged stumps that can rip out a boat's bottom often squeeze racers close together as they slam past each other in narrow channel.
JOHN G. ZIMMERMAN