Marathon Feeders: Signs that you’re a lifer

A 120-mile canoe marathon is virtually unheard of by most normal people. But I’ve got a bunch of friends who do something that’s one step closer to crazy – we are the marathon “feeders.”

We feel nothing.

As our team paddles through the night, we wade into the river every two hours and give them fresh food and drink. This means entering the river in the blinding dark with flashing red lights. This means scrambling down the backside of a dam to meet them with a fresh shirt and paddle. This means finding two tracks that lead to a tiny slice of river in the middle of a Michigan night to “check on them.” (At which time, they will flat-out ignore us or shout something unintelligible.)

And after you’ve done it for 10 years, something scary happens. You become a lifer.

First off, you do not want to become a veteran. Everyone will ask you for advice and expect answers. Good ones even. You will be asked to give directions and, horrors, sketch maps for them. You will be expected to know the remedy for everything from nausea to concussions. And, in a shocking discovery, you’ll realize you do. This is when you know you’ve gone too far, you’re in too deep. You might be a lifer.


Signs that you’re a lifer:

You feel no weather. 

Just a few days ago, I was trading war stories with another feeder. It was only her second marathon. She mentioned the fact that last year’s marathon was so, so cold. The conversation slammed to a halt.

“Cold?” I asked.

“Freezing!” she said.

I grabbed her arm. “Ohmygod, I don’t remember it being cold at all.”

“At all?” she whispered.

“At all,” I whispered back.

Diagnosis final. With robotic precision, I gather, I marched into the river, withstood its subzero temps, delivered the goods and marched back out. I mixed bottles and chopped fruit and pro-offered paddles. I drove back roads and forged rivers. I served with militant focus, repelling precipitation and barometer readings wherever I went.

If I were pressed, I might remember enjoying taking off my cold shoes after the last feed. But overall, I remember feeling neither warm nor cold, wet nor dry. Like lifers everywhere, I had forgotten the pain of childbirth.


You need no sleep.

For the first few years of feeding, your biggest concern is not your team. Your biggest concern is you and your lack of shut-eye. You haven’t pulled an all-nighter since college and, then, booze was involved. This will be a sober endeavor, complete with responsibilities and motor vehicle operation.

With any luck, for the first few years, your team is slow. This means your feeds will be well spaced-out, allotting a few minutes of rest between each feed. These are the golden years. Enjoy them. You are not rushing to each feed, you are only hoping your team will make the cut-off time.

But each year your team will gain speed and, in direct correlation, you will lose sleep. As the years pass, you reason that all you really need is 20 minutes of sleep to survive.

It usually happens at Alcona dam, just after daybreak. You will be so desperate and done at this point that you will knowingly risk the livelihood of your team as you recline your car seat ever so slightly.

You will set 5 alarms in the car for fear of oversleeping. You will ask another 5 feeders to come get you in 20 minutes. You will then close your eyes and have one pounding minute of deep, surreal, gorgeous sleep… before jerking awake at a moth landing on the windshield of a car two doors down. You will go into a full-blown panic before realizing you have 19 more minutes to sleep. You will repeat this 18 more times.

By year 10, well into your veteran years, you will realize it’s just easier to stay the hell awake.


You need no food.

You pack enough for dinner, breakfast and lunch, in that order. You also pack a late-night snack and a late-late-night snack. (You also count out enough drinks for a 15-hour stint in the car. But in the end, you will drink almost nothing. After one trip into the backwoods with Kleenex, you are determined to dehydrate for the rest of the event.)

At first you try to eat. You want to be in tip-top shape for the job at hand. But as the night wears on, you realize you have no appetite (robbed at each feed when things teeter between going very right and very wrong at every second). By 3 in the morning, you reason that you would never eat at 3 in the morning on a normal night, so why now? By 7 a.m., you force half a banana down. By 9 a.m., you realize you’re well on your way to the longest dieting stretch you’ve ever had. If you can tough it out another 6 hours, you’ve got the makings of a scale-detectable weight loss. Your appetite disappears altogether.

When your team finishes, it’s about 2 p.m. on Sunday. You come out of your stupor and realize the sun is shining, you’re starving and you would kill a man to sleep in his bed at that very instant.

But you hang on. It’s still another hour before the hotel check-in. You order a pizza. You sit in the parking lot of the hotel and you very, very slightly recline your seat. You wait for the pizza man. One more feed to go. Like a true lifer, you will not rest until the last job is done.


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