Sterling Heights

Kayak race to adapt running tech for recreation in COVID-19 times

With COVID-19 restrictions limiting large events, sports groups are getting creative. People are increasingly turning to individual recreation activities, like running and paddling, and marathon organizers are utilizing virtual software to register participants’ times as they compete separately. In Sterling Heights, the city is planning to adapt that technology to waterways, to host a new timed kayak race along the Clinton River.

Recreation specialist Kirby Rochester.Sterling Heights recreation specialist Kirby Rochester is leading the planning for the August 1 race day, and says he was surprised when he began researching the possibilities. 

“No one else seems to be doing it around here, just a straight kayak race,” Rochester says. “I couldn’t find another in metro Detroit to use as a model.”

Rochester and his team have instead turned to local running shop manager Bob Busquaert to help them adapt racing technology. Hanson’s Running Shop has been using digital competition programs since 2008, and Busquaert has seen the concept used in the Eastside Racing Company’s annual Paddle and Run competition, which involves a kayak component. 

In Sterling Heights, the process will involve participating kayakers carrying an electronic chip that registers the time taken from an antenna placed at the start of the water course to one located at the finish line.

“For a paddle event, instead of the usual ankle strap for a running race, you would use a wrist strap,” Busquaert says.
The antennas, called flashpoints, will be set at boat height and will register frequencies associated with a particular bib number as kayakers pass. That information is then sent to cloud technology and recorded in a software called Chronotrack.

“You can even watch these events in real time,” says Busquaert. “I can see when you start and finish the event, with a couple of minutes delay.”

A participant in the Paddle and Run series makes headway in the water on the Clinton River. Photo supplied.

With the COVID-19 shut down of gyms, and restrictions on team sports, Busquaert has seen a significant uptick at his Utica store of residents embracing individual sports, like running, and now with warmer weather, kayaking.

“We’ve had people walk in to get running shoes who have never run before but want to stay active,” he says. “They needed an outlet.”

This summer some of Sterling Heights' largest event have been cancelled and residents like Kim Helchowski are disappointed, but grateful for adapted events like the kayaking race. 

"Personally, I totally understand that [the city] is taking the health of their citizens seriously," Helchowski says. "Its nice that they are looking for ways to keep that interaction but still stay safe."

A recreational kayaker on family holidays in the north of Michigan, Helchowski has never been out on the Clinton River, but is excited about being part of the upcoming race. 

"It sounds like a lot of fun," she says.

Kayaking has a natural way of distancing participants, Rochester points out, and with plans to release five to 10 kayakers at a time during the race, he hopes it’s a way for people to participate in a larger event without getting too close. 

Busquaert agrees. “You want people to be safe, to know that they aren’t compromised,” he says. “There’s no better way to be distanced than on a river.”

Rochester anticipates 50 to 60 participants in the new race, pointing to the busy Saturday and Sunday mornings he sees at Sterling Heights’ boat launches and the positive feedback he’s received on social media when the idea was first raised. Interested participants can register for the event here, and Clinton River Canoe & Kayak will be providing rental kayaks for $35.

“If it is incredibly successful, with a high demand, we could add another race,” he says. “With many of the running races cancelled we are able to access the technology fairly easily.”

He is, however, conscious of crowding out other paddlers. 

“We don’t want to jam up the river,” he explains. “You have to balance putting on a cool event and being good stewards of the land.”

The idea for the new race, Rochester says, largely stems from the extensive renovation work conducted along the Clinton River over the past few years. 

“It went from being overgrown and impassable to a picturesque place to kayak.”

“It’s wonderful,” Busquaert admits. “Before you’d have to go up north to kayak, and now it’s in our backyard.”


Read more articles by Kate Roff.

Kate Roff is an award-winning freelance writer and journalism educator, currently based out of Detroit. She is the managing editor of Metromode and Model D. Contact her at