Murray Marathon paddlers face a new challenge |PICTURES

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THE Murray Marathon is facing a make-or-break change of dates from its traditional time slot between Christmas and the New Year.

This year’s staging of the 404-kilometre torture test from Yarrawonga to Swan Hill began early yesterday, with the major talking point being the event’s switch to mid-November next year.

Organisers were already bracing for a cancellation of today’s leg between Picnic Point and Echuca due to extreme fire danger weather with forecast temperatures in the mid-30s.

YMCA acting chief executive Stephen Bendle was on hand for the race start yesterday and said heat-related issues would be eliminated with a November race.

“It is not really about what happens on the river,” he said.

“It is about the forest areas.

“With 300 or so cars going through the forest there is as much chance of starting a fire than getting caught in one.

“We won’t have that hassle in November.”

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The race has again attracted 450 competitors, including 165 teams, but numbers have remained stagnant in recent times.

The committee made the decision in mid-December to change dates and Mr Bendle conceded the reaction to the change had been mixed.

“Some are disappointed, but others are saying ‘great’,” he said.

“They struggle to get here at this time of year.”

Mr Bendle said finding a replacement date had its challenges.

Pushing the event back to late January was ruled out and organisers had to avoid the cod season opening in early December and VCE exams in early November.

“We’ve only got a small window,” Mr Bendle said.

“It is not sustainable in its current form.

“We want to make it bigger and better, but we can’t do that unless we have more participants.”

A potential growth area is the involvement of more school teams.

Mr Bendle said organisers had also toyed with starting the race in Albury or staging it between Swan Hill and Mildura to spark more interest among competitors.

The YMCA took over the running of the marathon in 2009.

Moira Council mayor Peter Mansfield was on hand at the race start yesterday and conceded the event faced some challenges.

“I think it is no longer ‘flavour of the month’,” he said.

“They have got to do something to try and resurrect it and changing the date is a step in the right direction.

“They are having a go and need to be applauded for that.

“But my individual opinion is it has run its race.

“YMCA is to be commended for trying, but I think the date change could be the last roll of the dice.”

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