- Missouri River 340, this ain’t no mama’s boy kayak float trip.
- You don’t have to go to Alaska or Mt. Kilimanjaro for an authentic outdoor adventure.
- What you learn about extreme sports will pale in comparison to what you learn about yourself.
- This year, the event will run August 8-11, 2017.
By Jim Low
Missourians who wonder if they have the physical and mental toughness necessary to be extreme athletes don’t have to go far to find out. They can test their mettle against a force of nature…the Missouri River.
In 2006, Scott Mansker and Russ Payzant, self-avowed “river rats,” decided to organize a paddle race to raise awareness of the world-class, but then little-known, recreational opportunities on the Big Muddy. What they came up with was a nonstop ultra-marathon race from Kansas City to St. Charles. The distance between those two points – 340 miles – provided a name for the event, the Missouri River 340 (insiders generally shorten the name to MR340 or simply, “The 340”). That first year, the event drew 11 solo paddlers and five tandem teams. They were given 100 hours – a little more than two days – to finish the course.
Today, paddlers are allowed only 88 hours to finish the course. They paddle so hard that the friction of their shirts causes their nipples to bleed, a distraction that veterans avoid with duct tape pasties. The skin of their palms sloughs off in enormous blisters…more duct tape.
They endure the heat and humidity of August.
They risk literally being blown off the river by tornadoes or microbursts.
But if you think these obstacles cool the ardor of potential participants, you don’t understand the mindset of ultramarathoners. Within days of wrapping up the inaugural Missouri River 340, Mansker and Payzant’s electronic in-boxes were flooded with email from paddlers eager to sign up for the next year’s race.
Participation ballooned so rapidly that they were forced to limit entries. By early June of this year, nearly 500 individuals and teams had signed up for the race. They will come from all over the United States and as far away as Japan to compete in 11 divisions: Women’s and Men’s Solo; Women’s, Men’s and Mixed Tandem; Solo Pedal Drive; Tandem Pedal Drive; Team (3-4 paddlers); Voyageur (5 to 10 paddlers); Dragon Boat (11-plus paddlers); and SUP (Stand Up Paddler.)
Last year’s top time – an astonishing 38 hours, 22 minutes – was posted by a six-woman team calling themselves “Boatylicious.” The next four entrants to reach St. Charles were all solo paddlers, three men and one woman. All made the grueling paddle in under 45 hours. That’s an average of more than 7.5 mph, including time to eat, drink and nap.
Napping is a must. Even if you do, you stand a good chance of experiencing visual and auditory hallucinations, especially at night. The 340 is scheduled to take advantage of a full moon, but phantom voices and spectral presences are a common experience in the profound darkness and calm that prevails between sunset and moonrise. These can get you in trouble if you pay more attention to them than you do to what’s actually there.
Things like wing dikes, buoys, bridge pilings and barges. While paddling at night in the 2007 MR 340, a mixed tandem team – ages 66 and 70 – misjudged the distance of an approaching barge and were plowed under when they tried to cross the river in front of it. While their $5,500 kayak was being chopped to bits, the couple desperately clawed their way along the bottom of the barge’s hull, trying to avoid their boat’s fate. Astonishingly, both paddlers emerged with only scrapes and bruises and were rescued by the barge crew.
Racers are not entirely on their own. A fleet of safety boats patrols the pack, checking on paddlers’ health, handing out sport drinks, helping in emergencies and – inevitably – picking up contestants who are simply played out.
Bringing up the rear is a safety boat known as “The Reaper.” Their job is to collect paddlers who fail to reach each mandatory check-in point in the pre-determined time necessary to have even a remote chance of finishing the race. Slow, but dogged, paddlers dread the appearance of “The Reaper” the way that schoolchildren dread the end of summer. But without this measure, the pack would become too strung out for safe supervision.
All this combines to produce epic stories: the cancer survivor who began training for the race while still undergoing chemotherapy; the alcoholic who set out to prove something to others and instead found the inner strength to overcome her physical and mental demons; world-class athletes who push themselves far beyond normal limits of human endurance and ordinary people who perform extraordinary feats.
It’s no surprise then that thousands of spectators turn out to witness the spectacle. The biggest crowds gather at both, the starting point at the mouth of the Kansas River, and the finish line at St. Charles’ Frontier Park. But people also throng to the mandatory check-in points scattered along the course. Ground-support crews mingle with relatives of racers, news media and curiosity seekers. Highway bridges with pedestrian walks are favorite vantage points for gawkers and photographers.
If you want to get in on the fun, either as a participant or a tourist, visit rivermiles.com/mr340/ for details of this year’s event. You also can follow the progress of the race Aug. 8-11 through posts on the MR340 forum, rivermiles.com/forum/YaBB.pl.