Last January, my friend, Mark, asked if I wanted to team up with him in the Missouri River 340 Race. I told Mark that I was interested, but would have to get my wife's approval. Since she is the sane one in the marriage, I thought that there was no way she would say, “Yes.” I went home and asked her, and she said, “Yes.” My mouth dropped open, and the race was on.
We registered as team CoMotion in the men's tandem division and started planning. At this time we had the following going for us: number of paddling races – I was in one at 4-H camp as a teen; number of times on any watercraft on the Missouri River – 0; number of watercraft in our possession – 0; number of times my mother (she grew up near the river) had told me that the Missouri River is a dangerous place that everyone should avoid – uncountable. In the next few months, we did research. Mark found a tandem kayak on Craig's List and bought it sight unseen. We came up with a packing list, needed gear, and a plan for a tag-team support crew. One thing we decided early on was that we were paddlers and not racers. Paddlers were participating for the experience. Racers were the ones who are on the podium at the finish. Our support crew were instructed that if we ever said “Hey, I think we can actually win this thing.” they were to yank us off the river and get us some rest.
Because of high water, we were not able to get on the river until April. We did numerous day trips of 40 – 60 miles and one night trip to see what the river looked like when the sun went down. A few days before the original date in July, with 340 boats registered, the river was still up and rising. The organizers postponed the date by a month for safety.
Once again, I got permission from my wife (if you have not figured it out, I have a great wife) and so did Mark (his is pretty special, too). We did not get much additional training, because we had been postponing many real life things.
On Tuesday, August 23rd,, everyone put in at KAW park, just a small distance from where the Kansas enters the Missouri. About 250 boats were upstream from the boat ramp when the gun went off at 8:00 am. Somehow, we were in the lead. We felt like those guys in marathons who try to sprint with the leaders to get on television. Our position at the front was short lived as the racers went past us.
The first day, our goal was Miami, MO, 105 miles downstream, with two checkpoints along the way. There were checkpoints throughout the race and we had to make cutoff times for each one to stay in the race. We had overcast skies and cool temps the whole day. Mark's wife, Tina, was our support person and met us at all the checkpoints. Most of the day was uneventful, but I learned an important lesson. I was paddling like I had trained, where the daily distance was 40 – 60 miles. I was able to hold up the first 95 miles, but the last 10 miles, we were both hurting. We were desperate to see the blue strobe light that marked the Miami checkpoint. When we got to the point, we were dragging ourselves to the ramp. It was around 11 pm and volunteers asked us if we were staying or pushing on. We both sounded off with “STAYING” and they jumped in the water, helped us out of the boat and carried our boat on shore for us. Tina was there and had food and drink for us.
Tina left us with our gear. We were in the tent by midnight and got intermittent sleep, because of all the activity around us. We were up at about 5 am and started getting ourselves and our gear together. A friend, Paula, was already there with coffee and ready for her support role. We got food in us and we were back on the water at about 6 am.
This was the hardest and most painful day. The exertion from the day before and the lack of rest that night had demanded a price, and I was paying it. Luckily, Mark had recovered some and was able to keep us going. I tried to stay positive, but kept wondering if I was going to be able to finish if it continued to hurt this much. Luckily, we were ONLY doing 85 miles this day. We struggled to the day's half way point at Glasgow where Paula was waiting. She had bagel sandwiches, cold drinks waiting for us, with plenty of encouraging and motivating words for us.
As we pushed away from Glasgow, something finally clicked. A friend of mine runs ultramarathons and told me that for him to run that far, he had to learn to run slow. Instead of dipping my paddle as far as I could and pushing with all I had, I started dipping it in a little and being happy with giving the kayak a little scoot.
Somewhere around 6pm, we pulled into Katfish Katies, near Huntsdale. Family and friends were there to cheer us on. They saw us at our lowest, and many of them admitted later that our appearance worried them. I had river legs and had trouble standing steady on dry land. I was so sore and weak that one of my daughters had to close the back hatch to our van. However, this was when we had made the best decision in our plans. Since we both lived in the area, we packed up and headed to our respective homes. We cleaned up, got some good food and immediately passed out.
I slept hard, and I woke up at 4 am, feeling sore, but rested. I felt so much better than I had the day before. I gathered my stuff and kissed my wife. My Dad drove me back to the kayak. We met Mark there and loaded everything. Our gear was picked up by another friend, Bill. He had us for the next 12 hours. At 6 am, we put back into the river with fog and no sun yet. We could not see the bank, but could see treetops. We used them to guide us. We came across another team in a canoe that had gotten turned around and stuck in the fog for over an hour.
We continued without getting lost and got past Cooper's Landing before the fog started lifting. At Jefferson City, we had our first checkpoint of the day. Bill was waiting and had a picnic for us in the shade. He made it too comfortable for us and it took some strength of will for us to get back in the boat. Somehow, we did.
This was turning out to be our best day. I had some muscle pain, but it was not like the day before. With the good rest and the change in my stroke, the float was right down pleasurable. Instead of counting down miles to go, I was anticipating what was around the next bend. Our next official checkpoint was in Hermann. This was a long distance between points, so Bill met us in Portland.
We resupplied and pushed off as my cousin, Marilyn Toalson, was arriving to take over support duties from Bill. They got to see us going downstream as a barge was coming upstream. From there perspective, it looked like we were playing chicken with the barge. However, I had checked the map and there was a creek that we ducked into. We got into the creek just in time to avoid the barge wake and for an Asian jumping carp to scare us. However, no contact was made, so no injuries. We waited for the barge to pass and the wake to subside. Even then, we had about 10 minutes of waves that were similar to sea chop.
It took a while to make it to Hermann, and Marilyn was there to meet us. Here is where we had decided to wait and see how we felt and determine if we were going to continue or stop. We felt good, we still felt rested, and if we did stop, we knew from experience that we would not get much rest. Plus, Hermann to St. Louis has big, loud trains that run every 20 minutes.
With 72 miles to go, we left Hermann. It was dark quickly, but the full moon was up just as quick. We always seemed to have a boat with a light in front to follow at night. It was much easier than using the map in the dark. We thought we were following a boat this time when we realized we had ran aground. We discovered that we had been coming up on a sand bar and the light we were following was a small campfire of one of the racers who had decided that they had gone far enough for the day.
We continued on until we got to Washington at about 11 pm. My cousin, Marilyn, was asleep on a park bench waiting for us. Now, I do not know how many cousins you readers have that would sleep on a park bench along the Missouri River for you, but I am fortunate to have a few of them. Once again, we got a few supplies and some caffeine. We had 42 miles to go with one official check point between us and the finish.
At about 1 am, we landed at Klondike Park, the last check point and just 29 miles to go. The volunteers were happy to see us, because they had not seen many paddlers. They had a nice bonfire going and we warmed ourselves. One of the volunteers had half a cup of hot coffee, and offered it to us. I let Mark enjoy it. We found out that two of the people at the fire were racers and had just capsized before we got there. They had got caught in a current and flipped. The safety boat was about to take them downstream to retrieve their boat. We got back to our boat and left carefully, because we did not want there to be two boats to retrieve.
The water was warm like bath water and the air was cool, a perfect combination for thick fog. We were following a solo kayaker and we got turned around in a bend with him. We had doubts about his alertness. We had a hard time deciding which direction to go, but Mark got us out with a lucky guess.
We made it the rest of the night unhindered. We kept moving and the night sky was something to see. At day break, we got to the Highway 40 bridge, near St Louis, and the fog started thickening again. We made it under the bridge and past a moored barges and tugboats. We were concerned passing through the thicker patches of fog, we would come upon a mobile boat or get too close to a stationary one.
We were going through a tricky set of bends when the fog level reached pea soup. I was in the back steering and the fog, combined with the bend of the river, made the treetops look like they surrounded us. We talked and really did not know where the banks were and not positive of the river direction. That was when I had a bright idea. I pulled out my Blackberry phone and pulled up Google Maps. It showed our location and direction of travel. I was able to zoom in enough that I could see our position on the river. I told Mark to stare ahead and yell if he saw anything in the water, because I was going in on instruments. I put the phone in my lap and put my head down. I did not even look outside the boat. It took a couple of minutes for us to get to the bank we needed to be on and we followed it around.
Now, we could see the I-70 bridge and knew that the finish line was just past it. We could also see a tug pushing barges upstream. We thought about riding it out, but did not want to capsize this close to the end. The banks were muddy, but we got over and pulled our kayak up on the side. We let the barge go by and called our group at the finish to warn them of our arrival.
After the barge went by and the water settled, we were off. We made it under the bridge. We could see the finish just past the Ameristar Casino, at the Lewis & Clark boathouse. We started digging and it was hard to believe that the journey was about to end. We pulled into the landing and volunteers were there to help us out, steady us and carry our boat up on shore. I did not find out until later that most of the people helping were some of the front runners in the race, but that is the kind of race it is. Mark's wife Tina was there and my cousin Marilyn.
It took us 71 hours, 14 minutes, the last 25 plus hours without any sleep. Out of 250 boats, we were 108th, and out of 68 men's tandem kayaks, we were 32nd. We were very happy with our time and effort. We were fortunate to have near perfect conditions with no extreme temperatures, wind, or rain, and we had a turbo effect since the river was up and moving.
People have asked if I will do this again, and the answer is “No”. I enjoyed it and I am happy I did it, but the next time I go “floating” it will be for enjoyment and soaking up scenery. I do plan to volunteer for the race next year, and I recommend anyone with the urge to try it.
I cannot end this with out saying thank you to everyone. We had lots of help from family and friends that ensured our success. We had our support crew that baby sat us all the way. They were positive and uplifting for us. There was plenty of time away from our family duties and many things were postponed for after the race. We were dropped off upstream and picked up downstream many times. We had many blessings in our lives that allowed us to pull this off and in our eyes, pull it off quite well. Thanks to everyone and especially to Mark for inviting me along for this adventure.
If you want to see pictures of our training and our trip, please click this link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/boconorm/sets/72157624969870844/
If you want more information about the race, this is a link to the race web site: http://rivermiles.com/?page_id=5