Missouri River race presents daunting challenges

Tuesday, August 4, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:15 a.m. CDT, Thursday, August 6, 2009

COLUMBIA — The Missouri River will be their home for three nights and four days. 

Their eyes will get weary and their arms will feel like anchors when they attempt to travel 340 miles with limited rest. Wing dikes, barges and motorboats are all obstacles that could wreck their boats and end their adventures. They will be equipped with maps, bottles of water, energy bars and life jackets to aid them on the journey.

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Racers from as far away as Canada will bring their kayaks and canoes to Kaw Point in Kansas City, Kan., for the fourth annual Missouri River 340, which organizers say is the world's longest non-stop river race. The race will run from 8 a.m. Tuesday until midnight Friday.

Race co-director Scott Mansker said the race will have nine checkpoints, ranging 23 to 56 miles apart. If the racers do not arrive at the checkpoints before the deadlines, they will be disqualified. These checkpoints also serve as a place where racers can rest and restock on food and water.

Participants will have 88 hours to paddle from Kaw Point to the Lewis and Clark Boat House in St. Charles.

Bryan Hopkins of Columbia has participated in the race every year since the event started in 2006. He will be racing in the men's tandem division with Joe Mann from San Antonio. He was in the men's solo division the past three years and said this race was one of the most difficult things he has done.

"Sometimes your body seems euphoric like you're a robot who can paddle non-stop," Hopkins said. "But there are times where your body tells you to stop. Your body goes numb and your muscles start to ache, but you have to push yourself through those moments."

Hopkins said the MR 340 is a family affair for him. His wife, Alma Hopkins, and his children will serve as his ground crew. They will meet him at every checkpoint and will supply him with food and water along the way. He said the task of the ground crew is just as daunting as it is for the racer.

"It's an intense job, and my family will be deprived of sleep just as much as me," Hopkins said.

Mansker said racers will be required to attend a mandatory safety meeting the night before the race. Twelve motor boats will be stationed near the checkpoints and they will provide emergency assistance for racers.

Mansker said about 65 percent of people completed past races. He said the race does not stop when there are thunderstorms,   but he advises competitors to get off the river if they see one ahead.

"People in the past stayed on the river when a storm hit," Mansker said. "They had regrets afterward. The waves ejected them from their boats and they lost most of their gear."

Mansker said racers will need to have is mental toughness. To finish within the time limit, racers will have to limit their amount of sleep.

Mansker said the race will be one of the hardest tasks that many of the racers have ever done.

"This race is more mental than physical, because of the physical discomfort of sitting in a boat for hours," Mansker said.  "Your brain will give you 1,000 reasons why you should stop. People often have to think if the risk is worth the reward. Just to finish the race is a milestone."

Charlie Lockwood of Columbia will be participating in his second MR 340 race in the mixed tandem division with Tabatha Adkins of Gower. 

Lockwood has been participating in races for 20 years and has participated in river races ranging from 10 to 70 miles long. In 1977, Lockwood lived in New York where he made his own paddles and boats that he used in races. He would participate in 10 races a year before moving to Missouri in 1991.

After a 15-year hiatus from the sport, Lockwood started getting involved with the MR 340 and served as part of the ground crew for West Hansen, a three-year participant from Texas.   

After watching Hansen race, Lockwood regained his passion for river racing. He built a small workshop next to his house and began making paddles again. He started participating in races throughout Missouri and organizes a 10-mile race every year at Perche Creek called the "Perche Creek Gutbuster."

Lockwood did not fare well in his first MR 340. He became dehydrated, and the line snapped on his rudder causing his boat to drag. He got discouraged and decided to drop out at the first checkpoint in Lexington after 50 miles.

"I decided that discretion was a better part of valor," Lockwood said. "I wasn't well prepared for that race, but this year I'm coming back for vengeance. I know we will finish the race."

Despite the hardships racers face during the MR 340, the number of participants has gradually increased every year. The race had 15 participants its first year. The number of competitors in the race ballooned from 150 boats last year to more than 270 this year. Mansker said eclipsing 250 boats meant calling the U.S. Coast Guard to be able to have the race.

"A lot of racers who don't finish the race end up coming back the next year to try it again," Hopkins said. "Most people don't enter to win, they enter just to finish the race."

The awards ceremony will take place at 7 p.m. Friday at the Lewis and Clark Boat House in St. Charles. 

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