Veteran racer takes on Missouri River for first time

Tuesday, August 4, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 12:18 a.m. CDT, Thursday, August 6, 2009
Cami Ronchetto of Columbia stands with her two-person kayak "Jordan" on Saturday, three days before she embarks on the MR 340 race with partner Linda LaFontaine. The boat race takes participants from Kansas City to St. Louis via the Missouri River, and Ronchetto expects that it will take her tandem about 75 hours to complete the course.

COLUMBIA – Cami Ronchetto carefully scans the floor of her garage. Small boxes of crackers, 15 gallons of water, maps and other items are spread across the floor on three large gray towels. She organizes the items and makes sure she has everything she needs for the long journey ahead.

Ronchetto and her partner, Linda LaFontaine, both from Columbia, are set to take part in their first Missouri River 340. The event, a four-day, non-stop race down the Missouri River, starts Tuesday morning. Competitors will have 88 hours to paddle from Kaw Point in Kansas City, Kan., to the Lewis and Clark Boat House & Nature Center in St. Charles.

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Ronchetto and LaFontaine have paddled together for eight years. They have entered the women's tandem division and plan to weave their way down the river in a sleek 22-foot-long kayak. 

They said the race is a chance for them to enjoy nature and provides them with a new challenge.

"Our main goal is to finish the race," LaFontaine said. "We will get cramps and sores from sitting in the boat for hours. We will have to decide how much we want to suffer, but we will motivate each other to keep going."

But Ronchetto is not a stranger to long races. She started adventure racing in 1996 and has participated in more than 70 adventure races in 15 different countries. She is familiar with their grueling challenges.

Teams of three men and one woman navigate numerous checkpoints set up in all kinds of environments. Getting to a checkpoint might involve climbing mountains, riding camels and horses, mountain biking or crawling through caves. The races lasted anywhere from three to 14 days and nature is usually the biggest challenge.

Ronchetto said she has experienced the sweltering heat in Brazil and climbed through the frigid conditions of the Alps in Switzerland.

She said her team got rashes from plants they had to walk through in the jungle. Leaches would cling to their bodies, sucking their blood. Rain would pour on them, soaking the blood into their shirts, which would then turn pink. Some racers would crawl to the checkpoints after developing "trench foot." She said bacteria infects the skin of a competitors feet, and it would feel like a third-degree burn. 

"Sometimes I felt motivated and wanted to keep going, and other times I questioned why I was doing this," Ronchetto said. "You go through an emotional roller coaster throughout the whole race."

Ronchetto said she had a near-death experience while paddling in a river race in Michigan. A fast current flipped her boat and sucked her to the bottom. She said she was underwater for about 45 seconds until something brushed against her hand. It was a rope attached to her kayak, and she and her teammate were able to pull themselves to the boat make it to shore.

"For those seconds my life flashed before my eyes," Ronchetto said. "All I could think about was my family and not being able to see them again."

Getting enough food was also a problem for Ronchetto. She said her team would constantly be moving for almost 20 hours, and they would burn more calories than they consumed. They would often eat field rations used by soldiers in the military. She and her teammates would try to eat a high-calorie meal about every two hours.

"It got to the point where eating became a chore," Ronchetto said. "After one race in Brazil, I was so skinny you could see my ribs."

After the races were over, Ronchetto said it would take two to three weeks for her body to recover. Despite being exhausted after races, Ronchetto competed in them until 2004 when she decided she wanted to spend more time with her family.

"You would have to reassimilate yourself to the real world after every race," Ronchetto said. "After days of constantly moving, it's hard to get back to doing real-life stuff like watching television and doing laundry."

Ronchetto will test her endurance again when she and LaFontaine paddle down the Missouri River. Ronchetto said they have paddled 310 of the 340 miles of the race in increments for the past three months to get a feel for the route.

Ronchetto said adventure racing is more physically taxing than paddling, but the MR 340 will still provide her with a new challenge.

"The nice thing about adventure racing, is you do different things every day," Ronchetto said. "But for the river race, your body is using the same muscle over 1,000 times, in the same repetitive motion."

Ronchetto's husband, Jim Ronchetto, and her friend Nancy Resebeck will be the ground crew for the tandem. They will provide assistance for Cami Ronchetto and Lafontaine at each checkpoint along the river, providing them with food and water. 

Jim Ronchetto said he will be on call 24 hours because the team could arrive at the checkpoints anytime during the race. 

"We have to be at the right place at the right time," Jim Ronchetto said. "They should concentrate on paddling; my objective will be to provide them with anything they need. It will be as much of an adventure for me as it will for them. I wasn't able to provide her support when she was adventure racing, so this race is a good opportunity to do that."

The race will start at 8 a.m. Tuesday and run until midnight Friday. The race route comes closest to Columbia at Cooper's Landing, about 10 miles south of Columbia. Ronchetto said they hope to arrive at Cooper's Landing about 10 p.m. Wednesday.

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