ST. CHARLES – After 340 treacherous miles in an uncomfortable canoe and four days of sleep deprivation, the contestants of the Missouri River 340, with their blistered hands and aching muscles, reached the finish line to the sweet sound of applause.
For more than 150 of the teams there will be no monetary reward for finishing the race. Their only reward is the pride of finishing a race that pushes the mind and body to the limit.
The MR340 is a four-day race on the Missouri River starting at Kaw Point in Kansas City, Kan., and ending at the Lewis and Clark Boat House and Nature Center in St. Charles. All participants had to finish the race within 88 hours or face disqualification.
In the four-year history of the competition, co-race director Scott Mankser said this year had the highest percentage of boats to ever finish the race with 179 of the 251 boats crossing the finish line. Winners were awarded cash prizes ranging from $500 to $750. Mansker said he added more volunteers and knocked 12 hours off the time limit to accommodate the amount of racers. He said the race is growing in popularity.
“I think we are just building momentum from every year,” Mansker said. “Next year is never a given. After we finish this year and see how it clears out, we will decide, but I’m 90-percent sure we will have another.”
Contestants were greeted by their fellow racers, spectators and family and friends. They often helped each other carry their boats up the sandy shore. There were people sharing experiences, enjoying barbecue pork steak and having a good time. One person garnered a lot of stares and laughs when he celebrated by playing an acoustic guitar while wearing a Speedo and cowboy boots. Former MU student Jodi Pfefferkorn, who made a documentary on the race two years ago called “Down River and Up Hill” and is making another this year, said she is starting to see more camaraderie among racers.
“Everyone wants each other to do well and finish. When it’s all said and done, everyone paddled 340 miles,” Pfefferkorn said.
Race organizer Karin Thomas said the race finished without any serious injuries, and organizers plan to keep the same rules and safety measures next year. They had used safety boats to follow the racers in the middle of the pack, the back, and the front.
However, racers like the men’s tandem team of David Alexander and Brit Shea from Columbia had to overcome a broken canoe to finish the race. Their canoe cracked down the middle near Rocheport. They had to use a floor board, a blue pad, 10-gallon cooler jug, a two-liter bottle of water and a paddle tied across two yokes all stacked on top of each other to prevent the center of the boat from rising up and breaking in half.
“I had so much riding on the race I couldn’t quit,” Alexander said. “It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done ... You can’t imagine what you’re body can handle in terms of stress until you do something like this.”
Thomas said they would like to limit the race next year. She cited the mess at the starting line, where some boats tipped over, and the crowding of racers camping out at the check points. Mansker has already proposed capping the race at 340 to match the number of miles in the race.
“If it is up to me I think they should cap it at 250,” Thomas said. “Unless we can prevent people from camping at the check points and spread out down the river.”
Four-year racer Chuck McHenry from Ironton, said that it has been amazing to see the event grow. Four years ago the race had only 12 boats, and now it has grown to more than 251. McHenry said this year he was most surprised by the amount of Missouri racers that finished in the top of the pack.
“First year we got in the race just to see if it could be done,” McHenry said. “This year there have been a lot of Missouri people finishing at the top. Before, the out-of-staters were the only one’s that knew what they were doing. Now we (people from Missouri) know what we are doing and are becoming more competitive.”
First-year racers Linda LaFontaine and Cami Ronchetto, both from Columbia, won the women’s tandem division in 61 hours and 40 minutes, just 31 minutes shy of breaking the division’s record.
Ronchetto and LaFontaine felt the effects of the grueling race. Ronchetto said she had a hard time standing up and was wobbling from side to side across the boat ramp. Her shoulders hurt so bad that she was unable to lift her arms above her head and was unable to comb her hair afterward. But Ronchetto and LaFontaine said the pain was all worth it.
“I would definitely like to come back next year,” Ronchetto said. “We want to break the women’s tandem record next year and finish the race within 50 hours.”
With the success of this year’s race, four-year racer Bryan Hopkins of Columbia thinks the race will continue to grow in popularity. He said the race has become more competitive through the years. This year the men’s tandem record was broken by two teams and the mixed tandem was broken by 20 hours, according to Mansker.
“I think it’s very similar to the Iditarod. It’s going to get huge and we will start seeing sponsors,” Hopkins said. “Several towns have brought in water trucks and that has never happened before. Each town is beginning to embrace this event.”