Columbia couple racing to clean Missouri rivers

Monday, March 21, 2011 | 3:55 p.m. CDT; updated 6:20 a.m. CDT, Tuesday, March 22, 2011
Sarah Pennington paddles through an icy river while training for the sixth annual Missouri River 340 scheduled for July. Pennington and her husband, Josh Pennington, weren't able to participate in the event last year.

COLUMBIA — Josh and Sarah Pennington are no strangers to adventure.

After receiving their bachelor's degrees from MU, they sold their house and traveled the western United States in a minivan for six months with their two Labrador retrievers, $5000 and two simple rules: no interstates and no shopping or eating at chain restaurants or grocery stores.

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The Penningtons' rummage sale will be held from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. on April 1 to 3 at 419 Parkade Blvd. They will be taking donations for the sale until March 28.

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"We have the same interests," Sarah Pennington said. "We're best friends. Our personalities match in a way that we want to do the same things anyway."

This summer, the Penningtons are embarking on their next journey together — participating in the sixth annual Missouri River 340, the world’s longest nonstop canoe race. They are asking people to pledge money for each mile of the race to raise money and awareness for Missouri River Relief, an organization they've been involved with for five years.

Missouri River Relief is a volunteer-based group that focuses on cleaning up the Missouri River and educating citizens on the importance of caring for their rivers. 

“They are really just spark plugs in our motor, just full of energy," Missouri River Relief director Jeff Barrow said of the Penningtons.

The Columbia couple has firsthand experience with the impact polluted rivers have on a community. They are veterans of the National Guard and served a year in Iraq in 2004.

“That experience really opened our eyes because we saw how degraded the rivers were there and how important it was to take care of our rivers," Josh Pennington, 28, said.

Sarah Pennington, also 28, agreed.

“It opened our eyes to the importance of taking care of our natural resources,” she said.

The Penningtons started paddling the Missouri River on a canoe clean-up trip with Missouri River Relief in 2006 but became even more engaged within the organization in 2009.

Barrow said the Penningtons quickly learned the procedures for cleaning up the river and are at the point where they can teach the same procedures.

“The fact that they are participating in 340 and asking friends and family to donate to Missouri River Relief shows their deep connection (to the cause)," Barrow said.

The Penningtons' goal is to raise $3,400, and they've raised $650 to date. They initially thought they could find 1,000 people to pledge one penny per mile, but donors have offered 10 cents to one dollar per mile.

“Every little bit adds up,” Josh Pennington said.

Jodi Pfefferkorn, the couple's top sponsor, is making a documentary on the race from the Penningtons' point of view through her film company, Flaming Fiddle Productions.

“I think it’s a good cause that they are doing the race for, and I like that they’re not only paddling in the race but doing it to raise money for the Missouri River Relief," Pfefferkorn said.

In addition to having people pledge to sponsor them, the Penningtons decided to hold a rummage sale benefiting the Missouri River Relief. After making a few hundred dollars from a personal yard sale of unwanted belongings, they realized a larger sale could raise a significant amount of money.

“We’re trying to make it a neighborhood effort,” Sarah Pennington said. “It has been a good social experience for us to get to know our neighbors.”

So far, they've received four to five truckloads of items such as cribs, skis, exercise equipment, clothes, wedding rings and beds. Missouri River Relief is sending volunteers to help work the sale, and neighbors have offered help and yard space.

"When we clean up on the river, we see how much our society consumes, and a rummage sale enforces the idea of reusing, which to me is kind of elegant," Barrow said.

At 340 miles, the Missouri River 340 is the world’s longest non-stop canoe race, beginning in Kansas City and ending in St. Charles with eight checkpoints along the way. The race, which begins at 8 a.m. on July 19 and ends at midnight on July 22, must be completed in a maximum of 88 hours. 

Race director Scott Mansker said an average finishing time is 65 to 70 hours, but the winners finish in about 40 hours. The fastest finish is 36 hours.

The Penningtons have a blog dedicated to their involvement in the race and with Missouri River Relief. They update it regularly with information about their training process.

“The endurance and stamina is going to be the biggest part, trying to stay in the boat that long,” Josh Pennington said. “Teamwork is important too — being comfortable with each other and being able to work together.”

“The better you communicate and the better you know each other’s strengths and weaknesses helps,” Sarah Pennington said. “One of our strengths is communication. I have no doubts about us working together.”

While this will be their first time competing in the race, the Penningtons have been looking forward to it for quite some time. They were ready to compete in last year’s race, but when it was rescheduled because of unsafe river and weather conditions, they were unable to participate.

The couple is ready again.

“It’s not the destination that matters — it’s the journey towards the destination,” Josh Pennington said. “The entire thing is going to be one big adventure."

"I think it’s an opportunity to build our personal relationship stronger," he said. "It’s all about communication in a personal relationship, so it’s a good test. I think someone can really learn a lot about themselves in a race like this — about their morals, will, personal beliefs and what they can physically accomplish.”

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