HUNTSDALE — Mike Murphy kicked off his sandals and waded ankle-deep into the Missouri River. He grabbed the hull of the canoe and dragged it onto the riverbank as several paddlers hopped out into the river to help push the vessel ashore.
Murphy and his family went to Katfish Katy's Campgrounds in Huntsdale to support the Missouri Miscreants team in the Missouri American Water MR340 river race.
The eighth annual Missouri American Water MR340 race began Tuesday morning. The competition features 526 paddlers in 348 boats racing 340 miles from Kansas City to St. Charles in a test of strength and endurance. Each boat can stop at several designated checkpoints along the way to meet with its ground crew, who provide food, water and an emotional boost.
Dozens of people were there to support friends and family members in the race. But the checkpoints were less like reunions and more like pit stops. Most paddlers didn't stray far from their boats after being pulled ashore. They gratefully accepted the sports drinks their crews handed them as they took a small break from the constant paddling.
"You do anything to help them hydrate," Murphy said. "They're basically sitting in a skillet."
Paddlers worked with ground crews to quickly get rid of trash and restock their food and water supplies. Usually after only a few minutes on land, the paddlers thanked their crews, kissed their wives and children goodbye and headed back onto the river.
The MR340, named for the 340-mile stretch of the Missouri River where the race takes place, has grown rapidly since it started. The first race had only 15 paddlers. This year, the race had competitors from 37 different states and three countries.
Many participants bring expensive, top-of-the-line equipment and boats to provide an edge, but not everyone brings high-priced gear.
"Anything that floats, we've seen it," race director Scott Mansker said. "From beat-up aluminum canoes to ones that cost as much as a used car."
Paddlers compete in different divisions based on the number of people in their boat. They can do the race with a smaller crew in the solo or tandem division or compete with as many as 10 or more paddlers in the Dragonboat division.
The race was founded to raise awareness about the Missouri River and what a vital resource it is. Steve Schnarr works for Missouri River Relief, a not-for-profit organization with hopes to connect people with the Missouri River. He helped out during the race by working on one of the rescue boats.
"The main purpose is to create a community where people can get in touch with this river," Schnarr said. "It's something to be proud of. Something to take care of."
The biggest obstacle racers have to overcome is their own physical limitations. Almost one-third of entrants drop out at some point during the race. Those who do finish are often exhausted and dehydrated by the time they cross the finish line, with some even reporting hallucinations.
"He thought he saw elephants on the banks of the river," said Murphy, talking about a crew member's condition following last year's race.
Although it's physically demanding and dehydration can be unpleasant, the racers still persevere through the difficult stretches.
"Part of what makes an adventure racer is a bad memory," Wayne Albert of the Blazing Paddles team said. "Not remembering the bad stuff."
Like any competition where people push their physical limits, safety can be an issue if people push too hard. The race has 15 boats that monitor the paddlers and provide assistance if anyone needs it.
Most boats that don't finish are able to make it off the course. Jacob Simon helped his parents Daryl and Diane Simon carry their two-person boat, Tandemonium, back to the car after they dropped out.
"The headwind was tough," Jacob Simon said. "The slow-moving water and very stiff competition was too much. Maybe next year."
Paddlers have 88 hours to complete the race, but most competitive canoes finish in less than 40. Solo and tandem racers who finish in the top three can win prizes such as new paddles or cash.
Supervising editor is Greg Bowers.