These people love the river.
They love the feeling of being in another world of endless blue skies and wide open spaces. A world where the sounds of screeching tires, honking horns and roaring sirens are replaced with birds singing, water flowing and crickets chirping. A world so serene that stresses of the busy world just go away.
“There wasn’t a single time I couldn’t look around me and be happy, no matter how much I was fighting being tired and sore,” Bryan Hopkins said.
Jeff Barrow agreed.
“It’s such a cool feeling being out there all alone and seeing the wildlife,” Barrow said. “I just sit back and sing at the top of my lungs.”
The Missouri River feels just like home.
“People on the Web site can’t stop talking about what a beautiful river this is and what a great place to paddle,” Scott Mansker, race director, said.
This passion for the river is the reason why paddlers from across the country will gather at 8 a.m. Tuesday at Kaw Point in Kansas City, Kan., to launch onto the Missouri River in a race that will not only be an adventure but also will lead, for some, to great victory.
The second annual Missouri River 340 is a nonstop endurance race across the state of Missouri. After a successful first jump onto the river last year, this race struck some enthusiastic paddlers from as far as Canada and California. There are 74 boats entered in the race; last year there were 15 boats.
Mansker said the Web site, rivermiles.com, which gives paddlers a chance to talk to each other about their experiences with the river and the race, is a big contributor to the increase. He said the news about the race has gotten out purely by word-of-mouth.
“We haven’t spent any money on advertising,” he said. “We’ve had a year for the word to spread.”
West Hansen of Austin, Texas, who finished first in last year’s race, heard about the race on another Web site’s discussion forum. He has been into canoe racing for years and said he was really impressed with Missouri.
“These folks have got to be the nicest communities I’ve ever encountered on racing scenes,” he said. “I’m really looking forward to being back and hanging out with them.”
The route to the race
After the launch in Kansas City, each boat will have 100 hours to complete the race, ending at noon Saturday in St. Charles. Hansen finished the race last year in a little more than 53 hours. There will be first place trophies for all divisions, medals for first through third place and medals for all finishers.
“All the boats will be lined up and then head through downtown Kansas City,” Mansker said. “Because of there being so many boats, we’ll actually start out on the Kansas River for more room and then burst onto the Missouri River.”
The five divisions of the race are men’s solo, women’s solo, men’s tandem, women’s tandem and mixed tandem.
There are seven Columbia residents preparing to compete in the grueling race: Bryan Hopkins, Will Lamm, Scott Myers and Jeff Barrow, all in men’s solo; Katie Pfefferkorn in women’s solo; Scott and Lisa Swafford in mixed tandem; and two Rocheport residents, Curtis Bourgeois and Drew Lemberger, in men’s tandem.
Those involved with this race agree that there are two types of people competing.
“There are those serious competitors that are there to win and those who are just there to validate something in themselves,” Mansker said. “It’s their goal just to finish. This is their Mount Everest.”
Each paddler has their own reason behind tackling this enormous task, and some see it as a life-changing event.
“They enter because they’re looking for something,” Mansker said. “People need something on the horizon in their life to have some sort of motivation. It’s a struggle that adds value for them when they finish.”
Some said they see the river as a gem that more and more people are opening up to.
“I’m not on that river because it’s a treadmill,” Hopkins said. “I love that river, and it’s where I want to be.”
Others see it as a way to get back to the basics of life.
“It’s hard to get experiences like this these days because of all our comforts like cars and air conditioning,” Pfefferkorn said. “This reminds us about just living on what you can carry.”
Mansker also sees this race as an opportunity to raise awareness about the river.
“This is a great way to get people into protecting this river,” he said. “If you get people out there then they start to care for it.”
Not only does this race give people the chance to get out on the river and care for their environment, but a portion of the proceeds from the race will benefit Operation Breakthrough, a community resource for underprivileged children in Kansas City.
According to operationbreakthrough.org, the organization’s mission is to help children who are living in poverty develop to their fullest potential by providing them a safe, loving and educational environment. This organization also strives to support and empower the children’s families through advocacy, referral services and emergency aid.
Staying the course
Despite their love for the river’s beauty, this isn’t your average summer float trip. This river race also has its challenges.
“Thirty-three percent of the boats dropped out of the race last year. We may only see 40 or 50 boats actually finish, because it’s so difficult,” Mansker said.
Mansker, along with many of the paddlers, said that although the river may just seem like one big moving lake, this race isn’t for those with little experience.
“It has a totally overblown reputation as a powerful river that you have to be an expert to paddle on, and that’s not true. But at the same time it’s not a place to learn for the first time,” Hopkins said.
The river is Class I water, which means there are no rapids or extremely bumpy water, but many other things contribute to the need for safety precautions and good judgment by the paddlers. For example, wind and storms, other river traffic, paddling at night and the heat.
Hopkins, who raced last year, said things like the heat and lack of sleep can put serious strain on the body and increase the risk of making stupid mistakes.
“You have to be aware of your own limitations,” Hopkins said. “The first half day is your fitness, and after that it’s all in your head. Your body is saying ‘What are you doing?’ You have to have a stubborn perseverance that’s hard to describe because you have to push through everything.”
Mansker said paddlers really have to be adequately prepared for all the elements of this race.
“Hopefully, they all have a little experience with this sort of stuff and are in decent physical shape,” he said. “ A good attitude always helps.”
Hansen has been doing ultradistance racing for almost 15 years and said he knows his limitations.
“I just go out really fast and hard and hold it for as long as I can,” he said.
Paddlers planning to compete in the race have been preparing mentally and physically for the past few weeks, some for the past few months. They’ve taken any chance they could to go out on the river for hours at a time, paddling hard with the sun beating on their necks.
Pfefferkorn said although training is a big part of this race, what works for one person might not work for the next. Paddlers need to learn what motivates them and be able to learn to be their own best friend and support group.
“You can’t really out muscle everyone,” she said. “You just need to be smarter about things and focus on conserving energy to last for four days.”
Although they can practice for what they think the race will be like, nothing compares to the real thing.
“There’s really no way to completely train for something like this,” Myers said.
If needed, there will be people there to help along the way. Along with five motorized safety boats, there are eight checkpoints where participants are required to sign in and out. There will be cutoff times for the checkpoints, and failure to meet two consecutive deadlines is grounds for disqualification.
Maps of the checkpoints are available on the Web site, and they will be updated with information during the race. The closest checkpoint to Columbia is Cooper’s Landing. Paddlers must get there by 9 p.m. Thursday.
“We have deadlines for safety reasons,” Mansker said. “We (safety boats) can’t get strung out between them, and we have to be able to keep track of everybody.”
Karin Thomas, who is setting up the checkpoints, said people at some of those locations are getting in on the race with their own activities to cheer on the paddlers as they go through town. For example, Boy Scout Troop 243 of Waverly will have a barbecue fundraiser from 4 to 10 p.m. Tuesday.
“We’re trying to raise money to pay for our Scout trailer,” Scoutmaster Steve Graver said. “We’re also helping to support the teams, so it’s an easy and fulfilling race for them.”
Checkpoints are also a chance for paddlers to meet up with family and friends, get a bite to eat, catch a nap or just resupply and head out for more. They’re allowed to have a ground crew available at checkpoints to give them supplies.
“Some shoot out of there, and others will mill around,” Mansker said. “It’s really exciting because there’s constant activity. If anyone wants a taste of that, we have volunteers working the checkpoints, and we’re looking for more.”
Hopkins, who didn’t have a ground crew last year, said seeing his wife and children was enough motivation.
It “lifted my spirits,” he said.
Mansker said the Missouri River 340 is one of the longest nonstop races in the world. There are longer races, but they all have a mandatory layover.
“People tell me that’s what they like about our race,” he said. “It kind of has a Wild West feel to it.”
Mansker added that the option to take a break at the paddlers’ convenience seems to be a better option than a mandatory layover such as in the Yukon River race.
“When there is a mandatory layover, people can push too far up until that layover and won’t take a break,” he said. “There are plenty of places to pull over and take a break in this race.”
Each paddler has his or her own plans on how to deal with the lack of sleep and strategies for pulling over for a break.
“I plan to paddle hard through the night and the coolest parts of the day,” Barrow said. “I’ll sleep during parts of the day, so I don’t fight the heat.”
Other, more competitive paddlers, plan to push themselves to the limit. Hansen is paddling tandem this year and said it will be easier to stay awake and keep moving.
“Nobody sleeps in my boat,” he said.