An event billed as “the world’s longest nonstop river race” starts Tuesday, and 36 paddlers from Columbia will be testing themselves in kayaks, canoes and other watercraft to try and finish it.
The 16th annual Missouri American Water MR340 starts in Kansas City and finishes in St. Charles, a 340-mile endurance race on the Missouri River.
Participants have 85 hours to complete the route. If that sounds difficult, it actually is.
“If you’re trying to be competitive in the race, the idea is you don’t sleep at all,” said Bryan Hopkins, a Columbia resident racing with his wife, Alma.
This will be his ninth race and his third in the mixed-tandem division with his wife. Last year, they finished in 44 hours without sleeping. The fastest time on record for the mixed-tandem division is 38 hours, 35 minutes.
Racers must clock in and out of nine checkpoints with daily cutoff times. Those who miss the cutoff are disqualified. Last year, only two-thirds of the racers were able to complete the course.
The Hopkins’ plan is to spend very little time at any stop, using those precious minutes only to replenish food and water supplies. That means they won’t even get out of their tandem Hawaiian outrigger for the duration of the race.
“That’s how competitive it’s gotten,” Hopkins said. “You really have no option about staying in the boat. The first five or six boats that make it in, there’s no doubt that none of those people got out.”
The race officially starts at 7 a.m. for solo boats and 8 a.m. for all other boats, which gives solo paddlers an extra hour. Boats are restricted to human-craft, which means no sails, kites, umbrellas or other such devices are allowed.
As of Monday, 522 single paddlers or teams were signed up for the race in the solo, two-person tandem and larger teams of three or more. One dragonboat team is entered with 10 paddlers from St. Louis.
Each kind of boat has its advantages and disadvantages. The tandem Hawaiian outrigger, for example, is effective when barges make the river choppy. Outriggers sit high in the water so paddlers won’t swamp, take on water, but their height means racers lose speed during a headwind.
Long, skinny canoes typically gain an advantage during strong headwinds but are disadvantaged in high, choppy water.
During the race, the Hopkins will be assisted by their support crew, Brian and Marilyn Brooks, who will ferry supplies to them .
A former MR340 racer himself, Brian Brooks said he has a good sense of what the Hopkins will need.
“My goal is to get them in and out of their stops as fast as I can. I refill their water, make sure they have nutrition and generally keep an eye on their well-being,” he said.
All food is prepackaged and labeled for each stop so the Hopkins and Brooks stay on the same page. Racers typically eat granola bars and nutritional supplements that are fast and easy on the fly.
Being part of a support crew means the Brooks’ schedule will be closely aligned with the racers for the next few days.
“We’ll get as much as sleep as they do, which usually means it’ll be a sleepless run for us too,” Brooks said.
Such extreme measures are usually adopted only by racers trying to get on the podium. A majority of the contestants are simply trying to finish.
Scott Mansker and Russ Payzant founded the MR340 in 2006. That first year, 16 paddlers signed up, but Mansker has always said it isn’t about the race. It’s about showcasing the river.
“I just felt like we had the best venue for a race like this. I originally thought, “Why isn’t anyone hosting a race here?” and after ten years of wishing there was one, I just put one together,” Mansker said.
This idea eventually led to a partnership with Missouri River Relief, and funds raised by the MR340 go toward cleaning the river and increasing public awareness.
Steve Schnarr, director of Missouri River Relief, said he was drawn to the race by its sense of community.
“I really enjoy being on the river for several days in a row with all these other people and experiencing whatever it has to offer us and being part of this amazing mass of humanity,” Schnarr said. “I love it.”