COLUMBIA — As the sun set on the Missouri River Wednesday evening, painting it different shades of orange and pink, the members of the canoe team “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop" paddled into Cooper's Landing on the second day of their MR340 experience.
Family and friends had been waiting for this moment, holding neon signs and shouting words of encouragement.
“I’ve been talking about it a lot,” said Heather Mihalevich, the sister of one of the "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" paddlers, Zachary Mihalevich. “It’s pretty neat to see it in your own backyard.”
The team's supporters have been following its progress as it competes in the MR340, a 340-mile paddle race across Missouri from Kansas City to St. Charles that must be completed within 88 hours. Paddlers must check in at designated checkpoints across the state as they make their way east.
This year's 12th annual race started with 573 paddlers in 373 boats; some paddlers go it alone, while others compete in teams. "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" is made up of six childhood friends — Will Garrett of Ashland and Patrick Hanks, Zachary Mihalevich, Andrew Gunn, Blaine Chandler and Zach Cravens, all of Columbia.
On Tuesday, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop” passed the second checkpoint in Waverly at 7:01 p.m. with a time of 11:01. The team paddled on past 4 a.m., when they stopped to rest at Dalton's Bottom near Salisbury.
"It was very ominous at 3 o'clock in the morning, paddling through light fog and having just quiet canoes paddle by," Cravens said. "There would be one person sleeping in the front and the other paddling in the back."
The team pushed back into the river Wednesday morning around 9:45 a.m., David Hanks, the team's ground crew wrote in a text message. At 11:31 a.m., they made it to the Glasgow checkpoint — a time of 27:31. The team reached Cooper's Landing around 8:05 p.m. An hour later, at 9:09 p.m., a tandem team called "Horse With No Name" — piloted by Joe Mann and Dylan McHardy — was the first to finish the race. Mann and McHardy reached St. Charles in 37:09.
But back in Cooper's Landing, "Can't Stop, Won't Stop," took a breather.
The paddling was "tedious," said Cravens, and the final stretch of the river was a challenge, as the team felt as if progress was slow.
To stay focused, "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" changed how they paddled and reevaluated their plan for the race.
"Our game plan is pretty much completely changed," Cravens said. "As soon as we get to Jeff City, it is going to be a whole new beast."
The team expects to reach Jefferson City at 2 a.m., where they will rest for about four hours, said Cravens. After that stop, the team plans to stop once more before the finish line. The goal? To just push through.
"Caffeine is going to be our friend," Cravens said.
The paddlers also plan to continue to utilize baby powder to prevent their hands from blistering.
Moving stiffly, the team made their way to their supporters and food. Hours of sitting in a canoe and paddling had taken its toll.
"You kind of have a motion sickness when you come back to land," Zachary Mihalevich said. "You feel like you're still on the boat."
Cooper's Landing isn't one of the race checkpoints, but it is a popular stop during the race. Volunteers helped to guide paddlers to shore and ground crews offered refreshments to revitalize the paddlers.
James Crawford, one of the volunteers at Cooper's Landing, said knowing that the help he offers motivates the competitors is why he has volunteered twice. Crawford pulled the vessels to the ramp, provided a shoulder for tired limbs to lean on and ushered paddlers back into the river when they were refreshed.
"Keep on churning, bro," Crawford said to one paddler, pushing the kayak back into the river.
Competitors returned this support with stories from the river. Renee Simmons and JoJo Newbold, who are competing in the women's tandem division, described the moment of awe they shared during the time they paddled at night.
"The moon was incredible," Simmons said. "We watched it rise up-stream just after Miami, Missouri. It was just this huge, orange orb — right on the horizon."
The MR340 continues Thursday and "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" plans to finish the event sometime late in the evening.
For the loved ones of the "Can't Stop, Won't Stop" team, this race has been more then just seeing how fast the teammates can paddle and how many miles they can go. It reflects the relationship the team members have developed with one another.
“They grew up from grade one and are still buddies today,” said Paul Mihalevich, Zachary Mihalevich’s father.
Heather Mihalevich said that she believes the friendship between her brother and his teammates will outlast the distance of the race.
"I think these are his lifelong friends," she said.
Supervising editors are Claire Mitzel and Jonathan McKay.