Nine Columbia residents will take part in the 15th Missouri American Water MR340 that begins bright and early Tuesday morning and ends Thursday night.
A total of 358 boats are registered for the longest nonstop canoe and kayak race in the United States. It is a 340-mile race on the Missouri River that begins at Kaw Point in downtown Kansas City and runs all the way to St. Charles.
Paddlers, and even some boat pedalers, have 88 hours to finish the race. There are seven checkpoints that participants must reach by certain times to remain in the competition. This year, those checkpoints are the starting spot of Kaw Point then at Waverly, Glascow, Jefferson City, Hermann and Klondike.
The race features single paddlers, tandem paddlers and teams of three or four using canoes, kayaks or pedal boats. The roster includes 11 stand-up paddlers and one team of five. Each boat has ground support that helps paddlers refill on supplies and address any other problems that pop up along the way.
The race record is 33 hours, 1 minute, done in 2018 by the River Fitness team. That’s an average of 10.3 miles an hour.
The MR340 was the brainstorm of race director Scott Mansker, who was surprised at the lack of people he would see out on the river whenever he would go fishing.
“I’d go out on the Missouri River, and I’d be the only one out there. I’d never really see anyone. There’d be a few people paddling, but that’s about it,” Mansker said.
Having heard about multi-day canoe races where people travel the length of a river, such as the Yukon 1000, Mansker thought maybe there could be a way to revitalize interest in the Big Muddy as a source of recreation. It’s the “perfect venue” for a marathon race, he thought.
“It was kind of a wish that somebody would put something like that together for about 10 years,” Mansker said. “Finally, I just said, ‘Let’s see if I can finish this thing.’”
Thus, what was originally known as the Missouri River 340 was born. The first race in 2006 attracted 20 participants in 15 boats. This year, more than 1,000 people will be involved with the event.
The 2019 edition of the race was canceled due to flooding in the river. Four paddlers, however, took Mansker up on the chance to do a Rocket Run last November. Just one tandem team finished.
This year’s numbers are down a bit from previous highs of more than 500 boats because of worries about the coronavirus pandemic.
The organizers followed state guidelines for putting on events. Participants don’t have to wear masks while in their boats, but they must when they come onto land at their checkpoints to gather supplies or take a break. The safety meeting that usually occurs the night before the race was replaced instead by a series of videos posted to the race’s website explaining what to expect during the race, and the closing ceremony at the end of the race has been canceled.
Bryan Hopkins of Columbia is a veteran of the race. He and his wife, Alma Hopkins, will compete this year as the La Vida Loca team in the mixed-tandem division. Bryan Hopkins said he doesn’t worry much about getting too close to people because of the natural amount of social distancing that paddling on a large river allows.
“Most people who are training for the race don’t want to paddle right next to people,” Hopkins said. “You’re paddling in your own spot, you are certainly 6 feet away from the next boat, so you’re socially isolated.”
This will be Hopkins’ seventh time competing in the race. He said that each year about 30% of racers drop out of the race for any number of reasons.
“It doesn’t matter how prepared you are, things can go wrong,” Hopkins said.
Hopkins cited the example of his Matt Walters, who forgot his sunglasses and ended up getting photokeratitis, or “snow blindness” as it is informally known, while competing in the November Rocket Run in his pedal boat. Photokeratitis causes vision problems when one is exposed to bright light for too long. In Walters’ case, it was from the sun reflecting off the water.
“He was only 60 miles from the finish when he had to pull out,” Hopkins said.
Paddlers can also suffer from separated shoulders from paddling too long or from dehydration. If something does go wrong, there are crews on safety boats to help out.
Jeff Barrow of Columbia, and a member of Missouri River Relief, is a safety boat volunteer again this year. He said there will be 19 safety boats this year, more than years past.
Barrow is part of the “barge escort” team that alerts competitors to get out of the way when a barge is approaching. Barges can create large, erratic wakes that wreak havoc on small boats.
“Once we find out where the barges are and where they’re going, we get a mile in front of them and just warn the racers that a barge is coming and give them a suggestion to get out of the channel,” Barrow said.
The barge escort team was established after a tandem team collided with a barge upriver from Hermann during the second year of the race.
“No one got hurt badly, thankfully. One person just got scratched on their forehead,” Barrow said. “The boat got completely destroyed, though.”
Barrow has completed the race three times, twice on his own and once in a 42-foot dragon boat with 19 other paddlers. That team finished the race in 38 hours, 5 minutes in 2010.
Barrow said as a safety boater he likes to do some of the things others aren’t so willing to do, such as taking the night watch.
“A lot of people don’t like to drive at night because you can’t see very well, but I like driving at night,” said Barrow. “I’m really good at reading the water.”
The race begins at 7 a.m. Tuesday at Kaw Point, where the Kansas River meets the Missouri. For spectators, the fastest racers will be coming through Boone County during the predawn hours Wednesday, but others will be coming through the area throughout the day and evening.