A flag printed with the words "Race Official" fluttered on the back of Mansker's boat. It's a title he took on three years ago, when he decided to start an adventure race on a river that is feared or reviled by most who live near it. He called his race the Missouri River 340, for the number of miles between Kansas City and the place just before the river pours into the Mississippi. The Olathe, Kansas, native thought he'd be lucky to interest a handful of other river rats in paddling across the state in 100 hours or less. That first year, fifteen signed up and nine made it the length of the race. In 2007 the buzz for a race often called simply the MR340 started to build, and the field jumped to 75 racers. This year the race had grown so popular that Mansker was forced to cut off registration at 215 people, who would travel in 145 boats.
When racers have a problem, the cell phone in Mansker's pocket rings. Just after he floated past the white dome of the Missouri capitol that night, he got a call. The woman on the other end was frantic.
He knew that Hilary Kelly wasn't prone to hysterics. As a Marine, the 28-year-old horse trainer did two tours in Iraq. The Leavenworth, Kansas, native had been paddling local waters for nearly twenty years. If any racer on the water could endure the heat and ignore the pain, it was Kelly. But just after 10 p.m., having cruised past Hermann, she spotted a barge on the right side of the river.
Before the paddlers put an oar in the water, Mansker made sure they knew the dangers posed by towboats. The giant tugs push metal barges that haul as much as 60 semi trucks. It's tough to gauge how fast a barge is moving or guess its trajectory. During the race in 2007, a couple from California misjudged a fuel barge. Their kayak was sucked under the massive barge. They clawed hand-over-hand under the hull, breaking free before they were diced by the boat's propellers. Their kayak was spit out the other end, virtually shredded.
Kelly knew that story and, seeing the barge ahead, thought she could skirt the rough water in its wake by angling to the left. After nearly 60 hours on the river, maybe she misjudged the current, which suddenly wrenched Kelly toward the barge. Before she called Mansker, she started praying. Then she let loose a stream of obscenities. With the tip of her kayak just ten feet from the barge, all she could think was, I'm going to die.
She tried to paddle upstream, but the current worked like a treadmill. All her strength could only keep her in one spot. After what seemed like nearly an hour, she knew her stamina had nearly run out. She lunged for a log and hoped it would hold her weight.
Gripping the log in one hand, she called Mansker with the other. Kelly told him she wasn't sure she'd be able to battle upstream if she slipped back into the current. She told him he might be on the line as she drowned. Then her tears stopped. "Oh my God, it's happening again," she shouted. Then the phone dropped into her lap.
Over the previous three days, Mansker had gotten plenty of distress calls. A twenty-year-old from Illinois gulped down too much Red Bull at the start and had to be pulled into a safety boat to steady his skyrocketing heart rate. A paddler from Kansas City stretched out on a picnic table and woke up in the middle of a heat-induced seizure that jettisoned him headfirst onto the ground — and into an ambulance.
The MR340 is a daunting task — and not just for the racers. With a skeleton staff of three organizers, fuel costs for safety boats and permits for river use and postrace festivities, Mansker says the event profited only $600 last year. That money got the ball rolling for the 2008 race. By the start of the year the $100 registration fees had started arriving again.
It takes a determined sense of adventure to pay for this kind of pain. During the MR340, racers paddle through the oppressive midday heat after staying up all night. They struggle to navigate the difficult currents of the Missouri River when darkness is compounded by mist and hallucinations cloud their sight. They vomit. They bleed. Their asses go numb.
But most of the paddlers gut it out to the end. Veteran paddlers who compete in ultradistance challenges around the country plow through the entire 340 miles at a near sprint. The rest are just amateur athletes looking for a little action.
Of the 215 who signed up this year, 154 finished the race.
Including Hilary Kelly.
"Real people do this," Mansker told the paddlers before they started. "And it's worth it."
At 3 a.m. Wednesday, a small fire burned at Cooper's Landing, the race's halfway point. A few race volunteers stared vacantly at the embers, trying to stay awake with disjointed conversation and a steady stream of cigarettes.
The high temperatures that brutalized some racers to the point of heat exhaustion during the first day had given way to a starry sky. The moon set in a golden glow over the trees, throwing just enough light to make out rocky bluffs and the lazy sandbars that mark this stretch of the river. All they could hear were croaking toads and water rushing over the wing dike near the boat ramp. But upstream, past Plowboy Bend, the two top teams were battling for the lead.
The leaders of Team Texas and Team Belize knew from the start that their fierce competition wouldn't be settled until the final few feet of the 340-mile marathon. Both teams were competing in six-man kayaks, each filled with experienced paddlers able to push their pace to 80 percent of their maximum heart rate for 30-plus hours between Kansas City and St. Charles.
Unlike many of the amateur athletes and weekend warriors in the MR340, these twelve men were among the top competitors on the ultrapaddling circuit. Some are record holders in contests such as the Texas Water Safari, a punishing 260-mile race in which paddlers have to jump logs, navigate impossible bends and carry their boats between bodies of water. All travel the country to compete in long-distance races throughout the year.
They carry water jugs engineered with long straws that allow them to drink without losing a stroke. To keep them on track, five guys in the Texas boat carry GPS devices. To save precious seconds, they fling their empty bottles onto the shore at checkpoints, where their support crew rushes to shove Tupperware containers of fresh fruit and cookies in the tight space in front of each seat. They have no time for sleep.
West Hansen, who builds custom barns in the Lone Star State, is the Texas squad's captain. A two-time veteran of the MR340, he won the men's solo division in 2006 and the men's tandem in 2007. Both times he was so far ahead that he didn't see other competitors for hours.
John Bugge, the leader for Team Belize, is a plumber in Texas. Each of the young men in his boat has won national kayaking championships back in Belize.
Through most of the first day, the Belize team had held a comfortable lead of more than ten minutes. But as the sun started going down, one of the Belize paddlers started vomiting. He couldn't keep down even a swig of Gatorade without retching.
As night fell Hansen spotted the Belize taillights. He could tell they were in trouble. Their strokes were quick and labored. He could see that one of the team's paddlers had his head down.
The time was right to psych them out.
The Texas team started singing songs inspired by the night — "Moon River," "Bad Moon Rising." Hansen lobbed jokes at the other boat.
"Hey, John — knock knock," Hansen shouted to Bugge.
At 2 a.m., the Belize team left its sick member on the shore of Franklin Island. The support team for another contestant would shuttle him to the next checkpoint.
As a veteran of the race, Hansen knew he had an advantage over Bugge, who had never paddled the Big Muddy. It's tough at night to navigate the Missouri River's wide banks, partly submerged dikes and unpredictable currents. So he convinced the Belize team that the next checkpoint was on the opposite side of the river. That put them neck-and-neck as they rounded Plowboy Bend.
Just before 4 a.m. the volunteers at Cooper's Landing spotted the two white bow lights moving through the water. Then they heard a shout.
"Hard left! Hard left!" Hansen yelled from the front of the Texas boat.
The volunteers tried to warn them to ease into the boat ramp, which was flanked on the outer edge by a partly exposed wing dike. Neither team heard him, and both teams crashed into the jagged rocks. Racers from both teams cursed in English and Belize Creole. A Texas crewman tripped backward and splashed into the water as he tried to sign in.
Onshore, two Belize team members told Bugge they couldn't go on. He argued with one of them to stay in the race. "You're not gonna go," he said. "You're the best one we've got."
After four minutes of chaos, the Texas team took off, their white shirts contrasted against the black water, like ghosts floating through the low mist.
One minute later the Belize boat pushed away — with three empty seats. Two paddlers in red spandex stood onshore. Warming up by the campfire, Johnathan Madrill and Jerry Rhaburn exchanged heated words in Creole. Rhaburn was frustrated that they carried the dead weight of their sick teammate for more than eight hours before leaving him on Franklin Island.
Madrill and Rhaburn explained that they pulled out because they knew Belize couldn't beat the Texas team with five crewmen in a 350-pound boat. Already, the extreme effort had caused Rhaburn's nose to pour blood.
"I don't come to finish," Madrill said indignantly. "I come to win."
As the sun started to rise and the undermanned boat charged toward Jefferson City, Rhaburn predicted that Team Belize wouldn't make it through the day.
Even if they did, they might not even beat the top solo finisher. Not far behind, Carter Johnson was starting to catch up.
Whipping through the water in a $4,000 kayak given to him by one of the top racing companies, Johnson wanted to beat the race record for a solo finish. He already held the Guinness world record for most miles paddled in 24 hours. He broke it by paddling in circles around a buoy in a California lake — for 152 miles. Why paddle in a circle for a whole day? "Uh, because it was there," he said with a smirk.
As the second day of the MR340 heated up, Johnson was scorching the benchmarks set by the previous men's record holder. Wearing a soggy white thermal set and a ball cap with flaps protecting his ears and neck, Johnson looked like a waterlogged stuffed animal as he sliced into Cooper's Landing just before 6 a.m. He shot out of his boat, staggered to gain his balance and announced, "There's going to be some public indecency here for a second."
He shucked off a pair of blue running shorts that had started to chafe. He scooped a golf-ball-sized glob of Desitin and shoved the baby rash ointment down the front and back of his sagging pants.
Then, his hand shaking, he chugged a Red Bull. He started to wolf down a sausage biscuit, but the diet of cheeseburgers and peanut-butter sandwiches — all eaten in the short time spent on shore at each checkpoint — was beginning to wear on his stomach.
He slipped back into his boat twelve minutes later, his blue shorts discarded on the boat ramp like a gutted fish. He reassured his father and his sister that he was doing fine. But there was one thing he wanted to change at the next stop, he told his family. Skip the burgers and bring soup instead.
After the race leaders cleared out at sunrise, the support teams for other boats filtered in. Many of the family members tapped to bring provisions to their paddlers hadn't slept the night before. They had driven back roads through tiny towns such as Lexington and Glasgow to make sure their racers kept pounding enough calories.
One woman hit a 400-pound wild boar near the Glasgow checkpoint, smearing hair and hide all over the front of her Ford F-150.
Cooper's Landing, the race's halfway point, is a watershed. Travis Worley, one of three race officials, explained, "To pull out here, you've got to be bleeding out of every pore."
Some people came close.
Erin Magee, an experienced paddler from Texas, arrived at the ramp at 12:35 p.m. and immediately flopped down on her back. She pulled a towel over her face. Her one-man support team, Jason, asked her if she was OK. "Nothing a little brain surgery won't fix," she said. Her left hand hung limp at her wrist, the skin on each finger ripped away between the palm and first knuckle, as if she'd grasped a red-hot iron and suffered a third-degree burn. Jason fed her pickles, holding them for her to keep her raw hands free.
Watching the ailing paddlers stagger ashore, Nate Stewart sat on a picnic table and worried about his team. His 63-year-old brother, Charlie, was one half of a kayak tandem called Grumpy Old Men. Charlie started racing ultradistances in the late 1970s. Back then, he competed against fellow Texan Richard Miller, who's now 60. In the late 1990s Miller's eyesight started to fail, but he didn't want to give up long-distance kayaking. So the former adversaries started racing together in 1998. Now that Miller has lost 97 percent of his vision, Charlie takes the back seat to steer.
Last year they set a record in their division at the Colorado River 100, blazing through the race in 12 hours and 22 minutes. But their first year on the Missouri River wasn't going as well. Miller started vomiting the first night. Charlie's shoulder was failing, and his heart rate had become erratic. At the last checkpoint, Nate had told them to keep going. He urged them to shoot for Cooper's Landing and then make a decision about whether to continue. As exhausted racers left their boats under the merciless noon sun, Nate feared he might have made a dangerous mistake telling Grumpy Old Men to push on.
Just before 1:40 p.m., their kayak touched ground. Miller's face and neck were flushed. With guidance, he trudged up the ramp to a picnic table and lay across the seat. "I can't keep anything down," he said. He hadn't slept. He retreated to the team's van, parked in the shade, and reclined in the front seat with his eyes closed for several hours.
At 3:30 p.m., the two Grumpy Old Men stood again at the water. Miller still had chills. Uncertain and frustrated, he sat next to the boat, propped his elbows on his knees and bowed his head into his hands.
"I'll be throwing up on the way," he said. "I'm really, really, really sick."
Charlie told him the decision was his. "I don't want you passing out in the damn boat," he said.
Miller sat in silence for a moment. Then he said he shouldn't risk it. A split second after standing up, Miller looked disoriented. "I think I'm going to fall," he said weakly.
Several onlookers scooped him under the arms, helping him up the ramp and into the small shop next to the landing, where river rats buy beer and cigarettes and pay $10 a night to camp. In a back room, they tried to get him to drink electrolyte fluid. But he was still too sick.
"I'm thinking 911," Nate said.
The Grumpy Old Men pulled out of Cooper's Landing just after 4 p.m. in their green van with race slogans painted in shoe polish on the windows. They headed to a motel.
On the final day of the MR340, race officials Travis Worley and John Munger cruised the last 50 miles of the course in the motorboat. Logs and buoys can be mistaken for overturned kayaks, so they used binoculars to inspect everything poking up from the water.
They passed a kayaker with his chin to his chest. "Try to get a wave out of him," Worley shouted back to Munger. After a few seconds, the man looked up and flashed a thumbs up.
As they eased around another kayaker downstream, Worley yelled out: "Last day on the river. Soak it up, man."
"It breaks my heart," the paddler dryly replied.
The last 40 miles to the finish line cut both ways for racers. Adrenaline kicked in, but the miles seemed longer.
In the stretch, the Z Team dug in. All four of the boat's crew members, from Kansas City and Lawrence, Kansas, had completed the race in 2007. This year, they wanted to push as hard as they could. They called their craft the party barge. They sang "I Feel Good" at the top of their lungs — until they didn't feel good anymore. Then the Rocky theme took over. At one checkpoint, the crowd at the bank went ominously silent when they heard a guttural shout from the top of the ramp. A few raced up to see what had happened.
"I just had to get that out," Z Team member Dan Grubbs said with a grin.
But this was no joy ride. The team agreed to stop only quickly at the required checkpoints. That meant no extended naps. At 28 hours in, when trees started to look like sea creatures and logs resembled bears, Z Team's Christina Glauner just kept her eyes moving. A frequently shifting gaze, she explained, doesn't get tripped up by hallucinations.
That also meant no coming ashore just to relieve their bladders. Serious racers, including Z Team's Di McHenry, shelled out a few bucks ahead of time for a "urine director" that would allow the women to pee into a Tupperware container or a jar stashed under their seats. Guys like Grubbs learn to pitch their bodies to the side or just let loose while paddling. Glauner said their four-man boat became a bit of a chemistry experiment — river water mixed with urine in the blue foam lining the middle of the kayak.
Getting through such a long race isn't just about strategy; it's about pain management. To keep his aches in check, Grubbs took four Advil or Tylenol every four hours. Ibuprofen is so common on the river that it's not called a painkiller; it's just "Vitamin I."
Raw blisters, softened from hours marinating in river spray, are just the beginning. Some racers apply duct tape directly to their skin to cut down on the chafing from life vests or seat backs. Gripping a paddle for hundreds of miles puts so much pressure on racers' hands that fingernails pop off. It's not uncommon for racers' glutes or toes to go numb — and stay that way for weeks afterward. Even sitting on a foam pad left a bumpy indentation on Glauner's backside for days.
By the time the number of miles left in the 340-mile race had dropped to double digits, the Z Team was in plenty of pain. McHenry and Grubbs boosted their prescription to "Vitamin V" — Vicodin.
Z Team powered into St. Charles just before 11:30 Thursday morning, the eighth overall finisher.
But few racers dispersed afterward. On Friday afternoon the MR340 participants traded stories over dinner at the Lewis & Clark Boathouse and Nature Center. One Blue Springs man stricken with dysentery during the race last year stood with a beer in one hand and a cigar in the other — no digestive mishap this time.
Carter Johnson, who finished half a day before any other solo male racer, had discarded his soggy white thermals and now looked every bit the California computer programmer, with his ball cap turned backward and the first few buttons open on his shirt. Having secured a new MR340 record — 37 hours and 46 minutes — his next challenge, he said, would be a race in Peru for which participants build their own log rafts and float down the Amazon.
Hilary Kelly, who stared down the flatbed of a barge, was finally led out of harm's way by two passing racers. She went on to be the third woman to finish, in just less than 70 hours.
At the edge of the parking lot, Grumpy Old Men loaded up their gear. Despite the scene at the boat ramp, Miller and Stewart spent only a few hours in that hotel room in Columbia. "Then, about 11:30, I said, 'Let's go. We got a race to finish,'" Miller said. When they got back to Cooper's Landing, Miller was still sick. He puked all over a tent as he got out of the van. But when the two Texans got on the water, they felt like racing. They passed 32 boats on their way to St. Charles. By the time their names were called at the awards ceremony, they were already on the Interstate.
Team Texas had easily won the six-man competition. And John Bugge wasn't entirely defeated when his fellow paddlers jumped ship in the middle of the night — Team Belize finished the race with just two men paddling the 350-pound boat from Jefferson City to St. Charles.
For Glauner, the race wasn't over yet. The past two years Glauner couldn't shake a certain postrace depression. It was too much of a shock jumping back into day-to-day life in Lawrence. So this year, she decided to prolong the adventure for a few more sleepless nights.
As other paddlers finally filed out of the parking lot, Glauner hopped on her bike and started pedaling through the dark on the Katy Trail, logging the miles on land that she'd just crossed on the water.
Carolyn Szczepanski is a staff writer at The Pitch, Riverfront Times' sister paper. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org